New era dawns in LDS publishing

Joseph Smith Papers will bear Church Historian's new imprint

With its massive Joseph Smith Papers Project on the verge of bearing fruit in the form of its first published volume, the Family and Church History Department on Feb. 25 announced the establishment of The Church Historian's Press, a new imprint for publishing works related to the Church's origin and growth.

Elder Marlin K. Jensen of the Seventy, Church Historian/Recorder, who made the announcement, said the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve authorized the new publishing venture, which will have the Joseph Smith Papers as its first product. A team of Church history scholars has been compiling the papers since 2001.

"We have 10 or 11 volumes in rough-draft stage, and three or four of those are very close to publication," Elder Jensen said in a Church News interview in connection with the announcement.

"So we had to get serious about how we are going to bring these to market. We actually investigated different publishing houses like Oxford University Press and Yale University Press, all of which have prestige and cachet. But when it came right down to it, we saw a lot of value, in a sense, in taking charge of our own history, doing it our own way."

The department is contracting with Deseret Book Co. for printing and distribution. "But we'll be our own publisher," Elder Jensen said. "And to have the Joseph Smith Papers be the initial subject matter is a wonderful thing. I doubt we'll ever publish anything more important. But as the years roll along, we hopefully will do other high-quality, scholarly things."

He said the journals of President George Q. Cannon, who served in the First Presidency under President Brigham Young and subsequent Church presidents, will likely be published under the new imprint. The first volume of these is already in print through Deseret Book, but future published volumes would carry the name The Church Historian's Press.

"So, in the beginning, it will mainly be documentary editing and publishing that we do," the Church Historian said. "But in a future day, we may do narrative history. We could do some biography. We have a gold mine of sources here (at the Church Archives) to tap. But it will be very methodical and obviously correlated under the direction of the Brethren."

Regarding publication of the Joseph Smith Papers, Elder Jensen said it will be directed mainly toward scholars. "But that's not to say there aren't a lot of well-educated and well-informed people in the Church who will have an interest in these."

Based on anticipated interest, the initial press run of the first volume will be between 20,000 and 30,000 copies, he said.

"Our hope is once the Joseph Smith Papers are out, we'll have historians doing works about Joseph's life, or about the history of the Church generally, using these papers as their subject matter. So it should produce derivative products that will be more suited, maybe, for the average reader than the papers themselves will often be."

To illustrate the dramatic impact of the project, Elder Jensen displayed some original documents that will be included in the Joseph Smith Papers, including the Prophet's 1835-36 journal; a March 21, 1839, letter written by Joseph from Liberty Jail to his wife, Emma; and a manuscript (not the original dictation manuscript) of Section 45 of the Doctrine and Covenants, written in the hand of Edward Partridge.

Asked what has been learned in the more than six years that the project has been underway, Elder Jensen said, "What you learn is that Joseph was a very multi-dimensional person and really took himself seriously. The awareness he had of who he was and his place in the history of mankind grew very slowly. But when it grew, then you can see how all of his effort, all of his passion, was directed toward trying to do what he thought God wanted him to do."

Elder Jensen said that in perusing the journals, one observes Joseph "going along saying something quite ordinary and then sort of breaking into a prayer, either asking the Lord to help him or to bless someone. There was a closeness, a familiarity with the Lord on a daily basis, on an hourly basis. It's so refreshing, in a way, to see evidence of it in the documents.

"We have a hymn that says 'millions shall know "Brother Joseph" again.' These papers will help us do that, and it can't help but be inspiring and faith-promoting."

He said the editors have been good at putting the documents in context, annotating items that might not be readily understood, but essentially letting the papers speak for themselves.

A Web site,, provides extensive information about the project. Its content is free. It is noted on the Web site that "this comprehensive project will publish all known, accessible documents that meet the project's criteria as Joseph Smith documents. The project has complete access to the archives of (the Church) and the Community of Christ (formerly called the RLDS Church). Some documents are in the possession of families or individual collectors, and all will be published for which permission and access can be obtained."

The project has the endorsement of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, which is mandated by U.S. Congress to support activities that preserve, publish, and encourage the use of documentary sources relating to the history of the United States.

Elder Jensen said, "We hope to have two volumes out by October general conference of this year, and then, hopefully, two or three volumes every year thereafter until we're finished." With 30 volumes, that would take 12-15 years to publish the entire collection, he said.

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