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The good, the bad and the illegible: Deciphering handwriting of early LDS Church scribes

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SALT LAKE CITY — Alex D. Smith can imagine what people might think when they read this quote from a sermon by the Prophet Joseph Smith: “Do not as the brethren do.”

“OK, we know we are all human and make mistakes. ... Is he giving that kind of message or is he being facetious? Where is he coming from?” said Alex Smith, a church historian for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and volume co-editor for the Joseph Smith Papers.

“He actually said, ‘Do not as the heathens do.’ ‘Brethren’ and ‘heathen’ looked so similar (in the handwritten document) that it was an easy mistake to make. Now it makes more sense.”

When it comes to deciphering the handwriting in early LDS Church documents, one misidentified word or letter can change everything. It’s one of the challenges historians have faced while producing the Joseph Smith Papers series.

In an interview with the Deseret News at the Church History Library, Alex Smith and Sharalyn D. Howcroft, an archivist and document specialist, recently discussed different examples of precise and poor penmanship in church history, along with the challenges of and methods for interpreting early church documents.

“Sometimes it’s a puzzle,” Smith said.

Fine penmanship

Some of the finest penmanship in church history comes from lesser-known individuals, including James Sloan and Robert Thompson, according to Howcroft.

Sloan was a Nauvoo, Illinois, city recorder, clerk of the municipal court and war secretary for the Nauvoo Legion. Thompson was also a clerk in Nauvoo and a scribe for Joseph Smith in the early 1840s.

“Sloan has exquisite handwriting, some of the nicest I have seen,” Howcroft said. “He was a scribe all his own.”

Thompson’s handwriting was so meticulous that he conserved paper by writing horizontally across a page, then over it again vertically.

William Clayton once wrote three times across a page, including horizontally, vertically and diagonally, in order to save space.

“If they have clean writing, it’s still legible,” Smith said. “But you need pretty good handwriting.”

Howcroft and Smith also pointed to Thomas Bullock, Curtis E. Bolton, Orson Hyde and Wilford Woodruff as having respectable handwriting most of the time. In fact, Woodruff, the fourth president of the LDS Church, was able to write neatly in a very small font.

The majority of clerks, recorders and scribes in early church history were emigrants from Europe who had some professional training. Once historians become acquainted with an author’s handwriting style, it's easier to recognize.

“Part of trying to figure out the handwriting is taking the time to just stare at it and become familiar with the handwriting, not even looking to figure out what it says, but at how they form letters and write,” Howcroft said. “You have to use their own handwriting as a comparison for what letters are being formed.”

The hurried pen

Alex Smith said his go-to example of difficult-to-read handwriting is that of Willard Richards, who served as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and as church historian.

“He had professional experience and could write quite nicely but frequently didn’t,” said Smith, who has read Richards' handwriting extensively. “If it was intended more for public consumption, he could write precisely and cleanly. If he intended to use scribbled notes later on, then it could become illegible. … Richards was an apostle and doctor, but the doctor is reflected more in his writing.”

Richards, who served as a clerk/recorder in Nauvoo and as Joseph Smith’s private secretary and historian, faced the tough task of taking notes for anything that involved the Prophet Joseph, from his daily journal to court hearings, all without a digital recorder, Alex Smith said.

“He is writing as fast as he can and attempts some shorthand,” said Smith, pointing to a sample of Richards’ work. “But it’s an A (first letter) and then an ocean (a straight line across the page). … He leaves blanks lines to fill in later.”

Despite his poor penmanship at times, Richards was a visionary when it came to producing and preserving documentation for church history, the historians agreed.

“He was a record-keeper,” Howcroft said. “He could not stop writing.”


Unfortunately, poor handwriting has led to documented errors. Smith related two examples from church history.

One stems from the seven-volume "History of the Church," around December 1842. The reference states, “Emma had another child which did not survive its birth."

The entry goes on to say the Prophet Joseph is occupied with different duties and leaves the following day.

"I’m sure he was busy, but he couldn’t even spare a moment to sit down and grieve?" Alex Smith said.

Upon further review, it was determined the D was actually an L, Smith said. The original journal entry read, “Emma had another chill,” not child.

"Someone from the history department extrapolated she had a child, but none of our lists of Joseph’s children have any being born around this time," Smith said. "You will see published records that say ‘birth of an unnamed son’ around this time, but clearly it was mistake built upon mistake. We know she was sick during this time."

A second example comes from Joseph’s writings when he described members of a court as “a spiritually minded circuit judge and several fit men.” However, the context suggests Joseph was upset about the experience. Eventually, historians figured out that it read: “A spindle-shaped circuit judge and several fat men.”

“Much less polite, but a pretty major difference that changes the meaning,” Alex Smith said.

Proven methods

So how do church historians avoid mistakes in deciphering the handwriting in journals and other early documents?

In addition to carefully studying the style of a writer, the historians can compare an author’s handwriting with other writings in the same period. This method has also been effective for determining the identity of a document’s author.

Howcroft and Smith said it’s important to know the context and the people involved.

"In legal documents, for example, they have to use specific language," Howcroft said. "The more familiar we are with that language, the more we can narrow it down to a specific word."

Smith displayed a sample of Richards' work in Joseph Smith's last journal, dated June 26, 1844, at Carthage Jail, the day before the Prophet Joseph and his brother Hyrum were martyred.

“If you didn’t know from the surrounding words, (the handwriting) would look like a bunch of little bumps, some with names,” Alex Smith said. “If we are familiar with the people he is with, you can make out those names and spellings. Otherwise, it can be harder if you don’t know who they are talking about.

"The more familiar we are with the setting, the content of a document and the issues being confronted, we can piece it together. Even with the ones that write poorly, you can start to get a flavor for it."

After scrutinizing the handwriting of so many early church writers, Alex Smith reflected on his own penmanship.

“You read these documents and it makes you cognizant of how you write,” he said with a smile. “You are sitting in a meeting, taking notes, and you think, 'What would someone make of what I am writing?'”

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