Maxwell Institute Podcast #128: Joseph Smith Papers, Documents Volume 12
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have taken the Lord’s call to “have a record kept among [them]” since the commandment was given in the first days of the Church. One of the ways that the Church accomplishes this is through the Joseph Smith Papers Project. In this episode, we will hear from Robin Scott Jensen, David Grua, and Jessica Nelson about the work of the Joseph Smith Papers Project, what was going on during Joseph Smith’s life in March-July 1843 (including the reception of what was later canonized as Doctrine and Covenants 132), and much more!
JOSEPH STUART: Welcome to the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Joseph Stuart. In the earliest days of the Restoration, the Lord commanded that “there shall be a record kept among you.” Latter-day Saints have taken that commandment to heart. One of the ways that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have obeyed that commandment is through the research and publication of the Joseph Smith Papers Project, a documentary history project that will eventually comprise at least 27 volumes of documents created by or with direct authorization from Joseph Smith. In today’s episode of the Maxwell Institute podcast, we discuss the 12th volume of the documents series of the Joseph Smith Papers Project, which covers March to July 1843. We are fortunate to be able to learn from Robin Scott Jensen, David GRUA, and Jessica Nelson, three of the editors who worked on the volume.
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STUART: Robin, David, Jessica, thanks for joining us today.
GRUA: Thanks for having us.
JENSEN: It’s good to be here.
NELSON: Yeah, thanks.
STUART: It is our pleasure to have you all here. I was fascinated when I was looking through documents volume 12 of the Joseph Smith papers and I realized it may be helpful to begin sort of big picture with this. What is the purpose of the Joseph Smith Papers? What is documentary editing? And how did the project begin?
JENSEN: Yeah, thank you. It’s a good question because sometimes when new volumes are released, people aren’t quite sure how to tackle it. This is volume 12 of the document series and there’s even more volumes than that. Sometimes the Joseph Smith Papers can be a little intimidating.
The Joseph Smith Papers is a documentary editing project. For those who are not familiar with that, this is a standard scholarly practice of compiling and publishing historical records of various figures or events in history. So have things like the George Washington Papers, the Abraham Lincoln Papers, the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers. This is essentially for scholars to purchase books and read these volumes as a way of getting more of the information in a quicker time period. So, for instance, if a scholar had to go to the archive and read through all these documents, it would take them months and months and perhaps even years. But since others have transcribed and published these documents, it’s much more accessible. You can do word searches, you can read type scripts instead of manuscript handwriting.
And so, Dean Jesse, beginning in the 1970’s took a look at the attempt to follow a similar model and publish the words and the records of Joseph Smith and we have followed that effort. We began formally in the early 2000’s and we’ve published now…docs 12 is now our seventeenth volume? Eighteenth volume? I should know exactly, but that kind of goes to show how big we are. But the document series will have 15 volumes when all is said and done. We also have a Revelations and Translation series, we have a journal series, a history series, a legal series, a financial series, and an administrative series. So, we have tried to divide the Joseph Smith Papers in a way that makes sense and that’s accessible for users.
STUART: Thanks for sharing that Robin. David, could you tell us a little bit about how the project began? I understand that Gale and Larry Miller were involved.
GRUA: It all goes back to a scholar at BYU named Dean Jesse who, in the 1960’s, 1970’s, was assigned by the Church Historian, Leonard Arrington, to start compiling Joseph Smith’s records– his original journals, his original letters, accounts of his sermons. And, there were other documentary editing projects at the time that were being produced for George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, other national figures. And the idea was to create a project modeled after the national figures, but for the Prophet Joseph. So, for decades Dean Jesse worked on these volumes basically on his own, maybe with the help of a research assistant.
In the 1990’s, there was a sense that he needed help. That he was doing great work, but with more resources, the project that he was working on was of such significance that they needed help. And so in a roundabout way, as I understand the story, Larry Miller, the owner of the Utah Jazz and also the car dealerships here in Utah, he wanted to know ways that he could use some of his money and he started talking to people and eventually, he was referred to Dean Jesse and he said, “Hey I have some money that I would like to donate.” And this led to a complete reconceptualization of Dean Jesse’s project. And so, essentially a rebooting. Eventually they had the resources to hire a team of historians, editors, and the project was moved from BYU up to the Church History library in Salt Lake City so that we could be close to the documents.
