The project team for the Joseph Smith Papers is set to release the final volume of the papers on June 27, the 179th anniversary of the Prophet’s martyrdom.
The Joseph Smith Papers project is a collection of all known Joseph Smith documents, accompanied with historical introductions and footnotes for each document, providing necessary context for the reader. These documents include anything the Prophet created, anything he directed to be created or anything he owned.
Since 2008, new volumes of the papers have been published about twice a year. According to project team members, their roles in the process have involved extensive research, transcribing, editing, writing and more.
Documents Volume 15
Matthew C. Godfrey has been part of the project team for the Joseph Smith Papers since 2013, and has served as both the managing historian and a general editor. He explained that this final volume of the papers covers the last six weeks of Joseph Smith’s life, leading up to his assassination on June 27.
“The volume shows how chaotic and hectic Joseph’s life was in those final few weeks, how much he wanted to protect the people of Nauvoo from what he believed was impending mob violence and how much opposition there was to him and the Saints from those not of their faith in Hancock County and surrounding areas in Illinois,” Godfrey said.
Adam Petty, a historian for the project, added that this volume, called Documents Volume 15, covers a significantly shorter time period.
“Other volumes might cover months or even years, whereas this book covers only weeks,” Petty said.
Brett D. Dowdle was the lead historian on Documents Volume 15.
“The volume includes some really substantial information about various court cases that Joseph Smith was involved in during this period,” Dowdle said. “The volume also includes the minutes of the meetings of the Nauvoo City Council on June 8 and June 10 where the leaders of Nauvoo discussed how to respond to the ‘Nauvoo Expositor’ which had published its first issue on June 7.”
Documents Volume 15 consists of several different documents and correspondences that showcase the final days of the Prophet’s life.
“I think that readers will be particularly interested in the three letters that Joseph wrote to Emma, and especially the one that he wrote on the morning of June 27,” Dowdle said.
Godfrey added that, among this chaos, the Prophet still managed duties as president of the Church and mayor of Nauvoo, Illinois.
“You see moments of peace in the chaos around him,” he said.
Dowdle shared that he found this volume to be particularly “heavy and at times heartbreaking.”
“I began working on this volume in 2018, and at times it weighed on me as a historian because I always knew how it ended,” Dowdle said. “But there are little pieces of information within it that were redemptive. You see the people who stuck with Joseph. You see Joseph’s efforts to defend and protect the Saints, ultimately going to Carthage himself in an effort to protect Nauvoo from an attack by an armed mob.”
Since the final volume covers the events leading up to the Prophet’s death, the team felt it appropriate to release it on the anniversary of his martyrdom.
Triumphs and challenges
At the 58th annual Mormon History Association meeting held the weekend of June 8-11, the Joseph Smith Papers was awarded a “special citation.” This award recognized the substantial accomplishments of the project, calling it “the single most important resource for early Latter-day Saint history.”
In addition to receiving awards and accolades for its work, the Joseph Smith Papers have provided its team members with life-changing personal experiences. Godfrey shared that his experience with the Joseph Smith Papers has led him to get to know the Prophet better, as well as help both scholars and Latter-day Saints learn more about him as a person, father, husband and Church leader.
“It’s helped me see that Joseph was a real person — he had to live life the same way we all do, with challenges, concerns about his family’s financial situation, trials that included deaths of children and loved ones and trying to do the best he could to fulfill what he believed was God’s will,” Godfrey said. “Seeing that side of Joseph had been tremendously helpful to me.”
Sharalyn Howcroft is a project archivist for the Joseph Smith Papers. She began working on the project in 2001. She said her favorite part of her 22 years working on the project has been discovering new documents in archives, private possession or manuscript auctions.
“It makes my day every time another document is found,” Howcroft said. “Each discovered piece has clarified our perception of Joseph Smith as a man and prophet and adds greater detail to the already rich canvas of his life.”
The project, although widely successful, did not come without challenges. Godfrey explained that the most challenging part was creating content for both a scholarly audience and non-scholar Church members.
“We have to walk a fine line between creating something that is both scholarly and appealing to the public,” Godfrey said. “That sometimes is not an easy line to walk.”
Petty mentioned that deciphering handwriting was one of the biggest challenges he faced.
“That may sound like a small thing, but we spend a lot of time verifying the text of the various documents,” Petty said. “We want them to be as accurate as possible. Bad handwriting can cause you all sorts of grief.”
The Joseph Smith Papers team consistently produced two volumes per year for the duration of the project. This demanding timeline meant the work never slowed down.
“I would finish the major work on one volume and then start on another,” Dowdle said. “And by the time the first volume made it to print, I had already been immersed in the next volume for more than a year.”
Looking back on the Papers
Now that the project is coming to an end, the team reflected on their work.
“Having worked on this project now for 13 years, it is exciting to see the fruits of so many people’s labors,” Godfrey said. “We have had a dedicated staff of historians and editors who love Joseph Smith, who are excellent in their fields of expertise and who have worked so hard to try to represent Joseph in a fair and accurate way.”
Petty agreed that completing the entire print series is an “amazing achievement.”
The team expressed their appreciation for their fellow team members, saying it is a group of knowledgeable and collaborative individuals.
“It has been a marvelous experience to stand shoulder to shoulder with exceptionally capable and gifted co-workers who are intelligent, thoughtful, and genuinely good people, and to be able to create this project together as a team,” Howcroft said.
Although there are still things the team wishes they knew about the Prophet, they still feel a great sense of accomplishment and gratitude to be a part of the project, according to Dowdle.
“The beauty of Church history is that it didn’t end in gunfire at Carthage Jail,” Dowdle said. “The Church moved forward, the keys remained on the earth, and there is a rich and beautiful history that still needs to be told. As President Nelson has taught us, the restoration continues and the history of the Church continues.”