Today the Joseph Smith Papers Project released its Volume 3 in its Revelations and Translations series, which comprises the printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon. It is the culmination of a monumental effort, and the books themselves are gorgeous, but the real story is not the volume itself but rather what this means for Latter-day Saints and for Mormons in general. We are entering a new age of transparency and openness about Mormon history.
First of all, let me chide the JSPP editors: a two-volume Volume 3? C’mon guys, that’s cheating on the volume numbers.
Now, then: those familiar with the history of the Book of Mormon may remember that the LDS Church does not own the printer’s manuscript. That document, along with several other key documents, belonged to
Emma Smith after her husband’s death the David Whitmer family, and they have become the property of the Community of Christ (formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) in 1903. The CoC has safeguarded the manuscript for over a hundred years. That the JSPP was able to have access to that set of documents at all is significant, but their publication here represents something truly special. The level of cooperation between LDS and CoC historians is remarkable. The output, from what I have seen so far, is amazing, with painstaking transcripts, excellent photography and detailed charts of provenance. It is a treasure.
I spoke briefly with Lachlan Mackay, director of historic sites for the Community of Christ, about what these volumes mean. “The dam has broken,” he said. We are in a new era of collaboration and shared community. Mackay has a vision for Mormon historical sites that go beyond the competing fiefdoms of billboards and visitors’ centers; imagine a visit to Nauvoo or Kirtland where you are able to simply see the restoration in historical accuracy, without filter and without agenda. We are getting closer to making that vision a reality. Mackay expressed gratitude for CoC and LDS historians of the past who were able to cross enormous barriers of mistrust in order to increase access to original sources, and the hope that the trust and mutual respect felt between the historians can translate to increased cooperation between leadership, and eventually between members. “These family feuds — and we are family — are dying away, and it’s in large part thanks to historians,” said Mackay.
I also spoke with Richard Turley, Assistant Church Historian and member of the Board of the JSPP. His involvement in this process and cooperative role with the CoC cannot be overstated. I asked him in particular what role these volumes could play for everyday members (you know, dilettantes like me). Bro. Turley emphasized the value of going to original sources, avoiding the filters and lenses of secondary materials. “There is a veil of imagination at play,” he said, “when we don’t look at original sources.” When we are able to directly interact with places, books, records that form the foundation of our beliefs, that veil is taken from our minds and we have the ability to see the truth for ourselves. Bro. Turley’s article in the October Ensign is to be recommended.
And yes, the seerstones. For the first time these are photographed and included. The pouches are in there too, the handicraft of Emma. But what’s significant isn’t the photograph — it’s the fact that we live in an age where that photograph exists, and what’s more, is in the Ensign. The dawning of a brighter day. I’m looking forward to reading these volumes.