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Joseph Smith and His Papers: An Introduction

For one who had little schooling, Joseph Smith left an unusually extensive literary record. From 1828, when he began work on the Book of Mormon at age twenty-two, to 1844, when he was killed at age thirty-eight, Smith produced thousands of pages of revelations, translations, correspondence, declarations, discourses, journals, and histories. His records will fill approximately thirty volumes when publication is complete. The goal of the Joseph Smith Papers Project is to publish every extant document written by Smith or by his scribes in his behalf, as well as other records that were created under his direction or that reflect his personal instruction or involvement.

The publication of his papers some two hundred years after his birth opens a window on a life filled with what Joseph Smith called “marvilous experience.”1 His rise from obscurity to prominence as the founder and first prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did not follow a conventional path. Though he was intelligent and strong willed, no ordinary talent can account for his success. His rise as church leader, city builder, and theologian rested on what he believed was a gift of revelation, by which he meant direct communication from God in the form of visions into heaven, heavenly visitors, or more commonly the words of God coming through direct inspiration. Controversial as his claims were, the revelations were the source of his influence among the tens of thousands of people who joined the church while he was alive and the millions who accepted his teachings after his death. Hundreds of pages of revelations accumulated over his lifetime. His major projects, plans, and doctrines originated in revelation. His followers complied with his often-demanding directions largely because they believed them to be from God. When Joseph Smith asked John Whitmer, an early follower, to be church historian, Whitmer initially refused and finally agreed only if the Lord would “manifest it through Joseph the Seer.”2

The revelations ranged from mundane directions for keeping a history or opening a store to visions of heaven and the future. One of the most dramatic revelations came in 1832 when Smith and his associate Sidney Rigdon were puzzling over a biblical passage that raised questions about rewards and punishments in the afterlife.

And while we meditated upon these things, the Lord touched the eyes of our understandings, and they were opened, and the glory of the Lord shone round about; and we beheld the glory of the Son, on the right hand of the Father, and received of his fulness. . . . And now, after the many testimonies which have been given of him, this is the testimony, last of all, which we give of him, that he lives; for we saw him, even on the right hand of God; and we heard the voice bearing record that he is the only begotten of the Father.3

The revelation went on to describe a hereafter divided into three degrees of glory, more finely graded than the usual heaven-or-hell division and more in accord with the mixture of good and evil in actual life. The revelations thrilled believers. William W. Phelps, a New York newspaper editor converted a year after the church was organized, called the revelation on the three degrees of glory “the greatest news that was ever published to man.”4 A meeting of Latter-day Saints making publication plans voted that the revelations “be prized by this Conference to be worth to the Church the riches of the whole Earth. speaking temporally.”5

The revelations derived their credibility partly from the prophetic traditions of the Bible. Joseph Smith moved into a role well known to Christians. He was another Moses or Paul. To most Christians, the Bible stood above all other books precisely because it was the word of God to prophets. Now, the Mormons claimed, God spoke again. One early convert to the church approached the preaching of Mormon missionaries skeptically but then reasoned:

I found, on searching the Scriptures, that from the commencement of time, through every age, God continued to send prophets to the people, and always when God had a message for the people, he chose a special messenger to send it by, and it was always headed with a “thus saith the Lord.” . . . If he supplied every other age and people with prophets and special messengers, why not this?6

The presence of a modern prophet brought biblical history into the present.

Along with the modern-day revelations that later were compiled into a book titled the Doctrine and Covenants, Smith produced three major revealed “translations”: the Book of Mormon (from gold plates), the book of Moses (linked to Genesis), and the book of Abraham (from ancient Egyptian scrolls purchased from a dealer). The three purported to be English renditions of ancient records that, like the Bible, told of events in a distant time and place. Although termed “translations,” they were not translations in the ordinary sense. Smith did not understand the languages of the original text and convert the words to English through his own learning. As he put it in the preface to the first edition of the Book of Mormon, “I translated, by the gift and power of God.” The resulting “translations” were as much inspired texts, words given him of God, as the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants.

The persuasiveness of the translations for early converts came partly from the confidence with which Joseph Smith introduced readers into ancient worlds without injecting himself into the story. The Book of Mormon opens with the phrase “I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father”; the book of Moses begins, “The words of God which he spake unto Moses at a time when Moses was caught up into an exceeding high Mountain”; and the book of Abraham starts, “In the land of the Chaldeans, at the residence of my father, I, Abraham, saw that it was needful for me to obtain another place of residence.”7 Readers are transported to remote times and places as they are when reading Beowulf or Thucydides—or the Bible. In the book of Moses, the reader learns of Enoch, who conversed with God and built a city that was taken into heaven. In the book of Abraham, the father of nations learns astronomy by consulting a Urim and Thummim. However one accounts for these marvelous narratives, they exceed anything one would expect from a poorly educated rural visionary. They are one reason for Yale literary critic Harold Bloom’s comment that Smith was “an authentic religious genius” who “surpassed all Americans, before or since, in the possession and expression of what could be called the religion-making imagination.”8 Latter-day Saints, of course, consider the translations to have come from God.