Documenting history

By November 24, 2012

[Another installment in the roundtable on John Turner’s Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet.]

Archival and historical research is the bread and butter of historical writing. This is true of narrative history, intellectual history, and biography. It?s more complex than that, of course. Historians need to be familiar with a particular subject?s historiography, surrounding events, and the theoretical frameworks.  But history?especially biography?is ultimately about documenting the past, and most of that is through documents and other artifacts created by individuals in the past. A day spent in the archive brings historians that much closer to the elusive source that will provide the anecdote necessary to illustrate a point…and so much more. I?m certainly biased, but I love a history book that clearly shows the authors time spent in archives.

And one thing is clear from John Turner?s recent work on Brigham Young: he?s spent time in the archives. Just reading the book?s footnotes, it is clear Turner has looked through Hollinger box after Hollinger box of documents and likely more microfilm than he cares to remember. His citations include correspondence, diaries, church records, government records, and much, much more. The book is peppered with anecdotes, quotes, and stories that are only found in the archives and newspaper accounts. It?s the very kind of history I love reading and Turner should be commended.

Turner?s work prompted just a few thoughts about historians? use of sources and a few challenges to the writing of biography. There is no doubt that Turner?s work will be consulted by students and scholars of Brigham Young for years to come, but I would like to focus on what the biography can tell us as historians about sources and how they are to be used.

I feel that good history not only takes into account the content of the sources, but to try to understand their creation as well as their very existence. And not only to understand, but to let that source analysis inform their historical discussion. Turner provides an important example of this during his discussion of Young?s missionary tour in England. Turner quotes liberally from the correspondence of Young, his apostolic companions, his wife, and Joseph Smith himself, giving the readers a taste of Brigham?s thought. But Turner addresses the very existence of these letters as well. What can historians glean from the fact that Young had to open up the important network with his companions and with church headquarters? Turner explains that the letters symbolize Young?s ?difficult task of maintaining good relations both among the apostles and with Joseph Smith.? (76) Looking past the minutia of the contents of the letters, historians can learn something from Turner?s approach and try to understand the artifactual nature of the documents? existence.

This extends to many kinds of records. The first chapter discussing Young?s earliest life struck me with how rich the sources were from Young speaking autobiographical later in his life. If Turner?s sources are representative, Young reminisced a lot about his early youth during sermons to the saints in Utah. Looking at this large body of autobiographical information I wondered what it could tell us about Young and the church?s culture during the Utah period. What was it about reminiscing about an early life of searching for religion, being baptized, and interacting with Joseph Smith that Young felt was important enough to include in his sermons? What was the political, cultural, or ecclesiastical capital gained by Young in incorporating his early religious experiences in the sermons he gave in front of a sea of co-religionists? His authority was already established in the minds of these saints as their leader. I think questions raised by the analysis of sources like this would vastly improve not only biographical writing, but history in general.

The other question I asked while reading Turner?s book is what we do with the sources not created by Young. One anecdote found early in the book struck me. While traveling on a mission, Young records in his diary a time while traveling on a boat to pray for forgiveness and to request for better weather. After the weather calmed, Young recorded his praise to God in his journal: ?glory & ouner & prase be to that God that rules all things.? (67) Turner rightly points out that this particular journal entry ?offers a rare glimpse into his private faith.? (67) But my question is what does the historian do with the journals not kept by Young. What happens to a historian?s understanding of Young?s faith after he relies more and more upon clerks and scribes to capture the events and memoranda of the day? Where do historian?s find Young?s spirituality when Young is documented by others, including clerks and scribes? For most of Brigham Young?s life, he is filtered and hidden behind the sources created by others around him. We rarely get a glimpse into the private, religious life of Young. A historian?s task is clearly to analyze the sources created, but they should also look to the sources not created in order to understand where else to search to document important aspects of that historian?s focus. As Matt Bowman pointed out, Turner?s focus on Young?s faith is a strength of Turner?s and an example to future historians.

A final thought occurs to me. One-hundred-and-seventy boxes of documents are sitting in the Church History Library in CR 1234 (Brigham Young Office Files). Historians glean much information when looking at the content of these documents, but what can historians learn when they analyze the entire collection? I think despite Turner?s fabulous work, there needs to be much more work on the papers of Brigham Young. Whether this can better inform the history of Young is to be seen, but my gut feeling is that a better understanding of the papers created by those working with Brigham Young, the better we as historians will be able to critically read the sources important to Young?s life.

My own research and writing has been to try to understand the creation of sources. As I?ve delved more into this type of history research, I?m struck at how much historians can understand history by trying to understand the place of documents in that history. Documents and archives are artifacts created by individuals within the very culture historians try to document and understand. As such, writing a history of an event or an individual should lead historians to seek to understand the history of the sources in order to better understand the history being researched. In other words, I hope to see that biography of an individual becomes, when possible, the biography of the papers and in many ways, Turner moves us in the right direction.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Excellent point! I wondered if writing this brigham biography was harder to research than RSR simply because there exist so many documents! Also knowing the hard work it is for the JSPP to see it’s publishing day…can we expect a systematic publishing or even cataloging of the Brigham papers to assist future works on BY? Or do we expect the Turners to write well, research well, and be experts in reading micro film (didn’t that hurt his eyes?)

    Comment by n8c — November 24, 2012 @ 11:36 pm

  2. Good points Robin. I also believe in archival research and believe too many young scholars depend on historigraphy to do much of their work. But there is, however, a danger as in all historical work of over-emphasizing the primary sources. While they might say much about what a person does, they are nonetheless–especially for a person like B.Y.–a reflection of what they want people to think they do. Given what I’ve read of Turner’s Brigham, it is hard not to imagine him “manipulating” the image he wanted others to have of him. Most people of that caliber spend a lot of time constructing a narrative of their lives. In fact, most people do but they do not leave such a large paper trail. Also, having others filter their actions is a way a person can still say much about himself/herself but do it in a way that makes others think it is an independent view. I worked for an incredible man who was very much like Turner’s Brigham and I remember unintentionally promoting his narrative until we parted ways and I was no longer under his influence. Actions have consequences and there is often where we truly understand a person’s life.

    Comment by Ignacio M. Garcia — November 25, 2012 @ 12:24 am

  3. Is there such a thing as a bibliographic essay on the sources for BY? Those sources are so voluminous, it seems as thought there ought to be, as a sort of road map for explorers to come.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — November 25, 2012 @ 3:01 pm

  4. Excellent, Robin. Thanks.

    Comment by Christopher — November 25, 2012 @ 7:46 pm

  5. Thanks Robin. Would you possibly have a recommendation for a quick primer on this sort of analysis of documents collections?

    Comment by J. Stapley — November 26, 2012 @ 4:23 pm

  6. Many excellent and valid points made, Robin! I’ve had to consider all this and more in my biography and documentary history of Young’s second polygamous wife, Augusta Cobb. Hopefully I’ve done justice to the 200 hundred plus documents which she left us as her “testimony”! (And to the hundreds more that are about her.)


    Comment by Connell O'Donovan — November 26, 2012 @ 4:51 pm


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