Sunday, November 6, 2016

1842 Bernhisel letters released by JSP

The 1842 documents recently released by the Joseph Smith Papers include 3 new Bernhisel letters. One is from Joseph to Dr. Bernhisel. Two are from Bernhisel to Joseph. In all three cases, the salutation is to Brother, not Dear Sir.

This is awesome.

Better than I expected. I didn't know we'd get more Bernhisel letters, and these three confirm the pattern that I previously identified.

The letters are found here:

I realize this is a relatively obscure point of evidence, but it corroborates a very important point in Church history that refutes the basic assumption long held by Church historians that Joseph Smith wrote a November 16, 1841, letter to Dr. Bernhisel.

I'm going to digress here a moment to explain how this relates to Book of Mormon geography.

In addition, it refutes a longstanding argument made by the advocates of the Mesoamerican theory of Book of Mormon geography.

Mesoamerican advocates frequently cite a November 16, 1841, letter* purporting to be from Joseph Smith to Dr. Bernhisel, a Church leader in New York. The letter is a thank-you note, recognizing the two John Lloyd Stephens books that Bernhisel gave to Wilford Woodruff to deliver to Joseph Smith. Because the note claims the books support the testimony of the Book of Mormon, Mesoamerican advocates argue the note is evidence that Joseph Smith 1) read the Stephens books and 2) embraced them as evidence for the Mesoamerican setting for the Book of Mormon.

Of course, that assertion is a stretch on its face, but the key point is, there is no evidence that Joseph wrote, dictated, or even saw the letter. No one knows who actually wrote the letter because the handwriting has never been identified.

Those who have read my book The Editors: Joseph, William and Don Carlos Smith have seen my chapter on the November 1841 Bernhisel letter. I take the position that Wilford Woodruff drafted the letter and had the unidentified person write it out in final draft. I reference several categories of evidence.

One category is the salutation. When I wrote the book, I had only 7 letters between Joseph and Dr. Bernhisel. In all but the November 16, 1841, letter, Joseph and Bernhisel address each other as Brother.

The November 16, 1841, letter instead uses the salutation Dear Sir, which is how Woodruff addressed every subsequent letter he wrote to Bernhisel.

IOW, the November 16 letter is an outlier.

The just-released 1842 Bernhisel letters confirm the pattern between Joseph and Bernhisel, as they are addressed "Dear Brother" and "Dr & respected Brother."

I already considered it a high probability that Wilford Woodruff wrote the November 16th letter, but now the probability is even higher.

This is a significant development in understanding Church history that hopefully will be recognized in future papers and books that discuss the Bernhisel letter.

*The relevant portion of the letter reads:

I received your kind present by the hand of Er. [sic] Woodruff & feel myself under many obligations for this mark of your esteem & friendship which to me is the more interesting as it unfolds & developes [sic] many things that are of great importance to this generation & corresponds with & supports the testimony of The Book of Mormon; I have read the volumnes [sic] with the greatest interest & pleasure & must say that of all histories that have been written pertaining to the antiquities of this country it is the most correct luminous & comprehensive.—

Saturday, November 5, 2016

1842 Benjamin Winchester letter

Readers of my books know that one of my assertions has been that Benjamin Winchester was mailing articles from Philadelphia to William Smith in Nauvoo, who was editing the Wasp in Nauvoo. I have also proposed that William was editing the Times and Seasons.

Recently the Joseph Smith Papers announced some new material on their website. Among the material was a letter from Benjamin Winchester to the First Presidency, dated August 8, 1842.

Here's the link:

I hadn't seen this before today. This is highly significant because now we know Benjamin mailed at least this letter to Nauvoo exactly in the time frame in which I had proposed he was mailing articles and extracts to Nauvoo. This isn't proof that he wrote the anonymous articles, as I have proposed based on a number of facts itemized in The Lost City of Zarahemla and Brought to Light, but it is a nice confirmation of one of my basic proposals.

