Joseph Smith’s Historical Enterprise
When historian and publisher Hubert H. Bancroft asked in 1880 how the Latter-day Saints came to have a historian’s and recorder’s office, considering that “other people, generally, are so careless of recording their proceedings,” church historian Franklin D. Richards replied that “at the organization of this Church, the Lord commanded Joseph, the Prophet, to keep a record of his doings, in the great, and important work, that he was commencing to perform. It thus became a duty imperative.”1 The revelation to which Richards referred, dated 6 April 1830, instructed, “There shall be a record kept among you, and in it thou shalt be called a seer, a translator, a prophet, an apostle of Jesus Christ, an elder of the church.”2
The “duty imperative” that rested on the church founder and his followers resulted in a rich documentary record. Joseph Smith, along with those working under his direction, created and collected minutes of church meetings, priesthood licenses, revelations, journals, correspondence, and other papers. These documents appear in the appropriate series of The Joseph Smith Papers: the Journals series, Documents series, Revelations and Translations series, Legal and Business Records series, and Administrative Records series. In addition to such papers, several important narrative histories were undertaken during Smith’s lifetime, and the resulting texts constitute the Histories series. The first volume, Joseph Smith Histories, comprises histories written, dictated, or signed by Smith or created under his direct supervision. The documents in volume 2 of the series, Assigned Histories, have a less direct connection to Joseph Smith. They were begun at his official direction but did not receive his sustained supervision. The balance of the Histories series will present the massive multivolume history that Joseph Smith initiated in Missouri in 1838 and that church historians concluded in Salt Lake City in 1856, more than a decade after Smith’s death. Although the Histories series will include only writings conceived as narrative histories, these writings were often based on individual documents, including letters, petitions, and revelations, and in many cases the source documents were copied directly into the histories.
The turbulent conditions of Joseph Smith’s life hindered his attempts to write and oversee the creation of a history. Violent opposition threatened the Saints from without and dissension divided them from within. Lawsuits and financial problems were a constant distraction. Smith’s history identifies the factors that complicated his literary efforts, describing “long imprisonments, vexatious and long continued Law Suits[,] The treachery of some of my clerks; the death of others; and the poverty of myself and brethren from continued plunder and driving.”3 Record keeping and history writing did not thrive in these unsettled and sometimes bloody years, and the documents that were produced are fragmentary, recording only a fraction of Smith’s activities and teachings. For example, the written record carries only traces of the vigorous oral tradition of preaching, debate, and the sharing of beliefs that existed from the earliest days of the church.4 And yet, despite the long list of impediments to history writing, Joseph Smith showed sustained interest in documenting the church’s rise and progress, and his repeated efforts to do so bore fruit. Their necessarily incomplete nature notwithstanding, the histories that were written document significant aspects of his life and of the early days of the church, including some details recorded nowhere else.
The Earliest Historical Accounts
Even before the April 1830 injunction to keep a church record, Joseph Smith began recording sacred texts, including the extensive Book of Mormon translation. In connection with these revelatory documents, Smith produced and published two short narratives. The first, his earliest known historical text, is found in the preface to the first edition of the Book of Mormon. Probably written in mid-August 1829, just before the first pages of the Book of Mormon manuscript were delivered to the printer, the preface explained Smith’s response to the loss of the earliest pages of the Book of Mormon translation in summer 1828:
As many false reports have been circulated respecting the following work, and also many unlawful measures taken by evil designing persons to destroy me, and also the work, I would inform you that I translated, by the gift and power of God, and caused to be written, one hundred and sixteen pages, the which I took from the Book of Lehi, which was an account abridged from the plates of Lehi, by the hand of Mormon; which said account, some person or persons have stolen and kept from me, notwithstanding my utmost exertions to recover it again—and being commanded of the Lord that I should not translate the same over again, for Satan had put it into their hearts to tempt the Lord their God, by altering the words, that they did read contrary from that which I translated and caused to be written; and if I should bring forth the same words again, or, in other words, if I should translate the same over again, they would publish that which they had stolen, and Satan would stir up the hearts of this generation, that they might not receive this work: but behold, the Lord said unto me, I will not suffer that Satan shall accomplish his evil design in this thing: therefore thou shalt translate from the plates of Nephi, until ye come to that which ye have translated, which ye have retained; and behold ye shall publish it as the record of Nephi; and thus I will confound those who have altered my words. I will not suffer that they shall destroy my work; yea, I will shew unto them that my wisdom is greater than the cunning of the Devil. Wherefore, to be obedient unto the commandments of God, I have, through his grace and mercy, accomplished that which he hath commanded me respecting this thing. I would also inform you that the plates of which hath been spoken, were found in the township of Manchester, Ontario county, New-York.5
The second narrative, dated shortly after the organization of the Church of Christ on 6 April 1830 in Fayette, New York, constituted a historical prologue to a text setting forth the “articles and covenants” of the new institution. It provides the first known references to key events of the beginning of Mormonism:
The rise of the Church of Christ in these last days, being one Thousand eight Hundred & thirty years since the coming of our Lord & Saveiour Jesus Christ in the flesh; it being regularly organized & established agreeable to the Laws of our Country, by the will & commandments of God in the fourth Month & on the Sixth day of the Month, which is called April: which Commandments were given to Joseph, who was called of God & ordained an Apostle of Jesus Christ, an Elder of this Church, & also to Oliver who was also called of God an Apostle of Jesus Christ, an Elder of this Church & ordained under his hand, & this according to the grace of our Lord & saveiour Jesus Christ to whom be all glory both now & forever. Amen.
