Robert Andrew Hope McCorkle (1807–1873)was one of many Americans curious about Joseph Smith and Mormonism. In 1844, he ventured from his western Tennessee home to Nauvoo, Illinois, “with strong desires to familiarize [him]self with what is call’d Mormonism.” In Nauvoo he found “a vast net-full” of Latter-day Saints, but he returned south without having had an opportunity to speak personally with Joseph Smith: “I took with me a series of enquiries with the intention to present them to you, but being debard from becoming familiar with you, my natural timidity forbade my presenting them.” Back in Tennessee, McCorkle took up his pen on May 10, 1844, and put his questions in a letter, transcribed below, and sent it to Joseph.
After Joseph’s murder, Church leaders and historians kept his official correspondence.His letters were carried west with other documents to the Salt Lake Valley and are now housed in the Joseph Smith Collection in the Church History Library. McCorkle’s letter is a unique part of this collection for both its content and format. It describes his interested but uncommitted involvement with Mormonism, his positive impression of Nauvoo, and his description of Mormon doctrines. Remarkably, after addressing Joseph in prose, McCorkle poses his questions to the Mormon prophet in a poem. While McCorkle’s poetry may not appeal aesthetically to all readers, it nonetheless provides an unanticipated vista into Joseph Smith’s world and yet another response to his remarkable ministry.
As mentioned, this letter sheds light on McCorkle’s ambivalent relationship with Mormonism. That McCorkle had great affinity for Mormonism is evident in the names of his two sons: Joseph Smith McCorkle and Parley Pratt McCorkle.But there is no known evidence that he joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In 1847, he and others founded the Lemalsamac Church in Wood Scott’s schoolhouse near Churchton, Tennessee, for which McCorkle served as a deacon.
McCorkle’s letter suggests reasons why he remained apart. While claiming to believe in the doctrine of the gathering, McCorkle reasons that Mormons have no monopoly on Christian virtue. He also weighs the economic pros and cons of relocating to Nauvoo and decides against it. He enjoyed some security in Tennessee; he eventually died there in Yorkville, Gibson County, Tennessee, on September 26, 1873.
His perspective on Nauvoo and the Saints is historically valuable. Not all visitors to Nauvoo left with positive impressions, but he did: “One thing candor forces me to say, there is more intelligence among the common people there, than ever I met with before; nor have I ever seen as little immorality exhib[it]ed in any city, town, or hamlet in which I ever spent the same length of time.” In a doggerel summary, he wrote:
For this I know, That all is not true
That I have heard about Nauvoo.
Though happy with his visit, McCorkle still left with unanswered questions. Thus, in the letter he inquires about prophecy, gifts of the spirit, the Book of Mormon, modern revelation, the gathering of Israel, ministering angels, and the priesthood. He was particularly interested in prophetic authority and asserted that if Joseph were a true prophet, he would be able to provide evidence of accurately predicting events.
McCorkle’s inquiries rendered as verse make his letter curious and distinctive. While since the Church’s earliest days Latter-day Saints have used poetry as “a vehicle for preaching the gospel,”here an enquirer used poetry to ask his questions. He even invited Joseph to respond similarly, but Joseph left no known response. It is not certain that Joseph read the letter, but it seems likely: his clerk, Thomas Bullock, endorsed it. Either way, Joseph’s time was short. He was murdered forty-eight days after McCorkle wrote the correspondence.
In the transcript below, McCorkle’s spelling, capitalization, punctuation, and paragraphing have been retained, but line endings and thus words broken at line endings have not. McCorkle’s erasures and strikeouts are represented
like this or noted in footnotes. McCorkle’s insertions are enclosed in angled brackets <like these>. Editorial insertions are enclosed in square brackets [like these]. McCorkle often used a subscript apostrophe that looks like a comma, as in call,d. In such cases the apostrophes have been raised, as in call’d. McCorkle used a heavy, elongated stroke to end sentences, to set off clauses for emphasis, and to separate the stanzas of his poem. These strokes are rendered below as periods (.) when they end sentences, as em dashes (—) when they set off clauses, and as double spaces between stanzas. McCorkle’s commas and periods are hard to distinguish. Thus, identical marks are represented in the transcription below as periods when they end sentences and as commas when they do not.
Letter of Robert Andrew Hope McCorkle to Joseph Smith
May the 10th 1844
To Joseph Smith Nauvoo Ill
Having in vain saught an interview with you during your conferance,being repulsed by a throng of business which bore weightily on you at that time —I was under the necessity of returning home without receiving that satisfaction that I desired, and which I promised myself before I left for Nauvoo.
As to the teachings exhibited from the stand at the conferance in the mien, as far as I understood, I believ’d—of course the mode of adress being so far different from any thing with which I had ever be acustomed, I was not a little surprised, but considerably amused.Passing these things by, I want to come to a point, & that is your prophetic power, if I rem[em]ber correctly, you stated in your adress, (the only public one you made while I was <there>) That you would be able to show, and prove to the satisfaction of the audience, that you had not be come so far a fallen prophet as some would have it you were, —I of course was an entire stranger to whome, or what, you alluded. My expectations were raised, thinking to hear you prophecy, but if you made any; I have no recolletion of it. I claim to be honest, I believe God never owned any people as <his> people or church, without having prophets among them; when I say prophets, I mean one, who by the power of God, can, and does foresee, & foretell events in the future, which will come to pass litteraly at the time and place, as by the prophet seen—none other than a litteral fulfilment will do me.
