“How reliable is Joseph Smith’s history?” Ensign, July 1985, 15–17
Dean C. Jessee, senior historical associate at the Smith Institute for Church History, Brigham Young University. All historical records reflect the personality of those who write them, as well as the circumstances under which the records were written and the methods and rules that governed such writing at the time.
The History of the Church, which bears Joseph Smith’s name, was begun under his dictation and direction and completed after his death according to his instructions. The original sources used to compile the History were the Prophet’s own diaries, correspondence, and other documents. Those who may feel that the work is not a fundamental historical source because the Prophet did not personally write much of it are in error. The History, with its priceless collection of primary documents, remains the most important source of historical information on the life of Joseph Smith and early Latter-day Saint history.
The work presents the teachings and activities of the Prophet with a remarkable degree of accuracy. A look at how it was produced, and at the concepts that governed historical writing at that time, helps tell us the nature of the history.
Among the difficulties encountered by Joseph Smith was his own lack of formal literary education. He wrote that it took the exertions of all his father’s family to sustain themselves, “therefore we were deprived of the benefit of an education. … I was merely instructed in reading, writing and the ground rules of arithmetic, which constituted my whole literary acquirements.”1 Throughout his life the Prophet seemed to be concerned with his lack of literary training. In his extant correspondence he refers to his “lack of fluency in address,” his limited “ability in conveying my ideas in writing,” and “the imperfections of my writing.”2
The Prophet thus relied on others to write for him. More than two dozen clerks are known to have assisted him in a secretarial capacity. Of these, nine left the Church (typical of the challenges of those years), and four others died while engaged in important writing assignments.
A major inhibition of efforts to keep a record was the persecution the Prophet and the Church experienced. During the years in which the history was being written, the Latter-day Saints moved or were driven across two-thirds of the North American continent. Such unstable conditions resulted in the loss of some records and affected the accuracy of many of those that were preserved. In addition, the Prophet endured lawsuits and repeated arrests that took his attention from the history.
When Willard Richards took over the duties of Church historian in December 1842, a mere 157 pages of a work that eventually numbered 2,000 pages had been written.
On 1 March 1842, publication of the history in serial form commenced in the Nauvoo newspaper Times and Seasons. By 27 June 1844, the date of Joseph Smith’s death, the manuscript had been completed only to 5 August 1838 and published to December 1831. However, important source material had been preserved for completing the history. Shortly before his death, the Prophet wrote: “For the last three years I have a record of all my acts and proceedings, for I have kept several good, faithful, and efficient clerks in constant employ: they have accompanied me everywhere, and carefully kept my history, and they have written down what I have done, where I have been, and what I have said.”3 Some have indicated that, prior to his death, the Prophet reviewed most of what his clerks had written.
While in Carthage Jail shortly before his death, Joseph Smith instructed the Church historian, Willard Richards, who was there with him, to continue the history.4 This Elder Richards did, and for the next decade he was the custodian of the records and the architect of the history. After Joseph Smith’s death, work on the history continued, even as the Saints prepared to leave Nauvoo for the Rocky Mountains. With the addition of 674 pages to the manuscript, nearly as much work was done on the history in the period between the Prophet’s death and the departure of the Saints from Nauvoo as had been done in the preceding years.
At the time the records of the Church were packed at Nauvoo for the journey west in February 1846, Willard Richards had compiled the history to 1 March 1843. But in the disruptive years that followed, he was never able to complete that work. After Brother Richards’s death in 1854, George A. Smith and Wilford Woodruff continued work on the history. To assure accuracy, every effort was made to collect information. Late in 1845, for instance, an epistle to the Saints urged all who knew of “any fact, circumstance, incident, event, or transaction” that should be in the history to please report it.5
Finally, in August 1856, eighteen years after the history was begun, the work was completed to the death of Joseph Smith. The entire manuscript had been read in the hearing of the First Presidency and other witnesses for a general appraisal.
