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Joseph Smith and His Papers: An Introduction

Joseph Smith and Record Keeping

Joseph Smith’s own revelations instructed him to keep a record of the church’s rise. At the time of the church’s organization in 1830, he was instructed that “there shall be a record kept among you, and in it thou shalt be called a seer, a translator, a prophet, an apostle of Jesus Christ.”63 Smith understood early on that he must keep an account, even though his training did not qualify him to write such a record himself. He had only a modest education and no literary aspirations. He keenly felt the limitations of writing. In a letter to newspaper editor William W. Phelps he wrote: “Oh Lord God deliver us in thy due time from the little narrow prison almost as it were totel darkness of paper pen and ink and a crooked broken scattered and imperfect language.”64 Yet over the years a large collection of documents accumulated. He dictated revelations, prepared translations of ancient documents, and assigned clerks to write letters, his history, and his journals.

Joseph Smith started writing in 1828 when he began dictation of the Book of Mormon in earnest. The first 116 pages were lost through the error of his scribe, but Smith began again, and in the three months between early April and the end of June 1829, he dictated most of what became 584 pages of printed text in the first edition. In that same period, he received more than a dozen revelations and by fall 1830 was preparing them for publication. They appeared first in serial form in the church newspaper The Evening and the Morning Star, beginning in June 1832, and later in the Book of Commandments.

For the first two years after the organization of the Church of Christ on 6 April 1830, Smith assigned the work of keeping a history first to Oliver Cowdery and then to John Whitmer, two of the early believers. In 1832, he himself wrote a history of the visions he had received as a young man and in the same year started a personal journal and began to preserve correspondence and other documents in a letterbook.65 These record-keeping projects soon faltered, however: the history ended after six pages, and the journal keeping lapsed after ten days. Only gradually did Smith establish a pattern of assigning scribes to work on histories, journals, letters, minutes, and other documents. Spotty at first, his record keeping eventually settled into more consistent patterns. By the early 1840s, he and his clerks were composing a comprehensive history, keeping a continuous diary, accumulating minutes from meetings and councils, preserving correspondence, and taking notes of many of his numerous discourses.

Joseph Smith drew upon these materials in 1838, when he again turned his own hand to history. He began by dictating an autobiographical narrative interspersed with revelations, correspondence, and other documents pertaining to his life and the beginnings of the church. When the chronology of the story reached November 1832, the narrative evolved into a day-by-day diary format using Smith’s journals as the featured text, supplemented by additional documentary material. Where the journals were written in third person by Smith’s scribes, the narrative was changed to first person, and where the journal was deficient it was fleshed out from other sources, which were also edited to maintain the first-person style. When Joseph Smith was killed in June 1844, work on the history had proceeded only as far as 5 August 1838, but his secretary and clerks continued to utilize his journal and other available documents to extend the narrative to the end of his life.

In addition to the published revelations and history, the manuscripts resulting from Smith’s record keeping include two volumes of revelations, ten volumes used as journals, two copybooks of correspondence, a half-dozen volumes containing the proceedings of civic and church administrative organizations that he organized, and numerous miscellaneous papers, many of which are legal and business records. The flow of documents sometimes slowed to a trickle during times of stress, and he often required outside impetus to refocus his attention amidst a life teeming with meetings, moves, lawsuits, and persecutions.66 But record keeping clearly was important to him. As his life went on, he became ever more diligent in collecting the raw materials for his history, accumulating by the end a large trove of papers.

This substantial body of documents does not, however, assure us a clear view of his mind and heart. The reason is that with all of the responsibilities he bore during a tumultuous life, he could not keep a record on his own. Only a tiny proportion of Smith’s papers were written by Smith himself, meaning that in most of the documents we come at Joseph Smith through another mind. Though small in number, the autograph writings and the relatively small body of personal writings dictated by him probably offer the best close-up view of his temperament and outlook. They are more direct imprints of his personality than the records of his sermons and speeches. Probably fewer than one-fifth of his sermons were reported in any detail—most from the last years of his life and most in highly abbreviated form by clerks or listeners who took notes. Smith seems never to have spoken from a prepared text or even from an outline. Records of his sermons are at best like class notes taken by students at a lecture, giving only limited access to the speaker’s style. His dictated revelations and translations are couched in his plain language, but as Smith documents they are problematic in another way. By his own account, neither the Book of Mormon nor the revelations were his own compositions. “I translated, by the gift and power of God,” he said of the Book of Mormon.67 The revelations stand out as the most interesting and influential of all his recorded words, but they are purportedly not his words at all. They came from him in his special role as revelator.

The large majority of the remaining papers—beyond the revelations, personal writings, dictated documents, and discourses—were not only penned but also composed by his clerks. Smith’s scribes must be credited for recording much of what we know about him. Those close associates who wrote his journal, for example, recorded views of his life and work often on a daily basis, especially in the later years. But those same scribes often stand between Joseph Smith and the reader hopeful of capturing his character and magnetism. Even writings issued over Smith’s name or written in first person are often the compositions of clerks. Extensive as the papers of Joseph Smith are, they do not afford readers unobstructed access to his mind and heart. In a famous sermon near the end of his life, he said, “You don’t know me—you never will,”68 and the nature of his papers only adds force to that assertion.