A handful of scholars researching the early history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will move to Salt Lake City after the closure of a research institute at Brigham Young University dedicated to LDS history.

BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins confirmed Monday that during a meeting Friday, academic vice president John Tanner told religion faculty members the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History would be closed.

The LDS Church issued a press release Monday saying those working on the institute's major research interest — the Joseph Smith Papers Project — will all "soon be housed together in one location at church headquarters."

"Bringing together nearly all those working on the project in a single location will enhance collaboration, increase productivity and accelerate publication of archival materials dealing with the life, mission, teachings and legacy" of LDS Church founder Joseph Smith, the statement said.

The project — which includes journals, correspondence, discourses, written histories, business and legal documents either drafted by or concerning Joseph Smith is "the most important church history project of this generation," said to Elder Marlin K. Jensen, who was recently named church historian.

He told the Deseret Morning News the change was "chiefly motivated by the importance of the Joseph Smith project and the difficulty we've experienced" advancing the work "at an acceptable pace and within acceptable cost limits."

Finishing the work — estimated to be between 25 and 30 volumes — will take at least another decade, he said. Local businessman Larry H. Miller and his wife, Gail, have provided "the bulk of the financing" for the project through their private foundation. "He's enough of a businessman, he wants some bang for his buck," Elder Jensen said.

The Smith Institute's closure doesn't preclude other LDS historical research that will still take place in several academic departments at BYU, he said.

A commission of the National Archives endorsed the Smith Papers project late last year, "assuring that the highest scholarly standards are being employed in all phases of the work," the release said, adding "BYU will promote research on Latter-day Saint history through its regular academic departments rather than a separate research institute."

"In addition, BYU will create a new Joseph Fielding Smith Fellowship program to encourage research at the university in Latter-day Saint history," the release said.

Jill Derr, director of the institute, said the announcement came as no surprise.

"This change has really been in the works for at least six months. As early as last fall, our faculty began earnest discussions" about the future of the institute and the Smith Papers project.

Six full-time faculty members work under the auspices of the institute and many are close to retirement age. How to replace them and work with faculty carrying a full teaching load has been of some concern, she said.

While the Smith Institute had its beginnings at the LDS Archives in Salt Lake City, Derr said the institute is not a repository for historical documents, but rather serves as a resource for scholars.

Momentum has also been building within the LDS Archives since the appointment of Elder Jensen as church historian and the announcement in April of a new five-story, 250,000-square-foot Church History Library and archives vault.

"They have been planning for several months or years how to make church history available to a wider audience of church members and others," Derr said. "Their growing strength as a center for church-sponsored history has had an impact on us."

Part of that planning includes "documentary editing as part of a special projects shop, so editing the Joseph Smith Papers Project there makes good sense," she said.

Derr believes there is strong support for "making the Joseph Smith Papers academically rigorous and presenting complete documents. I don't see this move as any effort to suppress information. That would destroy the whole purpose in doing the papers, which is to make all the documents available."

The move coincides with "something of a sea change in the last five years as national interest in Mormon history has grown," she said.

One of the things the institute has struggled with is keeping up with all the scholars from many fields with an interest in Mormon history, she said.

"The archives are working very hard to make documents available. . . . My sense is they want to make materials more widely available to people, so far as that is possible. . . . To what extent scholars will or won't be able to get information is not my question to answer," she said. "My own experience has been very positive.

Derr said the bigger issue is how "Mormon history is going to be written from under the direction of the Family and Church History department."

Scholars both inside and outside the LDS Church remember the tension between historians and some LDS leaders two decades ago over the tone and content of some scholarship. At that point, access to the archives became more highly restricted and the Smith Institute at BYU was established.

"I believe the general authorities of the church recognize that we need very bright Latter-day Saints to be able to enter into the national scholarly conversation," Derr said. "It requires a certain kind of openness and familiarity with all of the information.

"We've had 20 years to expand details of the historical record, and faithful scholars can incorporate those nuances and information into history without destroying faith. I think we've gained greater experience with that process, and I feel very optimistic about what will go forward."

Jan Shipps, professor emeritus of history and religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University, is considered among the foremost non-LDS scholars of LDS history. While she hasn't done research at the LDS Archives for a few years, she believes access to records there "has been relaxing somewhat" over time.

She said she's still scheduled to participate later this summer in a seminar for historians at the Smith Institute, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

After a recent symposium on Joseph Smith sponsored by the Library of Congress and BYU in Washington, D.C., Shipps said there was open discussion about a handful of scholarly presentations she dubbed as "highly orthodox" in tone and content.

In the broader scholarly world, "there is concern that some LDS (scholars) do not know how to operate in the professional world of history, and that question is not going to go away."

As for what the closure of the Smith Institute means for researchers, Shipps said, "I don't think we'll know what it means for two or three years at least."

E-mail: carrie@desnews.com