A Prophecy of Minutia

The History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Period I was the first major attempt to publish Joseph Smith’s complete history in book form as it was produced by Church Historians Willard Richards (b. 1804– d. 1854) and George A. Smith (b. 1817– d. 1875) and clerks, in longhand manuscript form (cataloged in the Church History Library as, Church Historian’s Office. History of the Church, 1839–circa 1882, CR 100 102. Hereafter I will call this work the manuscript history, or briefly, ms history). The following excerpt of the ms history will be important below. Take note of the first phrase in the second image.



Richards had done unprecedented work in Nauvoo, organizing source materials from Joseph Smith, previous Church publications and records, the reports of others, and his work had been partially serialized in the Nauvoo Times and Seasons beginning in 1840 up to the departure of the Saints from Nauvoo in 1846. That printing covered the period from 1805-ish to 1834 much of that material was published after Joseph Smith’s death. When the apostles moved to Utah, the church paper, The Deseret News (starting with November 15, 1851 issue) continued serializing the history manuscript under the direction of Richards and then Smith (a supplement appeared that collected the old Times and Seasons texts since its circulation was small and largely unavailable to new Saints (the Star had carried all the Times and Seasons printing of the ms history beginning with the Star’s June 1842 issue). Following the lead of the headquarters printings, the British Mission had their printers keep up with that and so the chronological printings in the News appeared in the Latter-Day Saints’ Millennial Star (Liverpool, England). The segments printed in the News and subsequently the Star generally reflected the manuscript history, but not always (the British printing operation was superior to the Utah printing capabilities for decades). Moreover, the manuscript history did not always accurately reflect its source documents. This post is about one of those times and why it happened.  

As noted, the Star was important and usually had a much wider circulation than Utah or Nauvoo imprints for much of 19th century. And when Church publications in the 19th century quoted church history, they often used the Star’s text as a source. This included things like Joseph Smith’s sermon reports and even at times, his revelation texts even though the Doctrine and Covenants was available. However, there were revelations that did not appear in the Doctrine and Covenants and yet had general appeal. One of these was what is now section 87, labeled as a Prophecy on War. This revelation was not published during Joseph Smith’s lifetime (it was probably thought to be too incendiary given the nervous state of the South after the Nat Turner rebellion, and other reasons), though many hand-copied manuscripts circulated (at least eight loose copies survive plus others in various longhand volumes). It was among the most frequently copied of Joseph Smith’s revelation manuscripts reflecting its interest and lack of availability in published works.


Joseph Smith had originally dictated the Prophecy to his friend and scribal assistant, Frederick G. Williams, on Christmas Day 1832. Williams later copied the text into a blank book now designated as Revelation Book 2, likely sometime between January 1833 and March 1833. Williams titled the text as a “Prophecy . . . concerning the wars.” Here is the excerpt of importance for us (observe the last two lines):



The revelation first appeared in print in Liverpool in 1851 as a part of mission president Franklin D. Richards’s booklet, The Pearl of Great Price (print run was about 12,000 copies–it hadn’t sold out 25 years later)—Richards said it was directed to Church members rather than potential converts, designed to get members up to speed on some of Joseph Smith’s corpus of revelations and his early history not widely available to the Saints in Britain. Here is part of the Pearl of Great Price edition of the Prophecy:


The 1851 Pearl of Great Price (with the exception of a Welsh edition published around the same time) was the only edition of the Pearl of Great Price until it was edited by Orson Pratt and republished in 1878. But in the meantime, Pratt had produced a new edition of the Doctrine and Covenants in 1876 and he included the revelation as section 87 (still its current number). Pratt kept the revelation in both volumes (along with several other revelations that appeared in both).


At the time of Utah’s admittance to the Union as a state (1896), the project of taking Joseph Smith’s history, as it had appeared in the earlier periodicals, and publishing it in book form was proposed in Church councils (at the outset, the Joseph Smith era part of the project was conceived as merely going to be a job of replicating the Star, not dragging out the ms history). After several fits and starts, a little in-fighting, and a death or two, B. H. Roberts, one of the General Authority seventies, was given the task of publishing a history of the Church. Originally conceived as a 10+ volume opus covering Joseph Smith’s life and the subsequent history of the Utah church, Roberts began work in 1901 by commission of Church President Lorenzo Snow (who seems to have hoped the project would consume Roberts enough that he’d stay out of politics). Roberts produced much liminal text, introductions, footnotes, some corrections and deletions and over the period from 1902 to 1912 there appeared six volumes under the title, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Period I, covering Joseph Smith’s era (Period I). The work was intense for him, and his fellow seventies sometimes complained that he neglected his other church work—though in fact he kept a lot of irons in the fire. Only one of the imagined four more volumes ever appeared, and that took twenty years. The story of that is quite involved so I won’t go into it here. [Famous blue binding—note the 7th volume:]


The point of this little post is something that Roberts wrote in the Church magazine, The Improvement Era, in the February 1916 issue (p. 294):


Note that Roberts took the ms history as final authority in the then vs thus debate. He seems to have checked the Star’s imprint against the ms history as a general rule but usually went no further. Note the image of the ms history page above. There is a graphite annotation at the side of the page (first image) in an unknown hand. It notes that the revelation did not appear in the Star, vol 14  where the serialized history included December 1832 [Star, July 1852], and indeed, the Prophecy on War(s) is missing from the Star at that point, even though it had been published the previous year by Franklin Richards in his PoGP—note that Richards’s source follows Williams’s text of the Prophecy. This annotation had to have been written after July 1852 and it may possibly represent a note from a clerk involved in publishing work in the 1850s in Utah or perhaps it may be from Roberts or possibly his immediate history project predecessors (George Q. Cannon and two gofers)? In any case, Roberts notes that the “correction” of Pratt’s D&C 87 “thus” is based on the ms history “then.” This had an important effect: later church imprints of the revelation in the Doctrine and Covenants would follow the ms history reading (and that was virtually universal in terms of all the revelations). The ms history had priority for Roberts. One may ask, why?


Partly, it was Willard Richards’s original writing strategy in the ms history (one not exactly unknown in historical chronicles prior to modern historiography). While Joseph Smith had dictated a (very) small part of the events narrated in the ms history up to 1844, Richards—and the clerks who worked for him—wrote all the entries, except for clear quotations, as if Joseph Smith were writing or dictating the entire text, that is, in the first person. As this methodology was not made public in the text itself and those who understood what happened were long dead by the time of Roberts, it made the ms history text authoritative: as if all of it came from the pen or voice of Joseph Smith himself. Roberts himself thought this. All editions of the Doctrine and Covenants from 1921 to the present have “then.” We might excuse the use of the ms history as prior value to other sources, without attaching that value in the present day.

The interesting twists here are not unique in the story of official Latter-day Saint historical documents and in many of those cases, the impact is not minute. But minutia are fun!


  1. Any chance you can pull the relevant sentences into the text itself instead of just referring to the images? Even on a large screen it is a bit difficult to discern what exactly the interesting bits are.

  2. I’d be interested in your take on the 3 July 1835 version written in Oliver Cowdery’s hand in Revelation Book 1, with intriguing editorial changes like “rebellions like unto the one of South Carolina”

  3. Slushy: “and then war” vs “and thus war.”

  4. Jacob H. It would be interesting to create a critical text of the revelation.

  5. In the original post I asserted that “then” had been changed back to “thus” in the 1981 edition. No. I was not changed, nor in 2013. I made my own error. Consider this repentance.

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