For after that it truly was manifested unto this first Elder, that he had Received a remission of his sins he was entangeled again in the vanities of the world but after truly Repenting God ministered unto him by an Holy Angel whose countenance was as Lightning & whose garments were pure & white above all whiteness & gave unto him Commandments which inspered [inspired] him from on high & gave unto him power by the means which were before prepared that he should translate a Book which Book contained a record of a fallen People & also the fulness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles & also to the Jews proveing unto them that the Holy Scriptures are true & also that God doth inspire men & call them to his Holy work in these last days as well as in days of old that he might be the same God forever amen Which Book was given by inspiration & is Called the Book of Mormon & is confirmed to others by the ministering of Angels & declared unto the World by them Wherefore having so great witnesses by them shall the world be Judged even as many as shall hereafter receive this work either to faith & righteousness or to the hardness of heart in unbelief to their own condemnation for the Lord God hath spoken it for we the Elders of the Church have heard & bear witness to the words of the glorious majesty on high to whom be glory for ever & ever amen[.]6
Development of Extended Historical Narratives
The two short examples above constitute the only extant historical writings from the first years of the Latter-day Saint movement. The 6 April 1830 revelation commanded that a church record be kept, and accordingly, the early response to the command was primarily the compilation of revelations, minutes, and other records of church conferences and administrative meetings. At a conference on 9 June 1830, Oliver Cowdery was “appointed to keep the Church record and Conference minutes,” thus becoming the church’s first official record keeper.7 His minutes of the 9 June conference, besides noting who was present and who spoke, included a record of the ten ministerial licenses that were issued.8 Cowdery’s departure with other church elders in fall 1830 on a proselytizing mission to the West effectively ended his early work to keep general church records.
Before Cowdery left, David Whitmer received a short-term appointment to keep the records until January 1831, and in April 1831 John Whitmer accepted official record-keeping responsibilities.9 As part of John Whitmer’s new assignment, Joseph Smith asked not only that he keep records of church proceedings but also that he “keep the Church history.”10 In response, Whitmer requested divine confirmation, and in March 1831 a revelation assigned him to “write and keep a regular history” and to “keep the church record and history continually.”11 Beginning with Whitmer’s appointment, writing a narrative history of the Latter-day Saint movement became a permanent part of the church’s record-keeping activities. Whitmer recorded minutes of church meetings, as Oliver Cowery and David Whitmer had done, and on 12 June 1831 he began work on a history.12 An additional revelation in November 1831 defined Whitmer’s responsibilities more expansively. He was instructed to receive reports from those serving missions “abroad in the earth” and to travel widely among church members, “that he may the more easily obtain knowledge: preaching and expounding, writing, copying, selecting and obtaining all things which shall be for the good of the church, and for the rising generations.” All this material was to be used to create “a history of all the important things” relative to the church.13
Whitmer retained responsibility for the history as he moved from Ohio to Missouri in late 1831, back to Ohio in 1835, and back again in 1836 to Missouri, where he also served as a member of the Missouri church presidency. During this time he accumulated historical records and drafted narrative material, beginning with the October 1830 departure of Cowdery and colleagues. “The Book of John Whitmer” ultimately included copies of dozens of revelations, letters, and other documents, interspersed with historical narrative. Whitmer was excommunicated on 10 March 1838 following disagreements with other church leaders, but he continued to add to his history until after Joseph Smith’s death in 1844.