STUART: Yeah, historians never get into the profession for the money, but we are sincerely for the donors who make it so we can work for money. Jessica, I’m interested, Robin mentioned that there are several different types of series that the Joseph Smith Papers produces. What are the purposes of some of the volumes? So, documents seem to me that they would produce documents created by Joseph Smith. But what, for instance, is the difference between Documents and the Revelations series?
NELSON: Thanks Joseph, that’s a great question. So, within the Documents series, we’re focused on several different genres. There are letters to and from Joseph Smith, there are discourses given and selections of minutes from meetings that he attended. But it’s not exhaustive of those meetings. But it involves correspondence and also land transactions sometimes, other business related items. Get into the Documents series as well as discourses that are given. And so, there are, like I said, several different genres that make it into the Documents series. Revelations and Translation series, we also have facsimile editions that show images of the records that those revelations were recorded on. We’ve also got some original manuscript material, both of the Book of Mormon and other revelations and translation projects. And so, those ones are mainly oriented around what we understand as scripture and sacred text, whereas other series in the Joseph Smith Papers focus on business items, letters, and that sort of thing.
STUART: That is very helpful. And in talking about how there are so many different volumes and series here. The books are really big and they’re really expensive. Are members of the Church expected to buy the books or can people access the material that’s produced in the books on a website or somewhere else without spending a lot of money?
JENSEN: The Joseph Smith Papers is rare among documentary editions in that they are purchased by a lot of non-academics. For the most part, the documentary editing projects out there are purchased by university libraries. There’s not a lot of people that are out buying the 43rd volume of the papers of Thomas Jefferson.
STUART: They’re missing out I’m sure.
JENSEN: Yeah, exactly. There are a lot of interested members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and other churches that derive from Joseph Smith who are interested in the Joseph Smith Papers. However, we are also quite mindful that this is a very large series with a lot of volumes and they are expensive to produce. And so we have made all of the documents available on our website, josephsmithpapers.org. And there you can see images and transcriptions and the annotation that we offer in all of the volumes available for free. The primary goal, mission, of the Joseph Smith Papers is to get these documents in the hands of users who will use them, read them, learn from them and if we are only making these available through expensive volumes, then we are not meeting our primary goal.
STUART: I like that you put it that way that this is an academic project, but because it is produced by the Church History department of the Church, it’s meant to bless the lives of the church.
JENSEN: We had a question very early on in the project of who is our primary audience. And it went all the way to the leading quorums of the Church, with this question: are we writing for scholars or are we writing for members of the Church? And the answer that we got back is, yes you’re writing to both. And that is sometimes a very tricky balance. Sometimes academic language can get kind of bogged down in historiography or academic language that’s a little inaccessible for lay audience. And if you’re writing purely for a member audience, then you’re not mindful of the types of conversations that scholars are having. And so, we’ve made a real effort in trying to speak to both of those audiences and of course unbiased, but I think we’ve done a good job thus far in reaching both of those groups.
STUART: Yeah, so even just now I’m looking at the Joseph Smith Papers website and I see a glossary, I see maps, and I see the original transcriptions of revelations that I might teach in a Sunday School class. So this is something for listeners that they may be interested in. Just go poke around on the website and see if there’s something that catches your eye there. I will also say that the Joseph Smith Papers had their own public history project, the Joseph Smith Papers Podcast, hosted by Spencer McBride. That is something that could help you in your teaching or in your learning more about gospel topics. Now, the average person can incorporate them in Sunday School or in their personal learning, but in looking through church materials it seems like the Come, Follow Me curriculum already incorporates parts of the Joseph Smith Papers, is that correct Jessica?
NELSON: Yeah, we’re very fortunate that we had done so much research as a department for the Joseph Smith Papers project that was able to be used and curriculum materials and Come, Follow Me the study of the Doctrine and Covenants, as well as in Saints the new history of the church was really great if you used an online edition or through the church history section of the Church’s app you can link to the original documents and see them for yourself. And all that is done through the work of Joseph Smith Papers staff and historians, production editors, webteam, all of that it interfaces really well and it’s really cool to be able to pull up original documents and have more information about the source, where it came from, what the provenance of the source is if you’re interested in that and to see that connected in that way.
JENSEN: One of the things that’s interesting that not many people know about is the new edition of the scriptures. In 2013, the church published a new edition and as you go through the Doctrine and Covenants headings, many of those headings changed and those changes were based upon the research done by the Joseph Smith Papers. So it’s not just curriculum and other Sunday School manuals. The work that the Joseph Smith Papers has done has reached the very, one could argue, the most important texts of the church: the scriptures themselves.
