July 13, 2009

The Curriculum Department and the Search for the Authentic Joseph Smith

As Dean C. Jesse noted in 1991, Joseph Smith's teachings are often viewed with "scriptural reverence" despite the need for careful historical analysis. While reviewing some of the difficulties involved in evaluating Joseph Smith sources, he noted that all too often:

[the] sources are taken at face value without determining how clearly those sources represent his mind and personality. These windows to his life and thought reflect varying levels of proximity to him, a factor that must be dealt with in any serious study of him."1
Scholars from the Joseph Smith Papers Project (JSPP) recently discussed the methodology used in selecting various quotes for the recent Church manual, Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith. Scholars on the project constructed a criteria of authenticity regarding the various recorded statements, sermons, and memories of Joseph Smith which helped them decide what and how to include certain material.

First, a little background. The manual was published in late 2007 as the latest installment of Relief Society and Priesthood instruction manuals. A flurry of discussion on the manual swept through the Bloggernacle, including many positive and negative comments. The most common criticism is the manual's seeming "proof-texting" of Joseph Smith. It seems to "contemporize" him, missing an opportunity to educate members of the Church on various historical viewpoints not common to discussion of Church history generally.2 The most common praise is the manual's apparently more rigorous selection and use of source material as compared to past manuals. In that regard, the manual has been called a "step forward."3  

An interesting and useful appendix to the manual called "Sources Used in This Book” discusses some of the methods editors of the manual used in putting the pieces together.4 I hope this resource encourages members of the Church to more thoughtfully consider the process of historical inquiry involved in creating Church manuals. This process included members of the team currently working on the Joseph Smith Papers Project, perhaps the most exciting and important historical project the Church has undertaken to date.5 A weekly television broadcast called "Joseph Smith Papers" recently featured a two-part special called "Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith." Part one discussed the various books that have been published in the past on the sermons and teachings of Joseph Smith, including the recent Joseph Smith manual.6

According to host Glen Rawson, members of the Joseph Smith Papers Project team assisted in compiling the sources from which the manual's quotes were selected. Rather than relying on past efforts like Joseph Fielding Smith's Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, the manual relies on deeper sources.7 They essentially started from scratch.

According to Ronald O. Barney, JSPP editors collected every statement attributed to Joseph Smith they could discover, filling “seventeen 3-inch binders of material which we delivered to the church curriculum department for the curriculum writing committee to produce the manual.”8 Glen Rawson noted that it was evident not every statement could be given equal weight, hence, an "elaborate classification system" was developed which "enabled the curriculum writers to judge whether or not this was a bona fide teaching of Joseph Smith, or not.”9

While it may seem somewhat pedantic, Barney then briefly described the system which was outlined in a document called "Classification of documents which contain teachings of Joseph Smith":
We decided to classify the teachings of Joseph Smith in this way: if something was directly attributable to Joseph Smith, we gave it a capital A. If it was something that he wrote himself, or that we knew in absolute certainty was a dictation from JS, we would give it a capital A and lowercase a.

If it was something that we knew that JS had said, but that was in the handwriting of someone else, and that we could not be sure it came directly out of his mouth or from his pen, we would give it a capital A, lowercase b.

If it was something that was a clerk’s copy of a manuscript, where there was still some feature of uncertainty as exactly—as to what the circumstances were, about its production, but we knew that it came from Joseph Smith, we gave it a capital A, lowercase c.

If it was a contemporary document that had been attributed to the entirety of the First Presidency, but that still had the imprimatur of Joseph Smith on it, we would give it a capital A, lowercase d. If it was something that we were certain we could attribute to Joseph Smith, but it was in someone else's writing and there was nothing to indicate that Joseph Smith had crafted it we would still give it a capital A, lowercase d.

And if it was something that we still felt was attributable to Joseph Smith, but there was no identification of him having been the source of it, we would give it a capital A, lowercase e.

When it came to people who were other than Joseph, who said that Joseph said things, such as his family members or intimate associates like members of the Quorum of the Twelve, we would give a capital B to those.

If it were common Latter-day Saints, who happened to be in a congregation who heard Joseph Smith deliver a sermon and then captured some of the notes of those sermons in their diary or in some other form, we would give it a capital C.

If it was someone who had been a Latter-day Saint, who had said something that later on through time they had heard Joseph Smith say this, but that, they perhaps had a motive that may not have been in a supportive way, we would give it a capital letter D.10
In addition to these stipulations, Barney described two other qualifications taken into consideration:
The qualification of time. Was it a contemporary report? Was it written within a year? Five years? Ten years? Or twenty plus years. And many things that have been circulated through the years that people have attributed to Joseph Smith come in that kind of light. And we would identify about when, or precisely when, those reports were made.

And lastly, is this an eyewitness report? Or is it a secondhand report? Is it something that was produced by an individual who actually heard Joseph Smith say it, or watch him write it? Something to that effect, that would give a feature of veracity to it that would trump something that was hearsay or second or third hand.11
The full document is included below in Appendix I (click here).

