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A Believing People: Literature of the Latter-day Saints

Section Introduction: Letters

Richard Cracroft and Neal Lambert, editors


I would write to you from time to time and give you information in relation to many subjects. --Joseph Smith, Doctrine and Covenants 128:1

[1]   To the modern Mormon, as to his non-Mormon contemporaries, letter writing has become, virtually, a lost art. Even the Mormon missionary, long a source of vital and vivid Mormon epistles, is turning more and more to recording on tape his weekly letter to his loved ones at home. In Mormondom, as elsewhere, the reading of letters is left to the historian.

[2]   Such was not always the case. Joseph Smith, as the History of the Church attests, was a prolific letter writer who employed numerous scribes to record his ideas, his instructions to the Saints in outlying branches of the Church, his legal and doctrinal debates with enemies of the Church, and his mundane instructions to his associates in the Church and in municipal and national government. His letters, though understandably objective because of his use of scribes, demonstrate his love for his people and for his wife and family as well as his compassion for the sinner and his deep and sincere faith in God and in his own prophetic calling.

[3]   Similarly, Brigham Young's letters demonstrate a steadfast devotion to Joseph Smith and the Church. Indeed, in President Young's letters, as in Joseph Smith's, we see a pattern' a combination of the practical and the pragmatic with the ideal and the spiritual; the product comes near to defining that Yankee transcendental American Christianity which lies at the heart of Mormonism. Both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young found in the combination the key to the hearts of their people, and their letters are strong indicators of the charisma which the Mormon people enjoyed, and continue to enjoy, in the lives of their leaders.

[4]   The letters of other Mormons from the rank and file tell us, in often rough but poignant and telling prose, just how it was to walk through the busy and destined streets of Nauvoo;how it was to prepare. in the chaotic impermanence of Winter Quarters, for the uncertainties of the trek to the West; how it was to set up housekeeping in a wilderness and, finally, how it was, amidst all of these hardships, to wish and pray for one's comfortable family to catch the vision of Mormonism and flee from Babylon to Zion-and to all of the hardships which accompany such a flight.

[5]   In Ellen Spencer Clawson's writing we see one more hardship required by the new faith-that a loving wife share her husband with other loving wives. Still, in her letter, typical of many, she demonstrates the pattern-the Latter-day Saint willingness to keep-Joseph-and Brigham-like-her eye of faith bright and clear, while her flesh might show a nagging human reticence to submit to the realities of the vision.

[6]   Mormon letters, generally uncollected and unread, provide treasures, rich insights, and marvelous stories of great and minor defeats and great and minor triumphs; and they demonstrate, to us who live in a softer age when the pattern is more blurred, the power of faith to move men and women far beyond accepted limits of human endurance. Mormon letters go far toward explaining the mystique which has attracted so many to Mormonism, regardless of the cost.

Mormon Literature

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