Death mask of Joseph Smith plaster mask, Ariah C. Brower and George Cannon, 1844. (Courtesy of Church History Museum, Salt Lake City. Photograph by Alex D. Smith.)
R. Devan Jensen
Executive Editor at the Religious Studies Center
“No man knows my history,” Joseph Smith Jr. said, later adding, “I don’t blame any one for not believing my history. If I had not experienced what I have, I would not have believed it myself” (http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-1838-1856-volume-e-1-1-july-1843-30-april-1844/351). With a nod to Joseph Smith, no one knows my editing!
All my jobs have been marvelous adventures. I started my career at Deseret Book, the Church Curriculum Department (now Publishing Services), and the Ensign magazine. Then in 2001 Richard Draper, a professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, hired me to help take the Religious Studies Center, in his words, to “a higher level of professionalism, efficiency, and organization.” We have certainly done that, and we continue to grow. Over the years, publications directors such as Richard Draper, Richard Holzapfel, Robert Millet, Richard Bennett, Dana Pike, Thomas Wayment, and Scott Esplin each provided vision and leadership that contributed to the RSC’s current vitality. Whereas the original annual output of the RSC was two books and a two-color newsletter, we now produce about fifteen high-quality books (winning many awards), two academic journals, a full-color campus magazine, a robust website, and a social media presence.
When initially hired, I told Andrew Skinner, dean of Religious Education, that I felt OK committing to five years and then reevaluating. During that five-year period, Covenant Communications copublished many books with the RSC. Richard Holzapfel firmly established the Religious Educator as a viable journal. We began relying even more on BYU editing minors to shoulder the increased editing load that Richard Draper, then Richard Holzapfel encouraged through their proactive recruitment of authors. Designer Carmen Cole redesigned the RSC Newsletter. Student Matt Grey (now a professor) started Studia Antiqua to publish student papers on the ancient world.
At the end of that five years, I told the new dean, Terry Ball, that I felt comfortable staying another five years. It was tricky to keep up with Richard Holzapfel’s creative mind, new projects, teaching, and travel schedule. He asked us to push hard to get all past content on the RSC website and translate selected materials into Spanish, Portuguese, and German. He encouraged us to create a magazine, which we designed with the help of Hales Creative and named BYU Religious Education Review. I recommended that we hire a publicity/production superviser to build the RSC brand. That spot was filled by Stephanie Wilson (part-time and then full-time) and then Brent Nordgren. Richard and Brent did an admirable job negotiating a copublication agreement with Deseret Book that dramatically increased our distribution network. That laid the foundation for financial stability.
After Richard Holzapfel’s departure, we had another five or so years with quick transitions between publications directors—leading to greater staff autonomy. Publications directors were Robert Millet, Richard Bennett (interim), and Dana Pike. While working under Richard Bennett, Religious Education began to pay for a staff member to take a professional development course each year. After I asked if he would send me to the Mormon History Association conference, he said that he couldn’t unless I had a paper accepted. So I began to craft and submit history presentations. That turned into a personal challenge—to document many interesting Mormon history and family history stories, branching out into related areas. Writing was done nearly always in my personal time but occasionally on RSC time when projects slowed down.
The next five-year segment began when Thom Wayment began serving as publications director. His leadership contributions included pushing for greater quality in our books and journal, expanding the author pool, adding strong members to our team, and promoting staff training that resulted in an increase in social media outreach and thus better sales. Challenges during this period were redoing contracts, increasing book production, dropping the review board, wrestling with design issues, and holding fewer RSC team meetings to coordinate efforts. After we resumed RSC team meetings to coordinate efforts, productivity soared. Brent hired Madison Swapp and then Emily Strong, a 3/4-time designer. Both have worked hard. Thom asked me to attend a conference of the Association of American University Presses, and I realized that we could do much more to build the RSC brand and promote our books. We started Facebook and Twitter accounts for the BYU Religious Studies Center, Religious Educator, and Church History Blog to share updates and promote our brand and books. We hired Felix Lara, our first media specialist intern, and then other interns who have helped authors promote their books, further increasing our financial stability. As an editor, I was inundated each year with editing sixteen academic books, two journals, and a magazine. When I mentioned that I was struggling to keep up, Thom brought in two editors from the Maxwell Institute. That has been a boon to our organization because Don Brugger and Shirley Ricks are marvelous team members, and the Religious Studies Center has become even more productive.
After Dean Top left, Dean Judd appointed Scott Esplin, another good friend, as publications director. As I look ahead to about fifteen years remaining in my career, I find myself in midlife mode (probably not crisis mode, but involving deep soul-searching). I have edited hundreds of books and hundreds of magazine and journal articles. So . . . what’s next? The Religious Studies Center brand is still slowly growing in popularity. For publicity, we have been discussing building on our BYU identity or the somehow including the name of our founder, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland. In my opinion, our next frontier seems to be publicity and coordination with other academic publishers. Regarding academic publishers, we have made headway in coordinating with Book of Mormon Central, BYU Speeches, BYU Studies, the Joseph Smith Papers Project, and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. Perhaps we could partner with other university presses as well.