Earlier this week the Mormon Church announced that they were publishing all the works written or overseen by Joseph Smith. This project, known as the Joseph Smith Papers Project, aims to be the “end all, be all” of primary sources about Joseph Smith, the first prophet of the Mormon Church.
This is an important project. Until now, the primary sources for Joseph Smith have been a crazy-quilt collection of documents, books, and articles. The backbone of all Joseph Smith-ology is the seven volume History Of the Church. This is essentially a super-deluxe version of Joseph Smith diaries and his official Church history and autobiography, fused with contemporary diary accounts, newspaper reports, and many affidavits. Compiled and published in 1857, and first published as a seven volume work in the 1930s, it has be a valuable resource for information on the events, history, and doctrine of the Mormon Church.
However, it did have some weaknesses. One area was the silent editorial interpolations. This is the incidental textual tweaking done before publication. Historians want to get back to the original unvarnished sources—the “raw footage” as it were. Even though these changes were done in good faith and change nothing of the substance of the record, it is important for historians to know what these changes were.
(For a scholarly look at the writing of the history, read Dean C. Jessee’s article here.)
Another was the sheer bulk of the work. Elder B. H. Roberts who oversaw the publication was rather meticulous—almost to a fault. The work overwhelms you with footnotes. So in 1938 Elder Joseph Fielding Smith published Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. This slimmer volume is mostly a doctrinal book, containing council meeting minutes, editorials, and full-length sermons of the prophet. This book, with the exception of the scriptures, has done the most for making the teachings and thought of Joseph Smith accessible than any other book.
“You have been blessed with ability to comprehend, to analyze, and defend the principles of truth above many of your fellows, and the time will come when the accumulative evidence that you have gathered will stand as a wall of defense against those who are seeking and will seek to destroy the evidence of the divinity of the mission of the prophet Joseph; and in this defense you will never be confounded.”
Another source people like me use is the reprints editions of the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Book of Commandments. These are immensely helpful, since the originals are both fragile and scarce. But they are not part of one cohesive and critical system.
In the 1970s, there was a new wave of scholarship. In BYU Studies, many newly-found documents and journals were published for the first time. These included the George Laub journal, and Joseph Smith’s 1832 Church History. This last one is my favorite. It is both autobiographical and autographical—Joseph Smith tells his own story and does it in his own handwriting. It is one of the most powerful things I have read.
This wave of scholarship has continued to the present. Several primary source books were published. One was They Knew The Prophet, which is a compilation of later reminisces about Joseph Smith. And several books containing the original journals were published. These were Personal Writing of Joseph Smith (which has both journals and letters), and The Papers of Joseph Smith (2 volumes). A collection of just the journals and diaries called An American Prophet’s Record has been a handy one-volume source. There was also The Words of Joseph Smith, which is a compilation of the original journal entries that were the base texts for the official History of the Church and Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Also, some of Joseph Smith’s council meeting minutes were published in The Far West Record.
So the essential sources for Joseph Smith have been out there for decades. But they have gone in and out of print as time has passed. And there has not been any overarching uniformity or editorial cohesiveness. This is not to say there was any deviousness on the part of the people involved, but just that different people have different standards and judgment calls. And sorting out all of this gums up the work of history.
For all of these reasons this is why The Joseph Smith Papers Project is so important. It gathers everything under one cover, with one editorial standard, and one protocol. And the endorsement by the National Historical Publications and Records means everything. This is the equivalent of getting the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval or the Underwriters Laboratories certification. Thus this project meets the standards of the United States National Archives, the caretakers of American political history and custodians of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution.
Thanks goes to the Mormon Church and the Church Historian for authorizing this project. I am grateful for the competent editors and Dean C. Jessee, whose life’s work is the eye of this historical hurricane.
I am also grateful to Larry H. Miller, owner of the Utah Jazz, for financing this project. He has been more than generous with his means. Because of his generosity, people like me will be able to do the work we do. We will have the sources and the information we need to do analysis and history as it should be done. I have never been to a Jazz game. I have never bought an automobile from him. But I am indebted to him for making all of this material available.
Presiding Bishop Edward Hunter, before he was presiding bishop of the Mormon Church, lived in Nauvoo with Joseph Smith. He had a knack for making money (something that skipped a generation in my case), and gave generously to the Church. One year he gave the Church $15,000 dollars. In 2008 dollars, that is almost $300,000. Joseph Smith told him that he had done enough, and to keep the rest for his own use.
I am the great-great-grandnephew of Bishop Edward Hunter. As Edward Hunter was generous to Joseph Smith, now I as a co-lateral descendant of Edward Hunter express my thanks to Larry H. Miller for his generosity in allowing me to study the life of Joseph Smith.
The work is estimated to be about 30 volumes long, with a few released each year. I will be fifty with the project is complete. But it is something to look forward to. And a dream come true.