From the Archives: Joseph Smith III Congratulates Wilford Woodruff on the Manifesto

By August 8, 2012

Joseph Stuart is a BA student in American Studies at Brigham Young University, entering his last semester. He recently “rocked the GRE” in the words of his fiancee, and is planning on going to grad school in history or religious studies. He has worked on several fascinating projects, one of which examines the social history of the Woodruff Manifesto, from which the following document is taken. Let’s give a warm welcome to Joseph.

This summer I have had the good fortune to  work for the Charles Redd Center at BYU, attempting to  examine  responses to the 1890 Woodruff Manifesto.  By canvasing nearly 1000 journals, diaries and autobiographies, I found a veritable cornucopia of results, from the bemused to the belligerent. One reaction that was of particular interest, though not directly related to the Manifesto, came from a note in the Abraham Cannon diaries.[i] It said simply:

“I attended my Quorum meeting…spent nearly two hours in interesting and instructive conversation on various points of doctrine. The subject was the Josephite [RLDS] Church, its authority and gifts, was discussed, in the course of which John Henry Smith read a letter to him form the head of that Church, Joseph Smith [III] dated Nov’r 7th. The people and authorities here are congratulated therein for their abandonment of plural marriage, and the writer suggests that this matter could not have originated with the Lord or it would have remained unchanged.

This man is certainly not sincere or he would have accepted the truth long ago, as he has had abundant evidence given him that his father, the Prophet, had more than one wife.”

This tantalizing reference piqued my interest, and I resolved to find what JSIII had to say after the cessation of plural marriages. After nearly two months of archival work, I stumbled across the Wilford Woodruff Correspondence Register[ii] at the Church History Library, and found a letter that was very similar to the letter to John Henry Smith. It reads:

Office of


Of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ

President Wilford Woodruff                                                                       Lamoni, Iowa Nov 8th, 1890

Salt Lake City, Utah

Dear Sir: —

Permit me to congratulate you on the action of yourself and the late Conference of October 6th; yourself, for presenting the manifesto and the advice in contained; the Conference for accepting and adopting the advice given.

For the advance of the Angel’s message and the final triumph of truth,

Yours respectfully,

Joseph Smith

 There are several intriguing aspects of the letter.

  1. “The advice.”
  2. “the Angel’s message and the final triumph of truth.”

Like the Federal Government and many Latter-day Saints, JSIII does not appear to know whether or not the Manifesto was a press release, a formal disavowal of practice, or a renunciation of belief. The Federal Government went to the point of asking President Woodruff about whether cohabitation was still permitted during a federal inquiry in 1892 when the Church was seeking amnesty, a fair question considering how many plural marriages were still approved after the Manifesto was released, and the exodus of a significant minority of LDS polygamists to Mexico and Canada. This understanding of the Manifesto as “advice” may have led to the Second Manifesto, when Joseph F. Smith put some teeth into the Church’s anti-polygamy stance in 1904.

The second area of importance is the phrase “the angel’s message.” Rather than focusing on, for example, “my father’s teachings” or “priesthood revelation,” JSIII says “the angel’s message,” referring to Moroni’s multiple visitations. I suppose that this was typical of early Mormonism, a focus on Cumorah (the Book of Mormon) rather than the Grove (Priesthood succession and restoration), and the RLDS (now Community of Christ) would logically follow that thought.

The second part of the second statement, “the final triumph of truth” appears to be a subtle slight aimed at the Church’s new stance. Joseph F. Smith, JSIII’s cousin, had affidavits sworn by the wives of Joseph Smith saying that the Prophet had lived and taught polygamy. JFS ultimately sent these affidavits to RLDS headquarters (the “abundant evidence” cited by Cannon in his diary). The RLDS responded by attempting to persuade the “Utah Church” through mail and missionaries that polygamy was an invention of Brigham Young rather than revelation through Joseph Smith.

It is difficult for me to fathom the relationship between the RLDS and the LDS Churches at this time, when cousins led or would soon lead their respective branches of Mormonism (JSIII and Joseph F. Smith, who served in the First Presidency at the time). Being able to write the Utah Church in the wake of their renunciation of polygamy, after such a protracted public and personal battle over the origin of the practice, must have been especially satisfying to JSIII.


[i] Cannon, Abraham H. (Abraham Hoagland), 1859-1896. Candid Insights of a Mormon Apostle : The Diaries of Abraham H. Cannon, 1889-1895. Ed. Edward Leo Lyman 1942-. Salt Lake City: Signature Books in association with the Smith-Pettit Foundation, 2010. December 2, 1890.

[ii] Wilford Woodruff General Correspondence File 1887-1898, LDS Church Archives.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Fascinating, Joseph. Thanks for contributing it here. Amanda H-K has spent some time going through the larger body of correspondence between the children of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, and I think is considering a book project on the topic down the line (after her in-progress dissertation).