I’ll just add that we’ve really been blessed with the wisdom of church leaders, others who write curriculum and what not to recognize that members of the Church love history and there’s a real way in which members can strengthen their testimony through better testimony of the past. And the Joseph Smith Papers is one effort, not the only effort, but one effort in this more recent push to better understand our past.
GRUA: Just to add, a few years ago President Ballard gave a few devotional talks, one of them to the instructors of seminaries and institute program for the Church where he urged them to be familiar with the Joseph Smith Papers, as well as other products that the church history department has produced.
I’ve got a quote here where he said, “Wise people do not rely on the internet to diagnose and treat emotional, mental, and physical health challenges, especially life threatening challenges. Instead, they seek out health experts, those trained and licensed by recognized medical and state boards. Even then prudent people seek a second opinion. If that is the sensible course to take in finding answers for emotional, mental, and physical health issues, it is even more so when eternal life is at stake. When something has the potential to threaten our spiritual life, our most precious family relationships and our membership in the church, we should find thoughtful and faithful church leaders to help us. And if necessary, we should ask those with appropriate academic training, experience, and expertise for help. This is exactly what I do when I need an answer to my own questions that I cannot answer myself. I seek help from my brethren in the quorum of the twelve and from others with expertise in fields, church history and doctrine.” And he went on to again specifically mention the Joseph Smith Papers, as well as the other things that our department produces.
STUART: Thanks so much for sharing that. I love that there is a focus– focus might even be too light a word but a duty to learn what you can, especially if you’re in a position where you’re going to be teaching. And thank you all for introducing us to the Joseph Smith Papers. Let’s dive into Documents volume 12 or D12 as we’ll call it from here on out. It covers March to july 1843 and it has over 400 documents in it.
But what is going on during Joseph Smith’s lifetime? March to July seems like a relatively short period of time, but there’s a lot of documents. Joseph Smith is pretty busy at this point. What is he busy with? What’s going on in his life and in the lives of Latter-day Saints?
GRUA: Earlier documents in the Documents series cover more than a year oftentimes, but by the time you get to 1843, Joseph has an army of clerks around him who are taking notes of what he’s saying. They’re also keeping copies of letters and keeping his journal fairly regularly. So that’s why we limit our print volumes to around 100 documents. So we have to cut it off at a certain point so we can fit it between the covers of a book.
So between March and July of 1843, Joseph Smith is dealing with the concerns of running Nauvoo. He’s mayor of Nauvoo. He’s also President of the Church. He’s also dealing with external challenges. The state of Missouri is once again trying to extradite him to Missouri from Illinois and so he’s dealing with legal challenges and yet he’s trying to find time to minister to the Saints. He speaks a great deal during these months and he’s also trying to meeting the needs and concerns of members of the Church, including those who are immigrating through Nauvoo. Jessica, why don’t you say a few things about some of the documents you worked on.
NELSON: During this period of time, we get several letters to Joseph Smith by individuals who weren’t members of the Church, but who were interested in learning about Nauvoo and what it would be like if they lived there. A couple of those letter include specific questions about what the climate’s like, what jobs are there. One person in particular and asked if he would be required to pay tithing in Nauvoo or to give some of his property to the Church if he lived there. He got a letter from a New Yorker who said, “I got some people here who would be interested in coming and clearing some land.”
Yeah we do see that because the Church has been established there on the Western front of the United States in a place where there’s a lot of growth and movement and opportunities, what kinds of employment prospects are there. So, we see Joseph as the mayor of this city has a high profile because of that and people want to know what he has to say about jobs and that sort of thing.
STUART: Now, that makes a lot of sense because if I was going to move somewhere, I would want to know, is there actually a job there? Is there going to be a place for me to live and who are the types of people that I’m going to live around? Robin, did you have something to add?
JENSEN: I was going to say that besides the legal and the political and kind of the economic things that are going on in Nauvoo, which I don’t mean to minimize those because that’s taking up a lot of Joseph Smith’s time. Joseph Smith is running a church and he is revealing to the Latter-day Saints doctrine largely through discourses and other teachings. So throughout the volume we have a lot of discourses and other teachings wherein he is unfolding new doctrines, theology to the Latter-day Saints.
