8. Understanding Joseph: A Review of Published Documentary Sources

By Paul H. Peterson

Paul H. Peterson, “Understanding Joseph: A Review of Published Documentary Sources,” in Joseph Smith: The Prophet, The Man, ed. Susan Easton Black and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1993), 101–16.

Understanding Joseph: A Review of Published Documentary Sources​

Paul H. Peterson


Paul H. Peterson was associate professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University when this was published.


Will we ever be able to grasp the inner workings of Joseph Smith’s mind and soul? Joseph himself suggested that it would not be easy when he wistfully observed in 1844 that, “no man knows my history. I cannot tell it: I shall never undertake it. I don’t blame any one for not believing my history. If I had not experienced what I have, I would not have believed it myself” (History of the Church 6:317; hereafter History). But I wonder if the Prophet was exaggerating, at least in part. After all, there are many of us that have not experienced all that Joseph experienced but accept him at his word. But did Joseph really feel that no man could know his history? Did he recognize, even then, the difficulty that future generations would have in unraveling and understanding both the claims and complexities of the founder of Mormonism? Or, was Joseph merely issuing an invitation, hoping that mankind would accept the challenge of studying his history and reap the consequences? Whatever the case, the quest for the historical Joseph goes on and rightly so, for as Jan Shipps commented, “the mystery of Mormonism cannot be solved until we solve the mystery of Joseph Smith” (“Prophet Puzzle” 19).

In attempting to unravel the mystique of Joseph and to understand his history, we must of necessity go to the raw sources of history—the diaries, correspondence, minute books, revelations, accounts and summaries of his discourses, and other documents. Fortunately, we have a fair number of them. Oh, it is easy to complain about the paucity of sources (historians are never satisfied) or limitations of some of them. The glaring reality is that we will never know much of what Joseph said and wrote over 150 years ago. Dean Jessee’s recent insightful article in BYU Studies on “Priceless Words and Fallible Memories,” is in part, a lamentation over the “big ones that got away.” Among other things, Jessee concludes that “probably not more than one in ten of Joseph Smith’s discourses were recorded, and most of these come from the last three years of his life” (23). Earlier, he observed in The Papers of Joseph Smith that “substantial amounts” of the Prophet’s writings and speeches, especially before 1842, were either unrecorded or lost (xxii). And for all of their good intentions, the loyal recorders that did preserve Joseph’s speeches and writings often superimposed their own impressions and feelings upon what he actually said and wrote. “Like the bones concealed in the wrappings of an ancient mummy,” Jessee observes, “the sharp outlines of the Prophet lie hidden beneath the personalities of clerks, editors, and ghostwriters” (“Priceless Words” 37). But it would be easy to complain too much. The simple facts are that Joseph did have a keen sense of historical consciousness, especially after 1830, and that he did surround himself with loyal clerks who shared his dedication for record keeping. The end result, as Jessee himself concludes, is that we do have a significant body of documents that tell us of and about Joseph (37). Certainly, when compared to the relative lack of documentation of many other significant 19th-century American religious figures, we ought to be grateful for what we do have.

It is fortunate, too, that in the last several years historians (or would-be historians) have recognized the importance of making the documentary sources of Joseph’s life available for scholars and lay people alike. Dean Jessee’s The Papers of Joseph Smith is but the latest compilations of Joseph’s sayings and writings to appear. How helpful is it? How does it compare with other volumes that claim to contain the “words of Joseph?” with all the volumes that have, or purport to have his writings and declarations, which ones are most complete and helpful? Or to be more forthright, which of them should be discarded, which of them should be used with caution, and which should be studied and scrutinized? In the following review essay, I hope to provide some answers to these queries and possibly even some direction, not necessarily for professional historians who by and large understand the merits of the respective works, but for interested lay historians who have had little exposure to historical methodology and editing and therefore are unable to make meaningful distinctions among the numerous offerings.