The years after John Whitmer’s call in 1831 saw a significant expansion of church record creation. Joseph Smith continued to oversee Whitmer’s record keeping, including the copying of manuscripts of revelations into bound volumes, and he gave Whitmer occasional instruction on writing a history. Additionally, Smith in 1832 began a letterbook, a journal, and a formal history. In this history, twenty-six-year-old Smith provided a narrative of his early life, focusing on the foundational events that supported his claims as God’s prophet and seer. He recounted his first vision of Deity14 and the ministering of angels he had received, including a visitation from the angel Moroni, who set him to the task of retrieving and translating the gold plates. Joseph Smith’s circa summer 1832 history provides the earliest written account of these events, and it is the only one that includes his own handwriting.
In June 1832, William W. Phelps and other church members in Independence, Jackson County, Missouri, began printing the first Mormon periodical, The Evening and the Morning Star. Joseph Smith had high expectations for the newspaper, and he saw in it an opportunity to disseminate information about the church’s history. In a postscript to a January 1833 letter to Phelps, Smith instructed him to include in the Star items that set forth “the rise progress and faith of the church.”15 That counsel led Phelps to begin a series in the newspaper that summarized the church’s continued growth and missionary work. The first installment was Phelps’s own summary of early church events, titled “Rise and Progress of the Church of Christ.” Later that year, after the Mormon printing office in Independence was destroyed and the Latter-day Saints were expelled from Jackson County, church leaders Parley P. Pratt, Newel Knight, and John Corrill printed an account of the expulsion, titled “‘The Mormons’ So Called.”16 Because Pratt was not an official church historian and did not write under direct assignment from Joseph Smith or other church leaders, his account is not included in the Histories series of The Joseph Smith Papers. Nonetheless, his account is significant as one of the earliest examples of a historical narrative written by a Latter-day Saint.
Within five months of the destruction of the Missouri printing office in July 1833, church leaders established printing operations in Kirtland, Ohio, and again the church newspaper served as a forum for publishing the story of the Latter-day Saint movement. In 1834, Oliver Cowdery, as editor of Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate (the successor to The Evening and the Morning Star), wrote a series of eight letters chronicling Joseph Smith’s early spiritual experiences and the origins of the Book of Mormon. Although there is no evidence that Joseph Smith assigned Cowdery to write the letters, he offered his assistance to ensure that the “narrative may be correct.”17 The published letters were also copied into Smith’s next history, begun by Cowdery in late 1834 and continued by other scribes into early 1836. At its inception, this new project promised to be an impressive and comprehensive institutional history, including a genealogy of the presidency of the church and a day-by-day narrative. But most of the genealogy was left blank, and the daily chronicle ended after just two entries (5 and 6 December 1834). After a handwritten transcription of Cowdery’s published historical letters, the final section of the history drew heavily on Smith’s 1835–1836 journal, beginning with the entry of 22 September 1835 and continuing until 18 January 1836. At that point, as had been the case for the three previous sections of the 1834–1836 history, the final section was discontinued.
The Missouri Experience
Following the Mormons’ expulsion from Jackson County in 1833 and their agreement to leave neighboring Clay County in 1836, the state legislature created Caldwell County, encompassing sparsely settled land in northwest Missouri, for Latter-day Saint settlement. In early 1838, Joseph Smith relocated from Kirtland to Far West, in Caldwell County. After his arrival, the Mormon population in northwest Missouri swelled as church members fled the increasingly hostile conditions in Kirtland and converts gathered from across the United States and Upper Canada.
Even with pressing church responsibilities, Joseph Smith continued to emphasize the writing of history during his time in Missouri. After church historian John Whitmer’s excommunication in March 1838, Smith took three steps in rapid succession to strengthen the church’s history-keeping enterprise: he called for the appointment of two new historians, John Corrill and Elias Higbee, “to write and keep the Church history”;18 he sought unsuccessfully to obtain from John Whitmer the historical materials in his custody;19 and, with Sidney Rigdon, his counselor in the church presidency, he began writing a new narrative.20
After being appointed church historian, John Corrill began working on a history, but the booklet he completed and published was an independent project written from his own perspective. His narrative summarizes many of the doctrines that had been taught by Joseph Smith, and it provides particularly valuable details of the conflicts between the Mormons and the other Missouri settlers. In the opening chapters, Corrill described his conversion to Mormonism; in the final chapters, he explained the gradual erosion of his confidence in Smith’s prophetic leadership. Corrill was excommunicated in 1839, the same year he published at his own expense the work he titled A Brief History of the Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints, (Commonly Called Mormons;) Including an Account of Their Doctrine and Discipline; with the Reasons of the Author for Leaving the Church.
