Within the pages of the latest Joseph Smith Papers Project volume, one finds the perspective of four men assigned to write early histories of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, two of whom remained faithful and two who turned against it and were excommunicated from the church during the course of their writing.
"Histories, Volume 2: Assigned Historical Writings, 1831-1847" is the seventh release in an anticipated two dozen or so volumes in the project.
Introduced Sept. 25 at the Church History Library in a gathering for Internet bloggers and other interested persons, the new book completes the project's two-volume "Histories" series. It differs from the first, which contains histories written, dictated or supervised by Joseph Smith himself, though both books cover roughly the same time period.
The four men whose histories are covered in the book are John Whitmer, William W. Phelps, John Corrill and Edward Partridge.
"The Book of John Whitmer" was undertaken when Joseph Smith appointed him in 1841 to be church historian.
Karen Lynn Davidson, one of the three volume editors, said Whitmer was a reluctant author at first, and only accepted the assignment when, according to his request, Joseph asked for and received a revelation confirming the appointment. That revelation is recorded today in Section 47 of the Doctrine and Covenants.
In 1838, Whitmer was excommunicated from the church on charges of improper financial dealings but continued writing in his history up to about 1847, three years after the death of Joseph Smith.
The second assignment went to Phelps, editor of the church newspaper The Evening and Morning Star. Phelps was instructed to publish an account in the newspaper about the rise and progress of the church. He completed his assignment within three months, Davidson said, and his history is by far the shortest of the four, comprising only a single article as opposed to a multi-chapter history.
"I love Phelps' history," Davidson said. "It's really very charming. At this point in the early history of the church, 1833, it seems like he's hardly able to conceal his own surprise that things are going so well for this little church."
Corrill was assigned to write a history in 1838 to replace the excommunicated John Whitmer, who refused a request to turn over his history to the LDS Church.
Corrill "seized upon this opportunity to write what is, in part, a very wonderful, balanced history of the church, and in part he used it as his own statement, his personal declaration of his reasons for joining the church and for leaving the church," Davidson said. Corrill published the history himself in 1839.
"Corrill, I feel, is the best writer of the four, and one important thing about this volume is that John Corrill's history is now made available to the public in convenient form for the first time," Davidson said.
The fourth historian whose work is included in the new book, Partridge, took his assignment from Joseph Smith's directive written from Liberty Jail in 1838 that the Latter-day Saints gather up an account of the suffering and oppression that had been inflicted upon them by the Missouri mobs. Partridge was named specifically in that directive, and that got his attention.
He published three installments of his history in The Times and Seasons, the church's newspaper in Nauvoo, Ill., but died before he could complete it. The newspaper editors then filled in the incomplete portion by publishing eight installments excerpted from already-published histories by church leaders Parley P. Pratt and Sidney Rigdon.
"We wish we had all Partridge; that would be ideal," Davidson said. "But this history, the fourth in the book, does offer a sampler of the existing Missouri histories of the time."
Davidson commented on what she called "the elephant in the room."
"Joseph Smith did not maintain control over these histories," she said. "Both Whitmer and Corrill … continued to write after they were excommunicated. They described their alienation in their own words. You will find Whitmer very angry in his last three chapters. You will find Corrill heartbroken in the last chapter of his history."
In answer to the perhaps inevitable questions of why the church would publish these histories and how it will help members, Davidson said, "If we're going to have any credibility as a documentary editing project, it all has to be out there without any tampering, without a whole lot of spin on it."
It is a given that people have left the church in all periods of its existence, she said. "We can get a very vivid idea about the Missouri period and what was going on, not only from the accounts of people who endured and triumphed, but also from the accounts of people who were overwhelmed."
Richard L. Jensen, another of the volume editors, highlighted some noteworthy points in the Partridge history, including early efforts to forestall mob opposition to the Latter-day Saints in Missouri by "certain patriotic individuals." Among these was Marston Clark, a federal Indian sub-agent who traveled 30-40 miles from his subagency among the Kanza Indians to confront those who wanted to drive the Mormons from Jackson County. Clark proposed to decide the outcome of the conflict by Clark and an opponent fighting it out, saying it would be better for one or two individuals to die than for hundreds to perish.
"Another interesting thing that Partridge was quite frank about was the fact that the anti-Mormons gave the Latter-day Saints the offer that if any of them would leave the church and deny the faith they could stay in Jackson County in peace," Jensen said. According to Partridge, a number of them took advantage of that offer.
The Joseph Smith Papers Project has a companion website, josephsmithpapers.org. Lead production editor Nathan N. Waite said that though this new volume completes the print form of the Histories series in the project, there are a number of components that have been and will be added to the website. One is an online edition of the six-volume History of the Church, the one excerpted in the Pearl of Great Price and the one that B.H. Roberts edited. Veteran historian Dean C. Jesse is tracking down all the documentary sources that were used for that multi-volume history, Waite said. At the moment, the first two volumes are on the website, with the third volume expected to be included by the end of this year.
Waite said supporting documents or bonus material to Histories volumes 1 and 2 are on the website, including photo images and transcriptions of the printer's manuscripts for the Corrill and Partridge histories.
New to the website are all six of the extant Book of Abraham manuscripts published in the Pearl of Great Price, as well as the Book of Abraham as published in The Tmes and Seasons in March and May 1842, Waite said. In addition, the website will include other Egyptian materials.
An 1835 hymnal, the first published by the church, is now on the website.
Other new content includes a "Revelations Correspondence Chart" showing the relationship between the different versions of the revelations as they appear in various sources, including the Book of Commandments, the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants, and the modern Doctrine and Covenants.
Four Internet videos pertaining to the new Joseph Smith Papers Project release can be viewed on the Deseret Book product page.They feature volume editors discussing the content of the new book. They can be found by searching online for "Joseph Smith Papers, Histories volume 2."