Letterbook 1

JS and Kirtland High Council to Quorum of the Twelve • 4 August 1835

Oliver Cowdery handwriting ends; John Whitmer begins.  

Kirtland, Ohio, August 4, 1835.
This day a high council, the Presidency of the church  of Christ of latterday saints, consisting of Presidents,  Joseph Smith, Jr. Oliver Cowdery, Sidney Rigdon, Hyrum  Smith, David Whitmer, John Whitmer, and William  W. Phelps and others met, to take into consideration  certain items contained in letters from abroad: are from  W[arren] A. Cowdery, presiding Elder of the Freedom confer ence, and one from Elder William E. Mc:Lellin: the  first reads as follows: “Freedom, July 29, 1835.”
“Dear brother,—Elder Jared Carter called on this  church last Thursday, on his way east, solisciting do nations and subscriptions for finishing the house in  your place. Although the subject of such a mission,  in connection with his name had been mentioned in  the Messenger and Advocate, still, as no other method  had been taken to impress the subject on our minds,  it had measurably passed out, or ceased to make any  impression. Therefore, we were in some degree ,taken on  surprise. The twelve, the Bishop, nor any others, clothed  with authority have ever mentioned this subject to us,  except incidently, to the recollection of any of the  church. It sur[e]ly was never made a subject of public  instruction, as br. Carter had Just reason to expect it  had been, felt an imbarrassment peculiar to such a sit uation. He undertook to preach to us yesterday, but  from the aforesaid embarrassment, or the deadness,  or the covetousness of the church, he could get none  of the Spirit of the Lord to assist him. I am free that  I attributed more to the latter cause than the former,  yet, notwithstanding, we made out in donations and  subscriptions, that I trust will be eventually real ised $341,87½. May the Lord bless and prosper  him, and all his faithful servants, and may, they  find favor in the sight of God and man, is the  prayer of your unworthy brother.”
Oliver Cowdery.(signed) W. A. Cowdery.
[p. 90]
On 27 November 1832, while residing at Kirtland, Ohio, JS wrote a lengthy letter to William W. Phelps, who earlier that year had settled at Independence, Missouri. JS’s missive included a reminder stressing the importance of record keeping and history writing to the young church. Portions were later added to the Doctrine and Covenants, the church’s official collection of commandments and revelations. JS began by noting that he wished “to communicate some things which . . . are laying great with weight upon my mind.” He then went on to observe, “Firstly, it is the duty of the lord’[s] clerk whom he has appointed to keep a hystory and a general church record of all things that transpire in Zion . . . and also the[ir] manner of life and the[ir] faith and works.” (JS, Kirtland, OH, to William W. Phelps, Independence, MO, 27 Nov. 1832, JS Letterbook 1, pp. 1–4 [D&C 85:1–2].)
JS’s dispatch to Phelps reminding those in Missouri of the importance of record keeping coincided with a new record-keeping initiative in Ohio. This letter became the first entry, identified as “Letter first” and “Letter 1,” recorded in what was subsequently designated Letter Book A or Letterbook 1. This record of ninety-three manuscript pages, now published in the Administrative Records series on the Joseph Smith Papers website, preserves copies of early church-related communications dated 14 June 1829 through 4 August 1835. The transcribed text is in the handwriting of JS, Frederick G. Williams, Orson Hyde, and Oliver Cowdery.
Correspondence captured in Letterbook 1 includes six early letters composed or received by Oliver Cowdery, four from 1829 and two from 1831. Other letters reflect ongoing communications between the two centers of the early church located in Kirtland and Independence. Two entries describe the plat of the proposed “City of Zion” to be built at Independence and the dimensions of the “house of the Lord” to be erected there. The concluding item in the collection is a letter that incorporates a set of minutes from a council held in Kirtland on 4 August 1835 censuring the Twelve Apostles for failing to fully comply with their fund-raising responsibilities as they conducted a mission among the branches of the church in the East. Note that letters from Letterbook 1 written to or from JS will also appear with individual introductions in the Documents series of The Joseph Smith Papers.
Letterbook 1 was initiated during a remarkable surge in record keeping, beginning with the calling of Oliver Cowdery and later John Whitmer as church historians in 1830 and 1831. Revelations and commandments recorded in Revelation Book 1 were sent to Missouri in late 1831 to be published on the church’s first press, and Revelation Book 2 was in use in Kirtland by February 1832. Sometime in 1832, probably between July and September, JS and Frederick G. Williams worked together on a brief history of JS’s early visionary experiences. JS purchased the small volume that contains his first journal in November 1832 and began penning entries that same month. That fall another record, containing the minutes of early church conference and council meetings and now designated Minute Book 1, was commenced. In January of the following year, in another epistle recorded in Letterbook 1, JS again wrote to Phelps encouraging him as editor of the church’s first periodical, The Evening and the Morning Star, then printed in Independence, to set “forth the rise and progress and faith of the church,” that is, to begin publishing items on the history of the church.
This upwelling in record keeping was unusual for the time. As scholar Dean C. Jessee has observed, “So primitive were some aspects of record keeping in nineteenth-century America that much of the early Latter-day Saint experience was a pioneering effort. . . . Although Mormon record keeping was inaugurated by [an] 1830 revelation, details for carrying out that commandment were largely hammered out on the anvil of experience in the years that followed.” (Dean C. Jessee, “The Reliability of Joseph Smith’s History,” Journal of Mormon History 3 [1976]: 27.) Thus, during a brief span in the early 1830s, JS, along with those working under his direction, commenced the systematic collection and recording of critical documents pertaining to church governance and administration. Throughout the remainder of JS’s lifetime, correspondence-copying, revelation-recording, minute-taking, journal-keeping, and history-writing activities would remain imperative commitments.