The Joseph Smith Papers Releases the Final Volume in the Journals Series.

Steve Evans broke the news about this volume last week. I’m just giving my two cents about it here. It probably won’t be the last time someone posts about it at BCC.

Capturing Joseph Smith on paper has been a goal of Mormon church historians for almost two hundred years. First efforts involved scribal minutes of church meetings, recording revelations and commandments that fell from Smith’s lips, and keeping a history of the early church. Those early efforts went to writing a canonical faith promoting history, one that steered the internal dialogue of Mormonism for more than a century. The primary sources that supported that faithful dialogue were largely under wraps. Why would anyone be interested?

Joseph Smith Papers, Journals, Volume 3: May 1843–June 1844. Last volume in the Journals Series.

Joseph Smith Papers, Journals, Volume 3: May 1843–June 1844. Last volume in the Journals Series.

But the awakening of a modern historical discipline that placed highest value on primary sources created by observers nearest past events, required the earnest perusal of the oldest documentary evidence to be found. For Mormonism, that discipline cashiered the copying and recopying of imprints that had at bottom redacted sources in old narrow ways, seeing the past through the lens of present priority. The impact of modern historiography was not to be a gradual polite revisioning of the Mormon past. It was a crash landing in the form of an explosive reinterpreted story of Mormonism’s founder by Fawn McKay Brodie, the scion of a prominent Mormon family. Brodie’s analysis of Joseph Smith became the path that guided historical scholarship for decades, while Latter-day Saint scholars moved to apply modern historical methods to long disused manuscripts in rarely breeched Mormon archives. Twenty-five years after Brodie, Mormon leaders tapped economics historian Leonard Arrington to head a new effort in candor, with open archives and professional historians taking new looks at old traditions. The following decade saw the release of new interpretations founded on the most reliable sources. But sensitive boundaries were sometimes punctured, leading to new restrictions and a rethinking of church positioning in the support of historical research.

A new millennium brought further discussion and new efforts with church support for a measured reopening of source materials, and in particular the revival of a documentary edition of the papers of Mormonism’s first leader. The Joseph Smith Papers Project was born (again). Approval was given to publish either online or in print, every document personally connected to Smith, and with that came unprecedented access to church archival materials, but also a vigorous effort to search the contents of collections over the world for relevant sources that were linked to Joseph Smith during his lifetime.

Part of church archive access meant that Joseph Smith’s own journaling would appear in its original form, transcribed with rigid care and annotated with the best work modern scholarship could offer. The revelation of a broad context for early Mormonism was a part of that work and the results have not disappointed.

Smith was not an effective record keeper, but he was consistent in his effort to have others record the life of the early church, and with that, the events of his own life. While his records never registered his own hand to any important degree, they were kept with relative consistency by men and women who showed dedication to a difficult task, given the events that moved Smith from New York to Ohio to Missouri and finally, Illinois. To understand Smith’s journals, one needs to understand their context and that includes the people who actually penned the content of those journals. The Papers Project has gone the extra mile in revealing the people who stood behind Smith’s records.

A documentary project can never do the work of historians who use those documents and we do not see great interpretive works coming from the JSPP itself. Indeed, one of benefits of papers projects is to support the work of historians by locating, registering, investigating, and displaying archival materials. In this, the JSPP has demonstrated excellence.

Journals Volume 3: May 1843—June 1844 continues that excellence. Much of the journal record during this period was the work of church historian and recorder, Willard Richards. Richards was tireless in his efforts to keep the record of Smith’s doings and sayings. It is to Richards that we owe much of the collated history that founded modern church narrative. However, neither Richards nor Smith were very good diarists. We get little in the way of self reflection for example. Richards reported some of Smith’s conversations with others, and generally gave brief accounts of Smith’s preaching. It’s not always clear whether Richards performs on-the-spot audits, or end-of-the-day summaries. Evidence suggests that both occur and sometimes overlap. It would be hard to characterize Richards as an efficient and reliable aural auditor however.

One of the valuable things Richards provides is timing. His work was brief, but it often gives temporal ordering that can situate reports of others. The journals can never give us anything approaching Joseph Smith’s daily life and speech. But Journals 3 works hard to supplement Richards with extensive annotation and important front and back matter. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that nearly every page of Journals 3 is occupied by more annotation than transcription. The effort here is laudable and useful. One of the blessings of archival freedom for the project is the presence of William Clayton’s diary entries and the records of the so-called Council of Fifty (the Nauvoo portion of the latter to be published in full next year). The $57 purchase price of Journals 3 may be worth it simply for that alone.

Some of the JSP crew. Left to right: Matt Grow, Brent Rogers, Alex Smith, Alison Palmer. Missing: Andrew Hedges.

Some of the JSP crew. Left to right: Matt Grow, Brent Rogers, Alex Smith, Alison Palmer. Missing: Andrew Hedges.

Richards was frequently a difficult scribe. Hard to transcribe often just doesn’t cover it. Some of his entries are positively awful for a contemporary colleague let alone a two-hundred-year distant reader (and made for errors in early use of the journals). The editors and their cohorts have done a magnificent job of decoding Richards. A cautionary note here may be worth it: difficult transcription almost never achieves complete consensus among independent transcribers. That said, the work here demonstrates the typical familiarity with the scribal work required for real success.

That said, transcriptions can never replace access to real documents for some purposes. But for the historian, these volumes are a boon, and the editors avoid devotional layering, language, and commentary. But one cannot avoid the fact that every internal worker on the project must pass muster as an active Latter-day Saint. And that may mean some judgements over content or summation of background may be colored by that upfront loyalty. If there are any problematic judgements linked to institutional loyalties in the volume, I did not encounter them. Perhaps others may have emphasized events or remarks differently, but that is always the case for any such work.

Even with a fine volume like this one, there are always some nits to pick. There are some transcription errors. These are nearly impossible to avoid. For example, on page 110 of the volume, there is an error in transcribing some punctuation. I also note that some Glossary entries seem confusing and sometimes fail to make clear terminological judgements. This is true for some entries relevant to Mormon priesthood topics. The Glossary announces that its definitions apply to the 1840-44 world of Mormonism, but it’s simply impossible to avoid historical development of terms and meanings in a number of cases, and the mentioned entries do that. They just do it poorly in my opinion. Of course they would have been much clearer if I had written them, obviously. That’s my humor entry in the review.[1]

The Journals Series, Documents Series, and Revelations and Translations series, and other series in the Papers will give clarity to early Mormon documents for many decades to come. They make worthy successors to all earlier attempts and documentary histories of Joseph Smith’s Mormonism. I recommend Journals 3 as a stellar entry in the work of the JSPP. Volume editors Andrew Hedges, Alex Smith, Brent Rogers and their associates are to be congratulated.

The Joseph Smith Papers: Journals, Volume 3: May 1843—June 1844
The Church Historian’s Press
November, 2015.

[1] If you want my long-winded analysis of the issues, you can find it here.

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