This year members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (known as the Mormons) are studying the life and teachings of the Church’s founding prophet Joseph Smith. One lesson is on the Wentworth Letter, an important document for Latter-day Saints. Joseph Smith explained its origin:
“At the request of Mr. John Wentworth, Editor and Proprietor of the Chicago Democrat, I have written the following sketch of the rise, progress, persecution, and faith of the Latter-day Saints, of which I have the honor, under God, of being the founder. Mr. Wentworth says that he wishes to furnish Mr. [George] Barstow, a friend of his, who is writing the history of New Hampshire, with this document. As Mr. Barstow has taken the proper steps to obtain correct information, all that I shall ask at his hands, is, that he publish the account entire, ungarnished, and without misrepresentation.” (“Chapter 38: The Wentworth Letter,” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, , 435–47.)
This is not a long letter, but it carries quite a punch. It is a priceless thumbnail-sketch of its history, and is an essential source of key doctrines of the Church’s faith. If a person wanted a bare-bones explanation about the Church, I would give them a copy of this letter along with the Family Proclamation and a copy of the Living Christ Proclamation. All three of these documents give a basic understating of the nature of the Church. THE OUTLINE The letter can be broken down in six parts: The First Vision, The Book of Mormon, the Organization of the Church, the Persecution of the Saints, Nauvoo—the Beautiful, the Standard of Truth, and the Articles of Faith. In this blog I will present several selections from the letter. To read a full transcript of the letter, click HERE. Although this letter was never published by Wentworth or Barstow, it was published in the local Nauvoo newspaper Times and Seasons. Two years later a similar letter (with slight variations) was published by Daniel Rupp in 1844. THE FIRST VISION All things Joseph Smith begin with the First Vision. In his own words here is what happened:
When about fourteen years of age, I began to reflect upon the importance of being prepared for a future state, and upon inquiring [about] the plan of salvation, I found that there was a great clash in religious sentiment; if I went to one society they referred me to one plan, and another to another; each one pointing to his own particular creed as the summum bonum of perfection. Considering that all could not be right, and that God could not be the author of so much confusion, I determined to investigate the subject more fully, believing that if God had a Church it would not be split up into factions, and that if He taught one society to worship one way, and administer in one set of ordinances, He would not teach another, principles which were diametrically opposed. “Believing the word of God, I had confidence in the declaration of James—‘If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.’ [James 1:5.] I retired to a secret place in a grove, and began to call upon the Lord; while fervently engaged in supplication, my mind was taken away from the objects with which I was surrounded, and I was enwrapped in a heavenly vision, and saw two glorious personages, who exactly resembled each other in features and likeness, surrounded with a brilliant light which eclipsed the sun at noon day. They told me that all religious denominations were believing in incorrect doctrines, and that none of them was acknowledged of God as His Church and kingdom: and I was expressly commanded ‘to go not after them,’ at the same time receiving a promise that the fullness of the Gospel should at some future time be made known unto me.
I appreciate this unvarnished, straightforward telling of what happened. For me, the simplicity of the story is everything. It has the ring of truth. Due to constraints of space, however, this telling does not have all of the details of what happened in the vision. Joseph Smith’s 1832 History included more details that were left out, and his official Church History of 1838 provides more context to the event. THE BOOK OF MORMON Three years after this marvelous vision, Joseph Smith had a second. He was up late one evening praying. While he was having this spiritual wrestle, Joseph Smith had a visit from an angel
“On the evening of the 21st of September, A. D. 1823, while I was praying unto God, and endeavoring to exercise faith in the precious promises of Scripture, on a sudden a light like that of day, only of a far purer and more glorious appearance and brightness, burst into the room; indeed the first sight was as though the house was filled with consuming fire; the appearance produced a shock that affected the whole body; in a moment a personage stood before me surrounded with a glory yet greater than that with which I was already surrounded. This messenger proclaimed himself to be an angel of God, sent to bring the joyful tidings that the covenant which God made with ancient Israel was at hand to be fulfilled, that the preparatory work for the second coming of the Messiah was speedily to commence, that the time was at hand for the Gospel in all its fullness to be preached in power, unto all nations that a people might be prepared for the Millennial reign. I was informed that I was chosen to be an instrument in the hands of God to bring about some of His purposes in this glorious dispensation. “I was also informed concerning the aboriginal inhabitants of this country and shown who they were, and from whence they came; a brief sketch of their origin, progress, civilization, laws, governments, of their righteousness and iniquity, and the blessings of God being finally withdrawn from them as a people, was made known unto me; I was also told where were deposited some plates on which were engraven an abridgment of the records of the ancient Prophets that had existed on this continent. The angel appeared to me three times the same night and unfolded the same things. After having received many visits from the angels of God unfolding the majesty and glory of the events that should transpire in the last days, on the morning of the 22nd of September, A. D. 1827, the angel of the Lord delivered the records into my hands. …
