Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » John V. Bluth: “Notes Penciled on Scratches of Paper”
 


John V. Bluth: “Notes Penciled on Scratches of Paper”

By: Ardis E. Parshall - March 25, 2011

The night of March 3, 1876, found a 12-year-old boy, coughing and sickly, walking with his mother the three miles between their home in Stockholm, Sweden, and a small lake outside of the city. They left home about 11:00 that night, “to avoid publicity and the danger” that might result if their neighbors became aware of the pending Latter-day Saint baptism. When they reached the lake shore, “we found some brethren and sisters who had cut a hole in the ice” – the transcription of his autobiography says the ice was 18 inches thick; an interview he gave to a young Gordon B. Hinckley says it was 8 inches thick. However cold it was or however thick the ice, John Vitalis Bluth was baptized that night, in between coughing spells. “I felt no fear. I entered the water and was baptized … when wrapped up and on my way home, I felt so light and happy, that it seemed as if I were treading on air. … I was never troubled with the cough and pain from which I had suffered so keenly previous to being baptized. So that baptism, instead of proving my death, as some predicted, it restored me to health.”

In 1877 the Bluth family with other Saints left Sweden to gather to Utah. John paid his own fare – he had been working already for several years, and had saved the 1/4- to 1/2-cent tips he received delivering goods from his employer, a tailor. The trip across the ocean and then across North America was one of endless fascination and sensation: the steamer from Sweden to England stank; the railroad carrying him across England – his first rail trip – raced at what seemed to him to be tremendous speed; he saw his first American flag waving aboard the ocean steamer, on July 4th of all days; and he earned his first nickel holding a horse at some rail stop in the western U.S. while freight was transferred from wagon to rail car.

Ten years after his arrival in Deseret, John served a mission in the Southern States. A few years later he served a second mission, this time to help edit the Millennial Star in England. in the early ‘30s he served four years as president of the Eastern States Mission. He was a stake president and a patriarch and served in other capacities in the church. Well into his 80s, he worked in the Church Historian’s Office – described by President Hinckley,

The years roll by, and already eighty-five have passed for John V. Bluth, But they have been profitable years, well spent in a good cause … Even now, each day without fail he shows up at his desk in the Historian’s Office, says little as he works through the hours, and quietly leaves at five o’clock. He is the type you seldom notice at work, but who becomes conspicuous when he is absent.

That quiet, steady, unremarkable daily work enabled John to finish a project he had been working at more or less steadily since his first mission.

It began as a few notes penciled on scratches of paper while a missionary walked through the beautiful Cumberland hills of eastern Tennessee back in 1887. Sitting in the shade of the forest, or resting in the cabin of one of the hospitable hill folk, the missionary would take his notebook from his straw suitcase, penciling references as he read the revelations of the Lord.

“It” was the production of a 36,000-entry concordance to the Doctrine and Covenants.

Nobody uses concordances anymore. They have been rendered obsolete by searchable digital texts, which of course allow a user to find any passage of scripture at a speed limited only by the user’s ability to stroke keys. But for hundreds of years concordances – first of the Bible, and then later of the distinctive LDS scriptures – were the handiest way to locate a passage of scripture if you didn’t have the citation stored in your memory. The ease with which we can locate scriptures today has erased our awareness, I think, of the intensive labor and drudgery and dedication of a few men of earlier generations who gave so much of their lives to making scripture study easier.

A concordance – many readers may never have used one, because they were replaced in our LDS scriptures by a much simpler Topical Guide years before digital files became commonplace – indexes the use of every major and many minor word in a volume of scripture. Taking a random verse from the Doctrine and Covenants, 76:70, as an example:

These are they whose bodies are celestial, whose glory is that of the sun, even the glory of God, the highest of all, whose glory the sun of the firmament is written of as being typical

A concordance would have an entry for this verse under bodies, celestial, glory sun, God, highest, firmament, written, and typical, at least – and perhaps even under whose, are, even, all, and being, depending on how exhaustive the concordance was intended to be. Each entry would include a few words before and after the indexed words, thus:

BODY, BODIES

…they whose B. are celestial … D&C 76:70

CELESTIAL

… they whose bodies are C., whose glory is … D&C 76:70

GLORY

… whose bodies are celestial, whose G. is that of the sun … D&C 76:70
… even the G. of God, the highest of all … D&C 76:70
… whose G. the sun of the firmament is written of … D&C 76:70

SUN

… whose glory is that of the S., even the glory of God … D&C 76:70

GOD

… even the glory of G., the highest of all … D&C 76:70

etc., etc., etc. A concordance user could scan down the excerpts listed below a keyword until he found the quotation he was searching for; then he could turn to that point in the text of the Doctrine and Covenants.

When John V. Bluth took out his scriptures and his pen and ink and slips of paper in those Tennessee cabins in 1887, he of course was working entirely by hand, the way such tedious work had to be done before the digital age. For each of those entries in the above example, and for tens of thousands of others, he would have cut an individual slip of paper. In one corner of the slip he would have written the keyword, and in another he would have written the section and verse number. Then he would have copied out enough of the verse to give a reader an indication of the context in which the keyword was used. Over and over and over and over. He would, in effect, have written, by hand, the full text of the Doctrine and Covenants 10 or 15 times before he was through!

