Robin Jensen is a volume editor of the forthcoming Revelations and Translations volume of the Joseph Smith Papers. We are pleased to host a series of posts from him relating to his work, of which this is the first.
While I’m sure it’s just a rumor, I’m told that not everybody is excited over the prospect of sitting down with a document-based book. I personally couldn’t think of many things more exciting than reading a volume containing in-depth discussions about the creation, reception, and provenance of documents. So for all of you who have some type of countdown widget based on the latest release date of the Papers of Thomas Jefferson or George Washington, I’ve got some great news. The next volume of the Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations Series, will be released this Tuesday.
Last year’s release of the first volume of the Journals Series in the Joseph Smith Papers project was the first in a long string of exciting volumes to be released. One purpose of the JSPP volumes is to open access to the papers created by or owned by religious figure and founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Joseph Smith. (For more information about the Joseph Smith Papers, see our website here and two earlier posts here and here.) This second JSPP release is the focus of this series of posts.
A brief setup is perhaps in order: the Joseph Smith Papers is divided into six series. The Journals series began with the first volume published late last year and the first volume of the Revelations and Translations series will be available Tuesday. Four other series—Documents, History, Legal and Business Records, and Administrative Records—are all being worked on in varying degrees, except for the Administrative Records Series, which is still at the conceptual drawing board. The first volume of the Revelations and Translations Series (hereafter R1) contains two early manuscript revelation books created between 1831 through 1835. The first one, the Book of Commandments and Revelations, or Revelation Book 1—principally created by John Whitmer—was used as the major source for the printing of the revelations in Missouri found in The Evening and the Morning Star and the Book of Commandments. It was then later used as a source for the publication of the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants. The second manuscript volume found in R1 is the Kirtland Revelation Book, or Revelation Book 2—created by Frederick G. Williams, Joseph Smith, Orson Pratt, Oliver Cowdery, and others—was an important source for the printing of the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants. While images of Revelation Book 2 have been published in a variety of media and quality, a full transcription has been unavailable in print until now. Revelation Book 1, on the other hand, is what I like to call a “new” old manuscript. Like the first volume of the Journals series (hereafter J1), R1 presents texts critical to understanding Joseph Smith and the early church. However, differences between the two published Joseph Smith Papers volumes will be apparent at first glance.
First, R1 is an oversized volume coming in at 9×12 inches, as opposed to the 7×10 inches of J1. The primary factor that drove this was deciding to produce color images of every manuscript page, which lets users better see the details (the size of the volume making the images close to actual-sized reproductions). J1 has many image examples of journals pages throughout the volume, but with R1, we have photographed and will present images of every single inscribed page of the manuscript revelation books. And the images will be in full color—another obvious difference from J1. So we have an oversized volume reproducing about 350 images in full color. That brings us to the next difference: R1 is twice the price. Fortunately, at 99.95, R1 is the same price as the most recent standard editions of the Thomas Jefferson Papers and the Benjamin Franklin Papers (editions, I might add, that do not supply color images of every page of the manuscripts they reproduce).
In addition to the color images, each manuscript page has been carefully transcribed. This typographical facsimile mimics the manuscript as best as possible. When the line of text ends in the manuscript, the line in the transcription ends; if a word is inserted above the line in the manuscript, that transcribed word is inserted above the line. When a word is written over another word in the manuscript, the transcription will identify both words. Meticulous annotation describes textual details not readily seen through the image. One aspect that has simplified the already complex reading of the text that I particularly find valuable is the color coding found in the transcription. On any given page, there could be multiple scribes writing or emending the text in preparation for the printing of those texts. Editors have typeset this transcription based on color. For instance, redactions by John Whitmer will be seen as green, redactions by Oliver Cowdery are transcribed in blue, and redactions by Joseph Smith are in bold. Based on these colors of letters or words in the transcription, readers will know at a glance which scribe made which changes. This transcription and textual annotation will face each image allowing readers to view the image and benefit from the transcription and textual notes of one manuscript page on a two-page spread.
Why this departure from the style and standard established by J1? There are several reasons. The revelation texts found in the volumes were eventually used as working texts for publishing the revelations. As such there are heavy redactions throughout much of Revelation Book 1 and significant redactions through some of Revelation Book 2. Verses, punctuation, words, and at times, whole phrases are written over existing words or written above the line. This complex nature of the texts makes a simple transcription challenging if not impossible. The image allows readers to see the original text and sort out some of the complexities that may not be readily apparent by typescript alone. Secondly, many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would claim that the revelations and translations Joseph Smith produced are among his most important documents. A closer scrutiny of these texts is justified in their mind and we are meeting that need. And while many scholars researching the life of Joseph Smith will not have the spiritual dedication to the texts most LDS members will have, they should recognize that the revelations and translations played a significant role to the early members. They prompted temple-building projects, theological modifications, mass relocations, and individual missionary efforts. Understanding the revelations goes a long way in understanding the early saints’ thinking and efforts. Thirdly, two emphases of professional documentary editing have emerged—historical and literary documentary editing. Scholars have and presumably will continue to study the revelations and translations as historical documents that shed light on Joseph Smith’s thinking. But just as many scholars will want a detailed study of the composition of the text for literary studies. R1’s modified treatment for the revelation and translation texts can fit within the purview of both camps of documentary editing.
Instead of focusing on the individual revelations, this volume presents the manuscript revelation books. Thus instead of providing historical context for each revelation, the volume will simply discuss the context of the creation of the entire manuscript books. The historical focus of each revelation will be found in the Documents series. As such, the tools in the front and back matter focus on the manuscript books as artifacts, instead of the individual revelations as texts. Thus for instance, J1 has a detailed biographical directory, glossary, and set of maps to help readers situate the texts in their historical context. R1 will include a biographical discussion of only the scribes who copied revelations into the manuscript revelation volumes and will include some charts to help users understand how the volumes were subsequently used as copy books for various publications. R1 will not include a glossary or maps. Because R1 presents the volumes and not the individual revelations, R1 will not include an index of the content of the revelations. Such an index will be found in the individual volumes of the Documents series, where the historical context of each revelation is discussed. This is no different than other largely textual studies, such as Skousen’s Book of Mormon studies, Faulring, Jackson, and Matthews’s JST publication, and many other literary textual studies like the Mark Twain edition.
I feel passionate about what I do. Scholarship improves when research and analysis is tied to a better contextual and historical understanding of documents. Paying attention to the documents, both by documentary editors and by the scholars who use them will thoroughly ground everyone in the documentary record. And in my world that is an exciting thing.