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Critics will find no bombshells in a new 640-page book of early historic LDS documents, but scholars and the faithful may discover a much more complex Mormon founder than they ever knew.
At least that's the hope of the scores of LDS Church historians who worked on the book, titled "Documents, Volume 1: July 1828-June 1831," unveiled Wednesday at a news conference at the Church History Library in downtown Salt Lake City.
It is the first in a documentary series that is expected eventually to fill as many as two-dozen volumes.
This first "Documents" book covers Mormonism's early days including when Smith published the faith's signature scripture, the Book of Mormon, and officially organized the church in 1830 in upstate New York.
It includes Smith's "revelations," minutes of meetings, letters he wrote, sermons he gave, legal and business documents, and even licenses and receipts all arranged in chronological order.
The picture of Smith and the early LDS movement that emerges, say LDS historians, is more nuanced, more contextualized and more layered than either believers or skeptics have recognized.
"There is the perception [among Latter-day Saints] that Joseph walked out of the Sacred Grove with the Handbook of Instructions on how to run the church," Steven E. Snow, LDS Church historian and recorder, said at the news conference. "That did not happen."
Many of the revelations included in this volume "help us understand how the church was to be organized and run," said Snow, an LDS general authority. "I appreciated him more as a visionary and [his view of ] how the kingdom of God would grow. I don't want to say 'audacity,' but he had the vision to suggest that [this little movement] was going to go around the world, even though it had only a few hundred members at the time."
What is striking about the documents, said Reid L. Neilson, managing director of the LDS Church history department, is how Smith's revelations affected believers' lives.
To both prophet and followers, Neilson said, "the revelations were very real and caused them to act in ways other documents would not. The revelations dictated from God, which caused people to change, to uproot their lives and to gather and to be more Christlike."
This volume allows readers to move "from document to document and see history as it unfolded," explained Ronald Esplin, a Mormon historian who is the general editor of the groundbreaking Joseph Smith Papers Project. "You get a sense of being eyewitnesses to this history. It is very powerful."
No collection of documents, of course, can prove Smith's divine calling or mollify those Mormons facing a faith crisis after learning some of the more controversial elements of LDS history, such as Smith's polygamy.
Smith always will be "a disputed figure," said Matthew Grow, director of publications for the LDS Church history department. "It was our job to make all the documents available so scholars and critics can see for themselves."
This documentary series will be the starting point for any outside scholars, said non-Mormon historian Jan Shipps, a pre-eminent scholar of LDS history who lives in Indiana. "Whether you are a critic, a follower or just want to know what was occurring on the ground level with Mormonism, this will provide the basis. Then, if you know what others were doing at the same time, it allows you to get a rich picture of the early Latter-day Saints."
At the news conference, Richard Turley Jr., assistant LDS Church historian and recorder, displayed several early documents including an April 6, 1829, property document formalizing living arrangements that carries the signatures of Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery and Samuel Smith (Smith's younger brother); a
June 1831 license that was signed by "First Elder Joseph Smith" and "Second Elder Oliver Cowdery"; and a letter to Hyrum Smith (Smith's older brother), dated March 1831, which is the oldest known letter in Joseph Smith's handwriting.
Turley said the aim of the entire project was transparency.
"We are laying it all out," he said. "You get Joseph Smith straight up without any intervening interpreters like historians or biographers."
"Documents, Volume 1," the eighth published work in the Joseph Smith Papers Project, is expected to be in bookstores within the next few weeks. A second documentary volume covering July 1831 to January 1833, Snow said, will be available by December.
The Joseph Smith Papers Project
"Volume 1: 1832-1839"
"Volume 2: December 1841-April 1843"
Revelations and Translations
"Volume 1: Manuscript Revelation Books"
"Facsimile Edition: Manuscript Revelation Books"
"Volume 2: Published Revelations"
"Volume 1: Joseph Smith Histories, 1832-1844"
"Volume 2: Assigned Histories, 1831-1847"
"Volume 1: July 1828–June 1831"