Monthly Archives: May 2014

New Release: “Spencer’s Letters”—The Most Famous Book You’ve Never Heard Of

There’s a copy of Spencer’s Letters inside the capstone of the Salt Lake Temple; it was written by Orson Spencer, a former Baptist minister who became President of the British Mission, mayor-elect of Nauvoo, and the first chancellor of the University of Deseret. Originally published in book form in 1848 after it was exhausted in tract form, I’ve also seen editions from 1852, 1874, 1879, and 1891, and it was in Deseret Book’s 1922 catalog, so evidently it was still selling about 75 years after its first publication. This book, then, was both one of the earliest book-length works published by a member of the Church and an enduring popular classic. Though it’s typically referred to as Spencer’s Letters in later works, the full title is actually Letters Exhibiting the Most Prominent Doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; in any case, it’s now available on Project Gutenberg.

Orson Spencer (1802-1855) was a graduate of Union College, New York (1824) and Hamilton Literary and Theological College (1829); he became a Baptist minister of sufficient repute that the Governor of Massachusetts invited him to “take the pastoral charge of the Church where his Excellency resided, and of which he was a member.” After his conversion his old acquaintance William Crowel (editor of The Christian Watchman, a Baptist publication) sent him an 1842 letter asking a number of questions regarding his new faith. Orson Spencer wrote one general response in 1842 and then from Liverpool in 1847 sent a further thirteen letters outlining the beliefs and history of the Church. These letters, along with a preface and a few miscellaneous items at the end, comprise the the book Spencer’s Letters.

It’s a fascinating read. The doctrine will be familiar to present-day members of the Church, but the style of its presentation won’t be; a man with two college degrees writing soon after the martyrdom, when the Church had just gone to Utah and apocalyptic sentiment was possibly at the highest levels in the history of the Church, offers a unique perspective. He knows exactly how he feels about the truth of the Gospel and the state of his old denomination, and so will you. He addresses common arguments against the Church and argues throughout that the Christian world’s reaction to new truth revealed by Joseph Smith is very similar to the Jewish world’s reaction to new truth revealed by John the Baptist, Peter, or Christ.

This is a book that should occupy a leading place in the LDS canon of great literature. It’s one of only two non-scriptural book-length works Talmage names in The House of the Lord as having been placed in the capstone of the Salt Lake Temple. (The other, A Compendium of the Doctrines of the Gospel by Franklin D. Richards and James A. Little, is on our to-do list. The two named pamphlets are A Voice of Warning and Key to the Science of Theology, both by Parley P. Pratt and available on PG.) It’s well worth a read and deserves some good press; if you’ve been waiting for a thing to share on Facebook, make this that thing.

Excerpt: Joseph Smith, Sr.’s Last Family Blessings and Death

This excerpt from chapter 52 of History of the Prophet Joseph by His Mother (just released on PG) gives the text of Joseph Smith, Senior’s last blessings to members of his family and describes the circumstances of his death:

On the evening of his return, my husband commenced vomiting blood. I sent immediately for Joseph and Hyrum, who, as soon as they came, gave him something that alleviated his distress. This was on Saturday night. The next morning Joseph came in and told his father, that he should not be troubled any more for the present with the Missourians; “and,” said he, “I can now stay with you as much as you wish.” After which, he informed his father that it was then the privilege of the Saints to be baptized for the dead. These two facts Mr. Smith was delighted to hear, and requested that Joseph should be baptized for Alvin immediately; and, as he expected to live but a short time, desired that his children would stay with him, as much as they could consistently.

They were all with him, except Catharine, who was detained from coming by a sick husband. Mr. Smith being apprised of this, sent Arthur Miliken, who, but a short time previous, was married to our youngest daughter, after Catharine and her children; but, before he went, my husband blessed him, fearing that it would be too late when he returned. He took Arthur by the hand, and said:—

My son, I have given you my youngest, darling child, and will you be kind to her? “Yes, father,” he replied, “I will.” Arthur, he continued, you shall be blessed, and you shall be great in the eyes of the Lord; and if you will be faithful, you shall have all the desires of your heart in righteousness. Now, I want you to go after my daughter Catharine, for I know, that because of the faithfulness of your heart, you will not come back without her.

Arthur then left, and my husband next addressed himself to me:—

Mother, do you not know, that you are the mother of as great a family as ever lived upon the earth? The world loves its own, but it does not love us. It hates us because we are not of the world; therefore, all its malice is poured out upon us, and they seek to take away our lives. When I look upon my children, and realize, that although they were raised up to do the Lord’s work, yet they must pass through scenes of trouble and affliction as long as they live upon the earth; and I dread to leave them surrounded by enemies.

