Honor the Pioneers by Telling Better Stories

Contributed By Keith A. Erekson, Church History Library Director

  • 26 July 2016

An important part of every Pioneer Day celebration involves rehearsing the stories of the pioneers. Stories about the past inspire us today, and they become more effective as they become more complete and accurate.

An important part of every Pioneer Day celebration involves rehearsing the stories of the pioneers. Stories about the past inspire us today, and they become more effective as they become more complete and accurate.

In the Church History Library, our historians, archivists, and librarians have recently worked to learn and tell a better story about a book that has been in our collection for nearly 70 years. I share this behind-the-scenes view of the process in the hopes that it may help improve your family stories.

This Pioneer Day, may we seek to gather all of the pieces of the past that survive and to record all of the family stories that can be told. May we ask good questions that help us read the sources, stories, and artifacts closely. May we have discernment to corroborate those facts which can be established and humility to hold on to the questions that remain unanswerable, at least for now.

1. Distinguish the past from stories and questions.

We must first distinguish the past from the stories told about it. The past is gone, and the pioneers who lived through it have passed away. Some pioneers told stories about what they experienced and why it was important to them. Their stories are collected, retold, and sometimes embellished by descendants for many reasons—to entertain, to instill gratitude, or to win an argument.

Today, we can tell better stories by asking good questions about the past and about the stories told by others. Our inquiry is shaped by the sources and stories available but also by our own assumptions, values, and needs. We will likely begin with more questions than answers, but that’s OK because each question gives us a place to start thinking.

In our case, the stories told about a book in our vault caused us to ask: Did Joseph Smith give a Book of Mormon to his cousin Jesse N. Smith? What happened to the book? Is the book in our vault the one that was given to Jesse?

A painting by William Whitaker depicts the Prophet Joseph Smith holding a copy of the Book of Mormon. Copyright Deseret News.

Jesse N. Smith, cousin of the Prophet Joseph Smith.

2. Read closely to corroborate details.

Good questions lead us to look for all of the pieces of the past and stories that we can find—stories written or remembered, books on library shelves, artifacts in attics, or heirlooms in trunks. Once found, read closely and ask additional questions: What kind of source is it? Who was the author or creator? When and where and for whom was the source created or the story told? What is the main idea and what evidence supports it? What remains missing or untold?

In the case of Jesse N. Smith, we found an autobiographical sketch in which he stated that Joseph Smith gave him a copy of the Book of Mormon in 1843. We also discovered that Jesse told the story at general conference in 1905, repeating the fact that a Book of Mormon had been given while emphasizing that it was not a first edition (published in 1830) and that it bore a beautiful binding.

3. Read closely to identify provenance and verify authenticity.

We must likewise closely read material artifacts. Was an artifact actually created in the past? Did the purported user actually use it? Where has the artifact been since its creator or user last possessed it?

In the case of the book in the library’s vault, we found that it contained a handwritten inscription on the inside front cover, a typed note pasted in, and some handwriting beneath the note. The inscription stated that the book was given to Jesse N. Smith in 1842. But as noted above, Jesse said he received the book in 1843. This error suggests that the inscription was not written at the time, a conclusion corroborated by the fact that the handwriting did not match known samples by Joseph or Jesse. The typed note stated that the book was donated to the Church in 1948 by the president of the Mesa Arizona Temple, so we could begin to establish the book’s provenance—the chain of custody from past to present. Other questions remained as yet unanswerable: When was the book donated to the temple? By whom and for what reason?

The handwriting beneath the note said the book had been repaired in 1944, but a closer look at the physical artifact revealed that the “repair” had been very invasive. The spine of the book had been removed entirely and replaced with a flexible substance called buckram. The first and last pages (including the title page) were missing, and those that remained had been roughly stitched together, leaving them uneven and too tight to open. The text matched the layout and typesetting of this edition printed in Liverpool, England, in 1849—six years later than Jesse reported receiving a book and five years after Joseph had died.

Thus, by comparing Jesse N. Smith’s stories with the artifact in our vault, we concluded that yes, Joseph Smith did give his cousin Jesse a Book of Mormon, but no, this particular artifact is not that book. Most likely, a descendant who recalled Jesse’s story found this 1849 edition, added an inscription, had it repaired, and then gave it to the temple. This means that the actual book given by Joseph to Jesse may yet be out there somewhere, in a library or attic or trunk. When the actual book is discovered, there will be an even better story to tell.