A prophet’s claims have always invited attention. The Prophet Joseph Smith took calls from an array of personalities who would not be satisfied without seeing this curiosity in the flesh. The visitors came from near and far and from every walk and station of life: politicians and priests, paupers and pundits, charlatans and seekers, and almost everything in between. Arriving first in a trickle and then in a stream, they found the Prophet wherever he had gathered the Saints. Some of the travelers left accounts of their visits, and from these sketches later generations came to know Joseph, too.
Few traveler accounts are better known to Latter-day Saints than Josiah Quincy’s. Massachusetts legislator, son of a Harvard president, and later the mayor of Boston, Quincy had a pedigree to make ears perk. He and his cousin Charles Francis Adams,son of former U.S. president John Quincy Adams, docked in Nauvoo in the spring of 1844 while sight-seeing along the Mississippi River. They spent a day with Joseph Smith. Quincy wrote up his experience and published it in a New York literary magazine nearly forty years later. That account was republished in 1883 in Quincy’s posthumously published work, Figures of the Past, a potpourri of reminiscences based largely on his extensive journals. Many Latter-day Saints will recognize the oft-quoted passage from that work in which Quincy speculated on Joseph Smith’s contribution to American history:
It is by no means improbable that some future textbook, for the use of generations yet unborn, will contain a question something like this: What historical American of the nineteenth century has exerted the most powerful influence upon the destinies of his countrymen? And it is by no means impossible that the answer to that interrogatory may be thus written: Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet. And the reply, absurd as it doubtless seems to most men now living, may be an obvious commonplace to their descendants.
In his account, Quincy used language rarely seen in non-Mormon descriptions of Joseph Smith. He called Joseph “extraordinary,” “remarkable,” even “kingly”—all words Latter-day Saints would have used to describe their prophet. Quincy noted Joseph’s wit, his handsome face, his personal charm. The “rugged power” Quincy saw in Joseph Smith resonated with the way the Saints liked to think about their leader.
Coming from a prominent and respected non-Mormon, these descriptions were too good to pass up. Excerpts from the Quincy account soon found their way into Latter-day Saint publications. From biographiesto missionary tracts to general conference addresses to doctrinal treatises, Quincy was quoted with an ardor rarely seen. An authority to be believed, Josiah Quincy esteemed Joseph Smith at a time when few non-Mormons did.
Notwithstanding its important function for Latter-day Saints, Quincy’s published account raises a few questions. Should a forty-year-old reminiscence be trusted? Quincy expanded ten “closely written” journal pages into twenty pages of published text.The journals were never found, leaving historians to wonder how much of the account rested in contemporary observation and how much came of literary license or reconstructed memories then several decades old. How did the Church’s growing notoriety influence writing tone? Quincy no doubt read up on Mormonism after his visit to Nauvoo. And in truth, Quincy mixed compliments with descriptions that sounded very much like the anti-Mormon rhetoric of his day. For example, he did not discount the belief that Joseph was an “impostor” or a “fanatic.” The Prophet’s kingly abilities governed “feeble or confused souls who are looking for guidance,” not enlightened, rational minds such as Quincy’s. “Monstrous” was the word Quincy used to describe Joseph Smith’s religious claims. Quincy was obviously conflicted. His mixed review, together with Adams’s lukewarm journal entry, is enough to force this question: What did Quincy think of Joseph Smith at the time they visited?
A newly discovered letter penned by Quincy in 1844 (pages 83–87 below) helps us approach some answers. Housed in the Quincy-Howe family papers in the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, Massachusetts, the letter is among a dozen or so letters Quincy wrote to his wife, Mary, while on his tour of the western frontier. The letter, written from Davenport, Iowa, and dated May 16, 1844, the day after Quincy visited the Prophet, spares many details.The document does, however, provide a rare contemporaneous view of Joseph Smith, as well as introduce modern readers to Josiah Quincy. In this find, the differences between the two men become more striking than the similarities.
That differences might emerge should come as no surprise. In many respects, Josiah Quincy and Joseph Smith came from different worlds. Although they grew to maturity in New England at roughly the same time, their backgrounds show few similarities. The Smith family was ordinary, itinerant, and meager in formal education; the Quincy family, quite the opposite. Born in 1802, Josiah Quincy IV was raised on his family’s sprawling estate in Quincy (named after a distant ancestor), Massachusetts, a pastoral coastal town a few miles south of Boston. His father, Josiah III, was a U.S. congressman, mayor of Boston, and university president; his mother, the daughter of a well-to-do New York City merchant. Parents of this cast expect large things out of their children. Accordingly, they gave Josiah, the eldest son, the best schooling money could buy, sending him to Philips Andover Academy and later to Harvard, where generations of his ancestors had attended.
