Nauvoo expanded and flourished, but the most important thing that happened in this period was the continuous flow of revelations through the Prophet Joseph Smith concerning gospel doctrines and ordinances. During the Nauvoo years, the Prophet exhibited an increasing spiritual maturity as he led the Saints to new and higher gospel insights. Many concepts that had been introduced were now given fuller attention and explanation. Joseph Smith promised in the October 1841 general conference that “the dispensation of the fullness of times will bring to light the things that have been revealed in all former dispensations; also other things that have not been before revealed.”1 In the earlier years of the Restoration the foundation of doctrine was laid; in the Nauvoo period the foundation was built upon.
On 10 August 1840, Seymour Brunson, one of the first settlers of Nauvoo, died. He had been one of the earliest missionaries in the Church and had served on the high council in Far West and Nauvoo. Joseph Smith’s history states that Brunson “died in the triumph of faith, and in his dying moments bore testimony to the Gospel that he had embraced.”2 In a powerful funeral sermon delivered on 15 August, the Prophet read much of 1 Corinthians 15, including verse 29, which refers to the practice of baptism for the dead. Joseph announced to the congregation that the Lord would permit the Saints to be baptized in behalf of their friends and relatives who had departed this life. He told the Saints that “the plan of salvation was calculated to save all who were willing to obey the requirements of the law of God.”3
Following the sermon, Jane Neyman asked Harvey Olmstead to baptize her in the Mississippi River in behalf of her deceased son, Cyrus. Joseph Smith asked what words were used in performing the ordinance, and then he approved what had taken place. In the ensuing weeks, several more baptisms for the dead were performed in the river or in nearby streams. On 19 January 1841, the Lord commanded the Saints to build a temple with a baptismal font for these vicarious ordinances. The Lord stated that baptism for the dead “belongeth to my house, and cannot be acceptable to me, only in the days of your poverty, wherein ye are not able to build a house unto me” (D&C 124:30).
This revelation generated considerable enthusiasm, and work on the temple progressed quickly. On 3 October 1841, as the basement neared completion, Joseph Smith declared, “There shall be no more baptisms for the dead, until the ordinance can be attended to in the Lord’s House.”4 The basement housed a temporary baptismal font built by Elijah Fordham. It was made from Wisconsin pine and mounted on twelve carefully crafted oxen. On 8 November the font was dedicated by Brigham Young. It was first used two weeks later when Elders Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, and John Taylor performed forty baptisms for the dead; Elders Willard Richards, Wilford Woodruff, and George A. Smith performed the confirmations.5
In 1842, while forced into temporary exile by old Missouri enemies, the Prophet wrote two general epistles to the Saints on the doctrine of baptism for the dead. Both emphasized the importance of having a recorder present for the baptisms to be valid. The recorder was to see that each ordinance was performed correctly and to make an accurate record. The first letter stated, “Let all the records be had in order, that they may be put in the archives of my holy temple, to be held in remembrance from generation to generation, saith the Lord of Hosts” (D&C 127:9).
In the second and longer of the two letters, the Prophet explained that the living and the dead are dependent upon each other for salvation. “They [the dead] without us cannot be made perfect—neither can we without our dead be made perfect” (D&C 128:15). The ordinances to help accomplish this mutual perfection, he later explained, include not only baptism for the dead, but also the endowment of the holy priesthood and marriage for time and eternity.
Earlier as the Saints in Ohio were preparing to build the Kirtland Temple, the Lord had promised that in his house he would “endow those whom I have chosen with power from on high” (D&C 95:8). As that temple was completed and dedicated in early 1836, there was a great spiritual outpouring upon the Saints. The Savior appeared and accepted the temple. The ancient prophets Moses, Elias, and Elijah then appeared to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery and restored keys of the priesthood for the gathering of Israel and the introduction of additional sacred ordinances (see D&C 110).
Temples were planned in Missouri but never constructed because persecution drove the faithful from the state. After Nauvoo was established as the new gathering place, the Lord revealed that a temple was needed because there was no place on earth where he could come and restore “the fulness of the priesthood” (D&C 124:28). The Saints were also instructed that their washings and anointings, like their baptisms for the dead, should be performed in a sacred place, hence the command to build the Nauvoo Temple. The revelation continued: “Let this house be built unto my name, that I may reveal mine ordinances therein unto my people;
“For I deign to reveal unto my church things which have been kept hid from before the foundation of the world, things that pertain to the dispensation of the fulness of times” (vv. 40–41).