At this Hyrum bent over his father and said:—”Father, if you are taken away, will you not intercede for us at the throne of grace, that our enemies may not have so much power over us?” He then laid his hands upon Hyrum’s head and said:—

My son, Hyrum, I seal upon your head your patriarchal blessing, which I placed upon your head before, for that shall be verified. In addition to this, I now give you my dying blessing. You shall have a season of peace, so that you shall have sufficient rest to accomplish the work which God has given you to do. You shall be as firm as the pillars of heaven unto the end of your days. I now seal upon your head the patriarchal power, and you shall bless the people. This is my dying blessing upon your head in the name of Jesus. Amen.

To Joseph he said:—

Joseph, my son, you are called to a high and holy calling. You are even called to do the work of the Lord. Hold out faithful and you shall be blest and your children after you. You shall even live to finish your work. At this Joseph cried out, weeping, “Oh! my father, shall I?” Yes, said his father, you shall live to lay out the plan of all the work which God has given you to do. This is my dying blessing on your head in the name of Jesus. I also confirm your former blessing upon your head; for it shall be fulfilled. Even so. Amen.

To Samuel he said:—

Samuel, you have been a faithful and obedient son. By your faithfulness you have brought many into the Church. The Lord has seen your diligence, and you are blessed, in that he has never chastised you, but has called you home to rest; and there is a crown laid up for you, which shall grow brighter and brighter unto the perfect day.

When the Lord called you, he said, “Samuel, I have seen thy suffering, and heard thy cries, and beheld thy faithfulness; thy skirts are clear from the blood of this generation.” Because of these things I seal upon your head all the blessings which I have heretofore pronounced upon you; and this my dying blessing, I now seal upon you. Even so. Amen.

To William he said:—

William, my son, thou hast been faithful in declaring the word even before the Church was organized. Thou hast been sick, yet thou hast traveled to warn the people. And when thou couldst not walk, thou didst sit by the wayside and call upon the Lord, until he provided a way for thee to be carried. Thou wast sick and afflicted, when thou wast away from thy father’s house, and no one knew it to assist thee in thy afflictions; but the Lord did see the honesty of thine heart, and thou wast blessed in thy mission. William, thou shalt be blest, and thy voice shall be heard in distant lands, from place to place, and they shall regard thy teachings. Thou shalt be like a roaring lion in the forest, for they shall hearken and hear thee. And thou shalt be the means of bringing many sheaves to Zion, and thou shalt be great in the eyes of many, and they shall call thee blessed, and I will bless thee, and thy children after thee. And the blessings which I sealed upon thy head before, I now confirm again, and thy days shall be many, thou shalt do a great work, and live as long as thou desirest life. Even so. Amen.

To Don Carlos he said:—

Carlos, my darling son, when I blessed thee thy blessing was never written, and I could not get it done, but now I want you to get my book, which contains the blessings of my family. Take your pen and fill out all those parts of your blessing which were not written. You shall have the Spirit of the Lord and be able to fill up all the vacancies which were left by Oliver when he wrote it. You shall be great in the sight of the Lord, for he sees and knows the integrity of your heart, and you shall be blessed; all that know you shall bless you. Your wife and your children shall also be blessed, and you shall live to fulfill all that the Lord has sent you to do. Even so. Amen.

To Sophronia he said:—

Sophronia, my oldest daughter, thou hadst sickness when thou wast young, and thy parents did cry over thee, to have the Lord spare thy life. Thou didst see trouble and sorrow, but thy troubles shall be lessened, for thou hast been faithful in helping thy father and thy mother in the work of the Lord. And thou shalt be blessed, and the blessings of heaven shall rest down upon thee. Thy last days shall be thy best. Although thou shalt see trouble, sorrow and mourning, thou shalt be comforted, and the Lord will lift thee up, and bless thee and thy family, and thou shalt live as long as thou desirest life. This dying blessing I pronounce and seal upon thy head, with thine other blessings. Even so. Amen.

After this he rested for some time, and then said:—

Catharine has been a sorrowful child, trouble has she seen, the Lord has looked down upon her and seen her patience, and has heard her cries. She shall be comforted when her days of sorrow are ended, then shall the Lord look down upon her, and she shall have the comforts of life, and the good things of the world, then shall she rise up, and defend her cause. She shall live to raise up her family; and in time her sufferings shall be over, for the day is coming when the patient shall receive their reward. Then she shall rise over her enemies, and shall have horses and land, and things around her to make her heart glad. I, in this dying blessing, confirm her patriarchal blessing upon her head, and she shall receive eternal life. Even so. Amen.

