Reading Spencer W. Kimball Reading Joseph Smith

A good friend of mine and avid Mormon book collector recently apprised me of one of his newer and more impressive acquisitions: Spencer W. Kimball’s personal copy of The Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. As the inscription below (scanned from the opening pages of the book) indicates, it was a gift from his wife, Camilla. (Click on the image to see it full size).

Inscription: "A fathers day gift from your devoted wife"

As I thumbed through the pages, I noticed some (but not an inordinate amount) of underlining and marginalia. This was obviously a book that President Kimball consulted and read regularly and thoroughly. In particular I was struck by what I found in the index. Though otherwise largely devoid of hand written markings, the index did contain a penciled in addendum, next to the entry entitled “Negro, status of the”:

Page numbers for additional relevant passages penciled in.

Here President Kimball notes two additional passages in the book that speak to the question of the status of persons with Black African heritage. The passage noted in the printed, unmodified, version of the index (p. 269) includes the following language:

[T]hey came into the world slaves, mentally and physically. Change their situation with the whites, and they would be like them. They have souls and are subjects of salvation. Go into Cincinnati or any other city, and find an educated Negro, who rides in his carriage, and you will see a man who has risen by the powers of his own mind to his exalted state of respectability.

In addition to this passage, President Kimball notes two other passages. On page 334, Joseph publicly supports emancipation of slaves, with financial compensation for slaveowners, as a way of dealing with the political problems which arise out of the annexation of the Republic of Texas. Additionally, on page 120 Joseph suggests a slightly different sentiment:

"cf. 334"

This dismissal of abolitionism, coming chronologically earlier than the discussion about Texas annexation, merits a small note in the margin, a reference to a passage that contradicts it. It doesn’t read “BUT WHAT ABOUT WHAT YOU SAID HERE?!?!?!?” Just a modest cross-reference.

Now, I am not interested—particularly for the purposes of this post—in Joseph’s specific views on the “status of the Negro,” whether or how they changed or evolved. Neither am I interested in the origins of policies and/or doctrines about race, lineage, and priesthood. What interests me is President Kimball’s perceptions of and attitudes toward such questions, to the extent that they are at all legible in the written evidence of his engagement with this particular collection of statements attributed to Joseph Smith. One can’t extrapolate much here, but I do believe that a couple of modest conclusions can be reasonably, if tentatively, inferred:

1) The status of dark-complexioned persons with African heritage was very much on the mind of President Kimball, and he was very interested in what Joseph Smith thought about it. With the resources he had available to him, he carefully and thoroughly sought to understand the mind of the Prophet on this question.

2) He read Joseph’s teaching respectfully and deferentially, but also just a wee bit critically. He really cared what Joseph said, but he also noticed and pointed out contradictions. It is entirely reasonable to suggest that President Kimball believed that even Joseph’s understanding of this question—an incredibly salient political, social, and moral question of the moment—evolved and changed with time.

I won’t count this as a conclusion, since it is clearly (though, I believe, responsibly) speculative in nature, but I would imagine that learning, on the one hand, that Joseph believed the things spoken of in the first passage quoted above (“Change their situation with the whites, and they would be like them”), and, on the other hand, that Joseph’s understanding and attitude toward these questions evolved over the course of his ministry as Prophet would have had a significant impact on President Kimball’s own ministry as he attempted to deal with this issue at the highest levels of Church administration.


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    That is really, really interesting, Brad.

  2. Huh.

  3. Thanks for sharing, Brad. Very interesting. How firm is the provenance of the book?

  4. Velikiye Kniaz says:

    I think it germane to remember that President Kimball already had a very long association with another people of color, the Native Americans. Through his ministry to them, he came to love and cherish the “Lamanites” and was very empathetic with the problems and challenges they faced as they tried to find their place in the modern world. Certainly, as he involved himself in programs which he hoped would advance the status of the Native Americans, he also encountered the entrenched prejudices that many whites held against them. Perhaps this experience helped to ‘set the stage’ for President Kimball’s increasing awareness and concern with the plight of African Americans not only in this country, but those who wished embrace the Restored Gospel throughout the world. My 60’s generation might put it that God did some “consciousness raising” with President Kimball. But to his credit, Spencer Kimball was a kind man with a tender heart and empathy, love and concern came naturally to him. At the time I was baptised, the “negro policy” troubled me but I had also just received what was to me a powerful spiritual witness of the truthfulness of the Restoration and decided to take the policy ‘on faith’. Being one quarter Hispanic and living in New England at the time, my color didn’t seem to trouble the missionaries that taught me. It was only decades later through some diligent genealogical research that I found out about my own Native American and African American heritage. So you see I “passed” and was ordained to the Priesthood as any other male convert would be, except that I got under the wire so to speak. This was during the time President Kimball was
    fully engaged in his ministry to the Native Americans. In retrospect, I believe that God chose His man and patiently prepared him to be the prophet who finally ended this policy. We mortal Saints weren’t aware of it at the time because God’s vision is far broader than ours, and He saw the big picture.

  5. Cool.

  6. Rob, it’s pretty airtight.

  7. I love the personal conversation SWK seemed to be having with Joseph by addressing him with “what YOU said here” and not with “what IT said here.”

