I Have a Question


Questions of general gospel interest answered for guidance, not as official statements of Church policy

I have heard that Joseph Smith didn’t actually write his history—that it was prepared by clerks under his direction. If so, how reliable is it?

Dean C. Jessee, senior historical associate at the Smith Institute for Church History, Brigham Young University. All historical records reflect the personality of those who write them, as well as the circumstances under which the records were written and the methods and rules that governed such writing at the time.

The History of the Church, which bears Joseph Smith’s name, was begun under his dictation and direction and completed after his death according to his instructions. The original sources used to compile the History were the Prophet’s own diaries, correspondence, and other documents. Those who may feel that the work is not a fundamental historical source because the Prophet did not personally write much of it are in error. The History, with its priceless collection of primary documents, remains the most important source of historical information on the life of Joseph Smith and early Latter-day Saint history.

The work presents the teachings and activities of the Prophet with a remarkable degree of accuracy. A look at how it was produced, and at the concepts that governed historical writing at that time, helps tell us the nature of the history.

Among the difficulties encountered by Joseph Smith was his own lack of formal literary education. He wrote that it took the exertions of all his father’s family to sustain themselves, “therefore we were deprived of the benefit of an education. … I was merely instructed in reading, writing and the ground rules of arithmetic, which constituted my whole literary acquirements.” 1 Throughout his life the Prophet seemed to be concerned with his lack of literary training. In his extant correspondence he refers to his “lack of fluency in address,” his limited “ability in conveying my ideas in writing,” and “the imperfections of my writing.” 2

The Prophet thus relied on others to write for him. More than two dozen clerks are known to have assisted him in a secretarial capacity. Of these, nine left the Church (typical of the challenges of those years), and four others died while engaged in important writing assignments.

A major inhibition of efforts to keep a record was the persecution the Prophet and the Church experienced. During the years in which the history was being written, the Latter-day Saints moved or were driven across two-thirds of the North American continent. Such unstable conditions resulted in the loss of some records and affected the accuracy of many of those that were preserved. In addition, the Prophet endured lawsuits and repeated arrests that took his attention from the history.

When Willard Richards took over the duties of Church historian in December 1842, a mere 157 pages of a work that eventually numbered 2,000 pages had been written.

On 1 March 1842, publication of the history in serial form commenced in the Nauvoo newspaper Times and Seasons. By 27 June 1844, the date of Joseph Smith’s death, the manuscript had been completed only to 5 August 1838 and published to December 1831. However, important source material had been preserved for completing the history. Shortly before his death, the Prophet wrote: “For the last three years I have a record of all my acts and proceedings, for I have kept several good, faithful, and efficient clerks in constant employ: they have accompanied me everywhere, and carefully kept my history, and they have written down what I have done, where I have been, and what I have said.” 3 Some have indicated that, prior to his death, the Prophet reviewed most of what his clerks had written.

While in Carthage Jail shortly before his death, Joseph Smith instructed the Church historian, Willard Richards, who was there with him, to continue the history. 4 This Elder Richards did, and for the next decade he was the custodian of the records and the architect of the history. After Joseph Smith’s death, work on the history continued, even as the Saints prepared to leave Nauvoo for the Rocky Mountains. With the addition of 674 pages to the manuscript, nearly as much work was done on the history in the period between the Prophet’s death and the departure of the Saints from Nauvoo as had been done in the preceding years.

At the time the records of the Church were packed at Nauvoo for the journey west in February 1846, Willard Richards had compiled the history to 1 March 1843. But in the disruptive years that followed, he was never able to complete that work. After Brother Richards’s death in 1854, George A. Smith and Wilford Woodruff continued work on the history. To assure accuracy, every effort was made to collect information. Late in 1845, for instance, an epistle to the Saints urged all who knew of “any fact, circumstance, incident, event, or transaction” that should be in the history to please report it. 5

Finally, in August 1856, eighteen years after the history was begun, the work was completed to the death of Joseph Smith. The entire manuscript had been read in the hearing of the First Presidency and other witnesses for a general appraisal.

Since none of the manuscript of the history is in Joseph Smith’s handwriting, and apparently not much of the text was actually dictated by him, why did those employed on the work write in first person, as though the Prophet himself were writing? That common nineteenth-century format was chosen by Joseph Smith, who directed his clerks to write a first person, daily narrative based upon diaries kept by himself and his clerks. In addition, since Joseph Smith’s diary did not provide an unbroken narrative of his life, the compilers of the history were to bridge gaps by using other sources (diaries, Church periodicals, minute and record books of Church and civic organizations, letters and documents kept on file, and news of current world happenings), changing indirect discourse to direct as if Joseph Smith had done the writing himself. Not uncommon according to the editorial practices of the day, this method of supplying missing detail had the effect of providing a smooth-flowing, connected narrative of events.