STUART: So, what are some of the things in these discourses or sermons that are coming out? Because in other volumes of the Joseph Smith Papers, there aren’t nearly as many sermons or religious messages that Joseph is giving to the Saints, so this seems like something really new and exciting for the project to be able to engage with. What are some of the messages that the Prophet is sharing?
GRUA: I think it’s important to note that for whatever reason, Joseph decides in late 1842, he’s selected Willard Richards to be his personal scribe. And from that point forward, Willard Richards is present in almost all of Joseph’s sermons and he’s taking detailed notes.
At the same time, you have WIlliam Clayton, another one of Joseph’s scribes who again in 1843 starts taking detailed accounts of what Joseph was saying and Joseph also seems to be preaching more frequently. So you have more and more Latter-day Saints who are coming to the unfinished temple, that’s where Joseph is preaching most of these sermons on Sundays, and they’re bringing their own notepads so that they could capture what he’s teaching them.
People at the time noted that something was different about 1843 and it may have been that the temple was progressing to the point where Joseph wanted to start preparing the Saints so that one day they would be able to enter that building and receive sacred ordinances and make covenants. He had been teaching about the temple in private with his closest associates, but in 1843 he starts teaching more publicly. He’s in the walls of the temple, there’s no roof on it yet, but we know that by June of 1843, the walls had reached about 12 feet. We have accounts of people bringing their own chairs so they can sit and listen to him. They’re also trying to climb up and sit or stand on the walls so that they can get as close as they can to him.
STUART: This sounds like a really intimate experience. It’s something that I enjoy to be able to tune into general conference, but that is across churchofjesuschrist.org or across the TV. If I’m lucky maybe I would get to go in the conference center during a non-pandemic year. It really sticks out to me that this is something where people really know the Prophet. They really know the President of the Church and they’re anxious to learn from him.
GRUA: There’s one other sermon that I really like. It captures Joseph’s sense of urgency for wanting to teach the Saints. And so he’s talking to them and he says, “It is my meditation all the day and more than my meat and drink to know how I shall make the Saints of God to comprehend the vision that roll like an overflowing surge before my mind. Oh I would delight to bring before you things which you had never thought of, but poverty and cares of the world prevent it. But I’m glad that I have the privilege of communicating to you some things which, if grasped closely, will be a help to you when the clouds are gathering and the storms are ready to burst upon you like peals of thunder. Lay hold of these things and let not your knees tremble, nor your hearts faint. What can earthquakes, wars, and tornados do? Nothing. All your loss will be made up to you in the resurrection, provided that you continue faithful.”
So I think that captures how Joseph just wanted to teach the Saints the things that he was being revealed and sermons in 1843 were one of the main vehicles that he used to do that. And we have letters written by Church letters in Nauvoo to their relatives outside of the city and they’re saying that Joseph was giving them far more in terms of the doctrines of the kingdom than he had previously given them. He’s teaching them about the importance of temple ordinances, he’s teaching them that in the past in every dispensation of the gospel, the Lord has tried to gather His people specifically for the purpose of building temples and in the past, people had resisted that call to gather.
He’s doing everything that he can to encourage the Saints to not only gather to Nauvoo but also put in their time and their resources to finishing the temple. He’s teaching them about eternal marriage, really for the first time publicly. He’s teaching them that a man and a woman can be sealed for eternity. He’s teaching them about the significance of temple ordinances and how they relate with…there’s a verse in the Bible, 2 Peter 1, about making your calling and election sure and seeking more sure word of prophecy and he’s connecting that with the temple and with the priesthood.
He’s also teaching them about the significance of gospel ordinances and how they combined families together and he has one discourse where he taught the Saints about the day of resurrection and you can tell that Joseph, he’s speaking on the occasion where he’s just hear that a faithful Latter-day Saint missionary, Lorenzo Barns, died in England. That makes Joseph really start thinking about the importance of gathering together and not only being surrounded by your friends and by your supporters and your family, but also being buried together. He’s imagining this day of resurrection when fathers and sons, mothers and daughters will be resurrected together and the joy that they will feel. These are the types of things that are just capturing the imagination of the Saints in the discourses.
NELSON: One of the themes that emerges out of D12 here is increased attention on having missions and spreading the gospel throughout the world. At one point, Joseph Smith is recorded in ??? saying, “Don’t let one single corner of the earth go without a mission.” And there’s an authorization for a missionary by the name of George Adams to go to St. Petersburg, Russia. And although he never goes on this mission, we do see that the Church and Joseph Smith have ambitions for spreading the gospel throughout the world and for increasing membership of the Church throughout the world.
