Editors’ Note: As we begin our study of the Doctrine & Covenants in our gospel doctrine classes, Meridian will be providing excerpts from the important and engaging history that Lucy dictated about her son Joseph from the book Revised and Enhanced History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, edited by Scot Facer Proctor and Maurine Jensen Proctor. Lucy Mack Smith’s book is considered one of the most significant histories of early Church history, a moving first-hand account of the Smith family. Last week we introduced the book, and today we look at the 19th century controversy that surrounded its publication. Questions arose if in her advanced age, Lucy had recorded all the facts correctly. Read here how her story came to be vindicated.
Journey of the Manuscript
For eight years, the manuscript detailing Joseph’s history that Lucy had dictated to Martha Knowlton Coray remained unpublished, pushed aside by other priorities. President Joseph F. Smith, Lucy’s grandson, summarizes its history: “Lucy Smith died near Nauvoo, May 5, 1855 [her death was actually May 14, 1856], but years prior to this date, some of her effects were left in the hands of her son, William Smith, among them being the manuscript copy of this history. From William (who was the last surviving brother of the Prophet…) The document fell (surreptitiously it is declared by George A. Smith) into the hands of Isaac Sheen, who was at one time a member of the Church, in Michigan. When, in September, 1852, Apostle Orson Pratt went on a mission to England, he called on Mr. Sheen on his way East, and being shown the manuscript copy, he purchased it for a certain sum of money, took it to Liverpool with him, where, without revision and without the consent of knowledge of President Young or any of the Twelve, it was published under his direction in 1853..” (1)
The 1853 edition of Lucy Smith’s history was called Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith, the Prophet and His Progenitors for Many Generations and quite faithfully followed the Coray’s revised manuscript. It was a popular book among the British Saints, and in 1854 became available in Great Salt Lake City to the applause of the Deseret News: “This new and highly interesting work should be possessed by all Saints who feel in the least degree interested with the history of the latter-day work.” (2)
But George A. Smith, Lucy’s nephew and the Church historian, had some major reservations about the book. In an 1859 letter to another nephew of Lucy’s, Solomon Mack, he raised his concerns, suggesting that the “shocking massacre” of her two sons had affected her mind. George A. Smith wrote: “Although she endured this privation in a manner truly astonishing to her friends, yet we could not conceal from ourselves, that these terrible blows had made visible inroads upon her mind, as well as upon her bodily strength…In the last fifteen years, she got events considerably mixed up…I would be pleased to learn your opinion of Mother Smith’s history of her family, as far as you are acquainted with it.” (3)
Brigham Young and his counselors expressed a similar reservation, saying that when the history was written, “Mother Smith was seventy years old, and very forgetful.” They suggested that “her mind had suffered many severe shocks” and that “she could, therefore, scarcely recollect anything correctly that had transpired.” (4)
As George A. Smith continued to study the book and compared it to other sources, he began to feel there were factual mistakes, or at least the need to double-check stories for accuracy. For instance, in Lucy’s history she tells a story about how three strangers showed up unexpectedly and spread David Whitmer’s fields with plaster of paris, thus allowing him to leave for Harmony to meet Joseph Smith for the first time. George A. wrote to David Whitmer to verify the story, but received no response. In the early months of 1859, George A. and assistant historian Wilford Woodruff continued to write inquiries to check the details of the book for accuracy.
Thus, questions about the book had been simmering in the minds of the Brethren for several years before 1865, when Brigham Young decided to recall it. In a rather dramatic gesture the First Presidency said, “We wish those who have these books to either hand them to their Bishops for them to be conveyed to the President’s or Historian’s Office or send them themselves, that they may be disposed of.” (5) The First Presidency’s worry seemed to be over perpetuating inaccuracies that they were certain dotted Lucy’s history. “We do not wish incorrect and unsound doctrines to be handed down to posterity under the sanction of great names,” they wrote, “to be received and valued by future generations as authentic and reliable.” (6) Brigham Young did not wish to suppress the book permanently, but to revise it and reissue it in what he hoped would be a more correct form.
In a journal entry, Wilford Woodruff detailed what President Young’s intent was: “He said he wished us to take up that work and revise it, correct it; that it belonged to the Historian to attend to it; that there was many false statements made in it, and he wished them to be left out, and all other statements which we did not know to be true, and give the reason why they are left out.” (7) Though it is not entirely clear what “false statements” leaped out at Brigham Young, many of his concerns clearly came from doubting Lucy’s capacity at her advanced age and given her health to get the story straight.