Elias Higbee, though assigned as historian at the same time as Corrill, produced no formal narrative history. He did, however, travel to Washington DC in late 1839 with Joseph Smith to present to Congress a petition for redress, which included a survey of the Latter-day Saints’ immigration to and forced exodus from Missouri. Higbee may have helped write this petition, and he also signed a second congressional petition a year later.21
When John Whitmer declined to turn over the historical records in his possession, Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon began their own project, conceived of as “a history of this Church from the earliest perion [period] of its existance up to this date.”22 With assistance from George W. Robinson, “general Church Clerk & Recorder” and “Scribe for the first Presidency,”23 they devoted six days in late April and early May 1838 to the task.24 Work then halted as Smith turned his attention to other responsibilities, including preparations to accommodate the arrival of hundreds of Saints migrating from Canada and Ohio. No manuscript of their 1838 work is extant, but the work was incorporated into the later surviving history manuscripts.
Hopes for a peaceful Latter-day Saint gathering in northwest Missouri were short lived. As in previous Missouri settlements, confrontation ignited in and around Caldwell County over religious, cultural, and ideological differences between the Mormons and their neighbors and over fears of Mormon political and economic domination. As the Latter-day Saints’ growing population expanded beyond the boundaries of Caldwell County, significant numbers of Missourians actively opposed the Saints and refused to tolerate their presence. The ensuing “Mormon War” culminated in Missouri governor Lilburn W. Boggs’s “extermination order,” the imprisonment of Joseph Smith and other church leaders, and the forced migration of Mormons eastward across the Mississippi River to western Illinois.
While incarcerated at Liberty, Missouri, during the winter of 1838–1839, Smith wrote a letter “to the church of Latterday saints at Quincy Illinois and scattered abroad and to Bishop [Edward] Partridge in particular.” Later published in the church’s Illinois newspaper, Times and Seasons, the letter instructed the Saints to write about their persecutions as an aid in seeking redress from the federal government:
And again we would suggest for your concideration the propriety of all the saints gethering up a knowledge of all the facts and suffering and abuses put upon them by the people of this state and also of all the property and amount of damages which they have sustained both of character and personal Injuries as well as real property and also the names of all persons that have had a hand in their oppressions as far as they can get hold of them and find them out. and perhaps a committe can be appointed to find out these things and to take statements and affidafets and also to gether up the libilous publications that are afloat and all that are in the magazines and in the Insiclopedias and all the libillious histories that are published and that are writing and by whom and present the whole concatination of diabolical rascality and nefarious and murderous impositions that have been practised upon this people that we may not only publish to all the world but present them to the heads of the government in all there dark and hellish hugh [hue] as the last effort which is injoined on us by our heavenly Father[.]25
Included in this series of The Joseph Smith Papers is Edward Partridge’s response, published as “A History, of the Persecution, of the Church of Jesus Christ, of Latter Day Saints in Missouri” in the church’s Illinois periodical. The “History, of the Persecution” series also excerpted from other important works that Smith’s mandate had set in motion.26
Joseph Smith’s instructions invited all Latter-day Saints to become historians. By calling on each Saint to add a personal chapter to the collective history, Smith’s letter effectively democratized Mormon historical writing. Moving beyond the personal, religious history of Smith’s own life and the sacred history of the church, the call for Latter-day Saints to put their persecution narratives in writing helped create an enduring self-understanding. As well as providing evidence for redress petitions and attempting to draw public sympathy for their plight, the community effort to create history served to strengthen the church’s cohesion and solidify what it meant to be Mormon. History, then, became a means not only to share their story, but to forge a shared Latter-day Saint identity.