I think it's also significant to see the familiarity he has with the First Presidency. He is short and to the point. He is almost demanding that they take the action he wants, supporting his demand with a vote of 500 to 0.

The letter involves George Adams, who is the subject of the August Times and Seasons articles I think Winchester wrote under the pseudonym "Q" as explained in my books. Even in this brief letter, he refers to the "great excitement on the subject of our holy religion," the exact kind of exaggeration ans zeal typical of "Q" and Winchester's other writings.

Of course, I still hope someday we find a cover letter from Winchester to William Smith that accompanies the anonymous articles...


Unfortunately, the Joseph Smith Papers made a mistake (or oversight) in the biographical summary of Benjamin Winchester, here: They say he arrived in Nauvoo by 12 November 1841, but we know he was there at least on October 31, 1841, because of the disciplinary council he faced on that date. I'll send a suggested correction and see if they incorporate it.

Here's Winchester's letter in the original and as transcribed:

 Aug 8th [1842]
To the first presidency of [the churc]h at 
This is to certify that [upon] [conve]ning a vote was called in a congregation of more than five hundred to express their desire that   should [re]turn to this   to preach and there was not, a dissenting voice
For my own part I thought it altogether advisable for him to return immediately for there is now a great excitement on the subject of of our holy religion and a prospect of bringing scores into the kingdom

Tuesday, June 21, 2016


The Juvenile Instructor blog is keeping up with newly digitized sources here. This is a very helpful resource for historians.

BYU has also made the journals of James E. Talmage, from 1879-1911, available here.

11 Documents: Joseph Smith and Book of Mormon geography, Part 1

[cross-posted from]

In 2007, Andrew Hedges published an excellent article in the Mormon Historic Sites journal that discusses the 11 "particularly noteworthy" documents generated during Joseph Smith's lifetime that pertain to Book of Mormon geography. Brother Hedges states that "These are documents that were generated during Joseph Smith’s lifetime, and that Joseph at least allowed, in one way or another, to be associated with his name in significant ways." None of these documents are holographic (in Joseph's handwriting) and none bear Joseph's actual signature.

Brother Hedges writes, "In the absence of any holographic material from Joseph, or a clear understanding about how each letter and document was generated and reviewed, the most that we can safely conclude is that Joseph allowed his name to be attached to them without later offering any sort of correction to them. Whether he completely agreed with everything they contained or not is impossible to say."

The idea that Joseph allowed all these articles to be associated with his name has long been the consensus view. However, new evidence made available since 2007, primarily through the Joseph Smith Papers, has given us more understanding about how these letters and documents were generated and reviewed. Based on my research, I think the consensus about Joseph's involvement with many of these items is inaccurate. I think most historians will agree when they examine the evidence. 

Brother Hedges divided the documents into three categories.

Ambiguous Texts: Indians and the American Continent

The Plains of the Nephites and the Hill Cumorah

Stephens’ Incidents of Travel and the Times and Seasons

Here I'll briefly discuss the first category. In subsequent posts, I'll explore the remaining two categories, and eventually each item in more detail.

Ambiguous Texts: Indians and the American Continent

1. 1833 letter addressed to N.C. Saxton. This letter describes the Book of Mormon as “a record of the forefathers of our western Tribes of Indians. . . . By it we learn that our western tribes of Indians are descendants from that Joseph who was sold into Egypt, and the land of America is a promised land unto them.” [There are debates about what Joseph meant by "our western tribes of Indians" and "the land of America."]

2. 1839 history. Here, Moroni tells Joseph Smith that “there was a book deposited written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent and the source from whence they sprang.” [Note: In Letter VII, Oliver says Moroni told Joseph the record was "written and deposited" not far from his home, an important clarification. If the record was written near Joseph's home in New York, it obviously wasn't written somewhere else and then hauled to New York.]

