The Joseph Smith Papers Project: A Dilettante’s Guide to Documents Vol I & II

The great thing about Mormonism is that you can call yourself an LDS historian without actually having any training in the matter.  Some of my best friends are LDS historians; a few of them actually have degrees in history, and of them there are a couple that actually studied LDS history.  The barriers to entry are low, friends, and it pays dividends to amass a library of your own and start passing yourself off as an ‘amateur LDS historian’.  As a friend of amateur LDS historians, let me provide a review of Documents, Volume I and II from the Joseph Smith Papers Project.  My aim here is to (1) provide a layman’s review of the books, (2) explain their value to amateur LDS historians, and (3) to explain why, even if the only LDS history you know is by authors whose last name ends in “ousen”, these volumes are worth owning.

For the uninitiated: the JSPP has four ongoing series of books thus far for sale: Journals, Revelations and Translations, Histories, and Documents.  “But wait,” you say, “aren’t all of those things documents?”  Yes.  It’s a little confusing, especially since the Documents series will, for example, contain all of the revelations given through the Prophet Joseph Smith. But the Documents series doesn’t have the same background and particular focus of those other series; for example, the Revelations books contain color-coded transcriptions and other tools meant to aid the textual scholar. The various series are in essence geared towards special purposes; the to-come Administrative Records, for example, is probably not for everyone. Documents is the general-purpose series, to the extent any of the JSPP works are “general purpose”. [1]

So far, there are two Documents volumes, with a third to come out shortly (in time for Christmas!).  They are grouped chronologically, beginning in 1828 and going until… well, 1844, duh. [2]

Another important fact: you can get all this stuff for free from the Joseph Smith Papers website.  But beware – those who read electronic versions of texts are less respected by their peers and have been shown to have inferior libraries.  Seriously, reading things on paper matters sometimes, and this is one of those times.  The JSPP site is extremely useful, but ultimately these are words that deserve to be read on paper, not glossed over as pixels.  And these are very good books, indeed; the print quality is superior and the workmanship is fine.  They look great on the shelf.  More than this, these are useful books, in that they are very clear and very well-organized; they are meant to be used.

Just look how good these bad boys look on the shelf.

Just look how good these bad boys look on the shelf.

But why should anyone use these books?  We have all the revelations already in our Triple Combinations.  Except we don’t.  Several of Joseph Smith’s revelations are not included in the Doctrine & Covenants, especially those directed to individuals with particular situations.  Other revelations were given in different form (for example, D&C 72 was three separate revelations).  So the Documents volumes present us with a record that is both more complete and in some ways quite different from the Doctrine and Covenants, which can be more seen as an abridgment or Greatest Hits volume.

More than this, the Documents series tells us far more about Joseph Smith and his family and friends than we can glean from the D&C or from Truman Madsen tapes.  Consider this excerpt of a letter from Emma to Joseph, written in April 1837 in Kirtland, Ohio:

There was a young man came with Brother Baldwin and Father’s folks took him in while br B was gone and he is here <yet and is> very sick with the measles which makes much confusion and trouble for me, and is also a subject of much fear and anxiety unto me, as you know that neither of your little boys have ever had them, I wish it could be possible for you to be at home when they are sick, You must remember them for they all remember you, and I could hardly pacify Julia and Joseph when they found ou[t] you was not coming home soon.

As you can imagine, there are many moments of love, guilt, wrath and confusion in these documents.  They have only been read by a few, but they have the potential to tell us far more about Joseph Smith than we typically see.

There is much more here.  You also realize just how much everyone was learning as they went along.  You realize that terms we use today (e.g., “United Order”) had different origins (“United Firm” – see D&C 78, 82).  You see, instead of the polished and at-times unapproachable D&C, the very human participants in the inauguration of the last dispensation.

These are valuable books.  And yet it is clear that most Mormons will not read these books, let alone buy them.  Joseph Smith’s papers will never outsell Gerald Lund.  Why is this?  Well, it’s because these are great big history books that are complex, difficult, and expensive.  It’s also because the narrative in Joseph Smith’s papers does not lend itself easily to simplistic plotlines.  This is messy history, and the Joseph Smith Papers is presenting it all to you, without embellishment [3].  This is the Joseph Smith Firehose, if you care to drink from it.  But even if you are, like me, not even an amateur LDS historian, but just a guy who likes LDS history and has some books, the Documents series is worth considering.  The dilettante wants (a) to have an impressive bookshelf and (b) read something super-interesting about Joseph Smith once in a while, and the JSPP books fit the bill.


[1]  From the FAQ on the JSPP website: “Who is the target audience for the project? The web and print publications of The Joseph Smith Papers are designed for historians, religious studies specialists, teachers and writers of American history and religion, and other scholars and serious students of Joseph Smith and the early church. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who have an interest in the church’s history may also make use of The Joseph Smith Papers.”

[2]  This is because Joseph Smith died in 1844.  There may be some documents that involve JSJ post-martrydom, e.g., court cases or letters addressed to him before knowledge of his death had spread.

[3]  Maybe a little embellishment.  There are a lot of bells and whistles in these books – while they are historian’s workbooks, there are lots of pretty pictures and diagrams, too.


