In the February 1, 1843 issue of Times and Seasons a poem signed “Joseph Smith” was printed. The 312-line poem was labeled “The Answer. To W.W. Phelps. Esq.” and was titled The Vision. It was a poetic paraphrase of “The Vision”, the revelation now found in D&C 76. The poem itself is generally not thought to be very good and would not attract much attention at all today if it weren’t for one startling theological statement it contains which is not in the actual revelation it is paraphrasing. Stanzas 21-22 of the poem say that all of the inhabitants of the universe “from first to last, /Are sav’d by the very same Saviour of ours”. Those who like the idea that Jesus is the only Savior for all the innumerable worlds throughout all eternity (yes, Blake, I’m looking at you) like to quote this poem as evidence that Joseph believed and preached such a doctrine. But as we have discussed at length here, the notion that Jesus is the first, last and only Savior throughout eternity seems to be at odds with the ideas Joseph preached later in the King Follet Discourse and the follow up sermon often called The Sermon in the Grove.
But it turns out Joseph didn’t really write the poem, W.W. Phelps wrote it. At least that is what this paper by Michael Hicks in the Fall 1994 issue of the Journal of Mormon History compellingly claimed. (Hat tip to Kevin Barney for the making me aware of the article; it starts on page 63.) I recommend you read the article yourself but if you are too lazy to do so (and I assume 98% of you probably are) here are a few of the arguments:
- The poem is not in Joseph’s writing style and doesn’t use the words and visuals that characterized Joseph’s writing — it is in Phelps’ style and does use his style and preferred phrases.
- We have no record of Joseph ever writing other poetry (some short near-poetry maybe but no poetry…); W.W. Phelps was, however, a prolific folk poet and lyricist.
- The practice of ghost writing for Joseph Smith had become quite common by the 1840s. Hicks said “During the last two years of his life, Joseph increasingly attached his name to documents written largely by others. As fame, legal battles, and the growing population of the Church threatened to drain all of his time, literary delegation became crucial. The presence of his name on any document from the last years is not an answer but a question.” (Pg 68) There are several other known examples of Joseph’s name being attached to pieces he didn’t write. Hicks later said “During the 1840s, W.W. Phelps was Joseph’s most prolific ghost writer” (Pg 74)
- At 312 lines it is the longest poem ever published in Times and Seasons. It is almost inconceivable that in 1842 Joseph could have carved out the many hours that such a poetic paraphrase would have required.
- Phelps reportedly desired a closer personal relationship with the prophet and would write unsolicited tributes and songs and poems and present them to the prophet in attempts to impress him in those days.
- The issue of Times and Seasons in which the poetic paraphrase was published included “(1) an essay entitled “Ancient Poetry”, credited to the editor, John Taylor; (2) Phelps’s four-stanza poem labeled “From W.W. Phelps to Joseph Smith: The Prophet” titled… “Go With Me”” and (3) the 312-line poem in question. (Pg 70) Hicks continued “It [the long poem] was in some respects a song adaptation: it picked up where “Go With Me” left off, continuing the theme in the same dactylic meter” (Pg 71)
- The poem speaks in first person (always “I”) whereas the actual revelation scrupulously speaks of “we” (Joseph and Sidney Rigdon) which is in harmony with Joseph”s strong feelings about the law of witnesses.
- The Taylor essay prefacing the poetic paraphrase refers to its author only as “our poet”.
There are 21 pages in the article of these sorts of evidences but I think it is safe to say that Hicks makes a very convincing case that this poetic paraphrase was authored by Phelps and not by the prophet.
What does this mean? Well, it means that we are going to have to take Joseph”s later assertions that God the Father has a Father in Heaven too and that Jesus only did in his atoning mission here on earth the things that he had seen his Father do on another inhabited world before him. It has deep implications of about our understanding of God. It means that there is no preaching from Joseph in opposition to the idea that every inhabited world has a savior of its own after all. All of those things have far reaching theological implications.
In other words, this is very important information for any theologically-minded Mormon.