Robert L. Millet Blog Posts
Publications Director of BYU Religious Studies Center
POSTED BY: Millet
I was sitting in a Sunday School class once when the teacher began to address the issue of comparing ourselves to one another. He warned of the hazards of doing so and then added, “We should never compare ourselves or our situations in life to others. If you must compare yourself to someone, then compare yourself to Christ, for he is our Exemplar.” I reflected on that comment for quite a while that day and found myself thinking, “Oh, we should compare ourselves with Christ. Well, that certainly makes me feel better! From now on I will lay my deeds and my puny offerings next to his, and then I can really get (and stay) depressed.”
The fact is, comparing just doesn’t work. Period. We will either maintain a constant feeling of inadequacy or cultivate an inappropriate view of our own importance. Neither is healthy. Even some of Jesus’ chosen disciples were tempted to seek for positions of prominence, and the Master chastened them with the words, “Whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant” (Matthew 20:26–27; compare Mark 10:28–41). Jesus himself set the standard and abolished all forms of spiritual pecking orders when he, the greatest man to traverse earth’s paths, described his role as follows: “I am among you as he that serveth” (Luke 22:27).
Andy Stanley put this all into perspective when he asked: “When you die, do you get to go to heaven if your good deeds constitute 70 percent of your overall deeds? Or does 51 percent earn you a passing grade? . . . Or what if God’s holiness and perfection outweigh his mercy and he requires that 90 percent of our deeds be good? Or what if God grades on a curve and Mother Teresa skewed the cosmic curve, raising the bar for good deeds beyond what most of us are capable of?” (How Good Is Good Enough? 45–46.)
While for Latter-day Saints, salvation is a family affair, coming unto Christ by covenant and carrying out the will of God is an individual undertaking. When it comes to standing at the bar of judgment, a summary of our lives (including our good deeds) will not be placed alongside anyone else’s. We are baptized one by one, confirmed one by one, ordained one by one, set apart one by one, and endowed one by one. And even though we kneel in the house of the Lord opposite the love of our life in the highest ordinance this side of heaven, the keeping of temple covenants and ultimately the matter of being conformed to the image of Christ is accomplished one soul at a time. We are all in this together. No one of us is exempt from the examinations of mortality or receives a bye in the game of life. We’re here to do the best we can. The quest for spirituality doesn’t entail our being xeroxed into the image of another human, but rather the quest to have God, through his Holy Spirit, make you and me into all that he desires us to be. Through the years and after the Holy Ghost has fashioned our hearts, after the Lord has educated our consciences, after the Spirit has matured our judgment and enhanced our wisdom, then “when [Christ] shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (Moroni 7:48; compare 1 John 3:1–2).
POSTED BY: Millet
The gospel of Jesus Christ is the grand news, the glad tidings that through our exercise of faith in Jesus Christ and his Atonement, coupled with our repentance that flows therefrom, we may be forgiven of our sins and justified or made right with God. Our standing before the Almighty has thereby changed from a position of divine wrath to one of heavenly favor and acceptance; we have traveled the path from death to life (see Romans 5:9–10). “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). Or, as Peter taught, “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time: casting all your care upon him: for he careth for you” (1 Peter 5:6–7; emphasis added). Surely it is the case that we can cast our burdens upon the Lord because he cares for us—that is, because he loves us. But I sense that more is intended by Peter in this passage. We can give away to Him who is the Balm of Gilead our worries, our anxieties, our frettings, our awful anticipations, for he will care for us, that is, will do the caring for us. It is as though Peter had counseled us: “Quit worrying. Don’t be so anxious. Stop wringing your hands. Let Jesus take the burden while you take the peace.” This is what C. S. Lewis meant when he pointed out that “f you have really handed yourself over to Him, it must follow that you are trying to obey Him. But trying in a new way, a less worried way” (Mere Christianity, 130–31; emphasis added).
