Joseph Smith’s Sermon of February 5, 1840

A recent broadcast from lds radio featured Ron Barney and Jeff Cannon of the Joseph Smith Papers Project, on Joseph Smith’s visit to Washington, D.C. in late 1839, early 1840.[1] While no diary was kept during the journey, there were letters sent from Washington by Joseph Smith and Elias Higbee, and an account of meeting(s) with President Martin Van Buren survive in the memoirs of Illinois democrat John Reynolds who introduced Smith and Higbee to Van Buren. Van Buren, the epitome of political savvy at the time, held a states rights view of US politics and excused himself from intervention in the Mormon question on that basis. As Reynolds put it, Joseph left Washington a “red hot Whig.” While Joseph was in the East, he did take the opportunity to deliver several sermons to both Latter-day Saint congregations and to other interested parties.

On February 5th, Joseph delivered a speech to a group of Washingtonians, one of whom was Aaron Burr biographer Matthew Livingston Davis. Davis penned a letter to his wife in New York regarding the discourse, which was may have been intended for publication in one of the several newspapers for which Davis was a correspondent.[But see the comment below!] Whatever the purpose, the original ended up was in the hands of the Mormons and came west with them to Utah. It’s first imprint was in the Deseret News of 27 July 1854, based on a copy of the letter from the manuscript history of the Church as provided by historian’s staff.

The account is remarkable for several reasons, being a report by an experienced writer/reporter it probably it contains a number of verbatim statements. We also find in it a fairly early example of Joseph’s maturing cosmology/ontology. The hallmark of Nauvoo theological tension: the place of the individual in the cosmos and the role of the individual in the corporate “sealed” kingdom is illustrated in its beginnings.[2]

Davis reports Joseph as saying:

I believe that God is eternal. That He had no beginning, and can have no end. Eternity means that which is without beginning or End. I believe that the Soul is Eternal. It had no beginning; it can have no end . . .

Davis added the following interesting remark after his quotation: “Here he entered into some explanations, which were so brief that I could not perfectly comprehend him. But the idea seemed to be that the soul of man, the Spirit, had existed from Eternity in the bosom of Divinity; and so far as he was intelligible to me, must ultimately return from whence it came-”

To reinforce this unique idea, Davis adds: “He said very little of rewards and punishments, but one conclusion, from what he did say was irresistible. He contended throughout, that every thing which had a beginning must have an ending; and consequently if the punishment of man commenced in the next world, it must, according to his logic and belief have an end.

While Joseph would make some refinements from these ideas, mainly in the suggestion that God was not always God, but progressed to that point, he was uniform in his support of the idea that the individual has necessary permanence.

The Washington speech is remarkable in several ways, first that Joseph was quite forthright in this his ultimate heresy. Man was the ontological equal of God. He could have hardly placed a bigger religious target on his back than that. The interesting bit about this is that while he repeats this quite a number of times before his death, it never did find a prominent place in the litany of offenses offered by Mormonism in the 19th century. Why? I think the reason is found here. (For the full account of Davis, see here.)

Be that as it may, I find Joseph’s ideas a refreshing departure from most of religious history, however uncomfortable they may have been to those inside and outside the Church.[3] A situation which remains today. Talk about current events. With the publication of the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, the issue of man’s ontological position came up in discussions in prominent circles in Salt Lake. The fact that a division of opinion still exists is a tribute to the conservatism present in LDS leadership (and that division is represented in the Encyclopedia if you look carefully). A deeply embedded ethic in that exclusive group, it has been both an advantage to Mormonism as well as a heavy inertia that makes appropriate change wait its turn.

My prejudice in favor of Smith’s ideas is motivated less by history than by testimony, but nevertheless, I have a deep interest in how Mormon theology has shaken out over the centuries (ok, we are coming up on 200 years of Mormonism). I wonder what issues the future Church will find compelling in another century. Anybody got a seer stone?

[1] As Barney and Cannon observe, the town was pretty unimpressive. On Washington, D.C., see Howe, What Hath God Wrought.

[2] One wonders if the topics addressed were in any way motivated by the political purposes of the trip, and if so, how would they have been received in that sense.

[3] Joseph is rather unique even among believers in human preexistence. Few theologies of the past have allowed that the individual soul is uncreate.

13 Responses to Joseph Smith’s Sermon of February 5, 1840

  1. Ben Park says:

    It is indeed a fascinating letter, WVS, but even for more than just the content.

