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.

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