JENSEN: I’d like to take us back, Joseph, to what you said earlier about the intimate situation in which people listened to Joseph Smith. I want to stress that as historians, we need to remember where it is that we get our information from. What are the sources that we use? Unfortunately, we don’t have a recorded sermon of Joseph Smith in the sense that obviously recording technology is not yet invented, but also we don’t have a word for word report of Joseph Smith’s sermons. They’re all summaries or someone writing down as quickly as they can Joseph’s words, but if you’ve ever tried to do that in high school or college taking notes from the teaching, you’re going to miss things. You can maybe capture a phrase or maybe a sentence word-for-word, but you just can’t keep up with the speaker.
And so, the discourses, the reports of the sermons that we have are by very nature incomplete. And of course, even if we did have a word-for-word report of Joseph Smith’s sermons, think of the many things that we miss from that. There’s the cadences, the vocal inflections, the body language, the gestures. We don’t have any of that or at least very little of that. And so, when we talk about these sermons of Joseph Smith, we need to remember that we’re relying upon incomplete data to reconstruct those discourses and that’s not often something that we think about or talk about that some of these great teachings, these theological gems that Joseph Smith is revealing. We’re really getting just a shadow of what he actually spoke to the Latter-day Saints and that should remind us of the imperfect way in which history is reconstructed by us today.
STUART: Certainly, the practice of history is something that people take very seriously. There are professional guilds, there are professional ??? and ??? just what you’re saying Robin, I would ask anyone to look up the script for an episode of their favorite television show or movie. It is just not the same as watching it. It is so much more dry and sterile than it could be. If I remember correctly, Joseph Smith has a chipped tooth from earlier in his life and so his voice whistles a little bit and that’s something that adds a little bit of character to thinking about how Joseph Smith might have sounded. But again that’s not necessarily going to show up in somebody’s journal.
JENSEN: They’re often complaining about their lungs. In other words, you can’t project; you’re speaking outdoors to an audience of hundreds of people and that takes its toll. Sometimes you could only speak for ten or fifteen minutes because your voice gave out. I just can’t imagine the environment in which these Sunday sessions or general conferences happened.
NELSON: Another thing I was going to add is we have these large meetings that Joseph Smith is giving sermons at and we have records kept from individuals attending those sermons of what he said and trying to capture his words. I guess I’ll highlight one particular moment that may have been a little more personal is during the Spring we have two different arrivals of a large number of British immigrants and this is a really compelling part of what is going on in Nauvoo at the time is the arrival of so many of these British immigrant converts and them looking for jobs and ways to getting established in Nauvoo and that sort of thing. And in Joseph’s journal we have a record of his coming to greet some of these new arrivals and he spends about four hours of his time that afternoon greeting people and according to the journal that was kept, he was the first on the boat to come and meet these Saints and he later gives a discourse to them the next day and says that we’re poor and we can’t do as much for you as we would like, but we will do all we can. And you can really see a human element of Joseph coming out in that he wants to meet and fellowship with these new Saints who would come so far to live in Nauvoo among the Saints and I think that’s a really touching moment that shows up in pieces in this volume.
STUART: Thanks so much for sharing that. So, one of the revelations in D12 is section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants which has a very long history that we won’t get into now. We recommend that you visit the Joseph Smith Papers website at josephsmithpapers.org. You’ll learn more of the history and context than we can talk about here on the podcast. But I understood at least this came from when I was growing up in the Church, understanding that section 132, the original manuscript was burned. So, first of all, is it true that the revelation was burned and second, if it was, how do the Joseph Smith Papers get the manuscript that they’re working with?
JENSEN: Yeah it’s a good question and it’s a question that I get a lot. One of the misperceptions of the Joseph Smith Papers is that we are publishing only the original manuscripts. As you can well imagine, there are many, many documents in the Joseph Smith Papers and a surprising number of those are not the originals, they’re either copies or photocopies or other later editions and that is the same with section 132.
In July of 1843, Joseph Smith dictated this revelation to William Clayton and yet the one that we feature is in the handwriting of Joseph Kingsbury. So, it is true that Emma Smith destroyed the revelation according to William Clayton, Emma destroyed it. According to some other sources, she threw it in the fire. Some who are not familiar with the story might wonder, “What on earth is going on?” As we all know, 132 is the revelation that lays out the doctrine of eternal marriage and plural marriage. Joseph Smith, throughout much of his prophetic career, beginning in the early 1830’s, began either practicing or teaching others about this doctrine of plural marriage.
