- Introduction to Documents, Volume 1: July 1828–June 1831
Joseph Smith Documents Dating through June 1831
This volume contains the earliest surviving documents written, dictated, authorized, owned, or received by Joseph Smith. They originated from July 1828 to June 1831.1 Almost no original records remain of Smith’s life from 1805 to 1827. What is known of that earlier period is derived from reminiscent accounts, augmented by a few details from contemporaneous government documents. Two of the most important reminiscent accounts are Joseph Smith’s 1832 and 1838 histories, both of which provide detailed descriptions of the angelic visits and manifestations he experienced in the 1820s.2 Although recorded later, these histories provide important context for the documents herein.
As recorded in his 1832 history, Joseph Smith obtained a set of gold plates on 22 September 1827, written in an ancient language.3 As he translated this record “by the gift and power of God” between 1827 and 1829, he also dictated several revelations that provided instructions relative to the translation and publication of the book and submitted a copyright application for the Book of Mormon.4 These are among the documents that open this volume.
Of all the earliest texts that Joseph Smith authored or dictated, including the manuscripts of the Book of Mormon, only a few letters and the preface of the Book of Mormon are in his own first-person voice. The Book of Mormon translation and early revelations, though dictated by Smith, are in different voices, including the first-person voice of angels, ancient prophets, and Jesus Christ. The first extant document written entirely in his own voice is a letter written to Oliver Cowdery in late October 1829, as the Book of Mormon was being printed.5 The first revelation received after the Church of Christ was organized on 6 April 1830 concerned record keeping. It declared in the voice of God, “Behold there Shall a Record be kept among you.”6 After the church was established, practical needs influenced the kinds of records created, such as minutes of conferences and ecclesiastical licenses.
Most of the documents in this volume are copies of original manuscripts that have not survived. Of the more than ninety texts featured in this volume, all but about a dozen are later copies of nonextant originals. Most of the revelations featured here were copied from earlier manuscripts into the first compilation of revelations, Revelation Book 1, as early as spring 1831. Because the original loose sheets are not extant, there is no way to know how well these copies represent the original dictations. Moreover, the lack of the originals at times deprives modern readers of important information related to the initial intent and reception of the original documents, as well as revisions made to them. For example, the copy of Smith’s 28 December 1829 letter from Oliver Cowdery lacks a postmark and gives no indication whether the letter was mailed or hand delivered, information that would help historians understand the context of the letter.
The pace at which documents were created accelerated after April 1829 when Oliver Cowdery became Joseph Smith’s scribe. Although revelations constitute over half the documents in this volume, there are also letters, minutes, licenses, and legal documents. While several of the revelations were related to the translation process, Smith dictated many others in response to questions that arose among believers. His followers regarded such communication as divine commandments. The subsequent publication of these revelations as a book encouraged later readers to view them as a collection, but they were not originally seen as a monolithic set of records. The revelations were created under various circumstances, responded to diverse questions, and addressed distinct audiences. The ways in which revelations were recorded and circulated varied according to the purpose of production. For instance, an 1829 revelation meant for Joseph Knight Sr. was written and handed to him personally, while an 1831 revelation termed “the Law” was recorded as a commandment for the Church of Christ and was apparently distributed widely among its members.7
Some of Joseph Smith’s revelations, especially the earliest, may not have been written at the time he received them; others may not have been recorded at all and are lost to history. The recorded revelations often circulated as individual handwritten copies. They were also copied into private notebooks and personal journals or passed along in letters. As with any copied texts, there were often small variations between the versions, but only occasionally were those differences substantive. Although multiple manuscript versions exist for some revelations, for others no manuscript survives, and the published version is the earliest available.
Revelations provided authoritative direction to individuals for both personal and ecclesiastical concerns. For example, one revelation commissioned Emma Smith to compile a church hymn book,8 while another instructed how the debt on Frederick G. Williams’s farm should be serviced and how the land should be administered in his absence.9 Revelations often came because individuals approached Joseph Smith seeking specific guidance. John Whitmer described the circumstances of his call as church historian: “I was appointed by the voice of the Elders to keep the Church record. Joseph Smith Jr. said unto me you must also keep the Church history. I would rather not do it but observed that the will of the Lord be done, and if he desires it, I desire that he would manifest it through Joseph the Seer.”10 Thereafter a revelation declared, “Behold it is expedient that my servent John should write & keep a regulal [regular] history & assist my servent Joseph in Transcribing.”11 Following the receipt of this revelation, Whitmer accepted and served in his new appointment.
