Joseph Smith’s History of the Church
The seven-volume History of The Church begins with Joseph Smith’s birth in Vermont in 1805 and ends in 1848. It might have been more aptly titled the “History of Joseph Smith,” and, in fact, was originally so titled. Today it is referred to variously as the Documentary History of the Church, the Joseph Smith History of the Church, or, perhaps most appropriately, the History of the Church. It is the official history of the church’s founding generation and is still in print and still widely used.
The motivation for compiling this early history was at least threefold:
- Joseph sought to obey a commandment of the Lord. On the day the Church was organized, the Lord, by revelation, told the Prophet, “There shall be a record kept among you” (D&C 21:1). From that time, Joseph Smith sought to write a faithful history of his life and of the Church. The Lord’s commandment to Joseph followed the ancient pattern. From the very beginning of human history, God stressed the importance of keeping an accurate record of his dealings with his children (see Moses 6:4-6; D&C 47:1).
- Joseph’s second purpose in creating a history of the Church was “to disabuse the public mind” (JS-H 1:1). To disabuse is to correct deception and error. As many anti-Mormon writers had published scurrilous and false information about Joseph, his family, and the Church, the Prophet sought to set the record straight and publish the truth to all sincere seekers after truth.
- Joseph apparently desired also to leave for the saints a record of their roots and beginnings to edify and strengthen them.
Joseph Smith was always the prime motivator of the project of creating a history, but because of his lack of formal education, he depended on others to do most of the actual writing. Though he had a readable hand, he felt slow and awkward using the pen. He preferred to dictate his words to trusted clerks. On July 5, 1839 Joseph recorded, “I was dictating history. I say dictating, for I seldom use the pen myself. I always dictate all my communications, but employ a scribe to write them” (HC, 4:1). In 1844, Joseph wrote, “For the last three years I have a record of all my acts and proceedings, for I have kept several good, faithful, and efficient clerks in constant employ: they have each accompanied me everywhere, and carefully kept my history, and they have written down what I have done, where I have been, and what I have said” (HC, 6:409). Joseph selected able men, gave them regular encouragement and instruction, and provided space for them in his home or store. In all, Joseph Smith appointed seventeen men as church historians (see Dean C. Jessee, “The Writing of Joseph Smith’s History,” BYU Studies 11, no. 4 [Summer 1971], 439-71).
Early on, the progress made by Joseph and his scribes was stuttering and slow. On at least three occasions prior to 1839 Joseph had begun writing his history. (1) The earliest of these is a six-page account recorded on three leaves of a ledger book, written between the summer of 1831 and November 1832. An analysis of the handwriting shows that the narrative was penned by Frederick G. Williams, scribe to the Prophet and counselor in the First Presidency. (2) A “letter book” which began in November 1832. In this book were recorded important historical church documents. (3) Also in November 1832, Joseph started a daily journal. On November 27, 1832, he records having purchased a book for the purpose of keeping “a minute account of all things that come under my observation.” All three of these records provided important sources for the later writing of Joseph’s official history.
One of the frustrations Joseph faced early in his ministry was the lack of faithful church historians. Oliver Cowdery had barely started the task when the Lord called him to labor in Missouri. Joseph, through revelation, next appointed John Whitmer. He was a reluctant scribe but did manage to keep at least a partial record over the next seven years. Unfortunately, his ardor for the Church cooled, and by 1838 he was released. In bitterness, Whitmer refused to hand his records over. Though this history was later recovered, his actions forced Joseph to appoint others to reproduce the history as best they could and then continue keeping the records.
About two and a half years before his death, Joseph expressed some frustration over his repeated attempts to complete his history:
Since I have been engaged in laying the foundation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints I have been prevented in various ways from continuing my journal and the History, in a manner satisfactory to myself, or in justice to the cause. Long imprisonments, vexatious and long continued law suits, the treachery of some of my clerks; the death of others; and the poverty of myself and brethren from continued plunder and driving, have prevented my handing down to posterity a connected memorandum of events desirable to all lovers of truth; yet I have continued to keep up a journal in the best manner my circumstances would allow, and dictate for my history from time to time, as I have had opportunity so that the labors and suffering of the first Elders and Saints of this last kingdom might not wholly be lost to the world (HC, 4, 470).
