I hope that, by the end of 2016 (the Gospel Doctrine year of the Book of Mormon), every member of the Church reads Letter VII.
If you haven't read it yet, get going.
As I point out in my little commentary book, Letter VII was originally published in the Messenger and Advocate in 1835 as part a series of exchanges between Oliver Cowdery and W.W. Phelps. Then Joseph Smith instructed his scribes to copy Oliver's letters into his journal as part of his history. Then Orson Pratt copied parts of Letter VII into his widely read pamphlet, An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions (1840). Then Benjamin Winchester copied it into his Gospel Reflector (March 15, 1841). Then Don Carlos Smith copied it into the Times and Seasons (Vol. 2, No. 12, April 15, 1841). Then the letters were compiled into a pamphlet in England. (BTW, you can now read my book that explains all of this on Book of Mormon Central here.)
It is important to recognize that, with the exception of the original publication in the Messenger and Advocate, no one reprinted the responses from W.W. Phelps.
I'll explain why in a moment, but first look at what the various publications had to say.
Here's the introduction to the British pamphlet:
We have frequently been solicited to publish, in pamphlet form, the following letters of Oliver Cowdery, addressed to W.W. Phelps. We at last avail ourselves of the opportunity to do so, being fully assured that they will be read with great interest by the Saints generally; while from the peculiar work on which they treat, together with the spirit of truthfulness in which they are written, not forgetting their style as compositions, we have no doubt but that many of the honest-hearted may, by their perusal, be led to a further examination of those principles, the origin of which is therein set forth.
It will be understood that Brother Phelps wrote answers to these letters, which generally contained some questions upon the subject treated of, accounting for the style in which they are written.
Here is Winchester's introduction:
The following Letters of Oliver Cowdery were first published in the "Messenger and Advocate," in Kirtland, Ohio, A. D. 1834-5. Believing they will be read with great interest, and satisfactorily received by all our patrons; therefore, we cheerfully insert them in the "Gospel Reflector.”* Indeed, the particularities, and important incidents, connected with the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, have ever been, and are now, a subject of inquiry. The following Letters contain all the information necessary upon that subject.
N.B. They were written to W. W. Phelps, who wrote answers to them ; but we shall not publish them: for he was also a member of the society; and his letters were generally brief — questions upon the above subject. This will account for the style in which the following are written.
Don Carlos never mentioned Phelps when he republished the letters.
Orson Pratt didn't mention Phelps when he extracted Letter VII.
So why did everyone ignore Phelps' responses?
Oliver Cowdery emphasized that he wrote the letters with the assistance of Joseph Smith and assured his readers that the account "shall be founded upon facts."
By contrast, Phelps' responses contained speculation and rhetorical flourishes that far overstepped the bounds of fact, such as this: "the Commissioners stated that "thirty tribes, containing a population of 156,310, have held treaties with the United States, and that there is an Indian population east of the Mississippi, of 92,676,"-making a total of 405,286. Now allowing the same number west of the Mountains, and suppose 800,000, in the northern regions of the Canadas, and 500,000 in South America, there will be 2,110,562 of the sons of Joseph, and of the remnants of the Jews."
No one reprinted Phelp's responses because no one was interested in reprinting Phelps' speculations.
It's also important to note that in the same issue of the Gospel Reflector, Winchester speculated about the geography question: "At length they [the Nephites] commenced settlements in the region of country, not far from the Isthmus of Darien,"
Winchester was likely influenced by Orson Pratt. After quoting from Oliver's letters in his pamphlet, Orson Pratt speculated that "The Lamanites, at that time, dwelt in South America, and the Nephites in North America... This war commenced at the Isthmus of Darien, and was very destructive to both nations for many years."
When Joseph Smith wrote the Wentworth letter based on Pratt's pamphlet, he edited out all of Pratt's speculation and explained, simply, that "The principal nation of the second race fell in battle towards the close of the fourth century. The remnant are the Indians that now inhabit this country."
Oliver Cowdery's Letter VII explains that, as a matter of fact, the final battles of the Nephites took place in New York at the Hill Cumorah. Joseph Smith's Wentworth letter dismisses all the other speculation and declares that the remnant of Lehi's people are the Indians that inhabited the United States circa 1842.
Seems pretty clear, doesn't it?
I hope we can all put a pin in the map at Cumorah in New York and do away with the so-called "two-Cumorah theory" once and for all. Then we can think about the plain language of the Wentworth letter.
WARNING: When you read the Wentworth letter, don't read it from the Church manual Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith. The curriculum committee was influenced by the Mesoamerican proponents and deleted the critical parts of the Wentworth letter. If you have the manual, go to p. 441 and you'll see the ellipses. Here's what they deleted:
"In this important and interesting book the history of ancient America is unfolded, from its first settlement by a colony that came from the Tower of Babel at the confusion of languages to the beginning of the fifth century of the Christian era. We are informed by these records that America in ancient times has been inhabited by two distinct races of people. The first were called Jaredites and came directly from the Tower of Babel. The second race came directly from the city of Jerusalem about six hundred years before Christ. They were principally Israelites of the descendants of Joseph. The Jaredites were destroyed about the time that the Israelites came from Jerusalem, who succeeded them in the inheritance of the country. The principal nation of the second race fell in battle towards the close of the fourth century. The remnant are the Indians that now inhabit this country."
There is tremendous irony here. Joseph opened the Wentworth letter by writing, "As Mr. Bastow has taken the proper steps to obtain correct information, all that I shall ask at his hands is that he publish the account entire, ungarnished, and without misrepresentation."
It turns out, it wasn't Mr. Bastow Joseph had to be worried about. It was the Church Curriculum Committee and the Mesoamerican proponents. If you want to see some first-class sophistry, read what the Mesoamerican proponents have written about the Wentworth letter.
Fortunately, you can still find the entire Wentworth letter on lds.org here.