long ago ideas

“When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago." - Friedrich Nietzsche. Long ago, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery conquered false claims that the Book of Mormon was fiction or that it came through a stone in a hat. But these old claims have resurfaced in recent years. To conquer them again, we have to return to what Joseph and Oliver taught.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Wentworth letter

If we were living in the United States in 1842, right about now we'd be receiving our copy of the March 1, 1842, Times and Seasons. This issue contains the Wentworth letter, which contains the Articles of Faith.

You can find this issue online here: http://www.centerplace.org/history/ts/v2n09.htm

You can also see the entire letter here: https://www.lds.org/ensign/2002/07/the-wentworth-letter?lang=eng.

There's an excellent historical introduction here: http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/church-history-1-march-1842/1#historical-intro

I have a 40-page chapter on the Wentworth Letter in my upcoming book, The Editors: Joseph, William, and Don Carlos Smith. We're going to release it at the conference on April 6.

Here's an excerpt from that chapter:

The Wentworth letter relates to the authorship of the 900 words because it is a crucial piece of evidence regarding Joseph Smith’s thinking at a critical time. Recall that the thank-you note to John Bernhisel was written and mailed in November, 1841. This is the note that supposedly endorsed a Mesoamerican setting for the Book of Mormon. If Joseph had anything to do with the Bernhisel note (which I don’t think he did), than one would expect him to be consistent in March 1842. Instead of explicitly rejecting Orson Pratt’s hemispheric model, Joseph would have embraced it, or at least limited it to Central America. He could have condensed it and still kept Pratt’s original concept.
But he didn’t. 

Instead, he replaced it with the clarification that the “remnant” of the Book of Mormon people are “the Indians who now inhabit this country.”

Because this point is so crucial, some promoters of the Mesoamerican theory have insisted that when Joseph wrote to Mr. Wentworth and referred to “this country,” he actually meant all of North and South America. That debate is beyond the scope of this book, but there are plenty of online references for anyone interested in following it. 

For my purposes here, it seems unlikely that Joseph was thinking about how someone trying to promote a Mesoamerican setting in the twenty-first century might interpret the phrase. He was writing to a fellow resident of Illinois, knowing the article was intended for publication in the United States. Certainly Mr. Wentworth would understand the phrase to refer to the country in which he and Joseph both lived. If Joseph wanted to convey a hemispheric idea to Wentworth, he would have written “the Indians who live in North and South America” or similar words.

The Wentworth letter is an amazing accomplishment, and not only because of the Articles of Faith. It is a succinct explanation of the history of the Church and Joseph's own experiences.


Where you can't see the entire letter is in the lesson manual Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith. The reason: the manual edited the Wentworth letter to omit Joseph's explanation that the Lamanites are the American Indians living in "this country."

I discussed the Wentworth letter here, in the context of Orson Pratt's pamphlet about Church history: http://www.lettervii.com/2016/08/letter-vii-in-histories-volume-1.html

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