The Unfolding of Revelation: Reflections on the Joseph Smith Papers
As readers are probably aware, owing to the several reports, an unprecedented event took place recently. On March 23, the Church Historian’s Press invited several bloggers to meet in person and via video conference with Robin Jensen, Richard E. Turley, Jr, and Riley Lorimer—the three editors of the newly released and long awaited next installment of The Joseph Smith Papers: Revelations and Translations, Volume Two: Published Revelations.
By a series of fortunate events, I found myself with the unique opportunity to attend. At the appointed time I logged into the video conference software on my laptop, where I was instantly greeted by a view of the Cumorah Room on the fourth floor of the Church History Library, the editors, local attendees, and fellow “virtual” participants. The default setting of the video conference software displayed the webcams of participants in what reminded me of the opening blue box credits of The Brady Bunch, except populated, thankfully, with friendly faces from the blogging world—each one anticipating news of the new volume and many coming with questions.
Assistant Church Historian Richard E. Turley, Jr. began by providing an overview of The Joseph Smith Papers project.
We think it is important for people to see Joseph Smith through the papers that he and his associates left behind, hence the desire to allow people to see the papers without that filtration. . . . With the published revelations book and this larger one, the manuscript revelations books, members of the Church and scholars and other interested parties around the world can have this kind of first-hand access to Joseph Smith and his revelations that we have wanted to give people.
I remember when I received the first volume. I opened the book and saw the facsimiles of the original handwritten manuscripts of the revelations for the first time. By seeing the originals, I felt an intimate connection with the revelations, a closing of the distance—I could see scribes hand-writing the script in ink by whatever light was available at the time, whether lamp or sunlight, and wondered what it would have been like to have been there.
I had always seen the revelations in the printed word, in the familiar two-column arrangement divided into chapter and verse with footnotes. A long textual history, however, stands between us and the originals.
Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, in a talk tracing the history of attempts to publish Joseph Smith’s primary source material explained that “in a certain sense, we can say that until recently, we’ve had a lot of people between me and Joseph as interpreters, and what we are trying to do is get beyond those people to the primary sources as best we can.”
Turley, and the other editors, expressed this intent during question and answer:
We’re trying to remove the intermediary between the scholar and the actual materials, by providing the materials directly to you in this form. With the last volume, the manuscript revelations book volume—in this large format or in the new small format—plus this published revelations volume, you have the two pieces that you need from the Joseph Smith time period to evaluate the unfolding of revelation during the Joseph Smith period, extremely helpful work.
This unfolding of revelation occurred in several ways. Obviously, new texts were continually added to the revelatory corpus. Perhaps less conspicuously, however, but no less important, prior revelations underwent expansion and evolution over the years as evidenced in later reprints.
As editor Riley Lorimer explained, this is the rationale for the inclusion of the several editions of the Evening and Morning Star reprints in Volume 2.
A lot of the changes that were made were the result of further revelation that was received in the intervening years, this is a really wonderful resource for seeing how this young church was growing up and seeing how things were evolving over the course of these four years or so.
What was the nature of these changes? When were they made? Why were they made? And perhaps most importantly, how best to understand and tell this story?
These Joseph Smith Papers volumes will help us answer the when and where, and are intended to provide the primary source material to allow scholars to generate answers to these later questions.
“In order to enhance the production of these volumes and get them to the public faster,” Turley noted, “one thing that we have tried to do is not try to answer every question that these volumes raise, but allow that work to be done by the next wave of work that comes using these as a product.”
Following this general approach we have recently seen a slew of primary source projects including work on the Book of Mormon, the New Translation and most recently the Book of Abraham. The timing of these valuable resources could not be better for studies in early Mormonism. For example, the editors of Joseph Smith’s New Translation of the Bible: Original Manuscripts point out the possibilities:
We could gain a clearer, richer, and more comprehensive understanding of the way our doctrine unfolded if we were to take the revealed passages of the New Translation and place them in their proper chronological order between the sections of the Doctrine and Covenants. For example, Moses 1, from the JST, would be just before section 25; Moses 2-5 would be just before section 29; Moses 6 would be just before section 35; and Moses 7 would be just before 37. Before we had access to the original JST manuscripts, this arrangement was impossible, because we did not know the dates that are written on the documents. Seeing the originals changes our perspective.
The caveat, of course—well-illustrated by Revelations and Translations, Volume Two: Published Revelations—is that these sections themselves have a rich and complex textual history that needs to be taken into account: Book of Commandments (1833), Doctrine and Covenants (1835, 1844), Evening and Morning Star (1832 and 1833 in Missouri, reprinted in 1835 and 1836 in Kirtland), etc. Taken together, all these sources make possible a more accurate revelatory chronology, which in turn will allow for better histories of the development of doctrine, church government, and so forth.
While some of these sources have been previously available, Volume 2 brings these many materials together in one place, providing scholars with convenient access and quality images. The volume includes additional goodies such as Oliver Cowdrey’s marked up copy of the Book of Commandments. The editors also include a proposed “six gathering” of the Book of Commandments, material that was intended for publication before being interrupted by the destruction of the printing press.
This was a surprising and exciting development to learn about. Lost books and resurrected texts are appealing themes in Mormon history. Lorimer explained the nitty-gritty of the analysis involved and editor Robin Jensen added “We make it absolutely clear that this is our proposed six gathering, that as scholars I think that would be useful as kind of the intent of the leaders of what would have been in the Book of Commandments. Clearly it wasn’t published, it wasn’t printed, people didn’t use it. It really gets at what the final intent was, rather than what actually exists.” And by so doing, the editors go above and beyond a typical documentary editing project to help us reclaim an important part of early Mormon history.
I appreciate all who made the event possible. I found the editors excited about their work and forthcoming on all questions raised. This volume is a serious contribution to our understanding of the revelations and I look forward to the forthcoming volumes.
“In some ways,” as Holzapfel suggests, “we might know more about Joseph than those who lived during the time his ministry occurred, given the intimate look we will have in his diaries and letters.” An intriguing and sobering thought. Clearly more meaning yet exists in W.W. Phelps’ words that “millions shall know Brother Joseph again.”
 Richard Neitzel Holzapfel “1805-1819: Joseph Smith, The Early Years” in Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, ed., “Joseph Smith’s Prophetic Ministry: A Year-by-Year Look at His Life and Teachings.” Compact disc. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2009. Several speakers in the series are part of the Joseph Smith Papers Project.
 Scott H. Faulring, Kent P. Jackson, and Robert J. Matthews, eds. Joseph Smith’s New Translation of the Bible: Original Manuscripts. Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2004, p. 19.