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George Reynolds: Loyal Friend of the Book of Mormon

TitleGeorge Reynolds: Loyal Friend of the Book of Mormon
Publication TypeMagazine Article
Year of Publication1986
AuthorsVan Orden, Bruce A.
Issue Number8
Date PublishedAugust 1986
KeywordsBiography; Commentary; Reynolds, George; Scholarship; Scripture Study

This article traces the life of George Reynolds, emphasizing his love of the Book of Mormon and his work in studying and writing about it—especially for the purpose of training the youth of the Church in the Book of Mormon’s history and doctrine.


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George Reynolds: Loyal Friend of the Book of Mormon

By Bruce A. Van Orden

Though unknown to most members of the Church today, George Reynolds was widely known by his fellow Saints a century ago for his service to the Church in a variety of impressive ways. But it is for his work with the Book of Mormon that George Reynolds was most recognized.

George was born 1 January 1842 near London, England. He first became acquainted with the Church at age seven, overhearing men in his father’s tailor shop making derogatory remarks about Mormons. Just two years later, a maid at his grandmother’s home took him with her to the local branch of the Church. Even at that tender age, George responded to the Church’s teachings and requested baptism. However, he could not be baptized without his parents’ consent, which they never gave. But George persisted, fearing that he might die or that Christ might come before he could be baptized. Finally, at age fourteen, he visited a branch where no one knew him and he was accepted for baptism.

As a young man in England, George took an active part in the Church. He fulfilled many secretarial assignments and also served a full-time mission in England. As emigration clerk of the European Mission, he worked closely with President George Q. Cannon, who became a father-figure and a lifelong associate to the youthful George.

In 1865 George emigrated to Utah. By the end of the year, he had married his English sweetheart, Mary Ann Tuddenham, and gone to work in the office of President Brigham Young. Over the years, he worked in the Office of the President as accounting clerk, correspondence secretary, ordinance recorder, and private secretary. Gradually, he also assumed a number of other posts—serving as a member of the Salt Lake City council, regent for the University of Deseret, and member of the governing boards of several business enterprises. His flowering literary abilities were also being cultivated during this period. Under Elder George Q. Cannon, he was an assistant editor of the Deseret News and wrote several articles for the Juvenile Instructor. He also spent a year in England as assistant editor of the Millennial Star and the Journal of Discourses.

But the most difficult assignment of George Reynolds’s lifetime came in 1874, shortly after he had married a second wife, Amelia Schofield. The Morrill Act of 1862 had made the practice of plural marriage illegal, but leaders of the Church regarded this kind of law to be unconstitutional, as it prohibited a religious practice. In order to test its constitutionality, the U.S. attorney from Utah and the leaders of the Church agreed to provide a “test case.”

George Reynolds was asked to serve as the Church’s representative in the case. When his case reached the Supreme Court in 1879, the Court ruled against the Church and against George Reynolds. Brother Reynolds was sentenced to two years of hard labor in a federal penitentiary. Through the efforts of Utah Territorial Delegate George Q. Cannon, the hard-labor clause was revoked, the sentence was reduced to eighteen months, and Brother Reynolds was assigned for most of his sentence to the Utah Territorial Penitentiary.

George was regarded as a “prisoner for conscience’ sake,” and prayers in his behalf were offered throughout the Church. Just before Brother Reynolds entered prison, President John Taylor pronounced a blessing on him. The Holy Spirit would rest upon him, promised President Taylor, to enlighten him and other Church members regarding scriptural understanding.

And, indeed, it was in prison that George began to make his great contribution to Book of Mormon commentary. He spent the early months reading the standard works to increase his understanding. He was thrilled with the new 1879 edition of the Book of Mormon—arranged into chapters and verses by Elder Orson Pratt—and felt motivated to write about the book. And write he did—about eighty published articles in all, most of them about the Book of Mormon.

The actual work of writing in prison was not easy. He did have long stretches of uninterrupted time for thought and meditation. But his journal reveals that the terrible monotony of prison life was the single greatest threat to him. Furthermore, the prison yard where he worked was far from conducive to writing. Seated on a small stool with his notes nailed to the wall in front of him, he wrote in longhand on a small lapboard. Dust often blinded him, and the wind would flurry his papers over the yard during the miserably hot, dry summer. The winter was one of the coldest on record in Utah, with the temperature frequently dipping below zero, numbing George’s fingers. But he pressed relentlessly on.

