Joseph Smith's 1832 History is often cited as an example of the LDS Church hiding its past. Every time I hear this I get annoyed--but not for the reasons you might think. So, a (very) long thread for those who want to think critically about access and LDS archival records:
First, a bit of context: Joseph Smith's first [known] "major" history was created in 1832. While not much for most historical figures of note (only 6 pages in length), this history contains Smith's own writing (a rarity) and is Smith's first [known] attempt at an introspective autobiography. 2/?
The 1832 hist was captured at the beginning of a blank book later used as Smith's first letterbook. Like many records of JS's early movement, the record was (and is) owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and was not available until the mid-to late 20th c. 3/?
At some point in the early to mid 20th century, the 1832 history was excised from the volume. The Joseph Smith Papers does a bit of sleuthing showing how we know the timing of the removal.
1) The 1832 history was removed from its volume in the 20th century, 2) the volume was held by the Church Historian's Office, and 3) the 1832 history only surfaced in the 1960s.
Therefore many have come to the conclusion that Joseph Fielding Smith (Church Historian and Recorder for a significant portion of the twentieth century) removed the history from the letterbook in order to suppress the history. And it's at this point where I get annoyed.
I want to be very clear (and this will be the true test of Twitter dialogue): my annoyance is not about the claim that JFS removed the history--it's quite likely he or one or two other HO administrators did.
Nor am I annoyed that folks want to explore the idea that the Historian's Office limited access to its records--it's very, very obvious that they did that as well.
No, my annoyance stems from the superficial dialogue surrounding this particular record and the richer conversation we *could* be having about the LDS archival record.
I'm deeply jealous of those who claim--without any qualifications or hedging--that the 1832 history represents Joseph Fielding Smith hiding the Mormon past. That level of certitude about the goings-on of the Historian's Office in the twentieth century is deeply naive.
Archives are places of hourly decisions. What comes in, what leaves? Is there room for this year's estimated intake? Which personnel should we shuffle around to take care of our backlog? (not to even mention the questions like "whose story are we actually preserving?")
If you're lucky, those decisions have left some sort of paper trail. But usually, they do not. You have to put the very limited puzzle pieces together.
So a bit of a detour: Did you know that the HO underwent a DRASTIC change of record storage in the 20th c? In the 19th c. a significant number of records were arranged/stored roughly chronological. This assisted in the writing of the history or compiling the Journal History.
By the 20th century, that arrangement didn't work anymore, so there was a huge undertaking to completely reorganize *the entire collection*. Imagine taking every record in your house and putting them in a whole new order--and multiply that by 1,000+.\
What was this new arrangement? We affectionally call it the "name and subject era." Every document was generally placed into a collection either based upon who it was written to or from (depending on the prominence of the author or recipient) or the topic of the record.
This effort would not be based upon archival best practices today. It has no regard whatsoever to the original order of records. It's probably one of the biggest mistakes in Mormon history that no one has ever heard about.
Now, to the point of my aside. This monumental shift of rearrangement in the Historians Office that influence millions of records and influenced the way an entire generation of Mormon historians viewed the past. Do you know when that first occurred?
... No really, I'm asking you. It's not a rhetorical question. **We don't know** when they first began that effort. We do not have the documentation of the move from chronological arrangement to the name and subject arrangement.
So back to the 1832 history. When I hear someone say, "The 1832 history was removed by Joseph Fielding Smith from the letterbook because the history contained an account of the First Vision that Church leadership didn't like and wanted to suppress." I want to cry.
Not because that's not a potentially true statement, but because we just don't know for sure. I would LOVE to have the certainty that I hear in most of these statements. [This is important because so many critics (and LDS apologists) write in such absolute terms.]
Once again to be clear. I'm not saying that the Historian's Office didn't limit access to its records. That was a very typical practice. But what that limitation looked like was different than the anecdote of the 1832 history illustrates.
Historian's Office staff offered access to some records for much of its history. When we simply say "The Historian's Office hid its past" I balk at such simplistic statements.
Let's try to recreate the possible motives of JFS. If you have a letterbook from the 1830s in your possession and you usually limit access to such records, why would you cut from that book 6 leaves that you also won't let anyone see?
In other words, wouldn't it be true to assume that the way you would restrict access to the 1832 history is to simply restrict access to the letterbook?
Could I offer another possibility of the removal of the 1832 history? (And note that word. This is only a possibility since I, nor anyone that I've seen, has actual documentation for the event.)
Joseph Fielding Smith was very aware of the shift of processing records within the Historian's Office--he was in charge of the HO after all. He's interested in sorting records into their various groupings, either by name or subject.
When he sees the letterbook, he sees 2 different records--ecclesiastical correspondence and autobiography. Perhaps he thinks that he should separate the record book into 2 different physical artifacts to mirror the processes taking place within the HO every day.
Honestly, as I type out the words, my possibility doesn't seem very strong. There are lots of other records (of less significance) that were saved from such physical division. But it's always struck me that the "suppressing" theory didn't make much sense either.
But ultimately this thread started out with my own personal annoyance and it will have to remain that way.
The removal of the 1832 history from the letterbook is a question that's not going to be solved without additional evidence (and I'm not really optimistic that that documentation has survived).
But the next time you hear that the 1832 history was removed because Joseph Fielding Smith suppressed the past, ask yourself whether this fact complicates the narrative of the Historian's Office or simplifies it.
My HS hockey coach worked at the HO. He says he wrote the program that cataloged the records by name and subject using oracle in 1986. He says it was a response to the Hoffman. Does that line up? Obvs JFS would have been earlier.
That must have been the first computerized catalog. The old HMMS software, I believe. This was right at the transition between the name and subject filing system and the more recent approach to catalog/store them based upon original order.
There are a couple good RFM podcasts on this (83 & 85). In a nutshell, the church hid the history. The Mormon church then combined elements of all the different versions to get the currently accepted one. #RFM #Mormon #LDS
I believe I've listened to both of those. What I'm trying to do with this thread is to get us past the "nutshell" and expand upon the very complex past. But I also realize that Twitter doesn't let us do that very well.
TL:…but I DID read it! Appreciate your perspective. I agree on a number of points. I believe that an open mind on the possibilities of alternate theories is a healthy way to approach unknowns. In the most simplistic way, I wasn’t there so I can’t make anything but assumptions…
One of the biggest realizations I took from my time at the JSP was that the more I researched and learned and deepened my expertise, the more comfortable I had to become with saying, "We don't know for sure...but here are a few possible explanations." Lots of highly-informed
Really excellent and enlightening thread. Accepting nuance, however uncomfortable, is superior to demanding certainty in the honest quest for truth.
Nice thread. I think all of this is to say that, either way, history is our making. We don’t know and can’t possibly know, but history is whatever we say it is, and when written is whatever we state it is. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Myself dealt ancient Chinese historical doc. The ancient professional historians shared the similar problem. at first, they corrected and discarded original doc because they thought they knew better, later on they learned to use original doc. its not intentionally cheat/hide