Poem to William W. Phelps, between circa 1 and circa 15 February 1843
JS, Poem, , Hancock Co., IL, to , [, Hancock Co., IL, between ca. 1 and ca. 15] Feb. 1843. Featured version published in “The Answer,” Times and Seasons, 1 Feb. 1843, vol. 4, no. 6, 82–85. For more complete source information, see the source note for Letter to Isaac Galland, 22 Mar. 1839.
Sometime during early February 1843 in , Illinois, JS produced a poetic adaptation of an 1832 vision he and experienced of the afterlife. A Times and Seasons editorial introducing the poem implied that JS composed the poem in response to a remark by his lawyer . During his closing arguments at JS’s recent hearing in , Illinois, Butterfield claimed that JS was “an innocent & unoff[e]nding man” and that the only difference between him and biblical prophets was that the “old prop[h]ets prophicid in Poet[r]y & the modern in Prose.” Favorably comparing JS’s poem to biblical literature, the editor of the Times and Seasons expressed hope that Butterfield would be “convinced that the modern Prophets can prophecy in poetry, as well as the ancient prophets and that no difference, even of that kind any longer exists.” The poem was also a response to a poem JS received from , one of his scribes, on 20 January 1843. Phelps’s poem, which invited JS to join him in contemplating a postmortal heavenly state, was published in the Times and Seasons above JS’s response.
The vision JS and saw of the afterlife took place on 16 February 1832 and outlined three levels of heavenly glory and the requirements for entrance into each. Shortly after the experience, JS and Rigdon wrote a description of the event titled “The Vision,” which was subsequently published with some changes in The Evening and the Morning Star and the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. In February 1843, around the same time JS adapted the vision as a poem, and reviewed JS and Rigdon’s account of the vision and copied it into JS’s ongoing history. Nevertheless, it appears that the published text of the vision served as the poem’s base text with largely stylistic edits to adapt the text into a poem.
In general, the first half of the poem adheres more closely to the vision’s text, while the second half adds lines and omits several passages. While many of the changes appear to have been made to transition from prose to poetry, others appear to have been made to update the text using JS’s more recent revelations or teachings. For example, the poem included language and concepts from the recently published Book of Abraham and added a line discussing the practice of for the dead. One of the most significant changes, though, was the excising of from the text. The original 1832 vision was an experience shared by both JS and Rigdon, and their account of it was written in the first-person plural voice and signed by both men. In contrast, the 1843 poem was written in the first-person singular and contains no mention of Rigdon’s involvement, perhaps because of his strained relationship with JS in early 1843.
There is no extant draft of the poem, and JS’s level of engagement with the poem’s production is unclear. There is a manuscript version of the poem that appears to be a later copy of a different version with some significant textual variants. According to JS’s history—prepared by and in January 1846—JS “dictated” the poem to one of his scribes in February 1843. However, there is no mention of this process in contemporaneous sources, and the poem’s length as well as its textual dependence on the earlier account seems to preclude strict dictation. In addition, as noted, JS had little to no experience writing poetry. As of 1843, the only extant document resembling poetry in JS’s corpus was a reflection he dictated in August 1842, which contained what he described as “childish lines” about his deceased father and his deceased brother . These lines have a poetic quality, possessing an irregular meter and a simple rhyming scheme. Given his lack of experience, JS likely relied on the help of one of his scribes, presumably , to draft the poem. In his journal, Phelps noted on 19 January 1843 that he had recommenced “writing on the history of the church for B[rother] Joseph,” and the next day he gave JS the poem to which this poem responded. However, there is no conclusive evidence that Phelps was involved with JS’s poem, and JS may have also worked with others such as , who returned to in early February, or , who continued to live in JS’s home until mid-February, both of whom were accomplished poets. Nevertheless, the poem was written in JS’s voice, even including the phrase “I, Joseph, the prophet.”
Like ’s earlier poem—which was dated only January 1843—JS’s published poem was simply dated February 1843, and it is unclear precisely when it was written. JS presumably began work on the poem sometime after he received Phelps’s poem on 20 January. Although the poems appeared in the 1 February 1843 issue of the Times and Seasons, that issue was not printed until sometime after 15 February. In JS’s history, and dated the poem to 24 February 1843, saying that JS “dictated the following answer” to Phelps’s earlier poem on that date. The earlier rough draft notes of the history more ambiguously state that JS had the poem “delivered about this time,” indicating that Richards and Bullock’s dating was only an approximation. Additionally, according to the notes, the only source for their dating was the published poem in the Times and Seasons. However, the reception history of the poem demonstrates that the 24 February date Richards and Bullock gave was incorrect. The 1 February issue of the Times and Seasons must have been printed and mailed by mid-February because a copy of the issue arrived in on 7 March 1843. The poem was therefore most likely produced in early or mid-February 1843.
Excerpts of the 1 February Times and Seasons—including JS’s poem and a jubilee song by —were republished in the 8 March edition of the New York Herald. The Herald described JS’s poem as “very curious.” With mocking praise, the paper lampooned other prominent religious, political, or philosophical movements—such as the Millerites, the socialists, and the transcendentalists—claiming that JS’s poem “entirely outstrips and outgenerals” those other movements due to the “enthusiasm, fancy, originality, and power” of its ideas. In contrast to the Herald’s snide commentary, Latter-day Saints received JS’s poem much more favorably. The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, the ’s newspaper in , also reprinted the poem. While it acknowledged that “the construction of the verse may be subject to criticism,” the paper argued that “the rare and sublime doctrines it contains” made up for its weaknesses.
Pratt, Parley P. The Autobiography of Parley Parker Pratt, One of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Embracing His Life, Ministry and Travels, with Extracts, in Prose and Verse, from His Miscellaneous Writings. Edited by Parley P. Pratt Jr. New York: Russell Brothers, 1874.
Givens, Terryl L., and Matthew J. Grow. Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Derr, Jill Mulvay, and Karen Lynn Davidson, eds. Eliza R. Snow: The Complete Poetry. Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press; Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2009.
“Highly Important and Curious from Nauvoo, the Capital of the Mormon Empire,” New York Herald (New York City), 8 Mar. 1843, . Mail between Nauvoo and the East Coast of the United States typically spent around three weeks in transit. (See, for example, Historical Introduction to Letter from George J. Adams, 23 Feb. 1843.)
“Highly Important and Curious from Nauvoo, the Capital of the Mormon Empire,” New York Herald (New York City), 8 Mar. 1843, ; see also Jubilee Songs, between 11 and 18 Jan. 1843. The Herald’s editor, James Gordon Bennett, frequently devoted space in the newspaper to articles about JS and the Latter-day Saints. While Bennett’s coverage was typically coupled with sarcastic praise for JS and the church, it was generally more favorable than that of other major newspapers. (See Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, 518, 559.)
New York Herald. New York City. 1835–1924.
Bushman, Richard Lyman. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. With the assistance of Jed Woodworth. New York: Knopf, 2005.