Time and scholarship would show that this assessment was refutable. Those who visited Lucy in Nauvoo during the last years of her life often reported her to be alert and mentally acute. Artist Frederick H. Piercy, who drew scenes of the Mormon trail still in use today, stopped by the Mansion House, and carefully observed Lucy. “I could not fail to regard the old lady with great interest. Considering her age and afflictions, she, at that time, retained her faculties to a remarkable degree. She spoke very freely of her sons, and with tears in her eyes, and every other symptom of earnestness, vindicated their reputations for virtue and truth.” (8)
Enoch Bartlett Tripp, visiting her in November 1855 in one of the last months of her life, also commented on her memory: “I called upon the Prophet’s Mother and found her in a lonely room in the eastern part of the house in her bed and very feeble. Upon approaching her bedside and informing her who I was, she arose in her bed and placing her arms around my neck kissed me exclaiming, ‘I can now die in peace since I have beheld your face from the valleys of the mountains.’ She made many inquiries after the Saints and remarked that she took much comfort in riding out with me and my wife in the days that I taught school here.” (9)
Far more significant than the anecdotal reports, however, are the modern studies conducted by Richard Lloyd Anderson on Mother Smith’s history. Checking other journals, newspaper accounts, non-Mormon church records, vital records, and independent recollections for verification, he found that the great majority of what Lucy states tests very well.
He noted: “The preliminary and finished manuscripts give about 200 names. With the exception of a small percentage of indefinite names, nearly all can be verified, including some spectacular memories clear from her New England childhood. Her percentage on dates it not as good, probably reflecting her interest in people more than calendar years-yet when mistaken, she is typically within a year or two of the precise time. Obviously an event itself was more vivid to her mind than the exact point of its occurrence. So Lucy’s history is reliable but not an infallible source. How to tell? To reiterate a critical point, she will be a prime source when speaking from personal observation and only secondary when relaying what others have told her.” (10)
Beyond accuracy, other factors influenced the 1865 recall of the book. Living in a time as we do today when succession in the Church Presidency is calm and orderly, the death of a prophet, signaling a predictable change, it may be difficult to imagine the splintering confusion, and emotion that followed the death of Joseph Smith for the everyday Saint. Claims and counter-claims to the Presidency divided parts of the Church, and though the vast bulk of the members followed Brigham Young, fragmented groups congregated around others like Sidney Rigdon, James Strang, and Lyman Wight.
Since William Smith, Joseph’s brother, had made his own rival claim to be Joseph’s successor, Lucy Smith’s positive portrayal of him in her history probably concerned Brigham, and stood as just another evidence to him that the book contained distortions. Through Lucy’s eyes we see William as a valiant missionary, a fighter for the restored gospel, and a recipient of revelation in a dire moment in Missouri. In reality, William was volatile, unstable, and controversial. He had a checkered past, having often been at odds with his prophet brother. Disagreeing with Joseph during a meeting in Kirtland, enraged William attempted to throw him out and inflicted him with an injury that Joseph felt occasionally for the rest of his life. During the dark days at Far West when Joseph was taken to Liberty Jail, William exclaimed, “Damn him, Joseph Smith ought to have been hung up by the neck years ago and damn him, he will get it now anyhow.” (11) In his last encounter with Joseph in spring 1844, William asked him to give him a city lot in Nauvoo near the temple. Joseph said he would do it with great pleasure if he would build a house and live upon it there, but he would not give him this lot, worth one thousand dollars, to sell. William agreed to the terms, and within hours an application was made by a Mr. Ivins to the recorder to know if that lot was clear and belonged to William, for the Prophet’s brother had sold it to him for five hundred dollars. Joseph, hearing this, directed the clerk not to make the transfer, and William’s last words to Joseph were threatening.
After the death of his brothers, a somewhat humbled William petitioned to be ordained the Presiding Patriarch of the Church, a position he had legitimate claim to as the oldest lineal descendant of the Smith family. He was ordained to that position on May 25, 1845, but within a few days, he claimed this gave him the right to succeed Joseph as the leader of the entire Church, and by October 1845, he was excommunicated. An aspiring man has to find a home for his aspirations, and William went looking. Expelled from the Church, he temporarily became a leader with James Strang’s group. Excommunicated there, by 1850 he began teaching that legitimate leadership for the Church had to come from within the Prophet’s immediate family. Since Joseph Smith III was too young, he suggested he should be sustained as president pro tem “guardian of the seed of Joseph,” until the boy came of age. By 1854 he was seeking to be restored to his former position as an Apostle in the Church, and then after 1860, when Joseph Smith III was sustained as president of the Reorganized Church in Plano, Illinois, he hoped to find a high office in the new organization.
