Memories. Mysteries Solved. Mysteries Made. Wilford Woodruff’s “Book of Revelations.”

When Charles W. Nibley[1] was eleven he came to Utah and settled with his family in the Cache Valley. From the start, Nibley had a knack for business and became successful in retail, lumber, and land. When he was a teenager, Nibley met Ira Ames, an early 1830s convert to Mormonism and he loved to listen to Ames tell stories about the early days of Mormonism. Late in life, Nibley related a incident where Ames told the story of being out on the streets of Kirtland, Ohio one night when he saw Sidney Rigdon walking by. Rigdon stopped and spoke to Ames and told him he had just come from witnessing a long and glorious vision (D&C 76). He told Ames of the beautiful vision. Nibley carried this experience to his grave as one of the more memorable scenes of his youth. There was a problem though. Ames was not in Ohio in February 1832 when the vision occurred, he wasn’t even a Mormon—and Rigdon was living in Hiram, Ohio when he experienced the shattering vision. Nibley felt humbled and strengthened by a fiction.

I tell this story to bring up something about the ways we tend to uncritically pass along stories and anecdotes from our families and our Church history.[2]

Charles Nibley at 24. Courtesy, Utah State University Library.

I don’t expect that everyone will do due diligence with stories they have received from their family history but that diligence can sometimes be not just revealing, even shocking, but very useful.[3]

One classic source book for Joseph Smith’s 1839 preaching is known as “Willard Richards’ Pocket Companion Written in England.” A Pocket Companion was a commercially produced notebook. Richards’s little book has reports of Joseph Smith’s instruction to the LDS apostles prior to their joint mission to England in 1839. You can read some transcripts here, and you can read the complete original here.

The “written in England” has puzzled historians for some time. Richards was not an eyewitness to Joseph Smith’s preaching, yet the notebook bears marks of being an actual audit and the material was widely copied and parts were published. What was Richards’s source? The mystery was quietly solved in 2010. The following paragraph is a paraphrase from a source note in the recently released volume 6 in Joseph Smith Papers series, Documents.

Wilford Woodruff, photo by Charles R. Savage. Courtesy Harold B. Lee Library, BYU. How did he keep his hair? Taken the year before the Manifesto.


In the summer of 1839, Wilford Woodruff began copying into a small volume some of Joseph Smith’s revelations regarding the duties of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and Smith’s instructions for their upcoming mission to Europe. Aside from a later 1839 discourse by Parley P. Pratt, no further entries were made until 1841. The volume was perhaps transferred with Woodruff’s other papers and journals to the Church Historian’s Office by 1858, but in 1860 Woodruff used the volume to record bids to provide grain for the soldiers stationed at Camp Floyd that year. The volume appears in church inventories by 1878. At some point after 1878, the record was given to his wife Sarah Brown Woodruff and was then passed down through the family until it was donated to church historian and recorder Joseph Fielding Smith sometime in the mid-twentieth century. Smith apparently retained the volume among his papers, and it likely became part of the First Presidency’s papers when Smith became church president in 1970, as happened with other historical records in his possession. In 2010 the First Presidency transferred custody of Woodruff’s “Book of Revelations” to the Church History Library.[4] Richards’s source was very clearly Woodruff’s little volume.

But there was more. As noted, Woodruff began using the volume again in 1841. During the winter of 1840-41, Joseph Smith participated in a Lyceum for the Nauvoo area. Lyceums were popular adult education efforts that were organized in many provincial towns generally focused on Natural Philosophy or Natural History. Joseph used the Nauvoo Lyceum to speculate at the interface of science and religion. Here’s an example. These 1841 meetings hinted at Joseph Smith’s maturing picture of the Divine (God was a resurrected being!) that most people see for the first time in the King Follett Sermon. Woodruff’s little book gives us a deeper insight into Joseph Smith thinking on God. It is, in effect, a source document for the Follett sermon, but it it much more:

Joseph the Seer taught the following principl that the God & father of our Lord Jesus Christ was once the same as the Son or Holy Ghost but having redeemed a world he had a son Jesus Christ who redeemed this earth the same as his father had a world which made them equal & the HHoly Ghost would to the same when in his turn & so would all the Saints who inherited a Celestial glory so their would be Gods many & Lords many their were many mansions even 12 from the abode of Devils to the Celestial glory

Woodruff’s little content audit of Joseph Smith’s speech in the winter of 1841 leads one to sympathize with Heber C. Kimball’s idea of multiple probations. Did Joseph rethink his ideas about reincarnation?

