When Did Joseph Smith Know What He Knew?

By April 1, 2015

Okay, kind of a goofy way of putting the question, but in my last post, I said that I argued in my dissertation that I believed that JS often knew about things much earlier than when he first clearly taught them. I base this claim on a few point, most notably my assertion that I think JS was influenced early on by texts that had a lot of what we would consider “Mormon ideas.” As I’ve tried to stress a lot around here, I don’t see this claim as an attack, but as a larger claim that JS was gathering “Truth” together from the sources that had it. Nor do I see such claims as antithetical to revelatory claims since we’re supposed to seek wisdom “by study and faith” and then ask God “if it be right.”  

So with that in mind, here’s part of my introduction to my chapter 6 “The Plan of Salvation” where I treat JS’s teachings about God’s plan of sending preexistent beings to earth to progress, get bodies, with the chance of becoming deified.  It’s an overview of my claim that JS knew about a lot of the Nauvoo doctrine much earlier. It’s pages 386-87 of my dissertation.

In his Liberty-jail letter, Smith said that additional revelation was forthcoming [DC 121:28-32]. William Phelps made a similar claim in a letter to Oliver Cowdery in 1835:

New light is occasionally bursting in to our minds, of the sacred scriptures, for which I am truly thankful. We shall by and bye learn that we were with God in another world, before the foundation of the world, and had our agency: that we came into this world and have our agency, in order that we may prepare ourselves for a kingdom of glory; become archangels, even the sons of God where the man is neither without the woman, nor the woman without the man in the Lord: A consummation of glory, and happiness, and perfection so greatly to be wished, that I would not miss of it for the fame of ten worlds.[1]

Like Smith’s Liberty-jail letter, Phelps gave clues as to what the additional information would be, making references to pre-existence, deification, and eternal marriage. Smith would elaborate on these themes in his Nauvoo speeches and revelations, formulating them into a description of a divine plan that Smith called “the plan of salvation”[2] where pre-mortal beings were sent to earth by God to learn how to progress to become like God (eternal marriage being one of the necessary steps for that progression.)

Phelps said that the Mormons would learn about these things “by and bye” but as I discussed in previous chapters, Smith had been hinting at these themes from the beginning: cryptic references to pre-existence and deification can be found in the Book of Mormon [Chapter Three], which also hinted at unorthodox marital practices [Chapter Five]. But Smith only began to emphasize these themes in Nauvoo. As late as May 1843, Smith declared, “[The] design of the great God in sending us into this world and organizing us to prepare us for the Eternal world…. I shall keep in my own bosom.”[3] Smith generally downplayed esoteric ideas that he knew would be controversial. The major texts that taught these themes were Allen’s Modern Judaism and Ramsay’s Travels of Cyrus. Allen had many of the major components of the plan: the references to pre-existence that Allen said derived from Plato, as well as the story that was derived from the Timaeus about souls being sent to earth by God to get a body (Chapter Three). Though the story didn’t say why God wanted souls to have bodies, the body became a major theme in Smith’s divine plan. Deification was suggested in Allen’s references to stories about Enoch becoming Metatron (Chapter Four), whom Allen said was similar to Jesus, and Allen cited Mennasseh Ben Israel saying that souls could find their soul mates, similar to Plato’s Symposium (Chapter Five). Ramsay in many ways completed these elements: he spoke more directly of deification in his reference to the deification of Hercules, and while Allen spoke about finding one?s soul mate, Ramsay said that lovers will be united eternally.

[1] W. W. Phelps, “Letter No. 8,” Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, 1 (June 1835): 130.

[2] The Book of Mormon used the phrase “plan of salvation” to mean the plan by which humans were redeemed by Christ from the Fall. Smith expanded the meaning later.

[3] May 21, 1843, Words of Joseph Smith, 205.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. What is the best way to get a copy of your dissertation? I can purchase it on ProQuest… do you plan on publishing it anywhere?

    Comment by Jacob H. — April 1, 2015 @ 12:00 pm

  2. Yeah, I’ll try to publish it but I’m working on finishing up another book first. Hopefully not too long. Until then, proquest.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — April 1, 2015 @ 12:33 pm

  3. You’re probably aware of this already, Steve, but JS said something similar in his 15 March 1839 letter to Presendia Buell from Liberty:

    “I want the blessing once more to lift my voice in the midst of the Saints I would pour out my soul to God for their instruction it has been the plan of the Devil to hamper me and distress me from the beginning to keep me from explaining myself to them and I never have had opportunity to give them the plan that God has revealed to me for many have run without being sent crying tidings my Lord and have done much injury to the Church giving the Devil more power over those that walk by sight and not by faith [Our trouble]* will only give us that knowledge to understand the minds of the Ancients for my part I think I never could have felt as I now do if I had not suffered the wrongs that I have suffered all things shall work together for good to them that love God.”

    * Blank in the featured copy. Text supplied from another early version.

    Comment by David G. — April 1, 2015 @ 1:00 pm

  4. I didn’t now that quote, actually. Thanks, David, it’s awesome.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — April 1, 2015 @ 2:18 pm

  5. Yeah, there’s a lot to unpack in that quote. Hopefully it’s useful for you.

    Comment by David G. — April 2, 2015 @ 6:36 am

  6. Yeah, I’m seeing a number of uses. Thanks again.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — April 2, 2015 @ 8:25 am


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