Monday, May 23, 2016

Mormon Book Bits #10: Joseph Smith, History of the Church, comp. and ed. B.H. Roberts; 7 Volumes

Editor's note: This is the tenth in a series of posts by Dennis Horne about collectible books. The introduction is here.

            History of the Church (sometimes also called the Documentary History of the Church) is one of the seminal works of all Mormonism. Although it contains many revelations, it has not been canonized as scripture. Because printings of The Doctrine and Covenants since 1981 reference the History as a means of explaining the historical setting of the revelations received by the Prophet Joseph Smith, and because of its frequent citation in official Church-produced curriculum, it has attained a status as close to “official” as can be, as well as the wrath of critics trying to discredit it. Though their attempts have failed, they have caused Mormons to take a closer look at their own history, becoming less content to leave their precious historical record unexamined. The work is not perfect and is a product of its times, but no student of Mormon history can lay claim to being such without having a familiarity with it. The best review, explanation, and description of the history that I have seen was prepared by the Church itself and is found at the back of the Joseph Smith volume of the Teachings of Presidents of the Church series.

The following narrations briefly review the genesis and creation of History of the Church, as well as some explanation and refutation of critics' charges—critics bent on unfairly applying the standards of modern scholarship to the methods of men unfamiliar with them:

            Truman G. Madsen, B. H. Roberts’s biographer, explained:

“While he was a missionary in Britain with access to the back issues of the Millennial Star, Roberts systematically gathered together and bound into three volumes the entire ‘History of Joseph.’ It had been published in serial form over a period of years. Some volumes of the Star were rare, others unavailable, but finally he had all the important volumes from fourteen to twenty-six (the articles had been, most of them, copies from the Deseret News and, earlier, the Times and Seasons). Thus his compilation of the journal of Joseph Smith, much of it gathered and dictated with the help of scribes, and composed from various other contemporary documents, was a functional reference book.

“Elder Francis M. Lyman, learning of Roberts's collection, suggested to his Quorum that Roberts be appointed to organize, supplement and publish it. When Roberts was consulted his estimates of the costs were ‘rather high,’ and George Q. Cannon proposed to undertake the work through his own publishing house. It was begun as a ‘simple reproduction,’ with no effort to unify or annotate. Within a few months Eider Cannon died in California. Only ninety-six pages of the work had been printed. President Lorenzo Snow invited Roberts to continue the work. But Roberts's plan was more complex: He recommended introductions written to harmonize the volumes, footnotes, marginal explanatory notes, and the inclusion of all of the revelations received by the Prophet Joseph Smith in their chronological order, with marginal references to the current editions of the Doctrine and Covenants and with reliable historical data. Roberts expected this would require ‘at least 6 volumes.’

“Upon hearing the proposal, President Snow authorized Roberts to carry out his original purpose. The result was the publication of the history of Joseph Smith as the six-volume History of the Church, Period I, averaging six hundred pages per volume.

“Anthon H. Lund was Church historian in 1900. (Andrew Jenson, Orson F. Whitney, Amos Milton Musser and Brigham H. Roberts were sustained as assistant Church historians on April 6, 1902.) The work of reviewing the Millennial Star “History of Joseph Smith” was then begun. The entire third story of the old historian's office was turned into a historical archive, with an office for each of the assistants. From April 15, 1902, ‘almost indefinitely,’ every forenoon Anthon H. Lund (and later A. William Lund), Joseph Fielding Smith, B. H. Roberts and occasionally other staff members went line by line through the history. Volume one was completed in 1902 and the successive volumes in 1904, 1905, 1908, 1909, and 1912. In 1932 Roberts added a seventh volume, made uniform with the style of the first six, and based upon the Manuscript History of Brigham Young and other related documents. This seven-volume work has become an indispensable tool in the quorums, classes and libraries of the Church.

Further perspective comes from the journal of Anthon H. Lund, Church historian at the time, and as noted, a close collaborator:

“President Lorenzo Snow laid upon our Revision committee the work of getting up a History of the Church.  Bro. Francis M. Lyman and I wanted to get Bro. Brigham H. Roberts to be the writer.  President Snow thought he would be just the man.  (April 19, 1900)

“Brigham H. Roberts was appointed to take hold of the work of publishing the History of Joseph Smith and I suggested that he be attached to the Historian’s Office.  I was told that the responsibility would be upon me to see that the work was pushed.  Bro. Lorenzo Snow is very anxious about having the work progress. (May 23, 1901)

“Bro. Brigham H. Roberts is going to help me [in the Historians Office] and in publishing Church History.  He chose a lower room [in the office],… (May 31, 1901)

“Bro. Brigham H. Roberts proposed to change the [font] types of the Church History and President Joseph F. Smith was willing.  We tried to see Pres. Snow but he was tired out, so Bro. Smith and Roberts said they would see him on that question. (June 6, 1901)

“I looked over the first form with Bro. Brigham H. Roberts and in the afternoon read it critically….  In the afternoon [Orson F.] Whitney, Andrew Jensen, and I compared the Far West Record, Millennial Stars, and Times and Season [newspapers] with the manuscript for the new edition of the Church history.  Bro. Roberts did the reading. (July 2, 1901)

“The forenoon was spent with Bro. Brigham H. Roberts, Orson F. Whitney, and Andrew Jensen in revising or rather comparing the manuscript with the sources whence it is taken.  In the revelation to Oliver Cowdery in May 1829, Bro. Roberts said that the gift which the Lord says he has in his hand meant a divining stick which was like Aaron’s Rod.  It is said Bro. Phinieas Young got it from him and gave it to President Brigham Young who had it with him when he arrived in this valley and that it was with that stick that he pointed out where the Temple should be built…. (July 5, 1901)

“In the forenoon Bro. Brigham H. Roberts and I read his manuscript of his introduction to the History of the Church” (June 16, 1902, Anthon H. Lund Journal).

