To write a biography is to connect the dots of a person's life but first you need the dots. For Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints founder Joseph Smith, that includes several thousand documents, from the mundane to the spiritual.
The Joseph Smith Papers Project, by the time it's completed a decade from now, will add up to 24 volumes of diaries, contracts, letters, legal documents and revelations: the raw material, explains project managing editor Ron Esplin, that writers and scholars can then use to construct their narratives and interpretations of Smith's life.
The first volumes will be published next year. As a preview, KJZZ-TV will air a documentary, "The Joseph Smith Papers Project: A Television Foreword," at 7 p.m. Monday. The program, produced by KJZZ, will air again at 10 a.m. Sunday, Nov. 11.
The documentary is not a Ken Burns-style, sepia-toned look at Smith's life; something like that might come later, says KJZZ director of news and production Dean Paynter, who reported, wrote and produced the program. Instead it's a straightforward overview of the Papers Project, including interviews with historians involved in the effort. Beginning in early 2008, KJZZ will then start airing the first of 50 half-hour shows offering more details of the documents and interviews.
The documentary and the 50 shows are funded by auto dealer and Utah Jazz/KJZZ owner Larry H. Miller and his wife, Gail. The Millers also have helped fund the Papers Project itself, allowing it to hire additional full-time historians. The project is part of the Family and Church History Department of the LDS Church.
The Joseph Smith Papers Project, like similar projects for America's Founding Fathers, locates and then transcribes hand-written documents that are then scrutinized and verified by three separate historians, often using high-resolution color scans, microscopes and ultraviolet light to decipher the cursive of Smith, his scribes and correspondents. Annotations are then added to provide historical context. The Joseph Smith project has been certified by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), a division of the National Archives and Records Administration.
Given "the scrawls of rushed penmen and the deteriorating condition of some documents," Esplin says, there is no way to ensure 100 percent accuracy of the documents. But the scrutiny has yielded both small and large corrections in "supposedly well-known texts."
In one 1843 account in which Smith commented on a legal proceeding following his arrest, for example, a phrase previously believed to have been "spiritually minded circuit judge and a few fit men" is now transcribed as a "spindle-shanked circuit judge and a few fat men." Far from praising the men, Esplin notes, the words dictated by Smith and penned by Willard Richards actually mocked "those involved who had caused him such trouble a reading not out of harmony with other accounts of his sometimes defiant stance toward detractors and adversaries."
According to Esplin, one scholar who provided a "blind review" of the Papers Project for the NHPRC expressed concern that, because the project could serve as a source of inspiration to Latter-day Saints, "extreme caution" should be used to not imply an endorsement of Mormonism.
"We do not seek any such stamp of approval, official or otherwise, on the 'religious validity of Joseph Smith's life and work,"' Esplin counters in a lengthy explanation of the project that eventually will be published on a project Web site. "Indeed, the goal of the project is not so much to affirm Smith's life or work as to present the surviving records that will help us all to better understand them."
The Papers Project, like those of the Founding Fathers, he says, will not be selective in which documents it publishes. There will be "no editing out, no prettying up things one might view as unseemly or undignified."
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."
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