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Introduction to Early Drafts of History, 1838–1856

Under the “Early Drafts” heading of the Histories series are three early drafts of the history begun by JS in 1838. The history designated Draft 1 is a twenty-five page manuscript written in James Mulholland’s handwriting in 1839. Draft 2, inscribed by James Mulholland and Robert B. Thompson from 1839 to about 1841, consists of the first sixty-one pages of the manuscript history later labeled volume “A-1” of JS’s multivolume history. Draft 3 is a 102-page document penned by Howard Coray in about 1841.

The production of these history drafts was part of an evolutionary process in JS’s history writing. Dean C. Jessee has observed that “although Mormon record keeping was inaugurated by the [6 April] 1830 revelation, details for carrying out that commandment were largely hammered out on the anvil of experience.”1 By 1838, JS had in his possession historical narratives covering the period from his birth to early 1829 and from 22 September 1835 to 18 January 1836, but this accumulated historical material lacked continuity and a consistent methodology. In earlier histories, JS and his assistants tried several different approaches. The circa summer 1832 history, for example, included significant experiences but gave only a brief narrative; the 1834–1836 history included genealogies, minute-like entries, transcripts of the published installments of a serialized history, and slightly revised copies of journal entries, all potentially significant resources for a history but lacking in connective material. JS had also assigned John Whitmer to write a church history in 1831, but Whitmer was excommunicated in 1838 and declined to make his work available to the church.2 It was in the context of these inadequate and unavailable records that JS and Sidney Rigdon began a new history project. On 27 April 1838, they began a “history of this Church from the earliest perion [period] of its existance up to this date.”3 No manuscript of their 1838 effort is known to have survived, but drafts written after 1838, including the documents presented here, incorporated the 1838 work and presumably followed its format.

Serious problems in Missouri made it difficult to continue work on the history after early 1838. Armed conflict broke out between the Mormon settlers and their Missouri neighbors, and on 27 October 1838, Governor Lilburn W. Boggs ordered that the Saints “must be treated as enemies and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public peace.”4 JS and other church leaders were taken captive within a few days, and for six months JS remained a prisoner in Missouri. By the time he escaped his captors, the Saints had left Missouri and begun to settle in Illinois. JS arrived in Quincy, Illinois, on 22 April 1839, and within a few weeks again turned his attention to the history of the church.5

Draft 1

The history drafted in 1839 was inscribed by James Mulholland, who began writing for JS on 3 September 1838. In addition to his work on the history, Mulholland served as a scribe for patriarchal blessing records, JS’s second letterbook, and JS’s journals. After an interruption of his clerical work brought on by JS’s Missouri imprisonment, Mulholland “commenced again to write for the Church” on 22 April 1839.6 JS’s journal noted that JS “began to study & prepare to dictate history” on 10 June and that he dictated history while Mulholland wrote on 11–14 June.7 During JS’s 15–26 June absence from Commerce while visiting his brothers William and Don Carlos, Mulholland remained in Commerce, “writing history” on three days and “studying for history” for part of another day.8 Work done by Mulholland in JS’s absence may have included organizing sources from which to compile history, drafting the history itself from other sources, or making a clean draft of the history, as explained in the next section. After JS returned, he dictated history to Mulholland on three additional days.9 Mulholland mentioned in his journal spending several more days writing for the church, without specifying which project he was working on.10

Because the history produced by JS and Sidney Rigdon in 1838 is not extant, it is impossible to know the exact relationship between that work and the extant versions of JS’s history presented here. It is probable, however, that Draft 1 represents the resumption of the historical narrative at the point where the now-lost 1838 manuscript ended. The extant draft picks up the narrative at the baptism of JS and Oliver Cowdery and covers the publication of the Book of Mormon, the organization of the Church of Christ, and events later in 1830. The narrative covering mid-April through August 1830, much of which involved Newel Knight as either a participant or an eyewitness, is relatively detailed. It was likely during work on this portion of the history that, according to JS’s journal, JS was “assisted by Br Newel Knight.”11

When James Mulholland created the twenty-five-page Draft 1, it appears he began with an outline, identifying revelations, events, and other pieces of information and leaving blank space between these notations to be filled in later with connective narrative supplied by JS, Knight, or other sources. Beginning on the second page, Mulholland named particular revelation texts from the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants that were to be inserted into the history, but he did not copy the full texts from the Doctrine and Covenants into this draft. The revelations served as the initial threads around which JS wove his dictated narrative. Beginning with page 9 of Draft 1, following the notation to insert the title page of the Book of Mormon, the inscription pattern becomes much more complex. It appears that at this point, Mulholland began to write in dates of conferences, names of individuals baptized, and other key details, leaving large blank spaces between. This procedure for creating the history was not without drawbacks. When Mulholland came back and composed text or transcribed JS’s dictation to fill in the details, the narrative sometimes exceeded the reserved space, forcing Mulholland to squeeze extra lines of text onto the page. At other times the inserted narrative fell short of filling in all the blank space set aside for it. False starts are evident throughout much of the middle portion of the draft history.