Truman Madsen and others have answered the charges of the critics:

“Little that Roberts wrote ever escaped controversy. His editing of History of the Church (often called the Documentary History) has been soundly censured by history-minded readers within and without the Church. A complex matter can be summarized by some observations on how Roberts went about his task. First, the ‘changes,’ 90 percent of them, are matters of spelling, grammar and diction, and these were made often as committee decisions aiming at clarity.

“Second, Roberts's three bound volumes of the Millennial Star articles are still in the Church Archives for scholars to examine. In the margins of these one may here and there see his mind at work. A celebrated example is the elimination of the phrase from an early account of Joseph Smith's first vision, ‘for as yet it had never entered my heart that all [churches] were wrong.’ In the margin of his own first volume Roberts has written, ‘contra. st. in Wentworth letter.’ The Wentworth letter says Joseph had wondered, ‘are all wrong together?’ One might argue that what had entered into Joseph's mind had not yet entered into his heart (because in his heart he still hoped that his own family, not to mention others, belonged to a divinely approved church). But for Roberts this was a contradiction like the contradiction in Paul's two narratives of his experience on the road to Damascus recorded in Acts. Roberts chose the later source written by Joseph himself in preference to earlier sources which were dictated to scribes.

“Third, letters in the files of the First Presidency show the rationale of some of Roberts's deletions and additions. For example, on February 16, 1906, Roberts wrote asking to omit an article on election and reprobation. ‘I doubt if the Prophet is the author of those words,’ his letter says. The First Presidency approved. In the same spirit and for similar reasons Roberts sought to eliminate from the official history the account or definition of the word Mormon as ‘more good.’ He had found evidence that the editor of Times and Seasons, W. W. Phelps, rather than Joseph Smith, wrote this paragraph and that it was ‘based on inaccurate premises and was offensively pedantic.’ He asked permission to leave it out. This was granted.

“Again, on March 2, 1906, Anthon H. Lund encouraged Roberts to write to the First Presidency concerning a credulous article that had been published in the Times and Seasons on the ‘Signs of the Son of Man.’ Roberts and others on the committee had reason to doubt that Joseph Smith was responsible for this essay. President Joseph F. Smith approved its omission.

“Fourth, of the 187 changes which, according to critics, are ‘significant,’ careful study shows many to be inconsequential (for example, ‘spiritual and temporal welfare’ is changed to ‘temporal and spiritual welfare’; there is no mention of an ordinance establishing a ferry at Nauvoo and of Joseph's speech for the repeal of Nauvoo's hog law). Twenty of the ‘changes’ critics list are ‘mechanical errors.’ For example, Roberts has been accused of leaving his readers in ignorance of a given event or a letter or a speech. Actually Roberts inserted footnotes and summaries for the essential parts of the deleted documents. In one case what is called a ‘missing revelation’ is simply relocated on another page, and that change is indicated by Roberts in a footnote.

“Forty changes remain upon which to base the case for tampering in a misleading way. There are three kinds of changes: first, omissions of some early tempestuous acts of Church enemies [the omission, for example, of a line in a story where one J. B. Nicholls kicked a Presbyterian minister ‘on his seat of honor’); second, deletion of whole documents (for example, Joseph Smith's vehement response to a letter from presidential aspirant, Henry Clay); third, vernacular changes (for example, Hyrum Smith's reference to Judge Birch as a ‘cannibal’ is changed to ‘ruffian’; ‘old lady,’ apparently spoken respectfully in the nineteenth century, is changed to ‘my mother,’ in concession to the connotations of the twentieth; and the easily misunderstood phrase ‘our ladies’ is changed to ‘our wives’). Overall, there are also additions of material, biographical notes, and a deletion of large segments of material which earlier had only British and European interest in the Millennial Star series.

“Enough has been said to suggest this approach to Roberts's editing: Where changes have been made (and that is easily discoverable by comparing Millennial Star ‘History of Joseph’ with Roberts's edited History of the Church) one may assume that changes were made under constraint of such considerations as above, and not, as some allege, by comparing a published history with a ‘hidden history.’ One must go to more trouble to check the original Times and Seasons documents with the earlier construction of the history itself. It would be nearly half a century before LDS historians would achieve that objective. It would be characteristic of Roberts to see it done, be the first to say, ‘Let the chips fall where they may,’ and the last to argue for ‘Mutilating history.’ He made a beginning and only a beginning. But he was as thorough as, and perhaps more conscientious than, many of his critics.

“Roberts himself would have expected and acknowledged the relevance of criticism on the other side: Could he not have done a still better job by invoking the services of other historians in sifting through the superb archives of the Church Historian's Office and ‘padding out’ the history with more extensive annotations and corrections? The restraints of time, his otherwise feverish assignments and activities, and publication costs were all restraining factors.” (Truman G. Madsen, Defender of the Faith, 290-93)

            For Christmas 2008, Deseret Book issued History of the Church in an expensive full leather edition, adding an eighth volume as an index. Also, as the Joseph Smith Paper Project moves forward, all documents related to Joseph Smith as found in the History of the Church will be examined and published in their original form. Information from this source will likely supersede that from others.

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