BH Roberts’s Documentary History of the Church, 1903-2011: R.I.P.

By August 29, 2011

There was once time when historians of LDS history were forced to rely on BH Roberts’s Documentary History of the Church—commonly known today as History of the Church (hereafter referred to as HC). Put crudely, the HC is a heavily-edited and problematic documentary history of a heavily-edited and problematic documentary history. This 7-volume series—the first volume printed in 1903—has been very significant. They are probably amongst the most read and referenced history texts read by Latter-day Saints, they are largely influential in Church curriculum (just note their presence in D&C section headers), and they have even been foundational for many scholarly monographs. This was especially the case before the Church opened up it’s numerous archival sources, as even Fawn Brodie based much of her Joseph Smith narrative on these books.

The problems with this series have been well documented, so much so that I won’t go into them here. Needless to say, even the Church has noted these problems and has been forthright with them lately, as seen in the appendix of the Teachings of the Prophets: Joseph Smith manual. The availability of a transcript version of the “Manuscript History of the Church,” several Church Minute Books, and numerous other crucial LDS documents have made the HC even less necessary. Yet, amazingly, references to the HC still appear. Works relying on the HC within the last decade range from Terryl Givens’s otherwise fantastic By the Hand of Mormon to George Smith’s polarizing Nauvoo Polygamy. The obvious excuse for this malpractice is the sheer practicality of reading and quoting from an eminently-available source; not everyone has access to LDS archival material.

Yet, starting today, that excuse is no longer valid. This morning, the great people at the Joseph Smith Papers Project have put up high-resolution scans of “Manuscript History of the Church“—although for now it is only the first book, which covers up to 1834. (I’m sure the rest of the MHC will be available sometime later.) Though the Manuscript History still has numerous problems (see an example here), it is at least one step closer to Joseph Smith’s actual life, and lacks many of the problems that pervade BH Robert’s HC. And now that it is readily available, there is no longer any excuse for any scholar to use the HC.

To celebrate, I propose a contract all Mormon scholars must enter into:

I [insert your name here] promise to never rely, quote, or reference BH Roberts’s History of the Church, except for studying BH Roberts specifically or Mormon historical writing in general. I acknowledge the numerous problems with those volumes, the availability of more reliable sources, and confess that any use of the HC from this point on is a result of my own scholarly laziness. I understand that any reliance on the HC after this point will result in numerous scoffing, critiques, and, in general, academic weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth.

Now go forth, and perform respectable history!


It should also be noted that the MHC is not the only fantastic document the JSP put online today. They also put the 1835 Quorum of the Twelve Minutes, as well as the Book of Commandments and Revelations (also known as Revelation Book 1). Go check it out now!

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Awesome. Selected Collections has had the complete “Manuscript History,” including a fun volume with a table that lists dates and check marks where certain sources are from. Still this is huge and to have a typescript! that is searchable! Pretty Awesome. I’m consuming the Q12 minutes right now.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 29, 2011 @ 5:50 pm

  2. ..and wow, are they spectacular.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 29, 2011 @ 5:57 pm

  3. Glad I finished reading the B.H. Roberts volumes for the first time through this past year. Now that I’ve tackled the artifact I can move on…

    Comment by David T — August 29, 2011 @ 6:16 pm

  4. Timely!

    Can we add in a rider like this: I promise not play the Lectures on Faith as Joseph Smith’s sermons? Please?

    Comment by WVS — August 29, 2011 @ 6:19 pm

  5. Rest in peace white washed history of a white washed history.

    Comment by Catherine — August 29, 2011 @ 6:48 pm

  6. excellent!!! And I like the little contract at the end. 🙂

    Comment by BHodges — August 29, 2011 @ 7:29 pm

  7. #4 WVS:

    I’ll give a Hallelujah to that. I think we’d hear a lot less LoF quotes if they had to start with, “As Sidney Rigdon once expounded…”

    Comment by David T — August 29, 2011 @ 7:45 pm

  8. Catherine, I’ve been a pretty vocal critic of people using the HC. But I wouldn’t say it is white-washed, nor the “Manuscript History.” I’ve been incredibly impressed with WVS’s treatment of both and look forward to his work getting wider traction.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 29, 2011 @ 7:52 pm

  9. Does the Church have the original works of B.H. Roberts, or his working papers?

    Comment by Bob — August 29, 2011 @ 8:52 pm

  10. I [can never remember my name] hereby covenant and promise that I will restrict my history research to (auto)holographs and audio recordings, with rare exceptions granted for my own flights of fancy and the occasional science fiction short story.