This is the origin of The Book of Mormon, which Latter-day Saints consider to be scripture. Joseph Smith summed up the message of the book this way:
“… This book … tells us that our Savior made His appearance upon this continent after His resurrection; that He planted the Gospel here in all its fulness, and richness, and power, and blessing; that they had Apostles, Prophets, Pastors, Teachers, and Evangelists, the same order, the same priesthood, the same ordinances, gifts, powers, and blessings, as were enjoyed on the eastern continent; that the people were cut off in consequence of their transgressions; that the last of their prophets who existed among them was commanded to write an abridgment of their prophecies, history, etc., and to hide it up in the earth, and that it should come forth and be united with the Bible for the accomplishment of the purposes of God in the last days. For a more particular account I would refer to the Book of Mormon …
I have read The Book of Mormon many times. I am strengthened by its teachings about the Savior and His sacrifice. I am glad that Joseph Smith was called to translate and to publish this book so that we all could benefit by this additional testament. THE ORGANIZATION OF THE CHURCH These visions, the angel, and the new scripture, however, were not enough. There needed to be structure. Joseph Smith was a champion of organized religion. Consequently he organized the small group of believers into a church. Here are the details:
“On the 6th of April, 1830, the ‘Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ was first organized in the town of Fayette, Seneca county, state of New York. Some few were called and ordained by the Spirit of revelation and prophecy, and began to preach as the Spirit gave them utterance, and though weak, yet were they strengthened by the power of God, and many were brought to repentance, were immersed in the water, and were filled with the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands. They saw visions and prophesied, devils were cast out, and the sick healed by the laying on of hands.
The last sentence explains why there needed to be organized believers: theses miracles and gifts of the Spirit serve to strengthen members in their daily battle to do good. We have our friendships at work, old college buddies or classmates, and professional and political associations. But there is something special, and subtly different, being with fellow believers. You both are on the same page in regards to values, ethics, and doctrine. You can talk about spiritual and sacred things that you could not with your casual carpool comrades. Additionally, this spiritual dimension enhances—even lubricates—the day to day grind we have to endure. It gives an overarching meaning to the trivialities of the day. THE PERSECUTIONS OF THE SAINTS Once formally organized, the activities of the Church took off. As people were baptized, the new members gathered in several cities:
From that time the work rolled forth with astonishing rapidity, and churches were soon formed in the states of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri; in the last named state a considerable settlement was formed in Jackson county: numbers joined the Church and we were increasing rapidly; we made large purchases of land, our farms teemed with plenty, and peace and happiness were enjoyed in our domestic circle, and throughout our neighborhood; but as we could not associate with our neighbors (who were, many of them, of the basest of men, and had fled from the face of civilized society, to the frontier country to escape the hand of justice,) in their midnight revels, their Sabbath breaking, horse racing and gambling; they commenced at first to ridicule, then to persecute, and finally an organized mob assembled and burned our houses, tarred and feathered and whipped many of our brethren, and finally, contrary to law, justice and humanity, drove them from their habitations; who, houseless and homeless, had to wander on the bleak prairies till the children left the tracks of their blood on the prairie. This took place in the month of November, and they had no other covering but the canopy of heaven, in this inclement season of the year; this proceeding was winked at by the government, and although we had warranty deeds for our land, and had violated no law, we could obtain no redress. “There were many sick, who were thus inhumanly driven from their houses, and had to endure all this abuse and to seek homes where they could be found. The result was, that a great many of them being deprived of the comforts of life, and the necessary attendances, died; many children were left orphans, wives [were left] widows, and husbands, widowers; our farms were taken possession of by the mob, many thousands of cattle, sheep, horses and hogs were taken, and our household goods, store goods, and printing press and type were broken, taken, or otherwise destroyed.
