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Introduction to History, 1838–1856 (Manuscript History of the Church)

On 11 June 1839, while residing at Commerce, Illinois, JS enlisted the services of James Mulholland as scribe and began dictating what his journal simply referred to as his “history.” Mulholland had previously written for JS in 1838, and in April 1839 he began keeping JS’s earliest Illinois journal. The “history” JS now so modestly commenced eventually swelled to six volumes and over 2,400 pages and came to be known as the “Manuscript History of the Church” (in The Joseph Smith Papers it bears the editorial title “History, 1838–1856”). Work on the task spanned seventeen years, traversing the settlement of Nauvoo, the murder of JS and his brother Hyrum, and the Saints’ passage from Nauvoo to the Salt Lake Valley. JS and a host of others, including Willard Richards, Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, George A. Smith, Wilford Woodruff, and at least ten clerks or scribes, supported and sustained the project despite persistent adversity and disruption.

JS and others had previously endeavored to compile a history for the church, but these efforts had for the most part fallen short or been abandoned.1 Both Oliver Cowdery and John Whitmer had received record-keeping and history-keeping assignments in the early days of the church. “The Book of John Whitmer” ultimately included copies of dozens of revelations, letters, and other documents, interspersed with historical narrative. However, Whitmer refused to turn this material over to the church after his excommunication in 1838.

In summer 1832, JS and Frederick G. Williams drafted a six-page account titled “A History of the Life of Joseph Smith Jr.” However, JS completed only the first two of the four sections he had delineated. Oliver Cowdery began another attempt in 1834 that was continued by Frederick G. Williams, Warren Parrish, and Warren Cowdery. This history, covering the period from 1834 to early 1836, was a composite chronicle consisting of genealogical tables, dated entries adapted from JS’s journal, and transcripts of newspaper articles. Reasons for its discontinuance are unknown.

In early 1838, after their hurried flight from Kirtland, Ohio, to Missouri, JS and Sidney Rigdon envisioned and began the creation of “a history of this church from the earliest period to this date,” with George W. Robinson as scribe. Though the project was not far advanced when the Missouri War erupted and no manuscript survives, some of this material made its way into the early pages of the Manuscript History.

In the end it was to be the combination of JS and Sidney Rigdon’s 1838 history initiated with George W. Robinson and JS’s ensuing collaboration with James Mulholland that finally bore fruit. As the project unfolded, there were frequent stops and starts—the longest, of over seven years, induced by the Saints’ exodus from Nauvoo followed by the challenges of settling the Salt Lake Valley. The project eventually was brought to conclusion in Utah by George A. Smith and Wilford Woodruff in 1856. All told, the story of the compiling of the “Manuscript History of the Church” comprises a remarkable and compelling tale of determination and perseverance in the face of daunting challenges.2

While compiling draft notes for the Manuscript History in 1845, Willard Richards attributed the following expression to JS:

Since I have been engaged in laying the foundation of the Church of Christ, I have been prevented, in, various ways from keeping continuing my Jou[r]nal & the History, in a manner satisfactory to myself. or in justice to the cause, Long imprisonments, vexatious and Long continued Lawsuits[,] The trea[c]hery of some of my clerks; & the deaths of others; and the poverty of myself and brethers [brethren] from continued plunder & driving, has 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 Jou[r]nal from time to time in the best manner my circumstances would allow, and dictate for my history from time to time, as I have had opportun[i]ty.3

In truth, it was not until Richards was appointed as JS’s “private secretary and historian” in December 1842 that substantial progress was made in the compilation of the history. Prior to Richards’s involvement, only 157 pages, carrying the narrative to November 1831, had been written. James Mulholland wrote fifty-nine pages prior to his untimely death on 3 November 1839. The following October, Robert B. Thompson succeeded Mulholland as scribe for JS and recorded all of sixteen pages before his death in August 1841. (It was during Thompson’s tenure that Howard Coray, Edwin Woolley, and a Dr. Miller were asked to edit and revise the text; however, their efforts were not adopted.4) Next, William W. Phelps contributed seventy-seven pages and carried the record forward to 1 November 1831. In March 1842, while Phelps was serving as steward over the history, the church newspaper Times and Seasons began serial publication of the text under the title “History of Joseph Smith.” The church publication in England, the Millennial Star, began republishing the “History” in June of that year.

