Joseph Smith Papers Redux

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.

Minor Criticisms

  • 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.


  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Dean C. Jessee, ed., The Papers of Joseph Smith, 2 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1989-1992).
  5. 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.


  1. More info on the BLL please?

  2. Jonathan Green says:

    You’re setting the bar pretty low for devastating criticisms. At best, you’re criticizing the incompleteness of a multi-volume work whose first-volume has yet to appear.

  3. Steve, check out the comments in this thread for more info in the BLL, especially those by Alex, who is editing it for JSPP.

  4. SC Taysom says:

    A close friend who has acted as an outside reader for the project was irate about the use of so called “toe-notes” in the manuscripts. Apparently, some of the time, there are footnotes within footnotes. I’m not sure if it is worth getting mad about, but it is sort of strange.

  5. Jonathan, I don’t disagree. And they very well might publish those things and the whole criticism would be moot. That would be great!

    Along with the link that David gives, check out the audio in note 2. You have to pay for it, but it is the best treatment to date.

    Toe notes? That makes me laugh. I have never heard of such things. Where do they go?

  6. Thanks for the update, J. I’m looking forward to the first volume this fall. (As an aside, it would be nice to have a complete transcription of the BLL, including the revelations and the donation records.)

  7. The idea (if not the name) of toe notes is an outstanding solution to a problem I have.

    I’ve edited the Kingston United Order Journal and the Las Vegas Mission journal for publication. In each case, I want to keep the focus on the document as an integral document, not break into it with the text of other documents, like letters and minutes and entries from related diaries. Yet I want those other documents to be tied to the relevant points in the main text. So, okay, you put them in as footnotes, along with other annotations. But since those letters/minutes/diary entries are primary sources, they, too, sometimes need to be footnoted — hence, the need for toe notes, a second set of notes linked to and appearing below the footnotes.

  8. Justin, I actually agree that a complete edition of the BLL would be ideal and that I honestly don’t understand the institutional skittishness. For example, the JSP are doing a complete edition of the “Kirtland Council Minute Book.” Unlike the Collier edition, it will not be rearranged to be chronological, but will appear as the volume was assembled. There is a lot to gain from that perspective, and the BLL would be equally benefited.

  9. Ardis, but what happens when you need to annotate the toe note?

  10. Hangnail notes?

  11. Toenail notes. Duh.

  12. Dang. Shoulda refreshed.

  13. what happens when you need to annotate the toe note?

    I’ll state the obvious: “toenail note.”

  14. I would recommend using Pierre Bayle’s footnote system.

    An explanation of the page layout for his Dictionnaire: Particularities of the Text

  15. Kevin Barney says:

    They should set it up like the Talmud.

    Does anyone know what the plan is for the BoM? How can they have a complete JSP without it? But if they were to include it, in what form would they do so? Maybe they’ll just sort of crossreference Skousen’s work, sort of like the apparent plan for the JST.

  16. Wow, very few Google hits on “Council of Fifty Minutes” (or 50) Tantalizing. (Mostly blog entries, including this one)

    (Interesting hit on an exmo site that suggests a list of documents in the Church Vault.)

    What might one expect to find in this document?

  17. You never need to add citations to a toenote, because toenotes do not contain further discussion material. Problem solved.

  18. FHL, see this write-up on the Council of Fifty. I’ll add a link in the post as well, for those not familiar.

    Kevin, I haven’t heard about the Book of Mormon. You are right that it would be quite odd not to have at least something.

  19. Researcher says:

    SC: Don’t worry, I hear they dropped the toe-note system.

  20. Researcher says:

    Kevin: They are including transcripts from the original BoM manuscrips.

  21. Researcher says:

    Also, there is hope (although at this point it is only a hope) that the project will have access to the C50 minutes when the time comes.

