From the Archives: An 1825 Letter Possibly Mentioning Joseph Smith

By April 8, 2009

…and don’t worry, it doesn’t mention any salamanders.

While digging through the Beinecke Library at Yale last August, I started glancing through some random papers collections of individuals who lived in upstate New York around the same time the Smith family resided in Palmyra. Among the many collections I looked through were the letters of Owen S. Ward, a common farmer in Wayne County during the first half of the nineteenth century. After a couple hours I was starting to consider giving it a break and going back to what I had came to Beinecke to research, when I paused while reading the opening line of a letter from Clarissa Ward to Amasa and Mary Angel: “With pleasure I embrace this oportunity of writing you again by Joseph Smith.”

[pause]

Umm, what?

Then, further along in the correspondence is another letter addressed to Amasa and Mary Angel, this time from their father Owen Ward. He also implies that someone named “Joseph Smith” was offering them a chance to write the letter, meaning that he was willing to deliver it: “I have just returned from helping survey Esqr Velies farm as a chain bearer and am verry tiard but as we have an opportunity of sending a letter out by Joseph Smith I will try to write a little to night but you must excuse my bad writing and bad composition…” While we cannot be certain that this is our Joseph Smith–there was apparently at least one other individual by that name in the area at the time, though this “imposter” Joseph Smith was much older[1]–it is a good possibility that this is a mention of the young prophet during the few years between the first visit with angel Moroni and the reception of the plates.[2] This was a period when Joseph was moving from job to job trying to earn money, most notably it was around this time that he worked for Josiah Stohl and, as a result, met Emma. The letter is written from a town called Pleasant Valley, which I have not been able to locate, but if it was in Wayne County then it couldn’t have been far from Palmyra.[3] These letters speak of this Joseph Smith as if they were familiar with him, yet I have not been able to dig up anything on the Ward family.

Why does this matter, you are probably asking? Well, because being mentioned as the letter-runner is not the only time the letters speaks Joseph Smith. These letters are full of scriptural allusions, demonstrating the religious revivals that had spread across upstate New York like wildfires in 1824.[4] Clarissa’s letter mentions that she has been attending sermons at a Churh and that though they have heard of “revivles [sic] of religion at a distance…alas their does not appear to be any” in their particular village that year. Owen’s letter, after going into several temporal affairs, also speaks of religion and offers a very enticing (at least for us) anecdote:

I think I get along with my work as well as if I had George we live well and work hard and are quite contented but are not suitably thankfull as we aught to be for the blessing we receive as there is now revival of religion we are verry sluggish but we hope and trust that you injoy the same temporal blessings that we do and have grateful harts for it and I hope that you feel the ten thousand obligations you are under to God for the showers of Divine Grace that is falling around you there is a large shower falling in sipea [sp.?][.] Joseph Smith has mad[e] a public ackno[wle]dgement of his faults and asked forgiveness from God and man—

Again, could this be our Joseph Smith mentioned here, confessing his sins in front of some sort of religious gathering?

Such an action seems to fit in well with the young Joseph Smith. The religious impulses of the day, especially when connected with religious revivals, were designed to drive men to repentance and confession in preparation for salvation. Most of Joseph’s early visionary experiences came as a result of begging forgiveness and then being assured that his sins were forgiven.[5] We know of a brief affiliation with other denominations during this period,[6] as well as his later admission of youthful “follies” after the First Vision. One of the most predominant features of Joseph Smith’s character, at least to me, is his incessant need of spiritual assurance, and this “public ackno[wle]dgement of his faults” in hopes for forgiveness seems like something he would have done.

However, as much as I would like this to be a bonefied document about the Mormon Prophet, it just can’t be determined for sure.

Any thoughts on this document? (I am also secretly hoping that miraculously someone has more information on the Owen S. Ward family.)

_________________________________

[1] Several individuals knowledgeable with the New York era are currently looking into the logistics of this letter.

[2] Unfortunately, none of the other letters in the collection make any mention of Joseph Smith or offer any more clues.

[3] A link that Justin provides in comment #4 shows that while this letter is heading for Wayne County, the city of Pleasant is found in eastern New York.

