Documentary History of the Church

October 7, 2023
About Lambeth Palace

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Yet, starting today, that excuse is no longer valid.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!

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