From the beginning, Josiah IV had “statesman” written all over him. While Joseph Smith entered politics free of family expectations, Quincy seems to have been groomed for elected office. The Quincys boasted that their ancestor Sieur de Quincy, an English baron, forced King John into granting the Magna Carta in 1215. Later generations formed an unbroken chain of elected office holders. Three Quincys—all named “Josiah”—would be Boston mayors. Josiah IV, expected to carry on tradition, spent his childhood on the laps of foreign diplomats and his youth sitting at the feet of former President John Adams, a relative and close family friend. He listened to and observed and modeled great leaders from an early age, adding insight to his opportunity. When Josiah was still in his early twenties, the governor of Massachusetts appointed him aide-de-camp, charged with escorting dignitaries around Boston. Such a post befit Josiah Quincy IV. While other prominent families traced their descent from sire to son, locals quipped that the Quincys traced theirs from “Siah to Siah.”
Josiah Quincy’s privilege did not outstrip his ability. After graduating from Harvard, he practiced law; married Mary Jane Miller,the daughter of a wealthy Boston merchant; and ran for public office. He served as president of the Boston city council (1834–37) and as president of the Massachusetts state senate (1842). He was three times elected mayor of Boston (1845–49). Witty and intelligent, he was known as a masterful orator. Unlike Joseph Smith, who was an able but not a polished public speaker, Quincy won prizes for his rhetoric. Even critics raved over his ability to quote Shakespeare just as well as the statute book.
This background of wealth and privilege could not help but color the way Quincy saw the world. Joseph Smith could no more measure up to the standard of refinement marked out in Josiah Quincy’s mind than could any other rural New Englander moving west with the frontier. Accordingly, nothing escaped the possibility of scrutiny. Everywhere he looked in Nauvoo, Quincy saw dirt. When he pulled up to the Nauvoo Mansion House, he saw a man dressed in a speckled coat and “dirty white pantaloons” emerge from a crowd of “dirty loafers.” That man was Joseph Smith. The Prophet invited him inside, but the mansion house was no better—“about as dirty as the prophet himself,” Quincy wrote. They later talked theology in what Quincy called a “close uncured room.”
The Mansion House was the best Nauvoo had to offer. The dirt thickened elsewhere in the city, an observation that could not have escaped anyone preoccupied with cleanliness and propriety. Nauvoo was a frontier town, a place at home in the elements, located, as William Mulder has observed, on the Mississippi, “both a dividing line and a mediator between wilderness and civilization.”To its inhabitants, Nauvoo would always be “the beautiful,” but to many outsiders the beauty lay more in the city’s natural surroundings than in any material creation. Urbane sensibilities such as Quincy’s could not measure progress in the thatched roofs and mud-packed dugouts that continued to dot the Nauvoo landscape in 1844. Even the perfectly geometrical plat, which caught his attention, failed to adequately structure the town. In the end, Quincy found the older, more progressive Quincy, Illinois (named after John Quincy Adams), and not the younger, unseasoned Nauvoo, “the most beautiful” Western city.
Quincy, Illinois, was the exception to rule. If Nauvoo could not measure up, neither could any of the other towns on Josiah Quincy’s trip. He wrote home at every major stop, and each letter conveyed that nothing much impressed him. The lack of civilization he found down the Ohio River was reason for some disgust. During the entire one-thousand-mile boat ride, he saw only two homes of “either taste or refinement,” and these were just a notch above the small, ordinary log dwellings that predominated along the riverside. Even the finished homes were nothing but a “shabby row of brick houses, placed on a dirty street, along the muddy bank.”The sight might not have been so unseemly to Quincy had he not believed the dwellings reflected so much of their residents’ personalities. The people between Louisville and St. Louis, he said, resembled nothing so much as a crowd of “miserable looking wood choppers,” and the Louisville courthouse, without steps, windows, or finished floors reinforced his view. A watchdog for establishment culture, Quincy could not be content in the rough, uncut West. The same irritants he found in Nauvoo popped up elsewhere again and again. In Cincinnati, he stayed in a “very dirty chamber” and sighted another crowd of “dirty loafers.”
