Historian Visited Church History Sites to Best Understand Events

Contributed By By R. Scott Lloyd, Church News staff writer

  • 19 June 2013

Photograph by J. H. Hicks shot in 1888 shows deteriorating Liberty Jail with Andrew Jensen on roof, Joseph S. Black, left, and Edward Stevenson.   Photo courtesy of Church History Library.

Article Highlights

  • BYU professor Alexander W. Baugh spoke on the travels of Andrew Jenson at the Mormon History Association Conference June 7.
  • In 1888 Jenson undertook a 5½-week fact-finding mission to important Church history sites in the United States.
  • Much of what he encountered helped him understand about Church history events.

“Jenson’s fact-finding activities demonstrate that much of history is not necessarily found in dusty archives. There’s much that can be discovered from the lives and places of common, everyday people.” —Alexander W. Baugh, BYU professor of Church history and doctrine


Andrew Jenson, it could fairly be said, is a historian’s historian.

He is a man with whom Alexander W. Baugh feels an affinity.

During the Mormon History Association Conference on June 7, Brother Baugh, a BYU professor of Church history and doctrine, and two other scholars spoke on the travels of Brother Jenson, who served as assistant Church historian from 1897 until his death in 1941. 

Brother Jenson’s works, such as Church Chronology and Encyclopedic History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, are to this day widely consulted by researchers.

But it was the period prior to Brother Jenson’s full-time appointment to the Church Historian’s Office that was the focus of Brother Baugh’s presentation at the conference. Brother Jenson undertook a 5½-week fact-finding mission to important Church history sites in the United States. It was the success of that trip that led to his appointment.

“Jenson’s historical mission demonstrates several principles historians can learn from,” Brother Baugh said, including the fact that there are aspects of history that can be more completely understood if the historian experiences the place, surroundings, and people where the event occurred.

Brother Jenson took copious notes and transcribed interviews from which he crafted a polished narrative and published it. “Far too many historians gather a wealth of historical information and fail to publish the research, and it goes to the grave with them,” Brother Baugh remarked.

“Jenson’s fact-finding activities demonstrate that much of history is not necessarily found in dusty archives,” he said. “There’s much that can be discovered from the lives and places of common, everyday people.”

Beginning September 6, 1888, Brother Jenson made the journey eastward at age 37 by rail with two men appointed to accompany him, Edward Stevenson, 68, and Joseph S. Black, 52.

“Jenson probably initiated the project for several reasons,” Brother Baugh said. “First, as an ad hoc employee in the Church Historian’s Office, he could benefit from seeing and visiting many of the sites associated with the early history of the Church in the Midwest and the East. Second, he hoped to question and interview individuals who had interacted or interfaced with the Mormons in their early years, including Latter-day Saints who had become affiliated with other restoration movements.”

He wrote down what he learned and experienced but took the extra step of mailing his narratives in letter format to editors of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, who promptly published them.

Much of what he encountered clarified or illuminated prior understanding about Church history events.

For example, the three men visited the deteriorating Liberty Jail in Missouri, where the Prophet Joseph Smith and several associates had been imprisoned from December 1, 1838, to April 6, 1839, awaiting trial. Content in sections 121–123 of the Doctrine and Covenants was written there.

The information recorded about the jail by Brother Jenson and his associates “provides historians with perhaps the most detailed facts and descriptions of the original jail known to exist,” Brother Baugh commented.

To reach the building from the street, they had to make a path through thick grass and weeds. No one had entered it for years, and the odor from decaying timber and dead insects sickened the visitors.

Brother Jenson analyzed the structure and took detailed measurements. They arranged for local photographer J. H. Hicks to take a picture, with Brother Jenson on the roof and his colleagues in the foreground. It appeared in numerous publications.

“It is interesting to note that twice in his narrative, Jenson mentions the Mormon prisoners were kept in the upper room on the main floor,” Brother Baugh said. “He never mentions them being placed in the lower compartment or dungeon.” [However, we do know that the prisoners did spend some time in the basement.]

Furthermore, the lower compartment was 6½ feet in height, ample room for an adult to stand up, contrary to prior reports.

Following their visit to the jail, the three men visited several Liberty residents, including James Ford, 72, who had been the deputy sheriff of Clay County in 1838–39. He had been placed in direct charge of the Mormon prisoners.

“He said he frequently took the prisoners for walks around town to give them fresh air and good meals,” Brother Baugh recounted. [This does not discount the fact that Hyrum Smith reported that they were poisoned on three or four occasions.] “During these times he had lengthy conversations with Joseph Smith, whom he said was good-natured and even jocular in his manner.”

Ford emphatically denied prior reports that the prisoners had been given human flesh to eat, asserting that such a thing was not even thought of, much less done.

Brother Baugh told of other points on the journey of Brother Jenson and his companions, including Richmond, Far West, Haun’s Mill, and Adam-ondi-Ahman in Missouri; Kirtland, Ohio; Palmyra, New York; and Nauvoo and Carthage in Illinois.

At Nauvoo, they visited Lewis Bidamon, who married Emma Smith after the death of Joseph Smith, and he treated them cordially, discussing his participation in the Battle of Nauvoo.

At Carthage, they called upon Thomas C. Sharp, who, as editor of the Warsaw Signal had been perhaps the most notorious anti-Mormon and agitator in the events leading up to the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith.

“Several years earlier, Sharp had moved from Warsaw to Carthage, where he was still active in the publishing business as editor of the Carthage Gazette.

“The meeting took place in the newspaper office, where Sharp and his son, William, were at work. Jenson noted Sharp was extremely overweight. And he said he was rather noncommunicative and very careful in his expressions ‘but answered a few questions we asked him in a straightforward manner.’ ”

They did not ask questions related to the martyrdom, although “the scenes of 1844 were uppermost in our thoughts during our whole entire interview with him.”

Jenson’s 1888 mission set the stage for future similar missions. These were discussed by two other speakers at the session, Reid L Neilson of the Church History Department regarding a mission to Russia and Japan, and Justin R. Bray of the Church History Department regarding a 1923 fact-finding mission to Central and South America.