JS’s work on the history was interrupted in early July 1839 when a malaria epidemic in Commerce and vicinity required JS and Emma Smith to attend to the sick for an extended period.12 Mulholland continued to work on JS’s history until at least 26 July. Many of the entries in his personal journal that mention “writing for the Church” may refer to additional work on the history. Mulholland’s tenure as a scribe was cut short when he died on 3 November 1839, possibly the victim of a stroke.13

Draft 2

After JS concluded his dictation of history on 5 July 1839, James Mulholland devoted some of his time to inscribing the history compiled to that point into a large manuscript book. He began this new draft of the history in the back of the volume in which the 1834–1836 history had been inscribed, turning it over so the back cover became the front cover. Serving as principal sources for this version of the history were the manuscript that JS, Sidney Rigdon, and George W. Robinson had created in Missouri in 1838, and Draft 1. Textual evidence that the nonextant 1838 material was used when composing Draft 2 is found in the second paragraph of the latter, which situates the composition in “the eighth year since the [1830] organization of said Church,” and a later passage that gives the date of composition as “the Second day of May, One thousand Eight hundred and thirty eight.”14 Starting at 15 May 1829, the remainder of the text in Mulholland’s handwriting is a copy of Draft 1. Although the first seven pages of Draft 1 match Draft 2 quite closely, the two versions are markedly less similar after that point. This contrast may indicate that an intermediate draft of the history was made beginning at about page 7 of Draft 1 and that Mulholland copied the text from this intermediate draft, not directly from Draft 1.

Mulholland inscribed pages 1–59 in the large history volume. After his death in November 1839, Robert B. Thompson served as scribe for the history. Little is known about the circumstances surrounding Thompson’s inscription, totaling only sixteen pages, in the large history volume. The transcript of Draft 2 presented herein ends on page 61 of the manuscript volume, after the first two pages of Thompson’s inscription, to correspond with the end of Draft 3; the other fourteen pages in his hand give a biographical sketch of Sidney Rigdon, including a brief narrative of his conversion to Mormonism. Because the majority of the pages in Thompson’s hand deal with Rigdon’s life before joining the church, Rigdon was likely consulted for this portion of the narrative.

The opening statement of the draft in the large manuscript volume refers to defamation and persecution to which the Latter-day Saints and JS in particular had been subjected, and it characterizes such maltreatment as one motivation for telling the story of the church and its founder: “Owing to the many reports which have been put in circulation by evil disposed and designing men,” JS proclaimed, the history was designed to “disabuse the publick mind, and put all enquirers after truth into possession of the facts” and set the record straight “in relation both to myself and the Church.” This introduction was written not long after JS had fled Kirtland, Ohio, for Far West, Missouri, under threat of several lawsuits; thus, when he began the history in summer 1838 he was especially motivated to justify himself and the church in light of what he considered a long history of persecution. Such an introduction may also have been written as a more general response to the accumulated negative reports transmitted orally and in the press beginning in JS’s youth and continuing throughout the 1830s.15

After briefly narrating JS’s birth and early years, Draft 2 proceeds immediately to the circumstances that culminated in his first vision of Deity in the spring of 1820, followed closely by the visitations of an angel in 1823 and JS’s commission to retrieve a sacred record buried nearby. JS’s religious mission is the primary focus; his personal affairs, like his marriage to Emma Smith, whom he met while employed in digging for a rumored silver mine, are discussed only briefly and in the context of that mission.

Following JS’s recitation of his retrieval of the ancient record, the beginnings of his translation thereof, and the loss of the translation manuscript, James Mulholland began including the full texts of JS’s revelations, which became a major element of the account. The revelations were integrated into the history starting with July 1828, and they generally appear in chronological order. Mulholland copied the revelations into the history from the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, rather than from earlier versions. Many of JS’s early revelations underwent significant updating and expansion in order to suit rapidly changing circumstances after the organization of the Church of Christ in 1830, so the inclusion of the 1835 version of revelations into a narrative covering events before 1835 introduced numerous anachronisms. Significant instances of anachronism are identified in the annotation of the text herein.

Additionally, the narrative itself, composed beginning in 1838, necessarily reflects the perspective of JS and his collaborators at the time of its production, thus inadvertently introducing terminology and concepts that were not operative a decade earlier in the period the narrative describes. Examples include using later priesthood nomenclature such as “Aaronic” and “Melchizedek” and calling the church JS established “the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints,” a name not designated until 1838. Such usage makes it difficult to trace the details of the unfolding of church governance and doctrine in the faith’s dynamic early years. Readers wishing to more fully understand these issues may consult the revelation texts and other documents found in the Documents series of The Joseph Smith Papers.