Quincy was not alone in his preoccupation with gentility. By the early decades of the nineteenth century, an emerging American middle class was beginning to adopt the styles and mannerisms that a generation before would have thought solely the province of the gentry. Politeness, fashion, cleanliness, and good taste were all extolled as virtues to be cultivated.Elite classes in turn expected more of lower classes than ever before, and sneering such as Quincy’s became more and more commonplace. Easterners were especially concerned lest Westerners snub perceived culture centers on the coast.
Churches were not immune from refinement culture and in fact ambivalently sought to promote it. By the 1820s, the division between plain Christianity on the one hand and social propriety on the other had blurred in high churches such as the Congregational, Episcopalian, and Unitarian. Truth was beauty, and beauty, truth. Baptists and Methodists, many of whom composed the ranks of Mormon converts, lagged behind this trend, but by the 1840s, they too had begun to make the same move.In Nauvoo, Quincy saw dirt others did not, for he was a Unitarian, from an elite class, visiting religionists who had not made style a prerequisite to knowing God.
Quincy’s religion, as did his elitism and his gentility, ordered his observations in Nauvoo. Unitarians, among the most anticlerical of all Christians, would have been skeptical of any claim to prophetic authority. And indeed Quincy was. He twice referred to Joseph Smith as “prophet, priest, and king,” wryly reporting titles to which no Unitarian would have ever laid claim. These offices were too reminiscent of the papal authority of Catholicism, which nativists like Quincy found both unconscionable to “reasoning men” and in subtle ways seditious to the American revolutionary spirit.
The pan-Protestantism of antebellum America had little tolerance for faiths with strong claims to centralized leadership such as those found in Catholicism and in minority sects such as Mormonism. Protestantism (coded “Christianity”) was an unstated, unseen, yet powerfully influential assumption in American government. Joseph Smith’s overt claims to theocratic authority, running counter to this civic religion, would disturb even a man from Massachusetts, where the state church had been disestablished for only a decade.While Quincy’s exact views on disestablishment are unknown, his letter grouped the Prophet’s many duties en bloc as though together they were cause for concern. “The power he exercises both civilly & religiously is immense,” Quincy concluded, “& is a living proof of the insceptibility of human nature to imposition.” Nothing but absolute freedom of conscience would suffice. The enlightenment rationalism that informed Quincy’s Unitarianism demanded that conscience be pitted against obedience to authority and that conscience win.
Quincy’s politics made the same demand. Like many Massachusetts politicians of his day, Quincy belonged to the Whig party, which had formed in 1833 in opposition to President Andrew Jackson’s alleged Caeserism. “King” was a pejorative title the Whigs applied to Jackson. To objectors, Jackson’s supposed disregard of law and refusal to respect republican government’s separation of powers seemed all too reminiscent of the British crown. The Whigs, therefore, looked back to the Revolution for their name as well as their ideology. “A Whig in its pure signification,” proclaimed one party paper, “means one who prefers liberty to tyranny—who supports privilege against prerogative—the rights and immunities of the people, as ascertained by the equity of nature, the Constitution and the laws of the country, against the predominance of the Crown, or Executive power.” Some of this rhetoric may be dismissed as political bluster; Democrats did not like the Crown anymore than Whigs did. Nevertheless, diffuse state power did seem to be a Whig preoccupation into the 1840s. Whigs such as Quincy, already suspicious of powerful chief executives, would have likely found theocratic claims alarming.
If Quincy was impressed by anything at Nauvoo, it was that curious anomaly looming above the horizon, the Nauvoo Temple. He thought he had Joseph Smith figured out until they rode up to the bluff that afternoon. A massive, two-story structure built of “hewn stone” set on a “majestic site” was hardly what one would expect from a dirty loafer.
Not even Quincy’s own town church compared to this Nauvoo site. The word “temple” resonated within him, for this was the name by which Quincy residents called the Congregational church they built in 1828. Touched by refinement culture, town members had torn down the church built of wood, the one Quincy attended as a boy, and replaced it with a $30,000 granite edifice (“the Stone Temple”) graced with a styled pediment front and four towering doric pillars.
