HC served an important role for many years, but it has been superseded by the Joseph Smith Papers. As a compilation from various sources, HC is not a verbatim record of what Joseph Smith said or wrote. The compilers re-wrote many original sources in the first person, as if Joseph Smith wrote them. While that may have been a standard, or at least acceptable, practice in the 1800s, it's misleading today.
Here's the example that prompted this post. A new book, A Reason for Faith: Navigating LDS Doctrine & Church History, published by BYU's Religious Studies Center and Deseret Book, is getting a lot of marketing attention. I'll comment more on that book later, but for now I want to look at this issue with the HC.
I apologize in advance for the long post. It is part of a paper I was doing anyway, so I thought I'd just put it here. As always, these are preliminary thoughts, subject to change and correction.
On p. 27 of A Reason for Faith, a passage reads as follows:
It helps to know what Joseph actually meant by the phrase "most correct book." The more complete quotation states, "I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book." For Joseph, the correctness was in the precepts it taught, not in the absolute infallibility of the words on the page. We know that Joseph didn't consider the actual words to be perfect, because he himself participated in making editorial changes after the first edition.
 History of the Church, 4-461
I'll address the substance of that argument in an upcoming post, but for now, I'm just looking at the quotation. This passage from HC 4:461 is often quoted, but Joseph never wrote those words. The passage is adapted from Wilford Woodruff's journal. [I realize that the official introduction to the Book of Mormon uses the HC version as a quotation from Joseph Smith, but that's a historical artifact, another example of the problem HC causes that ought to be corrected, so to speak.]
In the Joseph Smith papers, you can see where the HC got the quotation. It's from Volume C-1 of the History, 1838-1856, and the page is available online here. Volume C-1 was not started until 24 February 1845--after Joseph's death. The JSP note explains: "Compilers Willard Richards and Thomas Bullock drew heavily from JS’s letters, discourses, and diary entries; meeting minutes; church and other periodicals and journals; and reminiscences, recollections, and letters of church members and other contacts. At JS’s behest, Richards maintained the first-person, chronological-narrative format established in previous volumes, as if JS were the author."
The source of the "most correct book" quotation is Wilford Woodruff's journal entry for November 28, 1841:
Sunday I spent the day at B. Young in company with Joseph & the Twelve in conversing upon a variety of Subjects. It was an interesting day. Elder Joseph Fielding was present. He had been in England four years. We also saw a number of english Brethren.
Joseph Said the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any Book on Earth & the key stone of our religion & a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts than any other Book.
Obviously, the wording is nearly the same as in HC, but is Woodruff directly quoting Joseph here? No. If nothing else, Joseph would have said "The Book of Mormon is the most correct of any Book..." But there are more reasons to conclude this is not a direct quotation.
Before parsing the phrase most correct, the preliminary question should be whether Joseph used the term correct in the first place, or if it was a term Woodruff used to summarize what he understood Joseph to have said.* In all of his holographic writings, Joseph used a form of "correct" only once. In his journal on 1 December 1832, he wrote "bore testimony to Mr. Gilmore wrote and corrected revelations &c." He never wrote the word correct as an adjective, and it does not appear in the D&C as an adjective. In the Book of Mormon, it appears only in the phrases "which were correct," "which are correct," "which are not correct," and "which were not correct."
By contrast, correct is a term Woodruff used often as an adjective, as I'll show below.
In his journals, Woodruff summarized many sermons and statements of others. He also used quotation marks hundreds of times for direct quotations, but not here.
For example, on December 19th, he made a relatively long entry that contains direct quotations from Joseph's statements, as well as summaries of what Joseph said:
Joseph the Seer arose & read a Chapter in the New Testiment containing the parable of the vine & its branches & explained it much to our edification & said "if we kept the commandments of God we should bring forth fruit & be the friends of God & know what our Lord did.
"Some say Joseph is a fallen Prophet because he does not bring forth more of the word of the Lord." "Why does he not do it?" Are we able to receive it? No (says he) not one in this room. He then chastized us for our wickedness & unbelief knowing that whom the Lord loveth he Chasteneth & Scourgeth evry son & daughter whom He receiveth & if we do not receive chastizements then are we Bastards & not Sons.
Like Woodruff's summary from December 19th, the "most correct book" sentence contains three discreet thoughts, separated by the ampersand. each with distinct grammar. While it's possible Woodruff used Joseph's terminology, I think Woodruff is using his own terminology to summarize a days' worth of conversations and teachings.
[NOTE: Two accounts of the King Follet sermon have Joseph using the phrase "most correct," so presumably he used the phrase at least on that occasion. (The amalgamated report of this sermon is the only appearance of the phrase in the entire Times and Seasons.) Joseph easily could have used the phrase in November 1841, but because Woodruff did not put it in quotations, and because he uses the word so frequently himself while Joseph never did apart from the reports of the King Follet sermon, I think it's more likely Woodruff used his own verbiage in his journal.]
