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Joseph Smith and His Papers: An Introduction

History of the Joseph Smith Papers

The work of collecting Joseph Smith’s papers, which began during his lifetime, continued after his death. In February 1846, the papers—then in the possession of Brigham Young and other church leaders—were packed into two boxes for the exodus to the West. The papers were unpacked in Salt Lake City in June 1853 and, beginning in April 1854, were used to complete the history Smith started in 1838. Not all the records made it west. John Whitmer retained the history he wrote at Smith’s behest, declining to turn it over when requested in 1838. Other significant documents remained with Smith’s widow Emma, who stayed in Illinois. These and other documents eventually came under the care of the Community of Christ (formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints). The relevant items, with the permission of the Community of Christ, will be published in The Joseph Smith Papers.

When finished in 1856, nearly two decades after the project was launched, Joseph Smith’s history consisted of six large handwritten volumes numbering some twenty-two hundred pages. Publication of the history had commenced in the Nauvoo Times and Seasons in 1842 and was continued in church publications in territorial Utah and England until 1863. Because of its lengthy serial publication, the history was almost totally inaccessible by the turn of the century. In 1901, Brigham H. Roberts, assistant church historian, was commissioned to make the Smith history available again. Between 1902 and 1912, Roberts edited the previously published installments to produce a six-volume publication titled History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Period I: History of Joseph Smith, the Prophet, by Himself. Because of the inclusion of so many complete documents, the History of the Church has been widely referred to among Mormons as the “Documentary History of the Church.”

As the culmination of Joseph Smith’s history-writing endeavor, the History of the Church will continue to be an important resource for students of Mormonism, but its limitations detract from its value as a scholarly resource. The chief fault is a failure to distinguish Smith’s writings from others whose writings are presented as his own. Although such a practice was acceptable at the time, modern editorial standards require authorship and provenance to be described as fully as possible. The Joseph Smith Papers will include an edition of the original manuscript of Smith’s history that will identify underlying sources. Other series of the Papers will also include numerous items not published in the History of the Church and will present exact transcriptions of the originals.

Roots of the current effort to publish Smith’s papers extend back to the late 1960s when Truman G. Madsen, then director of the Institute of Mormon Studies at Brigham Young University, invited Dean C. Jessee, then an employee of the Church Historian’s Office of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to contribute to special issues of Brigham Young University Studies focusing on Joseph Smith and early Mormon history. Work on the articles reinforced Jessee’s desire to understand and publish the complete documentary record. Jessee’s opportunity came following Leonard J. Arrington’s 1972 appointment as the official historian of the church. Arrington assigned Jessee to locate, collect, and transcribe Smith’s writings. As Jessee developed a methodology, he was aware of the massive documentary editing projects sprouting around the United States following the initiation of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson in the 1940s. In response to the publication of Jefferson’s early papers, United States president Harry S. Truman had directed the National Historical Publications Commission to promote publication of the papers of America’s Founding Fathers. It was said that “no country in the world will have so complete a record of its beginnings.”69 Jessee and Arrington believed that the papers of Joseph Smith were equally essential to the study of Mormon beginnings.

In 1980, the project was transferred from the Church Historian’s Office to Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. There Jessee continued his work as a member of the newly formed Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History, encouraged and aided by institute directors Leonard Arrington and then Ronald K. Esplin. In 1984, Jessee published The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith (with a second edition in 2002), containing nearly every document Smith wrote himself and a substantial portion of his dictated writings. This was followed by a broader initiative that resulted in the publication of the two-volume The Papers of Joseph Smith—a volume of Smith’s autobiographical and historical writings in 1989 and a volume of journals in 1992.

As this work proceeded, a more comprehensive plan for publishing Smith’s papers emerged. In 2001, the Joseph Smith Papers Project was established as a collaboration between Brigham Young University and the Archives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Jessee, now general editor, Esplin, now executive editor, and Richard Lyman Bushman, chairman of the Smith Institute’s executive committee, took responsibility for coordinating teams of historians serving as editors of various volumes and a central staff of editors and researchers to update, expand, and complete the project. Fortunately, as the expanded project got under way, Larry H. and Gail Miller offered to fund the operation. In 2005, the project returned to the Church Archives, now known as the Church History Library.

The new Joseph Smith Papers Project has adopted an enriched editorial procedure and a new organization of materials. All the material in the two previously published volumes of The Papers of Joseph Smith that qualifies for inclusion under new criteria will appear in the new format, with expanded annotation, as part of The Joseph Smith Papers. In this edition, we intend to publish, both in paper and electronic form, every extant document to which we can obtain access.70 Work is under way on six series of Joseph Smith papers:

1. The Journals series will contain the ten volumes of journals kept by Smith and his various scribes and clerks from 1832 through the end of his life in 1844.

2. The Documents series will bring together early versions of revelations, correspondence sent and received, sermons and other addresses, selected minutes and proceedings, editorials and articles in periodicals, official declarations and pronouncements, and other such documents for which Smith was responsible.

3. The Histories series will publish the entire manuscript history that Smith began in 1838, which was continued by his clerks after his death. The first volume in this series will serve as an introduction chronicling Smith’s history-writing initiative that began in 1830 and led up to the larger work begun in 1838.

4. The Legal and Business Records series will reproduce legal papers from the scores of judicial proceedings in which Smith was either a plaintiff, defendant, or witness. The business papers, many of which relate closely to the legal papers, comprise records of Smith’s personal or family finances and records relating to Smith’s involvement in development efforts and enterprises in behalf of the church. The latter category includes notes and other loan documents; records of purchases, sales, and other transactions relating to land; and store accounts and accounts of church-owned businesses.

5. The Revelations and Translations series will present the earliest manuscript texts of the Joseph Smith revelations and those published during his lifetime. These include the Book of Mormon and the printer’s manuscript from which it was produced. In contrast to the Documents series, this series will present the texts of the revelations alone—without other Smith documents interspersed—and will focus mainly on textual, not contextual, annotation.

6. The Administrative Records series will publish minutes and other records pertaining to institutions that were established under Smith’s direction and that contain his personal instruction and involvement.

Most of Joseph Smith’s papers are located in the Church History Library of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah, while another significant body of his materials is found in the Library-Archives of the Community of Christ in Independence, Missouri. Additional important items have been located in other public and private repositories.

The diversity and expansiveness of this documentary collection stem from Smith’s extensive leadership in religious and civic roles. He was a translator, revelator, church president, city builder, mayor, city council member, judge, militia leader, and presidential candidate, and his papers reflect all those roles. These volumes provide essential resources for the study of Joseph Smith’s life and times.

Richard Lyman Bushman, Columbia University

Dean C. Jessee, Church History Library