As work on the temple progressed, Joseph Smith sought and received additional instructions from the Lord regarding the sacred endowment. However, it is not known exactly when he received all the instructions pertaining to the temple ordinances. He introduced these ordinances to a few trusted Latter-day Saints in the upper room of his red brick store on 4 May 1842. At that time it was virtually the only large place in Nauvoo where a group could assemble in privacy. The building was near the Mississippi River, about a block west of the Mansion House and the Homestead. It was constructed in 1841 and opened for business in January 1842. Most of the second floor was an assembly room used for priesthood councils, the organization and meetings of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, municipal and Masonic meetings, school classes, theatrical presentations, debates, lectures, and staff meetings of the Nauvoo Legion.
On 3 May, with the help of others, the Prophet arranged his office and Assembly Room to represent “the interior of a temple as much as the circumstances would permit.”7 On the afternoon of the following day the Prophet administered the first endowments to a select group, which included Hyrum Smith, Church patriarch; Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, and Willard Richards of the Twelve Apostles; Newel K. Whitney, general bishop; George Miller, president of the Nauvoo high priest’s quorum and a general bishop; and James Adams, president of the Springfield Branch.8
Joseph Smith reported this significant event: “I spent the day in the upper part of the store … instructing them in the principles and order of the Priesthood, attending to washings, anointings, endowments and the communication of keys pertaining to the Aaronic Priesthood, and so on to the highest order of the Melchizedek Priesthood, setting forth the order pertaining to the Ancient of Days, and all those plans and principles by which any one is enabled to secure the fullness of those blessings which have been prepared for the Church of the First Born, and come up and abide in the presence of the Elohim in the eternal worlds.”9
The Lord had pronounced these ordinances necessary to open the gate to eternal life and exaltation. Thus they were sought after by faithful Latter-day Saints. Gradually over the next two years, Joseph Smith introduced the endowment to approximately ninety men and women. He also gave particular instructions to the Twelve Apostles concerning the keys of these ordinances, instructing them to give the endowment to the worthy Saints in the temple when it was completed. By December 1845 the temple was sufficiently complete to perform the ordinance.
Many years later in Salt Lake City, President Brigham Young instructed the Saints on the significance of the endowment in the latter days. He reminded them that the first elders received only a portion of their endowments in the Kirtland Temple, terming them “introductory, or initiatory ordinances, preparatory to an endowment.” He then defined the meaning of endowment: “Your endowment is, to receive all those ordinances in the House of the Lord, which are necessary for you, after you have departed this life, to enable you to walk back to the presence of the Father, passing the angels who stand as sentinels, being enabled to give them the key words, the signs and tokens, pertaining to the Holy Priesthood, and gain your eternal exaltation in spite of earth and hell.”10
The endowment of the holy priesthood is closely associated with the principle of eternal marriage. From the beginning of the Restoration, Latter-day Saints have been taught that “marriage is ordained of God unto man” (D&C 49:15). The marriage covenant has always been understood to be of great importance. Men in the Church are directed, “Thou shalt love thy wife with all thy heart, and shalt cleave unto her and none else” (D&C 42:22). Church members are not only charged to marry in righteousness, but to have children and to rear them according to the precepts of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Shortly after the introduction of the endowment the Prophet revealed that a married couple could be sealed together by the power of the priesthood for time and all eternity. Many of the men and women who were endowed were also sealed by Joseph Smith to their spouses in the marriage covenant. Joseph taught that the marriage sealing, the endowment, and baptisms for the dead were to be performed in the house of the Lord and that these ordinances would be made available to all faithful Saints as soon as the temple was completed.
In the spring of 1843, Joseph Smith taught the eternal importance of the marriage covenant. While visiting the Mormon village of Ramus, twenty miles southeast of Nauvoo, the Prophet explained to a few members of the Church:
“In the celestial glory there are three heavens or degrees;
“And in order to obtain the highest, a man must enter into this order of the priesthood [meaning the new and everlasting covenant of marriage];
“And if he does not, he cannot obtain it” (D&C 131:1–3).
