The latest publication in the Joseph Smith Papers Project — the inaugural volume of its Documents Series, Documents, Volume 1: July 1828-June 1831 — was released Sept. 4 with an announcement at the Church History Library in Salt Lake City.
Elder Steven E. Snow of the Seventy, Church Historian and Recorder, announced the new volume at a news conference that also involved Richard Turley Jr., Assistant Church Historian and Recorder, and team members in the Joseph Smith Papers Project.
The newly inaugurated series includes each of Joseph Smith's revelations in its earliest form, reports of his discourses and letters he sent and received.
Articles and editorials he wrote for newspapers, minutes of meetings in which he participated and records of his Church administration are also included.
"This new Documents series will publish, in chronological order, all the early historical documents associated with the Restoration of the Church," Elder Snow explained. "Together, these texts provide unparalleled insight into the life and prophetic thought of Joseph Smith, one of the most important figures in American religious history."
This first volume in the Documents series features Joseph's earliest surviving papers, including more than 60 revelations, most of which were later canonized in the Doctrine and Covenants.
New research in the volume explains the origin and purpose of the documents, helping readers better understand the period of Church history when Joseph translated and published the Book of Mormon and established the Church.
The work also traces the proselytizing mission by Oliver Cowdery and others to Ohio and Missouri and its effects, including the migration of the Church from New York to Ohio.
The Joseph Smith Papers Project is expected to span more than 20 volumes when complete, with the Documents Series in the project comprising about half of those volumes. Additional content is on the website, josephsmithpapers.org.
Brother Turley displayed several of the documents that are included in the series, including the earliest known document that bears Joseph Smith's signature — a property document formalizing the living arrangements for the Smith family — as well as the oldest known letter written entirely by Joseph Smith in his hand (a letter dated March 8, 1835, to his brother, Hyrum).
"The value of these documents is you have a chance to see up close and personally the actual historical evidence that is used by historians to put the pieces of history together," Brother Turley said as he carefully shared the preserved documents with reporters and photographers.
"We have not withheld any documents for this series," Brother Turley said. "There may be an odd document or two of which we are not aware. But all of the thousands of documents that we have found relating to the life and work of Joseph Smith will eventually be included."
Preparing the volume required what William G. Hartley, one of five editors credited with the preparation of the book, called "a lot of jot and tittle work," a reference suggesting intense scrutiny to minor details.
"We would line up different versions of the same information next to each other and study them," Brother Hartley said. "We would look at every comma, every letter, every bit of punctuation, every variation in handwriting, every character. We were looking for clues to see which version came first, what were the differences."
He added, "The more you get into these documents, the more and better you come to understand Joseph Smith, and how amazing this man was. You see him trying to figure out how to do this, figuring out how to be a prophet."
And that, said Ronald K. Esplin, one of four general editors of the Joseph Smith Papers project, is the real value of the new documents series.
"You can go document by document and see the history of the Church as it unfolded," Brother Esplin said. "A lot of people will get into this material and say, 'I thought I knew that history, but I did not.'"
The book's editorial team believes the new documents series will serve both the causes of history and faith.
"Knowing all the details seems to increase faith," said Robert J. Woodford, a third volume editor.
Regarding other plans in the Joseph Smith Papers Project, Elder Snow said a few days prior to this recent announcement that the First Presidency "has approved the Church History Department staff to use the Council of Fifty minutes as reference and footnote material in upcoming Joseph Smith Papers books and to eventually publish the minutes in full as a separate volume."
Elder Snow explained that Joseph Smith established the Council of Fifty in March 1844.
"The minutes of the council meetings, which have heretofore not been available for research, provide a new window into Joseph's prophetic view on government and the kingdom of God," he said.
"Following Joseph's death, the council continued to meet under Brigham Young's leadership and played a key role in the planning for the trek west. Our historians have been working to prepare these important records for publication some time. We plan to publish the Nauvoo minutes of the Council of Fifty in the Administrative Records Series of the Joseph Smith Papers."
Joe Walker of the Deseret News contributed to this report