Letter to the Church in Caldwell County, Missouri, 16 December 1838
JS, Letter, , Clay Co., MO, to the church in , MO, 16 Dec. 1838. Featured version copied [between 16 Dec. 1838 and ca. May 1839]; handwriting of ; seven pages; JS Collection, CHL. Includes use marks, docket, and possible redactions.
Two biofolia measuring 12½ × 8 inches (32 × 20 cm). The bifolia were folded for filing. Later, they were fastened with two staples in the upper left corner; the staples were subsequently removed. The document has undergone conservation.
The copied letter was in ’s possession from the time of inscription until late 1839 or early 1840, when it was evidently used as a source text for the published version of the letter in the April 1840 issue of the Times and Seasons. In the 1840s, church clerk docketed the verso of the second leaf of the second biofolium: “Epistle from J. Smith | Liberty Jail— to the | Church of J. C. L. D. S | Decr 16— 1838.” The document has apparently remained in continuous institutional custody.
Huntington’s copy and the Times and Seasons version share about fifty variants that are not found in other versions. In one case, the Times and Seasons incorporated wording regarding Sampson Avard that was inserted between lines of text in Huntington’s copy. (See JS, Liberty, MO, to the Church in Caldwell Co., MO, 16 Dec. 1838, in Times and Seasons, Apr. 1840, 1:82–86.)
Times and Seasons. Commerce/Nauvoo, IL. Nov. 1839–Feb. 1846.
On 16 December 1838, JS composed a letter from the in , Missouri, to the in , Missouri, as well as “all the Saints who are scattered abroad.” By 16 December, JS had been in state custody for more than six weeks and had undergone a seventeen-day criminal court of inquiry, or preliminary hearing, that resulted in his imprisonment in Liberty. There he awaited a spring 1839 trial on charges of treason and other crimes. Filled with indignation toward those he perceived were the cause of his imprisonment and dismayed at his doleful circumstances and the thought of spending the winter in jail, JS vented his emotions in this lengthy letter to the church. JS apparently patterned the letter after New Testament epistles, opening with a salutation, expressing prayers for church members, commenting on difficulties the church faced, and concluding with a blessing. He also quoted liberally from the Bible and other scriptures and placed the Saints’ predicament within the context of the long history of persecution against God’s people.
Much of the letter condemns dissenters—the devil’s “emissaries.” JS contended that they cooperated with the Saints’ enemies during the recent conflict and were therefore responsible for the deaths of several Latter-day Saints, for JS’s arrest and incarceration, and for the expulsion of church members from the . JS focused his ire on the delegation that had negotiated with Major General on 31 October 1838: , , , , and . JS argued that the delegation had betrayed him, resorting to deception to lure him into the enemies’ camp. Additionally, JS asserted that several other dissenters—including , and , and —had spread false rumors that endangered the church. JS also contended that the teachings of , a former general, were not authorized by the . In the letter, JS also stated that the many dissenters who testified for the prosecution at the November 1838 hearing had “borne false witness” against the Mormon prisoners.
Further, JS condemned the anti-Mormon forces that fought against the Latter-day Saints. He argued that religious and civil elites—whom he compared to Sadducees, Pharisees, and other opponents of Jesus Christ in the New Testament—instigated mob violence against church members. JS denied committing the crimes for which he and other Mormons were imprisoned, including treason and murder, and argued instead that the church’s enemies were guilty of these offenses.
Although much of the letter is colored by JS’s indignation toward the church’s opponents, portions of the epistle also reflect confidence that God would vindicate the Saints. Comparing the dissenters to Haman, Balaam, Korah, and Job’s false friends—biblical figures who sought to hinder and persecute God’s people—JS reassured church members that just as the Lord rescued his ancient followers from their oppressors, he would deliver his latter-day people. Perhaps responding to dissenters who challenged JS’s prophetic leadership, JS also included in the letter the text of a revelation that declared he retained the “,” or the divine authority, that had been given to him. Near the close of the letter, JS promised the Saints that although appeared to be dead, it would ultimately be revitalized.
It is unclear how JS produced the original letter, which is not extant. JS probably discussed the major themes of the epistle with his fellow prisoners—which perhaps explains the frequent use of the first-person plural in the letter—although he alone signed the document. Close examination of extant copies indicates that two distinct textual traditions—one based on a rough draft, the other based on a revised draft—may have originated from inside the . Assuming that the textual production of the 16 December 1838 letter was similar to that of the circa 22 March 1839 general epistle, JS likely dictated a rough draft, which then was edited and revised under his direction. One or more subsequent drafts would have then been made to incorporate the changes, and both versions would have been sent out of the jail, presumably to increase circulation of the letter’s content among the Saints.