It is not possible to question the prophet Joseph’s devotion to the cause of creating a history of the Church. In June of 1840 he requested that the Nauvoo High Council “relieve him from the anxiety and trouble necessarily attendant on business transactions” and requested funds “for a clerk or clerks . . . to aid him in his important work” (HC, 4:136-37). The council responded favorably, and Joseph was able to hire two clerks, Willard Richards and William W. Phelps. An incident reported by one of his scribes underscores the seriousness with which Joseph took the recording of the history. One day his two scribes went to Joseph complaining that they were being distracted “in the progress of writing the history” because of excessive noise generated by children in a nearby school. Immediately, the Prophet went to the caretaker of the school, Mr. Cole, and requested that he “look for another place [for the school] as the history must continue and not be disturbed.” The Prophet stressed to his scribes that there were “few subjects that I have felt a greater anxiety about than my history which has been a very difficult task” (HC, 6:66). Some time earlier, he had told William Phelps that “the history must go ahead . . . before anything else” (HC, 5:394).
After several early attempts, Joseph Smith and his clerk, James Mulholland, less than two months after Joseph’s arrival in Illinois from confinement in Liberty Jail, began his official history at Commerce, Illinois, on June 10, 1839 (HC, 3:375-77). They used as primary resources the records the scribes had produced through Joseph’s repeated efforts. The history began with a first-person account of Joseph Smith’s early visions which had been written in the spring of 1838 (HC, 3:25-26). By October 1839, when Joseph left Nauvoo for Washington, D.C. to present the Church’s Missouri grievances before the federal government, only fifty-nine pages of the history had been written, covering the period from Joseph’s birth to September 1830 (Dean C. Jessee, “The Writing of Joseph Smith’s History,” BYU Studies 11, No. 4 [Summer 1971], 464 and H. Donl Peterson, The Pearl of Great Price: A History and Commentary, [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1987], 59). Six days after Joseph’s departure for Washinton, James Mulholland died. When Joseph returned to Nauvoo in March 1840, he lamented the passing of his “faithful scribe,” and expressed disappointment that an adequate record of his Washington trip had not been kept. Robert B. Thompson was appointed general church clerk on October 3, 1840, continued writing the history where Mulholland left off. However, at the time of his untimely death on August 27, 1841, only sixteen pages had been added to the manuscript. William W. Phelps wrote the next eighty-two pages.
It was not until Willard Richards was appointed private secretary and historian on December 21, 1842, that any really significant progress was made on the written history. By the time he was appointed, a mere 157 pages of history had been written. Eventually the history would total more than two thousand pages. Brother Richards compiled the large part of the history, more than half of it after the Joseph martyrdom on June 27, 1844. With the assistance of his adopted son and clerk, Thomas Bullock, Richards completed the narrative to March 1, 1843, before his own death in 1854. His successor as church Historian, George A. Smith then compiled the history of the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum, expanded the notes of the Prophet’s sermons, and continued the narrative into August 1844, when Brigham Young was sustained to lead the Church.
Although little of the history subsequent to Joseph’s visions was dictated or written by the Prophet himself, writers used his diaries, and the writers retained the first-person narrative style throughout.
The Church published this history serially in its periodicals, first in the Times and Seasons at Nauvoo and then in Salt Lake City’s Deseret News from 1852 to 1857. The seven-volume version published by the Church today is a product of the editing of B. H. Roberts of the Seventy, who worked intermittently on the project from 1902 to 1932.
Because it quotes extensively from letters, minutes, and diaries of the day, the History of the Church has often been referred to as the Documentary History of the Church, or the DHC.
The history exhibits characteristics and flaws commonly found in the histories and biographies of its day including unacknowledged ghostwriting, edited sources, and narrative distortions. The most frequent distortion is the changing of a contemporary’s third-person description of Joseph Smith’s words and actions to a first-person account attributed to Joseph Smith, thereby conveying a false sense that he wrote it. Nonetheless, based as it is on extensive documents from the period and compiled by persons who were eyewitnesses to the events, the factual content of the history has proven reliable.
- Michael J. Preece