Following his healing of a blind man, Jesus spoke plainly to the self-righteous Pharisees: “For judgment I am come into this world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind.” What an odd statement! And yet it goes to the heart of that which we have been discussing—our need to acknowledge our need. Those who have accepted Christ and his saving gospel come to see things as they really are. They once were blind, but now they see. Those who choose to remain in their smug state of self-assurance, assuming they see everything clearly, these are they that continue to walk in darkness. Thus Jesus concluded, “If ye were blind”—that is, if you would acknowledge and confess your blindness, your need for new eyes to see who I am and what I offer to the world—“ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth” (John 9: 41).
It was Jacob, son of Lehi, who wrote that those who are “puffed up because of their learning, and their wisdom, and their riches—yea, they are they whom he [the Holy One of Israel] despiseth; and save they shall cast these things away, and consider themselves fools before God, and come down in the depths of humility, he will not open unto them” (2 Nephi 9:42; compare 1 Corinthians 3:18; 4:10; 8:2). On the other hand, “the poor in spirit,” those who consider themselves spiritually bankrupt without heavenly assistance and divine favor, those who come unto Christ and accept his sacred offering, inherit the kingdom of heaven (see Matthew 5:3; 3 Nephi 12:3).
Let’s be wise and honest: We cannot make it on our own. We cannot pull ourselves up by our own spiritual bootstraps. We are not bright enough or powerful enough to bring to pass the mighty change necessary to see and enter the kingdom of God. We cannot perform our own eye surgery. We cannot pry our way through the gates of the heavenly Jerusalem. We cannot make ourselves happy or bring about our own fulfillment. But we can “seek this Jesus of whom the prophets and apostles have written, that the grace of God the Father, and also the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost, which beareth record of them, may be and abide in [us] forever” (Ether 12:41). Then all these things will be added unto us (see Matthew 6:33). That’s the promise, and I affirm that it’s true.
POSTED BY: holzapfel
A few years ago, a colleague and I sat at lunch with two prominent theologians. This was not our first visit together because we had met two years earlier and had had a sweet and delightful discussion of Jesus Christ, the centrality of his Atonement, the lifting and liberating powers of his grace, and how our discipleship is and should be lived out day by day. In that initial meeting there was no defensiveness, no pretense, no effort to put the other down or prove him wrong. Instead, there was that simple exchange of views, an acknowledgment of our differences, and a spirit of rejoicing in those central features of the doctrine of Christ about which we were in complete agreement—a sobering spirit of gratitude for the incomparable blessings that flow from the life and death and transforming power of the Redeemer.
Now, two years later, we picked up where we had left off, almost as if no time had passed at all. Many things were said, diagrams were drawn on napkins, and a free flow of ideas took place. Toward the end of our meeting, one of our friends turned to me and said: “Okay Bob, here’s the one thing I would like to ask in order to determine what you really believe.” He continued: “You are standing before the judgment bar of the Almighty, and God turns to you and asks, ‘Robert Millet, what right do you have to enter heaven? Why should I let you in?’” It was not the kind of question I had anticipated. (I had assumed he would be asking something more theoretical. This question was poignant, practical, penetrating, and personal.) For about thirty seconds, I tried my best to envision such a scene, searched my soul, and sought to be as clear and candid as possible. Before I indicate exactly what I said, I want to take us forward twenty-four hours in time.
The next day I spoke to a large group of Latter-day Saint single adults from throughout New England who had gathered for a conference at MIT in Boston. My topic was “Hope in Christ.” Two-thirds of the way through my address, I felt it would be appropriate to share our experience from the day before. I posed to the young people the same question that had been posed to me. There was a noticeable silence in the room, an evidence of quiet contemplation upon a singularly significant question. I allowed them to think about it for a minute or so and then walked up to one of the young women on the front row and said: “Let’s talk about how we would respond. Perhaps I could say the following to God: ‘Well, I should go to heaven because I was baptized into the Church, served a full-time mission, married in the temple, attend worship services regularly, read my scriptures daily, pray in the morning and at night. . .’” At that point the young woman cut me off with these words: “Wait. . . . Wait. . . . I don’t feel right about your answer. It sounds like you’re reading God your résumé.”