    (I think this is a fun, useful post, and I’m delighted to have these materials available, but I think it’s easy to be too hard on these people who were trying desperately to make sense of communal and personal history and the meaning of encounters with the Divine. Sometimes it feels like we’re trying to be Mini-Me’s of Woodward and Bernstein.)

    Comment by smb — August 29, 2011 @ 9:05 pm

  11. See the fifth paragraph of this post.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — August 29, 2011 @ 9:43 pm

  12. #10. Like.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 29, 2011 @ 10:03 pm

  13. Any word on when this will be available in print (JSPP)? Ben and J, I would love to hear some of the “spectacular” insights you uncover.

    Thanks Ben! I often wonder if you guys have a pre-composed blog for every topic/release/mystery/etc and are waiting by your computer to press send at the opportune moment.

    Comment by n8c — August 29, 2011 @ 10:19 pm

  14. Sam: fully agreed that the compilers of the MHC as well as BH Roberts did their best, and that they followed the standard practices of their day. As I’m sure you’ll agree, the best way to honor them, though, is to do our best to provide our own “true and faithful history” (to use GA Smith and W Woodruff’s words) and follow the standard practices of our day.

    Comment by Ben Park — August 29, 2011 @ 10:26 pm

  15. n8c: I think volumes 1 and 2 of the Histories Series will appear next year, hopefully in April and October. (Journals Volume 2 will arrive in a couple months.)

    Comment by Ben Park — August 29, 2011 @ 10:27 pm

  16. Ben, I agree that we should be busy writing history to our standards. It would be nice to do it without denigrating those who came before. HYPOCRISY ALERT: I’m saying this as a reminder to myself as well, as I am often inclined to denigrate those who came before.

    Comment by smb — August 30, 2011 @ 7:13 am

  17. First, amen to Sam’s #10.

    Second, Ben, it is worth noting that The History of the Church was widely read and available as early as the 1850s in the Millennial Star and the Deseret News. This strongly determined the shape of the Doctrine and Covenants when it was overhauled in 1876, for instance.

    Comment by Joe Spencer — August 30, 2011 @ 8:57 am

  18. This is great. Thanks for the announcement, Ben.

    While I agree that we shouldn’t denigrate the work of those who came before, I generally have little patience for scholars who should know better quoting the HC in books and articles published in the last 5 years. That’s just being lazy, and they deserve to be called out on it.

    Comment by Christopher — August 30, 2011 @ 9:30 am

  19. I am not saying that this approach to research is bad to rely far less on the B.H. Roberts HJS editions. Knowing the problematic status of the work has made me hope for a new History of Joseph Smith publication that is more true to the documents. However, its currently unreasonable to not include them in research material that will be read by the general audience. Sadly I feel, and it won’t be the LDS Church’s fault because this work is simply expensive to produce at the start, the “scholarly” works and the “public” works will continue to be split into new and old research material. The “scholars” will continue to be annoyed and the “public” confused until are far cheaper product based on modern standards of documentation is made more widely available.

    In other words, good luck getting more than a small minority of people to “sign” the contract.

    Comment by Jettboy — August 30, 2011 @ 9:34 am

  20. Jettboy: I think the fact that the JSP documents will all be available online makes it “more widely available” than the JSP. You can’t get more expensive than that.

    I’ll make this clear: I’m not denigrating BH Roberts or any of the other early historians. I love and appreciate them. I will denigrate, however, historians who still rely on their work.

    Comment by Ben Park — August 30, 2011 @ 9:55 am

  21. Now I’m trying to remember if I cited in my book. I don’t think so, but one never knows…

    Comment by SC Taysom — August 30, 2011 @ 12:14 pm

  22. As I remember, you cited the “Manuscript History” in a couple of places.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 30, 2011 @ 12:26 pm

  23. Ya, I remember using the manuscript history

    Comment by SC Taysom — August 30, 2011 @ 1:25 pm

  24. the compilers of the MHC as well as BH Roberts did their best, and that they followed the standard practices of their day. As I?m sure you?ll agree, the best way to honor them, though, is to do our best to provide our own ?true and faithful history? (to use GA Smith and W Woodruff?s words) and follow the standard practices of our day.