During the summer of 1880, in a depressed and frustrated mood, George stopped writing for a month. Then a brainstorm hit him: the Church could use a concordance to the Book of Mormon, similar to Alexander Cruden’s Complete Concordance to the Old and New Testaments. With renewed vigor, George plunged back into his work, transcribing passages from the Book of Mormon at the rate of as many as 350 per day. In October he was granted permission to work by day in the relative comfort of the guards’ dining room, which enabled him to work even more rapidly. By the time of his release on 20 January 1881, George had completed 25,000 entries in his concordance. But his monumental work would not be published until over twenty years later—in 1904.

From the time the Church was organized in 1830, the Book of Mormon had played a major role in the conversion process for countless members of the Church. But, even as late as 1880, the average member of the Church was probably more familiar with Bible history and personalities than with their Book of Mormon counterparts. Furthermore, almost nothing had been written to teach children about this book of scripture. Elder George Q. Cannon and his close friend George Reynolds, together with others of the new Deseret Sunday School Union, tried to fill this gap in the 1870s by printing articles in the Juvenile Instructor, as well as in several children’s readers. Most of the articles written by George Reynolds while in prison were for these children’s publications.

After Brother Reynolds was released from prison, many of his friends urged him to organize his private writings on the Book of Mormon into a single volume. In 1888 his Story of the Book of Mormon appeared, the first complete—though unofficial—commentary on the text of the Book of Mormon.

This volume provided a generation of the Church’s youth with their first training in the history and doctrines of the Book of Mormon. It was illustrated with forty-two beautifully drawn pictures of incidents from Book of Mormon history, the first such published. The illustrators included George M. Ottinger, William T. Armitage, John Held, W. C. Morris, and others.

The opening passage of The Story of the Book of Mormon reveals the flavor of Brother Reynolds’s writing. Note the editorial use of we, a common literary device of the time:

“The story that we are about to relate is a true one. It is the history of the races who lived on this broad land of ours long, long ago. From it we shall learn many lessons of God’s great love for man. We shall also learn how often his love has been spurned, how apt his favored children have been to walk in ways of sin, and how prone to disobey his holy law. It is a story full of light and shade, one which it will be well for all of us to take to heart, for by so doing our faith in God will increase, and we shall be prompted to strive the more earnestly to avoid the evils that others by their misdeeds have brought upon themselves and their posterity.”1

The first half of the book gives a running narrative of the story of the Book of Mormon. The second half contains essays by Brother Reynolds, such as “The Women of the Book of Mormon,” “Domestic Life among the Nephites,” and “The Laws of the Nephites.” These ethnological and sociological studies are remarkable for their detail and clarity.

“In the midst of a people guided or reproved through their entire national life by an almost continuous succession of inspired teachers, it is but reasonable to conclude that the domestic virtues were assiduously cultivated, and all departures therefrom severely rebuked. Industry, economy, thrift, prudence, and moderation in dress were evidently as much the subject of the prophet’s commendation then as in these latter days. Zeniff and others directly refer to the labors and toils of the Nephite women in spinning and making the material with which they clothed themselves and their households. …

“The materials of which the clothing of this race were made are frequently mentioned in the inspired record. Fine silk, fine twined or twisted linen, and cloth of every kind are often spoken of. In one place good homely cloth is mentioned. By the word homely we must not understand the writer to mean ugly; the word is there evidently applied in its original significance, as it is used to-day in England, for homelike or fit for home—such material as was suited to the everyday life of an industrious, hardworking people.”2

George Reynolds may have been the first Latter-day Saint scholar to analyze the proper names found in the Book of Mormon. He investigated a host of names, tracing their possible roots as best he could. Brother Reynolds was also the first Book of Mormon student to give serious attention to the geography of the Book of Mormon. Although his study involved personal speculation, much of which is seriously questioned today, Brother Reynolds was the first to attempt a detailed description of every city, valley, hill, land, and river mentioned in the Book of Mormon and their relationship to each other. No previous student had made such an effort.

When George Reynolds returned to the Office of the President following his prison term, President John Taylor assigned George to help him with some unfinished writing. So George went regularly each morning at 8:30 to President Taylor’s residence in the Gardo House, where the President would dictate or the two would engage in hunting up scriptures. The first piece they finished was Items on Priesthood Presented to the Latter-day Saints. Then the two turned to Mediation and Atonement.

Brother Reynolds’s first book of his own in the 1880s was The Myth of the “Manuscript Found,” or the Absurdities of the “Spaulding Story,” which consisted of fifteen essays that had been published in the Juvenile Instructor. The work was published to counter the theory recently published that Joseph Smith used a manuscript by Solomon Spaulding to compile the Book of Mormon. George used arguments against the Spaulding theory advanced forty years earlier. But he also answered critics’ objections that the three-months’ time taken for translation was impossibly short. Reynolds calculated how quite possibly Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery could have accomplished their task from April to late June 1829.

