A Tale of Scholarly Cooperation

By Mark Ashurst-McGee

As staff members of a documentary editing project, we are often required to focus on the minutiae of historical documents in our day-to-day work. A recent experience with feedback from one of our reviewers reminded me that we can often gain insight from others’ perspectives, particularly when those perspectives are not obscured by smaller details.

While working on the sixth volume of the Documents series of The Joseph Smith Papers, my coeditors and I were often impressed by the intensity of the historical period the volume covered (February 1838–August 1839). The volume opens with Joseph Smith on the run from persecution in Ohio and then details his efforts to resettle his family in Missouri and to build up the church there. The volume also covers the “Mormon War” in Missouri, the expulsion of the Latter-day Saints from the state, and Joseph Smith’s incarceration in the dungeon of the Clay County jailhouse in Liberty, Missouri. The volume ends with Joseph’s escape from Missouri custody, his arrival in Illinois, and his efforts to lay the foundations of Nauvoo.

As the volume took shape, we began to recognize Joseph’s experience in the Clay County jail as the pivot point of the volume. The letters, revelation, and other documents that came out of the jailhouse dungeon are among the most moving in the entire Joseph Smith corpus: heartfelt letters to his wife Emma, epistles to the refugee Saints, and revelatory insights on the meaning of suffering (Doctrine and Covenants 121–123). When it was time to write the volume introduction, we emphasized the importance of Joseph’s jail experience. 

After we sent the book out for preliminary review, feedback came from Stephen J. Stein, one of the reviewers on the project’s National Advisory Board. Stein, professor emeritus of Indiana University, is an eminent scholar of the Shakers and of alternative religions in America generally. One thing he wrote especially stood out to me. He commented on how remarkable it was that Joseph Smith had been able to hold the church together during the expulsion from Missouri. Some Saints left the main body of the church and their former faith, but most of the Saints stayed together and stuck it out. In part, this was due to the leadership Joseph exercised even from within the confines of the jail, including through the letters he wrote. When we’re involved in the methodical and painstaking daily grind of documentary editing, sometimes we fail to see the larger picture. Stein’s observation helped us see part of the forest through the trees and was incorporated into the volume’s introduction.

This is just one example of the many kinds of cooperation we experience working with Joseph Smith’s papers. Those associated with the project fill many different roles: transcribers, historians, editors, reviewers, and more. The collective enterprise of scholarly cooperation often yields more than any one person can accomplish on their own. Joseph Smith’s papers are worth that kind of effort.