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.

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

  1. Pingback: Year in Review: 44 E-Books Released Thanks to Volunteers, Donors | The Mormon Texts Project

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