Given this background, no wonder the First Presidency’s 1865 recall of Lucy’s book was so strong in singling out William: “Those who have read the history of William Smith, and who knew him, know the statements made in that book respecting him, when he came out of Missouri, to be utterly false.” (12) The timing of the recall was probably also significant, coming so soon after Joseph’s sons had newly organized a church and were advancing succession claims. Brigham didn’t want Lucy’s book to bolster their effort. He may have felt the same way about the book’s rosy portrayal of Emma, who supported her sons in the Reorganized Church.
After the recall, President Young appointed a revision committee consisting of Geroge A. Smith and Judge Elias Smith, both cousins of the Prophet and men who were thoroughly knowledgeable in Church history. George A. had been studying the book for years, and Elias had been an editor of the Deseret News. They poured over the book, consulted with others, made deletions and corrections right in the text and in the margins of copies of the book and completed the work to the satisfaction of President Young. Ironically, after that storm that had whirled around Lucy’s history, only a small amount of the material was changed, and then not significantly. She had not been in the great error previously assumed.
According to Howard Searle these changes primarily included the following: “(1) Several favorable references to William Smith were deleted or changed. (2) Six out of eighteen references to Emma Smith were omitted, although the deletions appear rather incidental. A glowing eulogy of Emma…was left intact. (3) Many corrections were made in dates and names, especially in the genealogical data of chapter nine. (4) Some misstatements and misconceptions of Mother Smith were corrected. Her exaggerated role in the construction of the Kirtland schoolhouse…was revised in both copies of the history which were used by the revision committee. (5) Some profanity and gross statements (made by the Missouri persecutors and reported by Hyrum to a court of law) were edited out of the history. (6) Words were changed to clarify meaning and improve the grammar. (7) A few additions were made to expand parts of the narrative…(8) Statements that seemed unfavorable to the image of Joseph Smith or the Church were omitted. (9) Some references of purely family interest were left out.” (13)
The version containing George A. and Elias Smith’s revisions lay essentially forgotten until 1901, when the General Board of the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association sought to publish it in their monthly magazine, the Improvement Era. President Lorenzo Snow gave his permission as Church President just before he died in October 1901, and the series began in the November 1901 magazine and continued through the next year. Lucy’s grandson Joseph F. Smith, who had become the prophet, wrote a preface for the history: “By the presentation of this work to the public, a worthy record is preserved, and the testimony of a noble and faithful woman-a mother indeed, and heroine in Israel-is perpetuated.
“ (14) A new generation who did not face the pressures and dissensions of the old, brought a new outlook to the history.
Finally, in order to give Mother Smith’s history a wider audience, it was published again in 1945, edited by Preston Nibley, assistant Church historian, who made very few changes but added a few footnotes for the sake of the context. Today’s reader can find both the 1853 and 1945 edition in libraries and bookstores.
When Lucy sat down with Martha Jane, she certainly had no idea of the controversy that would sizzle around the simple recounting of her life’s story, and the sets of hands it would pass through before it was enjoyed by a large audience. But it may not have surprised her either. Life had taught her that good things always come with a cost.
Editor’s note: Next time we will be talking about why the new revised and enhanced edition of the history, how it came about, and the details of the changes in this 1996 version.
1. Joseph F. Smith, Introduction to “History of the Prophet Joseph, by His Mother, Lucy Smith,” Improvement Era 5 ( November 1901): 1-2
2. Deseret News, November 16, 1854
3. George A. Smith to Solomon Mack, in Manuscript History of Brigham Young, February 23, 1859, p. 204
4. Millennial Star 27 (October 21, 1865):658
6. Ibid. p. 659.
7. Wilford Woodruff Journal, February 13, 1859, LDS Church Archives
8. Frederick H. Piercy, Route from Liverpool to Great Salt Lake Valley (1855; reprint Cambridge, Mass,: Harvard University Press, 1962), p. 94
9. Enoch Bartlett Tripp’s Journal, vol. 1 to December 31, 1844, BYU Special Collections.
10. Richard Lloyd Anderson, “His Mother’s Manuscript: An Intimate View of Joseph Smith,” Brigham Young University Forum address, January 27, 1976.
11. Wilford Woodruff Journal, February 13, 1859, LDS Church Archives
12. Millennial Star 27, (October 21, 1865), 658
13. Searle, “Early Mormon Historiography,” pp. 420, 422.
14. Smith, Introduction to “History of the Prophet Joseph,” p. 3