The Joseph Smith Papers: Histories, Vol. 1 (1832-1844)

by Karen Lynn Davidson, David J. Whittaker, Mark R. Ashurst-McGee, Richard L. Jensen

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In November of 1843, when Willard Richards and William W. Phelps were compiling the "History of Joseph Smith," they reported that noise from a nearby school "disturbed the history & prevent[e]d its progress." Joseph Smith immediately instructed that the class be relocated. "The History must continue, and not be disturbed," he declared; "there are but few subjects that I have felt a greater anxiety about than my History." On another occasion he told Phelps of a message that had come to him in a dream: "the history must go ahead before any thing."

Though lawsuits, financial problems, violent opposition, and other impediments often interfered with Joseph Smith's attempts to write and oversee the creating of church history, sustained interest and repeated efforts yielded significant results, including several important narrative histories. Presented in this first volume of the Histories series are the six histories that Joseph Smith personally wrote, dictated or supervised.

With the assistance of Frederick G. Williams, Joseph Smith first set about recording his own history in the summer of 1832. In it he recounted for the first time in writing his first vision of Deity and the discovery of the gold plates. Two years later a more ambitious project, the 1834-1836 history, was initiated. This history drew largely on existing records, including Oliver Cowdery's account of the translation of the Book of Mormon and the conferral of priesthood authority. Like the 1832 history, this manuscript remained unfinished.

In April 1838, Joseph Smith began work on a new "history of this Church from the earliest perio[d]," the work that would eventually become the multivolume History of the Church. This volume of The Joseph Smith Papers presents in parallel columns for convenient comparison the three earliest surviving manuscripts of that history: an 1839 draft covering the period from May 1829 to September 1830; a sixty-one-page excerpt (from the volume later known as A-1) drafted from 1839 to about 1841 that covers the time from Smith's birth through late 1830; and a close parallel to the A-1 excerpt, a circa 1841 adaptation by scribe Howard Coray. A portion of the A-1 account was later canonized as "Joseph Smith—History" in the volume of Latter-day Saint scripture known as the Pearl of Great Price, thereby becoming the most widely known church history for the period it covers.

The fourth narrative history in this volume, "Extract, from the Private Journal of Joseph Smith Jr.," is not in fact taken from any journal but was based largely on Smith's 1839 petition for legal redress. It is his personal, and sometimes highly emotional, response to the injustices and depredations he and his family suffered in Missouri. "Church History" (familiarly known as the "Wentworth letter") and its near-twin document "Latter Day Saints," both of which Joseph Smith signed as author, are important declarations to the non-Mormon world of the history and beliefs of the church. They include the statement of beliefs now knows as the Articles of Faith.

Four additional histories, assigned by Joseph Smith but not dictated or supervised by him, will form the content of Histories, Volume 2. The balance of the Histories series, published electronically at the Joseph Smith Papers website, will present the entirety of the massive multivolume history initiated in 1838.

List of Illustrations and Maps
Timeline of Joseph Smith's Life
Map: Joseph Smith's Residences
Series Introduction: Joseph Smith's Historical Enterprise
Chart: History Creation Dates, Narrative Spans, Scribes, and Precursor Documents
Chart: Relationships among Histories and Precursors
Volume 1 Introduction: The Histories of Joseph Smith, 1832-1844
Editorial Method

Joseph Smith Histories, 1832-1844
History, circa Summer 1832
History, 1834-1836
History Drafts, 1838-circa 1841
"Extract, from the Private Journal of Joseph Smith Jr.," July 1839
"Church History" 1 March 1842
"Latter Day Saints," 1 March 1842
Appendix: Orson Pratt, A[n] Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, 1840

Reference Material
Chronology for the Years 1805-1844
Map Index
Pedigree Chart
Biographical Directory
Essay on Sources
Works Cited
Corresponding Section Numbers in Editions of the Doctrine and Covenants

For more information on The Joseph Smith Papers project, visit

About the Authors

Karen Lynn Davidson

Karen Lynn Davidson earned a Ph.D. from the University of Southern California. At Brigham Young University she was a member of the English faculty and director of the Honors Program. She has served on the General Music Committee of the Church and plays violin with the Orchestra at Temple Square. She is the author of the popular classic Our Latter-day Hymns: The Stories and the Messages and coeditor of the Histories volumes of The Joseph Smith Papers series.

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David J. Whittaker

David J. Whittaker is currently University Archivist of the Mormon Experience at BYU. He received his BA from BYU, his MA from California State University at Northridge, and his PhD from BYU. He has published widely in Church periodicals and professional journals.

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Mark R. Ashurst-McGee

Mark Ashurst-McGee is a senior research and review editor for the Joseph Smith Papers and a specialist in document analysis and documentary editing methodology. He holds a PhD in history from Arizona State University and has trained at the Institute for the Editing of Historical Documents. He coedited volume one of the Journals series of The Joseph Smith Papers (published 2008) and volume one of the Histories series (2012). He is the author of peer-reviewed articles on Joseph Smith and early Mormon history.

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Richard L. Jensen

Richard L. Jensen is a historian for the Church History Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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