The Joseph Smith Papers Project and the Many Histories of Mormonism

Author's Note: On Monday, March 19, the Joseph Smith Papers Project held an online "Launch Party" for the release of their most recent volume in the series, History, Vol. 1. These are my reflections on the event, and the Project in general.

"Behold, there shall be a record kept among you." (Doctrine & Covenants 21:1)

The above statement headed a revelation Joseph Smith received on April 6, 1830, the day the Church of Jesus Christ (which later added "of Latter-day Saints") was organized. At the time, a majority of those who adhered to the Mormon message could fit in the small house in which the organization took place, but the young church had plans that were as grandiose as Smith's revelations were bold. And from that point in time, the Mormon movement recorded meticulous minutes, kept voluminous journals, and, most important for the most recent volume of the Joseph Smith Papers Project, wrote numerous histories.

The Joseph Smith Papers Project, housed under the auspices of the LDS Church's History Department and overseen by ecclesiastical leaders, is perhaps the most grandiose historical project in the church's long historical tradition. Endorsed by the National Publications and Records Commission, universally praised by the scholarly community, and staffed by academically trained contributors who understand the field of documentary editing better than any other authors in Mormon history, the Project is both exhaustive and professional in reproducing all documents that were either written by or for Joseph Smith during his lifetime. It is also well read. While most papers projects, like those of America's Founding Fathers, publish volumes solely for libraries, the first volume of the Joseph Smith Papers Project has sold more than sixty-five thousand copies. Prior to this month, the Project has produced four volumes: two volumes each of its Journals Series, including all of Joseph Smith's journals up until 1842, and its Revelation and Translation Series, which provide facsimile copies of Smith's revelations. It also boasts an impressive website that presents high-quality images of nearly a thousand Joseph Smith documents.

In the most recent volume, the first in their Histories Series, they reproduce six written histories that Joseph Smith either penned himself, dictated, or closely supervised. Besides being enormously important documents in reconstructing early historical events, this compilation further sheds light on how the earliest members both understood and presented their tradition. History, for Joseph Smith and his contemporaries, was at the same time a sacred duty, a service for future generations, a way of defending their unique beliefs and practices, and a venue to explain their movement to a curious world.

Included in the compilation is the only account of Smith's earliest prophetic experiences written in his own hand. Penned in 1832, it is full of passion and presented from a very personal point of view. Embedded in the document is a sacred reverence for history. It began by describing itself as "A History of the life of Joseph Smith Jr.[,] an account of his marvilous experience[,] and of all the mighty acts which he doeth in the name of Jesus Ch[r]ist the son of the living God." The text is saturated with similarly awe-inspiring language, almost as if the writing itself was a sacrament of faith. This is a testament to the sacredness of history to Mormonism, where record keeping holds eternal weight.

Two years later, a more ambitious and comprehensive history was started. Though unfinished, it was a major step in Mormon history writing in that it drew from documentary sources and attempted to be more comprehensive and exact in names, dates, and places. This project began anew in 1838, and initiated what came to be known as the Manuscript History of the Church—a series that was later re-edited, published, and became the most influential work of history within the LDS tradition. These historical works are obsessed with preserving an accurate record of what took place for future generations, portions of which were later canonized as "Joseph Smith—History," found within Mormonism's scriptural texts.

At the same time, Mormons started using print as a way to defend their faith. Beginning with Parley P. Pratt, the LDS Church has long had an energetic apologetics tradition, often written in response to other events, people, or texts, and histories played a central role. While this apologist strain influenced much of their writings during the period, some texts were specifically written as a defense, like "Extract, from the Private Journal of Joseph Smith," which was originally penned as a redress petition and indictment of how the church was treated in Missouri. Unfortunately, this defensive strain then dominated much of how Mormons understood and presented their history.