Since none of the manuscript of the history is in Joseph Smith’s handwriting, and apparently not much of the text was actually dictated by him, why did those employed on the work write in first person, as though the Prophet himself were writing? That common nineteenth-century format was chosen by Joseph Smith, who directed his clerks to write a first person, daily narrative based upon diaries kept by himself and his clerks. In addition, since Joseph Smith’s diary did not provide an unbroken narrative of his life, the compilers of the history were to bridge gaps by using other sources (diaries, Church periodicals, minute and record books of Church and civic organizations, letters and documents kept on file, and news of current world happenings), changing indirect discourse to direct as if Joseph Smith had done the writing himself. Not uncommon according to the editorial practices of the day, this method of supplying missing detail had the effect of providing a smooth-flowing, connected narrative of events.
Many examples from other works of the period show that this was the historical standard of the time. Nineteenth-century American methods of historical writing and editing were very different from those of today. In 1837, for example, Jared Sparks—regarded as “the first great compiler of national records”—edited in twelve volumes the Writings of George Washington. When his work was later compared with original manuscripts, it was found that he had rewritten portions of letters, deleted or altered offensive passages, and changed irregularities in style and awkward modes of expression.
In his review of historical editing in the United States, Lyman E. Butterfield has noted that changing text and creating text faithful to the ideas of the writer were not uncommon in early years, and that seldom were original texts left to speak for themselves.6 The History of the Church was written in the general literary and historical climate of its time.
New Testament writers apparently used a similar method in writing the Gospels. One Bible commentary records that Matthew and Luke borrowed from Mark (Interpreter’s Bible, 7:235–36) and omitted or altered what seemed to be critical of the Apostles. For example, Mark records that James and John came to the Savior and asked that he give them whatsoever they desired; whereupon, the Savior heard their plea that each might sit by his side when he came in glory. (Mark 10:35–37.) When Matthew recorded the event, he said that it was the mother of James and John who desired this privilege for her sons (Matt. 20:20–21.) This difference in recording the circumstances, presumably to place the Apostles in a better light, does not destroy the credibility of the Savior’s mission, nor may we believe that there was dishonesty in making the change.
One of the challenges facing those who compiled the history was that of presenting the Prophet’s sermons and teachings. Since none of Joseph’s clerks had mastered shorthand during his lifetime, reports of what he said were made longhand. Many of these were smooth-flowing, well-connected summaries and were copied into the history almost as recorded. In some instances, however, it was necessary to reconstruct an address from brief notes and disconnected ideas. George A. Smith’s editorial work was careful, and when he was finished, each discourse was read to members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve, some of whom had also heard the original address. Their input proved invaluable. These measures no doubt guaranteed the doctrinal accuracy of such reporting of Joseph Smith’s discourses, but the result obviously would not reflect his personality and speaking style as accurately as a verbatim report would have done.
An analysis of the History reveals those portions obtained from material written personally by Joseph Smith. These clearly reflect his loving and warm spirit. For example, the following is an entry from the History stemming from a portion of Joseph Smith’s 1835 diary written by himself:
“September 23. I was at home writing blessings for my most beloved brethren, but was hindered by a multitude of visitors. The Lord has blessed our souls this day, and may God grant to continue His mercies unto my house this night, for Christ’s sake. This day my soul has desired the salvation of Brother Ezra Thayer. Also Brother Noah Packard came to my house and loaned the committee one thousand dollars to assist building the house of the Lord. Oh! may God bless him a hundred fold, even of the things of the earth, for this righteous act. My heart is full of desire today, to be blessed of the God of Abraham with prosperity, until I shall be able to pay all my debts, for it is the delight of my soul to be honest. O Lord, that thou knowest right well. Help me, and I will give to the poor.”7
The History will continue to be the most important source of information on the life of the Prophet and early Latter-day Saint history. Since the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve—some of whom were participants in the historical events—reviewed the history, it is reliable. It should be known that the revelations of the Prophet Joseph Smith recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants are also recorded in the History of the Church and most assuredly are true and reliable.