It has been a very long time.
The Church Historian’s Press has now published twelve volumes and we are accustomed to it. I have written reviews and the superlatives flow. There have been more than a few big reveals and this year will be no different. However, this last fall marked the publication of something remarkable, but not in the same sense as the Council of Fifty minutes, or the Manuscript Revelations Book. Last fall the JSPP published the final volume of the Joseph Smith journals. The manuscript JS journals have been available digitally for over decade, and they have been on the website of the Church History Library since 2011. The story here isn’t that the document is available, though that is important. The story is how.
I wrote a blurb, and I stand by it:
So yeah, it is good. It is important. Go buy it. But let us now talk about the deeper significance of this volume in particular and contextualize my blurb a bit. The first incarnation of the Papers of Joseph Smith was edited by Dean Jessee, and after an important beginning it stuttered and ultimately stopped before publishing the 1843-1844 journals. The problem was that these journals contained references to events and ideas that had become difficult for church members and leaders to talk about—polygamy, the Council of Fifty, and the temple liturgy.
Journals, Volume 3, the culmination of the Journals Series of the Joseph Smith Papers, transforms the standards by which scholars and interested observers access the heart of Joseph Smith’s documentary record. These journals are a diverse set of documents that unevenly illuminate their subject. With a level of professionalism and disclosure that is pointedly incredible, the editors present the most intimate details of the Mormon Prophets’ personal and religious life with generous contextualization. This work will be referenced for generations, and it will remain relevant for, not in spite of, the editors’ deft handiwork.
After the Manifesto the church began the long process of distancing itself from the practice of lived polygamy. Joseph Smith became a mythic figure, and as such, a repository for Mormon conceptions of exemplary manhood. In the twentieth century that manhood became increasingly monogamist. And to be frank, the vicissitudes of Nauvoo polygamy were complex and culturally incongruous enough to make nineteenth century Mormons uncomfortable, let alone Correlation-era Saints.
The shift away from polygamy was also accompanied with shifts in Latter-day Saint discourse regarding the temple liturgy. Beyond cosmological (and related lexical) shifts, Mormons began to create increasingly opaque discursive curtains with which to veil the temple’s rituals. Certain words that once might be heard at Stake Conference or read in the Deseret News became verboten. The taboos resulted in a culture that employed a host of “dog whistles” (to borrow from Kramer’s dissertation) to signal meaning to the initiated while suitably obfuscating the same to outsiders.
After generations, general membership forgot that Smith married dozens of women, and particular aspects of the temple liturgy. The insiders became outsiders. The dog whistles became simply whistles. As the church leaders and bureaucrats charged with managing publication of sacred documents (and let’s be clear, the Smith journals are sacred) approached Jessee’s final volume, there was insufficient institutional volition to see it realized. Those committed to it patiently preserved the cocoon, and eventual unwound it to serve as the scaffolding for a previously unimaginable effort realized today.
From the outset of the new JSPP, editors have clearly explained that after the host of editorial reviews, including by a national board of experts, each volume is read by a group of General Authorities for ecclesiastical approval. As a believing Latter-day Saint that writes on matters of liturgy, I understand the difficulty of approaching sensitive topics while trying to maintain political capital. However, my employment and the lived experience of my family is not contingent on the acceptability of my historiography to an ecclesiastical palate. Looking back over the decades it is easy to imagine a sort of panopticon in the halls of the Church History Department. As an outsider, however, is it fair to project that imagery onto the Joseph Smith Papers Project?
Many years ago I wrote that if the JSPP didn’t publish the Nauvoo Council of Fifty minutes and the Book of the Law of the Lord, there would always be a question whether the Church was hiding something—whether the project was fully credible. Since that time, not only have those particular documents been published, but also others that we didn’t know existed, such as the Manuscript Revelations Book have been fished out of the First Presidency’s private collection and made available. I think it is quite clear that the First Presidency is entirely committed to releasing all Joseph Smith documents to the project for publication. The fidelity of the transcriptions is also not in question. Anyone is able to compare against the manuscripts. In actuality, the JSPP has systematically raised transcription standards in Mormon documentary editing.
The important question is whether systems of ecclesiastical review have somehow stunted the editorial process in ways that obfuscate rather than clarify the content of the journals. I have been consistent in my criticism of the JSPP for not including more religious contextualization (see, e.g., my review of Documents 1), but I also understand this is somewhat a matter of preference, and responsible professionals will differ in perspective. I however don’t believe responsible professionals will disagree about the prospect of systematically hiding details of embarrassing or sensitive topics and it is my assessment, as an outsider, that the Church history department agrees.
Some readers seem to be frustrated that Journals 3 doesn’t include every possible entry from William Clayton’s diary to expand on Joseph Smith’s daily life during the period. This is a thing because Clayton captured some of the only contemporaneous details regarding polygamy, some of which have been shocking to readers. The Clayton diary is also highly restricted by the church (for a review of how parts of it made it into the public, see Appendix I in my review of Journal 2), and yes that cloistering is absurd. The problem is that these frustrated readers misapprehend what JSPP volumes are. Journals 3 is not intended to reproduce every possible record to document Joseph Smith’s life. Editors rightly include material (including excerpts from the Clayton journal) that helps contextualize and elucidate the entries written in JS’s journal.
Regarding polygamy, the editors of J3 built off of the work in J2 and presented details with a sufficient degree of disclosure and context; however this will not be the place to get more than a cursory review of the practice. The introduction uses the “sealing” aspect of plural marriage to transition to what is perhaps the most intriguing element of the volume: the introductory material and annotation related to the temple liturgy. I asked Matt Grow who is in charge of publications in the History Department about how editors negotiated the tension in addressing the temple. After reviewing the track record of the project to date, he explained:
Again, every document, even those that mention temple ceremonies, is published in full. In our explanatory materials, our goal is to balance giving enough information for readers to understand the context of the temple ceremonies with the respect that we believe the temple ordinances deserve. So, for instance, in Journals 3, rather than annotate and comment in detail on temple ceremonies every time they are mentioned in the text of the journal, we explain the development of temple ceremonies in the volume introduction in language that is careful, concise, and forthright.
I believe that there is a justifiable professional case to be made that the church can privilege discourse relating to certain elements of the liturgy without detracting from the overall ethics of documentary editing as a whole. Still, I imagine the many drafts those sections went through in preparation to be read by governing church leaders. To the reviewers’ credit, they approved a vocabulary that has not been published in church presses for over a century—words whose utterance still makes Mormon historians look over their shoulders. While this volume does not explore the temple liturgy in any depth, the introduction and annotations relating to it comprise a professionally appropriate level of context. And with this publication the door left open by the first iteration of the project can now be confidently closed. This reality is the basis for my comments about the extraordinary nature of the publication in the blurb.
Some of my reviews of the JSPP have been rather technical in scope. Here, I’d like to simply note that Journals 3 is the finest edition of JS’s journal that will ever be produced. Rather than incremental improvements in transcription and annotation, we have a radical improvement. We now have a more accurate, and richly contextualized access to the final years of the Mormon prophet who communed with Jehovah.