Many examples from other works of the period show that this was the historical standard of the time. Nineteenth-century American methods of historical writing and editing were very different from those of today. In 1837, for example, Jared Sparks—regarded as “the first great compiler of national records”—edited in twelve volumes the Writings of George Washington. When his work was later compared with original manuscripts, it was found that he had rewritten portions of letters, deleted or altered offensive passages, and changed irregularities in style and awkward modes of expression.

In his review of historical editing in the United States, Lyman E. Butterfield has noted that changing text and creating text faithful to the ideas of the writer were not uncommon in early years, and that seldom were original texts left to speak for themselves. 6 The History of the Church was written in the general literary and historical climate of its time.

New Testament writers apparently used a similar method in writing the Gospels. One Bible commentary records that Matthew and Luke borrowed from Mark (Interpreter’s Bible, 7:235–36) and omitted or altered what seemed to be critical of the Apostles. For example, Mark records that James and John came to the Savior and asked that he give them whatsoever they desired; whereupon, the Savior heard their plea that each might sit by his side when he came in glory. (Mark 10:35–37.) When Matthew recorded the event, he said that it was the mother of James and John who desired this privilege for her sons (Matt. 20:20–21.) This difference in recording the circumstances, presumably to place the Apostles in a better light, does not destroy the credibility of the Savior’s mission, nor may we believe that there was dishonesty in making the change.

One of the challenges facing those who compiled the history was that of presenting the Prophet’s sermons and teachings. Since none of Joseph’s clerks had mastered shorthand during his lifetime, reports of what he said were made longhand. Many of these were smooth-flowing, well-connected summaries and were copied into the history almost as recorded. In some instances, however, it was necessary to reconstruct an address from brief notes and disconnected ideas. George A. Smith’s editorial work was careful, and when he was finished, each discourse was read to members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve, some of whom had also heard the original address. Their input proved invaluable. These measures no doubt guaranteed the doctrinal accuracy of such reporting of Joseph Smith’s discourses, but the result obviously would not reflect his personality and speaking style as accurately as a verbatim report would have done.

An analysis of the History reveals those portions obtained from material written personally by Joseph Smith. These clearly reflect his loving and warm spirit. For example, the following is an entry from the History stemming from a portion of Joseph Smith’s 1835 diary written by himself:

“September 23. I was at home writing blessings for my most beloved brethren, but was hindered by a multitude of visitors. The Lord has blessed our souls this day, and may God grant to continue His mercies unto my house this night, for Christ’s sake. This day my soul has desired the salvation of Brother Ezra Thayer. Also Brother Noah Packard came to my house and loaned the committee one thousand dollars to assist building the house of the Lord. Oh! may God bless him a hundred fold, even of the things of the earth, for this righteous act. My heart is full of desire today, to be blessed of the God of Abraham with prosperity, until I shall be able to pay all my debts, for it is the delight of my soul to be honest. O Lord, that thou knowest right well. Help me, and I will give to the poor.” 7

The History will continue to be the most important source of information on the life of the Prophet and early Latter-day Saint history. Since the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve—some of whom were participants in the historical events—reviewed the history, it is reliable. It should be known that the revelations of the Prophet Joseph Smith recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants are also recorded in the History of the Church and most assuredly are true and reliable.

    Notes

  1.   1.

    Joseph Smith (“Autobiography,” 1832), Kirtland Letter Book, p. 1, manuscript.

  2.   2.

    Letters to Moses Nickerson, 19 November 1833; to Emma Smith, 6 June 1832, original in the Chicago Historical Society, Chicago, Ill.; and to Emma Smith, 21 March 1839.

  3.   3.

    Joseph Smith address, 26 May 1844, reported by Thomas Bullock; published in Joseph Smith, History of the Church, 6:409.

  4.   4.

    George A. Smith to Wilford Woodruff, 21 April 1856.

  5.   5.

    Manuscript History of the Church, 16 November 1845.

  6.   6.

    L. H. Butterfield and Julian Boyd, Historical Editing in the United States (Worcester, Mass.: American Antiquarian Society, 1963), pp. 19, 24–25.

  7.   7.

    History of the Church, 2:281.

How can I explain the Church’s attitude regarding the Bible? A friend of mine objects to the fact that we have additional scriptures and that we believe in the Bible only “as far as it is translated correctly.”

Robert J. Matthews, dean of Religious Education, Brigham Young University. We esteem four books as scripture: the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. These “standard works,” the written canons of our faith, are complementary rather than competitive; each supports and corroborates the others.

Because the Church has four books of divine scripture, some observers have misunderstood our attitude toward the Bible. Saul (later known as Paul) probably had similar feelings when he heard the early New Testament Saints tell of their faith in Jesus Christ; the new revelations and experiences seemed to be a threat to and a replacement of the Old Testament. But Paul’s resentment gave way to understanding; he not only became converted to the “new” doctrine and history, but even wrote a large portion of what is now called the New Testament. Paul learned that it is not necessary to reject the Old Testament in order to accept and believe the New Testament.