At some point in his labors, he would have sorted all those thousands of slips of paper into piles, according to keyword. Then he would have sorted each keyword-stack into numerical order according to section and verse numbers. Then at some point, he would have written out those slips again onto whole sheets of paper, each entry in its proper order. Given the historical period at which he worked, those longhand sheets would at some point have been typed, either by John or by a clerk typist. At each stage, there must have been endless proofreading and cross-checking to be sure that nothing had been omitted and that numbers had been correctly copied.

No wonder it was the work of nearly a lifetime.

John’s Concordance to the Doctrine and Covenants is available on Google Books. Take a look; we’ll wait for you to come back here …

Amazing, isn’t it? On the one hand, it seems alien and almost unusable to 21st century eyes. On the other hand, the level of intense labor and the necessity for absolute accuracy is obvious, and mind-boggling.

The first edition of John’s concordance was published in 1945. In 1985, while speaking of the wonders of the church’s then-new edition of the scriptures, President Hinckley said:

I have a concordance to the Doctrine and Covenants that is also a first edition. It goes back forty years, having been first published in 1945. But that publication represented the work of the author, off and on, during the sixty years before its publication. John V. Bluth began this work while serving as a missionary a century ago in the Southern States. I knew him in his later years, and in my mind I can still see him as he was when he worked in the Church Historian’s Office, during which time he completed the work.

Do you think it was worth it? Would John himself think his endless work was worth it, now that the necessity for and utility of his work has been swept away in the tide of technology, to the point where I’d guess some Keepa readers have never even heard the word concordance spoken? Two generations of Latter-day Saints used his work to search the scriptures, most of us never knowing the man behind the labor, or even pausing to think that some one individual had produced the work. Men like Gordon B. Hinckley found his work valuable enough to own his book and remember the man behind it. John himself must have been as thoroughly familiar with the Doctrine and Covenants as any man who ever lived.

Most of us, I think, would like to imagine our work living long after we are gone. We want to make a mark, we want to leave a legacy. We don’t think too often about being rendered obsolete and vanishing into oblivion – it might be too hard for some of us to go on with our work if we realized how short a time it would survive. Yet I want to believe that honorable work is worthwhile, that even if it serves only the present and not the future, it has genuine worth and purpose, that it is a contribution. Today is as valuable to those of us who live today, as tomorrow will be to its generation.

Thanks, John.



7 Comments »

  1. Work done in the service of others is always worthwhile. A lovely tribute.

    Comment by Doug Hudson — March 25, 2011 @ 8:16 am

  2. Thanks Ardis. I remember speaking to a man who had retired, but had spent his life as a librarian who specialized in locating quotations. He had a massive personal collection of reference works. I didn’t ask him what it felt like to have his entire life’s work rendered obsolete…and yet there is no way that it was obsolete for all those that benefited from his expertise for decades.

    Also: Healing Baptism! Yay.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 25, 2011 @ 9:33 am

  3. I suppose I could have done a search of the digital Doctrine and Covenants, but I was awfully happy to find a reference to 88:90, a verse that had been hanging around the edges of my consciousness for a couple of weeks.

    What a work, Bro. Bluth!

    And what a middle name: Vitalis. No greasy kids’ stuff for him!

    Comment by Mark B. — March 25, 2011 @ 10:53 am

  4. I’m old enough to remember using concordances, but I haven’t kept any of those since the early 1980’s and one of our first home PCs that we were able to load a searchable text of the scriptures. Maybe it was a Folio work? Too long ago.

    What is most amazing to me about Bluth’s concordance is that it was the work of just one person. I always suspected that it must have been the work of a a committee of folks, dozens, perhaps. Bet even as mainframe computers came into service in the 1950s and 1960s, and then the early PCs, OCR was unknown or extremely unreliable, and someone still had to either type in all the text via a keyboard at a terminal, or before that at a card punch machine, and produce immense stacks of cards that had to be loaded for each run.

    I always suspected that Elder McConkie had created his own concordances of the standard works in his head. I was always impressed with his grasp of the detail of the scriptures.

    Comment by kevinf — March 25, 2011 @ 2:05 pm

  5. Wow. Thanks for recalling this for moderns. The old log tables of mathematics went away for essentially the same reason. The pains-taking head-bowing work of doing such things a hundred years ago. It’s mind boggling.

    Comment by WVS — March 25, 2011 @ 5:49 pm

  6. I’m sure that those two generations who used the concordance were grateful for it. The concordance allowed them to harvest knowledge from the Doctrine and Covenants, which strengthened them and built up their testimony. Then with that strength and testimony, they taught and strengthened succeeding generations.

    There are some passages in the Book of Mormon which indicate that the general population of the Nephites had non-metallic copies of the Brass Plates and the Small Plates of Nephi. Although it would be cool to find some remnant on parchment or skins, those non-metallic copies are long disintegrated.

    And who knows, it may be that a nuclear holocaust accompanies the 2nd coming, destroying all computers with electromagnetic pulses. And since it takes computers to design and build computers, we may be without electronic scriptures (or computerized anything) for a generation or two after the 2nd Coming, and we’ll need to dig out those concordances written on dead trees.

    Comment by Bookslinger — March 25, 2011 @ 9:26 pm

  7. Anyone who prepared a lesson or talk during the last half of the 20th Century would be grateful for this lifetime effort. Missionaries, lesson writers, and (I suspect) the committee who assembled the Topical Guide also probably appreciated the work.

    And who can put a value on lives changed for the better?

    Comment by Clark — March 28, 2011 @ 11:10 am

Leave a comment

RSS feed for comments on this post.
TrackBack URI