A commandment to keep a history of the LDS Church was given to Joseph Smith on the very day the church was formally organized, as recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 21:1.
Early efforts to comply with this directive are documented in the latest release in the Joseph Smith Papers project, published by the Church Historian's Press, an imprint of the Historical Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "Histories, Volume 1: Joseph Smith Histories, 1832-1844" is available from Deseret Book and other outlets at a suggested retail price of $54.95. Volume 2 in the "Histories" series of the project is anticipated for this fall.
Under the best of conditions, keeping a historical record is no light burden. For Joseph Smith and his associates, the task was compounded by turbulence of those early days.
"Violent opposition threatened the Saints from without and dissension divided them from within," reads the series introduction in the new volume. "Record keeping and history writing did not thrive these unsettled and sometimes bloody years, and the documents that were produced are fragmentary, recording only a fraction of Smith's activities and teachings."
Yet, the introduction goes on to say, the Prophet's tenacious efforts bore fruit in the earliest narrative histories of the LDS Church.
Some of those histories involved Joseph Smith's direct participation, either through his personal authorship or his supervision; those are presented in Volume 1. Volume 2, to be titled, "Assigned Historical Writings, 1831-1847," have a less-direct link to the Prophet, undertaken in response to his assignment but not prepared under his supervision.
In Volume 1, then, by way of meticulous transcripts and document analysis, readers will find eight historical narrative histories as follows:
Joseph Smith History, ca. summer 1832, begun in Hiram, Ohio, when the Prophet hired Frederick G. Williams to serve as his scribe. It is the earliest extant effort by Joseph to write an account of his life, and the only narrative history to contain his own handwriting, alternating with that of Williams.
Joseph Smith History, 1834-36, written under the Prophet's supervision by four of his scribes: Warren Parrish, Warren Cowdery, Frederick G. Williams and Oliver Cowdery. This is drawn from Joseph's 1835-36 journal and from a series of letters written by Oliver Cowdery in 1834-35.
Transcripts of three related documents giving detail of Joseph Smith's visions, the emergence of the Book of Mormon and the early days of the church after its organization. Labeled as Draft 1, Draft 2 and Draft, they were written or inscribed respectively by James Mulholland, Robert B. Thompson and Howard Coray. Mulholland's writing was evidently a continuation of a history now lost. Draft 2 contains the same material and constitutes the first 61 pages of what readers today know as History of the Church, edited by B.H. Roberts. Draft 3 is Coray's lightly edited version of Draft 2. It was never used in publication.
Joseph Smith, "Extract from the Private Journal," 1839. This is a misnomer; the writing was not an extract, but rather a "Bill of Damages against the State of Missouri," a petition for redress for losses suffered by church members at the hands of mobs in that state.
Joseph Smith, "Church History," 1842. Originally published in the church's periodical, "Times and Seasons," it is the famous "Wentworth letter" penned at the request of newspaper editor John Wentworth on behalf of his friend, who was writing a history of New Hampshire. Though ultimately never published in that history, it has become well-known, in part for its inclusion of the 13 Articles of Faith, later canonized in the church's volume of scripture, the Pearl of Great Price.
Joseph Smith, "Latter-day Saints," 1844. This is an updated version of the Wentworth letter. It was submitted at the request of Israel Daniel Rupp. Unlike the Wentworth letter, this version was, in fact, exposed to a national non-Mormon readership, as Rupp included it in his encyclopedic anthology, "An Original History of the Religious Denominations at Present Existing in the United States."
An appendix is included in the book, apostle Orson Pratt's 1840 work, "A(n) Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions," published in Scotland. This is because the Wentworth letter is largely drawn from Pratt's work. Shaded type indicates which portions were used in the Wentworth letter.
So what is new or useful in the new Joseph Smith Papers book?
Speaking at a March 19 launch for the new volume at the Church History Library in Salt Lake City, Mark Ashurst-McGee, one of four volume editors, answered that question.
"Many historians of early Mormonism and Joseph Smith know several of these, not all, but most of these documents, transcripts, have been previously published," he acknowledged.
But he gave some examples of "value added" by publication of the new work:
"First of all, the transcripts have been re-verified as carefully as we can, and we've spent dozens and scores of hours with the handwriting of these people," he said. White light, magnification, ultraviolet light and multi-spectral imaging were used where necessary.
Beyond that, he said, "You'll find much more new material than has been published before in the document analysis that is available to you now in the physical descriptions and historical introductions to these documents" in the new book.
And, he said, it is now known and pointed out in the book that the "Extract" history is based on an earlier text, Joseph Smith's bill of damages against the state of Missouri.