Joseph Smith made several attempts at creating a history of the church. In April 1838 he began his most successful effort, the compilation of what became a multivolume history of himself and the church. By the time the Latter-day Saints left Nauvoo in February 1846, scribes had completed the Manuscript History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as it is often known, to March 1843. Then the history remained essentially dormant until the appointment of George A. Smith as church historian in April 1854. With the assistance of several scribes, Smith completed the history in August 1856.1
As part of this process of compiling the Manuscript History, George A. Smith and scribes Thomas Bullock, Leo Hawkins, and Jonathan Grimshaw copied and then edited several discourses Joseph Smith delivered to the Nauvoo Relief Society. In a similar manner, those compiling the history edited many other documents, including other Joseph Smith sermons, before they included them in the Manuscript History. This editing reflected nineteenth-century approaches to texts in which historians often altered original texts when they prepared them for publication. For instance, Jared Sparks, a leading scholar who later became president of Harvard, published twelve volumes of the Writings of George Washington in the 1830s in which he substantially revised the original manuscripts before publication both for literary purposes and to present Washington in a more positive light.2 Similarly, Brigham Young’s sermons were often revised before publication by scribe George D. Watt, and the extent of Young’s approval of these alterations is unclear.3
In late March 1855 Smith and Bullock visited Brigham Young “to read to him Josephs sermon to the Female Relief Society [of] Nauvoo.” Young referred them to Eliza R. Snow, “who delivered them the original Sermon in the Female R S Record,” meaning the Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book.4 Smith, Bullock, Hawkins, and Grimshaw remained in the Historian’s Office until ten o’clock that night, and they continued their work on the history the following day. Hawkins and Grimshaw copied the sermons, while Bullock (likely with Smith’s assistance) edited them.5 When Heber C. Kimball stopped by in the evening, he “heard Joseph’s sermon Read, liked it better as revised.”6 Young likewise stated that he “was much pleased with them.”7 After the sermons were copied, the Nauvoo minute book was returned to Snow.
The revised excerpts from the Nauvoo Relief Society minutes, with particular focus on Joseph Smith’s sermons, appeared in several issues of the Deseret News in 1855 as part of a serial publication of the Manuscript History titled “History of Joseph Smith.” Even before the publication of these Joseph Smith sermons in the Deseret News, church leaders recognized their importance. In 1844 Wilford Woodruff asked John McEwan to copy the April 28, 1842, sermon into Woodruff’s journal, which McEwan did from Snow’s minutes.8 On June 27, 1849, on the fifth anniversary of Joseph Smith’s death, Snow “read Joseph’s lectures to a circle of ladies,” likely a reference to these sermons in the minute book in Snow’s possession.9
The sermon of April 28, 1842, with Joseph Smith’s endorsement of women’s ritual healing, was often reprinted and remained a significant document for nineteenth-century Latter-day Saints. In 1888, for instance, the Woman’s Exponent, in an editorial note likely written by Emmeline B. Wells, stated that a recent address by apostle Franklin D. Richards to a commemorative meeting of the Relief Society in Ogden had been “predicated” upon Joseph Smith’s April 28, 1842, sermon. The Exponent noted six reprintings of that sermon in Utah newspapers and periodicals within the previous six years.10 Over the years, some of the published versions of the April 28, 1842, sermon reflected the original wording in the Nauvoo Relief Society minutes, while other versions reflected the revisions as published in the Deseret News.11 Many women copied that sermon into their journals, using one of the published versions as their source.12 The revised excerpts featured below served as the basis for a treatment of the Relief Society in volume 4 of the History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, published in 1908 after further light editing by B. H. Roberts.13
George A. Smith and the scribes left no record of the reasons for their changes. Many of the revisions are minor alterations of wording. Other changes take the sermons from their immediate context of the 1842 Nauvoo Relief Society—and the imminent introduction of temple ordinances—and apply them more broadly to the church as a whole. These edits appear to be an attempt by church leaders to emphasize priesthood authority and order. For instance, the original minutes state that Joseph Smith “said he was going to make of this Society a kingdom of priests an [as] in Enoch’s day— as in Pauls day.”14 The revised version reads, “The Lord was going to make of the Church of Jesus Christ a kingdom of priests, a holy people, a chosen generation, as in Enoch’s day.”
Printed below are two revised Joseph Smith sermons, those of March 31, 1842, and April 28, 1842, as published in two issues of the Deseret News in September 1855. Significant differences between the original minutes and the revised versions are noted.
“President Joseph Smith arose. Spoke of the organization of the Female Relief Society; said he was deeply interested that it might be built up to the Most High in an acceptable manner; that its rules must be observed; that none should be received into it but those who were worthy; proposed a close examination of every candidate; that the society was going too fast. It should grow up by degrees; should commence with a few individuals, thus have a select society of the virtuous, and those who would walk circumspectly: commended them for their zeal, but said sometimes their zeal was not according to knowledge. One principal object of the institution was to purge out iniquity: said they must be extremely careful in all their examinations, or the consequences would be serious.
All difficulties which might and would cross our way must be surmounted, though the soul be tried, the heart faint, and hands hang down. Must not retrace our steps; there must be decision of character, aside from sympathy. When instructed, we must obey that voice, observe the laws of the kingdom of God,17 that the blessing of Heaven may rest down upon us. All must act in concert, or nothing can be done, and should move according to the ancient priesthood; hence the saints should be a select people,18 separate from all the evils of the world—choice, virtuous, and holy. The Lord was going to make of the Church of Jesus Christ a kingdom of priests, a holy people, a chosen generation, as in Enoch’s day, having all the gifts as illustrated to the church in Paul’s epistles and teachings to the churches in his day19—that it is the privilege of each member to live long and enjoy health. He then blessed the saints.”20
[April] 28 .—At two o’clock. p.m., I met the members of the “Female Relief Society,” and after presiding at the admission of many new members, gave a lecture on the Priesthood, showing how the sisters would come in possession of the privileges, blessings, and gifts of the priesthood, and that the signs should follow them, such as healing the sick, casting out devils, &c., and that they might attain unto these blessings by a virtuous life, and conversation, and diligence in keeping all the commandments;21 a synopsis of which was reported by Miss E. R. Snow.
“Prest. Joseph Smith arose and called the attention of the meeting to the 12th chapter 1st Corinthians. “Now concerning spiritual gifts, I would not have you ignorant.”22 Said that the passage in the 3rd verse, which reads, “No man [p. ] can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost,” should be translated “no man can know that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost.”23 He continued to read the chapter, and give instructions respecting the different offices, and the necessity of every individual acting in the sphere allotted him or her, and filling the several offices to which they were appointed.
Spoke of the disposition of many men24 to consider the lower offices in the church dishonorable, and to look with jealous eyes upon the standing of others who are called to preside over them.25 That it was the folly and26 nonsense of the human heart for a person to be aspiring to other stations than those to which they are appointed of God for them to occupy;27 that it was better for individuals to magnify their respective callings, and wait patiently till God shall say to them, “come up higher.”
He said the reason of these remarks being made was, that some little foolish things were28 circulating in the society, against some sisters29 not doing right in laying hands on the sick.30 Said if the people had common sympathies they would rejoice31 that the sick could be healed; that the time had not been before that these things could be in their proper order; that the church is not fully32 organized, in its proper order, and cannot be, until the Temple is completed, where places will be provided for the administration of the ordinances of the priesthood.33
President Smith continued the subject, by quoting34 the commission given to the ancient apostles in Mark, 16th chapter, 15, 16, 17, 18 verses, 35 “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized, shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. And these signs shall follow them that believe: in my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.”36
No matter who believeth, these signs, such as healing the sick, casting out devils, &c., should follow all that believe, whether male or female. He asked the Society if they could not see by this sweeping promise,37 that wherein they are ordained, it is the privilege of those set apart to administer in that authority, which is conferred on them; and if the sisters should have faith to heal the sick, let all hold their tongues, and let everything roll on.
He said, if God has appointed him, and chosen him as an instrument to lead the church, why not let him lead it through? Why stand in the way when he is appointed to do a thing? Who knows the mind of God? Does he not reveal things differently from what we expect? He remarked that he was continually rising, although he had everything bearing him down, standing in his way, and opposing; notwithstanding all this opposition,38 he always comes out right in the end.
