Question: Who is the author of ''History of the Church''?

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Question: Who is the author of History of the Church?

The History of the Church, though credited to Joseph Smith, was not actually authored by him

Dean C. Jessee wrote of this question [1]:

The History of the Church, which bears Joseph Smith’s name, was begun under his dictation and direction and completed after his death according to his instructions. The original sources used to compile the History were the Prophet’s own diaries, correspondence, and other documents. Those who may feel that the work is not a fundamental historical source because the Prophet did not personally write much of it are in error. The History, with its priceless collection of primary documents, remains the most important source of historical information on the life of Joseph Smith and early Latter-day Saint history.

The work presents the teachings and activities of the Prophet with a remarkable degree of accuracy. A look at how it was produced, and at the concepts that governed historical writing at that time, helps tell us the nature of the history.

Production of the history

Continued Jessee:

Among the difficulties encountered by Joseph Smith was his own lack of formal literary education. He wrote that it took the exertions of all his father’s family to sustain themselves, “therefore we were deprived of the benefit of an education. … I was merely instructed in reading, writing and the ground rules of arithmetic, which constituted my whole literary acquirements.” [2] Throughout his life the Prophet seemed to be concerned with his lack of literary training. In his extant correspondence he refers to his “lack of fluency in address,” his limited “ability in conveying my ideas in writing,” and “the imperfections of my writing.” [3]

The Prophet thus relied on others to write for him. More than two dozen clerks are known to have assisted him in a secretarial capacity. Of these, nine left the Church (typical of the challenges of those years), and four others died while engaged in important writing assignments.

A major inhibition of efforts to keep a record was the persecution the Prophet and the Church experienced. During the years in which the history was being written, the Latter-day Saints moved or were driven across two-thirds of the North American continent. Such unstable conditions resulted in the loss of some records and affected the accuracy of many of those that were preserved. In addition, the Prophet endured lawsuits and repeated arrests that took his attention from the history.

When Willard Richards took over the duties of Church historian in December 1842, a mere 157 pages of a work that eventually numbered 2,000 pages had been written.

On 1 March 1842, publication of the history in serial form commenced in the Nauvoo newspaper Times and Seasons. By 27 June 1844, the date of Joseph Smith’s death, the manuscript had been completed only to 5 August 1838 and published to December 1831. However, important source material had been preserved for completing the history. Shortly before his death, the Prophet wrote: “For the last three years I have a record of all my acts and proceedings, for I have kept several good, faithful, and efficient clerks in constant employ: they have accompanied me everywhere, and carefully kept my history, and they have written down what I have done, where I have been, and what I have said.” [4] Some have indicated that, prior to his death, the Prophet reviewed most of what his clerks had written.

While in Carthage Jail shortly before his death, Joseph Smith instructed the Church historian, Willard Richards, who was there with him, to continue the history. [5] This Elder Richards did, and for the next decade he was the custodian of the records and the architect of the history. After Joseph Smith’s death, work on the history continued, even as the Saints prepared to leave Nauvoo for the Rocky Mountains. With the addition of 674 pages to the manuscript, nearly as much work was done on the history in the period between the Prophet’s death and the departure of the Saints from Nauvoo as had been done in the preceding years.

At the time the records of the Church were packed at Nauvoo for the journey west in February 1846, Willard Richards had compiled the history to 1 March 1843. But in the disruptive years that followed, he was never able to complete that work. After Brother Richards’s death in 1854, George A. Smith and Wilford Woodruff continued work on the history. To assure accuracy, every effort was made to collect information. Late in 1845, for instance, an epistle to the Saints urged all who knew of “any fact, circumstance, incident, event, or transaction” that should be in the history to please report it. [6]

Finally, in August 1856, eighteen years after the history was begun, the work was completed to the death of Joseph Smith. The entire manuscript had been read in the hearing of the First Presidency and other witnesses for a general appraisal.


  1. Text is from Dean C. Jessee, "I have heard that Joseph Smith didn't actually write his history—that it was prepared by clerks under his direction. If so, how reliable is it?," Ensign (July 1985), 15. off-site; headings and additional material have been added as noted.
  2. Joseph Smith (“Autobiography,” 1832), Kirtland Letter Book, p. 1, manuscript.
  3. Letters to Moses Nickerson, 19 November 1833; to Emma Smith, 6 June 1832, original in the Chicago Historical Society, Chicago, Ill.; and to Emma Smith, 21 March 1839.
  4. Joseph Smith address, 26 May 1844, reported by Thomas Bullock; published in Joseph Smith, History of the Church, 6:409. Volume 6 link
  5. George A. Smith to Wilford Woodruff, 21 April 1856.
  6. Manuscript History of the Church, 16 November 1845.