    Agreed. Nice write up, Ben. This is an important moment of transition.

    Comment by Ryan T. — August 30, 2011 @ 1:41 pm

  25. I won’t sleep well tonight. I feel thoroughly second rate, b/c I’ve cited Brigham Young’s 1843 affidavit about the Missouri depredations from HC, 3:434. I suppose I’d better look it up in the Manuscript History. I haven’t been able to find the original. If any of you have the original affidavit, please send it along.

    In seriousness, it is absolutely invaluable to have both MH and HC to point us to the original documents. It is only now becoming relatively easy to track down the originals. In several instances, this was still very difficult.

    I just searched through my manuscript and found that I used HC on about 7 occasions, mainly for letters whose originals I couldn’t locate. I might change them to MH, but neither represents an original source. Previously, I felt that if the letter was the same in MH and HC, HC was in some ways preferable because it was readily accessible to readers and other scholars.

    I’m quite grateful for the post, b/c it will force me to go back and recheck these seven citations and make sure I can’t find the original.

    Comment by John T. — August 30, 2011 @ 10:16 pm

  26. Still time to repent, John! 🙂

    Comment by Ben Park — August 30, 2011 @ 10:37 pm

  27. I’m at least on the anxious seat.

    Comment by John T. — August 30, 2011 @ 10:49 pm

  28. John, was that the correct page reference?

    Comment by WVS — August 31, 2011 @ 12:54 am

  29. Yes, I just double-checked it. Fortunately, Stapley found me a better citation to Times & Seasons.

    Comment by John T. — August 31, 2011 @ 9:36 am

  30. John T.:

    The source of that entire appendix comes from the Docket Book of the Municipal Court of Nauvoo (also called the “Historical Record Book”) held at the CHL (MS 3434). Brigham Young’s testimony begins on 116

    Comment by Robin Jensen — August 31, 2011 @ 12:18 pm

  31. For some information about what the JSP intends to publish on the website and in print, see the FAQ page on the JSP website. As suggested in a couple of places in the FAQ page, the JSP has no present plan to publish the manuscript history in print, but we do intend to publish the entirety on the website. I don’t have specific dates on that, as we have a number of web publishing priorities that we are balancing at the moment.

    Comment by Eric Smith — August 31, 2011 @ 12:23 pm

  32. Robin, FTW.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 31, 2011 @ 12:51 pm

  33. So the trade off here is that we discard lazy research using non-primary source items, and now browse the CHL online content at home in our PJ’s? Sounds like a good trade for me. Intellectual laziness for true, glorious, physical laziness.

    Comment by kevinf — August 31, 2011 @ 1:08 pm

  34. So where does Dan Vogel’s History of the Church project fit into all this?

    Comment by David T — August 31, 2011 @ 2:25 pm

  35. Thanks, Robin. Instead of bringing out the new catalog (which is very good), they perhaps could have just created a Robin Jensen hotline.

    Comment by John T. — August 31, 2011 @ 2:32 pm

  36. John T., that’s why they made the cut-out of the robin to fit over the city searchlight as it rakes the twilit sky, calling for help from the only one who can save us …

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 31, 2011 @ 2:48 pm

  37. David T: As I understand it, Vogel is reproducing the Times and Seasons’ (and later, Desnews and MStar) “History of the Joseph Smith,” and then identifying the sources behind it.

    Comment by David G. — August 31, 2011 @ 9:13 pm

  38. History of Joseph Smith and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: A Source and Text-Critical Edition. Dan Vogel, editor

    A decade in the making, this eight-volume series provides an unprecedented view of the creation of the official History of the Church begun in 1838 under Joseph Smith?s supervision. At Smith?s death in June 1844, the History had been written up to the events of August 1838, and the remainder had to be completed by church historians Willard Richards and George A. Smith under the review of Brigham Young. Published serially in Nauvoo in the Times and Seasons, 1842-46, and then in Utah in the Deseret News, 1851-57, the History was subsequently compiled into the current six volumes by B. H. Roberts, 1902-12, and for the most part silently and inconsistently edited. While Roberts did much to improve the text, researchers have long recognized the need for an edition that uses current historical and editing standards. The aim of this new edition is two-fold?to identify the sources upon which the History is based and to trace textual development from original sources to Manuscript History, to first publication, and to the Roberts edition. Introductory chapters and textual apparatus identify handwriting of scribes, chronology of composition, and publication schedule. Two additional volumes supply transcriptions of rough drafts, revisers? notes, memoranda, interviews, and sundry unpublished sources from which the History was compiled.