The History of the Church was the first attempt to provide the raw sources of history in convenient book form. It is written in the form of a first-person daily journal kept by Joseph. It was begun in 1839, five years before Joseph’s death, using materials from the Prophet’s diaries and writings, letterbooks, minute books, diaries of prominent church leaders (like Heber C. Kimball) and church clerks, and other documents that pertained to Joseph’s life and the history of the church. Its deficiencies are well known. Unfortunately but understandably, its compilers, consistent with the comparatively loose editorial prerogatives of the era, assumed certain liberties which had the effect of making the documents less credible. Historians Howard Searle, Dean Jessee, and others have painstakingly studies the sources of History, and noted the various problems. Probably the two most important studies that deal with the challenges inherent in using it are Searle’s doctoral dissertation at UCLA in 1979, “Early Mormon Historiography: Writing the History of the Mormons, 1830–1858,” and Jessee’s, “The Reliability of Joseph Smith’s History,” in Journal of Mormon History in 1976. In an article in the recent Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Searle referred to the unacknowledged ghostwriting, edited sources, lack of balance, and changing of third person accounts to first person accounts. All of Joseph Smith’s clerks, including Willard Richards, Thomas Bulloch, and George Smith—those basically responsible for putting the History together—saw nothing wrong with such practices (nor should they necessarily have).The course of noted historian B. H. Roberts may be more difficult to justify. Roberts bore the responsibility for putting the volumes into book form and making it more available to historians and general readers alike. A prodigious and indefatigable thinker and scholar, Roberts worked on the history project, along with a plethora of other things, intermittently between 1902 and 1932. Unfortunately, Roberts failed to compare what had been published with the original manuscripts and perpetuated the errors of earlier recorders and compilers. Lamentably, he even added to the confusion by making hundreds of unacknowledged editorial changes (Bitton and Arrington 75–76).

Of all the editorial alterations in History, perhaps the most serious one, especially with regard to trying to understand the Prophet’s personality, was the decision, apparently approved at the beginning of the project by Joseph himself, to convert third-person accounts written by other people to first-person accounts as if Joseph himself were writing (Bitton and Arrington 9–10). Among the end results, as Bitton and Arrington have pointed out, is a “certain distortion of the Prophet’s personality” (10). The Prophet, on occasion, comes off as being confident to the point of arrogance; by appearing to rely on his own merits rather than upon the Lord, he seems less the ultimate religious figure than he in reality was.

What are the implications of all of this? How reliable is History? It was and is a significant accomplishment. Searle has rightly pointed out that it is commendably accurate in its factual content (“History of the Church”). And until some diligent editor-historian (or set of historians) is willing to devote several years to producing an updated model of History, it will remain an essential source (Anderson, “New Data” 488–501). It also, albeit unwillingly, gives the reader a feeling for the fire and testimony that resonated in the souls of historians who wrote it like Willard Richards and George A. Smith. Convinced that a providential God was looking after the destinies of the Latter-day Saints, and counting it a privilege to be able to chronicle the unfolding of that destiny, they approached their task with extraordinary zeal and singleness of purpose. History will always be a fitting monument to their efforts. But for scholars attempting to nail down points and reach conclusions, the work must serve in most cases as a stepping stone to the sources upon which it is based.

The Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (hereafter Teachings) is a compilation of doctrinal teachings from various sources but most especially from the History. Teachings was released in 1935, before the history volumes were readily available to a general church readership. Because Teachings focused on doctrine, historical material was generally eliminated. Clearly, since its parent source has been affected by unacknowledged editorial alterations, Teachings has understandably inherited some of the same flaws. Although some have also suggested that the team of editors, headed by President Joseph Fielding Smith, made some unacknowledged alterations in transferring the doctrinal portions of History to Teachings, a comparison of hundreds of entries in both publications has shown no changes of any consequence. For years, Teachings has served as a kind of compendium of the Prophet’s teachings and it still may be the best one-volume summary of his teachings available. Its usefulness as a guide to the Prophet’s teachings was enhanced in 1962 when Robert J. Matthews prepared a separate, extensive concordance. Matthews’ concordance became a part of all editions of Teachings beginnings in the mid-1970s.