Later that summer Joseph recorded a revelation on marriage that incorporated principles that had been revealed to him as early as 1831 in Kirtland. In it the Lord declared, “If a man marry a wife by my word, which is my law, and by the new and everlasting covenant, and it is sealed unto them by the Holy Spirit of promise, by him who is anointed, unto whom I have appointed this power and the keys of this priesthood … [it] shall be of full force when they are out of the world; and they shall pass by the angels, and the gods, which are set there, to their exaltation and glory in all things, as hath been sealed upon their heads, which glory shall be a fulness and a continuation of the seeds forever and ever” (D&C 132:19).
The law of celestial marriage, as outlined in this revelation, also included the principle of the plurality of wives. In 1831 as Joseph Smith labored on the inspired translation of the holy scriptures, he asked the Lord how he justified the practice of plural marriage among the Old Testament patriarchs. This question resulted in the revelation on celestial marriage, which included an answer to his question about the plural marriages of the patriarchs.11
First, the Lord explained that for any covenant, including marriage, to be valid in eternity it must meet three requirements (see D&C 132:7): (1) It must be “made and entered into and sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise.” (2) It must be performed by the proper priesthood authority. (3) It must be by “revelation and commandment” through the Lord’s anointed prophet (see also vv. 18–19). Using Abraham as an example, the Lord said he “received all things, whatsoever he received, by revelation and commandment, by my word” (v. 29). Consequently, the Lord asked, “Was Abraham, therefore, under condemnation? Verily I say unto you, Nay; for I, the Lord, commanded it” (v. 35).
Moreover, Joseph Smith and the Church were to accept the principle of plural marriage as part of the restoration of all things (see v. 45). Accustomed to conventional marriage patterns, the Prophet was at first understandably reluctant to engage in this new practice. Due to a lack of historical documentation, we do not know what his early attempts were to comply with the commandment in Ohio. His first recorded plural marriage in Nauvoo was to Louisa Beaman; it was performed by Bishop Joseph B. Noble on 5 April 1841.12 During the next three years Joseph took additional plural wives in accordance with the Lord’s commands.
As members of the Council of the Twelve Apostles returned from their missions to the British Isles in 1841, Joseph Smith taught them one by one the doctrine of plurality of wives, and each experienced some difficulty in understanding and accepting this doctrine.13 Brigham Young, for example, recounted his struggle: “I was not desirous of shrinking from any duty, nor of failing in the least to do as I was commanded, but it was the first time in my life that I had desired the grave, and I could hardly get over it for a long time. And when I saw a funeral, I felt to envy the corpse its situation, and to regret that I was not in the coffin.”14
After their initial hesitancy and frustration, Brigham Young and others of the Twelve received individual confirmations from the Holy Spirit and accepted the new doctrine of plural marriage. They knew that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God in all things. At first the practice was kept secret and was very limited. Rumors began to circulate about authorities of the Church having additional wives, which greatly distorted the truth and contributed to increased persecution from apostates and outsiders. Part of the difficulty, of course, was the natural aversion Americans held against “polygamy.” This new system appeared to threaten the strongly entrenched tradition of monogamy and the solidarity of the family structure. Later, in Utah, the Saints openly practiced “the principle,” but never without persecution.
The Prophet was occasionally called on15 to explain the teachings and practices of Mormonism to outsiders. A significant example was the Wentworth Letter. In the spring of 1842, John Wentworth, editor of the Chicago Democrat, asked Joseph Smith to provide him with a sketch of “the rise, progress, persecution, and faith of the Latter-Day Saints.”16 Wentworth was originally from New Hampshire and desired this information to help in the compilation of a history of his native state, which was being written by his friend George Barstow. Joseph complied with this request and sent Wentworth a multipage document containing an account of many of the early events in the history of the Restoration, including the First Vision and the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. The document also contained thirteen statements outlining Latter-day Saint beliefs, which have come to be known as the Articles of Faith. Barstow did publish his history, but the Wentworth Letter was not included, nor was anything about the Mormons.
Wentworth did not publish this document in the Chicago Democrat, nor did it ever appear in any history of New Hampshire. But the Church’s newspaper, Times and Seasons, published it in March 1842, and it has become one of the most important statements of inspiration, history, and doctrine for the Church. The Articles of Faith were written for non-Mormons and were never intended to be a complete summary of gospel principles and practices. They do, however, provide a clear statement about the unique beliefs of the Latter-day Saints. Each article is a positive statement of the differences between Mormonism and the sectarian beliefs of other denominations.
