Celebrating National Poetry Month With . . . Joseph Smith?

April is National Poetry Month, and I didn’t want this month to get by without sharing some new-to-me poetry by Joseph Smith.

~record scratch~

Poetry by Joseph Smith? I was surprised too.

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to attend an event at the Church History Library in Salt Lake City for the release of Documents Volume 14 of the Joseph Smith Papers Project. This volume covers 1 January–15 May 1844. Each of the editors—Alex D. Smith, Adam H. Petty, Jessica M. Nelson, and Spencer W. McBride—highlighted something from the documents and then answered questions. Given some of my research interests, this was an exciting morning for me.

Spencer W. McBride, Adam H. Petty, Jessica M. Nelson, and Alex D. Smith—editors of the Joseph Smith Papers Documents Vol. 14.

If you don’t have experience working with documentary history volumes, let me tell you, they are a big deal. Editors collect primary documents, transcribe them from often hard-to-read handwriting, add footnotes and editorial essays to contextualize the documents and publish them in oftentimes large, expensive volumes.  The Joseph Smith Papers Project has been an incredible undertaking over the last two decades. They have published dozens of volumes of documents, histories, journals, revelations and translations, and administrative records from Joseph Smith’s lifetime. Moreover, they have made all these volumes available for free online.

This is huge for anyone interested in early Mormon history. And for an independent scholar like me, this project provides access to documents I would not have the resources to view otherwise.

Now to the poem.

Jessica Nelson highlighted the poem from the final source in this volume. It is found in an autograph book that belonged to Barbara Neff, a young woman and member of the church who was visiting Nauvoo in May 1844. During Neff’s stay in Nauvoo, she gathered signatures (sometimes with notes, poems, or illustrations) from several notable Latter-day Saints, including Leonora Cannon Taylor, John Taylor, Brigham Young, and Eliza R. Snow.

The historical introduction of this source says, “[Joseph Smith’s] poem and signature appear on the same page as William W. Phelps’s poem and signature. Phelps wrote,

Two things will beautify a youth 
That is: Let virtue decorate the truth. 
And so you know, every little helps 
       Yours—W. W. Phelps

JS’s poem immediately follows and is a play on Phelps’s poem. Joseph’s poem reads:

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

Perhaps these little poems will not be ranked among the greatest poems of the nineteenth century, but they are cute in their own way. I like how the final lines are made to rhyme with the signers’ names. Notably, the poem is written in Joseph’s own hand—rare for a time when most of his writing was accomplished through scribes.

Nelson was familiar with one other poem by Joseph—an 1843 poetic adaptation of an 1832 vision he and Sidney Rigdon experienced of the afterlife. This poem, titled “The Answer,” was written to W. W. Phelps in response to a poem by Phelps inviting Joseph to contemplate a postmortal heavenly state. Both poems were published together in the Times and Seasons. I’ll link to this longer poem here.

I’ve always found “Charity never faileth” a powerful motto for the Relief Society. Now I wonder if it won out over “Charity takes us home to bliss” 😉

Feature image from the LDS Media Library, found here.

Katie Ludlow Rich
Katie Ludlow Rich
Katie Ludlow Rich is a writer and independent scholar focused on 19th and 20th-century Mormon women's history. Email at katierich87 at gmail .com


  1. Not used to this genre of yearbook signing, I stopped at the last line of each in my head and breezed post the signature and didn’t catch that the last line rhymes with the signer’s name until I read your commentary. It works so much better when you read it correctly!

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