Notes on the Preserving Church History Symposium at BYU

By March 7, 2009

We’re pleased that Trevor Holyoak, who attended last week’s Symposium on Preserving Church History at BYU, has agreed to share his notes here with all of us.  Including notes from the presentation of our own Ben P.  Enjoy!


BYU Church History Symposium – 02/27/09

Richard E. Turley, Jr., Assistant Church Historian and Recorder
“Assistant Church Historians and the Publishing of Church History”

Turley became assistant church historian and recorder last year. The
office had not been occupied for some years. He gave brief briographies
of the men that have preceeded him.

George A. Smith – Made use of Wilford Woodruff’s journals

Wilford Woodruff – Became Smith’s replacement, and then became church
historian before becoming church president
Franklin D. Richards – assistant then historian

John Jaques – wrote Catechism for Children – translated into several
languages. Came to Utah with Martin handcarts. Orson Whitney’s History
of Utah was main project in 1890s

Charles W. Penrose – first assigned to compile Journal History. Worked
with Joseph F. Smith in comparing J. Smith’s letter from LibertyJail
with original. “Mormon Doctrine, plain and simple, or leaves from the
tree of life” and “Rays of Living LIght” pamphlets (written in 2 weeks)

Andrew Jensen – requested position, but none was available. Later was
paid for doing some work, but not officially on staff. Worked on history
of stakes, wards, and branches. “Encyclopedic History.” Finally became
Asst. Historian and worked on Journal History. “LDS Biographical
Encyclopedia. ”

Orson F. Whitney – 1st assistant historian to be born in Utah. Helped
edit Journal of Discourses. “Life of Heber C. Kimball.” Wrote a history
of Utah, which was reviewed by Richards. Finally becoming asst. – “I had
held this position for three years, without ever bearing the
title…busy as ever, I wrote for various publications in and out of the

Amos Milton Musser – assigned to keep track of persecutions of the church.

B. H. Roberts – edited and published Documentary History. At the same
time, worked on Comprehensive History.

Joseph Fielding Smith – compiled information for Smoot trial, wrote
pamphlets about RLDS church

A. William Lund – good at giving information about the church – but only
if it would be used for good purposes

Junius Free Wells – founded The Contributor. Edited MS. Collected
materials for church’s collections, wrote articles about history for
church magazines.

Preston Nibley – produced one volume a year for some time. “The
Presidents of the Church” was one of them.

Earl E. Olson – focused on acquisition, organization, and preservation.

James B. Allen – worked with Arrington. Wrote church history articles
and essays. Also worked with Davis Bitton in historian office. Wrote
“The Story of the Lattter-day Saints,” “Trials of Discipleship, ”
“Studies in Mormon History” bibliography. Mormonhistory.

Davis Bitton – reviewed articles and books prior to publication.
Compiled diaries for volume in 1970s. Also cowrote “The Mormon
Experience” and “Mormons and their Historians” and “New Views of Mormon

———— ——— ——— —

Mark Ashurst-Mcgee
“Joseph Smith’s Journal Keeping and the Creation of His History”

Spoke about the relationship between joseph’s journals and histories.
Histories are structured on backbone of journals. Journals are
contemporaneous day by day accounts. Histories are retrospective account
with narrative quality. [We were shown all 7 journals, including the
Book of the Law of the Lord. The 7th journal is made up of 4 voumes.]
Example of history is Wentworth letter. Olivery Cowdery was apparently
copying revelations into ledger as early as 1829, but they are
apparently not extant. Olivery Cowdery started writing history, which
was picked up later by John Whitmer (Joseph’s 1832 history). Letter to
Phelps gave instructions for Whitmer’s clerk duties in Nov 1832. First
journal was started at same time. Cowdery took over after Zions Camp,
and journal ends when Cowdery became member of First Presidency and
began 1834-1836 history (referred to as “large journal”). Some journal
entries are copied into history and converted from 1st to 3rd person.
Extra care is taken in writing of history. [Erasure techniques are
described, and the effects they have on the paper.] Willard Richards
also copies entries from journals into histories and seems conscious
that the journals will be the backbone of histories. Marks in journals
show that histories are being drafted directly in them.