To Lucy he said:—

Lucy, thou art my youngest child, my darling. And the Lord gave thee unto us to be a comfort and a blessing to us in our old age, therefore, thou must take good care of thy mother. Thou art innocent, and thy heart is right before the Lord. Thou hast been with us through all the persecution; thou hast seen nothing but persecution, sickness and trouble, except when the Lord hath cheered our hearts. If thou wilt continue faithful, thou shalt be blest with a house and land; thou shalt have food and raiment, and no more be persecuted and driven, as thou hast hitherto been. Now, continue faithful, and thou shalt live long and be blessed, and thou shalt receive a reward in heaven. This dying blessing, and also thy patriarchal blessing, I seal upon thy head in the name of Jesus. Even so. Amen.

After this he spoke to me again, and said:—

Mother, do you not know, that you are one of the most singular women in the world? “No,” I replied, “I do not.” Well I do, he continued, you have brought up my children for me by the fireside, and when I was gone from home, you comforted them. You have brought up all my children, and could always comfort them when I could not. We have often wished that we might both die at the same time, but you must not desire to die when I do, for you must stay to comfort the children when I am gone. So do not mourn, but try to be comforted. Your last days shall be your best days, as to being driven, for you shall have more power over your enemies than you have had. Again I say, be comforted.

He then paused for some time, being exhausted. After which he said, in a tone of surprise, “I can see and hear, as well as ever I could.” [A second pause of considerable length] “I see Alvin.” [Third pause.] “I shall live seven or eight minutes.” Then straightening himself, he laid his hands together; after which he began to breathe shorter, and in about eight minutes, his breath stopped, without even a struggle or a sigh, and his spirit took its flight for the regions where the justified ones rest from their labors. He departed so calmly, that, for some time, we could not believe but that he would breathe again.

Catharine did not arrive until the evening of the second day; still we were compelled to attend to his obsequeis the day after his decease, or run the risk of seeing Joseph and Hyrum torn from their father’s corpse before it was interred, and carried away by their enemies to prison. After we had deposited his last remains in their narrow house, my sons fled from the city, and I returned to my desolate home; and I then thought that the greatest grief which it was possible for me to feel, had fallen upon me in the death of my beloved husband. Although that portion of my life which lay before me, seemed to be a lonesome, trackless waste, yet I did not think that I could possibly find, in traveling over it, a sorrow more searching, or a calamity more dreadful, than the present. But, as I hasten to the end of my story, the reader will be able to form an opinion with regard to the correctness of my conclusion.

New Release: “History of the Prophet Joseph by His Mother”

This classic book (just released on Project Gutenberg) is just what it sounds like: Lucy’s dictated history of Joseph’s life. Historians both inside and outside the Church consider it to be a key source. It is especially informative regarding the history of Joseph’s ancestors (chapters 1-9 of 54); his parents, siblings, and childhood (ch. 10-17); and the history of Joseph from the First Vision to the publication of the Book of Mormon and organization of the Church (ch. 18-34). Kirtland and Missouri get most of the balance of the book, with only ch. 52-54 on the whole Nauvoo period.

The most valuable aspect of the book, in my mind, is its discussion of the Smith family and their early inner circle, including the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon; Lucy’s descriptions bring them to life in a unique way. Her perspective as a contemporary inside observer of the earliest days of the Church is invaluable, and that’s really the one-phrase reason to read her book.

Readers may wish to be aware that said book has a complex textual history; long story short, Lucy’s dictated memoirs went through several sets of hands and rounds of revision before the 1902 edition (the base for the version on Project Gutenberg) was produced. I thought the 1902 edition was just fine (obviously), but the Joseph Smith Papers project has the earliest manuscript online for all you intense textual critics, and this BYU Studies piece provides some more information on the history of the book and praises a 1996 edition (probably what I’d buy if I wanted a hardcover) based on the original manuscript and edited by Scot and Maurine Proctor, the good folks over at Meridian magazine.

