Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Phelps/Cowdery on Writing Letters

Writing Letters
September 1832 Evening and Morning Star

In this series I’ve been very liberal with my definition of Literary Criticism, including just about anything that talked about literature and writing, and not making too much of the quality of any criticism in what Mormons have written. I think that this liberal definition therefore not only includes the well-reasoned and logically consistent theories of the careful intellectual or academic, but also the often logically inconsistent cultural attitudes of Mormon speakers, at least some of whom spoke extemporaneously or in an emotional reaction, and who often spoke on what could easily be considered mundane and obvious.

Today’s gem is, I think, in this last category — the mundane and obvious. But it nevertheless should capture a little of our attention simply because, as near as I can tell, it is the first piece of Mormon writing on writing and literature.

Writing Letters appeared on the front page of the 4th number of the Church’s first periodical, The Evening and the Morning Star. Since it is unsigned, its authorship is not entirely clear. The Star was edited by W. W. Phelps, assisted by Oliver Cowdery, and it therefore was probably written by either Phelps or Cowdery. I haven’t taken the time to look at this question, so I haven’t developed an opinion about who may have been the author.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this article is its five rules for writing, set out because “before we can teach the world how to do right, we must be able to do so ourselves.” When I first read the rules, however, they seemed quite familiar — similar to guides for writing email messages that have been published over the past 20 years or so. It almost makes me wonder if there is a parallel between the introduction of email and the growth of the postal system in the early 1800s (although I haven’t found evidence of such a parallel — the major change in the postal system — the use of pre-paid stamps — only occurred in 1847).

Regardless of whether you use email or postal mail in writing your letters, the advice and the five rules for writing seem wise to me. To be frank, I wish more people would follow them when they are, for example, commenting on blog posts”¦


Writing Letters

The art of writing is one of the greatest blessings we enjoy. To cultivate it is our duty, and to use it is our privilege. By these means the thoughts of the heart can act without the body, and the mind can speak without the head, while thousands of miles apart, and for ages after the flesh has mouldered [moldered] back to its mother dust. Beloved reader! have you ever reflected on this simple, this useful, this heavenly blessing! It is one of the best gifts of God to man, and it is the privilege of man to enjoy it. By writing, the word of the Lord has been handed to the inhabitants of the earth, from generation to generation. By writing, the inventions and knowledge of men have been received, age after age, for the benefit of the world. By writing, the transactions of life, like the skies over the ocean, are spread out upon the current of time, for the eyes of the rising multitudes to look upon. And while we are thus summing up some of the blessings and enjoyments, which result from this noble art, let us not forget to view a few of the curses and mischiefs which follow an abuse of this high privilege. While we behold what a great matter a little fire kindles, let us not stand mute: Let us not forget to see a better example, when we see the slanderer dip his raven’s quill in gall, to blot the fair fame of some innocent person. Let us weep, for so will the heavens do, when the great men of the earth, write their glory in the tears of the fatherless and the widow. Let us mourn while this world’s vanity is written for deception, in letters of gold. But enough, for the wicked are writing their own death warrant, and the hail of the Lord shall sweep away the refuge of lies. We, as the disciples of the blessed Jesus, are bound by every consideration that makes religion a blessing, to the inhabitants of the earth, while we see this exalted privilege abused, to set a more noble example: To do our business in a more sacred way, and, as servants of the Lord, that would be approved in all things, hide no fault of our own, nor cover any imperfection in others; neither offend, lest we bring a reproach upon the great cause of our holy Father.

It is pleasing to God to see men use the blessings which he gave them, and not abuse them. For this reason, if the saints abide in the faith wherewith they have been called, the land shall yield her increase, and the blessings of heaven shall attend them, and the Lord will turn to them a pure language, and the glory of God will again be among the righteous on earth. All things are for men, not men for all things. Beloved brethren, before we can teach the world how to do right, we must be able to do so ourselves: Therefore, in the love of him who is altogether lovely, whose yoke is easy, and whose burden is light, who spake as never man spake, let us offer a few ideas on this important subject, for the consideration of such as men to love their neighbors as themselves, for the sake of righteousness and eternal life.

