Documenting the Restoration

Documents reflect unfolding of restored gospel in members' lives

Fifth in a series

Note: Elder Marlin K. Jensen of the Seventy, Church Historian and Recorder, has called the Joseph Smith Papers Project "the single most significant historical project of our generation." This article, part of an ongoing series, pertains to the "Documents" volumes in the project.

A "chronological spine" for the entire Joseph Smith Papers Project is how volume editors Ronald O. Barney and Joseph F. Darowski define their "Documents" series of volumes in the project.

Joseph Smith Kirtland Temple
Joseph Smith Kirtland Temple

They borrow the phrase from project managing editor Ronald K. Esplin to convey the idea that the anticipated 13 "Documents" volumes will provide something of a framework for the other five series in the project: Journals, History, Administrative Papers, Legal and Business Affairs, and Revelations and Translations.

"There will be extensive overlap" in that virtually all of the content in this series will appear at various places in other series as well, Brother Darowski acknowledged. "But the concern is not the overlap. The concern is to provide the students of Joseph Smith, whether they be [lay] members of the Church or scholars, a chronological progression of documents representing his lifetime."

Ron Barney, a volume editor in the project, holding the actual manuscript of Joseph Smith’s epistle written from Liberty Jail, from which Doctrine and Covenants 121-123 are drawn.
Ron Barney, a volume editor in the project, holding the actual manuscript of Joseph Smith’s epistle written from Liberty Jail, from which Doctrine and Covenants 121-123 are drawn. Photo: Photo by R. Scott Lloyd

Thus, a document might be included that's also in the Journals series, but for a different reason. "There, it's embedded within the flow of the journal," Brother Darowski explained. "In the Documents series, we include it because it might deal with some event or aspect of Joseph Smith's life that's significant or it might give us a summary of a discourse he gave."

The only series in the project to run in a strictly chronological sequence, it will cover the years 1828-40 in the first five volumes, with eight subsequent volumes dealing with 1841 through the martyrdom of the Prophet in 1844. The first volume in the series is projected to be published in 2010.

"Our purpose is to create an authoritative text," Brother Barney said. "We call it 'the featured text,' because sometimes there are more versions of a document than one, especially with Joseph Smith's style of using scribes in creating most of his material."

Documents in the actual handwriting of the Prophet are somewhat rare and are from early in his ministry; later, scribes and clerks did the writing.

"And sometimes, more than one scribe may have created something, maybe not at the same time," Brother Barney said. "So our charge, then, is to identify the earliest, most comprehensive, authentic piece, and our number one ambition is to provide an authentic text that will best represent Joseph's production."

A secondary purpose, Brother Barney said, is "to create a context for that through annotation that will help the reader see where the document fits in the larger scheme of things." That is accomplished, he said, through introductory essays, footnotes and endnotes.

An  1842 letter to Hyrum Smith from wife, Mary Fielding, is written in crisscross pattern to save on paper and postage.
An 1842 letter to Hyrum Smith from wife, Mary Fielding, is written in crisscross pattern to save on paper and postage.

To illustrate, he mentioned a small document commissioning three elders of the Church to "go up to the land of Zion." It is dated August of 1831 and is signed "Joseph the Seer." That might be a puzzling appellation, Brother Barney said, unless one views it in the context of Doctrine and Covenants 63:41, wherein the Lord declares that Joseph will be enabled by the Spirit to discern who should go to Zion "and those of my disciples who shall tarry." Such essential background will be provided in the Documents volumes.

Brother Darowski said that for each featured document, the volume will include a source note with information about all the known variants of the document that exist.

"In the early Church, it wasn't uncommon for people to make their own copies of a revelation," he noted. "So you could have a number of iterations of, say, a particular revelation." It is the editors' task to identify and feature the earliest known extant version of a document, be it the original or a copy.

Beginning with the manuscript containing the characters copied from the Nephite record for Book of Mormon witness Martin Harris to show to Professor Charles Anthon (see Joseph Smith — History 1:63-65), the Documents series seeks to present every significant document that the Prophet produced or caused to be produced that was associated with the presidency of the Church.

"There are some glaring gaps, where we don't have a great deal of information," Brother Barney said. These include the time when Joseph was in Liberty Jail and the period in 1839-40, when he journeyed to Washington, D.C., to seek redress for the wrongs suffered by the saints in Missouri.

An 1842 letter to Hyrum Smith from wife, Mary Fielding, is written in crisscross pattern to save on paper and postage.
An 1842 letter to Hyrum Smith from wife, Mary Fielding, is written in crisscross pattern to save on paper and postage.

"And there are a number of documents we know existed that we don't have," Brother Darowski added. "You read a letter that indicates it is a reply to a letter, and we don't have the rest of the correspondence. We will publish a calendar which will identify everything that we've been able through our research to determine existed at some point in time, even if we don't have it now."

One of the more significant original documents to be featured is the epistle dictated by Joseph Smith in Liberty Jail to scribes Caleb Baldwin and Alexander McRae, who were there with him, the letter from which Sections 121-123 of the Doctrine and Covenants are drawn. It was preserved by members of the Smith family and eventually came into the possession of the Church.

Displaying the item, Brother Barney pointed out it bears the signatures of Joseph and Hyrum Smith and their associates Lyman Wight, Caleb Baldwin and Alexander McRae. The Prophet's signature on the manuscript attests to the importance he placed on it, Brother Barney noted.

He said that out of the 666 lines in the epistle, only 200 lines were eventually included in the Doctrine and Covenants sections, "meaning that more than two-thirds of it is not in the canon. And it's still great material!"

The editors, through the Documents series, have been able to feature the Liberty Jail epistle in the context of the circumstances in which it is written, Brother Barney said. He noted that it was addressed to Joseph's wife, Emma; to Presiding Bishop Edward Partridg;e and to the Church. "Some of the language found within the letter corresponds to the question posed by Edward Partridge, who wondered, 'How come we are in this mess? It looks like God has turned His back on us.' And, of course, the message of this revelation is, 'No, I'm still with you. By and by, my purposes will come to pass, and you're going to be OK.' "

Brother Darowski said a number of themes emerge when one views such a chronological compilation of the documents.

"Most of the material leading up to and surrounding what happens in 1836 in Kirtland, Ohio, is focused on the anticipated endowment of power from on high," he observed. "It's understood to be necessary for the redemption of Zion, which is a great concern."

This culminated with the divine experiences that occurred during or near the dedication of the Kirtland Temple, wherein the Lord appeared to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery (see Doctrine and Covenants 110).

Other themes that emerge, Brother Darowski noted, are the latter-day gathering of God's covenant people, missionary work, redeeming Zion, the return of Christ in glory (which some viewed as imminent), financial concerns and even popular culture.

"There are a number of instances where it's obvious Joseph Smith is very aware of the culture of the time," he said. "He makes observations about Davy Crockett, who was a very popular figure at that point in time."

In all, one gets the sense of "a real richness that goes far beyond just understanding the foundation of the Church and the Restoration," Brother Darowski observed. "One approaches the Documents series not as a collection of dry artifacts lifted out of time but as pieces of people's lives over time."

Through it all is a sense of constant refining and unfolding, he added. "You begin with the very earliest documents and foundational revelations, and by the time you reach the martyrdom, there will be a sense of how the gospel literally did unfold in the lives of people."

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