[4] The numerous revivals in 1824 have led some to speculate that it was during that year, and not 1820, that Joseph Smith encountered the religious “excitement” that he wrote about in 1839. Such a topic is tangential to this post, however.

[5] Joseph Smith’s earliest accounts of the First Vision and the visit of Moroni both mention that he was praying for forgiveness of sins and that the first words from the heavenly visitors were that his sins were forgiven.

[6] Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, 37; Marvin Hill, Quest for Refuge, 12.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins


Comments

  1. […] mad world of mind created an interesting post today on From the Archives: An 1825 Letter Possibly Mentioning Joseph SmithHere’s a short outline…she has been attending sermons at a Churh and that though they have heard of “revivles [sic] of religion at a distance…alas their does not… […]

    Pingback by Topics about Religion » From the Archives: An 1825 Letter Possibly Mentioning Joseph Smith — April 8, 2009 @ 6:53 am

  2. That archive sounds like great fun.

    I think you’re misreading the JS conversion narrative here. They are most likely describing an entry into a church covenant, witness of regeneration, and I would think we would have heard if JS did more than transiently join a Methodist class meeting in Palmyra. they make it in this letter sound like JS is an established neighbor, one responding to the revival of religion in their hamlet.

    I see where you’re coming from, but I’m dubious that this refers to a transient hired hand. JS is just too common a name.

    Comment by smb — April 8, 2009 @ 7:38 am

  3. Ben, send me an e-mail privately abraxas_bear @ comcast dot com. I believe I may have something useful for you (and your letter may be useful for me as well), but I have to double-check one of my files at home to be sure.

    Comment by Nick Literski — April 8, 2009 @ 9:06 am

  4. smb: Although I see what you’re saying, and your theory has as much legitimacy as the one presented in the post, but I don’t think the letter makes it clear that JS is an established neighbor. They could be speaking familiar of him with who they are writing to because it appears that he had served as a letter-runner before. And I don’t think the conversion narrative has to be as formal as committing as you are reading it, but it definitely could be that. And, according to the most recent census before this letter was written, there were no Joseph Smiths in Wayne County (our JS was not living there at the time).

    That said, I agree with you that we can’t at all be confident in this Joseph Smith’s identity.

    Nick: will do.

    Comment by Ben — April 8, 2009 @ 9:29 am

  5. Amasa and Mary Angel

    Parents of John Carpenter Angell, an 1847 graduate of Yale with roots in Pleasant Valley, Dutchess County, New York, and Wayne County, New York?

    Comment by Justin — April 8, 2009 @ 9:52 am

  6. Good find, Justin. It seems that this would place Pleasant Valley in eastern New York (with the letter going to Wayne County), and lessening the chances of it being out JS.

    Comment by Ben — April 8, 2009 @ 10:08 am

  7. Also, someone from the Historical Department that was looking into this letter let me know that after investigating the circumstances, she doubts that it is our JS.

    Even though it’s looking like it’s not ours, I’m glad to get it cleared up.

    Comment by Ben — April 8, 2009 @ 10:13 am

  8. Did you ever ask Don Enders about it? Would be worth a shot at seeing if he knows anything that might help.

    Comment by Jared T. — April 8, 2009 @ 10:15 am

  9. Jared: Don was actually one of the first two people I informed, and he was intrigued but wanted to look at it more.

    Comment by Ben — April 8, 2009 @ 10:33 am

  10. Ben,

    Email me offline with Don Ender’s email address. I used to live in the same ward with him, and have lost track of him since I moved to Seattle. He may be able to help me with something I am trying to research about the failed Arizona colonizing mission of 1873, involving one of my ancestors.

    Comment by kevinf — April 8, 2009 @ 12:07 pm

  11. Kevin,

    Who’s your ancestor? I may be able to help.

