Correspondence with the Church History Department – Jan 21, 2016
Over a year ago I wrote to the Church History Department inquiring about the "Hanging by a thread" quote. Here is my inquiry:
Church History Department,
I am hoping to learn more about what the Joseph Smith Papers effort has revealed about the Prophet’s statement(s) that the Constitution would in essence, ‘hang, as it were, by a thread’, and that ‘this people would be the staff upon which this nation shall lean’ and that they would ‘bear the Constitution away from utter destruction’. I am very familiar with what the prophets and other leaders of the church have said about the White Horse prophecy, and I understand that it is not accurate in many ways nor reliable. I know that many others have quoted the Prophet as having said it, but I’ve been told that we have been unable to find a reliable source for the statement, at least until recently? I’ve also been told that we now have found the actual discourse or some type of reliable source for the statement and I’m looking for some additional direction on where I can learn more about this.
The Church History Department replied:
The quote is often attributed to Joseph Smith, but no record has yet been found from Joseph or his scribes that he ever said that the Constitution would hang by a thread. However, similar statements have been recorded, just not with the hanging by a thread terminology or some of the other aspects of the White Horse Prophecy. You can read notes from a discourse Joseph gave on the subject of the Constitution on the Joseph Smith Papers website: http://josephsmithpapers.org/. This is likely the discourse you mention being told about.
The following articles discuss the various versions of the statement and sound like they might be of interest to you:
Stewart, D. Michael. "I Have a Question." Ensign. June 1976. Pages 64-65. Contains several recorded versions of this statement. Found here: https://www.lds.org/ensign/1976/06/i-have-a-question.
Jessee, Dean C. “Joseph Smith’s 19 July 1840 Discourse.” BYU Studies 19, no. 3 (Spring 1979): 390-93. Found here: https://byustudies.byu.edu/content/joseph-smiths-19-july-1840-discourse.
The following are some statements from those who knew Joseph. In an Independence Day celebration, President Brigham Young said, “Will the Constitution be destroyed? No: it will be held inviolate by this people; and, as Joseph Smith said, ‘The time will come when the destiny of the nation will hang upon a single thread. At that critical juncture, this people will step forth and save it from the threatened destruction.’ It will be so.
“With regard to the doings of our fathers and the Constitution of the United States, I have to say, they present to us a glorious prospect in the future, but one we cannot attain to until the present abuses in the Government are corrected.” –“Celebration.” Deseret News Weekly. July 13, 1854. Page 63-64.
Elder Jedediah M. Grant is reported as stating, “What did the Prophet Joseph say? When the Constitution shall be tottering, we shall be the people to save it from the hand of the foe." –Tyler, Daniel. A Concise History of the Mormon Battalion in the Mexican War, 1846-1847. 1881. Reprint, Grantsville, Utah: Archive Publishers, 2000. Page 350.
"It is said that brother Joseph in his lifetime declared that the Elders of this Church should step forth at a particular time when the Constitution should be in danger, and rescue it, and save it. This may be so; but I do not recollect that he said exactly so. I believe he said something like this—that the time would come when the Constitution and the country would be in danger of an overthrow; and said he, If the Constitution be saved at all, it will be by the Elders of this Church. I believe this is about the language, as nearly as I can recollect it." –Hyde, Orson. “Sermon.” Deseret News Weekly. January 13, 1858. Page 358.
Eliza R. Snow said, "I heard the Prophet Joseph Smith say… that the time would come when this nation would so far depart from its original purity, its glory, and its love for freedom and its protection of civil rights and religious rights, that the Constitution of our country would hang as it were by a thread. He said, also, that this people, the sons of Zion, would rise up and save the Constitution and bear it off triumphantly." –“Great Indignation Meeting.” Deseret News Weekly. January 19, 1870. Page 556.
Howard and Martha Jane Knowlton Coray recorded the Prophet Joseph as saying, "Even this nation will be on the very verge of crumbling to pieces and tumbling to the ground and when the constitution is upon the brink of ruin this people will be the staff upon which the nation shall lean and they shall bear the constitution away from the very verge of destruction." –Ehat, Andrew F. and Lyndon W. Cook, comps. and eds. The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Provo, Utah: Bookcraft, Brigham Young University Religious Studies Center, 1980. Page 416.
James Burgess related that while addressing the Nauvoo Legion in May 1843 the Prophet Joseph said that “the time would come when the constitution and government would hang by a brittle thread and would be ready to fall into other hands but this people the latter-day saints will step forth and save it.” –Ehat, Andrew F. and Lyndon W. Cook, comps. and eds. The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Provo, Utah: Bookcraft, Brigham Young University Religious Studies Center, 1980. Page 279.
(Correspondence with the Church History Department, January 21, 2016, emphasis added)