———— ——— ——— —

Robin S. Jensen
“Ignored and Unknown Clues of Early Mormon Record Keeping”

[done in style of PBS history case file show]
Possible bookkeeping notations – Different symbols appear that may be
archival markings? C-d= 75cs maybe price written before books sold?
Letters grouping volumes – A, D, etc. – indications for missing volumes.
Letters may have been used to indicate volumes no longer in use. Letters
are used to refer to volumes where informatiion goes that was left out,
in notes within the blank pages of revelation book. There is evidence
that not all informatiion was available when histories were written (and
thus they shold not be considered infallible) which also explains wrong
dates, etc.
Topical classification of gospel terms – it is important to be aware of
context and not just contents. Some volumes have words on cover and then
a few lines of things relating to the words just inside (faith,
repentance, etc.) this provides evidence of missing volumes – missing
topics. Sections and paragraph notations from genesis mean they were
referring to JST. Volumes were apparently started for topical guide and
then were used for other purposes.

———— ——— ——— —

Benjamin E. Park
“Developing an Historical Conscience – Wilford Woodruff and the
Preservation of Church History”

Willard Richards in Winter Quarters, 1846, thought his historical duties
should be 1st priority (journal history, 17 dec. 1846). Woodruff’s
journals are most important covering 19th century history of the church
– 31 hand-written volumes covering 63 years. [we are shown really
fancily-decorated pages from the entry about his wedding]

Served as asst. or church historian from 1856 – 1889. Woodruff was
already interested in history before conversion, so knew its importance.
He made a point of recording everything that church leaders did or said
unless someone else was doing it (journal, 12 feb. 1862). Many things
were only recorded in his journals (journal, 17 march 1857). Felt it was
a spiritual obligation to keep a faithful record. Stated he was just
following counsel of J. Smith to keep accurate history. Should we not
have enough respect for God to record blessings and acts we do in His
name? Was criticized on mission for spending so much time on his
journal. In 1851 was called to keep record of the Quorum of 12. Was able
to reconstruct record of past for G. A. Smith by referring to his
journals when called in 1856 as Asst. Church Historian. Dedicated the
new church historian’s office, sept. 1856, asked that may keep true and
faithful history, kept in way and manner accceptable to God. Writing
history was his way of showing devotion. Strove to embody every act and
word in the history of the last days of the prophet (30 june 1856).
History is compiled from records of day-to-day events (12 feb 1862). If
we count our experiences worth recording for children and future
generations to read, then we should do it, and it is required by the
Lord (18 nov 1855). Outlined what every man should write as his history
(sept. 1857).

Problems documenting the martyrdom. Not a very good record had been
kept, and there were conflicting accounts (30 june 1856). (Richards
wrote in code and shorthand and never expanded on them.) Had to rely on
John Taylor’s memory. Statements regarding Emma were not trustworthy
because she had fallen out of favor and people were making up damaging
material or trying to delete her. G. A. Smith and Woodruff were so
confident of final accuracy that they put a testimony to the effect at
the end of the history. Did a very commendable job in comparison to
other histories of the time period.

Writing the history of Brigham Young – asked Phineas for information,
included info about Brigham’s family and pre-convert life. Also wanted
to write histories of the Twelve – (28 feb 1857) apostles reviewed their
histories, made contributions and criticisms (drawbacks of doing
histories of involved subjects). Asked apostate Woodruff Wight for help
(1 july 1857) as well. Wight submitted information, but not in time to
be published. [presenter has looked for Wight’s stuff but not been able
to find it.] It seems Wight’s history was slanted towards his own goals.

G. A. Smith said Woodruff had done more to preserve history than any man
on earth. E. R. Snow wrote poem (dec. 1857) about him.

