The Church Historian’s Office c1972
April 8, 2010 5 Comments
In the early 1970s, the access point for the historical archives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was a small group of rooms in the northwest corner of the 3rd floor of what is known as the “Church Administration Building.” (47 East, South Temple St., Salt Lake City, Utah.) In the perimeter hallway were microfilm readers. The reading room had some 1940s era typewriters (yeah, not electric) and you needed to bring your own ribbon(!) and paper if you hoped to find them useful.
A card catalog file showed some of what was available for fetching. The research director, if he liked you, would approve those requests. The lighting was not great. But there was treasure to be seen, if you knew what to ask for.
The atmosphere was friendly, and at times crowded. I was a poor (maybe in both senses) student, still trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life. It was here that my interest in Joseph Smith’s sermons began.
At this point the archives were undergoing a sea change in both access policy and organization. I’m not going to discuss what drove that change. I just want to give you some picture of what it was like to do some work there at the time. Keep in mind the inaccuracy of memory.
There were mountains of material, and the efficiencies of extracting information were maddeningly low. Hundreds and hundreds of file boxes containing the personal papers of church members and leaders of yesteryear could be had by filling out a request form and handing it to the archivists. My research at the time centered around issues that ranged over the period from Joseph Smith to Joseph F. Smith. Consequently this meant reading thousands of pages of material. Letters, journals, microfilm. It meant full days writing, typing and speaking into a portable cassette recorder for later transcription. I tried to make facsimiles of letters by typing them out. After a while I realized the futility of the enterprise and just started reading, occasionally typing some notes with source info.
Interesting people were always passing through, making for interesting conversation. Truman Madsen came by and told stories on Joseph Fielding Smith. While I was reading through the 30 odd boxes of B. H. Roberts’ papers, in the last box was a printer’s proof of volume 6 of A Comprehensive History of the Church. I pulled it out. It was bound in a flexible case with a snap closure. Opening it up I saw that Roberts had carefully underlined in red pencil, words in the proof that could be deleted from sentences and paragraphs, to make the manuscript short enough to satisfy the publisher’s volume length restrictions.
Sitting across the table from me one week was Howard Searle, doing research on what would eventually result in his dissertation years later, I suppose. Of course he was very interested in the existence of the proofs I had come across. There were some ooos and ahhs in the room at the time. The episode illustrated one of the problems and part of the cool factor in doing stuff there. Registers were basically, well non-existent, or so it seemed. You could run into practically anything. And for better or worse, you got to handle the real thing. I confess that I did appreciate the unfettered access and (now) the shudders that would have been running through the current access police could they witness me handling that precious stuff. (White gloves? Ha!)
The Talmage papers, the Joseph F. Smith papers, the Joseph Smith and Brigham Young collections (BY’s was (and is) HUGE.) Orson Pratt, Orson Hyde, John Taylor, George Q. Cannon (much of his journal was not available, but Roberts had copied interesting stuff from them). There were others, and just thinking about it makes me salivate. If I had had any conception of what was really there in places I didn’t look into at the time, I would have cried. But as it was, it looked like gazing into infinity.
Not *too* long after this, everything was moved to the (then) new Church Office Building. There were collections of BY stuff in the basement at 47 East that had been undisturbed I think for a hundred years or more (well they had been moved there when the building was completed, but it didn’t look like they had been sorted through from the old CHO).
What does this have to do with the funeral sermon book? Well, it was there that I first got the idea to do some source criticism of the King Follett Sermon. And not being able to help myself, a little bit of impact study. So that was a seed for the book. Fun stuff, for history/English geeks! I imagine anyone else quit reading long ago. (ha)
 I tried publishing a short article on that in BYU studies at the time. But the editor said (after 6 months!) that it was just too controversial. By that time I was going a different direction, or I might have sent it to Dialogue. Ancient history.