Respecting females administering for the healing of the sick,39 he further remarked, there could be no devil in it, if God gave his sanction by healing; that there could be no more sin in any female laying hands on and praying for40 the sick, than in wetting the face with water: it is no sin for any body to administer41 that has faith, or if the sick have faith to be healed by their administration.
He reproved those that were disposed to find fault with the management of the concerns of the church,42 saying God had called him to lead the church, and he would lead it right;43 those that undertake to interfere will be ashamed when their own folly is made manifest;44 that he calculates to organ[i]ze45 the church in its proper order as soon as the Temple is completed.46
President Smith continued by speaking of the difficulties he had to surmount ever since the commencement of the work, in consequence of aspiring men. “Great big elders,” as he called them, who had caused him much trouble; to whom he had taught the things of the kingdom47 in private councils, they would then go forth into the world and proclaim the things he had taught them, as their own revelations; said the same aspiring disposition will be in this society, and must be guarded against; that every person should stand, and act in the place appointed, and thus sanctify the Society and get it pure. He said he had been trampled under foot by aspiring elders, for all were infected with that spirit; for instance, John E. Page and others had been aspiring;48 they could not be exalted, but must run away as though the care and authority of the church were vested with them. He said he49 had a subtle devil to deal with, and could only curb him by being humble.
As he had this opportunity, he was going to instruct the ladies of this Society,50 and point out the way for them to conduct themselves, that they might act according to the will of God; that he did not know that he should have many opportunities of teaching them, as they were going to be left to themselves; they would not long have him to instruct them; that the church would not have his instructions long, and the world would not be troubled with him a great while, and would not have his teachings.
He spoke of delivering the keys of the Priesthood to the church, and said that the faithful members of the Relief Society should receive them in connection with their husbands, that the Saints whose integrity has been tried and proved faithful, might know how to ask the Lord and receive an answer; for according to his prayers, God had appointed him elsewhere.51
He exhorted the sisters always to concentrate their faith and prayers for, and place confidence in their husbands, whom God has appointed for them to honor, and in those faithful men whom God has placed at the head of the Church to lead his people;52 that we should arm and sustain53 them with our prayers; for the keys of the kingdom are about to be given to them, and they may be able to detect everything false; as well as to all54 the elders who shall prove their integrity in due season.55
He said if one member becomes corrupt, and you know it, you must immediately put it away, or it will either injure or destroy the whole body.56 The sympathies of the heads of the church have induced them to bear a long time with those who were corrupt until they are obliged to cut them off, lest all become contaminated;57 you must put down iniquity, and by your good examples, stimulate58 the elders to good works; if you do right, there is no danger of your going too fast.
He said he did not care how fast we run in the path of virtue; resist evil, and there is no danger; God, men, and angels will not condemn those that resist everything that is evil, and devils cannot;59 as well might the devil seek to dethrone Jehovah, as overthrow an innocent soul60 that resists everything which is evil.
This is a charitable Society, and according to your natures; it is natural for females to have feelings of charity and benevolence.61 You are now placed in a situation in which you can act according to those sympathies which God has planted in your bosoms.
If you live up to these principles, how great and glorious will be your reward in the celestial kingdom!!62 If you live up to your privileges, the angels cannot be restrained from being your associates. Females, if they are pure and innocent, can come into the presence of God; for what is more pleasing to God than innocence; you must be innocent, or you cannot come up before God; if we would come before God, we must keep ourselves pure, as he is pure.63
The devil has great power to deceive;64 he will so transform things as to make one gape at those who are doing the will of God. You need not be teazing your husbands65 because of their deeds, but let the weight of your innocence, kindness and affections66 be felt, which is more mighty than a millstone hung about the neck; not war, not jangle, not contradiction, or dispute,67 but meekness, love, purity—these are the things that should magnify you in the eyes of all good men.68 Achan must be brought to light, iniquity must be purged out from the midst of the Saints;69 then the veil will be rent, and the blessings of heaven will flow down—they will roll down like the Mississippi river.