Thomas Alexander’s book recommended as good biography (“Things of Heaven
and Earth”).

———— ——— ——— —

Ronald K. Esplin
“Preserving the History of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young”

They are thinking of doing a Brigham Young papers project as well.

Willard Richards was the scribe for much of the Nauvoo period. He was
also instrumental in boxing up the papers and bringing them to Utah,
where he worked on them in the historians office (along with other
things). History of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and John Taylor done.
Holdings were organized chronologically for that reason. They have now
been rearranged by subject.

Brigham Young had 35,000 letters that had to be filed. Keeping of papers
has been professionalized, beginning with Joseph Smith and Brigham
Young. “10 years in Camelot” has perpetuated myths about historical
department. They now have more encouragement and support than ever
before. Jeff Johnson came on in 1969 – beginning of professionalization
of archives. Jeff gives credit for this to Dean Jessee in 1964.

Dean was first who had professional training when he came, but not in
archiving. Was over-qualified so had hard time getting job, but spent
time in archives and so knew people there when job came up. Had
interview with JFS and was told no opening. Went back and told he could
work, but no room for him. Dean was given space in “the cage” – where
most important records were kept – which is what he had wanted to study
anyway. Many of these people are now back together working on the JSP.

Provenance would have been helpful in avoiding being taken in by Hofmann
forgeries (where content and quality made them look legitimate). They
are now being very careful with what it part of JSP (and BYP).

Stories told about going through BY’s papers in the basement of admin
building. 100 page document found answering claims to U.S. president
that was amusing but probably not actually sent.

Move to new building starts in April (Bailey Moving and Storage doing
it). In 1972 stuff was moved by staff on book carts.

Every president had a “crank” file. BY’s was labelled “balderdash – see
trash.’ (Had letters from “Elijah”).

Papers of Joseph Smith got stalled on vol. 3 before being replaced by
Joseph Smith Papers project. Larry H. Miller was asked for 125,000,
offered that much per year, and ended up providing endowment that
“dwarfed” that amount per year.

———— ——— ——— —

Elder Marlin K. Jensen, Church Historian and Recorder
“Making a Case for Church History

The lord regards church history as somethig of great value. What the
Lord and His leaders regard as important we should regard as important.
(d&c ). The BOM may have been an example of record keeping for Joseph.
[At this point my Palm announced it was low on power and was shutting
down. See the Mormon Times write up.]

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. These are very clear and concise notes. Thank you.

    Comment by David G. — March 7, 2009 @ 2:19 pm

  2. Very nice, thank you.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 7, 2009 @ 3:22 pm

  3. Here are some thoughts I assembled about Milton Backman’s presentation, part of Jared’s, and the Q&A part of a presentation of the publications of Oliver Cowdery’s letters.

    Backman’s material on the First Vision was from old slides he did when he taught class, which means he has had religious excitement documented in upstate New York for years. He showed some records that showed significant increases for some community churches (I remember numbers like 40 and 200). He also shared some oral history he got from a local archivist who had a picture of “where Joseph got religion,” which was in the archivist’s neighborhood.

    He used Lucy, Hyrum, and Sophronia’s membership up through 1830 in the Presbyterian Church as a rebuttal to the Hurlbut affidavits. It would be inconsistent for members to have such a destitute character. There was even a brief discussion about David Marks, who was used as an example as someone persecuted for making visionary claims.

    One of his ways for explaining the differences in accounts was that one was written by Joseph the Prophet the other by Joseph the man. Early in Joseph’s uneducated prophethood, the revelations he dictated were much more coherent than Joseph’s own unaided writings. Backman thinks of PoGP account as more of a revealed account, although he acknowledged Joseph’s increased education as partial explanation for its additional polish. The 1842 Wentworth account was influenced by Parley Pratt.