Quincy found nothing in his experience that resembled the Nauvoo Temple. All he could call it later in life was “a wonderful structure, altogether indescribable.”Most perplexing to him was why a people so apparently lacking in refinement would want to build a wonderful structure. The Nauvoo Temple was built of limestone, not brick or wood. It was three times as large as the Quincy temple and many times more expensive. The sun and moon carvings on the temple struck Quincy as strange, to be sure, but a man of his learning could not have missed the nature of its overall composition, which partook of the same Greek Revival style that Quincy, Massachusetts, residents admired. The dissonance Quincy found between the Nauvoo Temple and scenes elsewhere in the West must have been jarring. The builders and planners of the Nauvoo Temple simply could not be placed in the same category with those who had let the courthouse in Louisville deteriorate. Quincy recognized a peculiar industriousness when he observed every member giving one day in ten toward the building’s completion. Joseph, it appeared, commanded the devotion of his followers like no other. Subscriptions to the Quincy temple had come much more begrudgingly; although the building took just a year and a half to complete, residents required six years to pay it off.
Josiah Quincy’s interest in Joseph Smith no doubt grew over time. The Nauvoo Temple made Joseph’s organizational genius obvious, but as Quincy aged, his respect for some of the Prophet’s other gifts increased. He came to appreciate Joseph’s charisma, which fascinated him all the more once he learned he could never match it. Sad experience was Quincy’s teacher. He voluntarily resigned from the Boston mayorship in 1849 when his own party lashed out at him for passing prohibition legislation. Turning to railroads, he became treasurer of the Vermont Central. When the company went under, the directors blamed Quincy, demanded his resignation, and might have filed criminal charges against him had he not declared bankruptcy. His reputation ruined, Quincy lived out the final thirty years of his life farming and managing the family estate in Quincy.
Thirty years provided plenty of time for reflection. By 1881, when he published the piece on Joseph Smith, Quincy had no desire to see the public excoriate any man. The Independent, where his article was published, had openly vilified Mormons over the last several months.Another approach seemed more proper, more rational, more fitting of a Quincy. “Such a rare human being,” Quincy explained, “is not to be disposed of by pelting his memory with unsavory epithets.” Joseph’s rareness was now clearly apparent. The church he had founded, small and insignificant in Quincy’s memory, now incited a national fury. A man whose followers then numbered in the “hundreds of thousands” was not to be glibbly dismissed.
How did Joseph Smith acquire such a following? This was the question that puzzled Quincy, a question for which he had no answer. A man of common stock, Joseph Smith was now more powerful than the Quincy family had ever been.An explanation for Joseph’s ascent in this “age of free debate” was unclear but not exactly opaque. Looking over the whole of American history, Quincy could see that Jacksonianism had largely replaced the aristocratic notions that had kept family dynasties such as the Adamses and Quincys in power. The Common Man had flourished; the aristocrat had withered. Neither Adams, nor Jefferson, nor any other elite, nor even that twice-elected representative of the masses, Jackson (whom Quincy had met), would hold the future history textbooks rapt. Rather, Joseph Smith, both the commonest and uncommonest Common Man, perpetually elected in the minds and hearts of his followers, would, Quincy hypothesized, command all the attention. This speculation would require forty years of hindsight and would not have been apparent to Quincy in 1844.
Far from a paean to Joseph Smith, Quincy’s letter shows just how easily the Prophet could be misunderstood. In this respect, the uncommon Quincy resembled other visitors. Like Quincy, visitors often held Joseph to an impossible standard. He was not biblical enough for some, not American enough for others, but rarely acceptable just as he was.
Within the context of a Bible-believing culture, such appraisals represent a curious phenomenon. In the Bible, refinement hardly seems necessary for a prophetic call. Unlearnedness is more a prerequisite than it is a liability. Prophets can also be both priests and kings, holding political power as God directs and speaking out on any matter of moral concern. Where the prophet leads, the people follow (even if the prophet wears dirty pantaloons or something akin to them).
But in Joseph Smith’s day, one in which American nationalism mixed with Biblicalism, ancient patterns alone seemed outmoded. The proof of America’s greatness lay in progress, not regress, and Biblical literalism, for many learned souls, represented regress. Without laying aside the assumptions they held dear, visitors like Josiah Quincy would always go away disappointed. Joseph Smith was restoring ancient religion, and only those who felt the power and promise of that quest could ever fully endorse him.