JS’s scribe, , copied the rough draft or an intermediary version into a church record book, probably before moving to in spring 1839. Latter-day Saint likely copied a revised version or an intermediary copy prior to her move to Illinois in May. Consistent with the proposed scenario regarding the letter’s production, the differences between the copies made by Mulholland and Huntington reflect conscious editing decisions rather than routine copying errors. The variants include shortened phrases, modernized word forms (for example, “seeth” changed to “sees”), altered diction (for example, “God” changed to “the Lord” and “state” changed to “government”), deleted slang phrases, and improved grammatical constructions. In a few cases, entire phrases and sentences in Mulholland’s copy are absent from Huntington’s copy; for example, Huntington’s copy does not include “We stood in our own defence and we believe that no man of us acted only in a just a lawful and righteous retaliation against such marauders.” Given that Huntington’s copy likely represents the textual tradition of the most polished version produced under JS’s direction, it is featured here. Significant variants in Mulholland’s version are noted in annotation.
As demonstrated by the multiple copies that have survived, the epistle circulated broadly among the Saints in manuscript form. In a 14 May 1839 letter, Latter-day Saint David Foote included an eleven-line quotation from the revised version of the 16 December 1838 epistle to support his assertion that JS’s willingness to suffer for his religion proved his sincerity and his status as a prophet. A revised version of the 16 December letter was published in the April 1840 issue of the Times and Seasons, substantially increasing the letter’s circulation.
Two drafts of the circa 22 March 1839 general epistle are extant. JS dictated the first draft, corrected and revised it, and then had a fair copy made that reflected the changes. Despite differences between the drafts, JS evidently sent both versions of the circa 22 March epistle to the Saints, presumably to broaden circulation. (See Historical Introduction to Letter to Edward Partridge and the Church, ca. 22 Mar. 1839; see also Hall, Ways of Writing, 32–33.)
Hall, David D. Ways of Writing: The Practice and Politics of Text-Making in Seventeenth-Century New England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.
See JS, Liberty, MO, to the Church in Caldwell Co., MO, 16 Dec. 1838, in “General,” Record Book, 101–108. There are two indications that Mulholland copied the letter before moving from Missouri to Illinois. First, Mulholland inscribed the letter in the record book that was JS’s primary journal in Missouri in 1838. After Mulholland copied the letter into the record book, it remained unused until the mid-1840s. When Mulholland copied JS’s Missouri-era correspondence in Illinois, he used a different record book, JS Letterbook 2. Second, George W. Robinson probably corrected Mulholland’s transcript while the two men were working together in Missouri, perhaps when Robinson corrected Mulholland’s copy of a revelation in the Missouri journal that Robinson was keeping for JS. There is no indication that Robinson functioned as JS’s scribe after leaving Missouri. (See Source Note for Journal, Mar.–Sept. 1838; JS, Journal, Mar.–Sept. 1838, pp. 72–74; Mulholland, Journal, 22 Apr. 1839.)
“General,” Record Book, 1838. Verso of Patriarchal Blessings, vol. 5. CHL.
Mulholland, James. Journal, Apr.–Oct. 1839. In Joseph Smith, Journal, Sept.–Oct. 1838. Joseph Smith Collection. CHL. MS 155, box 1, fd. 4.
Huntington arrived in Commerce, Illinois, on 16 May 1839. Although it is possible that Huntington copied the epistle after her removal to Illinois, her own illness and the death of her mother makes it unlikely. Her copy includes an interlineal insertion regarding Sampson Avard that was later incorporated into the version of the letter published in the Times and Seasons, indicating that April 1840 is the last possible copying date. (Zina Huntington Young, Autobiographical Sketch, 10; Oliver Huntington, “History of Oliver Boardman Huntington,” 47–48, 52–54; JS, Liberty, MO, to the Church in Caldwell Co., MO, 16 Dec. 1838, in Times and Seasons, Apr. 1840, 1:85.)
Young, Zina Huntington. Autobiographical Sketch, no date. Zina Card Brown Family Collection, 1806–1972. CHL.
Huntington, Oliver B. “History of Oliver Boardman Huntington,” 1845–1846. BYU.
Times and Seasons. Commerce/Nauvoo, IL. Nov. 1839–Feb. 1846.
At a later date, Phebe Carter Woodruff made an incomplete copy of the letter that reflected the rough draft’s textual tradition. Although Woodruff’s copy closely parallels Mulholland’s, her copy contains some copying errors—for example, writing “mental” instead of “mutual” and “starve” instead of “strive.” She also omitted some words and short phrases, apparently inadvertently. A few variants may have been editorial decisions, such as changing words (for example, revising “evidence” to “witness”) and adding phrases that were probably not in the original letter, such as the heading “An Epistle given to the church of Latter-day Saints in Caldwell County Missouri by Jesus Christ through Joseph Smith jr. while in Libertyjail.” For unknown reasons, Woodruff did not complete the copy. According to a note written on the letter’s wrapper, Phebe’s husband, Wilford Woodruff, donated the copy to the Church Historian’s Office on 27 May 1857. (JS, Liberty, MO, to the Church in Caldwell Co., MO, 16 Dec. 1838, JS Collection, CHL.)
