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Where Heaven Meets Earth; Or, the Importance of the Joseph Smith Papers

By: Ben P - March 27, 2011

[This past Wednesday, March 23, I was privileged to take part in a bloggernacle event with the Joseph Smith Papers folk via internet in honor of the release of the third volume overall and second volume in the Revelations and Translations Series. General information on the volume can be found here. Since many participants of the event have already outlined both the happenings of the meeting and the contents of the book, this post gives a general reflection of the project that I came away with after listening, once again, to the volume editors explain the purpose and mission of the project.]

Sixty-five thousand. That’s how many copies of Joseph Smith Papers: Journals, Volume 1 is currently in circulation. Most scholarly papers editions—typically limited to presidents, founding fathers, or other iconic figures—are fortunate to reach four digits, and a vast majority of those are purchased by libraries and research institutions. When the most recent edition of the Thomas Jefferson Papers: Retirement Series rolled off the press several months ago, there was no press conference, no advertisement campaign, not even a “based on your previous purchases, you may be interested in…” email from Amazon. Papers project volumes aren’t generally on even a bibliophile’s wish list. But copies of the Joseph Smith Papers are purchased en masse. They are showcased in the front shelves of Deseret Book, offered for impressive discounts on Amazon and Barnes & Noble (even if the discounts rarely hold), and are displayed prominently in numerous Mormon households. And thus, when a new volume was released last week, the great folks at the LDS Church History Library hold a blogger event. Naturally.

But this, of course, doesn’t surprise us. We Mormons love our history. We do not suppress our adoration for Joseph Smith, for the early Saints, for the foundational narratives upon which our tradition is based. Folkloric recitations of our past are nearly as common in Sunday School as references to our scriptures. The large and imposing history library found directly across the street from the Church Office Building is a testament to our commitment to history. A quick perusal of LDS bookstores show a preponderance of historical works—of expectedly varying quality—that may rival any other tradition of similar size. In an age where many Americans—especially those who match the general demographic and ideology of the Mormon corridor of the West—are obsessed with originalism and the purity of the past, history can be seen as a refuge from the uncertainties of the present.

In this way, the Joseph Smith Papers can be seen as capitalizing on the already existent enthusiasm for Mormon history. The framework for success is already there, and especially with the LDS institution’s stamp of approval, there is much to gain with little risk involved. Many likely expect the contents to only confirm their preconceived perceptions of the Church’s past. History, from a certain viewpoint, is a simple endeavor. Present the documents, arrange them in the common narrative already embraced, and confirm the validity of the LDS tradition that has so long weathered the historical storm. Historical research Mormonism, a movement often interpreted to have a “story” rather than a “theology,” seem obvious to go hand in hand.

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Yet history has always been a contested subject within the LDS tradition. Joseph Smith and his earliest confidants recognized this and started their own record keeping and narrative structuring in response to the stories already being crafted by others, and recent decades have only confirmed the Church’s both insecurity with negative perceptions and an obsession with setting the record straight. Starting with Parley Pratt, Mormonism has always maintained a rich apologetic tradition designed to counter competing narratives. The Church’s several run-ins with controversial and revisionist history is well documented.

One of the most fascinating moments in the continued tension between Mormonism and its history was the 1970s, the last time the Church Historical Department in Salt Lake City embarked on a bold and illustrious publishing endeavor. Leonard Arrington, the first Church Historian with academic training, envisioned many new projects including a multi-volume history of the Church and a more liberal perspective on archival openness. Fondly known as “Camelot,” this decade was prolific at an amazing rate, even if most of the individual projects didn’t come to fruition. Yet tension between the academic and faith-promoting approaches arose, as many did not feel comfortable with some of the narratives being presented. The beginning of the 1980s saw a drastic turn as Arrington’s Camelot was dissolved and incorporated into BYU, and serious scholarship did not return to Temple Square for another two decades.

The experience of publications stemming from the Church Historian’s Office ended up being disheartening for those involved as well as those who observed. It seemed academic interpretation could not be squared with the traditional narratives of the Church. The scholarship created did not appear “safe” to both LDS leaders and to many of its consumers. Once again, the story presented by the Church seemed untrustworthy to scholars, and scholarly interpretation did not appear faithful enough to Church leaders. The approach of Camelot ended in frustration, and the divide between the two approaches to history seemed unbridgeable.

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Several questions directed to the Revelations and Translations: Volume 2 editors on Wednesday queried about interpretations of the included documents, attempting to glean what the printed revelations really meant. For example, my question concerned how the revelations were used (and abused) during the succession crisis following Joseph Smith’s death; the debates over Smith’s mantle and authority drew from and against the printed scripture that supposedly all involved could be involved in. Editor Robin Jensen responded with several insightful ideas—indeed, he is emerging as a leading interpreter of both the early revelations and the succession crisis—but primarily he emphasized, as he and the other editors did in response to similar questions, that their job was not to provide concrete answers to such questions but to provide tools for fellow scholars and Saints to come to their own conclusions.

