Joseph Smith, the Tapestry of Mormon Doctrine and Franklin D. Richards

Post Nauvoo Mormonism consisted of several branchings. For the most part only the Utah bound church had embraced the full spectrum of Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo expansions of doctrine. These branchings mostly faded with time, with the Community of Christ being the other major survivor from the period. The CoC, from the time of its founding as the “reorganization” gradually distanced itself from most Nauvoo doctrines.

That left the Utah church as the major institution preserving in some sense Smith’s later ideas. Much of the abstract theology was developed and expanded/contracted in different ways, but there was a lot of care in trying to preserve what Smith had said and taught, whether it was emphasized or not in current teaching. Indeed, there was considerable reverence for it and that still exists in institutional Utah Mormonism, witness the Joseph Smith Papers initiative. (At least some people had anticipated that the first revelations and translations volume might create “too” much discussion among the rank and file about the nature of the modern canon, but for now, it has drifted to the background.[1])

What place does Joseph have in the modern church? Well his “first vision” gradually became an important story both in some respects in Nauvoo and then later in the Utah branch– it became a primary founding story along with Moroni and the Book of Mormon.

But the circulation of a significant part of Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo teachings came by a young apostle, assigned by Brigham Young to take over church mission/administration in the British Isles and Europe in 1850. That young man was Franklin Dewey Richards. Born in Mass. in 1821, he became a Latter-day Saint in 1838. In Nauvoo he kept a small book in which he sketched the speeches of Joseph Smith as he heard them. This is a fascinating little book and it has some unique insights regarding Smith and his public instruction.[2]

Richards served several missions in the UK and during his 2nd, in 1851, published his compilation of Smith’s teachings which he saw as both important but undercirculated. He titled the collection “Pearl of Great Price.” A fateful choice. Twenty-nine years later the little book would become canonical.[3] Richards printed about 12,000 copies of his 1851 tome and then the little book was republished in Welsh by J. S. Davis a year later. The original English printing lasted for nearly 30 years, a tribute to Richards’ enthusiasm and the lack of same among its target audience. (grin)[4]

But Richards continued to preserve the thread of Joseph Smith’s public instruction in Latter-day Saint literature. And he did it with a conviction that the preserved words of the founding prophet ranked with the canonical works.

Following the official adoption of the Pearl of Great Price as part of the Mormon canon, Richards and partner James Little self-published “A Compendium of the Doctrines of the Gospel” in Salt Lake City. In it, Richards placed the following revealing statement: “We consider the Bible, Book of Mormon, Book of Doctrine and Covenants, Pearl of Great Price and sayings of Joseph, the Seer our guides in faith and doctrine.”[5] A long section of the book is called “Gems from the History of Joseph Smith” which gives excerpts from the History as it was published in the “Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star” in the late 1850s.

Richards’ successor in the effort to make Smith’s public speeches available to all was B. H. Roberts. Then Edwin Parry (1912) created a larger version of “Gems.” Parry was followed by Joseph Fielding Smith with his Teachings of The Prophet Joseph Smith(1938). Then Andrew Ehat and Lyndon Cook’s Words of Joseph Smith (1980). Finally the Joseph Smith papers project will make available many of the contemporary reports of Smith’s public instruction.

Along with the beginning of the papers, the church printed a “correlated” version of Joseph Smith’s teachings in a recent study manual for members. Many of the chapters were somewhat awkward in their usage of materials, and more than one used suspect sources in an effort to fill out the pre-selected list of topics.[6] But it was not intended to be a history text, or for that matter a theological one. But even with the sanitizing, much of the beauty and essentials that Franklin Richards saw were represented. I predict that the (edited) Joseph will continue to resurface in official church literature. And I think Richards was right in his assessment of the value of Joseph’s sermons.[7]

[1] Hopefully from a scholarly point of view it will generate some very interesting stuff as time goes on. Indeed, it already has. But the correlated church will ignore it I think.

[2] The title of the little book, “Scriptural Items” (holograph, CHL), gives some indication of Franklin’s ranking of Joseph’s instruction in relation to Smith’s canonical productions. See below.

[3] The content of the 1880 version was pruned of several bits which were published elsewhere.

[4] Richards original introduction noted that it was intended for established church members rather than as a proselyting tool.

[5] 1st paragraph of the Preface, page iii (emphasis added). The book was intended as a tool for missionaries, but ended up serving as a standard reference for several generations. It referenced a wonderful array of 19th century Mormon missionary pamphlets. You might be able to guess one of its longer sections: “Marriage.”

[6] One source not represented at all was the formerly canonized “Lectures on Faith.” This was a wise decision. The papers project provided manual editors with large amount of graded source materials. For some reason, the writing group insisted on using some of the least reliable according to the grading system. Perhaps filling out nearly 50 chapters was just too much.

[7] It probably goes without saying that Richards did not mean that every word Joseph Smith ever uttered in a public sermon was to be taken with equal weight. Or that some of those words are just wrong, badly reported or simply no longer applicable. Correlation existed long before the 1960s. 😉

5 Responses to Joseph Smith, the Tapestry of Mormon Doctrine and Franklin D. Richards

  1. ricke says:

    Very interesting. Hopefully, your book will soon help to further the work of Richards, Roberts, et. al. I’m looking forward to it. Thank you.

  2. W. V. Smith says:

    One more in a line fronted by Franklin Richards. I hope it will live up to the tradition, at least a little.

  3. J. Stapley says:

    Nice write-up. Re: fn6, I tend to think that some of the least reliable are many people’s favorites.

  4. W. V. Smith says:

    Thanks Tod, J. Could be J.

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