History of the Church and Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, then, remain useful sources for students of early Church history. Less can be said for The Journal of Joseph compiled by Leland R. Nelson. Indeed, it is difficult to understand the motivation behind this volume. Is it a case of exploitation or merely historical ignorance? Published in 1979, its subtitle claimed it was the personal journal or diary of Joseph Smith, Jr. regrettably, it is much less than this. It is simply an extraction of first-person entries from the History, many of which were neither written nor dictated by Joseph, but they are presented in The Journal of Joseph as the Prophet’s own thoughts. As Howard Searle has pointed out, Nelson neglected to ask the two basic questions that all scholars must ask before citing material from History[1] Who wrote the original source and to what extent has it been edited for publication (“Authorship of the history” 102)? He also made more unacknowledged alterations. Of all the volumes which claim to contain Joseph’s utterances, The Journal of Joseph is the most disappointing and misleading.

Fortunately, a slip-shod approach to historical editing has not characterized more recent documentary source books on Joseph. On the contrary, as interest increases in determining just what Joseph actually said and taught, and as scholars have become more sophisticated and skilled in presenting original sources more accurately, more reliable volumes have appeared. As well as rendering original sources more correctly, these recent volumes also contain materials which were not available when History was first compiled. One of the first volumes which reflected a more professional approach to editing was Far West Record by Donald Q. Cannon and Lyndon W. Cook. Although they did not publish the work until 1983, Cannon and Cook basically completed their research in the late 1970s. Far West Record is an early Church minute book of meetings, generally of the executive variety, held in New York, Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, and Nauvoo, Illinois, between 1830–39. Around 90 percent of the entries are from the Ohio-Missouri period and of these, approximately 75 percent deal with events in Missouri. While some of Far West Record was incorporated into History, approximately 80 percent of it was not. And when one considers that the coverage of events in Missouri in History is comparatively sparse (when compared to Ohio, for example), the importance of Far West Record becomes apparent. As a historical record of the Missouri experience then, Far West Record is significant. Among other things, it sheds considerable light on the early operations of the Law of Consecration, Church trials, and excommunications, including the court trials of David Whitmer and Oliver Cowdery, and the many trials and frustrations faced by Church members as they labored diligently to establish Zion. But Far West Record is only of slight help in illuminating the sayings and teachings of Joseph Smith, since he, of course, spent most of his time in Ohio during the 1831–1838 Ohio-Missouri era. And when he did speak in church meetings in Missouri, the various recorders generally noted merely that he broached a certain subject; seldom do they elaborate to any meaningful event.

A more helpful volume in understanding the historical Joseph is Andrew Ehat’s and Lyndon Cook’s The Words of Joseph Smith (hereafter Words), published in 1980. Words is a collection of some 173 discourses given by Joseph during the Nauvoo era. Not only does Words contain sermons that are not found in History, but it reproduce those that are not found in History, but it reproduces those that are more accurately. This perhaps necessitates some explanation. No recorder in Nauvoo had mastered Pittman shorthand, insuring that there would be some differences among the surviving written accounts of Joseph’s speeches. In compiling Joseph’s Nauvoo sermons for publication, the editors of History sometimes inserted material to bridge gaps and connect thoughts. In some instances they amalgamated different summaries to produce one final version. What the editors of Words have done is publish the original reports before they were edited for publication in History. Obviously, this is a major accomplishment. Determined to isolate and reproduce only Joseph’s words, the editors of Words rejected reminiscent accounts and included only contemporaneous records of public discourses (Words xi–xvi). In his elegant foreword, Truman Madsen claims the “original sources are reproduced with scrupulous fidelity to the original text” (xiii). In his generally complimentary review of Words, Dean Jessee observed that the editors, while well-intentioned, fell short of achieving that goal in some instances (“Review of The Words” 530–34). Despite this deficiency, Words remains an essential repository of Joseph’s sermons in the doctrinally expansive era that was Nauvoo. As Richard Anderson observed, even “partial records of speeches nevertheless capture spontaneous moments and incisive insights” which are essential to students seeking to gain full access to Joseph’s personality (“Editing the Prophet” 117). I would also add that the annotative material and explanatory notes in Words are extremely helpful.