When Richards assumed responsibility for the project, he continued the narrative, often relying on material that was neither written nor dictated by JS. Apparently at JS’s behest, he and his colleagues and successors chose to maintain the established first-person, chronological narrative format, as if JS were the author throughout. In an 1856 letter from then-church historian George A. Smith to Wilford Woodruff, the process of compiling JS’s history was described in some detail:

The plan of compiling the history of Joseph Smith from the Journals kept by his Clerks, Willlard Richards, William Clayton, Wilford Woodruff, and Thomas Bullock, was commenced by himself, extracting items of necessary information in regard to general and particular movements from the Times and Seasons, Millennial Star, Wasp, Neighbor, and other publications, extracts from city councils, Municipal Courts, and Mayor’s Dockets, and Legion Records, which were all kept under his direction; also the movements of the church as found in Conference Minutes, High Council records, and the records of the several quorums, together with letters and copies preserved on file; also noted remarkable occurrences throughout the world, and compiled them under date of transaction, according to the above plan which he while in prison just previous to his murder requested Elder Willard Richards to continue; which trust Elder Richards fulfilled as far as he could while he lived.5

According to Brigham Young, before his death JS read and revised forty-two pages of text.6 Afterwards, Young, Heber C. Kimball, George A. Smith, and others carried on the task of reviewing and approving the work of the historians.

When JS was killed in June 1844, the manuscript numbered 812 pages in two large, bound volumes (subsequently designated A-1 and B-1). They carried the narrative through 5 August 1838. Richards then paused work on the history until 11 December 1844 when, under the direction of Brigham Young and the Quorum of the Twelve, he and William W. Phelps, assisted by Thomas Bullock, resumed gathering and compiling the necessary records and accounts. Beginning in early 1845 Richards began arranging draft notes while Bullock composed and inscribed additional text in the second volume (B-1).

Richards and his clerks worked on the history until the records were packed in preparation for the trek across the plains to the Rocky Mountains in February 1846. By that time they had compiled the history to 3 March 1843 (about halfway through the fourth large manuscript volume, D-1, a total of 1,485 pages). A clerical note by Thomas Bullock inserted in that volume on page 1485 reported that the volumes were packed on 4 February 1846. Two boxes were sent west, one with the four volumes of the original manuscript and a second with a duplicate copy, also in four volumes—A-2, B-2, C-2, and D-2.

Apparently Richards oversaw the transit of the records as far as Mt. Pisgah, Iowa. Henry Fairbanks carried them to Winter Quarters, Nebraska, and later, in 1848, Thomas Bullock transported them the rest of the way to the Salt Lake Valley. There they remained in their boxes for five years until 7 June 1853 when they were unpacked by Willard Richards and Thomas Bullock.

Richards resumed work on the history on 1 December 1853 but dictated only one line, being too ill to continue. After Richards’s death on 11 March 1854, JS’s cousin, George A. Smith, was appointed historian. Though Smith was eleven years younger than JS, they were very close. He had participated in the Camp of Israel (Zion’s Camp) march as JS’s armor-bearer and was ordained an apostle on 26 April 1839 at Far West, Missouri. He kept a careful journal and was reputed to have a remarkable memory that was called upon as he worked on the history. George A. Smith also worked with Willard Richards on the history while they were in Nauvoo.