Barney said each document in the seventeen binders was reviewed and rated under this rubric by himself and several other scholars, including Glenn N. Rowe and Steven R. Sorensen. This information was taken into consideration when the Joseph Smith manual was compiled, the correlation department giving preference to sources the scholars viewed as more reliable. Though certainly not foolproof or flawless, differentiating in this manner can help members of the Church understand the veracity or strength of various statements attributed to Joseph Smith. Historical inquiry is an art more than an exact science; historians and writers try to make well-informed decisions regarding the weight they give various evidence but cannot determine with 100% certainty the accuracy of any given account. Still, it is useful to consider the variables involved to get a clearer picture.12  The system isn't scientifically foolproof, nor is it expected to be. There are still some aspects of the manual that could use more clarification. For instance, in chapter 38 on the Wentworth Letter Orson Pratt's original proto-Articles of Faith aren't mentioned, though the Thirteen clearly derive from his 1840 missionary pamphlet, A[n] interesting account of several remarkable visions, and of the late discovery of ancient American records. (Yes, the title is that long. See it here. More to come on the comparison.)

As one example, I recently blogged about the statement often attributed to Joseph Smith that a vision of the Telestial kingdom would be so glorious that people would commit suicide to get there.13 According to the criteria developed described here, that statement would rate something like a (C5-), or something along those lines. The source, time elapsed, and personality of the person who recorded the memory must be taken into account when evaluating this statement attributed to Joseph Smith.

Dean C. Jessee, “Priceless Words and Fallible Memories: Joseph Smith as Seen in the Effort to Preserve His Discourses.” BYU Studies 31 (Spring 1991): 22. See Appendix II below for a bibliography of material dealing with Joseph Smith's history.

See J. Nelson-Seawright, "Why Don't We Trust Joseph Smith?", By Common Consent, 16 December 2007. One response, correct though not entirely satisfying, was made by No_Cool_Name_Tom: "The book is, on the whole, the result of deciding what topics each chapter/lesson should cover and then assembling as many direct Joseph Smith quotes—or personal recollections of those close to Joseph—to make the chapter feel like a flowing piece about the topic."

Tom, "Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith," By Common Consent, 14 August 2007.In comparison, the original manual in the series, the Brigham Young manual, encountered some criticism leading to changes in subsequent manuals. See the Associated Press article "Absence of Polygamy In LDS Manual Stirs Controversy," The Salt Lake Tribune, 5 April 1998, C3. See also Michael Parker, "The Church's Portrayal of Brigham Young," FAIR.org.

See “Appendix: Sources Used in This Book,” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, (2007),558–64.

See the official website at josephsmithpapers.org.

The weekly series appears in Utah on KJZZ channel 14 Sunday nights at 8 PM (MST). For more on the series, see KJZZ.com. The two-part special, "Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Part 1" aired on Sunday, June 28, 2009 featuring interviews with Ronald Barney, Andrew F. Ehat, and others.

In 1938 Joseph Fielding Smith compiled Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith and it has undergone many reprintings. As the "Book of Abraham Project" authors point out, the book contains some significant flaws based on a less-then-critical reading of the sources from whence the selections were culled. They conclude: "like many other classical collections of Joseph Smith materials, [the book] contains materials that were not actually authored by him. This is not to say such materials are not valuable or that they are incorrect," but that attributing them to Joseph Smith specifically is incorrect. The headings of the inaccurately attributed sections ("about 25 pages virtually all in the first 70 pages of the book") are listed at BOAP.org/LDS/Joseph-Smith/. Thanks to Jonathan Stapley for pointing this source out.

Ronald O. Barney is editor of volume five of the Documents Series. See his bio here. His description is from "Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Part 1," aired on KJZZ TV on Sunday, June 28, 2009.

Glen Rawson, host of the Joseph Smith Papers Project series, "Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Part 1," KJZZ TV, 28 June 2009.

Barney, opt. cit. The document itself is dated "November 2000." If this date is correct, the document technically preceeded the announcement and official formation of the JSPP.

Barney, opt. cit.

As Jesse aptly wrote: "Part of the problem of obtaining an accurate historical understanding of Joseph Smith has been the difficulty, to use Catherine D. Bowen's phrase, of returning to 'that foreign country, the past,' tracking him through a vast thicket where footprints of other men [and women] are interlaced with his....[Using the records] intelligently requires a studious effort to understand its nature and fully appreciate its content - a challenge facing all who seek to probe the mind of Joseph Smith," (Jesse, "Priceless Words," p. 37). An interesting discussion on the use of historical sources, see Trusting Records by Heather MacNeil.

See BHodges, "Committing Suicide to Get to the Telestial Kingdom?", Life On Gold Plates, 16 December, 2008. 