Although the earliest revelations were addressed to individuals, by early 1831, as the church expanded and ecclesiastical needs developed, revelations began addressing the general membership of the church. For example, in February 1831, a group of elders met with Joseph Smith about an issue affecting all members: the imminent influx of New York members into Ohio. During their meeting, the elders asked five questions, to which Smith dictated revelations in response. The revelations were recorded together as one document, called “the Law,” and were used to guide the church.12 Other revelations unfolded theological concepts or gave apocalyptic warnings about what was to come. Whether theological or practical, addressed to a general audience or particular associates of Smith, the revelations generally called the recipients to action.
Joseph Smith typically dictated the revelations in the first-person voice of Jesus Christ, speaking the words of the Lord directly to the recipient. The revelations often incorporated phrases, ideas, and terms found in the King James Version of the Bible and in the Book of Mormon. They were also expressed, according to historian Richard Bushman, in the “diction of a nineteenth-century American common man.” In Bushman’s opinion, “The revelations from heaven shone through the mind of Joseph Smith and employed his language to express the messages.”13 Smith told a reporter in Pittsburgh that “he never gave anything to his people as revelation, unless it was a revelation, and the Lord did reveal himself to him.”14 Although he declared they were inspired of God, Smith did not feel that the revelatory texts he produced were beyond refinement; he made revisions to many of the revelations and authorized others to edit them for publication.15 In an 1831 conference, Sidney Rigdon remarked “on the errors or mistakes which are in commandments and revelations, made either by the translation in consequence of the slow way of the scribe at the time of receiving or by the scribes themselves.” The conference resolved “that Br Joseph Smith Jr correct those errors or mistakes which he m[a]y discover by the holy Spirit while reviewing the revelations & commandments & also the fulness of the scriptures.”16 Aside from making editorial changes, Joseph Smith at times greatly expanded the revelations themselves. For instance, a revelation originally dictated in July 1830 was later published in the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants with more than sixty additional words in the first verse that had not been included in any of the early manuscripts.17
The most prominent among Joseph Smith’s revelatory dictations is the Book of Mormon, which he described as a translation of an ancient American record written on gold plates. The title page of the completed book stated that it was a record of “a remnant of the house of Israel.”18 According to Smith’s 1838 history, his involvement with the Book of Mormon started in 1823, several years before he began the translation, when he was visited by an angel who told him “there was a book deposited written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent and the source from whence they sprang.” The angel further declared “that the fullness of the everlasting Gospel was contained in it as delivered by the Saviour to the ancient inhabitants.”19 The Book of Mormon includes a sweeping historical and religious narrative that declares itself to be a record of God’s interactions with ancient peoples and prophets. While only a brief excerpt of the Book of Mormon is featured in this volume, Smith’s earliest documents were all created amidst his efforts to translate and publish the book. Examining the process by which Smith translated the Book of Mormon is essential to understand not only the book itself, but also Smith’s earliest revelations, many of which were apparently received through a similar process.
In surviving records, Joseph Smith provided very little specific information about the translation process. He did not claim to translate the Book of Mormon through his own knowledge of ancient languages. In the Book of Mormon’s preface, he simply stated, “I would inform you that I translated, by the gift and power of God.”20 Smith may have deliberately refrained from giving a detailed public account of the mechanics of translation. In an 1831 church conference, his brother Hyrum Smith stated that “he thought best that the information of the coming forth of the book of Mormon be related by Joseph himself to the Elders present that all might know for themselves.” Rather than complying with this request, Joseph Smith responded that “it was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the book of Mormon, & also said that it was not expedient for him to relate these things &c.”21
Notwithstanding their lack of detail, records from Joseph Smith and his scribes demonstrate that he used two separate instruments to translate the Book of Mormon. Smith stated that the first was found with the plates and delivered to him by an angel, who explained it consisted of “two stones in silver bows . . . and that was what constituted seers in ancient or former times and that God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book.”22 The text of the Book of Mormon spoke of the same instrument as “interpreters” and foretold that it was to be preserved with the gold plates.23 By August 1829, Smith apparently referred to this device as “spectacles,” a term he used again in his 1832 history.24 In January 1833, an article in the church newspaper The Evening and the Morning Star declared that he had translated the Book of Mormon “by the gift and power of God . . . through the aid of a pair of Interpreters, or spectacles— (known, perhaps, in ancient days as Teraphim, or Urim and Thummim).”25 Soon thereafter Smith apparently began applying the biblical term Urim and Thummim to the interpreters or spectacles.