Several hands then went up. One young man blurted out: “How did you answer the question? Tell us what you said!” I thought back upon the previous day, recalled to mind many of the feelings that swirled in my heart at the time, and told the single adults how I had answered. I looked my friend in the eye and replied: I would say to God: I claim the right to enter heaven because of my complete trust in and reliance upon the merits and mercy and grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.” My questioner stared at me for about ten seconds, smiled gently, and said: “Bob, that’s the correct answer to the question.”
Obviously a person’s good works are necessary in the sense that they indicate what we are becoming through the powers of the gospel of Jesus Christ; they manifest who and what we are. But I also know there will never be enough good deeds on my part—prayers, hymns, charitable acts, financial contributions, or thousands of hours of Church service—to save myself. The work of salvation requires the work of a God. Unaided man is and will forevermore be lost, fallen, and unsaved. It is only in the strength of the Lord that we are able to face life’s challenges, handle life’s dilemmas, engage life’s contradictions, endure life’s trials, and eventually defeat life’s inevitable foe—death.
POSTED BY: holzapfel
The term Advent comes from the Latin adventus, meaning “coming” or “appearance.” Beginning the fourth Sunday before Christmas, Advent helps Christians not only to celebrate the First Coming of Jesus Christ but also to look forward to his glorious Second Coming. Although Advent customs may be foreign to many, like so many other seasonal traditions they are a wonderful way to turn our attention more fully to the true meaning of Christmas.
Many Advent traditions come from Germany, where Martin Luther encouraged its continued observance as a way of teaching children and families more about the significance of the coming of Jesus Christ. It came to be celebrated by both Roman Catholics and Lutherans there and has become a common celebration in many Christian faith communities throughout the world.
One of the best known Advent customs is the lighting of the candles in an Advent wreath, a simple or decorated evergreen wreath with four candles placed in the circle and a single white candle in the center. The wreath itself represents the never-ending circle of God’s love, that he is forever the same in his love toward his people. The green of the wreath, as in the Christmas tree, represents the hope of eternal life that comes through Christ and serves a reminder of the freshness of God’s love and promises. The light of the candles reminds us that Jesus is the Light of the World, that his birth represented the coming of the light into darkness, and that we are called to reflect that light in our lives.
The outer candles are purple, the color of royalty, although customarily the third one is rose or pink. Traditions differ regarding the symbolism of the candles. One is that they represent the hope, love, joy, and peace that come through Jesus Christ. Each Sunday before Christmas an additional candle is lit, creating a beautiful stepped effect as the previous weeks’ candles burn down further. Scriptures can be read and carols sung as part of the lighting, which we do before family prayer. The four candles can also represent the different Old Testament covenants that God made with his servants, beginning with Noah and continuing through Abraham, Moses, and David. The central white candle is known as the Christ candle. It is lit on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and represents the new covenant made possible through Christ.
While formally observing Advent is not part of the Latter-day Saint tradition, individuals and families can often adapt and employ such traditions for their own use. President Dieter F. Uchtdorf has spoken positively of the Advent traditions that he grew up with in Germany in a recent First Presidency Christmas devotional, as have other converts to the Church. As my wife and I were developing our own family traditions early in our marriage, observing Advent was one that we found enriched our Christmas season, and in recent years we have found that it is a wonderful way to teach our children, share spiritual experiences with them, and keep them focused on the true meaning of Christmas.
For LDS families, Advent can be adapted by reading not only from the Old Testament and New Testament but also from the Book of Mormon and Pearl of Great Price (see our selection at my Advent site). While not all families may wish to observe such Advent customs, spending time with the scriptures and enjoying beautiful music on the Sundays of Advent can be uplifting and provide meaningful reflection on the season.
POSTED BY: holzapfel
Guest blog by Kent P. Jackson, professor of ancient scripture.