Thanks to the First Presidency for allowing Woodruff’s little volume to come to light. It solves a mystery, and creates one, like the best sleuthing often does. Better yet, you can pursue “The Book of Revelations” yourself, here.

—————-
[1] Nibley became a close friend and confidant to Joseph F. Smith, who appointed him Presiding Bishop in 1907. In 1925 at the death of Anthony W. Ivins, counselor to Heber J. Grant, Nibley became part of the First Presidency.

[2] You may have noticed that one of the recent General Conference speakers repeated the old Symonds Ryder tale of apostasy over having his name misspelled in a revelation. Like a number of other popular stories, this one is essentially wrong.

[3] I’ll give an example from my own family. For many years I recall my mother telling me about her grandmother, how she had such bad luck with husbands, and was married in a polygamous relationship that went bad. In Church records, my great grandmother shows four marriages. A while ago, I got curious about some of those records. Some inconsistencies were present and I had trouble locating documents to verify the family history. I dug in. It turns out my great grandmother was married three times and the supposed polygamous marriage was adultery with a roving gambler—with whom she had a child (not my grandmother as it happens). The gambler served time in jail for the adultery—that happened in those days. My great grandmother was under house arrest. It got even more exciting from there but I won’t go into that now. It deserves a post all its own.

[4] More on the volume from JSP, D6: Wilford Woodruff, “Book of Revelations,” [ca. 23 Dec. 1837–1860]; handwriting of Wilford Woodruff and Asahel H. Woodruff; 107 pages; CHL. Includes shorthand, drawings, redactions, and use marks. Blank book measuring 6 × 4 × ⅜ inches (15 × 10 × 1 cm). At some point, the first leaf of the text block and the two leaves of endpaper at the beginning of the volume were excised from the volume. Ink is visible on the stub of the first leaf of the text block, indicating that at least the recto of that leaf contained text. The wear on the stubs suggests that the pages were cut from the volume while it was still in use. The remainder of the text block consists of fifty-five leaves, followed by two sheets of endpaper at the back of the volume. The book has a tight-back, quarter binding with cow leather. The remainder of the boards have been covered with yellow paper. Woodruff inscribed “Book of Revelations | W Woodruff” on the front cover of the volume.

Mark Ashurst-McGee, David W. Grua, Elizabeth A. Kuehn, Brenden W. Rensink, and Alexander L. Baugh, eds., Documents, Vol. 6: February 1838–August 1839 Vol. 6 in the Joseph Smith Papers series (Salt Lake City: The Church Historian’s Press, 2017). This volume exhibits the kind of care and expertise that sets an example in documentary editing that will rarely be exceeded in quality.

Comments

  1. Matt Godfrey says:

    Nice write-up. In terms of the anecdote you begin with, I think Nibley got confused with what Ames told him. Ames wrote in his autobiography that in December 1833, he went to Joseph Smith’s house in Kirtland one morning and “found Joseph and Oliver Cowdry at breakfast.” Cowdery then told Ames and Martin Harris, who was with him, “Good morning Brethren, we have just received news from heaven.” The news from heaven was what is now Section 101 of the Doctrine and Covenants. (See Documents, Volume 3, of the JSP, p. 388.) It seems this incident is probably what Ames told Nibley about.

  2. Thanks, Matt. I’m sure there was a mix up at some point in the chain. Just where it was, is the question. Nibley was pretty insistent about what he heard. But then, memory is the point. Thanks for Docs 3 reference. I looked up the Ames bio way back when I read Nibley. It’s a good one.

  3. That last quote is unreal and pretty spicy!

    Bill, this is significant. The WW book (I got to see it myself) has a pretty interesting provenance. I wonder if it ever should have been in the FP vault, to be honest. Seems like it was only there because JFS had it in his possession.

  4. J. Stapley says:

    Bill, this is one of my favorite bits that has come out of the JSPP. Thank you for the excellent context. Really well done.

  5. Steve, I’m really curious as to what JFS thought of it. Did he see it as controversial? I think he may have.

  6. Thanks, J.

  7. Where can I find more about Heber C Kimball’s idea of multiple probations?

  8. DavidC, Here’s one of Kimball’s statements and a discussion of some of the issues. You will see how Woodruff’s report plays into that.

  9. As others have said, that quote is one spicy meatball!

    And I’m glad that I’ve learned to read the footnotes on WVS posts. Hidden treasures.

  10. Great post with lots of fascinating information. It is always interesting to see examples of the weird ways memory works (and fails). And I really appreciate all the details (and links) about the newly released Woodruff volume.