Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Letter VII was ubiquitous

LDS people don't realize how ubiquitous Letter VII was during Joseph's lifetime. I've made the point before, but our favorite scholars keep downplaying it, so I thought I'd mention some more historical facts.

I've mentioned before that a pamphlet of Oliver Cowdery's letters to W.W. Phelps, including Letter VII, was published in England in January 1844. This is before Joseph Smith was assassinated. It was on sale in New York as early as August 10, 1844, when it was advertised in The Prophet under "Mormon Book Depository."

It's kind of fun to see what was on sale in New York City in August, 1844. Here is the list:

Where may be found, a general assortment of Books and Papers illustrative of the doctrine and faith of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints, among which are the following:—

Prof. Orson Pratt’s Prophetic Almanac, for 1845.—price 4 dolls. per hundred, 56 cts. per doz, 6 cts. single.

A Treatise on the Fulness of the Everlasting Gospel.—per hundred $8—single 1 s.

P. P. Pratt’s reply to Le Roy Sunderland--$6. single 10 cts.

An appeal to the inhabitants of the State of New York; Letter to Queen Victoria; The Fountain of Knowledge; Immortality of the Body, and Intelligence and Affection, by P. P. Pratt. $8 per hund. 1 s. single.

The Testament of the twelve Patriarchs, the sons of Jacob.

Correspondence between Gen. Jos. Smith, Col. Wentworth, Gen. Jas. Arlington Bennet and Hon. J. C. Calhoun: $8 per hund. 1 s. single.

An interesting account of several remarkable visions. By O. Pratt. $6 per hundred 10 cts. single.

O. Cowdery’s letters to W. W. Phelps, on the origin of the Book of Mormon.

A History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day [Latter-day] Saints—by John Corrill a member of the Legislature of Missouri.

Synopsis of parallel passages in the Scripture. price 5s.

Gospel Reflector. $1.25.

Times & Seasons, bound. 2,00

History of the Priesthood, by Benj. Winchester. 25 cts.

Millen[n]ium, a poem by P. P. Pratt. price 50 cts.

Index to the Book of Mormon, 2nd edition: per hun. $2. sing. 6 cts.

Address to the People of the U. States: 25 cts. per hun.

Gospel Light—$2 per hundred, single 3 cts.

Gen. Jos. Smith’s views on the policy of Government; Appeal to the Green Mountain Boys; Correspondence between Gen. Smith, Col. Wentworth and J. C. Calhoun, and a Memorial to the Legislature of Missouri.—6 dolls. per hun. 1 s.

Prof. Orson Pratt’s Prophetic Almanac for 1845.—Calculated for the Eastern, Middle, and Western States and Territories, the Northern portions of the slave States, and British provinces, it contains much matter interesting to the Saints.

Orders, with cash remitted, for any of the above works, will be attended to with despatch [dispatch].

The pamphlet of Cowdery's letters is listed as item 197 in Peter Crawley's indispensable work, A Descriptive Bibliography of the Mormon Church,1848–1852 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, 1997), which is online here. Crawley notes it was published by Thomas Ward and John Cairns, and that they used Benjamin Winchester's Gospel Reflector version as their source.

The pamphlet was advertised in the Millennial Star in February 1844 and November 1846. Crawley observes, "the European Mission financial records show that during 1847 the Millennial Star office sold about nine hundred copies at a wholesale price of 2d. each."

This is 900 copies more than any other reprint of Letter VII until about a year ago, when my little book was published. We've sold far more than that (and Book of Mormon Central has had more views than that on their web page), but there were only 18,000 members of the Church in England at the time, and this was the third year the pamphlet was on sale. This gives a good idea of how much Oliver's letters, including Letter VII, were in demand.

Let's say a comparable number of Saints bought the pamphlet between 1844-1846, for a total of 3,600 in four years. Assuming one copy per family, and an average family size of 4, this would mean there were 4,500 LDS families in England in 1847.

In other words, 80% of the Saints bought the pamphlet of Oliver's letters. 80% is ubiquitous by any definition.

Obviously, some of these might have been purchased for missionary purposes, but it's also likely that the sales numbers were higher in the first year or two after publication.

Using the same assumptions about family sizes today, we have roughly 3.75 million families in the Church. (I know, family sizes are smaller now, but these are rough numbers). To reach the level of gospel literacy the British Saints had in 1847, there should be 3 million copies of these letters in the homes of the Saints today.

Imagine if 80% of the families in the Church today were familiar with Letter VII. It's not possible at present because Letter VII has never been translated, but we're working on that.

If and when 80% of today's membership reaches the same level of awareness as the people did during Joseph's lifetime, the Mesoamerican theory would be a faint memory.

Actually, it would never have gotten off the ground.

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