History Keeping in the Nauvoo Period
In April 1839, Joseph Smith escaped from custody in Missouri and made his way to Quincy, Illinois, near what became the Mormon gathering place at Nauvoo. As the Latter-day Saints built a new community, Joseph Smith directed a twofold effort to produce history, one focused on the Missouri experience and the other on the overall story of the church. Within two weeks of Smith’s arrival in Quincy, a church conference appointed a committee to compile records of the injustices suffered by the Saints in Missouri, as Smith had suggested in his letter from jail. The committee, consisting of Almon Babbitt, Erastus Snow, and Robert B. Thompson, was assigned to “gather up and obtain all the libelous reports, and publications . . . that they can possibly obtain,” as well as to compile records from church members. Thompson was assigned to use these sources to draft a history.27 Although no formal narrative resulted, the committee collected affidavits, and Thompson and Elias Higbee prepared and signed a petition to the United States Congress in 1840 recounting the Latter-day Saints’ losses.28 Other individuals, responding to Smith’s appeal to the general membership of the church, wrote petitions and pamphlets filled with personal narratives and documentary compilations of their suffering. Such accounts were designed to draw public opinion and governmental support to their side. Smith himself composed a “Bill of Damages against the State of Missouri,” which narrated from his perspective the persecution of the Mormons in 1838.29
Turning from his campaign to publicize and seek redress for Mormon suffering in Missouri, Smith devoted five days of June and three more days in July 1839 to a renewed focus on what his journal called simply “history.” He enlisted his scribe James Mulholland to take dictation and called on Newel Knight, an early convert to Mormonism from Colesville, New York, to assist in reconstructing events in upstate New York.30 Further work was forestalled by other concerns, including a local malaria epidemic and the departure of members of the Quorum of the Twelve for a mission to the British Isles.
Two extant manuscripts resulted from Mulholland’s work with Joseph Smith: the 1839 draft and the start of the large history manuscript. The 1839 draft (designated Draft 1), written on twenty-five pages of a makeshift gathering of paper, was likely composed to pick up the story where the nonextant 1838 history ended; it begins immediately after the baptism of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in May 1829 and concludes in late September 1830. Mulholland’s inscription in the large history manuscript occupies fifty-nine pages (Draft 2) and begins at Joseph Smith’s birth in 1805. Beginning with May 1829, where the 1839 draft starts, the large history manuscript appears to be an edited copy of the draft. The draft and Mulholland’s portion of the large history manuscript end at the same point, with the September 1830 conference of the church. The original source for the pre-May 1829 material in the large history appears to be the nonextant 1838 Smith-Rigdon manuscript.31 Thus, Mulholland copied first the Smith-Rigdon manuscript (or Joseph Smith may have dictated a revised version) and then copied in the 1839 draft, thereby creating in the large history volume a seamless narrative.
In the same year, Joseph Smith and others began publishing histories of the events that occurred in Missouri. In July 1839, the first issue of the Times and Seasons included a revised and expanded version of Smith’s “Bill of Damages” under the title “Extract, from the Private Journal of Joseph Smith Jr.” In October of that year, Smith traveled to Washington DC to present the Saints’ petitions to Congress and to President Martin Van Buren. During Smith’s absence, Edward Partridge, to whom Smith had addressed “in particular” his mandate from prison to gather accounts of the Saints’ Missouri depredations, published in the December 1839 issue of the Times and Seasons the first installment in a series of articles that gave his account of “the persecutions of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints, in the State of Missouri.”32 After Partridge’s death in May 1840, the editors of the newspaper continued the series by printing excerpts of two previously published accounts: Parley P. Pratt’s History of the Late Persecution and Sidney Rigdon’s Appeal to the American People. In all, eleven installments of “A History, of the Persecution, of the Church of Jesus Christ, of Latter Day Saints in Missouri” appeared in the newspaper from December 1839 to October 1840.
At the church’s general conference in Nauvoo on 3 October 1840, Robert B. Thompson was appointed to replace George W. Robinson as the “general church clerk,” the latter having announced his intention to move across the river to Iowa.33 Thompson served in various clerical, editorial, and administrative capacities and succeeded Mulholland—who died suddenly in November 1839—as scribe for Joseph Smith’s history. Beginning where Mulholland left off in the large history volume, Thompson recorded sixteen pages that carried the narrative through mid-November 1830, describing the conversion of Sidney Rigdon and many of his followers in Ohio and including an extensive biographical sketch of Rigdon. Thompson died on 27 August 1841.34
At about the time Thompson was inscribing Smith’s history, Smith assigned Edwin D. Woolley and Howard Coray to draft additional historical material, using sources Smith provided. Woolley eventually withdrew from the project and was replaced by a “Dr. Miller.”35 Their work evidently resulted in two different kinds of drafts. According to Coray’s later reminiscences, the first grew out of instructions “not only to combine, and arrange in cronological order, but to spread out or amplify not a little, in as good historical style as may be.”36 No manuscript matching this description has survived, but their work may have provided the basis for material subsequently copied into the large history by other scribes. Coray did, however, produce an edited version of the narrative inscribed in the large history volume. According to Coray’s later account, Joseph Smith was directly involved in this reworking of the history, reading aloud and dictating revisions from the large volume as Coray and Miller wrote.37 Two drafts of this work have survived. However, there is no indication that either draft was used in subsequent compiling or in publication of the history, as writing proceeded in the large history volume. Though a short-lived effort, Coray’s manuscript represents the intention to revise the history, suggesting that Joseph Smith had not yet settled on a final historical product even after he had directed scribes to begin inscribing the history in the large, more permanent volume in 1839.
