Joseph Smith's Letter from Liberty Jail as an Epistolary Rhetoric

By Gore, David Charles | Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Joseph Smith's Letter from Liberty Jail as an Epistolary Rhetoric


Gore, David Charles, Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought


Joseph Smith may not have ever spoken the word "rhetoric," but his participation in juvenile debating societies probably brought him some contact with rhetoric's long tradition.1 Regardless of his knowledge of this tradition, it is obvious that Smith knew how to persuade people through speech and writing. In addition, his writings instruct readers about how to persuade in a manner consistent with the restored gospel of Mormonism. Whether Smith intended to introduce a new theory of rhetoric, this article argues that his theology implies one. While it is probably true that one can be a good communicator without theorizing about what he or she is doing, this paper is on the lookout for a Restoration theory of persuasion.2

The first section of this article compares the communication theories of three prominent LDS intellectuals with a focus on central disagreements within communication theory and thereby on finding a way into the writings of Joseph Smith. The second section, divided into sub-sections, analyzes Smith's "Letter to the Church at Quincy, 20 March 1839" as an epistolary rhetoric, a letter that instructs its reader in the art of persuasion. Smith's letter instructs readers in their communion with God, their ordinary conversations with one another and with those "that are not of our faith," the persuasions appropriate to leaders of the Church, and the Church's interactions with the world's political powers, particularly when the Church is in deep distress. The unifying thread between these seemingly disparate topics is Joseph's desire for a heavenly city that requires labor in the here and now, an effort of persuasion to realize a change of heart. The centrality of rhetoric to city-building justifies the pursuit of a Restoration theory of persuasion.

Although the "Letter to the Church" never uses the word "rhetoric," it refers repeatedly to corresponding communicative terms like "commune," "conversation[s]," "voice," "persuasion," "inf luence," "f lattery," "fanciful and f lowery," and "frank and open." It even urges that "every thing should be discussed with a great deal of care and propriety."3 The letter, like the history of rhetoric, describes speech in all its redeeming and not-so-redeeming qualities. Reading Smith's "Letter to the Church" as an epistolary rhetoric illuminates the teaching of communication within the letter and promotes a sketch of a Restoration theory of rhetoric.

A Restoration theory of rhetoric could trace the inf luence of Mormon culture on the communication theories of Mormon scholars as David Frank traced the inf luence of Judaism on the twentieth-century rhetorician Chaïm Perelman, but it would eventually need to account for Smith's writings about communication and the Zion-building quest.4 To achieve that end, I devote the core of this article to a close reading of Smith's "Letter to the Church" by way of exploring the relationship between rhetoric and revelation. I thus arrive at a theory that connects our communication with each another to the possibilities of our communication with God and asserts that "love unfeigned" characterizes saintly cities.

Epistolary Rhetoric

Like the ancient Christians, Latter-day Saints know well the power of letters. Just as the Bible preserved and canonized epistles, LDS scripture contains no fewer than fifteen letters, including portions of Smith's letter from Liberty Jail. These scriptural epistles comprise several chapters of the Book of Mormon and at least five sections of the Doctrine and Covenants.5 In addition to canonizing letters, priesthood leaders communicate frequently by letter, which, on occasion, are read aloud to the congregation. Some of these communications are generic, or only slightly modified from previous iterations, like the First Presidency letter that the Church is neutral on political questions. Others are more individualistic, ranging from the bureaucratic missive to the deeply touching personal note. …

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