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Church History Library
Oliver Cowdery's work as scribe included the translation of the Book of Mormon.

Joseph Smith was not an accomplished writer.

While that statement might sound foreign to members, considering his testimony and revelations have been spread around the world in more than 160 languages, it should come as no surprise when you realize the Prophet had no more than a third-grade education.

So how could an uneducated New England farm boy bring to pass a work that would require endless hours of writing and translating? As Joseph transitioned into his role as Prophet of God, capable men served as his personal scribes, assistants and secretaries until at the time of his death, he had amassed an entire office staff. In his collection of 10 journals alone, which consist of 1,500 pages, a mere 35 — or 2 percent — are in the Prophet's own handwriting.

"We can't underestimate the significance of all these scribes," said Alex Baugh, professor of church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University. "Their contributions are incalculable."

Why did the Prophet call the men he did to transcribe his largely oral revelations? The answer to that question depends on whom you ask.

According to Baugh, it's because the Prophet was too busy to do it on his own.

"In Joseph Smith's day, for men of prominence — and in his capacity as president of the church — it was absolutely vital that he had the proper individuals under him who could take accurate notes, dictation and make transcriptions," Baugh said. "It was almost impossible for Joseph to keep his own personal record. He needed help."

Robin Jensen, coeditor of the Joseph Smith Papers Revelations series, says the need for record keeping and scripture drove the Prophet to choose the scribes he did.

"Record keeping and publication of scripture was one of the priorities of early Mormonism. The first three or four years of records created were scripture. Some of the first things published in the church were scripture," Jensen said. "Scripture really drove early Mormon thought, early Mormon record keeping, early Mormon efforts, and you see through the revelations, this attitude that drove the Saints to do what they felt (was) required of them by God."

Mark Ashurst-McGee, co-editor of the JSP's Journals series, added that the Prophet understood the need for record keeping but fully understood the limitations of his meager childhood education.

Nothing illustrates that better than a letter written on Nov. 27, 1832, to William W. Phelps, the church printer in Missouri. In it, the Prophet writes, "Oh Lord God, deliver us from this prison, almost as it were, of paper, pen and ink, and of a crooked, broken, scattered and imperfect language."

"That's great writing," Ashurst-McGee said. "But at the same time he's writing well, he's saying, 'I hate this.' "

According to the Joseph Smith Papers: Journals, Vol. 1, Joseph wrote in a journal for nine days, then not again for 10 months.

"He understands the importance of record keeping, feels strongly about it, and understands its part of the mission of the church, but he doesn't love it," Ashurst-McGee said. "And that's why he starts getting scribes to help him. He's so busy. And (having scribes) builds up more and more in the history of the early church, so that by the time he dies, he has an office staff."

According to the scholars, each had unique talents that fit their callings.

"Each scribe makes a contribution that's pretty well-suited to that person's abilities," Baugh said. "The Lord got the right scribe at the right time."

Ashurst-McGee agrees.

"Joseph Smith said these men were chosen by the Lord, but you can still ask the question, 'Why were they chosen by the Lord?' If you're not a believer, or you are a believer who thinks Joseph Smith is more of a human than a marionette in God's hands, we could also ask the question, 'Why did Joseph Smith pick them?' or 'Why did Joseph feel drawn to pray for them as candidates?' "

Martin Harris, a wealthy farmer, helped the Prophet with the translation of the Book of Mormon for the first 116 pages. He used his education in scribing duties and his farm to subsidize the printing of the book.

When Harris lost the 116 manuscript pages of the Book of Mormon, the Lord told Joseph to wait a little season so the Lord could "provide means whereby thou mayest accomplish the thing which I have commanded thee" (Doctrine and Covenants 5:34).

That "what" was actually a "who" — Oliver Cowdery, the educated schoolmaster with English composition skills who helped the Prophet finish the Book of Mormon translation in miraculous time. Then Cowdery's work was done, and he was sent on a mission to the Lamanites.

John Whitmer, who was called as church recorder and historian, was the principal scribe for the Book of Commandments and Revelations, the earliest-known revelation book. The manuscripts were taken to Missouri, where they would be printed as the Book of Commandments.

Then came Sidney Rigdon, the Campbellite preacher-turned-counselor to the Prophet, who knew the Bible so well, he was called upon to be a scribe for the Joseph Smith Translation.

Frederick G. Williams was the primary scribe for the Kirtland Revelation Book, the second revelation book, which most notably contains "The Vision," or what we call today Doctrine and Covenants 76.

In addition to these men, the Prophet used additional scribes for his letters, journals, personal history and business records, making the total 14. The list reads like a list of the who's who in early Mormondom: Warren Parrish, James Mulholland, Phelps, George W. Robinson, Willard Richards, Thomas Bullock, William Clayton and Robert B. Thompson.

That small army of men helped create a monumental amount of history for the church that Mormons rely on, the scholars said.

Despite their contributions, the Prophet said the one thing that hampered the keeping of his history was that so many of his scribes fell away or died. The list is saddening: Whitmer, Rigdon, Parrish and Robinson all left the church, never to return. Cowdery, Williams and Phelps were ex-communicated but came back into full fellowship. Hyde was disfellowshipped for a time. Mulholland and Thompson died in Illinois.

Whitmer even took some of the documents with him on the way out of the church.

Only Richards, Bullock and Clayton stayed in the church the whole time.

Yet, despite all the hitches and hurdles placed in the way of the Prophet getting things recorded, a beautiful record is there for members' taking, especially in the Joseph Smith Papers.

"There is a complicated process by which early Mormon record keeping was done. It wasn't perfect, by any stretch," Ashurst-McGee said. "The Joseph Smith Papers have been very careful to try and understand all of these things on their own terms in the context in which they were originally created. This can be very important in terms of understanding some things in church history.

"This imperfect, complicated record, the fact that it exists, shows how much they did care about the mission of keeping records. With all their imperfections, and failures and false starts, they try again. If you compare what we have now of the JSP and compare it to the papers of Thomas Jefferson, or John Adams, there's no comparison. These guys (the presidents) are writing every day, and they wield power through the pen. They have thousands of letters in their own handwriting.

"Joseph Smith was not like that. At the same time, if you look at his background and where he came from, and what he tried to do, you can see that this is substantial, and it is remarkable."

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