In 1851 the Articles of Faith were included in the first edition of the Pearl of Great Price published in the British Mission. After the Pearl of Great Price was revised in 1878 and canonized in 1880, the Articles of Faith became official doctrine of the Church.
In early 1842, about the same time Joseph Smith wrote his letter to John Wentworth, he was also busily engaged in “translating from the Records of Abraham.”17 These records had been acquired in 1835 when the Church purchased several rolls of ancient Egyptian papyrus from Michael Chandler. Joseph and his scribes did some preliminary investigation of them, but labor on the Kirtland Temple and the subsequent apostasy and persecution precluded any opportunity for him to continue this work in Ohio or Missouri. Finally in the spring of 1842 he was able to dedicate himself to the task for several weeks with few interruptions.
Elder Wilford Woodruff, who learned in leadership councils of the Prophet’s translation and some of its contents, recorded in his journal his feelings about the Prophet’s work: “Truly the Lord has raised up Joseph the Seer … and is now clothing him with mighty power and wisdom and knowledge. … The Lord is blessing Joseph with power to reveal the mysteries of the kingdom of God; to translate through the Urim and Thummim ancient records and Hieroglyphics as old as Abraham or Adam, which causes our hearts to burn within us while we behold their glorious truths opened unto us.”18
Extracts from the book of Abraham appeared first in the Times and Seasons and in the Millennial Star in the summer of 1842. Joseph Smith indicated that more would be forthcoming, but he was unable to continue the translation after 1842. What the Church received—five chapters of the book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price—is only a portion of the original record.
In 1967 eleven fragments of the Joseph Smith papyri were rediscovered by Doctor Aziz S. Atiya, in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. Studies of them have confirmed that they are mainly ancient Egyptian funerary texts of the sort commonly buried with royalty and nobility and designed to guide them through their eternal journeyings.19 This has renewed the question about the connection between the records and the book of Abraham. Joseph Smith did not explain the method of translating the book of Abraham, just as he did not explain fully how the Book of Mormon was translated. Nevertheless, like the Book of Mormon, the book of Abraham is its own evidence that it came about through the gift and power of God.20
The Saints in Nauvoo frequently listened to the Prophet Joseph Smith preach, and many of them wrote of how moved they were by the experience. They thrilled to his words and were strengthened in their testimonies. Brigham Young said, “Such moments were more precious to me than all the wealth of the world. No matter how great my poverty—if I had to borrow meal to feed my wife and children, I never let an opportunity pass of learning what the Prophet had to impart.”21 Wandle Mace, a new convert, said that listening to the Prophet in public or private, in sunshine or shower, he became convinced that Joseph Smith had been taught by God. He never missed a chance to hear Joseph preach because, he said, Joseph “had been feeding us deliciously with spiritual food.”22 James Palmer, a British convert, said the Prophet “looked and had, the appearance of one that was heaven born while preaching, or as tho he had been sent from the heavenly worlds on a divine mission.”23
There was no meetinghouse in Nauvoo large enough for all the Saints to gather to hear their Prophet, so in good weather they met outdoors under the trees. A typical place was in a grove that formed an amphitheater-like area on the hillside of the temple. This was one of Joseph’s favorite places to speak to the Saints. During the Nauvoo period he became accustomed to giving public discourses. In the early days of the Restoration he had left most of the preaching to others who he felt were better orators. Now, however, he preached with great power and authority in Nauvoo and surrounding communities. His nearly two hundred discourses during these years shaped Latter-day Saint understanding of gospel doctrines and immeasurably influenced the Church.
On Sunday, 20 March 1842, at the funeral of the deceased child of Windsor P. Lyon, Joseph chose to speak in the grove about the salvation of little children. He said that he had “asked the question, why it is that infants, innocent children, are taken away from us, especially those that seem to be the most intelligent and interesting.” He said that they were taken to be spared the wickedness that was increasing in the world. He then stated one of the most comforting doctrines revealed in the latter days: “All children are redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ, and the moment that children leave this world, they are taken to the bosom of Abraham. The only difference between the old and young dying is, one lives longer in heaven and eternal light and glory than the other, and is freed a little sooner from this miserable, wicked world.”24
In the spring of 1843, Joseph frequently visited the outlying settlements of the Saints to teach and guide them. When in Ramus he stayed at the home of his friend Benjamin F. Johnson. The teachings of the Prophet in Ramus, Illinois, on Sunday, 2 April 1843, were so important that they were incorporated into the official history of the Church and later into the Doctrine and Covenants as section 130. In a morning meeting, Elder Orson Hyde had spoken about the Father and the Son dwelling in the hearts of the Saints and said that the Savior at his Second Coming would “appear on a white horse as a warrior.” At lunch, Joseph Smith told Orson that he was going to offer some corrections to his sermon in the afternoon meeting. Elder Hyde replied, “They shall be thankfully received.”25
The Prophet explained to the Saints, “When the Savior shall appear we shall see him as he is. We shall see that he is a man like ourselves” (D&C 130:1). In further correction he added that “the idea that the Father and the Son dwell in a man’s heart is an old sectarian notion, and is false” (v. 3). Later in his sermon he boldly declared that “the Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also; but the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit” (v. 22).