    In addition to what you highlight in the post, I’m intrigued by the following line from Abram Cannon’s diary entry:

    The subject was the Josephite [RLDS] Church, its authority and gifts, was discussed […]

    Does anyone know what he might’ve meant by “gifts” in this context?

    Comment by Christopher — August 8, 2012 @ 10:19 am

  2. Fascinating, Joseph. I look forward to seeing what else you come up with on this worth-while project.

    Comment by Ben P — August 8, 2012 @ 10:33 am

  3. Chris: I wondered the same thing, it seems an odd thing for a “Brighamite” apostle to say. I’ll have to look more into the Cannon journal, and to continue to hunt for the correspondence with John Smith.

    Comment by J Stuart — August 8, 2012 @ 11:10 am

  4. Joseph, this is great stuff. I like your analysis of JS III’s emphasis on Moroni, rather than on Nauvoo Mormonism, as it provides a window into how both groups used and conceptualized their shared past. This letter can be seen as an important moment in the long struggle between the Josephites and the Brighamites over how best to remember Nauvoo polygamy, one that in some ways continues into the present with some of the splinter RLDS groups.

    Comment by David G. — August 8, 2012 @ 11:33 am

  5. Fascinating, Joseph. One thing I have noticed in going through the correspondence of the cousins is that several of Joseph Smith’s nieces and nephews as well as his sons rejected polygamy. At one point, Agnes Coolbrith’s daughters (including Ina) accepted Joseph Smith’s revelations, but they vehemently denied that polygamy was a divine or even acceptable practice. Eventually, they would come to reject Mormonism all together – largely because of polygamy. Joseph Smith III also seems to have assumed that his cousin John Smith had some misgivings about polygamy and wrote him to congratulate him on putting away his second wife before the manifesto.

    Comment by Amanda HK — August 8, 2012 @ 11:46 am

  6. Christopher(#1), here are AHC’s other uses in his diary of the word “gifts” from the same period, which might help with your question:

    June 1, 1890: “he did not refer to the gifts of apostles, prophets, etc., which God has placed in His Church for the perfecting of the Saints and the work of the ministry, but referred only to the graces which individuals should possess.” (referencing a non-Mormon sermon heard in New York)

    August 5, 1890: I know that we may receive the ministering of angels and many great gifts if we will but live for them. (citing Brigham Young, Jr.)

    January 28, 1891: “I love you all and desire God to give you the same gifts which He bestows upon me.” (citing George Q. Cannon)

    April 26, 1891: “Orson Smith was speaking when I entered of the decrease of the gifts of the gospel in our midst, and urged the Saints to so live as to be worthy of these blessings. … Jos. W. Summerhays then referred to the way the Saints should live in order to obtain the gifts of the gospel.”

    July 5, 1891: “In the gospel there is a corresponding gift for every weakness to which we are heir, and these will be granted us when we ask God for them in the proper way.”(citing Francis M. Lyman)

    October5, 1891: “… the Gospel, which will make us perfect men and women capable of exercising all the gifts and graces of the Lord” (citing Francis M. Lyman)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 8, 2012 @ 12:52 pm

  7. Thanks, Ardis. That is wonderfully helpful.

    Comment by Christopher — August 8, 2012 @ 2:44 pm

  8. Agreed, Chris. Ardis that is tremendously helpful.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 8, 2012 @ 5:35 pm

  9. Thanks for the post, Stuart. Looking forward to seeing the broader fruits of the Manifesto project.

    Comment by Jared T — August 8, 2012 @ 6:35 pm

  10. Great post, Stuart, and sounds like a great project.

    Comment by Nate R. — August 9, 2012 @ 11:56 am

  11. Every time I think of this topic, I wonder what it was all about. Polygamy helped split the church up, figured heavily in the leadership crisis of 1844, almost destroyed the church in Utah prior to the Manifesto, and then it is simply done away with. I must confess a bias here. In my own family nothing good came from polygamy except heartache and unhappiness.

    Comment by Aaron — August 10, 2012 @ 6:54 am

  12. Aaron, I can say the exact same thing about monogamy in my family. (Since we never mastered successful monogamy, no one ever dared try polygamy.)

    Comment by Bostonian observer — August 10, 2012 @ 9:59 pm


Recent Comments

wvs on From the Archives: Mormonism: “Cool, Chris. "Poligamists." Publicity reached far and wide!”

Ryan T. on From the Archives: Mormonism: “Nice, Chris. I imagine there are a number of these "almost" stories that don't generally make it into historical narratives. Great that you've recovered this…”

David G. on From the Archives: Mormonism: “This is fun, thanks Chris.”

Christopher on From the Archives: Mormonism: “Thanks, Janiece. I don't know about missionaries in particular, Stapley, but I've certainly seen other Americans denied passage on British ships (and vice versa) during heightened…”

J. Stapley on From the Archives: Mormonism: “Thanks, Christopher. Was it common elsewhere in the world for missionaries to be denied passage at this time? I don't seem to remember…”

JJohnson on From the Archives: Mormonism: “Good work, Christopher.”

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