Appreciating Historiography: Jonathan Grimshaw and George A. Smith

Sitting here recovering from a little carving by an MD, I thought I’d express some thanks.

Most Mormons would be ignorant of the position the two men in the post title hold in regard to the ways we appreciate Joseph Smith. By appreciate, I suppose I really mean apprehend, as a body, as a Church. I’ve posted about Grimshaw before, and it is important not to underestimate him, but Smith was a careful supervisor of the work of the Historian’s office of the 1850s in Utah, with his marks being left in sometimes subtle but important ways. While the kind of ultra-careful and transparent work currently taking place with say, the Joseph Smith Papers Project[1] is not in evidence, the staff was diligent, sacrificing personally in many ways to do the work of documenting the rise of the Church, Joseph Smith’s life and the contemporary prospects of the kingdom.

A bit of George A’s background influence is registered here:

The penciled instruction is George A’s to the clerk’s to copy the manuscript which followed into another record (in this case the manuscript history of the Church), skipping every other line, to facilitate additions or corrections by Church leaders who would review it at some point. The ink is Grimshaw’s handwriting.
The second image pictures both George A’s summary of source material and regret about the lack of same (the handwriting is that of another clerk in the office, Robert Campbell).

Another influential man in the historian’s office at the same period was Wilford Woodruff. Woodruff took over as historian for George while the latter went East on Church business. Woodruff exercises the same kind of care in producing the histories and here are a couple of images that reflect both his contributions (his journal entries were important) and his supervision:

Here we see registered the Historian’s efforts to have his clerk’s work (Grimshaw in the first instance, and Thomas Bullock in the second) validated by Church leaders (Brigham Young, Jedediah M. Grant in the first instance and BY, JMG and Heber C. Kimball in the second. The other initials are WW for Woodruff and LH for Leo Hawkins, another important clerk in the office (the penciled handwriting is Hawkins’).

We owe a large debt to these men who spent many hours writing the narratives that gave early Mormonism it’s public face. To be sure, it would be done differently today, but that does not erase their efforts by any means. Those efforts enriched the faith and understanding of Latter-day Saints for nearly two centuries. RIP Jonathan, George, Wilford, Thomas, Leo, Robert, Willard and co. Whatever else you did, this much will be a marker for good.

[1] I have to say here, that the opening volume in the Revelations and Translations series in the Joseph Smith papers is perhaps the most significant volume to be produced on Joseph Smith and Mormonism in the last 100 years or so. I would place it higher, but I don’t want to get in a shooting match over it, yet. The thing about the R&T volume is what it could and should inspire. Properly seen, that work will eventually rewrite the way we have traditionally seen Joseph Smith and his work. I say this as one who is a staunch believer. We haven’t seen the tip of the iceberg here as yet in terms of what Joseph Smith did and how he did it. Royal Skousen’s work has to be near in importance and is similarly un-mined as yet.

8 Responses to Appreciating Historiography: Jonathan Grimshaw and George A. Smith

  1. David G. says:

    Thanks, WVS. Indeed, the BCR was a truly game-changing documentary discovery, and its full implications (both historical and theological) remain unclear.

    • WVS says:

      Indeed. It’s the kind of thing that requires serious scholarship and that takes time. But if I have any foresight at all, it’s impact while subtle, will eventually be momentous. From where i stand at least, it should be, both historiographically and devotionally.

  2. Robin Jensen says:


    I couldn’t agree with you more with respect to the careful clerks of the early Historian’s Office (and earlier). I marvel at the amount of work they did with such care and dedication. I of course get frustrated with their cryptic notes, odd filing systems, discarding of original sources, etc. But I continually tell anyone who’s not sick of me saying so: our history would not be the same without the men and women who created, compiled, and stored their–and our–history.

  3. Sympathetic says:

    What David and Rob said. And I’m fascinated and pleased by historians who don’t zero in solely on the obvious gold of a historical document, who also notice and tease meaning out of the kinds of marks you’ve spotlighted here.

  4. Ardis E. Parshall says:

    Hmm. I must have last used a pseudonym here for some reason. I’m sympathetic, and Sympathetic.

  5. BHodges says:

    Great stuff, and I extend my thanks to the folks who went before, and to the folks still working on the materials.

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