Sink Me, the Prophet’s a Poet

Joseph Smith rarely wrote poetry, but there are a couple notable exceptions.

While I was on my mission, someone close to my mission president’s wife passed away. I enjoy attempting to write hymns and so I wrote a poem about death not being the end to send to her. A couple years later, I shared the same poem on Facebook. One of the first comments was an old acquaintance who asked if the poem was an excerpt from the poetic rendition of the Vision of the Degrees of Glory. While the comment indicated that the individual didn’t bother to read the intro, it also showed that there is an awareness that the poetic rendition exists, if not with its contents. The question is, was the poem actually written by Joseph Smith?

Recently at the Latter-day Saint blog From the Desk, Kurt Manwaring discussed the question of who wrote D&C 76 in poetic form. The short answer is that it’s likely Joseph Smith wasn’t the sole author of the poem–he probably worked with a Latter-day Saint poet like William W. Phelps or Eliza R. Snow to create the poetic rendition. For context, Manwaring shared that:

In early 1843, William W. Phelps composed a poem entitled, “Vade Mecum.” While we don’t know exactly why he wrote the verses, Phelps invited Joseph Smith to reply and join him “in contemplating a heavenly paradise.”

At approximately the same time, Joseph Smith’s lawyer, Justin Butterfield, referred to the Prophet’s lack of prophetic poetry in his closing statement. In particular, Butterfield said that the only thing which separated Joseph from prophets of old was his inability to prophesy in poetic verse.

When a poetic version of Section 76 was eventually published in Times & Seasons, specific mention was made of the desire to show Butterfield that “modern Prophets can prophesy in poetry.” The poem was called “The Answer,” and thus also served as a reply to Phelps’s original poem. . . .

However, most scholars today don’t think Joseph Smith authored the poetic version of D&C 76. Van Orden argues that Phelps ghostwrote the poem, and suggests that modern scholars also “generally” accept Phelps as the author. Similarly, the Joseph Smith Papers Historical Introduction to “The Answer” identifies Phelps as the most likely author, while also allowing that that the Prophet may have worked with Parley P. Pratt or Eliza Snow to produce the poem.

Thus, the poem may have been created in answer to comparisons with Hebrew prophets like Isaiah, who used poetic forms in their writings. While it can be argued that some of the revelations have a bit of poetry to them, there was a need to show something that was clearly poetic in nature. Yet, in creating that answer, President Smith seems to have relied on help from others. Still, the poem is an important one. If you want to read more or to see the text of the poem, hop on over to From the Desk and read the poetic version of D&C 76.

That doesn’t mean that Joseph Smith was not involved in writing the poetic version of D&C 76 or that he never wrote poetry. In fact, another poem that has been in the news lately is one that is found in the recently-released fourteenth volume in the Documents series of the Joseph Smith Papers. Barbara Neff visited Nauvoo in May of 1844, carrying an autograph book with her. When she asked for Joseph Smith’s signature, he wrote a short poem to Barbara Neff:

The truth and virtue both are good
when rightly understood
But Charity is better Miss
That takes us home to bliss
and so forthwith
remember Joseph Smith

It’s a clever little poem, written in his own handwriting. So, he wasn’t incapable of writing poetry, it just may not have been his strong suit. And that’s okay. When it comes down to it, a poetic gift is not a prerequisite to revelation.

Joseph Smith poem to Barbara Neff, courtesy of Joseph Smith Papers.


3 comments for “Sink Me, the Prophet’s a Poet

  1. If you believe that a predilection for poetry might be genetic, it may be worth noting that Ina Coolbrith (born Josephina Smith 1841-1928, daughter of Don Carlos and Agnes) was the first poet laureate of California and the first poet laureate of any state.

  2. .

    I assume people have already looked to see that the charity poem wasn’t just floating around in the 1840s?

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