November 2000
Classification of documents which contain teachings of Joseph Smith


 I. Joseph Smith
      A- Revelations received and written or dictated by JS
           a. –holograph (e.g. JS’s 1832 history)
               –endorsement signature (e.g. letter signed by JS)
           b. –clerk’s copy of JS (only) holography or endorsed document
               –Church published document with JS only endorsement
                     (e.g. Wentworth letter in Times & Seasons)
               –Church publication with definite attribution to JS as editor
                     (e.g. Savary letter in T&S)
               –JS dictation to clerk (e.g. JS’s diary dictation to Warren
                     Cowdery of 3 April 1836, and JS’s dictation to Robert B.
                     Thompson of October 1840 sermon on priesthood)
           c. –contemporary document (ms. Original clerk’s copy or published
                     copy) with JS, et al. (e.g. statement with attribution to entire
                     First Presidency in T&S)
           d. –contemporary document (ms. Original clerk’s copy or published
                     copy) with JS, et al. where the writer is clearly someone other
                     than Joseph Smith.
           e. –attributed to JS without signature or endorsement (e.g. 22 Jan.
                     1834, “The Elders of the Church in Kirtland…”)

      B– Intimate associate of Joseph Smith
               –document by brethren in presiding quorums, clerks, or family
                     members (e.g. Wilford Woodruff’s report of JS sermon); JS
                     diary kept by clerks (e.g. Willard Richards and James
                     Mulholland, etc.); official publications of Church describing
                     JS sermons (e.g. Elders’ Journal and Times and Seasons);
                    official institutional records (e.g. Female Relief Society of
                    Nauvoo minutes and “Far West Record”.)
      C- Supportive Church member
               –document by rank and file of the Church (e.g. claims about
                statements made by or descriptions of JS by Benjamin F. Johnson
                and Oliver B. Huntington.  Also newspaper accounts in The Wasp, 
                Nauvoo Neighbor, and Deseret News.)

      D– Non-supportive Church member
               –document by Church dissenters (e.g. claims about statements made
                by or descriptions of JS made by JS [sic] by David Whitmer, William
                E. McLellin, etc.)

      E– Non-LDS neutral observer (e.g. claims about statements made by or
                descriptions of JS by Josiah Quincey.)
      F– Non-LDS antagonist (e.g. claims about statements made by or
                descriptions of JS by Daniel P. Kidder, etc.)


1. Contemporary
2. Recollection, 1-5 years
3. Recollection, 6-10 years
4. Recollection, 11-20 years
5. Recollection, 20+


+ Eyewitness
- Non-eyewitness
? Unknown

Download a .doc version of the form here. This is not an official transcript. It is a copy I transcribed from the form as shown on the JSPP program.

Some important studies on the history and reliability of sources on Joseph Smith and the History of the Church:

Howard C. Searle, “Early Mormon Historiography: Writing the History of the Mormons, 1830-1858″ (Ph.D. diss., University of California at Los Angeles, 1979).

Dean C. Jessee, “The Writing of Joseph Smith’s History,” BYU Studies 11 (Summer 1971): 439-73; “The Reliability of Joseph Smith’s History,” Journal of Mormon History 3 (1976): 23-46; “Return to Carthage: Writing the History of Joseph Smith’s Martyrdom,” Journal of Mormon History 8 (1981): 3-19; "Has Mormon History Been Deliberately Falsified?" (Sandy, UT: Mormon Miscellaneous, 1982); “I Have a Question [regarding the reliability of Joseph Smith's history]” Ensign, July 1985, 15; “Priceless Words and Fallible Memories: Joseph Smith as Seen in the Effort to Preserve His Discourses,” BYU Studies 31 (Spring 1991): 19-40.

Howard C. Searle, “Authorship of the History of Joseph Smith: A Review Essay,” BYU Studies 21 (Winter 1981):101-22; “Willard Richards as Historian,” BYU Studies 31 (Spring 1991): 41-62; “History, of the Church (History of Joseph Smith),” in Ludlow, Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 2:648.

Paul H. Peterson, “Understanding Joseph: A Review of Published Documentary Sources,” in Susan Easton Black and Charles D. Tate, eds., Joseph Smith: The Prophet, The Man (Provo, UT: RSC, Brigham Young University, 1993): 101-116.

Davis Bitton, "B.H. Roberts as Historian," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought (Winter 1968), 25-44.

For B.H. Roberts's evaluation of the history project, see The Autobiography of B. H. Roberts, ed. Gary James Bergera (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1990), 222—23.

Van Hale, "The Compilation of Joseph Smith's 'History of the Church," Mormon Miscellaneous; “Writing Religious History: Comparing the History of the Church with the Synoptic Gospels,” Restoration Studies 3 (1986): 133-38.

Ronald W. Walker, David J. Whittaker, James B. Allen, "Beginnings: Nineteenth Century Historical Writing," Mormon History (University of Illinois Press, 2001), pp.1-30.

David B. Honey and Daniel C. Peterson, "Advocacy and Inquiry in the Writing of Latter-day Saint History," BYU Studies 31/2 (1991): 139–79.

Larry E. Morris, "Joseph Smith and 'Interpretive Biography', Review of Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet by Dan Vogel," FARMS Review 18/1 (2006): 321–374.