by John Turner
I recently obtained a copy of the long-awaited first volume of the Joseph Smith Papers: Journals (1832-1839), published by the newly created Church Historian's Press. This is a major project, projected to eventually comprise a generously annotated and illustrated forty-volume edition of Smith's journals, revelations, letters, etc. The next volume scheduled for release is the first in a series of Smith's Revelations and Translations. In terms of both staff and money, the church has invested heavily in this project.
Several things strike me as interesting about the JSP and this first volume. For starters, the market for Mormon history -- official (as in this project), semi-official (as in the Mountain Meadows Massacre project), and critical (as in recent works by Will Bagley and David Roberts) -- is astounding. The MMM book sold out its first printing and was probably 2008's best-selling book in American religious history. The first JSP volume sold out its 11,000 first printing almost immediately, and I imagine the second printing will go quickly as well. This reflects the incredible importance Latter-day Saints attach to their history and how critical it is to their faith. In that light, it is perhaps not surprising that church members rush to obtain a majestic edition of their founding prophet's first writings. I cannot imagine a similarly successful project for any other figure in American religious history, perhaps save Martin Luther King, Jr. (who most Americans revere as a political rather than a religious leader). We Presbyterians wouldn't exactly overwhelm amazon.com to purchase John Calvin's papers.
Smith's journals -- mostly kept by scribes and clerks -- have been published previously, in edited volumes by Scott Faulring and Dean Jessee, so the material presented here is not new. However, I find the new edition a significant improvement over those previous publications. Faulring's edition had very few annotations; JSP Vol. 1 contains generous background information, abundant annotations (recommending a variety of primary and secondary sources), illustrations, and maps. To give one example, on July 27, 1838, Smith's clerk George Robinson wrote "we have a company of Danites in these times," referring to a secret "paramilitary" organization that not very gently encouraged dissenters to leave the area. Needless to say, this has been a contested topic within Mormon history. The editors included a photograph of the page from the journal. Readers can see that the July 27 entry was scribbled through and obscured at some later date. The editors explain this, but it's illuminating to see the actual journal page.
Undoubtedly, as was the case with the MMM book, scholars will wonder about the ability of insiders to introduce and annotate the controversial issues of early Mormonism head-on and fairly. While those questions are unavoidable within this subfield of American religious history, these volumes -- may I live to see the release of the entire series -- will be indispensable for the next generation of scholars on Mormon history. While this first volume included journals previously published and therefore already accessible to scholars, some of the future volumes (including the upcoming Revelations) will publicize previously inaccessible sources. In an era in which many academic presses are shying away from expensive editions (it would have been difficult for the Jonathan Edwards papers to get off the ground with Yale in today's environment) or switching to online editions, I'm grateful for this project.