Persecution is a leitmotif that runs throughout Church history. For some reason members of the Church and the rest of the population did not mix. As Joseph Smith pointed out, there was a clash of culture. The Latter-day Saints were cultured and temperate yeoman farmers, while the locals were frontier riffraff and rabble. Whatever the cause of the friction, it was real, and the facts must be told:
“Many of our brethren removed to Clay county, where they continued until 1836 … “We next settled in Caldwell and Daviess counties, where we made large and extensive settlements, thinking to free ourselves from the power of oppression, by settling in new counties, with very few inhabitants in them; but here we were not allowed to live in peace, but in 1838 we were again attacked by mobs, an exterminating order was issued by Governor Boggs, and under the sanction of law, an organized banditti ranged through the country, robbed us of our cattle, sheep, hogs, etc., many of our people were murdered in cold blood, the chastity of our women was violated, and we were forced to sign away our property at the point of the sword; and after enduring every indignity that could be heaped upon us by an inhuman, ungodly band of marauders, from twelve to fifteen thousand souls, men, women, and children, were driven from their own firesides, and from lands to which they had warranty deeds, houseless, friendless, and homeless (in the depths of winter) to wander as exiles on the earth, or to seek an asylum in a more genial clime, and among a less barbarous people. Many sickened and died in consequence of the cold and hardships they had to endure; many wives were left widows, and children [were left] orphans, and destitute. It would take more time than is allotted me here to describe the injustice, the wrongs, the murders, the bloodshed, the theft, misery and woe that have been caused by the barbarous, inhuman, and lawless proceedings of the state of Missouri.
This passage needs no commentary. It is straightforward, and the facts speak for themselves. The members gathered in towns to worship as they saw fit. But they were always run out. Complicit with the crimes were various government officials. To paraphrase The Declaration of Independence, their repeated petitions for justice were answered only by repeated injury. Eventually, the body of believers relocated to Nauvoo, Illinois, where they found a measure of stability for five years. NAUVOO—THE BEAUTIFUL The Rupp Letter (the parallel document to the Wentworth Letter) fills in some of the details of life in Nauvoo:
After being thus inhumanely expelled by the government and people from Missouri, we found an asylum and friends in the state of Illinois. Here, in the fall of 1839, we commenced a city called Nauvoo, in Hancock County, which in December, 1840, received an act of incorporation from the legislature of Illinois, and is endowed with as liberal powers as any city in the United States. Nauvoo, in every respect, connected with increase and prosperity, has exceeded the most sanguine expectations of thousands. It now contains near 1,500 houses, and more than 15,000 inhabitants. The charter contains, amongst its important powers, privileges, or immunities, a grant for the “University of Nauvoo,” with the same liberal powers of the city, where all the arts and sciences will grow with the growth, and strengthen the strength of this beloved city of the “Saints of the last days.” Another very commendatory provision of the charter is, that that portion of the citizens subject to military duty are organized into a body of independent military men, styled the “Nauvoo Legion,” whose highest officer holds the rank, and is commissioned lieutenant-general. This legion, like other independent bodies of troops in this republican government, is at the disposal of the governor of this state, and President of the United States. There is also an act of incorporation for an agricultural and manufacturing association, as well as the Nauvoo House Association. The temple of God, now in the course of erection, being already raised one story, and which is 120 feet by 80 feet, of stone, with polished pilasters, of an entire new order of architecture, will be a splendid house for the worship of God, as well as an unique wonder for the world, it being built by the direct revelation of Jesus Christ for the salvation of the living and the dead. Since the organization of this church its progress has been rapid, and its gain in numbers regular. Besides these United States, where nearly every place of notoriety has heard the glad tidings of the gospel of the Son of God, England, Ireland, and Scotland, have shared largely in the fullness of the everlasting gospel, and thousands have already gathered with their kindred Saints, to this the cornerstone of Zion. Missionaries of this Church have gone to the East Indies, to Australia, Germany, Constantinople, Egypt, Palestine, the Islands of the Pacific, and are now preparing to open the door in the extensive dominions of Russia. There are no correct data by which the exact number of members composing this now extensive, and still extending, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can be known. Should it be supposed at 150,000, it might still be short of the truth.