Josiah Quincy’s May 16, 1844, Letter
Le Clare House, Davenport, Iowa. Ter.
Thursday Mg May 16. 1844.
My very darling wife,
I closed my last letter at St Louis on Monday [May 13] and took passage in the Steamer Amaranth. Wepassed rapidly that night and the next day through a beautiful and clean river nearly as wide as at St. Louis & studded with innumerable islands through which we
passedsailed brushing the trees with the sides of our boat. during the day we reached Quincy, which being situated in the town of John & the County of Adams possessed a claim on our notice, we accordingly stopped the boat for half an hour & from the top of the Quincy house beheld for the first time a prarie. It appears more like a view out to sea than any thing else to which I can compare it. The perfect level stretching to the horizon & the living green almost amounting to blue with which its clothed giving it the appearance of water. But no description can convey any idea of the rich fertility of the soil, which requires & for years will require no manure to produce the most abundant harvests. The town of Quincy is acknowledged to be the most beautiful, regular & New England like town in the west, & really seems to deserve the honor conferred upon it by its name. As we found we had a day to spare we determined to devote it to the service of the Mormon prophet Joe Smith, and accordingly landed at his city of  Nauvoo at midnight between Tuesday [May 14] & Wednesday [May 15]. As we were some distance from his residence we stopped at a poor tavern at the landing, under the guidance of a Dr Goforth, the most perfect personification of Don Quixote that was ever seen. He had been a surgeon in Genl ackson’s army at the battle of New Orleans & seemed simple as a child with a strong inclination to the Mormon faith. The City of Nauvoo isthe promised land of the Mormons, is situated on a bend of the Mississippi, that commands a view for miles in both directions. Five years ago there were not fifty inhabitants on it, now they say there are twenty five thousand, & I should think there might be half that number. The town is laid out with perfect regularity & every house has attached to it an acre of land. Of course the prophet priest & king, who is the head of the sect & who numbers of 200.000 followers in his train could not but be an object of interest. Dr Goforth at early morning dispatched a messenger for “the chariot of the prophet” which soon appeared not like that Elisha saw, but on four good wheels with a substantial pair of sturdy horses. We entered & soon arrived at the seat of this [“]prophet, priest, king, Mayor, Lt General & tavern keeper” for as each & all of these is he inspired to act. The door was surrounded by dirty loafers, from among which our Quixotic guide selected a man, in a checked coat, dirty white pantaloons, a beard of some three days growth and introduced him as General Smith Your ProphetHe had the name but certainly but in few respects the look of  a prophet. He however blessed us & requested us into his mansion, which was about as dirty as the prophet himself. As the lower floor was crowded he invited us to ascend & throwing open a chamber door, we entered, a close uncured room on the bed of which lay one of the faithful, sound asleep, and we had the evidence of more than one sense that the Mormon saints were not freed from some of the necessities of humanity. This however was a small matter for a prophet. He covered his disciple as well as he could with the bed clothes and down we sat to theological conversation. Breakfast was soon announced & when it was finished we found “an upper chamber” properly prepared for our reception. We passed the whole day in his society, & had one of the most extraordinary conversations I ever participated in, he preached for us, prophesied for us, interpreted hieroglyphics for us, exhibited his mummies and took us to his temple which he is now erecting on a most majestic site of hewn stone. Every inhabitant dedicates the labor of his tenth day to its structure, it will be finished within a year & whether Mormonism expires or not, must remain a massive memorial of its existence for centuries. I have neither time nor space to describe the faith or works of this most extraordinary man but reserve them for a future occasion. The power he exercises both civilly & religiously is immense, & is a living proof of the insceptibility of human nature to imposition. We left Nauvoo yesterday morning and reached this place at 12 last night. The scenery around is lovely beyond description & I & my companion have  just ordered “a barouche landau”, alias a two horse waggon for the purpose of making an exploration. I trust I shall yet have power to write to you again from this place for whether with priests or prophets I am ever most truly & devotedly your own Josiah Quincy Jr[.]
P.S. We shall probably go to the falls of St Anthony as it will only delay us five days, & is an opportunity we shall never have again. After we leave this [place] my opportunities of writing may not be frequent so if you do not hear [from me] you must not be anxious. Write me at Buffalo.—Good bye—God bless you.[postmarked Davenport Iowa May 17]
(for Mrs Quincy)