Work on the large history manuscript continued throughout the church’s Illinois period. William W. Phelps, former editor of the Latter-day Saint newspaper in Jackson County, performed clerical duties in Nauvoo for Joseph Smith starting in late 1842. Phelps’s inscription in Smith’s church history extended from pages 75 to 157 in the large history volume, carrying the narrative to 1 November 1831. As the work continued to take shape, arrangements were made for its publication. In its 15 March 1842 issue, during Phelps’s tenure of stewardship for the history and Smith’s general editorship of the newspaper, the Times and Seasons began serial publication of the work under the title “History of Joseph Smith.” Editorial comments made by Joseph Smith elsewhere in the newspaper explained that although the previous issue had featured a brief historical essay, he would “now enter more particularly into that history, and extract from my journal.”38 This repeated the practice, seen earlier with the publication of Smith’s bill of damages, of identifying as an extract from Smith’s journal a document that was produced for specific purposes quite different from a typical journal.
The first part of the history benefited from Smith’s direct input, and its first-person narrative resembles a journal account. The history goes on to weave together the texts of Smith’s revelations and other documents with a narration of events and developments in the early years of the church. The revelation texts were an essential component of the history; Orson Pratt later stated that Joseph Smith intended the revelations to “be published more fully in his History” than in the published compilations of revelations.39 Only a handful of the revelations Smith dictated after April 1835 were included in the 1844 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, and when the history was printed, it served as the most accessible repository for the others. Willard Richards, a later member of Smith’s clerical staff, began working on the history in early December 1842 and was appointed Joseph Smith’s “private se[c]retary & historian” later that month.40 He inscribed 659 pages of the manuscript over a period of two years. After working closely with Sidney Rigdon, George W. Robinson, and James Mulholland in 1838 and 1839 to compose the history, Joseph Smith delegated most of the later work to others, though he occasionally reviewed the text and made revisions. As Willard Richards and his colleagues and successors continued the narrative with material that was for the most part neither written nor dictated by Smith, they maintained the first-person approach so it would appear as though Smith was the narrator throughout. When the clerks reached the point that Smith’s journals could provide information, the journals became a key component of the history. Scribes also used other documents created under Smith’s direction or by others associated with him.
At the outset, the “History of Joseph Smith” appeared to be only the most recent of numerous historical narratives published by the Latter-day Saints. However, with its continued publication stretching almost four years in Nauvoo and many years thereafter in England and in Utah, it became the standard, official history of the church. Even after publication began in the Times and Seasons, revisions were made in the manuscript instead of in a copy of the printed version. Thus the manuscript volumes, rather than the serialized publication, were used as the definitive source for subsequent publications.41
Addressing a Larger Audience
Besides assisting in the compilation of the institutional history in the 1840s, Joseph Smith wrote about the church’s beginnings in response to inquirers outside the Mormon community. Efforts by early Mormon leaders to spread information about the church, along with skeptical curiosity from the public concerning Mormonism and repeated published attacks against its founder, made Joseph Smith a well-known figure outside the Latter-day Saint community. By 1842, reporters and authors were seeking out the Mormon prophet for information both personal and historical. Smith welcomed opportunities to explain his own story and that of the church, recognizing that the press, though often negative, could serve as an important means of enlightening the public and correcting misconceptions. One such opportunity came in March 1842 when John Wentworth, editor of the Chicago Democrat, requested information on the church in behalf of his friend George Barstow, who intended to use it in a history of New Hampshire. Drawing in part on a pamphlet published by Orson Pratt two years earlier,42 and probably assisted by scribes, Smith compiled a brief sketch of the church’s history and beliefs. The Latter-day Saint movement ultimately fell outside the chronological scope of Barstow’s published book, but the letter to Wentworth was printed in the Times and Seasons in March 1842 under the title “Church History.”
