Joseph Smith’s 19th century Utah editors held him in high regard, not necessarily for his personal perfection, but for his standing as opener of ancient mysteries, restorer of forgotten salvific lore and authoritative purveyor of power to defeat death, hell and the Devil.
The early historians sometimes winked at the humanity of Joseph while he lived, or at least saw that humanity as irrelevant in the mythic events of the beginning of Mormonism. And they played out that approach as they produced the official history of his era. Passion for accuracy and completeness melded with that conviction of momentous divinely ordained events to give a history of Smith that told the religious message of restoration, but essentially left out the sometimes painful or just mundane details that filled the spaces between devotional landmarks.
Here I just want to point out a couple of very small examples in this process of (what I consider to be honest) myth-building. On Sunday May 12, 1844, Joseph took the “stand” near the Nauvoo temple with his old polyglot New Testament. He preached a sermon that followed the “crisis pattern,” found in previous times when upheaval within and danger from without stalked him and his people. Marked by supportive revelation in those earlier crises, like the current LDS D&C 113, this time a sermon would contextualize Joseph as Prophet Foretold. Reiterating his King Follett text of foreordination to dispensational leadership, passages like Rev. 14:6-7 and Matt. 24:14 would be read as referring to Joseph himself and hence verifying his own and the faith of Saints who believed him, having found solace in the new revelation of Mormonism. But the point here is textual adjustment for sometimes subtle purpose, so let’s get to it.
Below are some excerpts (left column) of Thomas Bullock’s report of the May 12 sermon, and on the right the form those excerpts took in the history produced in 1855-6 Utah. Much of the change here was probably the work of George A. Smith, but may also be due to Bullock himself. Whoever pressed these changes, they were approved by the church presidency in 1856.
|God will always protect me. I calculate to be one of the Instruments of setting up the Kingdom of Daniel, by the word of the Lord, and I intend to revolutionize the whole world||God will always protect me until my mission is fufilled, I calculate to be one of the Instruments of setting up the Kingdom of Daniel, by the word of the Lord, and I intend to lay a foundation that will revolutionize the whole world|
This text shows Joseph’s devotion to the “stone cut out without hands” narrative of Daniel 2 and his placement of himself and the Latter-day Saints in that narrative. The portions in red represent the additions of the 1850s. The first change seems clearly to represent a protective motive, adjusting the statement to fit the facts as well as tradition that strengthened over time: he had clearly prophesied that his lease on life was not permanent and would soon be up. The second insertion does essentially the same thing. Joseph would not see the project completed and hindsight was clear. He should be made to see that. The second change is a rather subtle one and polishes the presentation.
Another segment of the same sermon:
|he that arms himself with Gun, sword, or Pistol will some time be sorry for it – I never carry any thing bigger than my Pen Knife||he that arms himself with gun, sword, or pistol except in the defense of truth, will some time be sorry for it – I never carry any weapon with me bigger than my penknife|
The changes here may represent the editor’s concern with Joseph’s death. Joseph was given a pistol in Carthage Jail and he used it at least to some effect. Of course it echoes the NT proverb as well as other events in Mormonism.
Finally this interesting passage:
|I have an order of things to save the poor fellows at any rate, and get them saved for I will send men to preach to them in prison and save them if I can. There is baptism &c for those who are alive, and baptism for the dead, all who died without the knowledge of the gospel||I have an order of things to save the poor fellows at any rate, and get them saved; for I will send men to preach to them in prison, and save them if I can. There are mansions for those who obey a celestial law – and there are other mansions for those who come short of that law; every man in his own order. There is baptism &c for those to exercise who are alive, and baptism for the dead who died without the knowledge of the gospel|
Here the editor’s add significant phrasing. Uncritical use in the past has suggested that it meant Joseph supplied independent support for the statement of D&C 131:1. It is not likely that allusions were made in either direction.
There are a number of other interesting instances in the sermon, some involving commonly quoted passages that are attributed to Joseph Smith. A lesson for all editors I suppose. Beware of making the text so clever that people quote you instead of the author. <grin>
[I should note that the above analysis and the texts themselves are preliminary and are part of a rather interesting puzzle that surrounds this sermon. The complete story will certainly be much longer and no doubt about as interesting as watching paint dry for most people. But me being a text junky means you’ll have to live with more of this.]