When studying church history, it is very easy for someone to find something that agrees with their conclusion and then use the source as a premise to support their argument. I have certainly done this, and it is the basis for almost all academic research into church history. The problem though is early LDS church history is nothing like today where we have audio and video recordings. In the early church we had someone’s recollections or their shorthand transcriptions of a talk or event which would sometimes differ in critical ways from others who did the same for the speaker. This account is then carried forward and that is then carried forward, building a mound of evidence that may differ in numerous ways from the original. This makes church history honestly fraught with landmines. An entire argument could be based on a statement only to realize the statement is a figment of someone’s imagination.
Layers of Truth
When discussing any church history subject, it is very easy to go to a single supposedly “authoritative” source and pull quotes or ideas and use them as support. However, as I will show shortly this can be very dangerous because of the numerous changes to the records. This is a similar concept to how we proof text the scriptures, however it is even more dangerous because there is almost always no indication that anything is amiss.
To illustrate this concept, I want to show a single example from church history which clearly shows the problem. Willard Richards, who was Joseph Smith’s private secretary wrote the following journal entry for October 5th, 1843.
Thursday October 5.
Morning rode out with Esqr Butterfild, to farm
P.M rode on prairie to shew some brethren some land. eve at home walked up and down st. with scribe.— and gave instruction to try those who were preaching teaching or preaching the doctrine of plurality of wives. On this Law. Joseph forbids it. and the practice thereof— No man shall have but one wifeJoseph Smith – Personal Journal
This account was very simple and direct. Joseph taught a doctrine and there was no ambivalence about the meaning of things. However, as we will see things quickly take a turn away from simplicity.
After Joseph’s death two clerks, Jonathan Grimshaw and Thomas Bullock, under the direction of Brigham Young, helped compile a set of records into a single source. This was helpful in a number of ways since a single record is much easier to reference than multiple other records. However, during a process like this changes can be introduced which can totally change the original meaning. When this happens, it can be very difficult to even know that it happened. The same journal entry for October 5th, 1843, reads as follows.
This morning I rode out with Esquire Butterfield to the farm.Joseph Smith – Church History
In the afternoon rode to the Prairie to shew some brethren some land.
Evening at home, and walked up and down the streets with my scribe. Gave instructions to try those persons who were preaching, teaching, or practicing the doctrine of plurality of wives. For according to the law, I hold the keys of this power in the last days, for there is never but one on Earth at a time on whom the power and its keys are conferred and I have constantly said no man shall have but one wife at a time unless the Lord directs otherwise.
This is obviously a huge change from the original. Joseph could have originally said these things however it would invalidate the original record so it is hard to understand why it wasn’t included. However, to be clear the entire last sentence was added which advances the concept that one Joseph was a single source of priesthood authority and two that polygamy can be commanded by God.
That single source of information was then standardized, by Robert L. Campbell and others, into what we would call the History of the Church today. This record made things much easier to read and followed a very consistent visual style which was helpful. In addition, it incorporated additional points of reference to increase its comprehensiveness. That same journal account was recorded very similarly in the new record as follows.
This morning I rode out with Esquire Butterfield to the farm.Joseph Smith – History of the Church Volume E
In the afternoon rode to the prairie to shew some brethren some land. Evening, at home, and walked up and down the streets with my scribe. Gave instructions to try those persons who were preaching, teaching, or practicing the doctrine of plurality of wives; for according to the law I hold the keys of this power in the last days, for there is never but one on Earth at a time on whom the power and its keys are conferred and I have constantly said no man shall have but one wife at a time, unless the Lord directs otherwise.
This account is almost identical to the previous one however the clear change is that it removed all visual indications that a change had actually been made. Therefore, anyone reading this account would have no idea that it differed greatly from the original version.
The last version of this journal entry is essentially what we would see and use today when researching church history. This is essentially a digitized version of the previous account which makes searching and reading vastly easier. This account is also published by BYU, which is a highly respected academic institution, therefore it would be considered by almost everyone as a valid authoritative source. The account reads essentially identical to the previous version.
Thursday, 5.—This morning I rode out with Esquire Butterfield to the farm.
In the afternoon, rode to the prairie to show some of the brethren some land. Evening, at home, and walked up and down the streets with my scribe. Gave instructions to try those persons who were preaching, teaching, or practicing the doctrine of plurality of wives: for, according to the law, I hold the keys of this power in the last days; for there is never but one on earth at a time on whom the power and its keys are conferred; and I have constantly said no man shall have but one wife at a time, unless the Lord directs otherwise.Joseph Smith – History of the Church Volume 6
Again, anyone who referenced this version would assume it was valid and authoritative. They would have no idea that it differs greatly from the original. However, using this version of the account would be like building any kind of logical argument on sand, since with a little effort, it can be shown to not be accurate. Of course, the ideas themselves may be true, it is not my purpose to address that, however the statement itself is a complete fabrication when compared with the original.
House of Lies
I honestly don’t know how many more similar cases there are in church history. However, I know there are numerous of these landmines scattered about. These are also especially nefarious because very smart and well-meaning people can easily be led astray. This is simply because the foundational records that we use as truth are in some cases provably not true. How much of our foundation is based on things that have been repeated over and over with small changes every time? How much of our foundation is based on well-meaning lies? When you build on a foundation of lies, intentional or unintentional, then according to 2 Nephi 28:18, “great must be the fall thereof“.