Unlike texts such as letters, journals, and minutes, which describe events as they unfolded, Joseph Smith’s histories were a conscious attempt to record events of the past. These documents made of the tangle of day-to-day events a story that imbued them with meaning, and these stories shaped the identity of the church and its early members and could be shared with the wider world.
Joseph Smith was commanded by revelation to keep a history the day he organized the Church of Christ, and he made several concerted efforts to do so. The length and purpose of these narrative histories varied; he left unpublished histories of just a few sheets and one that filled volumes. He published histories to explain his visionary experiences and the church’s rise and progress to a curious public. In the wake of the violence inflicted on the Latter-day Saints in Missouri, he initiated a campaign to record and share with government officials accounts of his people’s persecution. Smith’s histories document both the most significant events of early Latter-day Saint history and many of the most mundane day-to-day details. These records form an essential source for understanding Joseph Smith, as well as illuminating the ways he and his followers remembered their own experiences and represented them to others.
In the published Histories series of the Joseph Smith Papers, Joseph Smith’s historical writings are broken into two categories:
• Joseph Smith Histories—those he wrote or dictated himself or over which he exercised close supervision.
• Assigned Histories—those he set in motion but was not involved in creating.
Numerous other histories were written by church members, including those found in the “Other Relevant Histories” section below, but only the ones written or assigned by Joseph Smith are considered part of his papers.
For a general overview of the histories, interested readers may want to start with the following introductions and charts:
Penned by Joseph Smith and scribe Frederick G. Williams, this six-page narrative ends abruptly but includes the first written account of Smith’s first vision of Deity and the only one that includes his own handwriting. Also recorded here are the visitations by the angel Moroni, discovery of the gold plates, and beginning of translating the Book of Mormon.
This history was begun by Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon in Missouri in April 1838. Work on the history was halted at different times by major events, including the lead-up to Smith’s imprisonment in Missouri and the church’s forced migration to Illinois in 1838, the murder of Joseph Smith in 1844, and the church’s migration to the Salt Lake Valley beginning in 1846. By the time it was finished in 1856, this history chronicled his entire life and filled six large manuscript books. Even though the history was not completed until long after Smith’s death, it is included in its entirety as part of The Joseph Smith Papers because it was begun by him. Later published versions of the history are not considered Joseph Smith documents, being one further step removed from his authorship.
Joseph Smith was most closely involved in the earliest stages of the writing but he continued supervising the project until the end of his life. The compilers of the history relied heavily on journals, letters, revelations published in the Doctrine and Covenants, and other Joseph Smith documents to compile the narrative; hence, the history is sometimes known as the “Documentary History of the Church.”
Publication of this history began in the church’s newspaper Times and Seasons in March 1842 and continued until February 15, 1846, the paper’s final issue. Printing resumed in November 1851 in the Salt Lake City Deseret News and concluded on January 20, 1858. (The history as found in the Times and Seasons and Deseret News will be published at josephsmithpapers.org.) The church’s periodical in England, Millennial Star, followed closely behind the American newspapers, republishing the Times and Seasons and Deseret News material from June 1842 to May 1845 and then from 1852 to 1863.
The 1838–1856 history was eventually published as six volumes under the editorship of assistant church historian B. H. Roberts in the early twentieth century. The Roberts edition is still in print and has served as an essential source in Latter-day Saint history for a century. Readers should understand that the Roberts edition reflects the historical standards and limitations of its time, and it is not always a reliable source. When complete, the publication of the 1838–1856 history on the Joseph Smith Papers website will help researchers better understand this history, its limitations, and the sources behind it.
For a visual summary of the different drafts and publications of the 1838–1856 history, see this chart.
In addition to the final manuscript version, the Joseph Smith Papers website will eventually include all existing drafts of this history:
• Draft 1 (1839). The first manuscript prepared in 1838 did not survive, but Draft 1 appears to pick up where it left off. It begins at Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery’s baptism in May 1829 and carries the narrative up through the church conference of September 1830. It was penned by scribe James Mulholland in an unbound gathering of paper.
• Draft 2 (1839–ca. 1841). In 1839 James Mulholland began copying the loose-leaf history into a permanent record book, apparently beginning with the now-lost 1838 text and continuing with Draft 1. Around 1841, when sixty-one pages had been written, work began on a revised copy of the history (Draft 3). Draft 2 as presented on the Joseph Smith Papers website is the first sixty-one pages of volume A-1 as it appeared when Draft 3 temporarily became the “live copy.” It therefore does not include later insertions and revisions to the text. These are found in the text of volume A-1.
• Draft 3 (ca. 1841). In about 1841 Joseph Smith asked church member Howard Coray to serve as a church scribe and to assist with the history. One of the tasks Coray undertook was a light revision of the existing history, changing the tone and emphasis to appeal to a broader audience. He also made a fair copy of his work. Both drafts are in unbound gatherings of paper. Ultimately Coray’s draft was discarded and the writing of the history continued in volume A-1, picking up where Draft 2 had left off.