Now there’s a lot we don’t know about that and there’s a long history, but by 1843, there were a number of trusted individuals who were taught this principle. Hyrum Smith, Joseph Smith’s brother was one of them, and Hyrum was talking to Joseph and said, “Let me take Emma a revelation and she will be convinced by it.” Of course, polygamy was a challenge for both the women and the men practicing it and Emma was no exception. There were moments when she was supportive and other moments when she was decidedly not. And so, this revelation, 132, was dictated for the purpose of sharing it with Emma. And Hyrum Smith was perhaps a little bit more optimistic. The revelation did not convince Emma at that time and she, according to William Clayton’s journal, was quite opposed to the revelation to the doctrine at that time.
But before Emma burned it, Newell K. Whitney had his brother in law, Joseph Kingsbury, make a copy of the revelation. And this revelation was copied and passed around to a number of individuals. Hyrum Smith read the revelation to the Nauvoo high council. Mercy Fielding Thompson said that she had it for multiple days to kind of read and study. And so we have this revelation that was a secondary copy and yet it was used by the early leaders of the Church to share, teach, and eventually in 1852, publish for the world.
There is this question in my mind of how much this revelation is seminated into the consciousness of the Latter-day Saints, it’s no secret that polygamy was counter to the prevailing understanding of 19th-century America, and yet eternal marriage, which is mentioned in 132, was seen as quite a comfort. Of course, Latter-day Saints and those outside of the Church recognized that they wanted to be forever with their loved ones. This was a common understanding.
And by January of 1844, there was a Latter-day Saint by the name of Jacob Scott and he wrote a letter to his daughter about the possibilities of being married to a spouse for eternity and this is what he had to say: “Several revelations of good utility and uncommon interest have been lately communicated to Joseph and the Church. One is that all marriage contracts or covenants are to be everlasting, that is for both time and eternity.”
So he went on and explained that if a man desires to be married to his deceased wife, a sister in the Church stands as proxy, or as a representative of the deceased in attending to the marriage ceremony. And then he finally concluded his letter talking about how this would affect his own life. He said that before he went on a mission, he told his daughter, “I intend to be married to the wife of my youth before I go.”
So we all remember the story of Joseph preaching the doctrine of baptism for the dead and how the Saints were so excited that they just went right out into the Mississippi River and started to be baptized for their deceased relatives. I think that the same thing happened once early Latter-day Saints heard of this doctrine of being sealed to your spouse, even your deceased spouse. They wanted that for themselves. Such a natural thing and once again we realize that we in the Church today sometimes take that for granted.
STUART: Thank you for sharing that. I think that’s really wise to remember that when people learn about something as promising and as hopeful as the doctrine of eternal families, that’s something that they are interested in. Well, thanks for sharing that Robin. And I look forward to learning more about that. I see on the Joseph Smith Papers website that there’s much more to the revelation and its history and that I can look at the copy that Joseph Kingsbury wrote down on the Joseph Smith Papers website and I just love that it’s available for anyone to look at.
NELSON: Yeah, we’re really fortunate that the tools of technology have enabled us to provide both images– very, very high quality images– as well as transcripts that people can go and look at there’s really another level to interacting with history and feeling close to it when you can see what the actual documents were and what they look like and how they’d been stored or preserved or custodial history of these documents.
As we continue to work forward through the end of Joseph Smith’s life in the project, historical introductions to those documents become available as well and so that allows us to link to footnotes and other helpful information to understand more of what’s going on in the individual texts and these documents are…some of them we have in our library, but also some of them are in national archives or in archives held in Illinois, the Abraham Lincoln library. And so, what’s really neat is that because of the accessibility of the internet, these documents are available digitally together in a way that they are not actually physically. And so that’s one of the neat parts about this project and other kinds of documentary editing enterprises.
STUART: Thanks again for that reminder that we have the opportunity to see things that really no scholar even has had the opportunity to see before. All of the documents in one place and readily linked so that you can move from footnote to footnote and better understand the history of the Church.
Now the final question, what does it mean to you as a scholar and as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint who study Joseph Smith and to edit these documents that tell us more about the life of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ founding prophet?
