Matthew J. Grow: Using Joseph Smith Papers to better understand Doctrine and Covenants
R. Scott Lloyd
The Joseph Smith Papers Project is “the great symbol of the Church’s transparency with its history,” said Matthew J. Grow, director of publications at the Church History Department.
Brother Grow and his colleague, Matthew C. Godfrey, spoke at the second day of the FairMormon Conference on the topic “The Story behind the Revelations: Using the Joseph Smith Papers to Better Understand the Doctrine and Covenants.”
Brother Grow shared thoughts on why the project is important to answering questions and to defending the Church while sharing recent research he said can enlighten Latter-day Saints as they seek to understand the Prophet’s revelations.
“In many ways, Joseph has been the target of character assassination since the day the Church began,” Brother Grow observed.
But with the advent of the project, which will assemble in about two dozen books and an associated website everything that is a Joseph Smith document and is about a third of the way finished, “never again can a critical author write on Joseph in a credible manner without confronting and grappling with the records he left behind and our scholarship on them,” Brother Grow declared.
“We hope to influence the understanding of Joseph both through our own books and by influencing other books,” he said.
One of the most potent arguments that the Church’s critics have employed is that the Church hides information and history, Brother Grow observed. “The Joseph Smith Papers has demonstrated with every volume published, every document placed on our website that this is simply not true. The Church is being transparent about its history in a way that is truly remarkable.”
For example, he said, the project is committed to comprehensiveness, excluding nothing in the Prophet’s papers from publication. “No document will be edited or changed before publication. We hold ourselves to the highest standards in that regard. Every document that is put on the website is placed side-by-side with its transcript and the image of the original. That’s the ultimate in transparency.”
Included will be documents that have never been published, including the Book of Commandments and Revelations, which was the earliest book into which early Church clerks wrote the Prophet’s revelations.
Brother Grow said that in the Joseph Smith Papers, one finds the original manuscripts of some of the most important events in Church history, “some of which continue to be used, as you know, by critics to provoke questions among the faithful. By giving Church members and others access to the original documents, we not only take away that argument that is so often used that the Church hides its history, but we also allow them to make their own decisions about these crucial events.
“If you have a question about the First Vision, its multiple accounts, then come and read all of it in the original handwriting from the original sources available on the website or in our published books.
“Do you have a question about the translation of the Book of Mormon, what Joseph Smith said about women and the priesthood to the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, the translation of the Book of Abraham, the Kirtland Egyptian Papers or the King Follett discourse? Then come read the original manuscripts about those topics.”
Brother Grow gave two examples of instances in which getting back to the primary sources in the Joseph Smith Papers project has led to better understanding of two significant sections in the Doctrine and Covenants.
Section 19, he said, has traditionally been dated March 1830. “The manuscript revelation books, however, help us to date it correctly earlier, most likely to the summer of 1829. Now why would that matter?”
He noted that in the revelation, the Lord strongly chastises Martin Harris, telling him repeatedly to use his property to pay for the publication of the Book of Mormon. Dating the revelation earlier ties it to Martin mortgaging some of his property to pay the debt to the printer.
“Understanding the correct dates, I think, makes the revelation even more applicable to us as Latter-day Saints,” Brother Grow said. “Have you ever hesitated before moving forward with something you felt the Lord wanted you to do? I think we can identify with Martin and understand both the Lord’s encouragement and chastisement to him and to us to go forward in sacrificing for His work.”
The other example he cited pertains to Section 49, in which the Lord directs Parley P. Pratt, Sidney Rigdon and Leman Copley to take a revelation to the Shakers of North Union Village near Cleveland, Ohio, and call them to repentance.
Primary-source material in the Joseph Smith Papers facilitated a correction of the traditional date of this revelation from March 1831 to May 7, 1831. That puts the receipt of the revelation on the morning of the day the Mormon delegation arrived at the Shaker village.
They departed immediately for the village to fulfill the instruction in the revelation, Brother Grow noted. “I think that tells us something about how the early Saints viewed and thought about Joseph’s revelations.”