3. 1842 Wentworth letter. The letter, written in first person and signed in print by Joseph, claims Moroni visited Joseph and told him about the plates containing "the records of the ancient prophets that had existed on this continent." Moroni also taught Joseph “concerning the aboriginal inhabitants of this country.” “[T]he history of ancient America” unfolds in the text, and “America in ancient times was inhabited by two distinct races of people,” with the “remnant” constituting “the Indians that now inhabit this country.”

Debates have ensued about what Joseph meant by "continent" and "this country." When we realize that Joseph Smith resided in Nauvoo, Illinois, and Mr. Wentworth resided in Chicago, Illinois, the plain meaning of "this country" would be the United States (or, possibly, the "countryside" the two parties shared). There is nothing in the letter or context that would suggest Joseph used the term "country" to refer to Central or South America. The term "continent" is presumably more expansive, and could refer to the entire hemisphere (North, Central and South America) or just North America. A variety of terms are used in the Times and Seasons, for example, including the “Continent of Europe,” the “Oriental Continent,” and the “Continent of America.” The last reference is in an epistle of the Twelve “to the brethren scattered abroad on the Continent of America,” all of whom were east of the Mississippi. For whatever reason, Joseph left the terms vague here. They are susceptible to multiple interpretations.

Summary: Brother Hedges concludes, "The documents cited above, all of which were associated with Joseph’s name in one way or another, were simply conveying the idea that the events in the Book of Mormon took place somewhere in the New World, and that the descendants of Book of Mormon peoples were still around." That's a fair statement, although I interpret the terms "this country" and "our western tribes of Indians" to be more specific than he does.

End of Part 1

Friday, June 10, 2016

The Bernhisel letter

November 1841 letter to Bernhisel
This post focuses on what I consider one of the best examples of a single document that created the groundwork for an entire historical narrative. I'm writing because I think that narrative is erroneous.

A November 1841 letter written from Nauvoo to Dr. John Bernhisel (an LDS leader in New York City) has created a historical narrative that I think contradicts the facts and has led to considerable confusion.

No one knows who wrote the letter; the handwriting remains unidentified. However, it is written in first person and signed in the name of Joseph Smith, which had led historians to assume Joseph dictated the letter.

The letter (essentially a brief thank-you note) thanks Bernhisel for the gift of a two-book set about ruins in Central America.  The books were written by John Stephens and illustrated by Frederick Catherwood. Stephens also discusses North American archaeology.

The note states that the Stephens book "unfolds & developes [sic] many things that are of great importance to this generation & corresponds with & supports the testimony of The Book of Mormon."

Based on this thank-you note, LDS scholars have concluded that Joseph Smith was enthusiastic about the ruins in Central America and their supposed connection with the Book of Mormon. The note has also contributed to the ideas that 1) Joseph didn't know much about the Book of Mormon, 2) he merely speculated about its setting, and 3) he changed his mind on this topic. I think those three ideas are not supported by the historical record.

An explanation in the Joseph Smith papers (JSP) refers to the Stephens books this way: "JS greeted it enthusiastically and church members used it to map Book of Mormon sites in a Central American setting."

That claim, like the others, is based on the Bernhisel letter. I don't think Joseph greeted the letter at all, much less enthusiastically.

Because I think JSP and others are making an erroneous inference. I summarized the historical data in a chapter of my next book titled The Editors: Joseph, William, and Don Carlos.

  • Thanks to the Joseph Smith Papers project, new information has been brought to light that suggests a different reality. In this article, I offer evidence showing that 1) the thank-you note originated with Wilford Woodruff, 2) Joseph never read the Stephens books, and 3) Joseph had nothing to do with the anonymous articles in the Times and Seasons.

I realize there is a lot of institutional inertia behind the standard interpretation of the Bernhisel letter. However, I have a lot of confidence in LDS historians, and I think that sooner or later they will take another look at the events of 1841 and 1842 and revise the historical narrative accordingly.


For those who accept Letter VII, I have a comment on this on that blog here.

The GTE and the Wilford Woodruff quotation

It amazes me that there are still discussions about the origin of the Book of Mormon (SITH vs U&T) among Latter-day Saints who don't...