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Ravell Call, Deseret News
Assistant Church Historian and Recorder Richard E. Turley Jr of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints displays historical documents during a press conference announcing the release of the latest volume in the church's ongoing Joseph Smith Papers project in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013. This document is the earliest letter completely handwritten by Joseph Smith. It is dated March 8, 1831, and was written to Joseph's brother Hyrum Smith.
It’s an excellent way to understand Joseph Smith and his life, because it gives you the pertinent documents, and it gives them to you in a chronological order, so you can see what comes before and after. —Richard E. Turley Jr., assistant church historian and recorder

SALT LAKE CITY — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints today released the first of several historical volumes that will provide “unparalleled insight into the life and prophetic thought” of church founder Joseph Smith.

Addressing media representatives in the LDS Church Historical Library Wednesday morning, Elder Steven E. Snow, church historian and recorder, announced the release of the first of a series of volumes that focus on actual historical documents written by, signed by and relating to Joseph Smith. The documents series will eventually be the largest series within the church’s ongoing Joseph Smith Papers historical research project.

“This new documents series will publish, in chronological order, all the early historical documents associated with the Restoration of the church,” Elder Snow said in announcing the release of the 640-page “Documents, Volume 1: July 1828-June 1831.” He indicated that the second volume in the series will be published in early December.

“This set of documents allows you to see, without any intervening filter, what Joseph Smith produced,” said Richard E. Turley Jr., assistant church historian and recorder. “It’s an excellent way to understand Joseph Smith and his life, because it gives you the pertinent documents, and it gives them to you in a chronological order, so you can see what comes before and after.”

Turley displayed several of the documents that are included in the documents series, including the earliest known document that bears Joseph Smith’s signature — a property document formalizing the living arrangements for the Smith family — as well as the oldest known letter written entirely by Joseph Smith in his hand (a letter dated March 8, 1835, to his brother, Hyrum).

“The value of these documents is you have a chance to see up close and personally the actual historical evidence that is used by historians to put the pieces of history together,” Turley said as he carefully shared the preserved documents with reporters and photographers. “It allows you to see them for yourself and interpret them for yourself.”

There are a number of digital images of original documents in the published volume, although many are not due to printing limitations. Digital images of all of the documents in the series will eventually be available online, Turley said.

“We have not withheld any documents for this series,” Turley continued. “There may be an odd document or two of which we are not aware. But all of the thousands of documents that we have found relating to the life and work of Joseph Smith will eventually be included.”

The published volume includes revelations, letters, reports of discourses, editorials, minutes of meetings and other documents written by, signed by and relating to Joseph Smith. For each document in the book there are source notes, a carefully footnoted historical introduction and a transcript of the document (including actual spellings and words that have been crossed out).

Preparing the volume required what William G. Hartley, one of five editors credited with the preparation of the book, called “a lot of jot-and-tittle work,” a reference suggesting intense scrutiny to minor details.

“We would line up different versions of the same information next to each other and study them,” Hartley said. “We would look at every comma, ever letter, every bit of punctuation, every variation in handwriting, every character. We were looking for clues to see which version came first, what were the differences.”

Included among the documents are several revelations given to Joseph Smith that have not been included among the church’s canonized scripture. “They were included in the ‘Revelation Books’ (bound volumes within which Joseph Smith’s revelations were recorded) but they were never published. They are valuable because they provide additional understanding.”

For Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, another of the volume editors, combing through the documents gave him a greater appreciation for Joseph Smith’s prophetic role and his “deep concern for the welfare of people.”

“You see his love and concern coming through in document after document,” Dirkmaat said. “You read about someone asking for forgiveness, and you find yourself saying ‘No! Don’t do it! This is going to end badly!’ because you know from history how things turn out. But he always forgives them.”

“The more you get into these documents,” Hartley added, “the more and better you come to understand Joseph Smith, and how amazing this man was. You see him trying to figure out how to do this, figuring out how to be a prophet.”

And that, said Ronald K. Esplin, one of four general editors of the Joseph Smith Papers project, is the real value of the new documents series.

“You can go document by document and see the history of the church as it unfolded,” Esplin said. “A lot of people will get into this material and say, ‘I thought I knew that history, but I did not.'”

The book’s editorial team believes the new documents series will serve both the causes of history and faith.

“Knowing all the details seems to increase faith,” said Robert J. Woodford, a third volume editor. Although Woodford acknowledged that there are some things in the documents series “that on the surface may seem to be damaging” to faith, those who take the time to explore those things in depth will find answers to their concerns.

“For me, this project has been faith-affirming,” Woodford said. “The deeper we go into his history, the more clear it becomes to me that Joseph Smith was exactly who and what he claimed to be.”