  8. Neat.

  9. I love that, Ardis.

  10. Cool. Thanks for sharing, Brad.

  11. This is fascinating and also sheds light on Kimball’s later doctrine. Wow.

  12. *Very* interesting. Nice find!

  13. Echoing all the previous exclamations of what a cool find this is. Nice glimpse into his personal reading and study habits.

  14. jJulie M. Smith says:

    Very interesting. I love that he was reading critically and not passively.

  15. Yes, Julie. For him reading critically was a part of reading faithfully, of genuinely seeking understanding.

  16. Neato.

  17. Brad, after spending some more time with the book, I would like to add an observation.

    As you noted, there is a fair amount of underlining, highlighting and marginalia found throughout. Most of the highlighting was performed using a thick red pencil or red crayon of some sort. The underlining was accomplished using either a standard pencil or a red colored pencil. President Kimball clearly spent a significant amount of time reading this book and thinking about what the Prophet Joseph had to say about a number of different topics.

    On page 22 of the book, however, something stands out. On pages 20-22 of the book there is reprinted the text of a letter written by Joseph Smith to a Brother Carter, dated April 13, 1833. A portion of that letter on page 22 appears to be the only passage of the book that is both highlighted in red and underlined. Other passages are either underlined or highlighted, but not both.

    The text of the Carter letter that is both highlighted and underlined — presumably by President Kimball — follows:

    “And again, we never inquire at the hand of God for special revelation, only in case of there being no previous revelation to suit the case; and that in a council of High Priests. * * *
    It is a great thing to inquire at the hands of God, or to come into His presence; and we feel fearful to approach Him on subjects that are of little or no consequence, to satisfy the queries of individuals, especially about things the knowledge of which men ought to obtain in all sincerity, before God, for themselves, in humility by the prayer of faith; and more especially a teacher or a High Priest in the Church. I speak these things not by way of reproach, but by way of instruction; and I speak as if acquainted with you, whereas we are strangers to each other in the flesh.”

    In light of what occurred in June of 1978, I get chills every time I read that quote and see the hand of President Kimball upon it.

  18. Outstanding, Cris.

  19. Cool post – and great addition in #17.

    Thank you, both.

  20. Here is the JSPP image and transcript of the JS letter to John Sims Carter, April 13, 1833.

  21. Very interesting post, and very interesting additions! Great contributions, all.

  22. #17: Chris,
    I have not read or seen this book. Any chance two people were reading it? Say, his wife or son?

  23. It would be interesting (but probably impossible) to know when Bro. Kimball made these notes. The inscription says that he received the book in 1942. He was called as an apostle in 1943, was made president in 1973, and of course announced the priesthood revelation in 1978. I wonder when he started his critical reading of the issue.

  24. Bob, that’s a possibility when it comes to the highlighting or underlining. The marginalia, however, can be pretty reliably identified as President Kimball’s handwriting.

    CE, I would love to know when the notes were made as well. Anytime after 1942 and some time before his death is the best I can do to bracket it. Ed Kimball’s account of the Revelation on the Priesthood (appears in BYU Studies Vol. 47, No. 2, and in the cd-rom content of “Lengthen Your Stride”) indicates that these issues were on his mind well before 1973, perhaps as early as 1963 (as evidenced by a letter written by Spencer to Ed that addresses the topic) or even earlier.

  25. T]hey came into the world slaves, mentally and physically. Change their situation with the whites, and they would be like them. They have souls and are subjects of salvation. Go into Cincinnati or any other city, and find an educated Negro, who rides in his carriage, and you will see a man who has risen by the powers of his own mind to his exalted state of respectability. One of my favorite quotes.

  26. Chris Kimball says:

    Here’s an example of the difficulty of doing history. I checked with my father Edward Kimball, who is Spencer Kimball’s son, about the provenance of The Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith that you are looking at. He says the inscription is genuine and it is Spencer Kimball’s book, but the handwritten numbers in the index are almost certainly notes he (Edward Kimball) added when he borrowed the book while on his mission. Questions that are indicated or suggested by those notes are among those Edward Kimball corresponded about with his father Spencer Kimball, and some of that correspondence appears in his book Lengthen Your Stride, The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball. However, it would be misleading to read Spencer Kimball’s interests or attention into the handwritten numbers in the index.

    On the other hand, the underlining and highlighting in red pencil or red crayon is typical of the way Spencer Kimball marked his books, and in any event is not Edward Kimball’s marking.

  27. Thanks for taking the time to give us some context, Chris.

  28. Those are interesting details, Chris; and I like the idea that, given the fact that Spencer Kimball clearly read and contemplated the passages in question (and read them against each other), his attention to the passages indicated by the handwritten numbers in the index was derived from conversations he was having with his son on the topic (specifically, the topic of what JSJ thought about people of different ethnoancestral heritage).

  29. Chris, thank you for the clarification. I hope you’ll let your father know how much many of us appreciate the work he has done in preserving and documenting the lives of your grandfather, grandmother, and now your great grandfather. No one else has been able to tell their stories as ably as he. I also appreciate very much his writings on this incredibly important juncture in church history. He has performed a tremendous service, which I, for one, am extremely grateful.

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