• Draft notes, 1844–1856. The writers of Joseph Smith’s 1838–1856 history, under the direction of Willard Richards, also left hundreds of pages of notes used for the compilation.
In 1845, Brigham Young and the Quorum of the Twelve made plans to publish Joseph Smith’s history in book form, and a fair copy of the history was begun, using the designation A-2, B-2, etc. Plans for the publication were suspended as the Latter-day Saints prepared for the trek west, but the fair copy was used as the source for continued publication in Utah
newspapers in the 1850s. The
was not finished; it was discontinued in 1856 in the middle of volume E-2. These volumes will eventually be added to the Joseph Smith Papers website.
Despite its title, this essay was not derived from any of Joseph Smith’s journals. While incarcerated at Liberty Jail in the wake of the “Mormon War” in Missouri, Smith wrote a letter calling on church members to gather accounts of “all the facts and suffering and abuses put upon them by the people of this state” in order to garner public sympathy and seek compensation for their losses in Missouri. He himself produced a “bill of damages” detailing some of the events of the Missouri conflict and petitioning for redress for his personal losses in the conflict. This document was modified and published as “Extract, from
the Private Journal” in the first issue of the church’s Illinois newspaper, Times and Seasons.
This brief history was prepared at the request of a Chicago newspaper editor named John Wentworth. The extent of Joseph Smith’s involvement in writing it is not known, but it was published with his signature. Included are an account of Joseph Smith’s earliest visions, a brief overview of the church’s history, and a list of beliefs later canonized as the “Articles of Faith.” This account borrowed language from a pamphlet titled A[n] Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, which was published by Orson Pratt in 1840 (see below).
A March 1831 revelation to Joseph Smith called John Whitmer to “Keep the Church Record & History continually.” Whitmer worked on the history intermittently until 1838, when he was excommunicated and stopped writing. He returned to his history later to report critically on developments in Illinois, including Joseph Smith’s murder and the preparations for the migration west.
Asked by Joseph Smith in early 1833 to include historical material in the church’s Missouri newspaper, The Evening and the Morning Star, editor William W. Phelps wrote a short article for the April 1833 issue titled “Rise and Progress of the Church of Christ.” He wrote in the Star of his intention to write multiple articles detailing church history, but no other articles appeared.
John Corrill was appointed “to write and keep the Church history” in April 1838, but by the time he published his history he had left the Saints. Corrill’s 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 is particularly important for its exposition of Joseph Smith’s theology and its account of the Mormon War. The manuscript version prepared for the printer also survives.
Articles and Covenants, ca. April 1830, the revelatory document outlining church governance and policies, begins with a historical paragraph outlining Joseph Smith’s early visions and his divine calling to translate the Book of Mormon.
Parley P. Pratt’s “‘The Mormons’ So Called” (1833) is the first printed church history. It appeared in the church newspaper, The Evening and the Morning Star, and recounts the violence against Latter-day Saints in Jackson County, Missouri, in 1832 and 1833 and their expulsion from that county.
Sidney Rigdon, An Appeal to the American People, 1840, first edition; second edition. Sidney Rigdon’s pamphlet on the Latter-day Saints’ travails in Missouri was the basis for five installments of the “History of the Persecution” series in the Times and Seasons (see above) and includes particularly detailed (though sometimes embellished) accounts of the massacre at Hawn’s Mill. An Appeal to the American People was based on a draft petition titled “To the Publick,” which was apparently created by Sidney Rigdon but which was signed by Rigdon, Joseph Smith, and Elias Higbee. Included in “To the Publick” are affidavits by witnesses of the events at Hawn’s Mill.
Orson Pratt, A[n] Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, 1840. This pamphlet, which includes a summary of Latter-day Saint history and beliefs, was published by Orson Pratt, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, in Scotland in 1840 during his proselytizing mission to the British Isles. As explained above, A[n] Interesting Account was the basis for much of Joseph Smith’s article “Church History,” including the description of his early visions and the summary of church beliefs that came to be known as the “Articles of Faith.” For his doctrinal summary, Pratt borrowed from a publication by his brother Parley P. Pratt, also of the Quorum of the Twelve, who included a similar summary in the second edition of his History of the Late Persecution (see above).
Lucy Mack Smith, History, 1844–1845 draft; 1845 fair copy; first published edition (1853). Shortly after the murder of her sons Joseph and Hyrum, Lucy Mack Smith compiled a history of her ancestry and life. Figuring prominently in her narrative are the life of Joseph Smith and the story of the church he founded. Her scribal assistants for the project were Howard and Martha Jane Knowlton Coray.