In that monumental discourse, Joseph Smith also taught other eternal truths that have since inspired Latter-day Saints to diligently search for truth and seek good works. He explained that “whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection.
“And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come” (vv. 18–19). He also explained that “There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—
“And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated” (vv. 20–21).
A month and a half later the Prophet visited Ramus again. In an evening meeting, a Methodist preacher, Samuel Prior, who was visiting the town to find out more about the Church, was asked to speak to the congregation. Following his remarks, Joseph Smith arose and differed with Reverend Prior’s remarks. Prior wrote: “This he did mildly, politely, and affectingly; like one who was more desirous to disseminate truth and expose error, than to love the malicious triumph of debate over me. I was truly edified with his remarks, and felt less prejudiced against the Mormons than ever.”26 Joseph Smith’s teachings on this occasion reflect his prophetic calling and are now recorded as scripture:
“There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes;
“We cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter” (D&C 131:7–8).
As construction on the temple progressed, the Prophet Joseph gave some of his greatest sermons to special gatherings in the unfinished building. One such occasion was the April 1843 general conference. At that time William Miller’s widely publicized prophecies that Christ would come on 3 April 1843 had caused quite a stir throughout America and among the Latter-day Saints. (Miller was a religious zealot who founded Millerism.) In the conference session on 6 April, Joseph said that as the Lord’s prophet he had been praying and learned that “the coming of the Son of Man never will be—never can be till the judgments spoken of for this hour are poured out: which judgments are commenced.” The Prophet also listed some events that had not occurred yet, but which would take place prior to the Second Coming: “Judah must return, Jerusalem must be rebuilt, and the temple, and water come out from under the temple, and the waters of the Dead Sea be healed. It will take some time to rebuild the walls of the city and the temple.”27
The most renowned of all the Prophet’s sermons was given at general conference in April 1844 as a funeral address in honor of his friend King Follett, who had died in a construction accident. Joseph Smith spoke for over two hours, mentioning at least thirty-four doctrinal subjects, including the importance of knowing the true God, the way to become as God is, the plurality of gods, eternal progression, the importance of the Holy Ghost, the nature of intelligence, the unpardonable sin, and little children and the Resurrection.
One of his most profound messages concerned God and man’s destiny in relationship to him. He declared, “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens! …
“… [Y]ou have got to learn how to be gods yourselves … by going from one small degree to another, and from a small capacity to a great one; from grace to grace, from exaltation to exaltation, until you attain to the resurrection of the dead, and are able to dwell in everlasting burnings.” Man, then, is to become like God now is. Joseph also explained the “first principles of consolation” for those mourning for the righteous dead: “although the earthly tabernacle is laid down and dissolved, they shall rise again to dwell in everlasting burnings in immortal glory, not to sorrow, suffer, or die any more, but they shall be heirs of God and joint heirs with Jesus Christ.”28
How did the Saints respond to this lengthy, yet eloquent and inspiring sermon? Most were profoundly moved by it. Joseph Fielding wrote in his journal, “I never felt more delighted with his Discourse than at this time, It put me in Mind of Herod when they said at his Oration It is the Voice of a God and not of a Man” (see Acts 12:20–23).29
While the Saints sojourned in Nauvoo they witnessed a flowering of theology. They listened to their prophet leader elaborate upon doctrinal themes that had been only touched upon earlier. As they read the Times and Seasons, they tasted of a more fully developed theology than they had known in Ohio or Missouri. As they built the temple and participated in its sacred ordinances, they received power, knowledge, and blessings unknown in earlier years. The doctrinal developments in Nauvoo created an enduring legacy for the Church in the future.