While much of the narrative is anchored by documents, particularly published revelations, JS and his associates were dependent upon unrecorded memories for the balance of the historical account found in Draft 2. JS used collective memory and oral recollections of fellow participants, such as Newel Knight, to reconstruct the events of early church history. Such reminiscences formed the basis for not only factual details in the history but likely for quotations as well, such as long portions of the report of the 1830 trial proceedings in South Bainbridge and Colesville, New York. JS evidently had to rely on his own memory and that of others to provide some extensive quotations, such as the words of the angel Moroni during his first appearance to JS and the remarks scholars in New York City made to Martin Harris when he showed them characters copied from the gold plates. Lists of persons baptized may have come from records no longer extant or possibly from eyewitnesses consulted for the production of the history.

The manuscript itself was a dynamic text, emended at several times by various scribes. Revisions made in the hand of James Mulholland at the time of inscription or shortly after are included in the transcript herein. Later changes in the hand of Willard Richards, made beginning in December 1842, are not incorporated into the transcript, although substantial changes are described in annotation. Thus, the transcript of Draft 2 presents the history in an early stage, before changes were made by Richards and others, and it approximates the state of the history when Howard Coray used it for a new history draft in about 1841.

Draft 3

Howard Coray, a recent convert to Mormonism from Perry, Illinois, met JS while visiting Nauvoo in April 1840. In his autobiography, written in the early 1880s, Coray recalled the clerical work he undertook after meeting JS:

The Prophet, after looking at me a little and asking me some questions, wished to know whether it would be convenient for me to come to Nauvoo, and assist, or rather clerk for him. As this was what I desired, I engaged at once to do so; and, in about 2 weeks thereafter, I was busily employed in his office, copying a huge pile of letters into a book—correspondence with the Elders as well as other persons, that had been accumulating for some time. [. . .]

I finished the job of copying letters. I was then requested by bro. Joseph to undertake, in connection with E[dwin] D. Woolley, the compilation of the Church History. This I felt to decline, as writing books was something, in which I had had no experience. But bro. Joseph insisted on my undertaking it, saying, if I would do so, it would prove a blessing to me as long as I should live. His persuasive arguments prevailed; and accordingly in a short time, bro. Woolley and myself, were busily engaged in compiling the church history. The Prophet was to furnish all the materials; and our business, was not only to combine, and arrange in cronological order, but to spread out or amplify not a little, in as good historical style as may be. Bro. Woolley’s education, not being equal to mine, he was to get the matter furnished him in as good shape as he could; and my part was to go after him, and fix his up as well as I could, making such improvement and such corrections in his grammar and style as I might deem necessary. On seeing his work, I at once discovered, that I had no small job on my hands, as he knew nothing whatever of grammar; however, I concluded to make the best I could of a bad job, and thus went to work upsetting and recasting; as well a[s] casting out not a little. Seeing how his work was handled, he became considerably discouraged; and rather took offence at the way and manner in which I was doing things, and consequently soon withdrew from the business.

Immediately after bro. Woolley left, I succeeded in obtaining the services of Dr. Miller, who had written for the press, and was considerably accustomed to this kind of business. Now I got on much better. I continued until we used up all the historical matter furnished us by the Prophet. And, as peculiar circumstances prevented his giving attention to his part of the business we of necessity discontinued our labors, and never resumed this kind of business again.16

Although Coray’s copying work in JS’s 1838–1843 letterbook and other records has long been noted,17 no manuscript evidence of his work on JS’s history was located until 2005, when two manuscripts in Coray’s hand were identified among documents in the possession of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. These two manuscripts consisted of a new draft (here designated Draft 3) of the material Mulholland and Thompson had written in the first sixty-one pages in JS’s large history volume, and a fair copy that incorporated the revisions Coray made in his earlier draft.