In addition to the device found with the plates, Joseph Smith also translated using other individual seer stones, which he would place in a hat to limit outside light. He and others apparently later referred to these seer stones as Urim and Thummim, thus making it difficult to determine in later accounts whether they were referring to the device found with the plates or a separate stone that performed the same function.26 Oliver Cowdery, Smith’s principal scribe for most of the translation, explained, “Day after day I continued, uninterrupted, to write from his mouth, as he translated, with the Urim and Thummim, or, as the Nephites whould have said, ‘Interpreters.’”27 Joseph Smith’s wife Emma, who also served as a scribe for the translation, described his use of two distinct instruments: “Now the first that my husband translated, was translated by the use of the Urim, and Thummim, and that was the part that Martin Harris lost, after that he used a small stone, not exactly, black, but was rather a dark color.”28
Later accounts by Joseph Smith’s close associates—either scribes or other early believers who likely learned of the process from Smith or his scribes—provide some idea of what appeared on the Urim and Thummim or seer stone during the translation process. Joseph Knight Sr., a family friend, recalled that after Smith “put the urim and thummim into his hat and Darkned his Eyes,” a sentence “would apper in Brite Roman Letters then he would tell the writer and he would write it then that would go away the next sentance would Come and so on But if it was not spelt rite it would not go away till it was rite so we see it was marvelous.”29 Emma Smith reportedly told an interviewer that her husband spelled out difficult or unfamiliar words, including “proper names he could not pronounce.” She further stated, “While I was writing them, if I made any mistake in spelling, he would stop me and correct my spelling, although it was impossible for him to see how I was writing them down at the time. . . . When he stopped for any purpose at any time he would, when he commenced again, begin where he left off without any hesitation.”30 Decades after the translation work, David Whitmer, one of the Three Witnesses of the Book of Mormon, wrote that on the “spiritual light” of the seer stone, “a piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man.”31
Early accounts indicate that Joseph Smith and his scribes described the process, including the use of both the Urim and Thummim and seer stones, to others outside of the circle of believers soon after the translation was complete. In the summer of 1829, before publication of the Book of Mormon had begun, a Palmyra newspaper printed the book’s title page with an explanation of how the plates were translated, an account likely obtained from Smith himself or one of his associates. The editor explained with considerable incredulity that “by placing the Spectacles in a hat, and looking into it, Smith could (he said so, at least,) interpret these characters.”32 In late 1830, while traveling through the Shaker community of Union Village, Ohio, Oliver Cowdery explained the process of translation, as recorded by one of the Shakers: “The engraving being unintelligible to learned & unlearned. there is said to have been in the box with the plates two transparent stones in the form of spectacles thro which the translator looked on the engraving & afterwards put his face into a hat & the interpretation then flowed into his mind. which he uttered to the amanuensis who wrote it down.”33
Regardless of how the translation actually occurred, it is difficult to overemphasize the importance of the Book of Mormon to Joseph Smith and his early followers. “They had in their possession,” wrote scholar Terryl Givens, “a recovered record whose very existence was seen as prophetic proof that the final dispensation was truly arrived.”34 Its existence made the movement that Joseph Smith led unique. He considered it “the key stone of our religion.”35 In a time of intense conflict over biblical interpretation, historian Gordon Wood noted, the Book of Mormon “cut through these controversies and brought the Bible up-to-date. It was written in plain biblical style for plain people. It answered perplexing questions of theology, clarified obscure passages of the Bible, and carried its story into the New World. And it did all this with the assurance of divine authority.”36
Only about a quarter of the originally dictated manuscript of the Book of Mormon survives, and the excerpt featured in this volume is taken from the largest extant section.37 Because of their length, importance, and complexity, the Book of Mormon manuscripts will be presented in separate volumes in the Revelations and Translations series of The Joseph Smith Papers.
