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An Indefatigable Dane Pursues the Past by Davis Bitton
The importance of keeping a record of historical events in the Church is mentioned several times in the early revelations. That this was accomplished, however imperfectly, is due in large measure to the single-minded determination of individuals whose names are no longer remembered by most people. Such an one was Andrew Jenson.
Born in 1850, Andrew Jenson was only four years old when his parents were converted in Denmark. So he was raised in the Church. He began keeping a personal diary when he was thirteen years old and kept it faithfully until his death at the age of ninety-one.
In 1866 the family sailed from Denmark and crossed the plains to Utah. Andrew tried various jobs, working as a farmer, a railroad laborer, a cowboy, and a miner in the Bingham Canyon mine and smelter. He made some additional money by selling lithographs. At age 22, he was called as a missionary to Denmark. While there he wrote a history of the Aalborg conference and occasional articles in the Skandinaviens Stjerne. He found that he enjoyed historical writing.
After two years Andrew returned to Utah, married, and worked on a farm. He decided to translate the "History of Joseph Smith" into Danish and, showing resourcefulness, managed to sign up 900 subscribers who agreed to pay ten cents a month. The resulting work was bound into a book in 1879.
After serving another two-year mission to Denmark, Andrew began publishing Morgenstijernen, a historical magazine in the Danish language. This time he found over 2,000 subscribers. After publishing four volumes between 1881 and 1885 (totaling 960 pages), Jenson followed the request of Church authorities and changed it to an English publication, The Historical Record, for the next five years (totaling 1,135 pages). In this periodical in both its Danish and English volumes he included biographies of early leaders, histories of settlements, organizations, and missions, chronologies, documents, and private journals and personal histories.
Jenson thought he had found his calling and in 1886 wrote to President John Taylor asking for employment in the Church Historian’s Office. Disappointed when he was turned down, he proceeded to write a history of the Salt Lake Stake in 1887. He was employed part-time at fifty dollars a month and instructed to write histories of all the stakes of the Church. He also began compiling a Church chronology, first published serially in The Historical Record and then as a separate book, later revised and updated. All earnings went to the Church Historian’s Office fund.
In 1889 Andrew began traveling to different stakes and missions. Each time he would examine records, interview old-timers and current leaders, and peruse personal journals. Some of these records he took with him when he returned to Salt Lake City.
Faced with the huge practical question of how best to organize this material, Jenson started to arrange his notes and clippings in a scrapbook or expandable binder which could be updated on subsequent visits or as additional materials were acquired. In this way he compiled a "manuscript history" for each ward and stake in the Church.
Impressed by such dedication, apostle and Church Historian Franklin D. Richards gave Jenson a blessing to be a "historian in Zion." In 1891 he was "ordained" as a historian and his allowance raised to $100 per month. In 1897 he became an Assistant Church Historian and, except for a brief interruption of about two years, had this title until his death.
Even as he continued traveling and compiling, Jenson expanded these duties by launching a "Journal History of the Church." A monumental compilation of primary source material, this record was organized the same as Jenson’s ward and stake histories so that it could be conveniently added to as new material came to his attention.
Andrew Jenson also collected information for biographies of Church leaders. Published as Latter-day Saints’ Biographical Encyclopedia, this work eventually reached four volumes. As if he didn’t have enough to do, he wrote a History of the Scandinavian Mission (1927) and a highly useful Encyclopedic History of the Church (1941), with separate articles on the auxiliaries, programs past and present, and many separate towns and settlements, all alphabetically arranged.
At the end of each year Jenson tallied his activities. At the end of 1934, for example, he wrote: "During the year I traveled, almost exclusively in the interest of Church history, about 4,850 miles, namely, 2,800 by rail, 1,055 by automobile, and 1,000 by airplane. I spoke in public 90 times, including 17 regular sermons, 25 lectures on Church history in English and ten in Danish, nine Sunday School talks, seven funeral sermons, ten illustrated lectures, and six after-dinner speeches."
Andrew Jenson had a distinctive appearance. Tall and thin, with close-cropped hair, rimmed glasses, starched white collar and black string tie, he was easily recognized. At least with this description a missionary in the Eastern States Mission in the late 1920s was able to spot Jenson in a crowded railway station.
All told, Jenson traveled an incredible one million miles–twice around the world, crossing the Pacific Ocean four times, the Atlantic thirteen times. He visited every Latter-day Saint mission except South Africa. He served ten missions for the Church, including a three-year term as president of the Scandinavian Mission (1909-1912). He gave an estimated six thousand addresses, thus educating a whole generation in historical matters. He died in 1941.
Today professional historians are employed by our church universities. Family history and university libraries employ archivists who gather material. Employees of the Family and Church History Department visit different parts of the world and gather documents and oral history. But the work among the nations, tongues, and peoples of the world is vast and multilayered. In many different settings countless personal histories tell of opposition and problems, miracles of healing and divine inspiration, and the power of faith to overcome.
Is there not room for new Andrew Jensons? Without official calling perhaps but with the encouragement of their file leaders, dedicated members with a vision of what needs to be done might save from oblivion priceless records and testimonies from Madagascar to Mongolia, from Fiji to Malta, from France to Korea, from Mississauga to Vina del Mar, from Blackfoot, Idaho, to Lagos, Nigeria.
Davis Bitton is a retired University of Utah history professor. After serving a mission in France, he graduated from BYU and then received M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Princeton University. For ten years he was assistant Church historian. His most recent books are "Images of the Prophet Joseph Smith" and "George Q. Cannon: A Biography." Davis had the good fortune and blessing to marry JoAn, a convert and former missionary in Chile. Daughter of an immigrant from Malta, JoAn edits a newsletter for Maltese Latter-day Saints and missionaries. Davis and JoAn served as guides on Temple Square for five years. They live on the lower avenues in Salt Lake City.