    Comment by Christopher — April 8, 2009 @ 12:48 pm

  12. Christopher,

    My ancestors were Frederick Augustus King, and his wife Charlotte Emma Senior. She was one of only six women on the trip, and her oldest daughter was the only child, according to the accounts I’ve read. Sorry for the threadjack, but Brigham Young was not too happy when they came back, and made some snarky comment about how they should have sent the relief society sisters, but I’ve lost the reference, and later colonizing efforts to the Little Colorado went to different places than the effort led by Horton D. Haight. I’ve got some Deseret News articles about the mission, Henry Holme’s account, Haight’s report to Brigham Young, Charlotte’s story of the trip, and a few other odds and ends. I’d like to find that quote by BY, and also any other journal accounts. Anything you might be able to point me to would be appreciated. I also hope to get down to SLC this summer after the History Library move is completed to do some research, as well.

    Thanks, Kevin

    Comment by kevinf — April 8, 2009 @ 1:46 pm

  13. I’ll see what I can dig up in some of my old files on Mormon settlement in Arizona. I’m pretty swamped right now, so I ask for your patience. And if/when you get down to SLC this summer, let me know and maybe we can meet up to share notes.

    Sorry for the threadjack, Ben. Keep us posted on further developments with this letter. I’m intrigued.

    Comment by Christopher — April 8, 2009 @ 2:14 pm

  14. Thanks for letting a rank amateur hang out here. I’ve got lots of patience, ie no theses deadline or publications pending. Just a great place to read and learn about historiography and Mormon history.

    Comment by kevinf — April 8, 2009 @ 3:00 pm

  15. Ben –

    A very engaging post. Simply sticking to a tedious task, like you did at the library, is how great discoveries are potentially made.

    You explain that these letters appear to have been hand-carried (by the Joseph Smith whom the writers mention). Even so, hand-carried letters of that era usually gave the recipient’s name and the town of destination in the address portion (written on the outside of the folded letter). It would be very helpful to know if this was the case with any of the letters you examined, because that would then provide a clear “trajectory” of travel between two points, by this Joseph Smith.

    You describe Owen Ward as a farmer in Wayne County, yet my very casual glance at census records seems to show the only likely Owen Ward as living consistently in Dutchess County 1820-40. There was a Theodore Velos living in southern Dutchess County in 1820, conceivably correlating with Owen’s statement of being fatigued after carrying the chains for men surveying “Esqr Velies farm.”

    To further muddy the waters, I tried (again, very casually) to find some Dutchess County location to correspond to Owen’s mention of “a large shower [of grace] falling in sipea . . .” No immediate luck, although I’m not from there, and might not think of phonetic possibilities. But what came to me instantly – however geographically unlikely – was Scipio (silent c) in Cayuga County, where about 1825, “an extensive revival was enjoyed . . . ,” mentioned by James H. Hotchkin, A History of the Purchase and Settlement of Western New York, and of the Rise, Progress, and Present State of the Presbyterian Church in That Section . . . (New York: Published by M. W. Dodd, 1848), 350 (available on Google Books, here).

    Sorry to ramble, but I do this stuff all day long, decade after decade, and would love to work with the original mss. you saw to see what I could figure out.

    Rick

    Comment by Rick Grunder — April 11, 2009 @ 1:15 pm

  16. Hey there,

    If I found something like this, I would immediately contact Susan Easton Black. She is the foremost scholar on Joseph that I know, and she would be able to give you a wealth of information about this.

    susan_black@byu.edu

    Jon

    Comment by Jonathan — April 16, 2009 @ 10:52 am

  17. Thanks for the suggestion, Jonathan. I’m sure she’ll be well appraised.

    Stop by any time.

    Comment by Jared T — April 16, 2009 @ 11:28 am

  18. Yay! I love Susan Easton Black, too! I totally agree, Jonathan. She’s everything these “scholars” at the Juvenile Instructor (what kind of silly name is that, anyway?) wish they could be. She’s dreamy.

    Comment by Wufanda — April 16, 2009 @ 11:47 am

  19. Right you are, Wufanda, right you are.

    Comment by Jared T — April 16, 2009 @ 11:53 am

  20. [speechless]

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — April 16, 2009 @ 12:04 pm

  21. Interesting post Ben. I have a friend named Mark that lives near Bluffdale that might be interested. He’s an expert in such things. 🙂 Although this may not be our Joseph Smith, I think it provides some nice contextual evidence to our understanding of 1820s New York and the environment in which early Mormonism grew up.

    Comment by Brett D. — April 16, 2009 @ 12:20 pm


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