In 1890, the same year he was called as a General Authority, Elder Reynolds published his Book of Mormon Chronological Chart, a short pamphlet which had been originally included in The Story of the Book of Mormon. This useful chronology lists in short paragraph form the major events in the Book of Mormon, with their corresponding B.C. or A.D. dates in one column and in the other column the year in the Book of Mormon story (e.g., 621, meaning 621 years since Lehi left Jerusalem). It appears that Elder James E. Talmage made liberal use of this chart when he included chronological data in the 1921 edition of the Book of Mormon.

Elder Reynolds’s next publication, in 1891, was A Dictionary of the Book of Mormon, which was an outgrowth of his research for The Story of the Book of Mormon and his work on the Book of Mormon concordance. This dictionary, which was printed in several editions, contained the name of every person and place mentioned in the Book of Mormon. An entry on the Amalekites reads—

“A sect of Nephite apostates whose origin is not given. Many of them were after the order of Nehor. Very early in the days of the republic they had affiliated with the Lamanites and with them built a large city, not far from the waters of Mormon, which they called Jerusalem. They were exceedingly crafty and hard-hearted, and in all the ministrations of the sons of Mosiah among them only one was converted. They led in the massacres of the Christian Lamanites or people of Anti-Nephi-Lehi; and in later years the Lamanite generals were in the habit of placing them in high command in their armies, because of their greater force of character, their intense hatred to their former brethren, and their more wicked and murderous disposition. In the sacred record they are generally associated with the Zoramites and Amulonites.”3

In the 1880s and 1890s, Elder Reynolds had multiple secretarial duties, travel assignments throughout the stakes, and numerous administrative duties. Through it all, Elder Reynolds relentlessly worked on his vast concordance to the Book of Mormon. He would often get up early and retire late so that he could record a few more passages each day. He enlisted family members and friends to assist him in the project. George Reynolds was uncomfortable unless he was working. As a result, his health suffered.

He even put up $3,000 of his own money—then a hefty sum—to underwrite the publication. “I have but little hope while I live of receiving this amount back through sales of the book. …”4 This was his labor of love. He consecrated it with all his heart to the Church he loved. When he finally finished the project in 1904, he noted, “Had I known the vast amount of labor, patience and care it would take to prepare it I should, undoubtedly, have hesitated before commencing so vast, so tedious and so costly a work.”5 In the end, it was this overburdening work that led to a debilitating stroke in 1907.

Most Latter-day Saints who have heard of George Reynolds associate his name with Janne M. Sjodahl and the seven-volume Commentary on the Book of Mormon that bears both names. Actually, Elder Reynolds and Brother Sjodahl had little, if any, contact while they were alive. But a son of George Reynolds married a daughter of Brother Sjodahl ten years after his father’s death. This son, with some help from a grandson of Brother Sjodahl, compiled and edited the seven-volume work from the often disparate writings of Janne Sjodahl and George Reynolds.

George Reynolds did not confine his writing to topics relating to the Book of Mormon. He had an abiding interest in genealogy and particularly in the roots of the Latter-day Saints people. Hence he wrote Are We of Israel?, a work that is still quoted today. A related work published in 1879 was The Book of Abraham: Its Authenticity Established As a Divine and Ancient Record. George wrote this work at the same time the Book of Abraham was being prepared for publication by Orson Pratt in the soon-to-be canonized Pearl of Great Price.

Throughout his life, George wrote nearly three hundred articles, plus a few poems, for Church periodicals and several newspapers. His works ranged in subject matter from Bible history to geography, from travel to biographies of famous men, from natural science to original stories. He was considered by his peers to be one of the most learned men in the Church, but, like so many other great men in the Church in the nineteenth century, he was self-taught. Elder Heber J. Grant remarked that he never asked George a question but that he received an outstanding answer. But his close associate in the Seventies, Elder Seymour B. Young, noted: “He was one of the most modest and retiring of men, never officious in his superiority but humble and quiet.”

George Reynolds was an unaspiring, indefatigable servant of God. Above all, he was a loyal friend of the Book of Mormon. It can quite possibly be said that throughout his long and tiring labors, George Reynolds did more than any other person to train the youth of the Church in the teachings of the Book of Mormon in the nineteenth century.

Bruce A. Van Orden, an assistant professor of Church history at BYU, serves as bishop of the Lindon (Utah) Sixth Ward.

  1. The Story of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Jos. Hyrum Parry, 1888), p. 17.
  2. Ibid., pp. 313–14.
  3. A Dictionary of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Jos. Hyrum Parry, 1891), p. 47.
  4. Preface, A Complete Concordance to the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: n.p., 1900).
  5. Ibid.