The book The Lost City of Zarahemla proposes a reason for Joseph's comments about the Book of Mormon during November 1841. I won't get into that in detail here, but I propose Joseph was responding to questions about historicity that were being raised by antagonists. In this post, I'm merely assessing Woodruff's use of the term "most correct" in this context.
The 1828 Webster's dictionary gives several definitions. (Note: I'm not using Early Modern English because this is Woodruff's term, not a translation from the plates.)
When you see how Woodruff used the term in other contexts, you might conclude, like me, that he uses it for a variety of meanings. Here are examples from the second volume of his journal (1841-1845):
- I spent the day in reading the 1st vol of INCIDENTS OF TRAVELS IN Central America Chiapas AND Yucatan BY JOHN L STEPHEN'S Author of "Incidents of travels in Egypt, Arabia PetrAEa and the Holy Land Illustrated by numerous engravings in two vol. I felt truly interested in this work for it brought to light a flood of testimony in proof of the book of mormon in the discovery & survey of the city Copan in Central America A correct drawing of the monuments, pyramids, portraits, & Hieroglyphics as executed by Mr Catherwood is now presented before the publick & is truly a wonder to the world. Their whole travels were truly interesting.
Comment: one wonders how Woodruff knew the drawings were "correct" if he had never seen these sites for himself; i.e., he couldn't possibly know whether the drawings were accurate. Instead, he seems to have a different connotation in mind. Exact? Detailed? Precise? Complete? Pleasing?
- It contains 14 portraits correct likenesses of the following Persons: Napoleon in the centre at full length in his Imperial Robes seated on a throne of bronze represented as A Star surrounded by 13 rays upon which are inscribed the following names: Wertengen, Hemmingen, Flechengin, Ulm, Augsbourg, Braunau, Lintz Diernstern Vienne, Inspruk, Brunn, Austenlitz And Presbury.
Comment: again, one wonders how Woodruff knew the portraits were "correct" if he had never met these people himself. What could he have meant by the term here? Exact? Detailed? Precise? Complete? Pleasing?
- The Govonor acknowledges the death of the Prophet and Patriarch to be a wanton murder. We do not obtain one word from any of our friends so that we can obtain anything Correct upon the subject. I hope we may get sumthing soon.
Comment: Does Woodruff really mean "correct" in the sense of "free from error," or does he mean reliable and trustworthy?
- In the evening I met with the quorum and had an interesting time. We had received correct information concerning the death of Joseph Duncan & Govornor Reynold of Missouri. He Shot himself through the head. They were two of the most invenerate enemies against the latter Day Saints. President Joseph Smith Prophesyed that within five years we should be rid of our old enemies whether they were Apostates or of the world & wished us to record it that when it comes to pass that we need not say we had forgotten the saying.
Comment. Reynolds did die of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, but Duncan died after several days of illness. What does Woodruff mean by "correct" here? Recent? Important? Accurate? Had he previously received false information? How did he know this report was accurate?
- We have already got the opinions of men enough concerning the coming of Jesus Christ. But we need the voice of a Prophet in such a Case & we have it & I am willing to risk my all upon it. And if the Elders understand the principal of gathering and teach it correctly the people would have the correct spirit of gathering.
Comment. A connotation of accurate doesn't fit here; instead, the term seems to invoke conformance to a standard of behavior and motivation.
So when he recorded that "Joseph Said the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any Book on Earth," what did Woodruff mean?
I don't think Woodruff was referring to the precepts; those are mentioned in the third separate part of the sentence.
I think Joseph spent some time reiterating the accuracy of the translation and the reality of the historicity of the text. And Woodruff summarized that by writing that it was the most correct of any book on Earth.
It's interesting that the 1828 Webster's uses this example: "A correct edition of a book is exactly according to the original copy." That, it seems to me, would also apply to a translation.
Therefore, I propose that Woodruff used the term "correct" to mean accurate, real, historical, and factual.
When we look at the changes to the text that Joseph and others made, they involved mainly punctuation and spelling. There were few changes to word choices and additions to the text, which boil down to clarifications (and sometimes eliminated the Hebrew constructions). In a way, some of these changes, while well-intentioned and designed to help English readers, actually obscured the literary indications of ancient origins. We could even say the text was more accurate when originally translated than it is now. Fortunately, we have the original printer's manuscript for comparison.
*Because it was edited into a first-person statement by Joseph Smith, Woodruff's summary has generated a tremendous amount of analysis and controversy about what Joseph meant by "most correct." In addition to the excerpt from A Reason for Faith, here are some of many articles on the topic: