Church News - The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Scholars field questions about Joseph Smith Papers project

Two panels of experts working on the project respond to audience inquiries in preparations for TV series
Published: Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2009

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Nearly a score of scholars associated with the Joseph Smith Papers project spent more than 3½ hours Feb. 20 in a question-answer session about their work.

The anticipated 30-volume documentary-editing project, under the auspices of the Church History Department, aims to compile in scholarly form every document that the Prophet produced or caused to be produced in his lifetime. The first volume in the Journals series of the project was published last November and has been a brisk seller.

The forum, involving two separate panels of scholars, took place at the Church's Conference Center Theater before an audience invited for that purpose. It was sponsored by KJZZ-TV, a Salt Lake City station that presents a television series Sunday evenings as a companion to the Joseph Smith Papers project. The forum was recorded for broadcast.

Tom Smart, Deseret News
Ronald K. Esplin, managing editor, moderates a panel of scholars answering questions about Joseph Smith Papers project.

"It is our intention to make from this forum one or more shows that will be part of our second season," said Ronald O. Barney, a scholar associated with the project and the television series.

WIth KJZZ's Feb. 22 broadcast concluding Season 1, "52 half-hour shows wherein we have tried to tell the story of Joseph Smith using the documents that survive to illustrate his life," he said, "many of them the very texts that compose the published volumes of the Joseph Smith Papers."

He said the first season of the KJZZ series will be rebroadcast on BYU-TV beginning in April, giving the shows a cable-television audience beyond the Wasatch Front. "Also, we plan to have Season 1 packaged on DVDs to be available for purchase this fall," he added.

Tom Smart, Deseret News
Ronald O. Barney introduces a panel of experts at a question-answer forum on the Joseph Smith Papers project. The forum will be featured in one or more shows in a television series, a companion to the project.

Here is a sampling of responses given to questions at the forum:

Q: Is there some consensus about what discovery in the project has been most exciting?

"It's called 'A Book of Commandments and Revelations,'" said Robert Woodford, an editor of the first volume of the "Revelations and Translations" series. It is a manuscript that was part of the First Presidency's holdings, inventoried under authorization from President Gordon B. Hinckley.

"It is the manuscript book that Oliver Cowdery and John Whitmer took to Missouri in November of 1831 to print the Book of Commandments," he explained. "There is editing within the book to show where they made some alterations, where they put in versification, preparing it for the Book of Commandments."

With a companion book, this volume was later published as the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, Brother Woodford said.

Q: How have the scholars determined authorship of documents, with Joseph writing some himself, dictating others and scribes writing some from notes?

"The question of authorship is simple when it's in Joseph Smith's handwriting; anything other than that, it gets complicated," said Robin Jensen, another editor in the "Revelations and Translations" series. He explained that small clues, such as notations in diary entries, help identify authorship. The scholars provide information in source notes and introductions as to evidence of authorship of a given document, he said.

Steven Harper of the BYU Department of Church History and Doctrine, who is involved with two of the volumes, said, "You spend enough time with these documents and you begin to be able to discern literary voices." Other information comes to bear also, such as handwriting and background knowledge of who is in a given location at a given time, he added.

"The revelations are not in Joseph Smith's own voice," he remarked. "He marveled at his own revelations."

He said only a handful of manuscripts are still existing with the revelations in the handwriting of the scribe who wrote them down as the Prophet dictated them. One of these is from William McLellin, whose journal entry recounted recording the revelation as Joseph received it.

As to the Lectures on Faith, originally included with the Doctrine and Covenants, Brother Harper said he does not hear Joseph's voice in them. They sound more like Sidney Rigdon, he said.

Q: What is the status of the Web site (www.josephsmithpapers.org) that is associated with the project?

Panel moderator Ronald K. Esplin, managing editor of the project, said the Web site has two functions: one, to promote the project and help people understand it and, two, to provide support for the volumes as they are published. With the first volume having been published, readers can go online and see the source copies for all the material in the volume, he said.

Another feature on the Web site guides the reader in what can be learned from utilizing the published volume.

Eventually all the content in the published volumes will be available online, he noted.

Q: In view of the Mark Hofmann forgeries of the 1980s, what safeguards are in place to avoid being deceived?

Jeffrey Johnson, a longtime archivist with the Church History Department and a former archivist for the state of Utah, said the staff understands the documents and can ensure their authenticity through handwriting, paper and ink.

"One of the most important things we do is to understand the history of the document and the need to know where it came from and how we got it," he said. He added that a problem with the forgeries of the 1980s is that they purported to be from individuals such as Martin Harris and Lucy Mack Smith, for whom handwriting samples were not available for comparison.

rscott@desnews.com