This volume also contains a lesser-known revelation that was later associated with a subsequent work of “translation.” Just months after the Book of Mormon came off the press, Joseph Smith dictated a revelatory text that took the form of a revelation to Moses introducing the account of the creation found in Genesis.38 Following this revelation Smith began a three-year project of “translating” the Bible. This was not a translation in the usual sense; he did not render the earliest Hebrew or Greek texts into English. Instead, he revised and amplified the King James Version where he felt so inspired, with the lengthiest additions coming in Genesis.39 Also included in this volume is his revelatory translation of an otherwise unknown Johannine parchment. In this instance, Joseph Smith dictated the translation of it to Oliver Cowdery apparently with the use of a seer stone.40
Joseph Smith apparently received many of his early revelations through the spectacles or a separate seer stone in a manner similar to the way he translated the Book of Mormon. For example, while they were translating in 1829, Smith and Cowdery sought an answer to a biblical question and “mutually agreed to settle it by the Urim and Thummin,” a reference to either the spectacles or a separate seer stone.41 Orson Pratt, who sought instruction from Joseph Smith in November 1830, later told an interviewer that Smith used a seer stone to receive the requested revelation. Pratt explained that “on arriving there Joseph produced a small stone called a seer stone, and putting it into a Hat soon commenced speaking.”42
After 1830, however, Joseph Smith apparently dictated revelations without the use of an external instrument.43 Although he spoke the words as if God were speaking to him, the divine voice was apparently not audible to others present when Smith received them. Even so, in one revelation Jesus Christ declared, “It is my voice which speaketh them unto you: For they are given by my Spirit unto you.”44 Joseph Smith once told his associates, “By it [the Spirit] these things were put into my hart.”45 Such statements lend credence to a later, more elaborate description by William E. McLellin, who served as a scribe for a revelation: “The scribe seats himself at a desk or table, with pen, ink and paper. The subject of enquiry being understood, the Prophet and Revelator enquires of God. He spiritually sees, hears and feels, and then speaks as he is moved upon by the Holy Ghost, the ‘thus saith the Lord,’ sentence after sentence.”46
Many of the revelations and other documents in this volume include eschatological statements, or references to the end-time or the last days. In his 1832 history, Joseph Smith said that during his first vision, the Lord told him that the second coming of Jesus Christ was imminent.47 That sense of an impending millennial advent pervades the documents in this volume. The type of eschatology taught by Joseph Smith can be described as apocalyptic premillennialism. It assumes that only Jesus Christ’s return to cleanse the corrupt earth, dramatically and destructively, can introduce the Millennium. “The judgements of the Lord are already abroad in the earth,” wrote Smith in 1830 to some of his followers in Colesville, New York, “and the cold hand of death, will soon pass through your neighborhood, and sweep away some of your most bitter enemies, for . . . the earth will soon be reaped.— that is, the wicked must soon be destroyed from off the face of the earth, for the Lord hath spoken it. . . . Then shall come to pass that the lion shall lie down with the lamb &c.”48 In another letter several months later, he added, “Lift up your heads and rejoice for your redemption draweth nigh,” for Christ was to come “in a cloud with the host of Heaven, to dwell with man on the earth a thousand years,” and “the sword, famines and destruction will soon overtake them [the wicked] in their wild career, for God will avenge, and pour out his phials of wrath, and save his elect.” He counseled the church to “be faithful in witnessing unto a crooked and a perverse generation, that the day of the coming of our Lord and Savior is at hand.”49
Expectation of an impending apocalyptic judgment provided a major rationale for Mormon missionary efforts. Many revelations put the command to proselytize in an eschatological context, just as Joseph Smith did in his letters to the Colesville believers. Orson Pratt, for instance, was told, “Lift up your voice as with the sound of a Trump both long & loud & cry repentance to a crooked & perverse generation prepareing the way of the Lord for his second Coming for Behold Verily Verily I say unto you the time is soon at hand that I will come in a cloud with power & great glory & . . . all nations shall tremble. . . . Wherefore lift up thy voice & spare not for the Lord God hath spoken.”50
One distinctive element of early Mormon millenarianism was the belief that the righteous must be physically gathered in preparation for the advent of Christ. This gathering provided “a means of escape from much of the anticipated tribulation of the last days.”51 Passages in the Book of Mormon declared that the righteous would “build a city, which shall be called the New Jerusalem; and then shall they assist my people that they may be gathered in, which are scattered upon all the face of the land, in unto the New Jerusalem.”52 Although early revelations and the Book of Mormon prophesied that the righteous were to be gathered before the impending destruction, an understanding about the place and manner of gathering only developed over time. A fall 1830 revelation explained that the faithful were to be “gethered in unto one place upon the face of this land . . . against the day of tribulation & desolation is sent forth upon the wicked for the hour is nigh & the day soon at hand.”53 A late 1830 letter Joseph Smith wrote from Fayette, New York, to believers in Colesville warned, “The time is soon at hand that we shall have to flee whithersoever the Lord will, for safety.”54
