Every once and a while, my ward will have combined Elder’s Quorum and High Priest Group lessons. This last Sunday, we had one such meeting and we discussed next year’s lesson manual. After a brief introduction to Joseph Smith historiography, including news about the Joseph Smith Papers, we went to the appendix of the new manual entitled, “Sources Used in This Book.”
After noting some of the various sources for the book, the Appendix devotes several pages to the History of the Church (HC). The HC has been the traditional source for Mormon History for generations. Joseph received a revelation to keep a history, but only finished up to 1838 before he died. Willard Richards then George A. Smith devoted significant resources to finish the project. They took notes, diaries, correspondence, meeting minutes and various other sources, edited them, and combined them together. The Appendix notes several categories of changes made to source material: 1) Combining Accounts, 2) Changing Accounts from third to first person, and 3) Adding or Changing words or sentances.
The task was huge and the HC is a monument to the Restoration. From a historical perspective, however, it isn’t always the most reliable source. Frequently, teachings were attributed to Joseph Smith that were actually from other Church authorities (one relic of this can be seen in the old Teaching of the Prophet Joseph Smith, which retained significant misattributions. See here for some details). Further, editorial standards were definitely not consistent with modern standards. For example, it appears from the text that Joseph wrote the entire thing, but this is not case.
Still, when the project was finished, Elder George A. Smith and Elder Wilford Woodruff declared:
The History of Joseph Smith is now before the world, and we are satisfied that a history more correct in its details than this, was never published. To have it strictly correct, the greatest possible pains have been taken by the historians and clerks engaged in the work. They were eye and ear witnesses of nearly all the transactions recorded in this history, most of which were reported as they transpired, and, where they were not personally present, they have had access to those who were. Moreover, since the death of the Prophet Joseph, the History has been carefully revised under the strict inspection of President Brigham Young, and approved of by him.
We, therefore, hereby bear our testimony to all the world, unto whom these words shall come, that the History of Joseph Smith is true, and is one of the most authentic histories ever written. (1)
What fascinates me most is what this declaration tells us about our conception of narrative truth. In many ways the HC is our Old Testament. However, I tend to think that the editors of the HC had more tools at their disposal than the generations which gave us the OT, or even the Book of Mormon. Still, with modern critical tools, we are able to take something true and find what is actually historic.
I can’t wait to see what the folks at the Joseph Smith Papers bring to us.