In Praise of the JSPP


The Joseph Smith Papers Project announced just a couple of days ago that the Council of Fifty Minutes, which have been in print for awhile, are now available online. And I thought this would be a good opportunity to praise the Church for the creation and its support of this magnificent scholarly endeavor.

I’m old enough to remember when the very idea of the JSPP would have been almost unthinkable. For most of the first century and a half of the Church’s existence, the dominant instinct seemed to be to keep things close to the vest and hide the ball. We weren’t in the habit of volunteering challenging material that might be construed as contrary to the way ordinary Saints understood their history. Anything official coming from the Church itself had to pass the test of being faith promoting.

This began to change with the work of Dean C. Jessee, first by publishing Joseph Smith documents in BYU Studies and then by publishing The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith in 1989 and the two-volume Papers of Joseph Smith in 1992. (I have all three volumes, having purchased them when they first came out.) In the 2000s the new project was originally conceptualized, received substantial financial support from Larry and Gail Miller, and in 2005 was moved under the umbrella of the Church History Department, which created a special imprint (the Church Historian’s Press) for the publication of the volumes.

What I find fascinating about this is it goes hard in exactly the opposite direction from the early reticence about sharing these documents. The idea is not only to publish all of it–everything–but to do so with rigorous, state of the art documentary editing standards. Frankly, the whole thing was brilliantly conceived, and I give the Church a lot of credit for signing off on something, which trended so vigorously against the earlier instinct to keep these kinds of things close to the vest.

The Council of Fifty Minutes is an excellent illustration of this dynamic. For a long time these were sort of the holy grail of what historians wanted to be able to see, and they were long unavailable. That led to a situation where people imagined all sorts of crazy stuff in there. But when they were finally published, the event turned out to be sort of anticlimactic, as they didn’t reflect the level of crazy that people had built up in their minds. You probably couldn’t have convinced Joseph Fielding Smith of this in the first half of the 20th century, but publishing the documents and removing the mystery from them was exactly the right thing to do.

I have virtually the entire collection on my bookshelf (I usually get the new volumes as Christmas gifts from my wife, uh, er, Santa), and I fully intend to continue collecting the volumes until  they’re all out in print. This is a pricey investment, but eventually everything will be made available for free at the JSPP website, so you don’t have to spend serious coin in order to be able to enjoy the fruits of this project.

As they say, sunshine is the best disinfectant. I realize it takes a bit of a leap of faith for non-historian leaders to see all this material come out in a very public way, but in my view it is absolutely the right thing to do. I suspect that if there were ever any real skeptics among the leadership, they’re pretty much all converts by now. The idea to create the Joseph Smith Papers Project has been an absolute win for the Church, and I think the leadership deserves a fist bump for signing off on it.





  1. Kevin,

    Me too on having them all! The documentary format takes some getting used to, but once you do, you’ll find these are compelling. Everything about this project has been beyond my expectations (although I’ve almost come to take the high level of production for granted). The typical volume of the papers of the Founding Fathers sells about 1,500 copies. The first volume of the JSPP sold over 10,000 and they had to go back to press. This demonstrates the desire to learn more about these.

    The Council of Fifty Minutes is something I never expected to see in my lifetime (along with the George Q. Cannon Journal). Next on my wish list is the Heber J. Grant and Spencer W. Kimball Journals. Also the BYPapers (which apparently are far more extensive). Anyone out there with hints.

  2. Kristin Brown says:

    I too have lived long enough to see the huge shift and grand strides in making the history of the church transparent to all. Thank you for the timeline as to where we were compared to today. Most people get paid for endorsements like this. Your positive enthusiasm and genuine backing of the project is contagious!

  3. There’s a lot available digitally for BY, but yes, it wouldn’t hurt to have the same treatment of the JSPP, including things that have heretofore been considered too controversial for public release (like marriage, divorce records, personal journals, etc).

    JSPP has been absolutely brilliant. We need to let it become a stone cut without hands.

  4. Happy Hubby says:

    +1 on what Frank just said.

  5. They really gotta punctuate that better, because (not being familiar) I was expecting it to be about a spectacular 50-minute long meeting, not the minutes of the Council of Fifty. Kind of a letdown.

  6. A Mormon history Renaissance indeed.

  7. A Mormon history Renaissance indeed.

  8. scott roskelley says:

    There is a sense of loss that it took so long to publish joseph’s 1832 history. Loss becomes alarm that according to the source note these “initial three leaves containing the history were excised from the volume. The eight inscribed leaves in the back of the volume may have been cut out at the same time.3 Manuscript evidence suggests that these excisions took place in the mid-twentieth century. A tear on the third leaf, which evidently occurred during its excision, was probably mended at the time. This tear was mended with clear cellophane tape, which was invented in 1930.” This statement that 3 leaves of joseph’s earliest history of his vision in his own hand writing was unknown to the church until 1965 is wild. Footnotes about the history of cellophane tape in one of the church’s most important historical documents? Source notes in this crucial document stating that 8 leaves which were excised at the same time are still missing? This becomes outrageous.

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