This month we celebrate the 179th anniversary of something that most Latter-day Saints take for granted. It was in June 1830, just two months after the Church was organized, that the Prophet Joseph Smith began working on his Bible translation. Today we usually call it the Joseph Smith Translation—JST for short—but the Prophet himself called it the New Translation. The first nineteen pages, revealed between June 1830 and the end of that year, contain his revision of the first few chapters of Genesis. When the Pearl of Great Price was created in 1851, those Genesis chapters were included in it, and they’re still there today. It is the Book of Moses.
Is there anything new in the New Translation? Let’s take a look at just one chapter, the very first chapter of the translation, revealed in June 1830.
What we now call Moses chapter 1 is the text of a vision that Moses experienced before the Lord revealed to him the account of the Creation. It is thus the preface to the book of Genesis. This is one of the most remarkable chapters in scripture, and it is full of doctrines that set Latter-day Saints apart from all other Bible believers. Although Moses’s vision is a biblical event and takes place in a biblical context, there is no record of it in the Old Testament. It has no biblical counterpart at all. But it is one of the great gems of the Restoration—a real pearl of great price.
In this one chapter, we learn a lot.
Moses speaks with God “face to face” in terms that indicate strongly that God indeed has a face. We learn of God’s Only Begotten Son. As the Father speaks with Moses and teaches him of Jesus Christ, we are reminded in clear scriptural terms that the Father and the Son are separate divine beings. We also learn something of ourselves, that we—left to our own resources—are “nothing,” yet we are sons and daughters of God created in the image of his Only Begotten, endowed with enormous potential.
We learn about God’s glory, the celestial power that emanates from him and surrounds him. Humans must be transfigured to abide God’s glory, but Satan can only feign having it and possesses none of it himself. We see God and Satan juxtaposed in striking contrast, and we learn that Satan has a pathological need to be worshipped and seeks only his own interests.
We learn something of God’s power and of the awesomeness of his creations. Moses, enveloped in God’s glory, was able to see every particle of this earth and to discern every soul on it. He was even shown other inhabited worlds—worlds without number. He learned that Christ is the Creator of all those worlds, and he learned that God’s work and glory is to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of his children who dwell thereon.
Needless to say, none of this was the standard fare of mainstream Christianity in June 1830 when the Lord revealed these things to Joseph Smith.
Indeed, there is much new in the New Translation. But that was only the first chapter.
POSTED BY: holzapfel
Several years ago, a former student wrote me to express his concerns about our doctrinal teaching that the Church of Jesus Christ was the “only true and living church” (see Doctrine and Covenants 1:30). He had come to believe that such a position was arrogant and prideful. Additionally, he questioned the idea that he could have been so fortunate to be in the right church when so many others were not. He thought this was so statistically unlikely that it was illogical to believe it.
Certainly I recognize that, like all nationalities, ethnicities, genders, and any other formal or informal groups, the Church of Jesus Christ contains both good and bad members?some who attempt to live close to the ideals of the gospel and others who do not. However, I have come to categorically reject broad generalizations about any group?whether they be about Muslims, Buddhists, agnostics, or the politically liberal or conservative. In my study and experience, I have found that no denomination, group, family, or nation can be so easily defined by such stereotypes.
In the years since this exchange, I have often thought about my former student’s notion that it is illogical for a person to believe that he had been born into the one true Church, because it is statistically improbable that he would have been one of the lucky few, given the billions of people who have lived and will live upon the earth. Consider the logic of his approach. As I told students in a world history class I teach, “No ancient monarch or ruler lived as well as you do?you have clean water, abundant food sources (both in terms of quality, diversity, and quantity), dental and medical services, educational, recreational, and entertainment choices, and finally economic and political freedoms beyond anything that people living in the past could have even imagine.” If my former student were right, it would be illogical to accept that we could be so favored to live in an age of opulence, convenience, and comfort enjoyed by only a tiny fraction of the earth’s inhabitants.