1. Never write a letter to friend or foe, unless you have business which can not be done as well in some other way; or, unless you have news to communicate, that is worth time and money. In this way you will increase confidence and save postage.

2. Never write any thing in a letter to friend or foe, that you are afraid to read to friend or foe, for letters from a distance, especially one or two thousand miles, are sought for with great anxiety; and, as no one is a judge of men and things, you are liable to misrepresent yourself, your country, your friends, and your enemies, and put in the mouth of the honest, as well as the dishonest, a lie, which truth, in her gradual but virtuous way, may not contradict till your head is under the silent clods of the valley.

3. Never write any thing but truth, for truth is heavenly, and like the sun, is alwas [always] bright, and proves itself, without logic, without reasons, without witnesses, and never fails. Truth is of the Lord and will prevail.

4. Never reprove a friend or foe for faults in a letter, except by revelation; for in the first place, your private intentions, be they ever so good, are liable to become public, because, all letters may be broken open, and your opinion only on one side of the question, can be scattered to the four winds, and he to whom you meant good, receives evil; and you are not benefited. Again, we can hardly find a language, written or spoken, on earth, at this time, that will convey the true meaning of the heart to the understanding of another; and you are liable to be misunderstood, and to give unpleasant feelings; and you merely to use a simile, bleed an old sore, by probing it for proud flesh, when it only wanted a little oil from the hand of the good Samaritan, in person, to heel it. No matter how pure your intentions may be; no matter how high your standing is, you can not touch man’s heart when absent as when present. Truly, you do not cast your pearls before swine, but you throw your gold before man, and he robs you for your folly. Instead of reproof give good advice; and when face to face, rebuke a wise man and he will love you; or, do so to your friend, that, should he become your enemy, he can not reproach you: thus you may live, not only unspotted, but unsuspected.

5. Never write what you would be ashamed to have printed; or, what might offend the chastest ear, or hurt the softest heart. If you write what you are ashamed to have printed, you are partial: If you write what would offend virtue, you have not the spirit of the Lord; and if you write what would wound the weak hearted, you are not feeding the Lord’s lambs, and thus you may know, that you are not doing to others, what you would expect others to do to you. The only rule we would give to regulate writing letters, is this: Write what you are willing should be published in this world, and in the world to come: And would to God, that not only the disciples of the church of Christ, but the whole world, were willing to follow this rule: Then the commandments would be kept, and no one would write a word against the Lord his God. No one would write a word against his father and mother. No one would write a word against his neighbor. No one would write a word against the creatures of God. No one would need write a word against ought but sin; and then the world would be worth living in, for there would be none to offend.

As to the church, this being a day of warning and not a day of many words, let them that wish to communicate, or instruct, whether high or low, whether male or female, whether parent or child, whether master or servant, whether teacher or member, whether elder or high priest, come to this conclusion, That the eyes of God are upon them, and that what they do is for eternity; for God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil: and therefore, to obey the commandments, of the Lord, and to set an example in all things, worthy of imitation by the world; knowing that in the midst of counsellors [counselors] there is safety; with the light of revelation shining around them, as the sun in his strength; while the tidings from heaven to the faithful, is, Peace on earth, and good will to men; while the spirit of Christ directs them to pray for one another, and for their enemies; and while the love of God exalts the heart, to forget and forgive: let them not write a line that they would be ashamed to have printed, for the world to profit by; or, written in the unsullied books of heaven, for the angels to look upon. Begin to think right and your thoughts may be worth saving: begin to speak truth in all things, and your words may be powerful; so much so, that you can exclaim like Job: O that my words were now written! O that they were printed in a book! We can not close this essay without saying, Brethren! live for Jesus, for he lives for you: Sisters! live for Jesus, for he lives for you: Husbands! live for Jesus, for he lives for you: Wives! live for Jesus, for he lives for you: Children! live for Jesus, for he lives for you: And whatever you write, let it be-the truth: in fact and in very deed, let your yea be yea, and your nay be nay, and then, when letters are written by you, from Zion to the world, the spirit of the Lord will bear record, that they are true: and if letters from abroad, are written by the disciples , to Zion, the spirit of the Lord will bear record, that they are true, and the glory of God will be in Zion. Again, should hypocrites or sinners, write, either to or from Zion, and not write the truth, their own words may condemn them: Their own letters can be sent back, either way, as witnesses of their folly now, and remain as testimony against them, when the Lord comes out of his place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity. So be it, and the will of the Lord be done: But brethren: Love the Lord and keep his commandments, that righteousness may abound. Serve the Lord and pray earnestly, that the Spirit may be with you. Fear the Lord and be humble, that faith may increase. Trust in the Lord and be holy, that the world may be overcome. And finally, walk in the valley of humility, and remember the world of mankind which lies in darkness and sin, and pray for them; and if necessary, that you die for Christ,-die-for he died for you. Beloved, there was a time so perfect, and the union so pure, that the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy! and we do beseech you, to purify yourselves that your names may be written in heaven, for the company of angels to look upon, that they may come down and teach us to purify ourselves for the presence of Jesus, that he may dwell with us, while his glory covers the heavens, and the earth is full of his praise, that we may be one with all the redeemed of the Lamb, and them that are changed in the twinkling of an eye as the heaven and the earth are made now, that the tabernacle of God may be with men, and he with them, that we may hear the sons of Zion from all the creations he hath made, shouting glory and power and honor, to God and the Lamb throughout eternity.