Smith, Joseph. Collection, 1827–1846. CHL. MS 155.
but the saviour said that offences must come but woe unto them by whom they come, and again blessed are ye when all men shall revile you and speak all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake, rejoice and be exceeding glad for great is your reward in heaven for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you. Now dear brethren if any men ever had reason to claim this promise we are the men, for we know that the world not only hates us but but speak all manner of evil of us falsely for no other reason than because we have been endeavoring to teach the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ after we were bartered away by and were taken into the militia camp we had all the evidence we could have wished for that the world hated us and that most cordially too. If there were priests of all the different sects they hated us, if there were Generals they hated us, if there were Colonels they hated us, and the soldiers and officers of every kind hated us, and the most profane blasphemers and drunkards & whoremongers hated us, they all hated us most cordially. And now what did they hate us for, purely because of the testimony of Jesus Christ. Was it because we were liars? We know that it has been reported by some but it has been reported falsely Was it because we have committed treason against the government in or of burglary, or of larceny or arson, or any other unlawful act in . We know that certain priests and certain lawyers and certain judges who are the instigators aiders and abettors of a certain gang of murderers and robbers who have been carrying on a scheme of mobocracy to uphold their against the saints of the last days for a number of years and have tried by a well contemplated and premeditated scheme to put down by physical power a system of relig[i]on that all the world by all their mutual attainments and by any fair means whatever were not able to resist. Hence, mobbers were encouraged by priests and Levites, by the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenees, and the Herodians, and the most ruthless, abandoned, and debauched, lawless inhuman and the most beastly set of men that the earth can boast of; and indeed a parallel cannot be found any where else; to gather together to steal to plunder to starve and to exterminate and burn the houses of the Mormons these are the characters that by their treasonable and avert acts have desolated and laid waste these are the characters that would fain make all the world believe that we are guilty of the above named acts. But they represent us [p. 3]
Hyrum Smith testified in 1843 court proceedings that on 1 November 1838, about twenty priests “of the different religious denominations” participated in a court-martial in the militia camp, during which the prisoners were condemned to death. The execution was averted through the intervention of Brigadier General Alexander Doniphan. (Hyrum Smith, Testimony, Nauvoo, IL, 1 July 1843, p. 14, Nauvoo, IL, Records, CHL; see also Introduction to Part 3: 4 Nov. 1838–16 Apr. 1839.)
In Pratt’s 1839 history, he recounted that he, JS, and the other prisoners “were marched into camp surrounded by thousands of savage looking beings, many of whom were painted like Indian warriors,” and that their captors “set up a constant yell, like so many blood hounds let loose on their prey, as if they had achieved one of the most miraculous victories which ever dignified the annals of the world.” (Pratt, History of the Late Persecution, 40.)
Grimsted, David. “Rioting in Its Jacksonian Setting.” American Historical Review 77, no. 2 (Apr. 1972): 361–397.
Anderson, Richard Lloyd. “Clarifications of Boggs’s ‘Order’ and Joseph Smith’s Constitutionalism.” In Regional Studies in Latter-day Saint Church History: Missouri, edited by Arnold K. Garr and Clark V. Johnson, 27–83. Provo, UT: Department of Church History and Doctrine, Brigham Young University, 1994.
In Mulholland’s copy, this phrase is followed by “and every other E and ite agging on.” The term “agging on” was a nineteenth-century variant of the slang term “egging on.”a The New Testament mentions the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians—all Jewish groups—often in the context of persecuting Jesus. Although the Essenes are not mentioned in the Bible, information on this Jewish group was included in a widely circulated nineteenth-century theological dictionary.b
(aJS, Liberty, MO, to the Church in Caldwell Co., MO, 16 Dec. 1838, in “General,” Record Book, 104; see “A Provincial Vocabulary,” 421; “Suit for Alleged Malpractice,” 120; and “Relation of Plumbing to Public Health,” 24. bSee, for example, Matthew 16:1; Mark 12:13; Luke 20:27; and “Essenes,” in Buck, Theological Dictionary, 132; see also Stemberger, Jewish Contemporaries of Jesus, 1–4; and Meier, “Historical Jesus and the Historical Herodians,” 740–746.)
“General,” Record Book, 1838. Verso of Patriarchal Blessings, vol. 5. CHL.
“A Suit for Alleged Malpractice.” Cleveland Medical Gazette 2, no. 4 (Feb. 1887): 117–132.
“The Relation of Plumbing to Public Health.” Plumbers’ Trade Journal 24, no. 1 (1 July 1898): 24.
Buck, Charles. A Theological Dictionary, Containing Definitions of All Religious Terms; a Comprehensive View of Every Article in the System of Divinity. . . . New American ed., edited by George Bush. Philadelphia: James Kay Jr., 1830.
Greene, John P. Facts Relative to the Expulsion of the Mormons or Latter Day Saints, from the State of Missouri, under the “Exterminating Order.” By John P. Greene, an Authorized Representative of the Mormons. Cincinnati: R. P. Brooks, 1839.