In a fitting tribute to the Prophet Joseph Smith, last month on June 27, 2023, the Joseph Smith Papers Project published the final print installment of the landmark documentary editing series. A launch event held at the Church History Library in Salt Lake City celebrated the occasion of the publication of Documents, Volume 15 of the Joseph Smith Papers, which was highlighted by brief comments made by Elders David A. Bednar and Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In attendance was also Elder Kyle S. McKay, a General Authority Seventy and current Church Historian and Recorder; Gail Miller and her husband Kim Wilson, benefactors of the project; Joseph Smith Papers editors and other scholars of the Church History Department; and members of the press and other invited guests. (A fuller account of the event has been reported by Trent Toone with the Church News.)
“This concluding volume of the Documents series of The Joseph Smith Papers details the tumultuous final six weeks of Joseph Smith’s life,” notes the JSP website. “He was assassinated on 27 June 1844 by an armed mob that invaded the Hancock County, Illinois, jail at Carthage. The murder was the culmination of animosities that had developed throughout the early 1840s between the Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo, Hancock County, and their neighbors in and around the county.” The documents featured in the volume “reveal a period filled with lawsuits, accusations, threats, and violence against the Latter-day Saints. During this time, Joseph Smith acted as a judge in various lawsuits and as a defendant in several others. Each lawsuit heightened tensions in the county as critics grew increasingly concerned about the extent of his power in Nauvoo. Meanwhile, a schism widened that had emerged between Joseph Smith and a small group of disaffected Latter-day Saints in the early months of 1844. Conflicts with these men came to a head during June 1844 and ultimately contributed to the murders of Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum.” For those wishing to better understand the final months of Joseph Smith’s life, this new volume of the Joseph Smith Papers will prove invaluable.
The volume features some texts familiar to Latter-day Saints, such as what is now canonized as section 135 of the Doctrine and Covenants—the formal announcement of the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum that was included in that book of scripture right before it went to press in the late summer 1844, just months after the martyrdom. New insights uncovered by the JSP about this text include that although traditionally attributed to John Taylor, who was himself wounded at Carthage Jail on the day of the martyrdom, section 135 was mostly likely a collaborative effort. As the volume editors explain:
The text of the announcement itself is unattributed. During the twentieth century, it became commonplace for Latter-day Saints to attribute the document’s authorship to John Taylor, presumably because he was listed as the publisher and printer of the 1844 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants and was in the jail with JS at the time of his murder.16 But while Taylor likely provided input on the document, evidence suggests it is unlikely he was the sole or even the principal author. Taylor was still convalescing from the wounds he had sustained in the jail when the announcement was written. Owing to the absence of any manuscript copies of this document, it is not clear who wrote this account of the murders. While Willard Richards and John Taylor were witnesses, the text speaks of both men in third person. The wording of the document, however, closely matches phrases and ideas that were previously included in editorials and other accounts of the murders written during late June and early July 1844, including material by Richards and Taylor. Other contributors to these accounts were William W. Phelps and Parley P. Pratt. The document also seems to have drawn ideas from two poems—one composed by Eliza R. Snow and the other by an anonymous writer—in the wake of the murders. (JSP, D15:511.)
Other documents in the volume shed light on Joseph’s thoughts and feelings in his final moments. One of Joseph’s final letters written from the jail on the day of his death was to his wife, Emma, and includes this poignant postscript written in his own hand: “I am very much resigned to my lot knowing I am justified and have done the best that could be done give my love to the children and all my Friends . . . may God bless you all Amen.”
The new volume also features Joseph’s final discourses, such as those given back-to-back on June 16 and 18, 1844. The former, recorded in four audits (by Willard Richards, George Laub, Thomas Bullock, and William McIntire) preserves some of the Prophet’s final teachings on the nature of God, while the latter, preserved in audits made by William Clayton and William McIntire, show a defiant Joseph calling on the people to stand firm against the mobs and to uphold the principles of the United States Constitution.
Documents related to the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor also appear in the new volume, including Joseph’s official mayoral order on June 10, 1844, authorizing the destruction of the Expositor printing press. The legal factors that led to this decision by the Nauvoo City Council, as well as its fallout, are helpfully contextualized by the editors of the volume. (See additionally Joseph I. Bentley’s article from 2016 and this 2021 KnoWhy.)
Those interested in the new print volume of the Joseph Smith Papers would also do well to listen to the latest series in the Joseph Smith Papers Podcast, Road to Carthage. “The episodes focus on the historical events that led to the assassination of the prophet and his brother by a mob, as well as the aftermath of that tragic event.” Narrated by historian Spencer W. McBride, the podcast expertly explains the circumstances that led to the Prophet’s martyrdom, including the volatile political atmosphere in western Illinois and the legal maneuverings of Joseph’s enemies that landed him and Hyrum in Carthage Jail. Besides telling a gripping story, the podcast also gives much-needed context to the final months and days of the Prophet’s life and the aftermath of the martyrdom. Listeners may also be especially intrigued by the interview with President Dallin H. Oaks, who describes his own personal history studying the legal issues surrounding the martyrdom.
About Documents, Volume 15
The fifteenth and last volume in the Documents series, covers the tumultuous final six weeks of Joseph Smith’s life, illuminating especially the events that led to his death. It features one hundred and five documents, representing the core of his documentary output during this period, including his correspondence, accounts of his discourses, administrative minutes, municipal documents, military orders, and legal papers.
Brett D. Dowdle, Adam H. Petty, J. Chase Kirkham, Elizabeth A. Kuehn, David W. Grua, and Matthew C. Godfrey are historians for the Church History Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Quick Facts About the Joseph Smith Papers Project
Series: 7 (Journals, Revelations and Translations, Histories, Legal Records, Financial Records, Documents, Administrative Records)
Journal Entries: 1,306
Earliest Document: 10 March 1827 (Letter from Joel and Levi Thayer to Joseph Smith)
Latest Document: August 1844 (Account of the Murders of Joseph and Hyrum Smith)
Project started: 2001
Initial publication: 2008
Final print volume: 27 June 2023
Total time: 22 years