The Joseph Smith Papers Project is an effort to gather together all extant Joseph Smith documents and to publish complete and accurate transcripts of those documents with both textual and contextual annotation. All such documents will be published electronically on this website, and a large number of the documents will also be published in print. The print and electronic publications constitute an essential resource for scholars and students of the life and work of Joseph Smith, early Latter-day Saint history, and nineteenth-century American religion. For the first time, all of Joseph Smith’s known surviving papers, which include many of the foundational documents of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, will be easily accessible in one place.
Producing a definitive, scholarly edition of Joseph Smith’s papers allows increased and better scholarship on Joseph Smith and the early church. Scattered documents are gathered into one source with both print and electronic components, and manuscripts of varying legibility are carefully transcribed and verified. In addition to making the content of these documents more accessible, transcription and publication help preserve these delicate documents, which are subject to the ravages of age and handling and to potential damage or loss.
The papers comprise documents that were created by Joseph Smith, whether written or dictated by him or created by others under his direction, or that were owned by Smith, that is, received by him and kept in his office (as with incoming correspondence). Under these criteria—authorship and ownership—the project intends to publish, either in letterpress volumes or electronic form, every extant Joseph Smith document to which its editors can obtain access.
Included among Joseph Smith’s papers are the earliest handwritten texts of the foundational documents of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, such as his revelations and translations. The Papers provide insights into Smith’s life and times through his correspondence, journals, discourses, court cases, and business dealings. The edition also includes minutes of important church councils, reproductions of the Latter-day Saints’ scriptural canon as it existed during Smith’s lifetime, official histories, and records pertaining to church institutions that were under Smith’s direction or that reflect his personal instruction or involvement.
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 library and archives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and of the Community of Christ (formerly The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints). Some documents are in the possession of families or individual collectors, and to the extent that permission and access can be obtained, these will be published. All documents will be published electronically on this website, and a significant number of the documents will also be published in print.
While the Joseph Smith Papers Project control file currently includes about ten thousand items, it is estimated that about twenty-five hundred are original texts. This is because a letter that was prepared or received might also have been copied into a letterbook or published in a church newspaper. A revelation may have been written down by a scribe, copied by another person, included in a letter, published in a newspaper, or copied into a manuscript compilation of revelations. Each of these versions would be considered a separate document, and part of the work of the project is determining which version is the original, or closest to the original. Regardless of which version is selected for publication, however, all versions will be listed in a calendar of documents to be published on this website.
Most of the documents are housed in the Church History Library of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Community of Christ (formerly The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) preserves others in its Library-Archives in Independence, Missouri, as does the L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Some individual collectors have allowed access to important papers. An extensive search has been made to locate and retrieve images of documents from every significant repository in the United States. Institutions such as the Huntington Library in San Marino, California; the Chicago History Museum; the Library of Congress; and the university libraries at Princeton, Harvard, and Yale all have relevant documents. Newspaper accounts, court records, and other legal and financial records have come from government repositories in many locations.
The project can trace its roots to Joseph Smith himself, and collecting Smith’s papers continued after his death. In February 1846, the documents—then in possession of Brigham Young and other church leaders—were packed into two boxes for the westward trek from Nauvoo, Illinois, to the Salt Lake Valley. Over the following one hundred years, numerous volumes and articles were published that drew on these and other early historical documents.
The current effort to publish Smith’s papers began in the late 1960s—and continued in subsequent decades—with the work of Dean C. Jessee. He published one volume of Smith’s personal writings and two volumes of an earlier series, The Papers of Joseph Smith. The effort to expand resources and move beyond a one-man initiative eventually resulted in the comprehensive plan that is now being carried out. In April 2001, the Joseph Smith Papers Project was officially established as a collaboration between the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History at Brigham Young University and the Archives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That relationship continued until 2005 when the institute closed and those working on the project became employees of the Church History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and transferred to the Church History Library in Salt Lake City—the main repository holding Joseph Smith’s papers. This change consolidated resources and streamlined organization so that the papers could be published more quickly. Today, the project continues with several dozen researchers, historians, writers, archivists, editors, volunteers, and other staff.
The National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), affiliated with the National Archives and Records Administration, has a mandated mission from the United States Congress to support activities that preserve, publish, and encourage the use of documentary sources relating to the history of the United States. NHPRC endorsement is given to projects that meet rigorous standards in the field of documentary editing. Information required in an application includes the purpose of the project, the significance of its subject to United States history, the plan of work, the publications to be produced, and the qualifications of personnel. Intense scrutiny is given to sample documents and their transcripts. A project’s methodology concerning collection and selection of documents and consistent adherence to stated editorial procedures are examined. Based on its own review and on the blind reviews of outside peers, the commission endorsed the Joseph Smith Papers Project in May 2004.
The digital and print publications of The Joseph Smith Papers are designed for historians, religious studies specialists, teachers and writers of American history and religion, and other scholars and serious students of Joseph Smith and the early church. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who have an interest in the church’s history will also find The Joseph Smith Papers useful.
Elder Marlin K. Jensen, who at the time was church historian and executive director of the Church History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, announced the creation of the Church Historian’s Press in 2008. The Joseph Smith Papers bear its imprint, as will other selected historical works that meet similar standards of scholarship. Although it may contract with print or distribution partners, the Church Historian’s Press is the publisher of The Joseph Smith Papers. See churchhistorianspress.org for more information.
A qualified, well-trained staff adheres to high standards in transcription, verification, and documentary editing. The project conducts various levels of internal and external review on each volume. An external national advisory board reviews each volume and acts as consultants for the project. The seven-member board, recognized scholars in American religious history and documentary editing, is currently made up of three Latter-day Saint scholars and four scholars who are not Latter-day Saints.
Over time the project’s scholarship will speak for itself. Demonstrating high professional standards in gathering, transcribing, and annotating documents has earned the project an endorsement by the National Archives and Records Administration’s National Historical Publications and Records Commission. Scholars and editors working on the volumes have expertise in historical methodology, documentary editing, and the scholarship relating to Joseph Smith and the early church. While deeply committed to the faith Joseph Smith founded, they are also committed to presenting his documents in the best professional manner. Several project members have trained at the Institute for the Editing of Historical Documents, and many experts in the field have been consulted as the project has unfolded. Endorsements and reviews of the project’s volumes published to date suggest that the project is establishing a reputation for excellent scholarship.
The Church History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Brigham Young University have been instrumental in supporting the project. Larry H. Miller and Gail Miller and the Larry H. and Gail Miller Family Foundation generously provided additional funding as the project grew in scope. Larry passed away in 2009. Gail Miller and the family foundation continue to provide funding. Funds from the sale of print volumes are reinvested into the project.