Penmanship Leads to Possible Misinterpretations of Early Church Documents

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The folowing article was originally written by Trent Toone for Deseret News. 

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.

Read Toone’s full article at

Kylie is a writer at and graduate of BYU with a degree in Broadcast Journalism. She grew up in a Chicago suburb where she gained a passion for the Chicago Cubs. She enjoys writing and live event video production.