Lyndon cook’s third source book on early Mormon history (as editor or co-editor), The Revelations of the Prophet Joseph Smith (hereafter Revelations), is a historical and biographical commentary on the Doctrine & Covenants. The Doctrine & Covenants would rightly be included on any listing of Joseph Smith’s teachings. This book does not contain the revelations themselves but rather a good deal of undergirding and background material. Published in 1981, its intent was “to bring into sharper focus the reasons for which the revelations were received” (xi). To reach that objective, cook gleaned through a host of primary sources including public documents such as marriage records and censuses, and private journals and minute books. A major contribution of the volume is the 133 biographical sketches of people mentioned in the Doctrine & Covenants. Much of this information had not been printed before. Revelations remains an essential work for the student of the Doctrine & Covenants.

In 1984, Deseret Book published Dean Jessee’s Personal Writings of Joseph Smith (hereafter Personal Writings). Jessee set out to analyze all writings that bore Joseph’s name and to determine what he actually wrote, or in some cases, dictated. The material included in Personal Writings was taken from the first two of Joseph’s twelve diaries, four autobiographical writings, and 88 items of correspondence. Some of these sources were not available when History was published. In a word, Personal Writings is a one-volume distillation of Joseph-authored and/or dictated statements culled from the multi-volume Papers of Joseph Smith (which includes items that cannot with certainty be called the actual words of Joseph Smith).

It is not easy to exaggerate the importance of Personal Writings. If indeed, it is true that what one says and writes constitutes the best index to one’s personality, aspirations, and feelings, then Personal Writings is one of the most important books about Joseph Smith ever published. [2] I recall my first reading of Jessee’s work in the mid-1980s. At that time there was much talk in Mormon historical circles about Joseph’s alleged entanglements with magic and money digging. Frankly, one of my motivations in reading Personal Writings was to determine just how much material and/or magical pursuits affected Joseph’s overall inclinations and directions. I found little preoccupation with either. What I did find was that, while I was familiar with basic source materials on both Joseph and early Church history, I had not fully grasped certain aspects of the Prophet’s psyche and personality. After just a few pages into Personal Writings, it became clear that Joseph possessed religious dimensions that I had not understood. For one thing, it was apparent I had underestimated the depth of his dependence upon Deity. The Joseph that emerges in Personal Writings is an intensely devout and God-fearing young man who at times seems almost helpless without divine support. [3] And his sincerity about his prophetic calling is also apparent. If others were not persuaded of his claims, it could be said that Joseph was unconvinced that God had both called and directed him. Detractors who claim that Joseph came to like the game of playing prophet would be discomfited if they read Personal Writings. Scholars may quibble with how true his theology is, but for anyone who reads Personal Writings, his earnestness and honesty are no longer debatable points. [4]

Scott Faulring’s An American Prophet’s Record purports to publish for the first time the personal diaries and journals of Joseph Smith in their entirety as they read before being edited for History of the Church. Technically, this is correct, but two qualifications are in order. First, the 1832 history and the first two Joseph Smith diaries had been published earlier in Personal Writings. Second, although Faulring initially had access to photocopies of originals, he basically had to work with microfilms that did not contain all of Joseph’s diaries. Faulring filled in the missing gaps by referring to printed sources: History of the Church, Words of Joseph Smith, and Personal Writings of Joseph Smith. This is not to suggest that his work is anything less than professional and meritorious. Indeed, his volume, published in 1987, is a worthy contribution and invites comparison with Jessee’s volumes, especially Personal Writings, on at least two counts: (1) both had as an objective to produce a more pure and accurate history of Joseph by scrutinizing original sources, and (2) both included some of the same materials in their respective books, thus affording the reader the opportunity to compare, with some precision, their different editorial approaches. [5]

I read with interest the 1832 history and first two Joseph Smith diaries in Personal Writings (3–197), and An American Prophet’s Record (3–158) and quickly noticed two major differences in editorial style. Noting that “most of Joseph Smith’s holographic material, and that of his clerks and scribes is poorly, if at all, punctuated,” Faulring opted to supply “minimal punctuation, necessary for readability and intelligibility . . .” (xvii). Some purists might argue that Faulring’s editing was more than minimal. He silently altered spelling, punctuation, capitalization and provided paragraphing. Jessee believes, on the other hand, in “photographic fidelity” as much as it is possible, maintaining that a person’s handwriting, including spelling, punctuation, etc., is an important expression of his/her personality (Personal Writings xxiv–xxv). One could quibble endlessly about the merits and deficiencies of both approaches. By no means did I feel that Faulring “corrupted” the text, and possibly for the general reader the slightly more readable format is better. Even historians differ on this matter. Richard L. Anderson, for example, favors a compromise between honest reproduction and effective communication. Anderson believes that grammar should remain unchanged but maintains that “it belabors the obvious to freeze misspellings for all time” (“Editing the Prophet” 114). Other historians will likely opt for Jessee’s method, especially in the reproduction of holographic material arguing that on occasion those spelling miscues and punctuation lapses deepen, or even introduce, feelings and impressions about Joseph’s character and personality. Some might also ask that if a major objective is to produce a more accurate text, doesn’t it make more sense to reproduce it as accurately as possible?

A second difference between Jessee and Faulring has to do with editorial annotations. While Faulring provided helpful introductory material—maps, a chronology chart, a listing of prominent characters, and a bibliography—he basically chose to eliminate textual annotations. His rationale was that he wanted to avoid “self-indulgent pedantry,” and because “the research involved in unearthing information on obscure individuals or insignificant events mentioned incidentally in documents is a laborious and expensive process with dubious value” (xx). [6] I would have preferred that Faulring risk being a bit pedantic. Modest explanatory notes providing both context and color would have enhanced the textual material. Jessee’s explanatory notes in Personal Writings are extremely helpful, if not essential. I do fell that An American Prophet’s Record had one obvious advantage over Personal Writings. It has to do with the placement of annotations and explanatory notes. Perhaps because Signature Books was aware of the hardships Deseret Book had unintentionally visited upon readers of the earlier published Personal Writings by relegating Jessee’s annotations to the end of the book, they chose to place faulring’s admittedly brief textual notes at the bottom of each individual page—a wonderful service for the careful reader. Fortunately Deseret Book has elected to put explanatory notes at the bottom of the pages in Jessee’s more recent volume, The Papers of Joseph Smith (hereafter Papers), an almost essential requirement in a work of this type.

Papers is the latest offering by Dean Jessee. It is the first of an intended multi-volume work that, when finished, will contain everything that has appeared that is attributed to Joseph, whether he actually penned or dictated the material. It is expected that all of Joseph’s papers, diaries, correspondence, revelations, speeches, etc., will ultimately be included. Clearly, this is a magnum opus kind of project—one that when completed will constitute a major publishing feat.

If volume one can be regarded as a valid indicator of things to come, than all those interested in Joseph and early Church history have much to anticipate. In terms of historical editing, this is as good as it gets. As in Personal Writings, Jessee opted to preserve the integrity of the original sources. And all of the scholarly accoutrements are here—detailed maps, illustrations, an excellent general introduction, a biographical register, a chronology, an extensive bibliography, and superb annotations.

I found the volume introduction in Papers extremely helpful although I sensed the struggle that Jessee must have experienced in classifying the various writings, diaries, etc., all of which differ in some respects including, most importantly, their actual proximity to Joseph. Jessee admitted up front that the “twelve items published here do not fall into a neat series easily distinguished from other writings Joseph produced, nor can they all be seen as clearly emanated from his mind. The decision to group these writings together to the exclusion of everything else,” he added, “rested upon their substance, Joseph’s personal involvement, the extent to which they tell the story of his life and earliest religious experience, and whether or not they fit naturally into other segments of his papers, such as diaries or correspondence” (xviii). With due deference to the immense cataloging difficulties Jessee faced, I suspect most readers are going to have to read this introduction a couple of times before getting any “general drift.” The problem may be that the collection is so eclectic that it escapes clean definition. This first contains the autobiographical and historical documents written personally by Joseph, dictated to his clerks, or written by others from material that originated with him.

Of the items reproduced in Papers, at least five will be familiar to scholars of early Church history. The two lengthiest documents, the 1834–36 history and 1839 history, are from the manuscript history of the Church. Items 1, 2, and 9, the 1832 history and letters to Oliver Cowdery (1834) and John Wentworth (1842), were published in Personal Writings. The careful reader will note with regard to the latter three that Jessee provides additional annotative material, and will also appreciate the slightly larger type and the convenience of footnotes at the bottom of the pages.

The importance of Papers and forthcoming volumes is difficult to overstate. Jessee himself, in the general introduction, underscored their importance by noting that if indeed Joseph “was the recipient of a new dispensation of divine authority, his life and thought are of fundamental importance” (xxxiv). Amen! Jessee modestly neglected to mention the labor and expertise involved in such an undertaking. As RLDS historian Roger Launius wryly noted in a recent review, not just anyone can edit historical documents (“Review of Papers”). We look forward to future volumes containing Joseph’s diaries, speeches, and revelations. Who can predict? It just may be that we will be able to understand Joseph’s heart and his history, perhaps even better than he thought we could.


An American Prophet’s Record: The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith. Ed. Scott H. Faulring. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1987.

Anderson, Richard L. “Editing the Prophet: Dean C. Jessee’s The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith.” Journal of Mormon History (1984) 11:113–18.

Anderson, Richard L. “New Data for Revising the Missouri ‘Documentary History.’” BYU Studies (Sum 1974) 14:488–501.

Bitton, Davis, and Leonard J. Arrington. Mormons and Their Historians. Salt Lake City: University of Utah, 1988.

Brink, T. L. “Joseph Smith: The Verdict of Depth Psychology.” Journal of Mormon History (1976) 3:73–83.

Cannon, Donald Q. and Lyndon W. Cook, eds. Far West Record: Minutes of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830–1844. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1983.

Cook, Lyndon W. The Revelations of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Provo, UT: Seventy’s Mission Bookstore, 1981.

Ehat, Andrew F., and Lyndon W. Cook, eds. and comps. The Words of Joseph Smith. Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, 1980.

Hill, Marvin S. “Review of An American Prophet’s Record.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (Mar 1991) 30:130–31.

Hill, Marvin S. “Review of The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith.” BYU Studies (Sum 1985) 25:117–25.

History of the Church. 7 vols. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1980.

Jessee, Dean C. The Papers of Joseph Smith. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989.

Jessee, Dean C., ed. and comp. The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1984.

Jessee, Dean C. “Priceless Words and Fallible Memories: Joseph Smith as Seen in the Effort to Preserve His Discourses.” BYU Studies (Spr 1991) 31:19–40.

Jessee, Dean C. “The Reliability of Joseph Smith’s History.” Journal of Mormon History (1976) 3:23–46.

Jessee, Dean C. “Review of The Words of Joseph Smith.” BYU Studies (Fall 1981) 21:529–34.

Kimball, Stanley B., ed. On the Potter’s Wheel: The Diaries of Heber C. Kimball. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1987.

Launius, Roger. “Review of An American Prophet’s Record.” Dialogue (Fall 1987) 20:142.

Launius, Roger. “Review of The Papers of Joseph Smith.” Dialogue. (Fall 1990) 23:203.

Launius, Roger. “Review of The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith.” John Whitmer Historical Association Journal (1986) 6:86.

Nelson, Leland R., comp. The Journal of Brigham: Brigham Young’s Story in His Own Words. Provo, UT: Council Press, 1980.

Nelson, Leland R. The Journal of Joseph: The Personal Diary of a Modern Prophet by Joseph Smith Jr. Provo, UT: Council Press, 1979.

Searle, Howard C. “Authorship of the History of Brigham Young: A Review Essay.” BYU Studies (Sum 1982) 22:367–74.

