Joseph Smith Papers Project

Joseph Smith letter from Liberty Jail, March 21, 1839, is one of several thousand documents in the Joseph Smith Papers Project.

Elaine Jarvik, in this morning’s Deseret News writes about a documentary to be aired by KJZZ Television in Utah on Monday evening, 11/5/07. Unfortunately, if you don’t live in the inter-mountain west, you are not likely to see the documentary. Perhaps BYU-TV may pick it up for re-broadcast, who knows. But, it sounds as though a wider LDS audience would be interested in such a re-broadcast. I know I would.

The Joseph Smith Papers project is an ambitious decade long endeavor that will comprise 24 volumes of published diaries, contracts, letters, legal documents and revelations:

To write a biography is to connect the dots of a person’s life — but first you need the dots. For Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints founder Joseph Smith, that includes several thousand documents, from the mundane to the spiritual.

The Joseph Smith Papers Project, by the time it’s completed a decade from now, will add up to 24 volumes of diaries, contracts, letters, legal documents and revelations: the raw material, explains project managing editor Ron Esplin, that writers and scholars can then use to construct their narratives and interpretations of Smith’s life.

The first volumes will be published next year. As a preview, KJZZ-TV will air a documentary, “The Joseph Smith Papers Project: A Television Foreword,” at 7 p.m. Monday. The program, produced by KJZZ, will air again at 10 a.m. Sunday, Nov. 11.

The documentary is not a Ken Burns-style, sepia-toned look at Smith’s life; something like that might come later, says KJZZ director of news and production Dean Paynter, who reported, wrote and produced the program. Instead it’s a straightforward overview of the Papers Project, including interviews with historians involved in the effort. Beginning in early 2008, KJZZ will then start airing the first of 50 half-hour shows offering more details of the documents and interviews.

The project will be similar to others undertaken about America’s Founding Fathers, and will involve a detailed process to ensure authenticity:

The Joseph Smith Papers Project, like similar projects for America’s Founding Fathers, locates and then transcribes hand-written documents that are then scrutinized and verified by three separate historians, often using high-resolution color scans, microscopes and ultraviolet light to decipher the cursive of Smith, his scribes and correspondents. Annotations are then added to provide historical context. The Joseph Smith project has been certified by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), a division of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Given “the scrawls of rushed penmen and the deteriorating condition of some documents,” Esplin says, there is no way to ensure 100 percent accuracy of the documents. But the scrutiny has yielded both small and large corrections in “supposedly well-known texts.”

Beginning in early 2008, KJZZ will then begin broadcasting some 50 half hour shows providing greater details of the documents and interviews. The project intends to publish unedited documents, regardless of whether some might consider them favorable or not. The project does not seek to validate the Prophet’s life or Divine mission. Nor does it seek any official stamp of approval:

According to Esplin, one scholar who provided a “blind review” of the Papers Project for the NHPRC expressed concern that, because the project could serve as a source of inspiration to Latter-day Saints, “extreme caution” should be used to not imply an endorsement of Mormonism.

“We do not seek any such stamp of approval, official or otherwise, on the ‘religious validity of Joseph Smith’s life and work,”‘ Esplin counters in a lengthy explanation of the project that eventually will be published on a project Web site. “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.”

The Papers Project, like those of the Founding Fathers, he says, will not be selective in which documents it publishes. There will be “no editing out, no prettying up things one might view as unseemly or undignified.”

I think this is a good approach. Joseph Smith never claimed perfection in this life. He was up front and candid about his weaknesses and flaws. As Richard Bushman’s excellent biography has aptly described, Joseph Smith was indeed a Rough Stone Rolling, becoming more and more polished through his short mortal sojourn.

The project will not likely uncover any startling new material. Rather, they will tend to illuminate the Prophet’s life–much as I think Professor Bushman’s RSR did:

Although the 2,000 to 3,000 Smith documents that will eventually be published do not reveal anything startling, Esplin says, they do provide some illumination of the prophet’s life. He was, for example, involved in many more legal disputes, as a plaintiff, defendant or material witness, than people had originally believed — often the result of efforts to bankrupt him with lawsuits, Esplin says. What has also emerged, he says, is “the surprising extent to which the early church was built on revelation.”

I truly wish I had the ability to see these broadcasts. If anyone hears more about them, or if there are plans to post them on line, or even You Tube, please post the information.