As the head of an ambitious project with plans to publish 30 volumes of historical material over the next 20 years, Ronald Esplin has several objectives in place.
Defending Joseph Smith, however, is not among them.
Esplin's field is documentary editing, not apologetics. But as managing editor of the Joseph Smith Papers, a project that operates under the history department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Esplin and his colleagues are aware of their work's religious and scholarly significance. They also know that if they just do their jobs, the Prophet will fare well enough.
"We are confident that if we can lay out the life and works of Joseph Smith through his papers, he'll do fine," Esplin told a gathering of Mormon scholars recently.
That begins later this year with the publication of the first volume in December. By putting the Prophet's papers on the bookshelf, members of the project say they hope to accomplish for the church's founder what has been done for the Founding Fathers. And while it's a time-consuming venture that demands credibility, the project is expected to make an imprint on the scholarly community by permanently changing how researchers approach the life of Joseph Smith.
"I think Joseph deserves that. He deserves the very best we can do," said Dean C. Jessee, the project's founder who currently serves as a general editor along with Esplin. "People outside will not be able to say anything about him unless they read his papers.
"People will have to pay attention."
IN THE EAST WING of the Church Office Building in Salt Lake City, scans of approximately 5,000 documents are stored in a control room a few doors down from Esplin's office. Over the next two decades, about 2,000 will be published in their entirety throughout 30 volumes of 500-700 pages each, complete with annotations and visual aids. The rest will be presented in electronic format.
All those documents make up a collective record that Esplin calls "wonderfully rich." The publication of the first volume later this year will begin making available all existing records produced by the church's founder.
Esplin, a lifelong historian, sees it as an essential step toward better understanding the past.
"No other institution that I know of has the rich record of the foundation that we have," Esplin said. "And despite having these great records, we have not had a concentrated effort with resources, scholarly and material, to really come to terms with our documentary record and understand it."
That effort is now firmly established as the Joseph Smith Papers Project, which Elder Marlin K. Jensen, the current church historian, called "the single most significant historical project of our generation."
According to Esplin, it's "beginnings" that make such work meaningful.
"This will never cease to be important to us because of Joseph Smith and who he was; because it's our beginnings," he said. "We do not understand the documentary history of our beginnings ... It's crucial that we understand our history."
Esplin is quick to point out, though, that the project is not a documentary history. Instead, the team is making the necessary documents available what Esplin calls the "raw materials" from which histories of the church can be written. Doing so will provide the "opportunity to view the issues and personalities and events of our history more comprehensively," Esplin said.
"Therefore, it provides a foundation of a different sort for understanding who we are as Latter-day Saints."
For believers, the volumes can serve as an intellectual complement to their religious convictions, according to Jeffrey G. Cannon, who works as a document specialist on the project.
"So many people have this connection with Joseph Smith and early church history as a matter of faith," Cannon said. "This is what has been described as a 'new world religion,' and to see it from its roots and its foundation in the Joseph Smith Papers and to make it available to people is really something that is fascinating to do."
The impact of the project, however, will be felt beyond the church. In fact, Esplin has clearly stated that the target audience is the scholarly community.
"If we don't meet that audience, we've failed," Esplin told Mormon scholars recently at the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR) conference in Sandy.
While their goals are not to defend the Prophet nor write the church's history, Esplin and his colleagues know their work will affect how scholars do theirs. Esplin, who began his career by researching the life of Brigham Young, once read a biography about the second president of the church that was constructed almost entirely of accounts from Young's enemies. The author failed to consult the documents produced by Young himself.
Once the Joseph Smith Papers are available, scholars will be held to a higher standard.
"What I anticipate is that once we get a substantial number of these volumes out, no one writing seriously about Joseph Smith or early Mormon history can or would think of going forward without consulting these volumes," Esplin said. "And that changes the landscape in significant ways."
LAST FEBRUARY, POPULAR writer David McCullough testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the importance of the documentary editing projects that have allowed him to produce historical works such as "1776" and "John Adams," calling their value "unassailable" and "immeasurable."
"They are superbly edited," he said. "They are thorough. They are accurate. The footnotes are pure gold many are masterpieces of close scholarship ... "
Esplin knows that historical writings are difficult to start from scratch. It requires gathering documents from different repositories and making notes to manuscripts, all of which cuts into time that could be spent analyzing and writing. The "great explosion of interest in the Revolutionary era," he said, has been the product of documentary editing projects that publish the papers of historical figures such as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.
"You don't have to spend your life going to all these repositories any more," Esplin said. "You can consult the papers of the Founding Fathers ... and have access to decades of work to bring these things together and make them available to you."
Through the Joseph Smith Papers, Esplin and his colleagues are making what he calls the "raw materials" readily available for researchers.
"Having these things together will allow scholars to do more history and better history than they could do without it," he said.
Qualifying documents include those produced by the Prophet, whether written by Smith himself or by scribes, or that were "owned" by his office, such as journal entries, recorded revelations and discourses, correspondence, meeting minutes, and business and legal records. According to its Web site, the project operates under "accepted scholarly and documentary editing standards."
The work on the project involves collecting, verifying and transcribing documents. Scholars also do historical research that will be used to supplement the published documents in the form of footnotes, editorial notes, maps and charts. The volumes will be divided by topic into six series: journals, documents, revelations and translations, history, legal and business, and administrative.
"When scholars have access to the right sources, they use them," Esplin told the audience at the FAIR conference. "And if they don't use them, they're not credible."
The volumes are meant for research, not for casual reading. Robin Jensen, a volume editor for the project, suggested that most church members will benefit from a "trickle-down" effect. Once scholars have the documents, better-written material will emerge.
"Historically speaking, it's important for these to get out to scholars," Jensen said. "The earliest copies of some of these documents are the closest we can get to what Joseph Smith and the early Saints saw."
Esplin admits that the project must earn the confidence of the scholarly community. He called the fact that the volumes will be published by The Church Historian's Press a "high hurdle," but it's one they intend to clear.
"We're going to earn that trust over time, and I'm confident that we will," he told the audience at FAIR.
In order to assure credibility, the project operates under the guidelines established by the National Archives' National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), which granted its certification for the Joseph Smith Papers in 2005.
In some areas, the project has exceeded the standards. The Joseph Smith Papers institutes more peer review than similar projects, with a national advisory board made up of Harry S. Stout, a member of the department of religious studies at Yale University; Stephen J. Stein, an adjunct professor of American history and American studies at Indiana University; Mary-Jo Kline, author of "A Guide to Documentary Editing"; and Terryl L. Givens, a professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond. Barbara Oberg, chief editor of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson at Princeton University, has served as a consultant.
Credibility, Esplin said, is the only means by which scholars can have confidence in using the sources.
"The only way they can use it with confidence is if we've met the standards of scholarship that every documentary editing (project) today must meet in order to be credible," he said.
The publishing time frame of 20 years, plus the approximately six years of work done by the team under their existing organization, make for a lengthy project. But Jensen, who joked about the job security his position brings, said they're committed to quality.
"We're not going to hurry the process up to have inferior products," he said.
Esplin also pointed out that compared to other documentary editing projects, the Joseph Smith Papers should be "somewhat less tardy" than those focused on the Founding Fathers.
"We're not looking embarrassing in the company we're traveling in," he told the audience at FAIR. "I am 64, and I intend to see (the volumes) all published."But it's not going to be tomorrow."