I dont want you to think hard of me, when I tell you that I as yet, have not been made acquainted with any prophecy that you have made; which has, or has not been fulfiled, hence I am left without any ground on which to predicate a belief wheather or not, you are a prophet, (true or false) If any you have ever made. I have an honest desire to seethem
ifit be not contrary to wisdom—a private communication on that subject would be of considerable satisfaction, or if a public exhibit would be less objectionable I would just as soon.
I went to Nauvoo with strong desires to familiarize my self with what is call’d Mormonism, but through timidity I was baffled [end of page 1]
Again, I went to Nauvoo with an honest desire to ascertain whether the virtues of the members of the chuch of Jesus Christ of Latter day saints were aparantly greater, than arecommon amongst the different sectarian churches. In this respect I found them [that is, Latter-day Saints], as might have been expected in such a vast net-full, (a promiscuous squad). One thing candor forces me to say, there is more intelligence among the common people there, than ever I met with before; nor have I ever seen as little immorality exhib[it]ed in <any> city, town, or hamlet in which I ever spent the same length of time.
I took with me a se
aries of enquiries with the intention to present them to you, but being debard from becoming familiar with you, my natural timidity forbade my presenting them. I however shewed them to several of the elders—some thought them deserving an answer; others ran over them rough shod.
I have concluded that in as much as I have an opportunity of sending them to you free of cost, I will submit them to your scrutiny; an answer in poetic formwould be thankfully rec’d, either privately, or in the ‘Times & Seasons’
I have some inquries to make with regard to locating in, or near to Nauvoo. I am somewhat of a believer in the gathering—but I am desirous to know how as poor a man as I, could make, or secure a comfortable living. I have a comfortable little home here, have to use industry, and economy in order to get a long well—but by the by, I am not very able to labor; I am no mechanic, and it looks like if I were to move, unless I could sell for a fair price, it would be rather an imprudent act, & to sell appears out of the question. In your wisdom how would you direct that I should procede? would there be any chance to get a small farm, or piece of land from the church near to Nauvoo having a sufficiency of timber on it, by paying two spans of mules or horses, and waggons, by advancing two or three hundred dollars in Tennessee currency—if so, what would be the price of the land, and what might I expect for the property say on an average. The scarcity of timber in your country to me, is a great obstacle. I will turn over and write down my honest enquiries [end of page 2]
A question on my mind appears
Which has been hanging there for years.
And for to bring it to your view
My pen will write it all out new.
I come to you the truth to find.
All hearsays I will leave behind.
For this I know, that all is not true,
That I have heard about Nauvoo.
Then let me hear the truth from you.
Bring nothing but the truth to view.
Do you possess the gifts of God,
As are recorded in his word?
To say these gifts are not for man,
To take this stand, I never can.
But this I only want to know,
Do you possess them at Nauvoo?
If from on high, you have rec’d
The gifts of God, your not deceiv’d
Then is it so, that from the Lord
An angel’s brot a true record?
Does this record come with a grace;
Does it reveal the Indian’s race?
Your manly honor I invite,
To give an answer that is right.
My heart within me now doth burn
To get an answer in return.
For if its true, That God has given
Late revelations right from heaven,
Its also true, he’s set his hands
To gather Israel from all lands.
And if that’s so, we all may know
All kingdoms sure, God will o’er throw,
Then dont deceive my honest soul,
I want Gods law, me to control,
Then if you are the chosen few
Show it to me, while at Nauvoo,
Your elders say, that you possess
The power of God, thro righteousness,
Th[at] you’ve rec’d the priesthood new
An angel gave it unto you.
This priesthood they pretend to say
Unveils the truth in this our day.
That by this power to man is given
An earnest of the joys of heaven.
If an angel of the Lord
Has come to man with a record
Such record surely was design’d
To be the blessing to mankind.
Then if it were by God design’d,
Sent as a blessing to mankind.
Then what am I, that I should stand
And raise objections to the plan?
But if it be a projectplan
Invented by a cunning man,
This truth unveil, and set me free
An[d] show me who the Mormons be.
If you the special gifts enjoy
These blessings I would not destroy.
If with these powers you have been bless’d
Your joy far triumphs o’er the rest.
Give me some reasons to decide
That you’r companions of the bride,
Or else come out, and plainly say
That you’r deceivers of our day.
If any questions I have form’d
Are calculated to do harm
Then to such questions point your hand
And I will lay them to the land.
These lines convey my mind to you
Or any other in Nauvoo
If they deserve a moments time,
You will an answer form in rhyme
But if they like their author prove
Unworthy of your time, and love
In silence they’l remain unheard
By man! But answerd from the Lord
R. A. H. McCorkle
Dyer county Yorkville post offic[e]. Tennessee