Beginning 13 April 1854, Smith commenced gathering material for the history and by 1 July of that year he and his scribes began inscribing new material into D-1. Over the next two years he was assisted by Leo Hawkins, Robert L. Campbell, and Jonathan Grimshaw, who served as Historian’s Office clerks recording text in volumes D-1, E-1, and F-1. In April 1856, before the history’s completion, Smith was called away from Utah on another assignment. In a 21 April 1856 letter to Woodruff, he summarized his efforts:

On the 10th of April 1854, I commenced to perform the duties of Historian by taking up the History of Joseph Smith where Dr. Willard Richards had left it when driven from Nauvoo on the 4th day of February 1846. I had to revise and compare two years of back history which he had compiled, filling up numerous spaces which had been marked as omissions <on memoranda> by Dr. Richards.

. . . I have filled all the reports of sermons by Prestident Joseph Smith and others from minutes or sketches taken at the time in long hand by Dr. Willard Richards, Wilford Woodruff, Thomas Bullock, William Clayton, Miss Eliza R. Snow &c. which was an immense labor, requiring the deepest thought and the closest application, as there were mostly only two or three words (about half written) to a sentence. The greatest care has been taken to convey the ideas in the prophet’s style as near as possible.7

After his appointment as assistant church historian at the April 1856 general conference, Wilford Woodruff took up the remaining work on the document. Woodruff, a fellow apostle and former missionary companion to George A. Smith, kept meticulous journals that were of considerable value in completing the history. At the time of Smith’s departure the history had been completed to the last days of JS’s life. By August 1856 Woodruff carried the work to its conclusion, with the inscribing of the text continuing until 6 November of that year. George A. Smith commented that the Manuscript History had been reviewed and revised by “the Council of the First Presidency almost without any alteration.”8

In its published form as the “History of Joseph Smith,” the Manuscript History had appeared serially in the Times and Seasons at Nauvoo until 15 February 1846, the newspaper’s final issue. At that time the account had been carried forward to August 1834. In Utah in November 1851 the Deseret News continued the serialized publication, picking up the narrative where the Times and Seasons had left off.

When it was begun in 1838 and 1839, the Manuscript History and its published adaptation, the “History of Joseph Smith,” appeared to be only the most recent of several historical narratives set in motion by JS. However, with its continued publication stretching almost four years in Nauvoo and many years thereafter in England and Utah, it became the standard, official history of the church. The printed version, however, is not as complete and accurate as the manuscripts. Even after publication began in the Times and Seasons, revisions were made in the manuscript instead of in a copy of the printed version, making the manuscript volumes, rather than the serialized publication, the definitive source.

The republishing of the serialized history in a multivolume compilation was contemplated at the dawn of the twentieth century. George Q. Cannon, an established writer and publisher as well as a member of the church’s First Presidency, had been commissioned to pursue the matter. At the time of Cannon’s death in April 1901 a modest attempt was under way. At Cannon’s passing, B. H. Roberts, an established historian and president of the Seventy, was appointed as editor of the project in May 1901, a year before he was sustained as an assistant church historian.

Beginning in 1902, Roberts began the work of editing and publishing the massive history in six volumes as The History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Period I. History of Joseph Smith, the Prophet by Himself. Roberts completed the task by 1912. He provided lengthy introductions to each volume and, though relying on the earlier manuscripts and publications, revised the text in significant ways. Although he maintained JS’s first-person voice, he made numerous silent modifications to the text without providing supporting annotation or rationale.

The digital images and interim transcripts of the original manuscript available on this website provide universal electronic access to this priceless document. At a future date, the Joseph Smith Papers Project will offer an additional level of textual verification as well as a fully annotated treatment. This will include identification of the sources used in compiling the Manuscript History.

Overview of Volumes of the Manuscript History

Vol. No.Period CoveredPage Nos.Addenda
A-11805–Aug. 1834 pp. 1–553 16 pp.
B-11 Sept. 1834–2 Nov. 1838pp. 553–849 10 pp.
C-12 Nov. 1838–31 July 1842 pp. 850–136124 pp.
D-1 1 Aug. 1842–1 July 1843pp. 1362–16366 pp.
E-11 Jul. 1843–30 Apr. 1844pp. 1637–2029 11 pp.
F-1 1 May 1844–8 Aug. 1844pp. 1–304 10 pp.