Similarly, acceptance of the Book of Mormon and other Latter-day Saint scripture does not mean rejection of the Bible. As one becomes familiar with all of the revelations God has given, he understands and reveres each volume all the more.

For people living in the first centuries of the Christian era, the Old and New Testaments were two separate collections of sacred writings. Only with the passage of time have modern Christian people come to think of the Bible as one book. With that change in attitude, the connotation of the word Bible has unfortunately changed from plural (“the books”) to singular (“the Book”). The singular meaning of Bible is too restrictive and is historically inaccurate; the original meaning—which does not exclude the possibility of additional books being added to the canon—is more correct.

Latter-day Scriptures Testify the Bible Is True

The Book of Mormon is a second witness of the Bible. Book of Mormon prophets possessed the Old Testament, from Genesis to Jeremiah, and frequently quoted from it, affirmatively and repeatedly referring to many specific events and personalities in various parts of those scriptures.

The Book of Mormon also witnesses to the truthfulness of the New Testament. Book of Mormon prophets saw in vision the life, ministry, and atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. They tell of a series of glorious visits by Jesus himself to the American continent after his resurrection and ascension. They also teach of faith, prayer, fasting, repentance, baptism, revelation, visions, and other biblical themes.

In these and other ways the Book of Mormon not only supports the biblical record, but actually confirms its ancient existence and historical authenticity. Even more important, the Book of Mormon joins with the Bible to serve as an ancient witness for God and Jesus Christ. Its subtitle—“Another Testament of Jesus Christ”—clearly states its purpose.

The Book of Mormon preserves an ancient prophecy by Joseph in Egypt in which the Bible and the Book of Mormon “shall grow together, unto the confounding of false doctrines and laying down of contentions, and establishing peace.” The mission of the Prophet Joseph Smith, described in this same prophecy, was not only to bring forth more of the words of the Lord unto the children of men, but also “to the convincing them of my word, which shall have already gone forth among them.” (2 Ne. 3:11–12.)

Promise of a Restoration of Lost Material

Scholars and some clergy have long recognized that there are errors, variations, omissions, and minor contradictions in the Bible. As is evident in its many versions and translations, the Bible lacks certain clarity and completeness which it once enjoyed. This is the condition referred to in our eighth article of faith: “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly.”

Referring to the “lost books”—scriptural books mentioned in the Bible that are now missing—the Prophet Joseph Smith said, “It seems the Apostolic Church had some of these writings, as Jude mentions or quotes the Prophecy of Enoch, the seventh from Adam.” (History of the Church, 1:132.) On other occasions, the Prophet noted: “From sundry revelations which had been received, it was apparent that many important points touching the salvation of men, had been taken from the Bible, or lost before it was compiled. … I believe the Bible as it read when it came from the pen of the original writers. Ignorant translators, careless transcribers, or designing and corrupt priests have committed many errors.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1938, pp. 9–10, 327.)

The Book of Mormon tells of the original plainness and accuracy of the Bible and of the loss of certain precious parts. But it also prophesies a restoration of these parts in the latter days. In vision, Nephi saw the Bible going forth among the nations of the earth in its imperfect form—and the subsequent latter-day restoration of scripture:

“And after it [the Bible] had come forth unto them I beheld other books, which came forth by the power of the Lamb, from the Gentiles unto them, unto the convincing of the Gentiles and the remnant of the seed of my brethren, and also the Jews who were scattered upon all the face of the earth, that the records of the prophets [the Old Testament] and of the twelve apostles of the Lamb [the New Testament] are true.

“And the angel spake unto me, saying: These last records, … shall establish the truth of the first, which are of the twelve apostles of the Lamb, and shall make known the plain and precious things which have been taken away from them. …

“And the words of the Lamb shall be made known in the records of thy seed [the Book of Mormon], as well as in the records of the twelve apostles of the Lamb [the New Testament]; wherefore they both shall be established in one; for there is one God and one Shepherd over all the earth.” (1 Ne. 13:39–41.) The restoration of the lost material has come through the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, Pearl of Great Price, and the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, which are among the “other books” spoken of by Nephi.

The textual variants have not negated the original truth of the Bible, nor removed the essential message of God’s dealings with mankind and the redemptive mission of Jesus Christ. From latter-day scripture we learn that the most serious changes in the Bible do not consist so much of erroneous statements as the loss of extensive portions of the text.

Church Leaders Testify the Bible Is True

All of the Presidents and leaders of the Church have strongly advocated our use of the Bible. Joseph Smith was a Bible student all his life; it was from reading and feeling the power of James 1:5 at the young age of fourteen that he was led to pray vocally and subsequently to receive his first vision from the Lord. He later spoke of the truth of the “sacred volume”—the Bible—in these words:

“He that can mark the power of Omnipotence, inscribed upon the heavens, can also see God’s own handwriting in the sacred volume: and he who reads it oftenest will like it best, and he who is acquainted with it, will know the hand [of the Lord] wherever he can see it.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 56; italics added.)

President Brigham Young often spoke of his confidence in the Bible. “We have a holy reverence for and a belief in the Bible,” he said. “The doctrines contained in the Bible will lift to a superior condition all who observe them; they will impart to them knowledge, wisdom, charity, fill them with compassion and cause them to feel after the wants of those who are in distress, or in painful or degraded circumstances. They who observe the precepts contained in the Scriptures will be just and true and virtuous and peaceable at home and abroad. Follow out the doctrines of the Bible, and men will make splendid husbands, women excellent wives, and children will be obedient; they will make families happy and the nations wealthy and happy and lifted up above the things of this life.” (Discourses of Brigham Young, sel. John A. Widtsoe, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1954, pp. 124–25.)

In recent years, the First Presidency has issued statements in support of National Bible Week, encouraging members of the Church everywhere to read the Bible and to teach it to their children.

Use of the Bible in Church Instructional Classes

The Lord specified to the Prophet Joseph Smith in 1831 that the elders and teachers of the Church “shall teach the principles of my gospel, which are in the Bible and the Book of Mormon, in the which is the fulness of the gospel.” (D&C 42:12.) This command has been in force in the Church continually since that time and is conspicuous in the procedures of the Church in missionary work, in Sunday worship, and in the curriculum of Church schools.

Every LDS missionary studies and teaches from the Bible regularly. The missionary lessons make repeated use of the Bible in teaching the doctrines of Jesus Christ.

Instructions sent from Church headquarters have asked every local bishop to place a copy of the Bible and the other standard works on the pulpits and in the libraries of every meetinghouse throughout the Church so they may be available for frequent use. (See Bulletin, Feb. 1982, no. 20.)

All Church members are encouraged to study the scriptures individually and as families. Every fourth year the course of study for priesthood quorums and Sunday School and Relief Society classes is the Old Testament. The following year’s course of study is the New Testament. Similarly, high-school-age seminary students study the Old and the New Testaments every four years. On the college and university level, Bible courses are offered every semester.

During the years when the Bible is not the principle book studied in Church curriculum programs, the curriculum follows the other standard works. These other scriptures are so intertwined with biblical history and doctrine, however, that the Bible is in constant use throughout the Church.

LDS Edition of the Bible

Until 1979, the Church had purchased the Bible from various publishers, chiefly, but not exclusively, Cambridge University in England. However, in 1979, the Church officially published for the first time its own edition of the King James Version—with chapter headings, footnotes, a reference system, a dictionary, and a topical guide. The production and use of this edition is a major evidence of the Church’s high regard for the Bible.

The Topical Guide, a major feature of the LDS edition of the Bible, deserves special notice. It is perhaps the greatest literary evidence of the harmony of the scriptures. Although each book of scripture is a separate record originating in different parts of the world, among different peoples, under differing circumstances, and at different times, all four books were inspired by the same God for the same purposes—and they are witnesses for each other. In the Topical Guide, some 3,495 gospel topics are listed alphabetically, followed by the numerous passages that have a bearing on the subject. These passages are listed in each instance first from the Old Testament, then the New Testament, then the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price. The reader soon becomes aware of the unity and harmony of the four standard works as they support and complement one another.

On 15 October 1982 the Layman’s National Bible Committee presented an award to the Church at ceremonies held in Salt Lake City. The citation reads:

“Presented to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In appreciation of outstanding service to the Bible cause through the publication of its own new edition of the King James Version which features interpretive chapter headings, a simplified footnote system and the linking of references to all other LDS scriptures—thereby greatly enhancing the study of the Bible by its membership.”

President Gordon B. Hinckley, upon accepting the award on behalf of the Church, explained that the Bible project was developed to “help the people become better Bible scholars.” He said that the Latter-day Saints read, believe, and love the Bible, and that they are trying to live in accordance with its teachings and to “have a personal witness that Jesus is the Christ.” (Church News, 23 Oct. 1982, p. 3.)

There can be no question as to the attitude of the Church toward the Bible: (1) It is one of the four standard works that serve as guides for faith and doctrine. (2) It is a true and authentic ancient record, but (3) is not the only record God has caused to be written. (4) Many important concepts once in the Bible but now missing have been restored through the Book of Mormon and other latter-day revelations. (5) These additional scriptures prove that the Bible is true; thus, the Bible’s position is stronger than if it had to stand alone. (6) The use of the Bible has been constant in the Church from the beginning in 1830 and is on the increase, along with the study of all the sacred scriptures.