    Comment by Dan Vogel — September 1, 2011 @ 9:05 am

  39. J. Stapley: You might want to know that the volume to which you allude (MS History, vol. 4), is known as the Historical Notation Book or Record, 1841-57. It is bound with 175-page ?Addenda Book? for MS History Book C-1. The purpose of such notation was to quickly catalogue sources chronologically. Comparison of the sources listed for 1841-44 with MS History indicates that most were not used, suggesting that HNB may have continued the efforts of WR and WWP, who made a list of ?Material facts left out of the history? for the years 1831-41, located at the back of the KRB. The form for each page (i.e., column labels and dates) appears consistently in Robert L. Campbell?s handwriting from Aug. 1841 through Nov. 1845, Thomas C. Armstrong?s from Dec. 1845 through Dec. 1847, Thomas Bullock?s from Jan. 1847 (repeating 1847 with different sources) through Nov. 1853, and Joseph F. Smith from Dec. 1853 through Dec. 1857. An entry for 19 Sept. 1856 mentions RLC ?Copying Historical Notation,? and another on the following day that he ?Finished Historical Notation? (CHOj 19:114-15), and so forth.

    Comment by Dan Vogel — September 1, 2011 @ 9:22 am

  40. Bob: Yes. See Brigham Henry Roberts Collection, 1883-1933, CHL (MS 1278). Of this massive collection (27 microfilm reels), the following are of particular interest: (fds 690-92). BHR?s personal three-volume set of the ?History of Joseph Smith? as printed in the MSt from 1852 to 1863, containing some annotations evidently used in preparation for publication. (fd 353). Folder includes ?Items of Church History to be Referred to President Joseph F. Smith.? 2pp. Undated typescript with handwritten corrections, ca. 1906. Contains five items BHR wished to have corrected or omitted from DHC, vol. 5.

    Comment by Dan Vogel — September 1, 2011 @ 9:27 am

  41. Thanks, Dan. When is this project due to be published?

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 1, 2011 @ 9:51 am

  42. John T: Regarding BY?s 1 July 1843 affidavit. The affidavits of Hyrum Smith, Parley P. Pratt, Brigham Young, George W. Pitkin, Lyman Wight, and Sidney Rigdon that follow were moved by BHR to an Appendix in vol. 3 (cf. DHC 3:404-66). They would have appeared in DHC 5:473ff (chap. 24). To find them in MS History, go to Book D-1, 1602ff.

    RDft 7:52 instructs scribe to ?see Municipal Court doings page 6 to 38.? Drafts of these testimonies are located in NCRc, Box 5, fds 14-19, and were copied into NMCDB, 56-87a, 116-50, in 1854 (pos. JB). They were also published in T&S 4 (1 July 1843): 246-56; 4 (15 July 1843): 257-72; 4 (1 Aug. 1843): 273-78. Under 3 July 1843, JSj [1843], 294 (WR) (APR, 393) reads: ?Hyrum commenced filling out his testimony. Mr. [George] Walker wrote for [him]?; and on the following day: ?Hyrum continued his testimony all [during the] meeting.? On 5 July, WR recorded: ?Hyrum continued his affidavit till near sunset when Joseph came in . Levi [Richards] wrote Geo[rge] Pitkins? testimony.? By 8 July, all the affidavits were completed and sent to Governor Ford (see end of this chapter; cf. DHC 5:497).

    NCRc Nauvoo City Records Collection, 1841-45 (Bxs 1-5), CHL (MS 16800).

    NMCDB Nauvoo Municipal Court Docket Book. ?Docket of the Municipal Court of the City of Nauvoo,? 25 Oct. 1841-20 Jan. 1845, CHL (MS 3434).

    For BY?s affidavit: MS draft in NCR, Bx 5, fd 16. BY?s 4-page testimony is possibly in handwriting of George Walker, with signature apparently added by WWP. You won?t find any significant changes between T&S, MS History, and NMCDB. However, MS draft has interlinear inserts and cancellations.