    Matthew Brown talked with me a little a bit afterward. We run into each other in the BYU library all the time, so I know a little about the projects he is working on. He is trying to get his First Vision manuscript published in April and he says that some people on the Joseph Smith Papers project asked for an advanced copy. I am looking forward to any new findings that Matthew has that might add to Backman’s research.

    I attended the last 2/3rds or so of Juvenile Instructor’s Jared T.amez presentation on some branch in Mexico in 1901-1908. So I missed the origins part of the story and mostly got the apostasy part of the story. At one stage, some wanted to adopt and teach truths of Mormonism while retaining their old religious identity and be part of a Protestant coalition (IIRC). Another group wanted to secede from the Church and form a nationalistic Mormon church, given a desire to be independent of an American institution. Jared also noted that the form of the meetings show a difference when missionaries were in attendance and or when they were absent. When the missionaries were gone the meeting followed more of a Methodist style.

    I found that fascinating given what I am learning about the apostasy from Hugh Nibley (I am writing a review of his Apostles and Bishops book for FARMS). The big story behind the transition of leadership (a form of apostasy) from apostle (central and traveling missionary authority) and bishop (residential, local leader) is a desire for local independence and adopting or relapsing into the local culture. I think studying modern tensions between local and general leadership, Utah Church culture vs. foreign culture, and growing pains as a branch transitions from missionary leadership to local leadership can provide clues to the ancient apostasy. So I need a better grasp of different case studies like the rebellion in Hawaii and this Mexican Branch.

    One of my theories is that the modern Church was able to maintain more cohesion through the principle of the gathering, where people from different cultures went through a melting pot assimilation. The ancient Church had more of a scattering when the Hellenist/Christians were kicked out of Jerusalem and later Jerusalem itself was destroyed in 70 AD. Before then Jerusalem acted as a mother church (I think this was a holdover from how Jews in the diaspora viewed Jerusalem.) kind of like Kirtland, Nauvoo, or Salt Lake; but without a gathering.

    But Jared pointed out something I hadn’t considered about how much more vulnerable the people left behind from the gathering would have been, because the strategy didn’t prioritize building a more permanent infrastructure there. It is interesting that early Christian communities would also stress a lack of permanence as “sojourners.” I think they were expecting some kind of end (whether the end be a mass apostasy or the second coming.)

    Here is one last item I recall as I caught just the Q&A of a presenter who was listing all the publications of Oliver Cowdery letters. Someone asked about Oliver’s attempt to translate and brought up the section in Original Manuscript that has Joseph’s handwriting. An idea presented as being from Skousen theorized this was from Oliver translating and Joseph scribing. However, Mark Ashurst-McGee indicated that Oliver may have taken a bathroom break and so Joseph would have had to do his own scribing to finish a section. I was hoping Mark would elaborate on theory presented is his Master’s thesis about Oliver’s failed attempt but he didn’t get into that. Probably too complex to introduce into a Q&A.

    Comment by Keller — March 7, 2009 @ 10:11 pm

  4. I find Backman’s Joseph Smith?s First Vision helpful and I am not very wonkish on the First Vision generally; but this heuristic of a revealed history makes me rather uncomfortable (although, I could just be not “getting it”).

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 7, 2009 @ 10:28 pm

  5. Thanks for the notes, Keller. I would just point out that if I used the word “apostasy” in the presentation, it would have been to describe how missionaries felt about the situation. I personally, would not feel comfortable using that word to describe what was going on at the time.

    Comment by Jared T — March 8, 2009 @ 4:18 am

  6. I would have used “apostasy,” or at least “rebellion” or “schism,” a month ago to describe what little I thought I knew about the history of the Church in Mexico — but after hearing Jared’s paper I understand why those words aren’t right. That’s what was so fascinating to me about hearing and understanding the overview of Mexican history given as the first part of that session, as I tried to describe in a comment on an earlier thread. It was so new to me then that I couldn’t repeat any of the details now (I look forward to having it printed so I can study it to remember), but it was so clear and so well organized that I understood and had sympathy for the worldview of the Mexican converts and the way the Church developed there.