While early believers anticipated an eventual gathering to a promised New Jerusalem, the location of this prophesied city was initially unknown. In September 1830 a revelation instructing Oliver Cowdery declared, “Now Behold I say unto you that it is not Revealed & no man knoweth where the City shall be built But it shall be given hereafter Behold I say unto you that it shall be among the Lamanites.”55 Joseph Smith and his associates understood this to mean among the Indians in the American West. Cowdery was subsequently dispatched in October 1830 on a mission both to proselytize the Indians and “to rear up a pillar as a witness where the Temple of God shall be built, in the glorious New-Jerusalem.”56 He traveled from New York to Missouri and beyond, and with his companions he began to preach to Shawnee and Delaware Indians living in what is now eastern Kansas. Meanwhile, a February 1831 revelation instructed church members to consecrate their property to the church in preparation for the “building up of the New Jerusalem.” The revelation further declared, “It shall be revealed unto you in mine own due time when the New Jerusalem shall be built.”57 A March 1831 revelation confirmed that the precise location of the New Jerusalem was still yet to be revealed. It commanded the believers to “gether up your riches that you may purchase an inheritance which shall hereafter be appointed you & it shall be called the New Jerusalem a land of peace a City of refuge a place of safety for the saints of The most high God.”58
One of the earliest surviving documents from the New York period, a letter from Thomas B. Marsh to his sister and her husband in April 1831, reflected both this belief in the building of the New Jerusalem and uncertainty about the intended location. Marsh explained that the Lord wanted all believers to “assemble at Ohio speedely & thare our Hevenly Father will tell us what we shall next do, perhaps it will be to take our march to the Grand preraras [prairies] in the Missouri teretori [territory] or to the shining mountains which is 1500 or 2000 miles west from us how soon this will be we do not know in fact we know nothing of what we are to do save it be reveild [revealed] to us but this we know a City will be built in the promised Land.”59 In a world apparently spiraling downward to its cataclysmic conclusion, the promised New Jerusalem came to be seen as the one safe haven for believers. Many of the documents in this volume reflect the importance of this idea both to Joseph Smith and to those who followed him.
Most of Joseph Smith’s adherents embraced his millenarian views and accepted the revelations as expressing the mind of God on the subject. In Marsh’s insistent letter to his sister he averred that “the time speedely cometh that the Lord decend from Heven & none but the pure shall be able to abide the day[.] now we know that many do not believe that He will come & reign on earth a thousand years with the meek . . . but this we know will be so for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it tharefore we desire to use all dilagence to make ourselves ready.” Marsh wrote as he prepared to depart from New York in April 1831 with dozens of believers who had embraced Smith’s revelation commanding them to move to Ohio. He implored his sister and brother-in-law to choose “affliction with the people of God rather then enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season” and invited them to “take a part with me & the deciples of Christ in the new Jerusalem!”60
Joseph Smith’s antagonists differed sharply in their assessment of his revelations; whereas believers embraced them as God’s decrees from heaven, opponents saw them as nothing more than his own creations, claiming divine sanction as a means of projecting illusory authority. As historian Daniel Walker Howe observed, “In a society where religious doctrine aroused so much interest as western New York in 1830, Smith’s purported revelation was of course subjected to elaborate examination, refutation, and satire.”61 Eber D. Howe, editor of the Painesville Telegraph and a dedicated critic, referred to the revelations as “pretended” and labeled Smith a “miserable imposter.” He maintained that Smith “invent[ed] another ‘command from God’” whenever it suited his purposes.62 This prevailing skepticism, however, did not prevent believers from shaping their lives to conform to what they believed were God’s commands.
In addition to revelations, this volume contains a small number of letters as well as minutes from several important conferences. Three letters written in 1829 focus on efforts to publish the Book of Mormon. Two letters from 1830 address opposition to the church in New York while another details the surge of converts in Ohio. Correspondence from 1831 pertains primarily to the gathering in Ohio and also reports missionary labors among the American Indians.
Journals, historical narratives, and transcripts or notes of Joseph Smith’s sermons and speeches—records that are abundant for the period toward the end of his life—are conspicuously unavailable during the period covered in this volume, though contemporaneous documents include a small number of references to him speaking. In addition, very few letters written by Joseph Smith or members of his religious community during this period have survived. The sparse pre-1832 sources that are extant provide little information about the content of Smith’s teachings—or, indeed, about any of his activities—during this period.