    Comment by Dan Vogel — September 1, 2011 @ 10:07 am

  43. J. Stapley: I can?t say exactly when this work will be made available. The complete project will be turned in to Smith-Pettit before end of this year. Shortly after that the typesetter goes to work. Eight volumes will take some time, and I?m informed that the plan is to release them all at once.

    Comment by Dan Vogel — September 1, 2011 @ 10:15 am

  44. Dan,

    Thanks so much. Your detailed research is amazing.

    Perhaps you can help me on one other source. In MH / HC, there’s a brief discussion of a hymnal. An October 1839 church council decision authorized Emma Smith to publish a hymnal and added “that Brigham Young be informed of the same, and he not publish the hymns taken by him from Commerce.” Evidently, Joseph Smith wasn’t pleased when BY and the Twelve went ahead with their publishing plans in England without prior permission.

    It wasn’t a big conflict by any means, but I’ve wondered if minutes of that church council exist. If I recall, I’ve searched the General Church Minutes and T&S. Any thoughts?

    Comment by John T. — September 1, 2011 @ 10:21 am

  45. I can’t resist pointing out that HC is far from dead, at least among popular users. It is still clearly the most cited historical work in General Conference. [See my 3 1/2 year long compilation series, most recently at: ]

    I understand that the work is way out of date (and limited – it would be nice to have something that extended past 1846 or that is available in any language other than English), but, to be honest, I don’t see anything that has taken its place. Is there another documentary history of the Church?

    Comment by Kent Larsen — September 1, 2011 @ 10:53 am

  46. John T: I can see you didn?t quote from DHC 4:17, which replaces ?the same? with ?this action?. I presume you quoted from DN. This passage closely follows Nauvoo High Council Minutes, Book 1, 27-28 (handwriting: Henry G. Sherwood). Cf. Loose Minutes (fd 1).

    NHCM Nauvoo High Council Minutes, 1839-45 (fds 1-8), CHL (LR 3102 22). Restricted.

    However, Book 1 isn?t in this collection, although the original loose minutes are. Book 1. 20 Oct. 1839-20 Dec. 1840 (MS 3429). 66pp. (numbered pp. 22-88) Bound with Oliver Cowdery Sketch Book, 1836 (pp. 1-21). 88pp. Handwriting: 22-30 (HGS); 30-88 (Hosea Stout).

    Book 1 isn?t in Fred C. Collier, The Nauvoo High Council Minute Books of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Hanna, UT: Collier?s Publishing Co., 2005). The numbering of books is therefore off by one. However, it will be included in John S. Dinger, ed. The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, forthcoming). This is now being prepared for publication.

    Comment by Dan Vogel — September 1, 2011 @ 1:44 pm

  47. Regarding Smith-Pettit’s publication of Dan Vogel’s 8 volumes of the “History of the Church”: First on track for next year is Mike Marquardt’s follow-up to his compilation of early patriarchal blessings tentatively entitled “Later Patriarchal Blessings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Then comes John S. Dinger’s “Signficant Textual Changes in the Book of Mormon: The First Printed Edition Compared to the Manuscripts and the Subsequent Major LDS English Printed Editions.” Dan’s 8 volumes will follow these two publications. Given a variety of considerations, not the least of which is finances, it hasn’t yet been decided if the 8 volumes will be released at once or sequentially.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — September 1, 2011 @ 2:26 pm


Recent Comments

J Stuart on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Armand, your response made me unexpectedly emotional. Your work has shaped me as a scholar in many important ways, but your legendary willingness to engage…”

Ardis E. Parshall on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “I've enjoyed these three discussions -- crowned by this response by Armand Mauss himself. It is so representative of his ability and willingness to interact…”

Armand Mauss on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “I am pleasantly surprised and deeply grateful for the three assessments offered in this space this week by Gary Shepherd, Jana Riess, and Matt Bowman.…”

Roger T on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Since I work in Mormon studies, I tend to read a lot. It's impossible to keep up with everything being published, but over the past…”

Jeff T on Q&A with Taylor Petrey,: “Thanks, Taylor!”

Jeff T on The Mechanics of Applying: “Thanks, J!”