However, Coray’s autobiographical recollection of his work on JS’s history does not seem to match the two manuscripts identified in 2005. Whereas the autobiography refers to “writing books” and to assembling in chronological order a “compilation” of “materials” furnished by JS, the two extant Coray manuscripts are lightly edited copies of work already drafted by James Mulholland and Robert B. Thompson in a single original source. Furthermore, the existing manuscripts do not contain the handwriting of Edwin D. Woolley. In producing Draft 3, Coray made some editorial changes to the history, but his work could not be described as “writing books” and certainly not as a “compilation.” Coray’s autobiographical account of his work more likely refers to a different, probably earlier assignment for which no related document has been located. Perhaps the assignment given to Coray, Woolley, and “Dr. Miller” was to create rough draft notes comparable to the outline prepared by Mulholland in Draft 1 and those later prepared by William W. Phelps and successors as work on the multivolume manuscript history continued. Coray indicated that work began on the compilation task in about December 1840 and terminated when they exhausted their supply of documents from JS.18

In 1869 Coray signed a statement that was later attached to the paper wrapper that enclosed his two drafts: “These hundred pages of History were written by me, under Joseph the Prophet’s dictation. Dr Miller helped me a little in writing the same. (Historians office, 1869).”19 If by “dictation” Coray meant that he transcribed as JS spoke, it seems more likely to be a description of JS’s involvement in the history draft presented here than of the role JS played in the compilation project Coray described in his autobiography. In the latter project, according to Coray, JS only supplied materials and gave general instructions. If the statement was accurate in that sense, it suggests that JS read aloud from Draft 2 in the large manuscript volume, directing editorial changes as he read. Several passages of Draft 3 contain evidence of dictation, but the history itself includes no indication of who was dictating the text.

Coray’s history draft includes departures from the earlier drafts which, though minor, show an intention to refine the story by imposing certain editorial preferences. Coray deleted passages that seemed to be defensive, to plead the cause of the Saints, or to play on the reader’s sympathies—a list of grievances, for example, or complaints against individuals. The draft often softened wording about the persecution of JS, as can be seen in the omission of the first paragraph of Draft 2. Also, whereas the latter specifies that Methodists and Presbyterians treated JS and other Saints without respect, Coray’s draft avoided naming the denominations. Additionally, Draft 3 employs more moderate language in describing opposition to JS in New York, avoiding the word “mob” and glossing over accounts of violence. Many times narrative details that added verisimilitude to previous versions were deleted. For example, when Coray copied the section recounting Martin Harris’s carrying a sample of Book of Mormon characters to New York City, he omitted details such as Harris placing the certificate of authenticity from Charles Anthon in his pocket, then retrieving it at Anthon’s request.

The document presented in this volume is the first of two manuscripts Coray completed. This earlier draft shows the original creation as well as revisions Coray made before inscribing the second, cleaner copy. A four-page partial copy, corresponding to text on pages 13–16 of the draft and the fair copy, is also extant.20 The Coray manuscripts exhibit notable variations in handwriting style. A careful comparison of the style shifts, spelling idiosyncrasies, and letter formations, however, reveal that both the earlier draft and fair copy are entirely in Coray’s handwriting. His work is clearly based on Draft 2; Coray’s versions could not have been written before Draft 2 because he incorporated emendations made in the latter.21 The fair copy of Coray’s work includes few changes other than those Coray marked in his rough draft, and none are of a substantive nature.


Although the identification of handwriting—that of Howard Coray, for example, in Draft 3—tends to link a document firmly to one or more particular scribes, the documents that have survived are only a part of what once existed. It is not possible to know the clerical or creative work that may lie behind a document in Coray’s hand, or in the hand of any other scribe. Thus some individuals who contributed to the history necessarily remain uncredited. Likewise, the relationship of author and scribe was conflated, making it difficult to distinguish between JS’s contribution and that of his scribes. For example, in Draft 1, it is ultimately unclear how much influence James Mulholland had with respect to the composition of the historical narrative; he may have directed the initial outline of the history with JS filling in the details later, or JS may have dictated the framework to Mulholland himself. The full extent of the contribution by scribes is impossible to determine, but understanding the composition of JS’s history requires in turn an understanding that scribes and others shared with JS some authorial responsibility for the various drafts.

The three documents presented here show an early trajectory of the history, when JS was more involved in its production than at later phases. The early history drafts—all created as a first-person record in JS’s voice, arranged chronologically—helped establish a methodology followed by those who worked on the official history over the next two decades. For whatever reason, JS ultimately preferred the draft found in the large history volume to the version Coray produced, and the “History of Joseph Smith,” published in the Times and Seasons beginning 15 March 1842, followed Draft 2, not Coray’s work. Thus bypassed, Coray’s history work is an artifact demonstrating a course JS considered following for his history but then abandoned. Instead, Willard Richards and later scribes continued inscribing and revising the history in the large manuscript volume, and that version, eventually comprising six manuscript volumes and a fair copy in a second set of volumes, served as the source for subsequent publications.22 Work on this history continued after JS’s death and after the Latter-day Saint migration to the intermountain West, finally concluding in 1856. See the chart “Filial Relationships among Manuscript and Published Versions of Joseph Smith’s 1838–1856 History.”

Note that the transcripts of Draft 1 and Draft 3 include only annotation that relates to textual aspects of those drafts; Draft 2 carries the historical annotation.