Letterbook 1

JS to N. C. Saxton • 4 January 1833

Kirtland 4th Jany. 1833—
Considering the Liberal prisciples [principles] upon which  your interesting and valuable paper is published and  myself being a subscriber and feeling a deep intrist [interest]  in the cause of Zion and in the happiness of my brethren  of mankind I cheerfully take up my pen to contribute  my mite at this every [very] interesting and important period
For some length of time I have  been car[e]fully viewing the state of things as now appear  throug[h]out our christian Land and have looked at it  with feelings of the most painful anxiety while upon  the one hand beholding the manifested withdrawal of Gods  holy Spirit and the vail of stupidity which seems to  be drawn over the hearts of the people and upon the  other hand beholding the Judgments of God that have swept and  are still sweeping hundreds and thousands of our race (and I fear  unprepared) down to the shades of death with this solemn and alarming  fact before me I am led to exclaim [“]O that my head were waters and  mine ey[e]s a fountain of tears that I might weep day and night &c.”  I think that it is high time for a christian world to awake out of sleep  and cry mightely to that God day and night whose anger we have  Justly incured. Are not these things a sufficient stimulant to  arouse the faculties and call forth the energies of evry man  woman and child that poseses feeling of sympathy for his fellow[s] or  that is in any degree endeared to the bud[d]ing cause of our  glorious Lord; I leave an inteligent community to answer  this important question with a confession that this is what  has caused me to overlook my own inability and expose my  weakness to a learned world but trusting in that God who has said  these things are hid from the wise and prudent and reve[a]led unto babes  I step forth into the field to tell you what the Lord is doing and  what you must do to enjoy the smiles of your saviour in these  last day[s]— — The time has at last come arived when the  God of Abraham of Isaac and of Jacob has set his hand again  the seccond time to recover the remnants of his people which have [p. 14]
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.