1 of 2
Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Mark Ashurst-McGee, seen here in his office in the church history department, is a third-level verifier for the Joseph Smith Papers. Robin Jensen looks at the manuscript from an 1844 sermon by LDS Church founder Joseph Smith.

There's very little on Robin Jensen's desk that distinguishes it from any other. From the computer screen to the family pictures to the mouse pad decorated with an island sunset, it's a fairly typical setup.

But one simple accessory sets this workstation apart.

To the left of the keyboard sits a "document cradle," which is made of cardboard and resembles an easel. The cradle is where Jensen sets historical treasures that are delivered to his office from the church archives — original documents traced back more than 160 years to the Prophet Joseph Smith. As a third-level verifier for the Joseph Smith Papers project, Jensen's job is to analyze these manuscripts in the most minute detail — looking at everything from faded ink and penmanship styles to wax seals and tattered edges.

The process is painstaking, but being able to work with documents of such significance is rewarding for Jensen, who is both a historian and member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For those who aren't LDS, Jensen compares the experience with viewing an original letter written by George Washington.

"There's just a connection that you don't necessarily feel when you read just a transcription or you hear a story," he said. "It's kind of a gateway into history."

It's a task that requires great focus, not to mention magnifiers and ultraviolet light. But as members of the Joseph Smith Papers project work to publish manuscripts that were written, produced or owned by the church's founder, they are also coming to know the Prophet through his own words. It's the hands-on work with the documents that affords scholars the opportunity to view the life of Joseph Smith and the origins of the church in more complete context and rich detail.

"You have this window that you can kind of look back and be a part of history," Jensen said. "(It's) daunting but yet very exciting."


IN 1843, WILLARD RICHARDS wrote down Joseph Smith's reaction to a court case that occurred following his arrest in Adams County, Ill. When the document was first published, it quoted the Prophet as referring to a "spiritually minded circuit judge and a few fit men."

But when the Joseph Smith Papers team took a closer look at the manuscript, it discovered something entirely different. The revised version of the document now describes a "spindle-shanked circuit judge and a few fat men."

For the Joseph Smith Papers, accuracy is the upmost priority. Producing correct transcripts of the Prophet's documents is "job one," according to managing editor Ronald Esplin.

"If we don't get the text right, there's no project," he said.

The process of documentary editing involves collecting, transcribing and publishing manuscripts of historical significance. Because the Joseph Smith Papers has access to the LDS Church archives and to documents owned by the Community of Christ, formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, most of the material is already at the scholars' disposal. But transcribing the documents is a time-consuming effort, one that requires the bulk of the project's resources, Esplin said.

It's also a procedure that necessitates several steps in order to assure accuracy.

The process begins with the initial transcription of a document, which is then subject to three levels of verification. The first transcript is made by either a member of the staff or a volunteer missionary. Once the individual has copied the manuscript, he or she double-checks the text.

The transcription is then put through a "double-blind read," where a volume editor reads the original manuscript while another staff member follows the transcript. According to Jensen, the process assures a "fresh read" where the volume editor isn't influenced by what was transcribed.

"They don't look across each other's shoulders, so it's truly independent," he said.

Jensen is one of two individuals, along with Mark Ashurst-McGee, who perform the final level of verification. Whenever possible, the two editors compare the transcript side-by-side with the original documents, which are delivered to their office from the church archives and returned at the conclusion of the workday. Jensen makes corrections when necessary, but the majority of the transcript gets a red check with his approval.

"When it's gotten to the third level, it's really quite a good transcription, and that only says good things about the first and second stages," he said.

Most changes Jensen makes involve spelling and/or punctuation, but they're not corrections in the traditional sense. The transcriptions maintain any spelling, grammatical and punctuation errors that appear on the original manuscript.

Some documents require special procedures, like the time when a seal of wax was obstructing a date that couldn't be read on a scanned copy of a manuscript. After ordering the original from the archives and holding it up to a light, Jensen was able to read the date.

Magnifiers, ultraviolet light and even multispectral imaging have also been used to uncover faded ink and other details that time has hidden.

"There's a lot of technology that helps our job, and we try to use it to the fullest," Jensen said.

Jensen concedes that "human error" will always "creep in," but he's confident in the methodology the project operates under. The Joseph Smith Papers adheres to, and in some ways exceeds, the standards established by the National Historic Publications and Records Commission.

"We feel that that is independent enough and accurate enough that the mistakes will be very few and far between," he said.

"If the project is known for its accuracy, then it will be used."


