“one of the most authentic histories ever written”

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.


  1. BTW, while the Appendix isn’t available on the regular page for the manual at lds.org, it is available on the PDF page.

  2. It should be interesting to compare the JSP edition of the HC, which will be taken from the Manuscript History of the Church, and Vogel’s edition which will be taken from the Times and Seasons, Millennial Star, and Deseret News publications of the “History of Joseph Smith.”

  3. I can’t wait to see what the folks at the Joseph Smith Papers bring to us.


  4. David, I have been curious about those projects. For example, will they use primary sources where applicable? E.g., Kirtland and Nauvoo High Council minutes, JS and Woodruff Diaries, etc.?

  5. I think by authentic they mean “inspired,” rather than “unedited.” Worth bearing in mind. According to their understandings and inspirations, the modified edition we have now was authentic.

  6. I think that is an important point, smb, one with which I generally concur.

  7. J.- I’d love to see if any of the “not joseph” portions made it into the new ph/rs manual. I have’t seen anyone dig at it yet.

    Also, while there are misattributions in the HOC, I don’t think think they are ad frequent as reported here. Has a paper been done on this?

  8. J. (#4) – I’m not sure what Vogel is doing. As for JSP, they’ll identify all the sources that were used in the initial manuscript compilation in the notes. I’m sure that they’ll identify relevant departures from the initial sources.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    David Grua, I know Dan Vogel has been spending countless hours at LDS Church archives, so I’m assuming that where original sources are available, he is using them.

    Matt W., Dean Jessee has published a couple of articles that are sort of standards in this area. Without taking the time to look it up, I want to say one is entitled something like “The Reliability of Joseph Smith’s History,” from BYU Studies. A google search should find it.

  10. Matt W. (#7) – Dean Jessee has done the best work
    (to my knowledge) of the compilation of the HC.

  11. Kevin, that’s twice in one day you’ve swooped in to hook me up. Thanks!

  12. “Still, with modern critical tools, we are able to take something true and find what is actually historic.”

    That’s a nice way to phrase it. To a layman, historians (and researchers of many kinds) can too easily come off as nitpicky sensationalists just looking for a chance to proclaim “Everything you know … is wrong.” Poorly done, it can undermine the layman’s confidence that historians have anything useful to teach. Well done, it helps the layman better understand things he knew something about before and correct misunderstandings.

  13. I just want to echo John Mansfield. As a Social Studies teacher at heart, I really like the way that sentence was phrased.

  14. David, the standard treatment I see used is Howard Searle’s PhD dissertation, which proves fairly useful. Jessee clearly has done the most on handwriting.

  15. Sam and, as always, J., you all don’t happen to have that dissertation handy, do you?

  16. A couple of years ago, I asked Justin about the historiography of the HC. He responded with the following bibliography (he really is one of the three nephites):

    Howard C. Searle, “Early Mormon Historiography: Writing the History of the Mormons, 1830-1858” (Ph.D. diss., University of California at Los Angeles, 1979).

    Dean C. Jessee, “The Writing of Joseph Smith’s History,” BYU Studies 11 (Summer 1971): 439-73.

    Dean C. Jessee, “The Reliability of Joseph Smith’s History,” Journal of Mormon History 3 (1976): 23-46.

    Dean C. Jessee, “Priceless Words and Fallible Memories: Joseph Smith as Seen in the Effort to Preserve His Discourses.” BYU Studies 31 (Spring 1991):19-40.

    Howard C. Searle, “Willard Richards as Historian.” BYU Studies 31 (Spring 1991): 41-62.

    Howard C. Searle, “Authorship of the History of Joseph Smith: A Review Essay.” BYU Studies 21 (Winter 1981):101-22.

    Paul H. Peterson, “Understanding Joseph: A Review of Published Documentary Sources,” in Susan Easton Black and Charles D. Tate, eds., Joseph Smith: The Prophet, The Man (Provo, UT: RSC, Brigham Young University, 1993): 101-116.

    D. Michael Quinn included this footnote in his Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power:

    “Three scholars have analyzed the equally significant problem of unannounced changes in the publication of original documents in the official History of the Church. See Dean C. Jessee, “The Writing of Joseph Smith’s History,” Brigham Young University Studies 11 (Spring 1971): 439-73; Dean C. Jessee, “The Reliability of Joseph Smith’s History,” Journal of Mormon History 3 (1976): 23-46; Howard C. Searle, “Early Mormon Historiography: Writing the History of the Mormons, 1830-1858,” Ph.D. diss., University of California at Los Angeles, 1979; Dean C. Jessee, “Authorship of the History of Joseph Smith: A Review Essay,” Brigham Young University Studies 21 (Winter 1981): 101-22; Dean C. Jessee, “Return to Carthage: Writing the History of Joseph Smith’s Martyrdom,” Journal of Mormon History 8 (1981): 3-19; Dean C. Jessee, Has Mormon History Been Deliberately Falsified? (Sandy, UT: Mormon Miscellaneous, 1982); Van Hale, “Writing Religious History: Comparing the History of the Church with the Synoptic Gospels,” Restoration Studies 3 (1986): 133-38; Dean C. Jessee, “Priceless Words and Fallible Memories: Joseph Smith as Seen in the Effort to Preserve His Discourses,” and Howard C. Searle, “Willard Richards as Historian,” Brigham Young University Studies 31 (Spring 1991): 19-40 and 41-62 (esp. 56-60); Howard C. Searle, “History, of the Church (History of Joseph Smith),” in Ludlow, Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 2;648. Jessee, Searle, and Hale all emphasize the conscientious efforts of early church historians to reconstruct sermons and accounts from sketchy originals.

    These authors have generally ignored the problem that the History of the Church deleted significant entries in “The History of Joseph Smith,” first published in Times and Seasons, Deseret Evening News, and the Millennial Star. Jerald and Sandra Tanner have produced the only extensive comparison of historical texts in their Changes in Joseph Smith’s History (Salt Lake City: Modern Microfilm, [1964]). Perhaps more importantly, the History of the Church also deleted evidence, introduced anachronisms, and reversed meanings in manuscript minutes and other original documents.”

  17. Sam: That’s right, I had forgotten about Searle. Seems like I heard that David Whittaker was looking to get Searle’s disseration published, but that was a couple of years ago now.

    J.: I think I agree that Justin is one of the Three Nephites.

  18. I have a PDF of Searle’s dissertation, but it’s too huge to move around well. Any uni library would have proquest access to it.

    Justin keeps excellent records and is a wonderful addition to Mormon Studies.

    Quinn’s entry sounds just a little too whiney. It’s a valid point that HC is not up to current standards, but at some point it’s not that interesting to complain about it. Write the history, don’t whine about the fact that prior ecclesiastical historians, primarily interested in supporting the spread of the Gospel (for them far more important than satisfying future scholars) don’t meet professional standards.

    That said, I think Dan Vogel’s work will be a wonderful addition and am hopeful that he will take the same neutral tone he did in EMD to make the work maximally useful to scholars of all persuasions.

  19. Who is this Justin you speak of?

  20. His real name is known only to God (and some select others), but he blogs at Mormon Wasp under the noble moniker Justin Butterfield. (Justin Butterfield was a non-Mormon lawyer in Illinois who frequently represented Joseph Smith in his legal troubles.) And he knows enough about Mormon history that one might conclude he was actually there.

  21. Justin is awesome. One of the most interesting blogs on the internet. It’s a shame his link on LDSELECT.ORG doesn’t work.