What have the Joseph Smith Papers taught me?

It seems incredible, but it looks like they’re almost through with the Joseph Smith Papers Project*. The JSPP plans on printing 27 volumes across five series, and 20 are done: 3 of 3 Journals volumes are complete, 10 of 15 Documents volumes have been published, with the next one landing this fall; 2 of 2 Histories volumes are complete; the Administrative Records (C50) volume is complete; and 4 of 5 Revelations and Translations volumes are done, including the Manuscript Revelations book**. Not sure when we will receive the 2 online-only series, Financial Records and Legal Records. It is too early to assess the series as a whole, especially since the next several Documents volumes will contain some of the most interesting content. But it’s not too early for me, as an amateur and dilettante, to give you my observations and impressions, particularly about how reading these volumes has changed my perspective on Joseph Smith.

The first impression about Joseph Smith that I get from reading his papers is that we do not have a very complete record of his life. We have some significant gaps in the record, particularly in crucial early years. Then when JSJ does start keeping papers, he’s prolific — when he wants to be. He writes directly when he wants to write, but much of his papers are from scribes and observers. My overall impression is that can learn a lot about JSJ from how he chooses to write personally: particularly to Emma, for example, or to Congress. He seems to view the world through the lens of personal loyalties. It is also interesting when he does not write personally, for example in dictating revelations. Perhaps there is something to see there about the extemporaneous nature of his revelations and how writing them vs. dictating would affect the flow of his spiritual directions.

The next impression I get from the JSPP is JSJ is the living embodiment of somewhat confusing adage, ““A Prophet is not always a Prophet” only when he is acting as such.”*** He speaks in prophetic language quite often, even on the most banal and secular of topics. He dictates revelations and prophecies, but not all of them come to pass, for example regarding the Saints’ repossession of Missouri territories. His prophetic gifts do not apply to financial matters or investments, which fail with some regularity. JSJ seems to want to always be treated with the respect befitting his calling, but he also does not always want the weight or responsibility of perfect vision. Like any prophet who has ever lived, JSJ is human: he is trying to make his church work, trying to keep it together while his prophetic directions threaten to split it apart. He is thoughtful of his friends, tender, at times vindictive, even petty (with each emotion seemingly tied to personal loyalty). Joseph’s humanity is displayed through his papers like few other resources.

Another observation: running a church is a major headache. So much of Joseph Smith’s papers are made up of deeds, letters to attorneys, bills, invoices, complaints and administrative records that it’s hard to believe he ever had enough time to do all the actual prophet-work stuff. Perhaps this is the origin of saying that all things are spiritual – if the records are a representation of how he spent his time, I’d say about 2/3 of his time was dealing with day-to-day hassles. It’s no wonder that his translation of the Bible took so long! I think a lot of us have the impression that Prophet is a role exclusively practiced in the wilderness, without concern for worldly things. I’m not sure whether that’s true, but Joseph Smith presents a version of leadership where the temporal concerns of himself, his family and his flock are all intertwined with his spiritual insights and desire to do as he feels inspired to do.

As I’ve said in times past when reviewing volumes from the JSPP, these are works of interest largely to academics, researchers, and historians, not necessarily for the layperson’s personal devotional or intellectual exercise. This is partly because there is so much volume in the papers, but also because while the act of reading these papers may be faith-affirming for some, they are essentially raw materials. It is up to readers to develop frameworks and worldviews from these materials, and I am not sure that the traditional church narratives really help too much in the context of reading through the Papers. This may be why a portion of the volumes contain introductions explaining some of the complex dynamics at play, for example with respect to Joseph Smith’s translation activities – I get the sense that on the Big Topics ™, the editors feel the need to jump in a little bit, not necessarily to provide a complete framework or thesis, but rather to provide some aid to the reader who may be looking at a papyrus and asking, “what the heck is going on?”. In that respect, the JSPP is not a replacement for explanatory or devotional history — see, for example, the recent Producing Ancient Scripture collection by Mackay, Ashurst-McGee and Hauglid, which seeks to apply a variety of different frameworks, with some fascinating results. I believe that we are at a pivotal moment for how major JSJ-related issues are retranslated**** for the modern church, and that our understanding of topics like translation, sealings, polygamy, wealth distribution and others will be forever altered by the Papers.

Like I said at the start, we still have a ways to go in the JSPP, though we can already see how the seeds for the death of Joseph and the collapse of Nauvoo have been sown. But there is so much more around the martyrdom and the interregnum to come. For folks like me that have followed the volumes, we are getting to the really interesting stuff. But already the project has had a monumental effect on how the church approaches hot topics, and I have deeply appreciated how my own understanding of Joseph Smith has evolved through these volumes.

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*It LOOKS that way, but remember that the last volumes are the most complex and (arguably) the most important, comprising the end of Joseph’s life.
**I know this doesn’t add up, but I swear I spent five minutes on the JSPP site trying to make it all add and I failed. Leave the math to WVS. JSPP editors can chime in here and let us know where things are really at.
***Willard Richards, scribe, Journal, February 8, 1843: https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/journal-december-1842-june-1844-book-1-21-december-1842-10-march-1843/178#facts
****I couldn’t resist.

Comments

  1. Wonderful write-up, Steve.

    It’s confusing, but the volume breakout is as follows: 3 Journals; 2 histories; 1 administrative; 15 documents; and 5 (6) Revelations and translations. Technically it is 27 volumes total, but there is a library edition of the first volume of the R&T series (identical to the larger facsimile volume, but without the images) that bumps the total count from 26 to 27. [The Printer’s Manuscript of the BoM in the R&T series is also one volume divided into two parts {i.e. two physical volumes}, so that adds to the confusing nature of it.]

  2. That’s a nice review. Thanks.

  3. Steve, this is great. I’ve always appreciated how seriously you take the series and this post is more evidence for it. For those who are curious about the online Legal Records series, the JSP website has been posting case files for JS’s 200+ cases since 2015, with cases organized geographically (NY, PA, OH, MO, IL, etc.) and then (implicitly) by jurisdiction. Since 2017, project historians have been writing short introductions to the cases, adding 8-10 new introductions quarterly. We plan to have all the case files posted and the introductions finished by the end of next year. We also have plans for a series introduction that will help readers make sense of all of the material as well as improving the browsing features. As for the Financial Records, project historians have started posting documents relating to the Kirtland Safety Society and mercantile firms and there are plans to post similar records and explanatory introductions in the future.

  4. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks, Steve.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for this, Steve.

    I’ve been collecting the print volumes and believe I’m up to date. They take a lot of real estate on the shelves, but are well worth it. Taking on this project was one of the smartest decisions the Church has made in its recent history.

  6. Great post, Steve. The thing that frustrates me most about conversations about JS is how many church members believe they know him inside and out when the reality is that for almost all of us, there is so much to learn.

  7. Bob Powelson says:

    I have read some of this material but not a great deal. What strikes me is that for the most part Joseph Smith is himself. He errs from time to time as we all do, but when it comes to the basics he is pretty consistent.
    What strikes me most is a magnificent intellect that is touched by direct counsel from Jehovah (the son), This intellect sometimes takes him into the realm of speculation, put in simple terms, he goes too far. But considering his limited worldly background his level of attainment shows the hand of God.

  8. Great review, Steve. The academic quality of the project is so high that it’s easy to imagine historians and other scholars using these volumes for many decades to come. I also love the ability to look at high-quality scans of all of the documents myself (and I love having students poke around on the site).

  9. I have all of the printed volumes. I am not a scholar, just a humble lawyer in Scottsdale, Arizona. Diving into these volumes has enriched my life. I remember seeing Robin Jensen in the JSP video series so long ago. He posted the first comment here and beat me to the solution to the math problem. The first volume of the R&T series gets a double count. (I never purchased the library edition.)

    I am only replying to the post because the question in the title was very personally provocative. What have I learned? A lot. My intellect has been enriched, no question about it. I have already pre-ordered volume 11 of the Documents series. But you know what? When I purchased volume 1 of the Journals series I had a “testimony” of the prophetic calling of JSJ. I don’t anymore. And read into the next sentence what you will. The JSPP had a significant role in that.

  10. Todd: “When I purchased volume 1 of the Journals series [JSP] I had a ‘testimony’ of the prophetic calling of JSJ. I don’t anymore.”
    I have sometimes wondered why some, on learning more, lose their ‘testimony’ of a prophetic calling and others don’t, but, instead, modify what they expect of a prophet. I suspect the answers are individual and complex and beyond generalization, or at least beyond me.

  11. Wondering: I think you are right that the answers are individual and complex. And having a testimony can also be complex. I was probably being overly dramatic when I posted that last night, but the general concept of what I said is not new and not unique to me. I wonder if there are some at the top who were reluctant to green light this project that recognized that this would be the effect for some of the faithful. I mean, if so, I think they were right. But I’m glad we have these volumes. They have certainly enriched my life and they have inspired some fantastic writing. Ben Park’s recent book comes to mind.

  12. I’m with Todd. The Joseph Smith papers revealed to me, if anything, that Joseph Smith had an incredibly prolific imagination and was constantly writing, organizing, planning, thinking, and having scribes write his words for him. He could have easily composed the Book of Mormon himself.