Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Joseph Smith Papers -- Impressions and Reflections No. 1

One of the dominating trends of modern historical research is the refreshing trend towards reliance on primary source material, such as diaries, letters, interviews, speeches, photographs, census records, newspaper and magazine articles written at the time of an event. See "Finding Primary Source Materials for History", University of Wisconsin, Whitewater, Anderson Library. See also, "Using Primary Sources on the Web," Reference and User Services Association. Many older histories were based more on interpretation and opinion than actual source material. The history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is no exception to the old rule. It is only recently that historians have place more reliance on source material than on interpretation. One example of the existing works is the so-called Documentary History of the Church, actually cited as:

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Brigham Henry Roberts, Joseph Smith, and E. Keith Howick. History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints: An Introduction and Notes by B.H. Roberts. Salt Lake City, Utah: published for the Church by The Deseret Book Co, 1951.


Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith, B. H. Roberts, and Brigham Young. History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co, 1932.


Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and B. H. Roberts. History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret News, 1902.

It is not my intention to offer a review or critique of the Roberts' work. I refer to it here to illustrate one example of a work that relied on 19th Century scholarship and use of primary source material. The original work began as a handwritten history in six volumes finished in 1856. The original six volumes were featured as a serial publication in the Church's Times and Seasons publication beginning in 1842. Because of the inaccessibility of this earlier work, Brigham H. Roberts, at the time, assistant Church historian, was commissioned to compile and edit the document. He produced the currently available six-volume publication.

The newly released volumes of The Joseph Smith Papers, now (2009) in the process of being published are partially being released to provide exact transcriptions of the original source documents. Many of the documents included in this to be released, lengthy series are only being made generally available for the first time to the general public. The two volumes currently available are:

Smith, Joseph, Dean C. Jessee, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Richard L. Jensen. Journals. Volume 1: 1832-1839. Salt Lake City, Utah: Church Historian's Press, 2008.


Smith, Joseph, Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard L. Bushman. Revelations and Translations. [Vol. 1], Manuscript Revelation Books. Salt Lake City: Church Historian's Press, 2009.

These volumes differ from all previously published materials, in that the commentary is directed almost entirely at the documents themselves and not at an interpretation of the individuals or events of the past.

The topic of this series is Joseph Smith, the American Prophet. Publication of the original source material concerning papers will certainly not diminish the controversy surrounding his life but, at least, will correct some of the grosser errors and falsehoods commonly disseminated. This and future posts, will examine the volumes from the perspective of a lay historian and scholar. I do not have any specific credentials that would give my opinions any more weight than those of any other reader. I do have a lifetime of experience as an active trial attorney for more than 34 years and a substantial background in genealogy and family history. I am more than casually acquainted with the history of the LDS Church and have visited many, not all, of the historical sites in the Church's history. It is my hope that this commentary on the books will interest the reader in even greater investigation into the history of the Church and its first prophet, Joseph Smith.

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