    The political and cultural differences were so strong that it’s no wonder the missionaries and local members struggled to fit together. But the differences didn’t seem to have much to do with doctrine or belief — they didn’t fall into the category of “apostasy,” just practice and expectation. I mean, if some branch likes to sing eight hymns in Sacrament Meeting rather than three, it doesn’t intrinsically mean their doctrine is incorrect. It could become a problem if it’s the start of a drift in practice that involves more and more factors, including ordinances; and it could easily lead to apostasy if there’s a clash in authority when a branch persists in their own peculiarities after having been corrected by higher priesthood, but singing additional hymns isn’t in and of itself an apostate thing.

    Understanding how and why those differences were born was enlightening. The Church could probably benefit from a study of the early Mexican experience as we go into parts of the world that are increasingly different culturally from North America and Europe.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — March 8, 2009 @ 9:38 am

  7. Jared, thanks for that correction. You are right that apostasy was my word choice (and too harsh to describe what was going on in Mexico), but that had more to do with the ancient Christianity side of my comparison. I would need to study your published findings more closely too avoid drawing over wrought conclusions.

    Comment by Keller — March 8, 2009 @ 6:23 pm

  8. No prob. I’m glad you were able to come away with some insights. I hope that publishing this will come about within some reasonable time frame.

    However, judging from the pace I’ve set with another paper less complex than this, I wouldn’t hold my breath 🙂

    Comment by Jared T — March 8, 2009 @ 6:39 pm

  9. J., I too am uneasy about dichotomous thinking whether something is from God (revelation) or man, especially on matters of writing history. I see the production of inspired texts as a creative partnership between muse and author. I think each of the co-author’s should get a degree of the credit. Even for the more dramatic forms of revelation, recorded as a dialogue, God speaks in terms that man can comprehend. I do think Joseph progressed in his life to the degree that he could contribute towards the creation of an inspired text.

    Usually, the earlier the account, the more historiographical significance it has. Yet the reception of a later canonical account seems to undercut that trend for a devotional purpose. The more mature Joseph Smith is believed to comprehend the significance of the First Vision better. That was Blake Ostler’s take, IIRC, from overhearing a conversation he had at the last FAIR conference.

    Comment by Keller — March 8, 2009 @ 6:46 pm

  10. I think the Backman vs. Walters (and vs. Hurlbut/Howe) argument is a little silly. I hope the new treatment of FV moves beyond those old polemics.

    Comment by smb — March 8, 2009 @ 8:33 pm

  11. Thanks for providing these notes, Trevor, and for posting them, Jared.

    Keller, do you have any more information about Matthew Brown’s forthcoming manuscript on the First Vision? I echo Sam in expressing hope that the discussion moves away from the rather silly polemics that has plagued prior discussion.

    Comment by Christopher — March 9, 2009 @ 9:19 am

  12. I’m glad that you were able to make use of my notes, and I hope they make sense to others besides myself. 🙂

    Christopher, it appears you will soon be able to find out the answer to your question about Matthew Brown’s book for yourself:

    Comment by Trevor — March 20, 2009 @ 1:57 pm


Recent Comments

wvs on JWHA CFP 2020 (St.: “Looking forward to this. Thanks J.”

Daniel Stone on JWHA CFP 2020 (St.: “Thanks much for posting this, Joey!”

Mel Johnson on JWHA CFP 2020 (St.: “This JWHA will be outstanding, maybe the best ever. I encourage all Restoration historians and cultural studies people to attend along with their friends. The setting at…”

Gary Bergera on George F. Richards' journals: “I remember reading through the microfilms of the Richards's journals in the mid- to late-1970s. Nothing was redacted. They were amazing.”

Jeff T on George F. Richards' journals: “Thanks, Stapley!”

Hannah Jung on George F. Richards' journals: “That is exciting! I had no idea this was in the works! Any idea when the plan is to release the next twenty years of…”