I have reflected often on the idea that believing that we belong to the one true church would necessarily make a person arrogant and proud. Certainly there are plenty of privileged people who are arrogant and proud because of their good fortune. But there are many, many others living in modern pluralistic, democratic, and prosperous societies who instead feel that their many blessings place great social responsibilities on their shoulders. They feel duty-bound to devote their time, resources, and energy to helping others less fortunate. And that is precisely the answer to my former student. There are some, perhaps many, in the Church who are indeed arrogant and proud, but there are many others who understand that the privileges of membership also require us to devote everything we have to helping others obtain the same advantages that we enjoy. Where much is given, much is required.
I do not know why I was born in the West in a time of such unprecedented opportunities with all the miraculous inventions, life-saving technical and medical advances, and expanded freedoms and liberties that are available. But I do know that we are now living a lifestyle that most in earth’s history could not imagine. Such knowledge has humbled me and compelled to me be sensitive to the larger world by learning about the challenges people face and to do something about it by helping, supporting, and donating to other worthy causes that help people have food, shelter, clothing, medical attention, and educational opportunities—beyond contributing to the Church’s humanitarian fund.
What are the odds of being so blessed? I don’t know, but I realize that I have an opportunity to do something with what I have been given.
POSTED BY: holzapfel
This week’s blog was written by guest writer Eric D. Huntsman, associate professor of ancient scripture.
During his conference talk of April 5, 2009, President Uchtdorf referred to Sunday morning as Palm Sunday. Looking forward to Easter, he encouraged members of the Church to focus their minds more fully on the great atoning sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ. President Uchtdorf said, “It is fitting that during the week from Palm Sunday to Easter morning we turn our thoughts to Jesus Christ, the source of light, life, and love. The multitudes in Jerusalem may have seen Him as a great king who would give them freedom from political oppression. But in reality He gave us much more than that. He gave us His gospel, a pearl beyond price, the grand key of knowledge that, once understood and applied, unlocks a life of happiness, peace, and fulfillment.” In his talk, Elder Holland also pointed to the events of the Savior’s last week: “As we approach this holy week—Passover Thursday with its Paschal Lamb, atoning Friday with its cross, Resurrection Sunday with its empty tomb—may we declare ourselves to be more fully disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Today is Good Friday, observed by much of the Christian world as a day of great solemnity and holiness. As a young boy, aware of the day because of my many Roman Catholic and high-church Protestant friends and neighbors, I thought the term “Good Friday” was an oxymoron. What was so good about the day Jesus died? Only as I became more mature in the gospel did I come to understand that Jesus’ death was holy, a sacred act sealing the atoning journey that had begun the night before when he took upon himself our sins and our sorrows and then, as a sacrificial victim, carried that burden to the altar—in this case a cross—where he paid the ultimate price. Later I came to understand another, linguistic nuance. Many see the use of “good” in Good Friday to be an archaic use as in “good-bye.” Here it may be a synonym for “God,” in which case it is “God’s Friday,” that day of cosmic significance when the Father reconciled the world to himself: “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him. For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement” (Romans 5:8–12).
As a Latter-day Saint, so much of what Good Friday commemorate once seemed uncomfortable to me. “We worship a living Christ, not a dead Christ,” was the common refrain I grew up hearing. It was easier to acknowledge that Jesus somehow took upon himself the burden of our sins and sorrows in Gethsemane and then move as quickly as possible through all the unpleasantness of the trial, abuse, and crucifixion to the joy of Easter morning. The cross was particularly unfamiliar, if not uncomfortable, to me. The Church does not rely heavily upon images in our churches and temples, although other kinds of symbolism abound. Not understanding the theological details of the mass being a “real sacrifice” in the Roman Catholic tradition, I did not grasp why the crucifix carried such weight to my friends. Not bothering to ask my Protestant friends what the cross meant to them, until adulthood I was oblivious to the fact that to them the cross was not just a symbol of his death for us, it was also, to them, a symbol of his resurrection because the cross was empty!