The Evening and the Morning Star, v1 n4,
September 1832, p. 25

Republished in The Contributor v2,
June 1881, p. 182


5 thoughts on “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Phelps/Cowdery on Writing Letters”

  1. Brute force research.

    It would be easier if there was an easily searchable comprehensive database somewhere. I have to search a couple of different online databases and my own compilation of various sources that I have on my hard drive.

  2. Dearly beloved Brother Larsen, I take pen—nay, keyboard—in hand—nay, under hand (but not, I trust you perceive, underhandedly)—, not to condemn or to contend, but to convey, in the spirit of true and most genuine brotherhood and respect, a few brief words of my concern, yea, my heartfelt, sincere and honest yeomanly concern for what, it seems to me, may be, perhaps, though it is not certain that I have not, in my own ignorance, misapprehended the action and intent of a brother, for you ought to be my brother, in faith and in profession (not the profession only of words which aver this or that sentiment or fact, but, more appropriately, in this instance and case, the profession of deed and endeavour, to whit and namely, that of the pen—nay, keyboard—or, shall we say, the keyboard and pen, as, judging by my own humble efforts in this field of exulted human enterprise, that is to say, the production of literature, it is not uncommon for men or women of letters in our noble and advanced age to make industrious use of both quill and clavier), yea, seems to me to be a prejudice against the genuine and ancient spelling of the fount of that language to which we owe our power to express so nimbly and forthrightly all that passes through the bone-rimmed chambers of the brain, be our communication in person or through the divinely provided intermediary of the ingenious machines through which the haughty and partially doomed race of man conducts so much of its business, sublime and sordid, in these latter days, during which we look forward with such blessed and hopeful anticipation to the fulfillment of those promises so inspiringly recorded in the chronicles of God’s dealing with his fallen children on this orb of ignorance and tears, by which I refer to the time-honoured (though regionally despised) spellings of moulder and counsellor, for though these spellings may appear to some to be, in one regard, superfluous (a charge of which I hope none will consider my own poor manuscript guilty in any manner or fashion whatsoever), they are nevertheless acceptable, notwithstanding the objections of this perverse and perverted generation of subliterate vipers, and by the same token of brotherly affection and esteem, I ask you to append your learned mode of bracketing to the occurrence of the word heel, which, I believe with some confidence borne of experience and, though I boast not by the term, self-wrought erudition, should be written heal. I remain, as ever and for always, world without end or beginning, your servant and friend in the bonds of faith and brotherhood and the great guild of letters.

  3. I’m pretty sure that leaving the original spellings in a historical document is defensible.

    But let’s not make this discussion about obsolete spellings.

Leave a Reply to Kent Larsen Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s