  1. “Would God that all the Lord’s people were [LDS historians], . . .” (Num. 11:26-29). Speaking of Brigham Young, Elder Wilford Woodruff said, “He is a[n LDS historian], I am a[n LDS historian], you are, and anybody is a[n LDS historian] who has [amassed a library of their own], for that is the spirit of [LDS history]” (JD 13:165)

    Never knew I could fit in that category.

    The above is TIC and I couldn’t resist. This is an excellent evaluation Steve and thank you for it. From one LDS historian to another.

  2. Deborah Christensen says:

    Thank for the overview. I thinking this week that I need something new to read. Here it is!

  3. Agreed. Everyone should get these books. They are awesome. I have the glossy ones. Perhaps what we need to do is train more Mormons in historiography. When we don’t understand the system, we misunderstand what we’re seeing. It’s like watching the news and thinking that what they are saying and portraying is what really happened. Thanks Steve.

  4. I’ve long realized it as a fact of life that very few people get as excited about LDS history and documents as I do, so I often wonder how the JSP volumes are viewed by “normal” people. Thanks for this helpful review. When finished, I’m confident the Documents Series will be a tremendous resource for scholars and members alike.

  5. Robin, my guess is most Mormons see these as really important books they will never read. It’s a shame. The JSPP should be a part of every ward library at a minimum. If someone is teaching the D&C, it’s indispensable.

  6. But I totally love the Truman Madsen tapes!

  7. They are awesome tapes, don’t get me wrong. But they are curated and filtered. There is much more out there.

  8. “or from Truman Madsen tapes” is just awesome.

  9. John Mansfield says:

    You know what we need? An authoritative ranking of papers projects. The only other one I’ve given any attention is the Einstein Papers Project, now at ten released volumes out of a projected twenty-five. Googling “papers project” turns up the King Papers Project, the Margaret Sanger Papers Project, the Yale Indian Papers Project, and the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, but that’s not an authoritative ranking.

  10. John Mansfield: It’s tough to rank papers projects because, believe it or not, different projects run into different challenges and there are many different ways to do a good edition. If you look on the Association for Documentary Editing website, they have a useful listing of scholarly editions by title, subject, and edition:

  11. I would think that the Toilet Paper Project, even though it is not recognized by the Association for Documentary Editing, is nonetheless one of the more crucial projects out there, of interest to all.

  12. John Mansfield says:

    Robin, I did not intend to provoke a serious, useful response such as yours. If you type “authoritative” into the search box at the top of this web page, you will find that this web site has a running joke going about authoritative rankings. And know I’m wondering how the Zone Leader Papers Project is coming along.

  13. “those who read electronic versions of texts are less respected by their peers and have been shown to have inferior libraries”

    Yeah, and speaking of that, is that a Calvin & Hobbes collection in the picture between Rough Stone Rolling and the next book over?

    Perhaps I shouldn’t mention this since people have been having the vapors all over the Bloggernacle about people who actually use resources like this, but the print and online versions of the JSPP have been extremely useful in writing biographies and tracking peoples’ movements in the 1830s-1840s. A recent online discovery: seeing the donation made by my favorite War of 1812 veteran to the building of the Nauvoo Temple. (Two butchered hogs.)

  14. Amy, you see clearly!

  15. I second John M.’s suggestion. Scott, Steve, you’ve been known to jump the shark; now you’ve dropped the ball. Get on with it, I say!

  16. Darn it, Amy, I’m going to have to buy C. Terry Warner’s Bonds That Make Us Free, now that I know it’s a Calvin and Hobbes collection. I thought it was an LDS self-help book of the “Who Moved My Temple-Ready Cheese” variety of the type that gives me the fan-tods.

  17. You can’t be too careful in arranging books on your shelves. If Steven R. Covey next to Juanita Brooks hasn’t spontaneously combusted yet, it will. You can be sure of that.

    Just be glad it’s not a Cleon Skousen next to Eugene England–you’d be shoveling up the burned wreckage of your house right now.

  18. Ah, BCC and their many, many inside jokes. I can’t keep track of them all. You guys need to provide a useful chart for all the running jokes (something like this: It’s not the first time that I have taken seriously something meant to be funny when it comes to historical documents. Just ask every single one of my (very patient) colleagues.

  19. “even if the only LDS history you know is by authors whose last name ends in “ousen”, these volumes are worth owning.” Laughing is a good thing. Thank you very much.

  20. I love that I’m a Reason magazine subscriber and there are frequent ads for books by the libertarian Austrian School economist Mark Skousen. Guess whose nephew he is? I have no idea if Mark is still active, but he certainly seems to have a comprehension of free agency that corresponds with my own.

    None of which has anything to do with the topic of the OP – sorry! :)

  21. Mark Skousen was my Little League Baseball Coach, shortly after he was involved in the E.L. Wilkinson Spy on the Lib’rul Perfessors scandal (and not, it turns out, on the side of truth and justice). We went 0-12. I’m not sure if that was our punishment for our coach’s sins–that doesn’t really seem fair.

  22. That was a heckuva scandal. I doubt that it would raise eyebrows today – I imagine that the expectation of privacy for a BYU professor is very low.

  23. Mark B, that would make a fascinating post some time. On my shelf, I have Brian Hales and George Smith next to each other. When I noticed this I immediately upped my homeowners coverage. The question is would a claims inspector blame me for the damage or not?