Joseph Smith Papers: Documents Launch

Yesterday I attended a publicity event at the Church history library formally announcing/launching the first volume of the “Documents” series of the Joseph Smith Papers Project. This is actually the seventh volume in the JSPP series, but the first Documents volume, covering the period from July 1828 to June 1831—in other words, it covers the translation and publication of the Book of Mormon, the formal organization of The Church, and many of the earliest canonized revelations.

I confess, I’m not a JSPP groupie. I mean, I own several of the volumes and have used (and will continue to use) them as valuable resources. The books are well-put-together in every sense: they’re well written, well organized, and aesthetically gorgeous volumes. But I haven’t read them with the kind of reverential fervor of some of my nerdiest MoHistory friends, nor have I waited with mounting anticipation the release of whatever volume happens to be coming next. So, in some sense, I was the target audience for this PR event: an educated Mormon, familiar with the project, in whom they hoped to elicit some genuine excitement about this volume and the launch of the Documents series.

To my surprise, their strategy appears to have worked. I spent less than an hour at the library, much of it sitting and listening to prepared boilerplate about the volume. But I found myself sincerely intrigued by it, and once the formal presentation was over and I could spend some time thumbing through the volume on my own (while editors, archivists, and Church historians recorded interviews with local news outlets), my intrigue morphed into genuine excitement.

I’m not going to do the Project’s job of trying to sell the (decidedly not inexpensive) volume to you. But I will highlight a few of the things that caught my attention.

–D&C Section 19, traditionally understood to have been received to coincide with the organization of the Church in April 1830, is now dated to the previous summer.

–It appears that what we now know as Chapter 1 of The Book of Moses was originally presented as an independent revelation, not formally attached to the JSJ’s project of revising/retranslating the Bible.

–It looks like the “caracters” image, the slip of paper with characters putatively taken from the gold plates, which we traditionally associate with Harris’ visit to Professor Anthon, is not what Harris actually took with him. On a related note, apparently it was quite common for images containing Book of Mormon characters to circulate publicly in early LDS circles.

–This volume contains, in Appendix 2, a copy the contract/agreement between Josiah Stowell and two groups of investors to hire Joseph Smith, his father, and three other men to locate and uncover buried treasure in Novembe 1825, reproduced in print in the Salt Lake Tribune in 1880. The volume notes that neither the original contract nor the Susquahanah County newspaper in which it originally appeared are extant, but nevertheless describes the contents of the Tribune’s account as “fit[ting] historically with known events.” That the series editors judged the agreement, a straightforward acknowledgment of JSJ’s history of “money digging” or treasure-seeking, worthy of inclusion in this volume is, I think, rather noteworthy.

Note: Documents Volume 1 will is available for pre-order now and will be on shelves in a few weeks. Volume 2 is slated for release at the beginning of December 2013.


  1. Thanks for this post, Brad. I love this overall project, and I especially love the inclusion of things like the contract you mention in the final paragraph.

  2. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks for the write-up, Brad. I’d be interested in what the take home message of the event was for you, and what you think is significant if anything about the volume/series, beyond any particular detail.

  3. I think that for me the most significant thing about the series is that it will give readers (mostly church members) a new way of reading our history and a more palpable encounter with it. Dealing with all the messy details of the history is part of how we deconstruct the existing mythology, but so is giving the reading audience a less filtered experience with the history’s texts and artifacts. A lot of the mythology can still be read onto the documents (though not all of it), but new narratives and tropes can also emerge from the more unmediated encounter.

  4. Lucky dog!

  5. Thanks, Brad. I’ve been flipping through the volume tonight and have thoroughly enjoyed it, probably more than any other JSP volume—which is really saying something. This is what I originally envisioned the JSP to be: taking a close look at each document, one by one, in an exhaustible sense that is only possible for a project of their size and professionalism, over a chronological period. Perhaps more than the other volumes, you can really trace the development of the church in these documents and their annotation.

    I’ll probably do a post on this later, but their treatment of the translation process and priesthood restoration are sufficiently exciting, foundational, and paradigm-shifting (from an institutional level, anyway) that it deserves lots of attention.

  6. Yup.

  7. Is it totally weird that I am excited about this? Such an important time period in LDS history (and our shared history with other Restorationist religions).

  8. Ben P, I want to be in your book club and get early orders!

    Sounds like the into/supplementary material could live up to my excitement. I think this series is a great way for the texts of church history to retell our story in a more straightforward way-to the larger membership.

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