Histories Initiated by Assignment of Joseph Smith, 1831–1847
From the time an April 1830 revelation declared to the fledgling Church of Christ that “there shall be a record kept among you,” the writing of history was never far from Joseph Smith’s mind.1 In addition to recording his revelations, Joseph Smith and other church officials produced minutes, certificates, and other documents necessary to the church’s day-to-day organization and administration. Smith also oversaw several efforts to write a comprehensive narrative history. He knew that the mandated “record” had to be more than a collection of documents; a revelation of 11 November 1831 instructed the church historian, John Whitmer, to write a history encompassing “all the important things which he shall observe and know, concerning my church . . . which shall be for the good of the church, and for the rising generations.”2 Joseph Smith later outlined Whitmer’s duties to include chronicling “all things that transpire in Zion” among the Saints, “and also there manner of life and the faith and works.”3 He thereafter set in motion several efforts to create a historical record, parts of which he was personally involved in writing or supervising and parts for which his involvement was limited to making assignments. Some histories remained unfinished, others were completed but were limited in scope, and still others were completed after their authors turned away from the church. Nevertheless, because they were written by Joseph Smith or at his direction, all are included in the Histories series of The Joseph Smith Papers. Together they provide essential source material for understanding the early years of the church.4
The histories closely linked to Joseph Smith himself—those he helped write or dictate, those he supervised closely, or those for which he claimed authorial responsibility—form the content of volume 1 of the Histories series, Joseph Smith Histories, 1832–1844.5 Important as these histories are, an accurate understanding of Joseph Smith’s record-keeping enterprise requires awareness of not only the Joseph Smith histories but also the histories written as a result of his delegation or assignment. Four narratives fall into the category of assigned historical writings, and they constitute the present volume. All are known to have been undertaken at Smith’s instruction, but he did not create them himself, nor did they come under his direct or continued supervision.
John Whitmer’s work spanned the entire period designated by the title of this volume—from 1831, when Whitmer was appointed to keep the church history, to 1847, the approximate date he terminated his work. The writers whose histories are represented in this volume also include William W. Phelps, John Corrill, Edward Partridge, Parley P. Pratt, and Sidney Rigdon, men who accepted important church assignments and who were closely connected with Joseph Smith and other leaders. All were at the center of much of the history they recount, and their work provides important firsthand accounts of many events, often giving details found nowhere else. When set beside the Joseph Smith histories, the assigned histories form a useful complement, offering narratives seen through different eyes, filtered through different sensibilities, and sometimes expressing vastly different judgments and conclusions.
The tumultuous circumstances of Joseph Smith’s life ensured that his efforts to oversee history keeping were frequently interrupted. Periods of focused historical activity were followed by periods when little progress was made on Latter-day Saint histories. In many cases, the assigned histories in the present volume were being created at the same time as one or more of the Joseph Smith histories found in the first volume of the Histories series. In 1832, for example, he continued to provide guidance to John Whitmer on keeping records and creating a church history, even while he commenced a narrative history of his own. In 1838, Joseph Smith not only assigned John Corrill and Elias Higbee “to write and keep the Church history” but also began work on a new church history himself, aided by his counselor in the church presidency, Sidney Rigdon.6 Rather than consisting of a single writing project, Smith’s history-writing endeavor took the form of multiple concurrent creations.
The first document in this volume, titled “The Book of John Whitmer,” originated when a revelation of 8 March 1831 and an appointment “by the voice of ten Elders” on 9 April 1831 designated Whitmer as recorder and historian for the church.7 Joseph Smith thereafter gave periodic instructions to Whitmer regarding the history, and the resulting work was for a time considered an official church record. Whitmer’s account from 1830 to 1838 featured copies of revelations and other documents, explained and contextualized with a connective narrative. Following the violent expulsion of the church from Jackson County, Missouri, in 1833, Whitmer’s record incorporated copies of letters that documented injustices against the Saints as well as attempts to obtain redress. Whitmer was excommunicated 10 March 1838 on charges of improper financial dealings, but he kept working on the history even after his separation from the church. Writing from Missouri after the Mormon community had regrouped in Illinois, Whitmer in his closing chapters openly criticized the church and its founder. He continued adding to the history until about 1847, three years after Joseph Smith’s death.
The next document is an early summary of the church’s history, written by William W. Phelps. On 11 January 1833, while living in Kirtland, Ohio, Smith urged Phelps, then editor of the church’s newspaper, The Evening and the Morning Star, in Independence, Missouri, to “render the Star as interesting as possable by setting forth the rise progress and faith of the church, as well as the doctrine for if you do not render it more interesting than at present it will fall, and the church suffer a great Loss thereby.”8 Phelps acknowledged this advice, and its implied chastisement, in the March 1833 issue of the Star, promising to publish “the particulars” of the church’s history,9 and the following month he printed a short article titled “Rise and Progress of the Church of Christ.”
John Corrill was appointed “to write and keep the Church history” on 6 April 1838 at a conference in Far West, Missouri, at which Joseph Smith presided.10 He began writing a history, but he ultimately found fault with Smith’s prophetic leadership and left the church. As a result, his history included not only an explanation of the church’s beliefs and practices that led him to join the Latter-day Saint movement but also an exposition of his disappointment with the religion and its leaders. He published his work in early 1839 as 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. Corrill was formally excommunicated on 17 March 1839.11
The last document in this volume, the eleven-part series “A History, of the Persecution, of the Church of Jesus Christ, of Latter Day Saints in Missouri,” resulted from a letter written by Joseph Smith on 20 March 1839 from the jail at Liberty, Missouri. The letter, addressed to the church “at Quincy Illinois and scattered abroad and to Bishop [Edward] Partridge in particular,” instructed the Saints to gather up “a knoledge of all the facts and sufferings and abuses put upon them by the people of this state.”12 Edward Partridge responded with an account that became the three opening installments of “History, of the Persecution,” published beginning in December 1839 in the Nauvoo, Illinois, Times and Seasons. Following Partridge’s death, the eight remaining sections of the series were composed almost entirely of excerpts from two previously published sources, Parley P. Pratt’s History of the Late Persecution Inflicted by the State of Missouri upon the Mormons (1839) and Sidney Rigdon’s An Appeal to the American People (1840). Taken as a whole, the “History, of the Persecution” series includes narratives by many eyewitnesses and gives a useful overview of contemporaneous printed accounts of the Missouri conflicts.
Three of the documents in this volume of the Histories series were published during Joseph Smith’s lifetime, and Smith intended to have the fourth published. The William W. Phelps article and the Edward Partridge series were printed in official church newspapers. Church leaders sought John Whitmer’s history after his excommunication in order to revise and publish it, but Whitmer did not relinquish the document. After his death, excerpts of Whitmer’s history were published serially by the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (now the Community of Christ) in 1908, and two publications of the entire work became available in the late twentieth century.13 John Corrill self-published his account in 1839; this volume of the Histories series makes Corrill’s history widely available for the first time.