According to Esplin, some of the editors on the project once discussed the possibility of delegating the verification process to graduate students.

The idea found little footing, primarily because Esplin felt that being involved in the process would assist editors in another key objective — evaluating historical context.

"There's no better way to get into the depths of the documents than to read them word-by-word against the manuscript," he said. "By the time they have verified their text, they know them."

Part of the scholars' charge, according to Esplin, is to research the manuscripts in order to understand allusions, make connections between documents, understand the historical setting and uncover how they "were read and received and used in their native habitat," he said. "That requires a great deal of research."

The combined efforts of editors, student researchers, biographers, genealogists and cartographers will be presented in the form of annotations, such as footnotes, editorial notes, maps and charts, in the printed volumes, the first of which is scheduled for publication in December.

Dean C. Jessee, who is considered the project's founder because of the pioneering work he performed with Joseph Smith's papers beginning in the 1970s, said the staff's knowledge of history will "help people understand the context in which these things were written.

"We've got the text propped up in such a way now that it's really on a foundation that will make it more understandable to people," said Jessee, who now works as a general editor on the project.

Volume editors, according to Jensen, are experts in their historical field whose knowledge can help clarify uncertainties, such as those that arise when discussing names and places.

They also come to know the "intricacies" of the scribes whose hands created the documents, Jensen said. For example, John Whitmer loved to retrace letters, while Frederick G. Williams "trails off" words that end in "er," Jensen said. Richards, who was a physician, often wrote in a hurried manner that led to "notoriously bad" handwriting in the Prophet's journals, according to Jensen.

"You're basically left to counting the peaks and valleys," he said.

But the insights they gain are about more than just ink. Jensen, who is working on the first volume of a series on revelations, suggested that viewing the various types of documents within their historical framework helps forge a deeper understanding of the church's beginnings. For example, most of the available documents from 1828-32 are recorded revelations, and, therefore, historians know that most of the church's undertakings during those early years were driven by revelation, Jensen said. Around 1832, journals and minute books begin to emerge, suggesting that the Prophet was becoming more concerned with the organization of the church, according to Jensen.

"You know so much about early Mormonism through their records, not only in what the records say themselves, but why they are keeping them," Jensen said.

According to Jeffrey Cannon, who works on the project as a document specialist, the volumes will provide depth beyond just quotes and topics. The combination of documents and supplemental material will give historical texture to the actual text.

"They can see Joseph Smith's speaking and his writing and everything in context," Cannon said. "We tend to see people in manuals as a source for quotes. And it's not just about quotes. ... I think that's really a great contribution of the project."


Cannon, who was introduced to the project when he became a student researcher at BYU, came across an intriguing document early on that influenced his paradigm of the Prophet.

It was a bill for boots worn by Joseph Smith.

"This is a person like you or me in some ways," Cannon said. "He went grocery shopping. ... He had to buy shoes like the rest of us. But there's also this prophet mantle that's placed upon him."

For members of the Joseph Smith Papers project, working with such historical treasures at close range is a meaningful experience.

"There's that physical connection to Joseph Smith when you have something in your hand that he had in his hand," Cannon said. "These are things that not everyone gets to see."

Jensen said that while it's possible to forget and take the opportunity for granted, using the Joseph Smith manuscripts is rewarding work.

"I just love getting my hands on these documents and really understanding them and analyzing them," he said.

Among his favorite documents is a copy of the revelations that now make up Doctrine and Covenants, Sections 20 and 42. Jensen recognized that the different manuscripts were in the same handwriting and shared the same tear line and pin holes. He concluded that the manuscripts must have been fastened together at some point and was able to reconstruct what it looked like in its original format. The documents were part of a booklet of about 18 or 19 pages that probably included other revelations. More than likely, they made up a booklet that was carried by missionaries to use in preaching.

According to Cannon, the documents reflect the unfolding of the Restoration.

"You see Joseph Smith and his theology evolve," he said. "Mormonism is not something that was just hatched one day or that was revealed entirely in the Sacred Grove."

For Sharalyn Howcroft, an assistant archivist who is compiling papers for the legal series, the documents provide a glimpse into the "humanness" of the Prophet. While historically significant figures such as Smith can be perceived as "iconic" from a distance, in-depth study reveals not just noble characteristics but also weaknesses and concerns, she said.

"Although they were experiencing remarkable things, although they were put in positions of authority ... at their core, they had some of the very same concerns that all of us do — concerns for the welfare of their family, the happiness of their children, ensuring that their friends are safe and secure," she said.

"That is really at the core of Joseph."


E-mail: ashill@desnews.com