At MHA I had the pleasure of chatting up several of the fine scholars working on the Joseph Smith Papers (JSP) project. I thought it would be handy to write up some of the back-story of the JSP, my observations of the project so far, and point out places where the project could potentially fall short.
In the mid 1980’s Signature Book secured the literary rights to Joseph Smith’s journals from the Joseph Smith Family Association. Scott Faulring prepared journal transcripts of all the available materials, edited them and published them in 1987 with the Smith Family Associations statement of support. (1) Faulring’s edition had two critical weaknesses: it was heavily and silently edited, especially for punctuation and capitalization; and Faulring did not have access to the “Book of the Law of the Lord” (BLL). The BLL is a volume kept by Joseph’s secretary qua Temple Recorder and includes revelations, some journal entries and donation records. (2) The BLL is kept in the First Presidency Vault, and is not available to researchers. In preparing their compilation of Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo sermons, (3) Ehat and Cook apparently got access to BLL extracts or a table of contents as they cite BLL page numbers as sources for certain accounts. In several cases they were wrong. Faulring relied on Ehat and Cook to identify supposed BLL accounts then used the “Manuscript History of the Church” as source material for the entries.
Dean Jessee had been intimately involved with the papers of Joseph Smith for some time and he worked diligently to publish a critical edition of Joseph Smith’s writings and journals. (4) The first volume (1989) included Joseph’s autobiographical and historical writing. Volume two (1992) included Joseph’s journals to 1842. The Journal entries in the BLL ended in December 1842 and Jessee received access to include all but a few entries in his volume. Jessee completed volume III, which covered the 1843-44 journals, but due to internal politics within the LDS Church administration, publication was ultimately delayed and the project was taken over by the ambitious Joseph Smith Papers project.
The Joseph Smith Papers is a massive effort that has expanded from Jessee’s initial project to an anticipated thirty-plus volume collection. The JSP have utilized vast amounts of resources scouring the world for documents, analyzing, editing and annotating them. Several members of the JSP presented at the 2007 MHA conference describing some of their efforts (5 – available online). Without question the volumes that they produce will be the finest critical Mormon texts ever produced. Several of the volumes will include features never before seen in the genre (e.g., multi-colored images to highlight differences scribes). Unfortunately, it has been a long time coming. Without going into too much detail, the first volumes were first expected to reach the market about six years ago or so. Mix in controversy over the project location (it started at BYU) and publisher (the church created the Church Historians Press), and skeptics have had plenty of ammo with which to mock the project.
The first volume of the JSP is currently at the publisher and is slated for release in the fall of 2008 (hopefully November). Previous estimates have never had the credibility of actually having the volume at press. The first volume will be Journals I and the second will be Revelations I. It is my understanding that Journals II and III (which include the elusive 1843-44 entries) are to be the fifth and sixth volumes, which puts the reception of Journals III approximately during the summer of 2010. I am looking forward to receiving the first volumes and am confident they will be as excellent as imagined.
I do have some critical commentary on the JSP. What follows are my criticisms of information I have gathered about the projects from those involved and from the general record of project from conference presentations and news reports.
- Sermons – It is my understanding that for the sermon volumes, the JSP editorial practice is to select a single account of a sermon and then note differences with other accounts in the notes. This assures that the JSP sermons will never be the definitive source for scholars when they want to engage Joseph’s sermons. They will always need to go to something like Ehat and Cook’s Words. Perhaps this is why Ehat is boning up their volume for a third expanded edition, which is rumored to come out this year. But what is the point in the JSP going through all the effort if it isn’t going to be definitive? A lost opportunity. It would also be nice not to have to rely on Woodford’s unwieldy dissertation for revelations.
- JST – It is my understanding that the JSP will only be including a small part of Joseph Smith’s Biblical expansions. I imagine that this is because of the recently published Scott H. Faulring, Kent P. Jackson and Robert J. Mathews, Joseph Smith’s New Translation of the Bible: Original Manuscripts (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2004). While this expensive volume is a wonderful resource, I have heard rumblings that it has some mistakes in it. What’s more, I guarantee that if it were published by Signature, the JSP would be doing it. Lame.
- Annotation – I understand that the preferred mode of annotation in the volumes is to cite only primary sources and then cite the holograph record. This makes sense from the vantage that these volumes will be used as sources for perhaps centuries. It is however, highly annoying for researchers.
[Potentially] Devastating Criticisms (in my opinion)
- Council of Fifty Minutes – the Council of Fifty Minutes are known to reside in the First Presidency Vault (for info on the Concil of Fifty, see here). Everyone knows they are there and it is rumored that they may be included. When the JSP folks tell people that they are publishing everything, the typical first response is, “even the Council of Fifty minutes?” If they are not included, the JSP will be a nice set of primary sources, but critics will always have reason to believe that the Church is hiding something. And if the C50 minutes were not published, what else do we not know about that was kept hidden?
- Book of the Law of the Lord – like the C50 minutes, the BLL is chilling out in the FP Vault. The JSP folks will publish the journal entries. I can understand keeping out the donation records, but the revelations? See above.
- Scott Faulring, An American Prophet’s Record: The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books in association with the Smith Research Association, 1987). This printing was a collectors printing limited to 500 copies. In 1989, Signature released a second, paperback edition which is currently still in print.
- The best information on the BLL is Alex Smith’s 2006 Mormon History Association Conference presentation, “Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo Journals: Understanding the Documents,” available from the Sunstone website, MH06116.
- Andrew Ehat and Lyndon Cook, Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph (Provo, UH: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1980). This volume was reprinted by Grandin Book Company (Orem Ut, 1991) and the text was revised for a second edition, first computer edition in 1996. This digital version is available through various Mormon digital collections, including, Gospelink and LDS Library.
- Dean C. Jessee, ed., The Papers of Joseph Smith, 2 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1989-1992).
- Sharalyn Howcroft, Jeffrey G. Cannon and Robin Scott, “The Joseph Smith Papers: Dealing with Joseph Smith Documents: ‘Document Collection and Organization in an Electronic Control File,’ ‘Utilizing Technology,’ and ‘Document Selection and Transcription Methods,'” 2007 Mormon History Association Conference presentation. Available from the Sunstone website, MH07212.