Given this general lack of early records, it is not surprising that no contemporary document recorded visionary experiences that Joseph Smith later described as having taken place during this time. No surviving documents from 1829 describe the visitations from angelic messengers, hearing the voice of God, or other aspects of the restoration of divine authority. Information on these significant events, particularly the priesthood restoration, instead comes from later accounts. In his later history Joseph Smith explained that in May 1829, he and Oliver Cowdery inquired “of the Lord respecting baptism for the remission of sins as we found mentioned in the translation” of the Book of Mormon. He then described an angelic visitation in response to their prayer for divine guidance on the subject. He indicated that their visitor conferred upon them “the priesthood of Aaron, which holds the keys of the ministring of angels and of the gospel of repentance, and of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins.” Joseph Smith further recorded: “The messenger who visited us on this occasion and conferred this priesthood upon us said that his name was John, the same that is called John the Baptist in the new Testament, and that he acted under the direction of Peter, James, and John, who held the keys of the priesthood of Melchisedeck, whi[c]h priesthood he said should in due time be conferred on us.”63
According to Joseph Smith’s account, while he and Cowdery were at the home of Peter Whitmer Sr., they “became anxious to have that promise realized to us, which the Angel that conferred upon us the Aaronick Priesthood had given us, viz: that provided we continued faithful; we should also have the Melchesidec Priesthood, which holds the authority of the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.” Smith’s account continues:
We had for some time made this matter a subject of humble prayer, and at length we got together in the Chamber of Mr Whitmer’s house in order more particularly to seek of the Lord what we now so earnestly desired: and here to our unspeakable satisfaction did we realize the truth of the Saviour’s promise; “Ask, and you shall recieve, seek, and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you.”
Smith’s history explained that in response to their prayerful inquiries, “the word of the Lord, came unto us in the Chamber,” commanding him and Cowdery to ordain one another. They were further instructed to “defer this our ordination” until they could be accepted as spiritual teachers in a future meeting of baptized believers.64
Additionally, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery at some point experienced another angelic visitation, this time from Peter, James, and John, three of Jesus’s apostles, to whom John the Baptist had previously referred. A revelation in the voice of Jesus Christ first published in the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants referred to that visitation: “Peter, and James, and John, whom I have sent unto you, by whom I have ordained you and confirmed you to be apostles and especial witnesses of my name, and bear the keys of your ministry.”65
Just as there is no contemporaneous narrative account of the restoration of priesthood authority, there are no minutes of the meeting at which the Church of Christ was organized. However, the later account in Joseph Smith’s history described what occurred at that 6 April 1830 meeting, including an effort to comply with the instructions given earlier in Father Whitmer’s chamber:
Having opened the meeting by solemn prayer to our Heavenly Father we proceeded, (according to previous commandment) to call on our brethren to know whether they accepted us as their teachers in the things of the Kingdom of God, and whether they were satisfied that we should proceed and be organized as a Church according to said commandment which we had received. To these they consented by an unanimous vote. I then laid my hands upon Oliver Cowdery and ordained him an Elder of the “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.” after which he ordained me also to the office of an Elder of said Church.66
Even though the accounts explicitly detailing how Joseph Smith received priesthood authority are found in later sources, several of the documents in this volume refer to his use of that authority.
The documents that are presented in this volume provide the reader with the earliest textual insights into Joseph Smith and the founding of what was then called the Church of Christ. Though disparate in nature and sometimes separated from one another by months for which no documents are extant, these texts offer glimpses into the thoughts, concerns, and initiatives of Joseph Smith in the period during which he translated and published the Book of Mormon and established a new church. These documents not only allow the reader to study Joseph Smith but also to gain a greater understanding of his followers, who were involved in one of the millenarian movements that arose during the Second Great Awakening. Mundane concerns are found alongside those believed to be of eminent spiritual import. Practical matters of farming and land transactions are found alongside calls to repentance and missionary evangelism. The documents focus on both the temporal and the spiritual concerns of Smith and his followers, reflecting their beliefs, anxieties, and biases as well as their reactions to local, national, and international events. The earliest of Smith’s documents may be the most difficult to contextualize because of the lack of contemporary sources, but that very deficiency adds to the importance of the documents that do survive, as scholars attempt to reconstruct and understand the process by which Joseph Smith left an indelible imprint on history.