From the Archives: A Visitor to Nauvoo’s Take on Joseph Smith

By September 18, 2008

I had the privilege a couple weeks ago of plowing through the Beinecke Library out at Yale in search of LDS-related stuff. Specifically, I got to spend a couple days just looking through the D. Michael Quinn Collection–quite a treasure-trove of documents, specifcally relating to “transitional” period Mormonism.However, there were still a few things dealing with early Mormonism and Joseph Smith. The following is a journal entry for a gentelman named James M. Sharpe. Unfortunately, I don’t know anything about him beyond the fact that he kept a journal during his travels in the mid 1840’s. This entry comes just a few months before Joseph’s death:

February 25, 1844: I walked about the City of the Holy Joe until I found the Prophets House the “Nauvoo Mansion” where I “put up”—I sold my goods in Nauvoo at Auction – remained in Nauvoo about two weeks. The City contains about 17000 inhabits as I was informed and suppose to be near the truth – Joe Smith the Mormon Prophet is a large tolerably good looking man 38 years of age – light hair light eyes nothing very extraordinary in his appearance – quite boyish in his conduct fond of fun-frolick & brandy – prides himself much upon his physical powers – loves to contend with any one in wrestling-scuffling “Pulling stick”. “Casting Stone” “Throwing the axe” or any such gynmastic exercise – fond talking and being listened to by the gaping staring-astonished ignorant Crowd-proud of his notoriety-possesed of the most astonishing degree of vanity and unblushing impudence and confidence. Neither dignity, humility or solemnity in his walk or conversation- violently abusive and revengeful disposition – uses much profane & vulgar language – denounces every one who does not agree with him – asserts boldly and openly that all Sectarians are notorious fools, ignoramuses – blockheads – that all Missourians are infernal scoundrels – hellish rascals and thieves, robbers and murderers – His authority and power among the Mormons is unlimited his word and commands and requests – the word, commands & requests of the Almighty to the Saints – I have not time to dwell upon this Subject or any other now.[1]

Now it’s time to play historian. The text is absolutely filled with stereotypes and commonly-held notions of the day, from Joseph Smith’s “rugged” nature to his absolute authority (almost to the extent that it seems Sharpe may just be writing the popular beliefs of the time). What specifically sticks out to you, and why?


[1] James M. Sharpe Journal (1843-1848), D. Michael Quinn Collection, Beinecke Library. Original holograph is also housed in the Beinecke.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins From the Archives


  1. My impression is that Sharpe’s words brand him as both a Sectarian and a Missourian.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — September 18, 2008 @ 12:36 pm

  2. I wonder if Sharpe’s noting that Smith was particularly defensive (or in his words, “violently abusive and revengeful”) has anything to do with the various challenges to Smith’s authority and apostasies going on in Nauvoo at the time.

    Comment by Christopher — September 18, 2008 @ 1:13 pm

  3. I had never heard the expression “City of the Holy Joe”
    Was the Nauvoo Mansion the only place for visitors to “put up”?

    I see nothing to indicate he actually spent two weeks in Nauvoo. There is no knowledge that could only be gained by first hand experience. He could have read any of that in one of the dozen regional newspapers. He gives no examples or anecdotes to explain his judgements. It has a second-hand ring to it.

    I’m not saying he wasn’t there. That may just be his style. Does the rest of his journal read that way?

    gaping staring-astonished ignorant Crowd

    Hey, these are my people he’s talking about.

    Comment by BruceC — September 18, 2008 @ 1:59 pm

  4. Chris: Interesting observations.

    Bruce: I had the same thoughts. Sadly, since I was looking at someone’s (Quinn’s) transcription and summary of the entry (I wish I had time to go look at the original journal), I don’t have much information. Quinn’s summary does, however, say that Sharpe’s journals do chronicle his travels through those areas and mention the towns he stayed in both before and after Nauvoo, so it seems reasonable that he really did visit the “City of the Holy Joe.” But, as you aptly notice, it looks like he doesn’t feel the need to vary from the typical description you could get from any local newspaper.

    Hey, these are my people he’s talking about.

    Those are my people too; two of my ancestors lived in Nauvoo at this time.

    Comment by Ben — September 18, 2008 @ 2:08 pm

  5. Many observers at Nauvoo were offended by Smith’s failure to fit the bill of a clergyman. A lot of this is just language to indicate the traveler found him rather “common.” And the language the Nauvooans used to describe Missourians would have been seen as over the top by non-Mormon visitors. I suspect he was in Nauvoo but didn’t really have much access to JSJ.

    Comment by smb — September 18, 2008 @ 9:26 pm


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