Further study, however, has brought a new awareness of the scriptural and symbolic richness of the imagery of Jesus’ death on the cross. Here it is not the cross itself, whether it was an upright pole or simple scaffolding upon which the victim’s crossbeam was tied or nailed. Nor is it the religious iconography of a Latin or Greek cross. Instead, for me, the significance of the crucifixion lies in the image of Christ “being lifted up,” the cross itself as a tree, and in the lasting marks or tokens of his sacrifice that it left.
Three times in the Gospel of John, Jesus says that he must be lifted up as part of his returning to the Father and his drawing of all men to himself (see John 3:14, 8:28, 12:32–33), and the last time he makes it clear that this was a reference to how he would die. Crucifixion was a humiliating but above all a very public form of execution, but what seems to be significant here is that Jesus’ sacrifice is there for all, in every age and place, to see. John 3:14 directly connects it with the raising of the brazen serpent upon a pole in the wilderness (see Numbers 21:9), an image that Book of Mormon authors recognized and expanded (see 2 Nephi 25:20; Alma 33:19; Helaman 8:14–16). Therefore the crucifixion illustrates that Jesus’ salvific death provides healing and life to all who will simply look to him.
But perhaps the strongest endorsement of “lifting up” imagery came from Jesus himself, who told the Nephites: “My Father sent me that I might be lifted up upon the cross; and after that I had been lifted up upon the cross, that I might draw all men unto me, that as I have been lifted up by men even so should men be lifted up by the Father, to stand before me, to be judged of their works, whether they be good or whether they be evil—And for this cause have I been lifted up; therefore, according to the power of the Father I will draw all men unto me, that they may be judged according to their works” (3 Nephi 27:14–15).
Recognizing that crucifixion was tantamount to “being hanged on a tree” adds another level of symbolism. Under the law of Moses, cursed was anyone who was hanged on a tree (see Deuteronomy 21:22–23), perhaps explaining one of the reasons why Jesus’ opponents were anxious to have the Romans crucify him. While it is not completely clear what rights of capital punishment the Jewish authorities might have had (the prohibition against putting any man to death in John 18:31 might have referred to Jewish law, since they could not execute on Passover), having the Romans kill Jesus did more than shift blame. Jewish execution for blasphemy would have been stoning, whereas Roman execution for treason or rebellion was crucifixion. The high priest had asked Jesus the night before, “Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” (Mark 14:61), and nothing could have proved that Jesus was just the opposite, cursed of God, than having him hanged on a tree. Nevertheless, this “cursing” was part of the Savior’s descending below all things. Indeed, Paul wrote, “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree” (Galatians 3:13).
What was amazing, however, was that the cross, the Tree of Cursing, became, in effect, a Tree of Life to us. After Jesus expired, a soldier pierced his side with a spear, “and forthwith came there out blood and water” (John 19:24). Hearkening back to Jesus’ discussion of living water with the Samaritan woman in John 4 or his discourse on the life-giving Spirit in John 7 in which rivers of living water flow out of him, this sign suggests that Jesus’ death brought forth life. Indeed, in medieval iconography there developed the image of the “verdant cross,” or green cross, which was often portrayed as sprouting leaves and fruit.
Finally, crucifixion left lasting tokens of the Lord’s saving act, marks that were used to impart a sure witness that he was the Lord and God of those whom he saved. Although the experience of Thomas after the Resurrection does suggest that we should be believing before we receive such assurance (see John 19:24–29), Jesus’ display of the marks in his hands, feet, and side took on almost ritual significance when he appeared to the Nephites at the temple in Bountiful: “Arise and come forth unto me, that ye may thrust your hands into my side, and also that ye may feel the prints of the nails in my hands and in my feet, that ye may know that I am the God of Israel, and the God of the whole earth, and have been slain for the sins of the world” (3 Nephi 11:14).
For these reasons, as I read, review, and ponder the Savior’s last acts on this day, I am no longer skittish of imagery that was once foreign to me. Instead, I rejoice in what Jesus did for me and see it as a necessary precursor not just to Easter morning but to the great gift of eternal life, the precious fruit of the tree, which “is the greatest of all the gifts of God” (1 Nephi 15:26; see also D&C 14:7).
