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.