If this Society listen to the council of the Almighty, through the heads of the church, they shall have power to command queens in their midst.70
I now deliver it as a prophecy, if the inhabitants of this state, with the people of the surrounding country, will turn unto the Lord with all their hearts, ten years will not roll round before the kings and queens of the earth will come unto Zion, and pay their respects to the leaders of this people: they shall come with their millions, and shall contribute of their abundance for the relief of the poor, and the building up and beautifying of Zion.71
After this instruction, you will be responsible for your own sins; it is a desirable honor that you should so walk before our Heavenly Father as to save yourselves; we are all responsible to God for the manner we improve the light and wisdom given by our Lord to enable us to save ourselves.72
President Smith continued reading from the above mentioned chapter, and73 to give instructions respecting the order of God, as established in the church, saying every one should aspire only to magnify his own office and calling.74
He then commenced reading the 13th chapter. “Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal;[”]75 and said, don’t be limited in your views with regard to your neighbor’s virtues, but beware of self-righteousness,76 and be limited in the estimate of your own virtues, and not think yourselves more righteous than others; you must enlarge your souls towards each other, if you would do like Jesus, and carry your fellow-creatures to Abraham’s bosom. He said he had manifested long-suffering, forbearance and patience towards the church, and also to his enemies; and we must bear with each others’ failings, as an indulgent parent bears with the foibles of his children.77
President Smith then read the 2nd verse. “Though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.[”]78 He then said, though a man79 should become mighty, do great things, overturn mountains, perform mighty works,80 and should then turn from his high station to do evil,81 to eat and drink with the drunken, all his former deeds would not save him, but he would go to destruction! As you increase in innocence and virtue, as you increase in goodness, let your hearts expand, let them be enlarged towards others; you must be long-suffering, and bear with the faults and errors of mankind.
How precious are the souls of men! The female part of the community are apt to be contracted in their views. You must not be contracted, but you must be liberal in your feelings. Let this Society teach women how to behave towards their husbands, to treat them with mildness and affection. When a man is borne down with trouble, when he is perplexed with care and difficulty,82 if he can meet a smile instead of an argument or a murmur83—if he can meet with mildness, it will calm down his soul and soothe his feelings; when the mind is going to despair, it needs a solace of affection and kindness.84
You will receive instruction through the order of the Priesthood which God has established, through the medium of those appointed to lead, guide, and direct the affairs of the church in this last dispensation;85 and I now turn the key in your behalf in the name of the Lord,86 and this Society shall rejoice, and knowledge and intelligence shall flow down from this time henceforth; this is the beginning of better days to the poor and needy, who shall be made to rejoice and pour forth blessings on your heads.87
When you go home, never give a cross or unkind word to your husbands,88 but let kindness, charity, and love crown your works henceforward; don’t envy the finery and fleeting show of sinners, for they are in a miserable situation; but as far as you can, have mercy on them, for in a short time God will destroy them, if they will not repent and turn unto him.89
Let your labors be mostly confined to those around you, in the circle of your own acquaintance,90 as far as knowledge is concerned, it may extend to all the world; but your administrations should be confined to the circle of your immediate acquaintance, and more especially to the members of the Relief Society. Those ordained to preside over and91 lead you, are authorized to appoint the different officers, as the circumstances shall require.
If any have a matter to reveal, let it be in your own tongue; do not indulge too much in the exercise of92 the gift of tongues, or the devil will take advantage of the innocent and unwary.93 You may speak in tongues for your own comfort, but I lay this down for a rule, that if anything is taught by the gift of tongues, it is not to be received for doctrine.
President Smith then gave instruction respecting the propriety of females administering to the sick by the prayer of faith, the laying on of hands, or the anointing with oil; and said it was according to revelation that the sick should be nursed with herbs and mild food, and not by the hand of an enemy. Who are better qualified to administer than our faithful and zealous sisters, whose hearts are full of faith, tenderness, sympathy, and compassion? No one.94 Said he was never placed in similar circumstances before, and never had given the same instruction; and closed his instructions by expressing his heartfelt95 satisfaction in improving this opportunity.
The Spirit of the Lord was poured out in a very powerful manner, never to be forgotten by those present on this interesting occasion.