POSTED BY: holzapfel
Joseph Smith received a revelation the day the Church was organized in Fayette, New York (USA), in April 1830, “Behold, there shall be a record kept among you” (Doctrine and Covenants 21:1). The Prophet’s efforts have provided Church members and interested historians a number of primary sources that allow us to reconstruct his remarkable life. Certainly, anyone interested in Joseph Smith would like to have more material—more letters, minutes, diaries, and other items from his pen, but given the historical realities of nineteenth-century life, we are fortunate to have a rather large body of material to draw from as we study his life and ministry.
These important documents are preserved in various repositories in the United States, including the Church History Library in Salt Lake City and the Community of Christ Library-Archive in Independence, Missouri. In the past, historians had to travel to these archives to study the documents in order to prepare interpretive essays and books. Because of space limitations, they could reproduce only extracts from these primary sources—an act of interpretation itself, leaving the reader only a taste of what the original sources reveal.
Beginning in the 1970s, Church leaders and scholars realized it would be helpful to provide accurate transcriptions of these primary sources to a larger audience and to help preserve these fragile documents from frequent handling. After a rather long road, the Church announced it would publish two thousand primary documents relating to Joseph Smith’s life and ministry in a thirty-volume set, The Joseph Smith Papers, organized by specific types of material, including journals, documents, histories, administrative papers, revelations and inspired translations, and legal and business items.
Drawing from a variety of public and private collections, including those in private possession, these important records will provide a window into the story of Joseph Smith and, as a result, the early world of Mormonism. Church historian and recorder Elder Marlin K. Jensen opined, “The study of these historical sources, particularly in their earliest forms, provides students of Joseph Smith with an enriched understanding of the Prophet’s life and the development of the restored Church” (forthcoming July 2009 Ensign article).
The Joseph Smith Papers, Journals, Volume 1: 1832–1839 (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2008) was recently released just in time to celebrate the Prophet’s remarkable life on the anniversary of his birth on 23 December. Next year an important volume in the Revelations and Translations series will appear as the second published volume. In this volume, the earliest known copies of Joseph Smith’s revelations will be carefully reproduced. Elder Jensen observed, “Joseph seemed to regard the manuscript revelations as his best efforts to capture the voice of the Lord condescending to communicate in what Joseph called the ‘crooked, broken, scattered, and imperfect language’ of men” (July 2009 Ensign article). The series will continue from there.
When I recently picked up the first volume at the BYU Bookstore, I plowed into the book—some five hundred pages. First, it is an attractive volume, well made—printed on high quality paper and designed to last a lifetime of repeated handling. It includes meticulous transcriptions of the original sources; a variety of visual images (maps, photographs of individuals, and examples of some of the documents); carefully prepared charts (including a detailed chronology, genealogical table, ecclesiastical organization); a remarkable glossary; well-written introductory essays to each document; thoughtful annotations of the texts; and well-researched geographical and biographical directories. It is truly a treasure and worth every penny it cost ($49.95). Although I was familiar with the documents published in this first volume, the annotations and introductions brought to life the meaning and importance of the documents. I found myself marking passages that caught my attention. For example, on 1 April 1834, Joseph Smith wrote, “My Soul delighteth in the Law of the Lord for he forgiveth my sins” (p. 37). Many such entries will surprise and delight readers.
Readers do not begin at page 1 and read straight through to the end in the same kind of way we do with a biography. This is a documentary project—the type of effort loved by academics and appreciated by those who love to have an original copy of their grandfather’s diary or their mother’s personal letters. There is something about such documents that allow us to touch the past in a way that an interpretive work cannot do.
The Joseph Smith Papers will provide a personal and intimate look at the life of Joseph Smith. Historians will carefully comb through the volumes in order to provide new, fresh perspectives on the Prophet. Already The Joseph Smith Papers offer new insights, correct past assumptions, and get us closer to the original world of Joseph Smith, the latter-day Prophet. It is truly a good time to be alive!
For an overview of the project, see http://josephsmithpapers.org/Default.htm.