This appears to be a safe approach. The Joseph Smith Papers Project is engaged in scholarly work of the highest caliber—their documentary editing skills and presentation expertise are par excellance in Mormon academic circles—but they are not jumping into the risky ground of interpretation that placed previous Church historians in trouble. It also eases many of the fears of non-Mormon scholars, as questions of bias are tempered. Documentary editing carves an important niche for the Church Historian’s Press, and that niche is poised to satisfy both the scholar and the Saint. It is a seamless blending of the religiosity of the Church and the banality of academia. This seemingly inconspicuous approach appears to offer much while risking little.

But therein lies the beauty of the Joseph Smith Papers Project’s subtlety. Proclaiming archival openness and historical transparency is one thing, but presenting those documents closest to the Church’s beginnings—placing high-resolution images of Mormonism’s founding texts in our very laps— to every interested reader is another. Nuggets of historical gold abound within both the pricey volumes and the increasingly plentiful free electronic collection. The first volume of the Revelations and Translations series contained the controversial copyright revelation and highlighted editorial alterations in the revelation texts; the recently released volume shows changes in printed D&C editions; the online appearance of the Relief Society Minute Book includes references to women healing rituals. (This list does not even include the many gems of the Documents Series now online.) These examples will only continue as more documents are made available.

Sure, none of these particular historical references are earth shattering. But taken together, they offer a grand corpus that makes us think about our history in ways many haven’t before. They challenge simplistic narratives and force us to reconsider the context of early Mormonism. The number of LDS General Authorities who comprise the imposing internal review committee have a chance to ponder on historical subtleties previously nowhere on their radar; the many LDS members who eagerly purchase the new volumes to learn more about their religion’s past are confronted with new exciting possibilities poised to enrich their historical understanding. And the best part is, while it is simple to dismiss scholarly interpretations, it is difficult to challenge actual foundational texts. The mere presence and wide availability of these documents make unsubstantiated tradition and folklore nearly impossible to perpetuate.

The Joseph Smith Papers Project excels in challenging its readership to get their facts straight, to ground their narratives in historical documents, and to build a better foundation for understanding LDS history. The academic scholarship is vigorous, the research is thorough, and the presentation is attractive and inviting. It is inconspicuous enough to be embraced by many, but compelling enough to be rewarding for all. It is perceptively subtle in merely reproducing the records and texts from the past, creating a safe and welcoming place for readers at any point on the believing or scholarly spectrum, but we of all people should know that it is through similarly small and simple methods that great results come to pass.

[For more coverage, see here, here, here, and here.]

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11 Comments

  1. Do you think they will release the minutes of the Council of Fifty and the revelation that set up the organization???

    Comment by john willis — March 27, 2011 @ 11:14 pm

  2. Thoughtful write-up, Ben. Your last section hits on some intriguing things. I’ve been curious about the General Authority review process, and was interested to hear the positive suggestions and comments that editors received. But your point is I think, by far, the most significant aspect of the process–that you have General Authorities engaging historical texts that they likely would never have considered. That has to have long term consequences.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 27, 2011 @ 11:15 pm

  3. John, I think that most everyone in and out of the paper project would like to see them made available and are hopeful that they will be. I used to have stronger opinions on the matter, but now am happy to see how things unfold.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 27, 2011 @ 11:17 pm

  4. Hey Ben,

    It was nice to meet you at the blogger event.

    Nice write-up!

    A questions was asked about the Q-50 minutes, and they said that they don’t know yet if they will be released. They said they’ve spent endless hours debating what is and isn’t a “paper” of Joseph Smith’s.

    As to General Authority review, what I got out of their comments was that GAs do review the papers, and that they have had positive or constructive things to say about them. The statement was not absolute, however. Riley was happy to share an example of positive, constructive feedback from a GA — who also happened to be Elder Jensen.

    Its nice that The Church Historian is providing feedback. I would have liked to have heard an example from another GA though.

    Comment by Clair Barrus — March 28, 2011 @ 12:31 am

  5. Thanks, Ben. I’m glad the JI was included in this.

    Comment by David G. — March 28, 2011 @ 8:07 am

  6. I’m hopeful that this experiment will work. I can see how there would be substantial perceived risks for various groups within the Church.

    Comment by smb — March 28, 2011 @ 8:36 am

  7. Thanks for the write up, Ben, and for representing the JI at this event.

    Comment by Christopher — March 28, 2011 @ 8:48 am

  8. As a side note, regarding the approach to institutional resources and historical research, I think this post fits nicely with Nate’s review of the Arrington bio, in which he concludes that Camelot probably wasn’t a great model for success.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 28, 2011 @ 11:08 am

  9. Thanks for the comments, y’all.

    Comment by Ben — March 28, 2011 @ 2:43 pm

  10. In an age where many Americans—especially those who match the general demographic and ideology of the Mormon corridor of the West—are obsessed with originalism and the purity of the past, history can be seen as a refuge from the uncertainties of the present.

    Great way to frame it, Ben. Also I like your discussion of how current JSPP folks navigate their professional/faithful situation. Excellent write-up.

    Comment by BHodges — March 28, 2011 @ 4:45 pm

  11. [...] Acquinas gives us his notes from the JSPP blogger conference. Ben situates the entire JSPP project in Mormon Historical Research. [...]

    Pingback by The Ridiculous and the Sublime – March 27-28, 2011 « The Ridiculous and the Sublime — March 29, 2011 @ 10:16 am