The final volume of the Joseph Smith Papers, “Documents Volume 15,” was released on June 27, 2023, as the series continues to receive scholarly acclaim.
The project started in June 2001 and includes 27 volumes. According to the Joseph Smith Papers website, the latest and final volume contains documents including accounts of discourses, military order, correspondence and legal papers surrounding the last six weeks of Joseph Smith’s life.
“Documents Volume 15” was published on the day of Joseph Smith’s assassination in Carthage, Illinois to commemorate the martyrdom of the prophet of the Restoration.
Matthew C. Godfrey, a historian and general editor with the project for the past 13 years, explained that Church leadership sponsored the project to appeal to a scholarly audience. In a Church Newsroom press release on June 27, scholars expressed their views on the project.
“The Church didn’t want to hide anything about Joseph Smith,” said Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a Pulitzer Prize winner in history and professor at Harvard University. “They felt confident that if the actual records, the primary sources, were available, responsible scholars would consult them.”
Godfrey and the team “couldn’t be more happy about its reception.” Journals such as the Journal of American History have positively reviewed the series and the project even received certification from the U.S. National Archives, which adds credibility to the historical work.
Godfrey said the scholarly community recognizes the value of readily available transcripts of primary documents and extensive footnotes to guide readers. Brett D. Dowdle, the lead historian for Volume 15, explained how the project is different from other Church-published literature.
“It’s revolutionary in terms of the Church hasn’t really published something in this kind of style before and probably won’t always do a ton of that. But it was done with a purpose of getting the documents out so that we can then bear testimony with more power in the future,” Dowdle said.
The members of the team knew they were striking a balance between scholarship and general audiences, but scholarship usually took precedence.
“We had to always maintain in our minds that that (scholars) was our primary audience, but we were also very aware that we had a strong secondary audience which is just general Church members and others who are interested in Joseph Smith,” Godfrey said.
The team faced challenges when finding that balance. For example, the general rule among documentary historians, when referring to a person, is to use only their last name after the first few references. Due to their backgrounds as members of the Church, the original members of the team working on the papers project realized referring to the prophet of the Restoration as simply “Smith” may perturb some general member audiences.
The researchers and editors settled on a compromise — they would refer to Joseph Smith simply as “JS” to preserve scholastic integrity and avoid disenfranchising member audiences.
“Some people didn’t love that within the Church but I think it was a pretty good compromise that allowed the scholarly community to take what we were doing seriously, while at the same time, trying to maintain respect for Joseph in his role as a prophet,” Dowdle said.
He emphasized the “testimony-building” nature of the project and provided a challenge to members of the Church interested in incorporating the Papers into their studies.
“Grab one of your favorite revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants, and grab the Joseph Smith papers volume and sit down and go through the footnotes related to that revelation. I think it will expand your understanding of that revelation in connection with the historical introduction,” Dowdle said.
Godfrey also mentioned other resources intended for Church members to use to scratch their historical and religious itch without having to sift through sometimes “stale” historical documents.
All transcripts and other resources are available for free on the Joseph Smith Papers website.