    I did some research on this letter while I worked for the JSP, working with Ron Barney and Steve Harper, and came to find its provenance as problematic, to say the least. The text in the HC identifies him as both Matthew S Davis and Matthew L Davis. As you state in the post, Matthew Livingston Davis would be the only plausible guess, because the only Matthew S Davis who resided in Washington and was a senator–as the HC claims–was only 10 years old in 1840.

    The problem with Matthe Linvingston Davis–who otherwise would be very plausible since he wrote numerous correspondences with the Washington newspapers–is twofold. First, he wasn’t married at the time of this letter, nor was he ever married to a “Mary.” Second, it is highly unlikely that the Church could have somewhat ended up with this personal letter, because no evidence exists that it was ever published.

    Thus, it seems more likely that the letter was a “plant.” JS had a number of these types of letters published in the press, written as if they were from a non-Mormon observer, but in reality were written by one of JS’s scribes. This was a common occurrence during the Nauvoo period. (A topic that deserves more attention–could easily be an article.) The question is why it was never printed–perhaps it was refused by whatever newspaper they submitted it to.

    This makes the letter even more important, IMHO, because it then reveals a specific message JS and his circle wanted the general public to hear.

    Anyways, just an amusing sidenote. Enjoyed the post.

    • WVS says:

      Ben, that is fantastic. Thanks for the background. I’ve wondered about this thing for years. Ha! Ghostwriting in the extreme. Given an in house job, the “Here he entered into some explanations, which were so brief that I could not perfectly comprehend him” bit is worthy of Parley Parker Pratt himself. Cool. (It also suggests that dating the document should get a fresh look. I have not seen the “letter” itself. Do you know whose handwriting is involved?)

  2. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks for the post, WVS; and thanks for that comment, Ben. Extraordinary, and fascinating.

  3. Bryan says:

    This is great–hands down the best aspect of this is where “Matthew” describes Joseph as “what you ladies would call a very good looking man”–if this is a plant, at least Joseph planted with gusto.

  4. smb says:

    Is the handwriting recognizable? My memory from Viator is that they were in the hand of Richards or Phelps. Who else was involved in the public ghostwriting letters? If I end up tucking this into a footnote (in the next day or two), how shall I cite you boys? s

    • WVS says:

      Viator was Richards (mostly). But this would have been before Richards was involved. Phelps was not back at that point either, assuming the letter was written near the Feb. date. Too late for Mullholland, too early for Thompson. That means Elias Higbee? Or George Robinson? Don’t know. Have to go look at it, too swamped right now.

  5. smb says:

    Thanks, Bill. There are at least a couple of the Viator letters that are in Phelps’s hand and bear his mark as I recall, but you’re right that the initiation of Viator was Richards. Would be nice to hear from a handwriting expert, which could lay the matter to rest. Could be a nice wee piece for JMH or IJMS that could be a significant contribution to our understanding of the outward face of early Mormonism. And I suspect you’re right that the fake letter would have been written close to the time of the tour, perhaps by someone who was traveling with JSJ?

  6. WVS says:

    Just a note, I had a look at what is apparently the original. The handwriting does not match any of the usual suspects. It looks like a letter in all respects I think. How it came to be in the Church Historian’s collection is anybody’s guess. But one theory is that it came from John M. Bernhisel who was in NY. The HC’s confusion over the name of the writer is interesting. The 1850 census shows a Matthew Davis and Mary Davis in Manhattan. This would probably not have been Matthew L. Davis above, since he was dead several months before the time the census papers were filled out. The address indicated on the letter, 107 High Street is a lower Manhattan address. I’m going to look into this at some point I guess.

  7. J. Stapley says:

    Isn’t the note in the JS Journal about the Bernhisel sealings written by Bernhisel (going from memory). Might be a point for comparison.

  8. WVS says:

    Joseph was apparently pretty expansive during his Washington trip. Parley Pratt notes that he first heard of eternal (not plural) marriage on the trip. Samuel Bennett’s 16 page tract of 1840 (Bennett became a Mormon in 1839 and JS made him branch president in Philadelphia in December) hints at the same thing and Bennett notes that “God the Father has a body exactly in shape like that of a man.” And that that bodily presence had “been manifested, his voice sounded in the ear of mortal man without consuming him” – probably a reference to the first vision. Anti-Mormon tracts published after the trip suggest the same thing, charging that Mormons believed in “a carnal Paradise, unrestrained sexual indulgence, and promiscuous intercourse between the sexes.”

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