JENSEN: This is an important question for a lot of us because we have had, well I’ll stop talking for all of us and just talk about me. I’ve had the privilege of studying Joseph Smith for now almost 20 years, I guess I’m approaching 20 years. And it’s been an absolute privilege. I, of course, love history, I went into history, I love documents, I love the archives. This is my home. I feel more comfortable with 19th-century people sometimes than I do at a social function with 21st century people, but I guess that’s a me problem.
It’s so enriching to be able to read the words of Joseph Smith. I remember early in my career talking with Richard Bushman, a biographer of Joseph Smith and he said that sometimes there are aspects about Joseph Smith’s life that are troubling. I think we see that more and more as more information goes online. We learn new things about Joseph Smith that we didn’t know or we had a misperception about or that we were taught something else and that’s a real challenge sometimes to get through with that. And Richard Bushman made a comment that he likes to go just headfirst into those issues. There’s no need to dodge them or sweep them under the rug and I’ve really tried to make that a part of my own approach.
There were hundreds and thousands of people that followed Joseph Smith and they received testimony of Joseph Smith knowing him much better than any of us could know him today. And I want to know why. How are we able to understand Joseph the man, but also recognize that he was viewed and considered a prophet by all of the early Latter-day Saints? And that he’s still seen as a prophet today by millions of members of the Church throughout the world?
I think that Joseph Smith can stand on his own. I read his words. I see what he did. I even acknowledge some of the mistakes that he made and I marvel at the things that he was able to accomplish. It is a true wonder to see the Restoration unfold through these individuals who were imperfect because in my own life I’m called to build up Zion and I sometimes think that I’m not able to do it because I’m incapable or not good enough or not living righteously and to see Joseph Smith and others do their best, sometimes stumble but get back up and try again, gives me comfort to do the same thing.
GRUA: Yeah, I just want to reiterate a lot of what Robin said. When I talk to people about Church history in my ward and in other settings, I go back to a famous saying that, “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” As I have dug deeper into the original writings of Joseph Smith and of the early Saints I’ve seen that to be true. There are times when I run into things that I think, “Okay, that’s a little different,” but understanding that there’s cultures and people change overtime has helped me to make sense of those differences. That it made sense to them, even if it doesn’t make sense to me, it made sense to them. And that to me helps me navigate some of the more challenging things.
At the same time, there’s so much in the life of Joseph Smith and in his writings that I recognize…that is familiar to me as a Latter-day Saint. That even though so many years have passed, I can see the vibrancy of the faith of the early Church members and I see that same faith in the faces of my fellow ward members and I see that also in those today who are trying to apply the teachings of the prophet Joseph. I think that Joseph Smith, as I mentioned in that quote earlier, he had received these visions and he tried so hard to communicate and to help others understand them. And sometimes he was limited by the language that he– like me right now– trying to find the right words to express this. Joseph expressed that same frustration, but he spent his entire life that he was on this earth trying to help people understand the visions that rolled through him.
NELSON: One thing that my experience with working on the Joseph Papers has given me is a kind of close up view of someone who shed real blood, sweat, and tears and bore an enormous weight and carried it on his shoulders of this religious movement that was heavily persecuted, that was in a very contentious place in American history with politics that were going on at the time there and someone who was really compelled by his own religious experiences with his own spiritual witness and visions and experience in translating sacred text and he wanted to transmit as much of that as he could to his followers and to the world and what a kind of incredible task that would be.
And someone as imperfect as Joseph Smith could do what he could do, then the Lord can obviously work through us to do great things as well, even though we are limited in our education and we may feel inadequate for what we’re called to do, we still can do great things.
And so, I also think about what it would be like to live in a time where just his geographic experience was limited just to this part of the United States at the time. He didn’t get to travel internationally, he wasn’t a very educated person as far as schooling goes, and yeah again, what he’s able to do with establishing the Church and being the prophet of the Restoration, just is incredible. And so, I look to him as an example of someone who, like I said, wasn’t perfect, but was able to do a really great work. I would hope that people would be generous to me I guess to me in how they judged me based on the context of my time and the experiences that I’ve had. So I try to give that same generosity towards people in the past as well because there are things that I don’t know at this time that I may know in the future in my life, but if you’re looking at me right now at this point in my life, I have limited experience and limited knowledge about something and so I would hope that people would give me the kind of same generosity that I give to historical figures on some of those things.
STUART: Thank you Robin, thank you David, thank you Jessica for coming by the Maxwell Institute Podcast. We’ll talk to you again soon.
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“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)