  22. Mark Ashurst-McGee says:

    A few comments:

    Sermon volumes
    There are no Sermons volumes on the docket. Some of us in the project hope to see a sermon volume at some point down the road, but that would come after the completion of the currently slated series. The sermons for which there are decent reports will appear in their chronological sequence in the Documents series. In terms of Joseph Smith documents or other texts, the text of the sermon is what he said. Reports of sermons recorded by others are similar in theory to unauthorized and poorly made copies of letters. The normal practice in a documentary edition is to make a census of all known versions of a particular text, establish insofar as possible their filiation (like charting out a family tree), selecting a copy text (or featured version), and recording significant variants with textual annotation. The JSP may yet take a different course–one more like Cook and Ehat (which definitely has its advantages)–but that would be a departure from our theory and practice of editing other JS texts. Note: Many of the accounts in Cook and Ehat simply cannot be taken as JS documents because they do not attempt to capture the text–the words–of the sermon. Rather, they are summaries, commentaries, or mere mention of the topic or subject matter, or simply mention that he preached. This is all fine material for annotation, but cannot be considered a JS document. In theory, it parallels the many other things that people wrote about their conversations and interactions with JS or simply their observations. And, we don’t have to be the only game in town. Cook and Ehat is a great resource in its own (different) terms.

    This is not my particular turf, but my understanding is that the decisions of what and what not to publish here will also be based on a coherent theory of documentary editing and not on what RSC or signature has or hasn’t already done.

    Although the old “toe-notes” plan is extremely helpful to researchers, some of us here at the project found them too unconventional. What we have now is something of a hybrid. They look more conventional, but retain much of the specific fact-documentation linking. I anticipate that those who use the volumes for their research the most (our ideal audience) will appreciate our departure from convention.

    Council of Fifty minutes and issue of mistrust
    Even if the Smith Papers published the C50 minutes, mistrust would persist that the church was hiding other documents.

    Book of the Law of the Lord
    It would be nice to have a public transcript of the entire volume, as of the letter books and revelation books, but that isn’t the standard approach to documentary editing. We hope to do some of this in some special volumes, but the general approach will be to break the Smith papers into series defined by genre and then include all texts (not all versions of those texts, but the best extant versions) in chronological arrangement within each genre-defined series. All of the journal entries will therefore be published in the journals series. All of the revelations in the BLL will be published in the Documents series where they fall chronologically. By that I mean based on the date the revelations was initially received (not the date on which the earliest surviving version was inscribed). In all but one case, if I remember correctly, there are better versions than the BLL versions. The financial records are no more JS’s than gobs of other church financial records that we are not publishing. The BLL is an absolutely tremendous source of information on the Nauvoo economy, pricing everything from horses and lumber to eggs and beets. But it doesn’t really fall in the scope of the Smith Papers.

  23. Mark, thank you for your insightful comments. Your comments on the sermons, JST and BLL are especially helpful. Regarding the JST, word on the street was that the JSP will not include much of the mss, I came up with an explanation on which I am happy to be corrected. RE: C50 – I guess there will always be hard core skeptics, but I tend to think that their publications would assuage the bulk of the skepticism…but then again, that is just my opinion.

  24. …also, I’m not sure how a sermon report becomes a “document” if it were never in JS’s actual possesion. Or is that the point?

  25. BTD Greg says:

    Could someone be a little more specific on the BLL to a Church History neophyte? Or is it simply all speculation when it comes to the BLL? If it’s JS’s take on collected revelations, why wouldn’t the church want its members to know about these revelations? Is it a canon problem? The implication, of course, is that there is secret, esoteric knowledge that is perhaps shocking or for other reasons withheld from the general membership (i.e., you have to be a 42nd Level Mason or 7th Level Thetan to find out that stuff). And, of course, if no one actually knows what’s in the BLL, there’s no way to brush that implication aside.

  26. BTD Greg, as mentioned, the BLL is a volume that includes, some revelations, JS journal entries, and as I understand it, donations information. The references in comments #3 and #5 go over a lot of the known info. The BLL had sort of a metaphysical quality to it, like a book of life, as well, that really hasn’t been sufficiently treated.

  27. BLL is NOT an esoteric text full of . I treat its meaning as an artifact in my chapter 5. Alex Smith gave a nice summary of BLL in last year’s MHA, which you should listen to.

    It was meant to function as a book of life or book of remembrance, and its primary meaning is as an artifact/relic.

    It would be nice more globally to release the BoLL, including the donation information, to scholars, as it is an important document for social history.

  28. SC Taysom says:


    I LOVE the lacuna after your first “of.” Oh, the possibilities.

  29. SCT, I clearly got distracted (am at work). I agree, an opportune lacuna. I suppose it should have read “hermetic mysteries,” or some such, but sometimes silence speaks loudest.

  30. This is a really useful summary and analysis, J. Thanks! (And thanks to Mark for the informative follow-up.)

  31. Observer says:

    Quinn’s article on the C50 in BYU Studies (while he was still at BYU), implicitly claims that he has read the C50 minutes and records, and–among other claims–he states that the C50 minutes reveal that Joseph Smith is Mormonism’s
    “greatest constitutionalist.” Not sure what that means; hope we will find out.

  32. J. Stapley, thanks for the link. I had been thinking that the council lasted for 50 minutes. =) (and wondered how long of a document it could be!)

    Interesting stuff!

  33. Observer, I have read that paper a couple of times and seem to remember that Quinn states explicitly that he had not seem them. Now, if I remember correctly, some info from the early minutes was included in the later UT incarnations, which are in some cases available. Then there is good ole BF Johnson…

  34. J., you’ve sort of eluded before to an…unreliability(?)…of Benjamin F. Johnson. Is there a reason for this?

  35. Thanks for the great post and also the link to the MHA Presentation.

    (P.S. The word “toenotes” makes me feel queasy)

  36. Johnson is a fascinating character, but his somewhat famous letter to Gibb, which states the JS taught the C50 that all countries would eventually adopt the God-given US Constitution was written in 1903. Quinn suggests that both Johnson and John D. Lee, both zealous promoters of C50 grand theology, were mostly out of the loop. I haven’t done the analysis to weigh in on that, but I have seen certain groups take Johnson’s letter as authoritative, which from a historiagraphical perspective is folly. I’d be happy to have the C50 minutes vindicate him, though.

  37. Fascinating discussion, everyone. Thanks.

  38. Re: 31 and 33, I’ve heard a story about an MHA panel on which both Quinn and Ehat participated. Someone in the audience asked Quinn a question about the Q50 minutes and Quinn turned to Ehat and said, “Let’s ask the man who’s actually seen them.” Ehat in turn replied that he hadn’t seen them, and that he had to write down specific questions about the document and someone in the hierarchy would then go to the vault, look up the answer, and then tell Ehat what he wanted to know.

    The details of this story have probably been blurred with each re-telling, but my guess is that the core is pretty reflective of what was said.

  39. re: 38, you should read Peterson’s account of his access to the vault for his Book of Abraham book. Sounds a lot like Ehat’s account.

  40. If I remember correctly, I think that Ehat’s biggest fault in his C50 article was he relied on Johnson a little too much. Might be a faulty memory, though.

  41. BTD Greg says:

    Thanks for the clarifications everyone. I think I understand it better now.

  42. Mark Ashurst-McGee says:

    MHA Snowbird 1996: Ehat announced that he gave Qs to G. Homer Durham, who then came back to him with researched answers. But I doubt Durham did the research himself.

  43. Timburriaquito says:

    I just found the Book of the Law of the Lord here online:

    Of course, this is the James J. Strang translation of the plates of Laban, so maybe it’s not the same book that is sitting in the First Presidency vault.

    You can even buy a copy for yourself from a guy in Louisiana.

  44. Observer says:

    I went back and (very quickly) looked at Quinn’s article again. He doesn’t seem to have said explicitly either way whether he’d seen them. I thought he implied that by talking about their length, and the fact that they paint Joseph Smith as our “greatest Constitutionalist”. But not so from these accounts of Quinn’s comments. His article suffers from more than a little unintended irony, IMO.

    Also, author David Foster Wallace has been known to use footnotes to footnotes in both his essays and fiction. Maybe JSP editors have been reading Infinite Jest.

%d bloggers like this: