Though they haven’t held a “bloggernacle event” or “virtual launch” yet, the Joseph Smith Papers just released the most recent addition to their foundational series. Journals, Volume 2 (1841-1843) covers the first half of Smith’s Nauvoo journals, and includes many great gems that will help future researchers of this important period in Mormon history. While there is much to cover in the actual journals—I’ll leave that to J Stapley, who I hope will do another excellent review of the overall text like he’s done for the other volumes—I just want to comment on a single section of the introduction; in fact, only about seven pages of the introduction.
Introductions in documentary editing collections are supposed to be short, efficient, and, often, bland. They give a general background to the period in which a text is written, an overview of the people involved, and a description of several key issues that make better sense of the edited document. The job of the document editor, most practitioners will tell you, is not to push specific interpretations or make detailed arguments, but to present the documents as a foundational work for other interpretive scholars. The Joseph Smith Papers have largely followed this scholarly practice, and have (rightly) focused on a specific objective: provide transcripts (and in some printed cases, as well as online, high-resolution images) of Joseph Smith’s “papers,” and allow other historians to come to their own conclusion.
However, the introduction to this most recent volume breaks, albeit slightly, from this tradition—a break that, at least in this case, is cause for celebration. I am not envious of the editors who had to write this particular introduction: in a little over twenty pages, they had to update their readers on what happened between 1838 (when the last Journals volume ended) to when Willard Richards became Smith’s journal keeper in December 1841 (including settlement in Nauvoo and Joseph Smith’s trip to Washington DC), give an overview on ecclesiastical developments that took place in the early 1840s (including the growing power of the Quorum of the Twelve), touch on doctrinal developments (including baptisms for the dead), summarize continued legal problems with Missouri, explain Smith’s growing roles in Nauvoo’s city government, introduce the Church’s new emphasis on the Temple and participation in Masonry, discuss Smith’s financial and business endeavors, detail changes in Smith’s inner family, and briefly mention the creation of the Relief Society. No lack of important information, there! Thus, most of these crucial matters could only be granted a paragraph each, leaving most of the details and information to future scholars who will draw from these texts. Given this horrendous lack of space, it would have been actually understandable if they skimped on one of the biggest accusations against the institutional LDS Church: an avoidance of a deep discussion on polygamy. A single paragraph, with (hopefully) a frank and honest discussion, probably would have sufficed, especially given that there are only a handful of explicit references to polygamy in Smith’s journals.
But we got more than a paragraph; much more, actually. What the editors gave us were seven pages—i.e., about a third of the entire introduction—of discussion on the origin, documentation, and controversy over polygamy. And it’s not just the length of the discussion that’s surprising, but also the content. They openly discuss controversial issues with the practice, using terms like “conjugal relations” (xxv) and “polyandrous marriages” (xxvii), and refuse to shy away from facts that the Church has in the past ignored. They admit that Smith likely consummated some, but not all, of his plural marriages, they list several plural wives who were already married to other men at the time of their sealing to Smith, and they detail the secretive nature of this controversial practice during the period. While they do spend most of their time on the problematic nature of the documents that outline polygamy—and, if I were forced to make one critique, I would say that they spend too much time trying to discredit John C. Bennett—I found their discussion surprisingly fresh and detailed.
Of course, these details aren’t new. Indeed, a cynic might say this publication deserves more of an “about time” shrug than a celebratory post. But as an optimist, I find in this introduction an important sign of change in how the Church handles its history—or, perhaps more correctly, an important sign of the continued change that has taken place over the last decade. These volumes go through a horrendous gauntlet of review before they can be finished, a review process that includes not just external, academic reviewers (a list that includes several prominent documentary editors), but also a group of internal, ecclesiastical reviewers, including a number of the Brethren we sustain to lead the Church (and whom others accuse of hiding our history). The fact that this introduction passed this review of Church leaders, is found in a book sponsored by the institutional Church, is printed through a Church-controlled press (Church Historian’s Press), and is marketed by the Church’s conservative merchandise arm (Deseret Book), should, I think, be cause for celebration. Kudos to the Joseph Smith Papers Project for providing this great project, to the volume’s editors for producing responsible and credible scholarship, and to the Church for encouraging this change.
The charge of the Church hiding its history is finally becoming less credible.
 Note: this practice has not been followed in many documentary edition projects within Mormon studies, especially by those edited by historians who lack academic or professional experience.
 I do have to give a Colbert-style “wag of the finger” to them for problematizing Smith’s “happiness” letter to Nancy Rigdon; I rely on that letter for an insight into Smith’s polygamous vision in several of my articles, darn it!