MTP books in General Conference

Want the gospel knowledge of a general authority? Big surprise: they read classic LDS books, including works we’ve produced and stuff we’re currently working on. Flipping through the citations of April 2014 General Conference talks, I found several familiar books:

  • President Monson, in his talk “Be Strong and of a Good Courage,” quoted the Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt (MTP edition here) at length for the story of Joseph Smith rebuking his guards while imprisoned in MIssouri.
  • Elder Hales, in his talk “If Ye Love Me, Keep My Commandments,” quoted Joseph Fielding Smith’s 1922 Essentials in Church History (MTP edition here) for the story of Martin Harris’ loss of the 116 pages.  
  • Elder Cook, in his talk “Roots and Branches,” cited the History of the Church in his discussion of Moroni’s message to Joseph Smith. MTP interns Jared and Emma are currently working on the first two volumes of History of the Church, and we plan to have the six volumes that are in the public domain done this year.
  • Elder William R. Walker, in his talk “Live True to the Faith,” quoted from Matthias F. Cowley’s book Wilford Woodruff: History of His Life and Labors as Recorded in His Daily Journals for the story of how Wilford Woodruff found the United Brethren and baptized most of them. An MTP volunteer was already at work on this book before conference and it’s currently just over half done.
  • Elder Christofferson, in his talk “The Resurrection of Jesus Christ,” quoted the paragraph from Jesus the Christ (available on PG thanks to Distributed Proofreaders, kindred spirits who beat us to it) where Talmage describes the resurrected Christ’s first interaction with Mary Magdalene.

This just from one scan through the proceedings of one conference, which I doubt was unusual in this regard. So go follow the prophet and read the Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt.

Works of James E. Talmage

James E. Talmage is interesting in that several of his works were actually commissioned and explicitly approved by the Church. Five of his works are now available on Project Gutenberg; we’ve discussed The House of the Lord elsewhere and will discuss the others here. Talmage’s theological influence is immense, and these works are classics.

Jesus the Christ

This is consistently, by far, the most-downloaded LDS book from Project Gutenberg. It’s one of only four books outside Preach My Gospel and the standard works that missionaries are allowed to read. It is authoritative: in Talmage’s words,

The author of this volume entered upon his welcome service under request and appointment from the presiding authorities of the Church; and the completed work has been read to and is approved by the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve. It presents, however, the writer’s personal belief and profoundest conviction as to the truth of what he has written. The book is published by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In this work, Talmage synthesizes the standard works and modern scholarship to produce a comprehensive treatment of Christ’s life that reflects the best of the Church’s understanding. It’s sort of like reading a heavily annotated harmony of the gospels. Though the book is obviously old, very little has changed since its publication; it’s an enduring classic.

The Articles of Faith

Talmage’s preface explains this one pretty well:

The lectures herewith presented have been prepared in accordance with the request and appointment of the First Presidency of the Church. The greater number of the addresses were delivered before the Theology Class of the Church University; and, after the close of the class sessions, the lectures were continued before other Church organizations engaged in the study of theology. To meet the desire expressed by the Church authorities,—that the lectures be published for use in the various educational institutions of the Church,—the matter has been revised, and is now presented in this form.

The author’s thanks are due and are heartily rendered to the members of the committee appointed by the First Presidency, whose painstaking and efficient examination of the manuscript prior to the delivery of the lectures, has inspired some approach to confidence in the prospective value of the book among members of the Church. The committee here referred to consisted of Elders Francis M. Lyman, Abraham H. Cannon, and Anthon H. Lund, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles; Elder George Reynolds, one of the Presidents of the Presiding Quorum of Seventy; Elder John Nicholson, and Dr. Karl G. Maeser.

The lectures are now published by the Church, and with them goes the hope of the author that they may prove of some service to the many students of the scriptures among our people, and to other earnest inquirers into the doctrines and practices of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The Great Apostasy

This book gives a history of the titular subject, with detailed consideration of its hows and whys. It considers the establishment of the Church, predictions of its a general apostasy, external causes of the apostasy such as Roman persecution, internal causes of the apostasy like doctrinal corruption related to Greek philosophy, and finally a discussion of the Reformation and ultimately the Restoration. As in Jesus the Christ, Talmage’s familiarity with the relevant history and extensive citations make it an authoritative work that has aged well.

The Story and Philosophy of Mormonism

Here’s a 1922 blurb about this one (source):

The Story and Philosophy of “Mormonism” – 146 pages. comprising “The Story” as told in addresses at Cornell and Michigan Universities and elsewhere, followed by an address delivered at the Panama-Pacific Exposition, entitled, “The Philosophical Basis of ‘Mormonism.’”

As a compilation of two talks aimed at non-members, this work is shorter and goes into less depth than the others. It’s interesting as a sample of how Talmage explained the Gospel to non-members and as a short historical and doctrinal summary.