Searle, Howard C. “Authorship of the History of Joseph Smith: A Review Essay.” BYU Studies (Win 1981) 21:101–22.

Searle, Howard C. “Early Mormon Historiography: Writing the History of the Mormons, 1830–1858.” Dissertation. UCLA, 1979.

Searle, Howard C. “History of the Church (History of Joseph Smith).” Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 2:648.

Shipps, Jan. “the Prophet Puzzle: Suggestions Leading Toward a More comprehensive Interpretation of Joseph Smith.” Journal of Mormon History (1974) 1:3–20.

Shipps, Jan. “Review of The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith.” The Sunstone Review (Apr 1984) 4:10–11.

Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Comp. Joseph Fielding Smith. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976.


[1] In reviewing Truman Madsen’s biography of B. H. Roberts, Davis Bitton accused Nelson of displaying “ignorance and crass exploitation” (“Defender of the Faith: The B. H. Roberts Story,” Sunstone [Nov–Dec 1980] 5:56–59). Howard Searle pointed out that Nelson’s book was misleading but gently allowed for the possibility that he might have “unknowingly” promulgated some misconceptions about Joseph’s history (“Authorship” 101). When Nelson came out a year later with The Journal of Brigham, Searle was less charitable, lamenting that the book “could not have been exposed before it was sold through a concerted advertising campaign to a trusting and somewhat credulous public. . . .” Searle regretted that the criticisms of the Journal of Joseph had not deterred Nelson from continuing his misrepresentations (“Authorship of . . . Brigham Young” 367).

[2] Reviewers were, to a scholar, lavish in their praise of Personal Writings. Richard L. Anderson (“Editing the Prophet” 113) observed that Jessee’s work “is a giant step for Mormon history.” Marvin S. Hill (“review of The Personal Writings” 118) called Personal Writings “the most important source book” on Joseph since Roberts edited History. Roger Launius (“Review of The Personal Writings”) described the book as a “singularly exciting work.” Jan Shipps (“Review” 10) opined that “the value of this edition to Mormon scholarship is so immense it can be hardly be overstated.”

[3] Most reviewers shared this assessment. Jan Shipps, for example, noted that Joseph’s words “reveal a genuinely unselfish, deeply religious man, fully and totally committed to his family, the Church of Jesus Christ, and the ‘restored Gospel’” (“Review” 11).

[4] Personal Writings, and later An American Prophet’s Record (Faulring), should have provided the final nail in the coffin for critics of Joseph smith who in one form or another, have questioned the Prophet’s sincerity. Fawn Brodie, of course, was the best-known exponent of the “insincerity thesis.” For most serious students of Joseph Smith, the question of sincerity is a non-issue. A typical view is that of Roman Catholic psychologist T. L. brink who observed that by all standards of Depth Psychology, Joseph Smith was of “sound mind and sincere religious conviction” (83).

[5] An American Prophet’s Record received commendatory reviews. Roger Launius (“Review of An American Prophet”) compared Faulring’s book favorably with Jessee’s Personal Writings and noted that “both deserve a place on the bookshelf of any serious student of early Mormon history and its founding prophet.” Marvin Hill (“Review of An American Prophet”) faulted Faulring for “minimal editorial efforts” but concluded that the volume is a useful collection. An evangelical scholar with the initials, JBG, praised Faulring’s work (Heart & Mind 2–3), but basically focused on supposed inconsistencies between Joseph’s era and the modern church regarding the Word of Wisdom, revelatory claims, etc.

[6] In fairness to Faulring it should be noted other scholars have felt the need to keep documentary annotations to a minimum. For example, in editing the diaries of Heber C. Kimball, editor Stanley B. Kimball praised Faulring’s editing model and expressed a similar desire to “keep annotation to a minimum in deference to the growing tendency to display neither pedantry nor to expend undue time on insignificant events or obscure persons” (xvii, xix). I would hold that while both On the Potter’s Wheel and An American’s Prophet Record are important and useful works, their failure to provide sufficient annotation slightly mitigates their value for general readers.