These two paragraphs show what happens when members of the Church are left alone to practice their religion. They were busy doing good. It is no surprise that Brigham Young, Joseph Smith’s successor as prophet, gave Utah the state motto of “Industry.” If you move into a community with a lot of Latter-day Saints, this is what you will get: well-kept yards, a vibrant social life, emphasis on education, activity in politics and in the military, and a desire to life the good life. That is what we are all about. THE STANDARD OF TRUTH Near the end of the letter, Joseph Smith summed up the missionary, or evangelization work of the Church, this way:
Our missionaries are going forth to different nations, and in Germany, Palestine, New Holland [Australia], the East Indies, and other places, the Standard of Truth has been erected; no unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing; persecutions may rage, mobs may combine, armies may assemble, calumny may defame, but the truth of God will go forth boldly, nobly, and independent, till it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country, and sounded in every ear, till the purposes of God shall be accomplished, and the Great Jehovah shall say the work is done
I was part of this missionary endeavor. I served a mission for two years in Portugal, and every week we would recite this passage, now known as the Standard of Truth. Missionary work is hard. You get sent to different areas—I was in Portugal, my brothers served in Texas and New Jersey, my dad in Nashville, my great-grandfather in Denmark—and sometimes you have to learn a new language. Once in the Mission Field, you spend all day, every day, talking with people about your faith. Some people were indifferent, some we decent and gave us a fair haring, and sometimes we could actually connect. Of course this is all done on a one-on-one level (“one of a city, and two of a family, and I will bring you to Zion” [Jeremiah 3:14]). We did not have the large arena revivals and mega-churches. It was plodding work at times. But through it all, this passage buoyed me up and reminded me of the real nature of the work I was doing. THE ARTICLES OF FAITH The letter ends with a summery of the key doctrines of the Church:
“We believe in God the eternal Father, and in His Son Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost. “We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression. “We believe that through the atonement of Christ all mankind may be saved by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel. “We believe that the first principle and ordinances of the Gospel are: (1) Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; (2) Repentance; (3) Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; (4) Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost. “We believe that a man must be called of God by prophecy and by the laying on of hands, by those who are in authority, to preach the Gospel and administer in the ordinances thereof. “We believe in the same organization that existed in the primitive Church, viz.: apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, evangelists, etc. “We believe in the gift of tongues, prophecy, revelation, visions, healing, interpretation of tongues, etc. “We believe the Bible to be the word of God, as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God. “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God. “We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes; that Zion will be built upon this [the American] continent; that Christ will reign personally upon the earth; and that the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory. “We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may. “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law. “We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men; indeed we may say that we follow the admonition of Paul, We believe all things, we hope all things, we have endured many things, and hope to be able to endure all things. If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report, or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.
That is the brass-tacks of what we believe. Of course, it is not a complete listing of everything, down to the smallest jot, tittle, and iota. But it does answer any doctrinal question, in a broad and general way. Of these articles, the historian and Church leader B. H. Roberts observed:
These Articles of Faith were not Produced by the labored efforts and harmonized contentions of scholastics, but were struck off by one inspired mind at a single effort to make a declaration of that which is most assuredly believed by the church, for one making earnest inquiry shout the truth. The combined directness, perspicuity, simplicity and comprehensiveness of this statement of the principles of our religion may be relied upon as strong evidence of a divine inspiration resting upon the Prophet, Joseph Smith. (History of the Church 4:535n.)
There is a logical sequence to the articles: the nature of the Godhead, our denial of Original Sin, the nature of the Atonement, then Church Organization and the character of scripture and revelation. These articles end with a nice boilerplate statement of the Christian Life in general: “If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report, or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.” As you get to know your Latter-day Saint friends, I hope you see these Articles of Faith in practice. We are not perfect, but we try. We are striving towards our ideals. And we do have a framework wherein we can measure progress. CONCLUSION I honestly cannot remember the first time I read the Wentworth Letter. However, I love rereading this document. I think it touches upon the key points of my faith—the existence of God, the reality of the Atonement, the importance of The Book of Mormon, the persecutions of the Saints, and the ultimate triumph of truth. And the bullet-points of belief have helped me in my gospel study. Really, if anyone wonders what makes us tick, this Wentworth Letter, in very plain language, answers the question.