In 1843, in response to another request for information, Joseph Smith and William W. Phelps sent an updated version of “Church History” to editor I. D. Rupp, who published it with the title “Latter Day Saints” in the 1844 publication He Pasa Ekklesia [The whole church]: An Original History of the Religious Denominations at Present Existing in the United States. After receiving a copy of Rupp’s volume in the spring of 1844, Smith sent a letter thanking Rupp for “so valueable a treasure” and praising both the volume and its compiler. Smith agreed to recommend the book in the church newspaper and offered, “I shall be pleased to furnish further information, at a proper time, and render you such service as the work, and vast extension of our church may demand.”43 Within a month of writing this letter, however, Smith was murdered at Carthage, Illinois.
The publication of An Original History of the Religious Denominations marked a milestone. Before this time, Joseph Smith and his new church had suffered repeated attacks in books and articles; except for church-owned periodicals, the printed word seemed the church’s enemy. With the publication of “Latter Day Saints,” Smith’s message appeared in a prominent, nationally distributed volume, signaling that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had become an established presence on the religious landscape.
Completion of Joseph Smith’s History
Near the end of his life, Joseph Smith gave high priority to his history, and he was finally able to devote the resources to make it a substantial production. In May 1843, he told William W. Phelps of a message that came to him in a dream: “The history must go ahead before any thing.”44 When noise from a school hindered the work of his scribes, Smith told the schoolmaster to relocate, “as the History must continue, and not be disturbed.”45 In December 1842, Willard Richards was assigned to write for the history, and soon after, he became supervisor of the other scribes and compilers. Under Richards’s direction, the enterprise made substantial progress. Addressing the Saints in Nauvoo a month before he was killed, Joseph Smith noted with satisfaction that during the past three years his “acts and proceedings” had been recorded by “efficient Clerks in constant employ,” who had accompanied him everywhere and “carefully kept my history, and they have written down what I have done, where I have been & what I have said.”46
When Smith was killed in June 1844, the manuscript history numbered 812 pages in two bound manuscript volumes, but it had recorded events only up to 5 August 1838.47 The commitment to write the history did not die with the church’s founder, however, and by January 1846, when the manuscript was packed up for removal from Nauvoo, it totaled 1,486 pages and continued the narrative to 1 March 1843. The exodus from Nauvoo to the Great Basin interrupted writing for more than eight years. On 1 December 1853, Richards dictated one sentence of the history, but illness prevented further work, and he died 11 March 1854.48 His successor was George A. Smith, a church apostle, cousin of Joseph Smith, and eyewitness to much of the Latter-day Saints’ history. By 1856 the massive history was completed up to Joseph Smith’s death. It filled 2,332 pages in six manuscript volumes.
Serial publication of the “History of Joseph Smith” in the Nauvoo Times and Seasons continued to 15 February 1846, the newspaper’s final issue. In April 1845, church leaders made plans to publish the history in book form in Nauvoo, and a fair copy of the multivolume history was begun, apparently intended to aid in the typesetting of the book.49 These publication plans were not carried out, however, perhaps because of growing opposition to the Mormons in Nauvoo. The duplicate copy of the history was used as the source text in Utah when the Deseret News picked up serial publication of the history where the Times and Seasons had left off; the series ran from 15 November 1851 to 20 January 1858.50 It was also published in England in the Latter Day Saints’ Millennial Star, first from June 1842 to May 1845 and continuing from 15 April 1852 to 2 May 1863. Beginning in 1902, the history was edited and published in six volumes under the editorship of Latter-day Saint theologian and historian B. H. Roberts, as History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Period I. History of Joseph Smith, the Prophet by Himself. An accompanying seventh volume edited by Roberts covered the history of the church through 8 October 1848. History of the Church has served as the most comprehensive single source for the study of the beginnings of Mormonism since its publication. The Histories series of The Joseph Smith Papers will make available the manuscript behind B. H. Roberts’s widely used publication, and it will identify, in turn, the sources behind the manuscript itself, thereby facilitating more informed use of the history.
See also the charts “History Creation Dates, Narrative Spans, Scribes, and Precursor Documents” and “Relationships among Histories and Precursors.”