Serving two masters: Questions of audience at the Joseph Smith Documentary Editing Project (Part 3)

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Joseph Smith

Historians working on the Joseph Smith Papers have to navigate a balancing act between our various audiences—much like those who do contract history work. For the most part, the project has succeeded in its attempts to be balanced. In a review of the first volume of the Journals series in the journal Documentary Editing, Kenneth Minkema, executive editor of the Works of Jonathan Edwards, declared, “Readers need not raise a skeptical eyebrow when they see this edition is produced by LDS members and printed by an LDS press.” He continued, “There is an impartiality and professionalism here in the tone, subjects, and sources that bode well for this series and edition as a reliable resource for all.”[1] Other reviewers agreed. “This book is a significant improvement in [the] historiography of Joseph Smith,” Michael Marquardt, who, at times, has been critical of the church’s history endeavors, stated. “This is a scholarly work but simple enough for a general audience.”[2]

Yet maintaining a neutral tone and not shying away from controversial topics does not always appeal to church members who purchase the product. One commentator on, for example, characterizing herself as a “humble believer,” took offense that our project targeted a scholarly audience. “What a shame that it puts forth such a negative picture of both the Prophet and the early leaders,” she declared. “It plays right into the hands of the intellectuals who always look for the faults in religious men.” This commentator also decried the book’s use of “Smith” or JS to refer to Joseph Smith. “He is the Prophet, Joseph Smith or even Mr. Smith. Just plain Smith made him seem too common.” Another individual, who described him or herself as a “spiritually attuned reader,” accused the project of “embrac[ing] the ‘every historical assertion is equally valid’ fallacy in order to appease academia and gain acceptance among the world of noted revisionist historians.”

Such comments are not so different from ones I sometimes received from clients in my consulting work. For example, I once had a reviewer from the Army Corps of Engineers write in the margins of a draft manuscript, “I will NOT let this history say anything negative about the Corps.” Yet even though the comments are similar, the stakes are higher for the Joseph Smith Papers, because much of our public audience bases significant aspects of their belief system on Joseph Smith. Some are uncomfortable when they encounter a Smith that differs from their idealized image of him. Recent news articles have highlighted that members of the church—especially in North America—experience some difficulties when they encounter history on the Internet or in other locations that does not square with the faith-promoting history they recall receiving in church meetings or classes. Many of these issues revolve around Joseph Smith, viewed by many as a “portrait of goodness and inerrancy.” In attempting to present a more balanced view of Smith, the Joseph Smith Papers presents a picture that, at times, clashes with “a church history that has been selectively rendered through the Church Education System and Sunday school manuals.” [3]

However, the ecclesiastical leadership of the church, who review each volume, is open to portraying a more objective Joseph Smith, believing that Latter-day Saints need to know their history, warts and all. Their commitment to publishing all of Smith’s documents (either electronically or in print) is evidence of this approach. They also support the efforts of historians and editors on the project to present documents in a scholarly and dispassionate way, understanding that it not only preserves our credibility with a scholarly audience but also allows members of the church to gain a more accurate view of the church’s past than they may have received.

Although past history suggests that church leaders’ attitudes toward a more open history could change,[4] the amount of material on church history available in an age of instant communication and dissemination of information has convinced many of the importance of providing an open and transparent history to both members and non-members. The type of history the Joseph Smith Papers has produced and the success we have had in portraying Smith in a fair and balanced way has only strengthened those convictions.

Such commitment has received approval from those working in Mormon history. One scholar commented on an introduction to the second volume in the Journals series that directly addressed Smith’s involvement in polygamy, a topic that some teachers of church history skirt. This reviewer noted, “The fact that this introduction passed [a] review of Church leaders, is found in a book sponsored by the institutional Church, is printed through a Church-controlled press (Church Historian’s Press), and is marketed by the Church’s conservative merchandise arm (Deseret Book), should, I think, be cause for celebration.” He continued, “The charge of the Church hiding its history is finally becoming less credible.”[5] Even LDS members who are not trained in history have found much to approve in the volumes. One commentator stated that “the journals were very, very informative” and “provid[ed] details about church history that I had never known before—details that are surprisingly frank and balanced.”

As it moves forward, the Joseph Smith Papers project will continue to try to produce volumes that satisfy both a scholarly and public audience. Even though different audiences have strong feelings about Smith that sometimes clash, balanced histories can be produced by presenting both sides of an issue and by not being afraid to provide information about Smith that might differ from traditional views—both good and bad. As I continue to work on the project, I will continue to find comfort in the notion that the project’s challenges are ones that many other public historians have encountered and conquered. Learning from each other, we can all better uphold our commitment to producing the highest scholarship in history, even when pressures from different audiences might make that commitment difficult to maintain.

~ Matthew C. Godfrey is Associate Managing Historian for the Joseph Smith Papers.

Read Part 1 and Part 2 of the series, and learn more about the Joseph Smith Papers here.


[1] Kenneth Minkema, Review of Dean C. Jessee, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Richard L. Jensen, eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Journals, Volume 1: 1832-1839 (Salt Lake City: The Church Historian’s Press, 2008), in Documentary Editing 31 (2010): 121.

[2] H. Michael Marquardt, Review of Dean C. Jessee, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Richard L. Jensen, eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Journals, Volume 1: 1832-1839 (Salt Lake City: The Church Historian’s Press, 2008), in Journal of Mormon History 35 (Fall 2009): 239.

[3] Peggy Fletcher Stack, “Mormons Tackling Tough Questions in Their History,” The Salt Lake Tribune, 30 January 2012; see also Peter Henderson and Kristina Cooke, “Special Report: Mormonism Besieged by the Modern Age,”, 31 January 2012; Michael De Groote, “Mormons Opening Up in an Internet World,” Deseret News, 1 February 2012.

[4] In the 1970s, Leonard J. Arrington, a professor of economics at Utah State University, was appointed church historian of the church. He presided over an era of church history that is sometimes referred to as “Camelot” for its openness in terms of access to records and to providing a more balanced history of the church. This era came to an end in 1982 when Arrington and much of his staff were transferred from church headquarters to Brigham Young University. See Leonard J. Arrington, Adventures of a Church Historian (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998).

[5] Ben P., “Thoughts on the introduction to the new JSP Volume: Journals Vol. 2 (1841-43),” The Juvenile Instructor, a Mormon History Blog, 22 November 201l.