How the Joseph Smith Papers Have Fundamentally Changed Church History Scholarship After 10 Years
Contributed By Trent Toone, Church News contributor
- The project’s solid research returns the Church history narrative to reliable records and away from sensationalized theories.
- Several other Church projects have come as a result of the project.
- Anyone can access all the founding documents of the Church via the project’s website.
“If people have an interest in the first decades of Church history, this gives them the best history that has ever been done. … No one could ever write about Joseph Smith again without quoting the papers as a source.” —Elder Steven E. Snow, General Authority Seventy
In the fall of 2008, then–Church Historian and Recorder Elder Marlin K. Jensen called the Joseph Smith Papers project “the single most significant historical project of our generation.”
“Nothing we could do could surpass in importance making available in a collected way the life’s work of Joseph Smith,” Elder Jensen told the Church News in 2008.
Ten years and 18 volumes later, Elder Jensen’s successor, Elder Steven E. Snow, says the Joseph Smith Papers are to the Church what scientific and technological advancements have been to the U.S. space program. So much is being learned, discovered, and made possible as part of the project, beyond the initial core mission, he said.
“This is a well-worn metaphor, but I really think the Joseph Smith Papers is the lunar mission for the Church,” Elder Snow said. “It’s helped the Church with so many things in its 10-year lifetime. These individuals who work on the papers are dedicated to their research and to being totally transparent and yet interpret from a faith-based perspective for the most part. I think it’s been immensely helpful to the Church. We’ve kind of taken the narrative away from a lot of the critics and those that have sensationalized certain aspects of our Church history by this very solid research that’s been done by the project.”
True to Elder Snow’s words, in the last decade, the award-winning papers project has granted scholars and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints greater access to original sources for Joseph Smith’s life and teachings.
It’s received high praise from scholars like Thomas P. Slaughter, the Arthur R. Miller Professor of History at the University of Rochester, who endorsed the project as “the gold standard in the field of historical documentary editing.” Criticism of the project has been minimal, if nonexistent, Elder Snow said.
Reid L. Neilson, managing director of the Church History Department and the assistant Church historian and recorder, credited the Joseph Smith Papers with creating new employment opportunities for Latter-day Saint historians, establishing a foundation for other projects, and creating a sense of trust among the senior leadership of the Church, who recognize the value of the Church History Department as “a real asset for them to further their own mission, values, and aims,” Neilson said.
“From my perspective in managing the department, I think over the past decade, virtually everything that we’ve produced has its genesis back with the Joseph Smith Papers, either by content, access to new documents, or the number of scholars, historians, and editors that have come here to be part of the team we have created,” Neilson said. “The Joseph Smith Papers is the standard-bearer that brought people here.”
The Joseph Smith Papers played a role in assisting historical revisions to headings in the 2013 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants and paved the way for other Church History Department projects, including The First Fifty Years of Relief Society (2016) and the new Saints series (2018).
“The Joseph Smith Papers has greatly deepened our historical knowledge of early Latter-day Saint history,” said Matthew J. Grow, publications director at the Church History Department and a general editor of the papers.
Church members “heavily” use the project’s print and website resources (josephsmithpapers.org), said R. Eric Smith, a general editor who helped build the project’s editorial, web, and production team from the ground up.
“Every Church member can now own their own copy of high-quality photographs of the printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon. I think that’s pretty amazing,” Elder Snow said. “If people have an interest in the first decades of Church history, this gives them the best history that has ever been done. … No one could ever write about Joseph Smith again without quoting the papers as a source.”
The Church News recently spoke with scholars, historians, donors, and Church members to get their reflections, thoughts, memories, and impressions of the Joseph Smith Papers one decade since the first volume was published.
“Historical standard of truth”
Richard Lyman Bushman, a member of the national advisory board of the Joseph Smith Papers who also served as a general editor of the papers, described the impact of the project as “huge” and “authoritative,” adding that it measures up to the best documentary editing projects in the country, including high-level projects like the George Washington and Thomas Jefferson Papers.
“I think it’s a magnificent production we can all be proud of,” Bushman said.
Bushman, Columbia University’s Gouverneur Morris Professor of History emeritus and former Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University, added that the Joseph Smith Papers are “of immense significance” because they have “established a standard of historical truth.”
“Sometimes we’ve had a tendency to make everything as positive as possible and have been reluctant to publish anything that was at all derogatory to any of the people from the past, and that’s got us in trouble,” said Bushman, author of the 2005 Joseph Smith biography Rough Stone Rolling. “But these papers are looking at all the difficult issues and coming to a judgment, one that we can conclude from all the evidence. Because they’ve done such a good scholarly job and because their work is reviewed by the Church and approved, it’s the standard of historical truth. If there’s a debate about a question, the judgments that we find in those volumes are the ones that will pretty much stand. It’s grounded on thorough research so there are things we can rely on. I think that can be of immense value as we go down through the years.”
Kathleen Flake, the Richard Lyman Bushman Professor of Mormon Studies at the University of Virginia, agreed.
“The Joseph Smith Papers is the research gift that keeps on giving,” she said in an email. “Not only in terms of what they produce but what it makes possible for scholars to do.”
The papers welcome historical scrutiny of how the Latter-day Saint faith was founded, Neilson said.
“I know of no other religious tradition that has documented so well and so carefully, at such a high cost, its own history and beginnings. I think that’s really what the Joseph Smith Papers is about,” Neilson said. “If you want to study the rise of a new religious movement, the rise of what we believe is the kingdom of God in the latter days, there is no better resource than the papers, because in there you’ll find all the revelations, all the scriptures that Joseph Smith produced by revelation, and you’ll find all the founding documents of this dispensation. How does it get better than that?”
The Joseph Smith Papers would not have been possible without the financial support of the Larry H. and Gail Miller family.
The family originally gave the project a $10 million donation as an endowment in the form of stocks. Then came the great recession in 2008, and the stocks dropped. When Larry Miller died in 2009, there were concerns about the family continuing to support the project, but Gail Miller was determined to honor their commitment, she said.
Although they’ve given “substantially more” than they expected, Gail Miller says it’s been “an honor to be involved with something of this importance and magnitude,” she said.
“During the darkest hours of that 2008–2009 era when the economy was tanking, I had the strongest feeling that we have to do everything we can to keep our company running,” Gail Miller said. “I knew I had to keep giving to this project because I believe that many of the blessings in my life and many of the successes that come to us through business are related to this project.”
In addition to the funding, Gail Miller has supported the project in other ways.
“Gail provides unflagging emotional support and encouragement that lift us,” R. Eric Smith said. “She loves learning from and is inspired by Joseph Smith’s history, and that enthusiasm is infectious for all of us.”
Smith also credited Larry Miller for authorizing more funds for the website.
“Larry had a real vision for the importance of electronic publishing,” Smith said. “I think he saw better than most where publishing was headed in the digital age.”
In addition to fulfilling her late husband’s dream of helping “millions (even billions) to know Brother Joseph again,” the Joseph Smith Papers has strengthened Gail Miller’s testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith. She said she is very pleased with how the Church has used their resources and hopes families will consider incorporating the papers into personal and family gospel study in the coming years.
“I hope people will partake of it, be inspired by it, and use it in their lives,” Gail Miller said.
Being part of the Joseph Smith Papers project over the years has given Elder Snow some sweet experiences.
After becoming the Church Historian and Recorder in 2012, Elder Snow traveled to Independence, Missouri, to meet with historians from the Community of Christ. He was allowed to hold and look at the printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon before it was later published in Revelations and Translations, Volume 3, Parts 1 and 2. He had no idea the Church would later acquire the printer’s manuscript in 2017.
“That was very special,” Elder Snow said.
Another treasured memory was being invited by the First Presidency to be present when the seer stone was photographed for the same volume.
“To be able to hold that, think about all the history and how that had been used by the Prophet Joseph was a very remarkable experience,” Elder Snow said.
In 2008, the Miller family treated all the researchers to a Church history tour. Unfortunately, Larry Miller wasn’t well enough to go, but Gail and her children went.
“That was a really special trip,” Gail Miller said. “That helped us to see the vision and importance of what was happening.”
Robin S. Jensen, an associate managing historian and volume editor, said some team members felt nervous at the beginning because it was unknown how Church members and scholars would react. They were grateful when the overall reaction was immensely positive.
“Not everyone in society reads history. We’re aware of the fact that history is not the most popular subject,” Jensen said with a smile. “But as a documentary editor, it’s heartening to see the words of your subject being read. … The Joseph Smith Papers really plowed the ground for a lot of historical scholarship and research. I think it’s also showed the way to have both scholarship and faith at the same time.”
The monumental size and scope of the Joseph Smith Papers project forced the JSP team to make some difficult decisions over the years, Neilson said.
“We’ve promised the public that this is going to be comprehensive, meaning it’s everything, but what documents should be in print versus what should be on the website?” Neilson said. “So just trying to figure out what the priorities are—what should be published, what should be highlighted, what should be annotated, what should be showcased, what should be simply electronic? And to do it within a prescribed timeline and budget like any project. It’s tough, but the team’s done a marvelous job making the right decisions along the way. We’ve been blessed.”
Other challenges have come in the form of personal sacrifice for team members in taking time away from family to put in extra hours and meet stressful, daunting deadlines.
“The project is very demanding,” Smith said. “The publication schedule is aggressive, our historical and editorial standards are very high, and an incredible amount of collaboration and consensus are required to move forward. Sometimes I have wondered why a project involving Joseph Smith should be so hard. Shouldn’t it all fall together into place so easily for us? I have come to feel that part of our work on the project is not just to publish the papers. It is to learn to be persistent and to work together patiently despite challenges and surprises. I think we are supposed to be learning some of what Joseph and his fellow Saints were learning back then.”
Learning at the feet of a prophet
Sharalyn D. Howcroft is an archivist and document specialist with the Joseph Smith Papers. She was among the first women to begin working on the project in 2000 when it initially was called “The Papers of Joseph Smith” and spearheaded by Dean C. Jessee.
At that point, Howcroft’s understanding of Joseph Smith was essentially what she’d learned from seminary and Church manuals. She considered her testimony of the Prophet to be that of an “average Church member,” she said.
But as she combed through documents, Howcroft realized the real Joseph Smith was different than the one she’d encountered growing up.
“I was kind of shell-shocked by this difference. I was seeing a man that was much more complicated, much more nuanced,” Howcroft said. “So I had several months where I was a little bewildered at, wait a second, he’s not entirely the person than I thought he was.”
Howcroft committed to digging deeper and reading more, fully immersing herself in a study of Joseph Smith, his life, and his teachings. As a result, her testimony of the Prophet was strengthened.
“For me, he became much more powerful,” Howcroft said. “I look back on how the Joseph Smith Papers has changed me. I look at who I was, and I bear little resemblance to that individual now 20 years later. I wouldn’t change that path for anything. But it required me throw out my earlier framework and meet Joseph on his terms, effectively learning at the feet of Joseph Smith.
“What I found in the papers is a man who is deeply human, who was confronted with significant challenges, who felt the difficulties of mortality acutely, and seeing the merging of a prophetic mantle with human struggles. For me, it made prophets and heaven more accessible because God takes deeply flawed human beings to do His work. In spite of our flaws, He works with us.”
R. Eric Smith admires Joseph Smith’s fortitude—“his ability to bear pain and encounter adversity with great strength and courage,” he said.
“That is what draws me to him the most. From physical suffering and harassment to financial difficulty to betrayals of friends to legal problems to great sorrow over the loss of children and other loved ones, his challenges were unusually severe,” R. Eric Smith said. “His example reminds us that living the gospel is no inoculation against adversity. From the experiences of him and other early Church members, I have found encouragement to press forward and trust in the Lord.”
A member’s perspective
Justin Baer, bishop of the Farmington 18th Ward in the Farmington Utah South Stake, first became interested in the Joseph Smith Papers in 2013.
While driving to Idaho on a business trip, Baer discovered the Joseph Smith Papers podcast and became fascinated. He purchased the Histories series, volumes 1 and 2. Since then he’s collected most of the 18 volumes and keeps them in his bedroom.
The podcast was originally a television series produced by Dennis Lyman and Glenn Rawson. It was designed to showcase the research and scholarly discoveries of the Joseph Smith Papers. Over three seasons they produced 100 half-hour episodes. When the series concluded in 2010, Lyman and Rawson wanted to keep it going and it became “The History of the Saints.”
What Baer, an attorney, loves about the Joseph Smith Papers is the original sourcing, the absence of commentary, and how the documents paint a full picture of who Joseph Smith was and the way he thought.
“One of the things I love about the Joseph Smith Papers is to see people as they were and form my own conclusions about what I think of what they wrote,” Baer said. “If you want to learn about Joseph Smith, this is the best place to go,” he said. “It’s been an absolute joy for me the last five years to get into these documents.”
More to come
One question Elder Snow fielded when he started was “How long will the project go?” The best estimate at this point is 2022, with as many as 25 total volumes or more.
The next anticipated volumes to be published will be Documents, Volume 8 in May and Documents, Volume 9 in September.
The volume Elder Snow is most looking forward to will feature the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon.
“Of all the things we have here in Church history, that’s probably what stirs me the most and strengthens my testimony the most,” Elder Snow said
Elder Steven E. Snow, a General Authority Seventy and Church Historian and Recorder, stands next to a bookshelf in his Church History Library office containing volumes of the Joseph Smith Papers Project, published over the last decade, on October 23, 2018. Photo by Trent Toone, Deseret News.
Richard Turley Jr. served as assistant Church historian and recorder when the Joseph Smith Papers published its first volume. Photo by Scott G Winterton, Deseret News.
Dean C. Jessee, left, is one of the founders of the Joseph Smith Papers Project. He and Nathan Waite, an associate editorial manager, look through some of the recent volumes of the Joseph Smith Papers. Photo by Trent Toone, Deseret News.
Mark Ashurst-McGee works on the Joseph Smith Papers Project at the Church Office Building in Salt Lake City on August 6, 2008. Photo by Trent Toone, Deseret News.
Elder Marlin K. Jensen presents a copy of a Joseph Smith Papers volume to Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles during a press conference in 2009. Photo by Laura Seitz, Deseret News.
Photos of the seer stones in a volume of the Joseph Smith papers. Photo by Scott G Winterton, Deseret News.