[Editor’s note: This is a description of the ongoing Joseph Smith Papers Project, provided by editors working on the project. The first volumes in the project should be available in late 2008. Additional information on the project can be found at http://www.josephsmithpapers.org.]
The Joseph Smith Papers Project seeks to do for Joseph Smith what has been done (and is being done) for George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and other important early Americans: Make their papers easily accessible and more intelligible by publishing them in a carefully prepared, comprehensive scholarly edition. Historians rely on documents to gain insight into the facts, relationships, and other realities of the past, the raw materials from which they construct their narratives and interpretations. The task of scholars functioning as documentary editors is to help readers and other scholars understand the documents without getting too much in the way themselves, leaving others to construct their own narratives from these (and other) documentary resources.
The task of The Joseph Smith Papers Project, then, is to make available complete and reliable texts of all surviving Joseph Smith documents and present them with supporting information, including historical context, that help make them as intelligible to modern readers as they would have been to participants in the history they document. We are preparing and publishing not histories of Joseph Smith or early Latter-day Saint history, but the “raw materials” from which such histories can be written. Our task is not to “connect the dots” or present a narrative so much as to provide information that will allow others to do so. Though stuffed with nineteenth-century documents, neither will our set of reference volumes be a documentary history, bringing together everything about Joseph Smith–but a documentary edition of papers that were authored by Joseph Smith, or in some cases “owned” by him (as with incoming correspondence), or that were created by those working under his direction.
Today’s scholars of American religious history recognize Smith as a significant part of the nineteenth-century American religious landscape and acknowledge the importance of having access to his papers. This was explicit in the blind reviews of our project solicited by the NHPRC before they granted our application for endorsement. Every reviewer noted the importance of Joseph Smith. The main question, then, was not the importance of the project, which all agreed on, but whether or not we had demonstrated that we were up to the task of doing professional, credible work.
And we are up to that task. These volumes will meet the standards set by the NHPRC and will be works that scholars can rely on and use with confidence. In addition to capable scholars editing each volume, we have a panel of the best Latter-day Saint scholars with expertise on the Joseph Smith period of our history helping to enrich our work and ensure accuracy. Moreover, our project has had and will have more peer review than most projects of this nature and has benefited from the suggestions of many experts. We have consulted with and invited detailed critiques from nationally known non-LDS scholars, several of whom will read each volume before publication.
One scholar who provided a blind review of our project for the NHPRC concluded that it was important on two levels. It would serve to illuminate the life and times of a major American religious figure, a benefit for all who would understand the religious history of our country. But the work would also, this reviewer concluded, serve as a source of inspiration to Latter-day Saints. He did not see these outcomes as incompatible but urged “extreme caution” in putting an official stamp of approval on the one without implying any endorsement of the other.
We do not seek any such stamp of approval, official or otherwise, on “the religious validity of Joseph Smith’s life and work” (to quote the reviewer). Indeed, the goal of the project is not so much to affirm Smith’s life or work as to present the surviving records that will help us all to better understand them. Fundamentally, rather than building a particular case, we are after insight and understanding of the man, his work, his world. We see no need to protect him and his reputation from himself, even if that were possible. Convinced as we are that both scholars and Latter-day Saints will be well-served by a comprehensive scholarly edition of The Joseph Smith Papers, we have set ourselves the task of presenting the full record in such a way as to be as accessible and intelligible as possible. Nothing less would be worthy of our efforts as scholars or worthy of the man.