This approach appears to be a different tack for the LDS Church, which in the 1970s reassigned former church historian Leonard Arrington after his academically rigorous look at LDS history made church leaders uneasy.
Although the 2,000 to 3,000 Smith documents that will eventually be published do not reveal anything startling, Esplin says, they do provide some illumination of the prophet's life. He was, for example, involved in many more legal disputes, as a plaintiff, defendant or material witness, than people had originally believed often the result of efforts to bankrupt him with lawsuits, Esplin says. What has also emerged, he says, is "the surprising extent to which the early church was built on revelation."
The Papers Project benefited from the fact that LDS Church members have been document collectors from the early days; 90 percent of the documents in the collection come from the church's archives, some of them boxed up by Willard Richards when the Latter-day Saints left Nauvoo in 1846. The modern roots of the project, Esplin says, date to the late 1960s, when historian Dean Jessee began researching the personal writings of Smith.
After working on the companion KJZZ documentary, says producer Paynter, he feels he knows Smith better. "He's not such a mythical, distant figure; he's a person you'd love to have a conversation with."The 24 volumes of documents, two or three to be published every year for the next 10 years, will probably cost "well under half" of the $100 generally charged for Founding Fathers Papers Projects, Esplin says.
The presentation of "The Joseph Smith Papers Project: A Television Foreword" on KJZZ-TV is co-sponsored by the Deseret Morning News. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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