James Adams. Part 2. Aspects of the Sermon.

For part 1, see here.

The late summer and early fall of 1843 was not a healthy time in Nauvoo. Philadelphia had yellow fever in the summer (and it emptied the town) and Nauvoo had malaria. If you could survive a year, the general weakness would usually subside and you had a good chance of staying alive. But the elderly and the very young had a more guarded prognosis. Often, malaria teamed up with pneumonia or cholera or some other bug to take out even the robust. In James Adams’ case, cholera got the blame for his August 11 demise:

[James Adams] died about 10 o clock P.M. None of his family are here having only been sent for a few days & they are at Springfield It is truly afflicting to see the sickness which exists through the city and the loss of this man seems very grievous. He attended the polls on Monday last and was elected Probate Judge for this County but he is gone to receive his reward in the other world.

This note from William Clayton’s record of Adams’ death is interesting on several counts. The inevitability of death, steamrolling through mortal plans, was representative of common attitudes in antebellum America. Funeral sermons of the era played on these fatalistic attitudes and even school writing exercises show a kind of dreariness that today seems utterly morbid.[1] Joseph Smith’s sermons stood away from this pattern in part.

A number of these sermons address parts of “the problem of evil” and his sermon for Adams is one of these. Smith posits that the existential problem of evil at least may be addressed by two facts (I’m not arguing for their adequacy here and I want to avoid a technical discussion in the post).

(1) The mortal world is only a small part of human existence, which extends before and after the mortal experience.

(2) The circumstances of mortal life were agreed to by the participants in the preexistence, suggesting that whatever pain and suffering is encountered in human life is according to the “designs and purposes of God.” The sermon does not however explain those purposes.

In his sermon for Adams, Joseph does offer that in some ways comfort is to be found in gospel ordinances and in answer to prayer. The archetype may have been more detailed in its discussion of evil, but it does not seem to address the reasons for the type of pain and suffering which seems to bear no relation to any test of faith.[2]

Conditions in Nauvoo were bad enough that Joseph did not address the death of his friend and father figure until October and public reports of the address were even further delayed because the Times and Seasons printshop staff were all ill for several weeks beyond the sermon’s date. They would eventually publish the sermon under a September date as a part of an out of order printing of October conference minutes in their catch-up efforts.[3]

Some interesting excerpts of the sermon follow. In the first, note the school boy exercise reference:

All men know that all men must die.–What is the object of our coming into existence then dying and falling away to be here no more? This is a subject we ought to study more than any other. which we ought to study day and night.–If we have any claim on our heavenly father for any thing it is for knowledge on this important subject [Willard Richards’ notes.]

The expectation of knowledge here sets up his listeners for some punchlines. Here are a few:

He remarked that the disappointment of hopes and expectations at the resurrection, would be indescribably dreadful [Gustavus Hills report}

This interesting passage is paradoxical in a sense. It suggests that those ignorant of the principles of salvation (perhaps a sort of prideful ignorance is implied) in mortality would find their misguided hopes or conceptions unfulfilled on resurrection day. What of salvation for the dead? This question is rather complicated, and so I won’t get into it here.

Joseph addresses the fate of his friend in a specific way in the sermon, appealing to Hebrews 12 and its “just men made perfect.” Joseph assigns these persons a particular role in the restoration which is somewhat mysterious: they are the bearers of the power of heavenly knowledge (as well as priesthood keys it seems) to mortals. Moreover, Adams is assigned to this important cavalry of salvation.

It was the established order of the kingdom of God–the keys of power and knowledge were with them [spirits of just men made perfect] to communicate to the saints–hence the importance of understanding the distinction between the spirits of the just, and angels. Spirits can only be revealed in flaming fire, or glory. Angels have advanced farther–their light and glory being tabernacled, and hence appear in bodily shape. [Hills report.]

The implication here is that the teachings of the temple liturgy are sourced from the spirits of the just men (I’m leaving out some relevant quotes here). The oft repeated teaching (by Joseph) of D&C 129 is relevant and not just by analogy (I’m going to post on this section sometime – maybe).

One more quote:

Concerning brother James Adams, he remarked, that it should appear strange that so good and so great a man was hated. The deceased ought never to have had an enemy. But so it was, wherever light shone, it stirred up darkness. Truth and error, good and evil, cannot be reconciled [Hills]

Joseph’s acknowledgement of Adams’ political enemies together with a bit of hyperbole about Adams’ character demonstrates the loyalty he felt for his friend. Our good friends sometimes are willing to see us through a glass, darkly. Not in true ignorance, but in that tolerance found in the bonds of friendship. And that is a pleasant fact of life.

If you would like to read some reports of the sermon, you can find such here.

Part 3 is here.

[1] Surviving primary school copybooks, over and over, contain phrases like “Remember, life is short,” “all men must die,” “you may die tomorrow” or “death will take whom it will.” At least one of Joseph’s sermons reads a bit like a string of such sayings.

[2] Joseph does address the suffering of innocents elsewhere and his answers are interesting, but certainly incomplete.

[3] Contemporary imprints of Joseph’s sermons were comparatively rare.


  1. Good stuff, WVS. The school copybooks point is, I think, one that Farrell in his Inventing the American Way of Death gets at pretty well as being part of an overall cultural positioning as well as the transition away from it.

    Spirits can only be revealed in flaming fire, or glory. Angels have advanced farther–their light and glory being tabernacled, and hence appear in bodily shape.

    I don’t know why, but this is one that I have overlooked in the past. Very interesting. Hard to perhaps reconcile with later comments from others about spirits, but insightful nonetheless.

    Is there going to be a part 3, because I find Smith’s pointing to the temple liturgy as an individual’s source for answers to the problem of evil to be one of my favorite aspects of the sermon.

  2. Farrell is a good one. Lewis Saum’s American Quarterly article from way back in 1974 is still a good reference too.

    The thing about spirits is interesting in light of the huge folk literature on spirits in Mormonism. Part 3, I’ve been thinking about something to get out before conference.

  3. Great post. (consider “malaria” as the modern name for “ague”–miliaria sounds like a merger of “miliary tuberculosis” and malaria). Cholera per se (V. cholerae) was probably not a major player in 1843–the second big spike in the US was 1849. I suspect they were using cholera in the vague sense of cholera morbus, which we might now call enterocolitis and brings to mind things like Salmonella, Shigella, Toxigenic E. coli, and the like. I agree that the taxonomy of angels in the 1840s is fascinating–JSJ starts to tease us with some hints of a minor taxonomy. Not quite Swedenborgian.

  4. Hehe. Spellcheck having a field day there, not my fault, really. Miliaria: a fever accompanied by eruption of small pimple-like lesions. Not malaria at all… I agree, cholera got named for lots of stuff resulting from poor hygiene and waste disposal.

%d bloggers like this: