Review: Journals, Volume 1: 1832-1839 of The Joseph Smith Papers

After literally years of anticipation and abortive publication dates, the The Joseph Smith Papers released their first volume a few weeks ago. In a year of important historiographical developments in Mormon Studies, one event was paramount: on December 1, 2008, Journals, Volume 1: 1832-1839 arrived at my door.

According to the General Editors, “The Joseph Smith Papers are being prepared under the auspices of the office of the historian of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints…[Editors] have gathered every known Joseph Smith document, verified each transcript at least three times, and provided extensive annotation on the historical context” (v). The project received NHPRC endorsement and has an impressive advisory board. These documents have been divided for publication into six series: Administrative Records, Documents, History, Journals, Legal and Business Records, and Revelations and Translations. The first of these 30 or more anticipated volumes are Joseph Smith’s extant 1830’s journals.

While later volumes will have new material, the significance of Journals 1 is not in the revelation of its content (though I gained much from its reading). The manuscript sources are available at the LDS Archives and on the Selected Collections DVDs. Transcripts of these journals have also been available from previously published sources for years, though not equal in quality to the JSP (see here). The significance of Journals 1 lays in the exhaustive effort and skill with which the documents were prepared. And it is all published by the newly christened Church Historian’s Press.

As Journals 1 was the vanguard volume, not only of its series, but of the entire project, it includes items in the forward matter that will not be present in other volumes. Further, as the index for the volume was outsourced, and the received product was not satisfactory, Project editors decided to include an index only in the final volume of the Journals series and thus ensured that Journals 1 be delivered as promised (other series will include indices in each volume). What follows is my anatomical and critical review.

Joseph Smith Papers 2Dean C. Jessee, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Richard L. Jensen, eds., Journals, Volume 1: 1832–1839, vol. 1 of the Journals series of The Joseph Smith Papers, ed. Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2008). xlvii, 506 pp. Cloth: $49.95; ISBN: 978-1570088490.

Some might think that $50 is a bit much for a book; but considering that Deseret Book routinely hawks non-cloth bound, non-sewn volumes for $35 and university presses frequently charge well over $50 for 200 page cloth bound editions, Journals 1 is a bargain (especially at amazon). It is also the most beautifully constructed volume I have seen in a very, very long time. It has oversized 7″x10″ pages (the size of Prince’s McKay biography) and is bound in luxurious blue linen with red and gold printing. I understand that some dislike the dust jacket, but I found it inoffensive. The paper is of very high quality, chosen for image clarity while not going completely glossy, and the typography is easy and delightful; the only negative is that the font renders the number one as a serif capital I and consequently 11 looks like the Roman numeral 2. The only problem with my copy of the volume was smudged printing on pages 79 and 82, which I imagine will be rectified in subsequent printings.

General Introduction
As the first volume of the JSP, General Editors Jessee, et al., included a 27 page review of Joseph Smith’s life. I found the brief treatment encouraging for the subjects it treated (e.g., magic, “translation,” and polygamy) and for the sources it cited (normative use of Anderson’s Lucy’s Book and Compton’s In Sacred Lonliness). This introduction will be helpful to anyone who has not read any of the significant treatments of Joseph Smith. And while the authors did point to the “non-Mormon scholarly opinion” of Vogel and Brodie (phraseology that needlessly perpetuates certain tired presumptions of Mormon scholarship; xxii), I felt that the authors were sometimes overly apologetic. This is notably evident in their treatment of “The Vision” (xvi), where anachronistic and untempered enthusiasm for Joseph Smith’s revelation is offered without qualification. This being said, I do think that such an introduction is a reasonable place for scholars to show their admiration for their subject. Elsewhere, I felt that the editors’ characterization of extant JS sermon records as “at best like class notes” was unduly deprecative. However, for an introduction of such limited space, it is perhaps unfair to expect a thorough presentation of Joseph Smith’s life events.

Series Introduction
Three and a half pages of introduction to the text of the Journals series.

Volume 1 Introduction
Nine pages on JS’s 1830’s journals. This nice and brief essay recounts the period each journal covered and the general historical events covered in the text, with some supplemental historical context.

Editorial Method
Eight pages which discuss document editing. This is a handy and quick primer on the transcript construction and notes, for example, that Joseph Smith’s handwriting is always bolded text. The editors discuss how they chose to render the text and how the website will, in the future, include a “‘diplomatic’ transcript” (lxii), which packs as much detail into the rendering as possible, but that is also much more difficult to read. Examples of material not published in the hard volume include items such as commas that were replaced with periods and spelling revisions by the original authors. For example “Sate^u^rday” is published as “Saturday” (note that the JSP use angle brackets in place of ^^).

Joseph Smith Papers 1JOURNALS
Source Notes, Historical Introductions, and Editorial Notes
Journals 1 reproduces the text of five separate records kept by Joseph Smith and his various scribes. Before each transcript, volume editors include a “Source Note,” which is a general description of the document, its construction and provenance. After this information, the editors provide an “Historical Introduction.” In these treatments the editors include well documented context and, for many journals, catch the reader up on major events not documented during lacunae in journal keeping. They also introduce the reader to the purpose of the documents and the details of their realization. Lastly and occasionally throughout the journal text, the editors scatter “Editorial Notes.” These notes function similarly to the Historical Introduction, except within the journal text. For example, one of the 1838 journals includes the text of an 1837 letter. The editorial note describes why the letter was written and why it was included at that specific point in the diary (240). I found each of these editorial additions helpful and rarely took issue with material included or excluded. In order to clearly delineate a sepperation between document text and intratextual editorialization, typesetters reduced the font of these sections to what might be for some, an uncomfortably small size.

Certainly no better transcription of Joseph Smith’s journals will ever be made. Editors repeatedly and blindly checked against the manuscript and used multi-spectral imaging to clarify obfuscated text. In comparing one entry that deals with Danites and that was later scribbled over by over-zealous record keepers (July 27, 1838; 293) against Jessee’s previous transcript [1] however, there are very few substantive differences. There are however areas where the enhanced transcription methodology provided significant textual enhancement. Volume editor Mark Ashurst-McGee kindly provided some examples, among which included:

  • The entry for November 29, 1832 initially concluded with the personal and urgent words “the Lord spare me[.]” Smith then wrote “the” over “me” and added “life of the servent[.]” There are several similar revisions new to this edition that restore some of the original texture of the document.
  • In comparing the first sentence of the final paragraph of November 8, 1835, Journals 1 restores the original text: “iniquities,” as opposed to the Phelps-redacted “errors,” a significant shift in tone.
  • Six instances of adhesive wafer residue in the second Ohio journal, indicate that material was copied into the journal from a loose manuscript temporarily fastened to the document. This seems to include the November 9, 1835 account of Smith’s first vision of deity.
  • For research use purposes, Jessee’s previous volume artificially broke up organic multi-date journal entries under editorial datelines for single dates. This can give the impression that things were written day by day.

In this area there is bound to be some disagreement among reasonable readers. Hearing that editors might only cite manuscript primary sources, I was pleasantly surprised with the consistent and judicious implementation of primary and secondary material (you’ll even see Quinn’s Origins pop up [317n281]). Frequently the editors’ annotation is exemplary; e.g., the 1839 diary is sparse but the annotation brings tremendous insight and cohesion to the narrative.

Still, I was a bit confused by what seemed to me to be editorial discretion in citing manuscript sources. For example, Caroline Barnes Crosby’s Autobiography, “The Book of John Whitmer,” and Wilford Woodruff’s journals were cited as manuscript records (published sources were indicated in the bibliography for only the later two), while editors frequently cited Bachman and Cook’s published transcript of the Kirtland Elders’ Quorum Record. I presume Minute Book 1 and 2 (aka, Kirtland Council Minute Book and the Far West Record) were cited as manuscript records because they will be included as part of the Joseph Smith Papers.

The editors employed a “toe note” system for long footnotes in which claims were cited within the note by superscript letters and the sources were collected at the end. I was uncertain how successful this system would be, but the result is clear and accessible. For an excellent example of such annotation see 185n378 (development of Church policy on ordination). The editors have an obvious command of the relevant literature.

As Joseph Smith’s language and writing is saturated with biblical reference and allusion, many of the annotations point to passages in the Bible which JS employed. For example, in a revelation dated January 12, 1838 (283-4) scribes recorded:

Therefore arise- and get yourselves, into a land which I shall show unto you, even a land flowing with milk & honey,[n181] You are clean from the blood of this Generation people, And wo, unto those who have become your enimies

Note 181 was helpful in that it pointed to Exodus 3:8 and several previous revelations describing Zion in Missouri; however, I found it peculiar that no explanatory note was given to explain the perhaps more obscure reference to being clean from the blood of a generation/people and its ties to Latter-day Saint ritual, also explained in scripture (D&C 88). Furthermore, the revelation on pages 307-8 included no scriptural annotation. It is unclear to me what qualified a given phrase for annotation; although I understand that documents which were copied into the journal from other sources received minimal annotation as they will be treated in volumes of their own.

Similar explanatory omissions form part of my substantive criticism. It seems to me that on several occasions, standard context wasn’t mentioned. For example, there was no mention of the controversy surrounding potential drunkenness at the 1836 Solemn Assembly (214n454). Similarly, Oliver Cowdery’s criticism of Joseph Smith’s relationship with Fanny Alger was not mentioned in the discussions of his disaffection (244n69, 251); though it was noted when Joseph’s diary made specific mention of the formal proceeding’s specific accusation (253n92).

Another criticism relates to choice of sources. In several places, editors cited Ensign articles. Notably they included two articles on Alvin Smith as the only reference to describe him (168n320). Elsewhere, in discussing the evolution of the Church’s name, the editors again cited the Ensign (164n306); though, peculiarly, in a later note they cited primary sources to document the change (258n115).

In the “Essay on Sources” the editors write that the “‘History of Brigham Young,’ based on contemporaneous Young diaries, also contextualize a number of the entries recording JS’s endeavors” in 1839 (476). In Utah, Church Historians, among which were several apostles, prepared histories for every Quorum of the Twelve member since its organization. The first to be produced, during the winter of 1857-58, was the “History of Brigham Young.”[2] And the editors frequently cite this history (188n385, 227n12, 237n46). The largest inclusion of material is in annotation of the famous July 1839 healings in Montrose on the banks of the Mississippi (348n53 and 349n56). Before an excerpt from Young’s history, which described the healings (n56), the editors declare: “In a personal history, Brigham Young later wrote that on 22 July, [history excerpt].” Unfortunately, Brigham Young’s 1839 diary includes no reference to the healings (Woodruff’s contemporaneous diary does, though it is not cited), and there is no evidence that Young wrote that portion of the history (though he surely reviewed and approved it). In spite of their otherwise critical obsession with source materials – an obsession that I find quite gratifying – I found the editors’ use of Young’s history rather odd.

Chronology: Nice series of dates and events intended to outline pivotal events as support to journal readers.

Geographical Directory: Exhaustive list of places and their descriptions, including keys to their location on maps. For example, I would have not had any idea, what “the flats” were (369).

Maps: This cartography is thoroughly impressive and incredibly detailed (though missing a certain Hamerian je ne sais quoi of earlier maps in the volume). They include massive amounts of new research and are a huge contribution. See for example, the maps chronicling the evolution of Kirtland.

Pedigree Chart: The most accurate list to date of all the children of Asael Smith, Solomon Mack Sr., Joseph Smith Sr., and Joseph Smith Jr. It will be documented online.

Biographical Directory: The introduction includes this nice tidbit: “A list of JS’s plural wives will appear in a forthcoming volume.” There was a massive amount of genealogical resources poured into this. Lots of new stuff.

Ecclesiastical Organization Charts: These charts list Church authorities in March 1836, Spring-Summer 1838, and October 1893. The charts are divided between “General Officers,” “Stake Officers” and “Traveling Officers.” This setup is extremely useful; however, I would have appreciated a list of Joseph Smith’s various First Presidencies and their dates of existence. I was impressed that the editors showed that Twelve Apostles were not considered General Authorities at this time, though some readers may be confused without explanation.

Glossary: Excellent and generally devoid of anachronism. The one exception I found was in the entry for “Laying on Hands” which states that only priesthood holders administered blessings and healing rituals.

Corresponding Section Numbers in Editions of the D&C: I’m not sure why this was included in this volume. I appreciate it though. Before this, I had to use the Tanner’s version. What is more, the concordance reflects significant amounts of new scholarship in the dating of revelations. For example sections 66 and 107 reflect new dates and about 20 sections now have specific dates due to access to the newly available revelations manuscript book that will be published as Revelations, Volume 1.

Index: This is, without question, the best index for any publication I have ever seen, let alone for Mormon Studies. Having been burnt on the outsourced version, JSP decided to do it in-house and the result is a handsome 58 pages. I’ll pass on published indices if they are all this good.

Annotated Chronology: Just what it says.

Citation Guide: Preferred citation scheme.

This is the finest edition of Mormon primary documents ever produced. It sets a new standard in transcription, editing and production that will be hard to match. My congratulations to every member of the Project and I look forward to the forthcoming fruits of your labors.

Note: The first printing sold out within a day of the Church announcing the volume’s availability. I understand that the second printing has been released and is mostly spoken for. A third printing is slated for February.


  1. Dean C. Jessee, The Papers of Joseph Smith, Volume 2: Journal, 1832-1842 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992), 262.
  2. Howard Clair Searle, “Early Mormon Historiography: Writing the History of the Mormons 1830-1858” (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 1979), 337-346.


  1. I just got this for Christmas (along with the MMM book), so I’m just diving into the book today… Thanks for this preview.

  2. Julie M. Smith says:

    Thanks for this review.

    You wrote, “Elsewhere, felt that the editors’ characterization of extant JS sermon records as “at best like class notes” was unduly deprecative.”

    On the other hand, in a world where members want to glean meaning from every jot and tittle of what JS said, might this perspective not be a good thing?

  3. John Hamer says:

    Excellent review, J., Thanks! I can’t wait to get my hands on this long-awaited volume.

  4. Great review and solid criticism, J; thanks.

  5. I was surprised that Joseph’s first account of the first vision was not included in Volume I since it seemed to fit the mold of what the first volume was trying to capture – JS’s early journals. I suppose the 1832 account, penned by Frederick Williams, will be included in a later volume of “revelations and translations?”

    It did make me wonder, however, who and how decisions are being made as to whether something is a “journal entry” or a “revelation and translation” or a “legal and business record?” And is there any apologetic editorializing in the grouping/presentation of significant or potentially volatile events?

    I found the General Introduction extremely interesting and in some ways refreshing.

  6. Aaron: JS’s first account of the first vision was recorded in his first “history” written in 1832, not his journal (two documents that I often mixed up before being corrected). It will be published in the History series.

  7. Ah…that makes sense.

  8. Steve Evans says:

    J., let me ask an obtuse question, perhaps as a way of framing discussion: what is the utility of the JSP to the average member? Would you recommend that the average member buy it?

  9. Steve, I think that this is a very accessible way to approach JS and the early church. Most folk probably won’t find it as thrilling as history wonks, though. But yeah, I definately recomend it for the interested reader.

  10. Julie, I’m all for contextualizing JS sources and promoting critical approaches them.

  11. Thanks, J. Although my copy is backordered on Amazon, my Mom was able to get one from a Seagull in Utah. So that was a nice Christmas gift. I’ve worked my way through all the front and back matter, and was really impressed by what I saw, especially the Geographical Directory. I’d add to your review that much of the introductory essay “Joseph Smith and his Papers” appears to be based on several of Bushman’s essays in Believing History, providing yet another example of the impact Bushman’s scholarship is having on the interpretation of JS.

  12. It was really fun to see so many familiar faces in the acknowledgements and credits. There were not a few mentions of you, David. I’ll bet it was great fun.

  13. Thanks, J. It was a lot of fun. I can’t imagine a better way to spend five years of my life.

  14. I can’t wait until my copy gets here. Thanks for the review.

  15. Thanks for the review J. I never thought I would actually see this thing come into print. I thought the entire thing was great, from the binding to the footnotes.

    No free copy for your work David? That sucks.

  16. Haha, I wish. I imagine volume editors got free copies, but lowly researchers (especially ones no longer affiliated with the project) need to fork over the cash.

  17. I had a similar experience with one of the volumes of the Jonathan Edwards Papers. But those cost like $200, so I just got a photocopy of the acknowledgments page!

  18. Wow. People whining about the price of the JSP volumes have no clue what they’re talking about.

  19. thanks for the review Jonathan. I loved my copy, and found that I saw things I had forgotten and saw them in new ways. I highly recommend the volume for everyone who does early Mormon history.

    I also found the reliance on the Brigham Young history somewhat confusing and out of place.I wonder whether this may be related to Ron Esplin’s expertise in Brigham Young.

    As for Steve’s question relating to whether nonspecialist Latter Day Saints would derive much from the book, I think it’s an interesting and important one. I personally think they would gain the most from knowing that the church has published unexpurgated journals. I do not think it makes sense as the first book for someone interested in the historical Joseph Smith to consider. I would recommend that they read rough Stone rolling before turning to these diaries. I would also make sure that they have a specific interest in pursuing history as history. That said, I felt great affection for Joseph Smith as I read these diaries.

    I look forward to the rest of them although I personally am not a fan of the way they divided it into different series within the collected volumes. It will make citing them in works much more difficult than the typical papers projects.the format that they propose in the style guide is rather unwieldy. I am eager to give credit where credit is due but if every volume has to have different editors in every citation will become quite messy to cite in footnotes.

    They all deserve our gratitude for a job very well done. I am sure that Leonard Arrington is smiling from heaven now to see this work published.

    Thanks again for this very thorough review.

  20. Kevin Barney says:

    I appreciate the review, especially since I’m one of those in amazon backorder limbo. Thanks.

  21. Thanks, J. This was great to read. I also am looking forward to reading the JSP.

  22. Nice review! Thank you.

  23. I’m surprised they are as popular as they are. I have the old Signature edition of Joseph’s diaries and have no real desire to buy this one until it’s out in paperback at a lower price. (Who knows when that will be) But I heard of lots of people picking this up for Christmas.

    I halfway wonder if far more Mormons are interested in Mormon history than we are given credit for.

  24. Clark: Sorry to break it to you, but so far there are no plans for paperback. Scholarly papers projects are not designed for mass production, so the current price is as low as your gonna see unless you buy one used down the road.

    The old signature edition, though important in its time, is not very credible anymore in scholarly circles with the new publication. Faulring did a decent job, but the JSP is leagues more accurate.

  25. #23/24: Ben is right. I have Faulring and Jessee, and JSP is much better. I think if you’re writing scholarship from here on out you’ll be stuck citing JSP if you want to use Smith’s papers.

  26. Thanks for the review, J. I was also quite pleased with all of the reference material and especially with the online index. Here’s hoping the publication of this first volume really gets the ball rolling on the other volumes, and the project is able to stick to its proposed publishing schedule.

  27. J.

    Thank you for the thoughtful and careful review!

  28. Just a note to say that I just received a copy of the bound index. It is much nicer than I had expected.

  29. I received my copy for Christmas. I took too many classes this semester and for the first time in my life I don’t have any time for pleasure reading. I plan on reading it once school is out.

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