One reads in the Gospel of Matthew that the difference between a true prophet and a false prophet can be known by a careful inspection of the fruits that the prophet-under-examination has produced (Cf. Matthew 7:17-20). Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon Church) claim that because the Book of Mormon is a fruit of Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon can lead a person to know whether or not Joseph Smith is a Prophet of God. But trees do not only grow one piece of fruit; they grow many. Hence, prophets do not produce a single piece of fruit either. So, why should the only fruit used to determine whether or not Joseph Smith is a Prophet be limited to the Book of Mormon? Indeed, why not look at every document known to originate from the man some have called Prophet, some Brother, and others Impostor?
“The goal of the Joseph Smith Papers Project,” the General Introduction of The Joseph Smith Papers reads, “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” (Bushman and Jessee, Journals 1: xv). These papers will eventually fill over thirty volumes and are divided into six categories. One of these categories is called Revelations and Translations and, when published, will include the Book of Mormon manuscript and what is now known as the Doctrine and Covenants among others. The other five categories are Journals, Documents, History, Legal and Business Records, and Administrative Records.
While the Project is published by The Church Historian’s Press, which is an imprint of the Church History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the General Editors claim that the Project will not be biased. They say in the Preface that they have “sought to present Smith’s papers as accurately and completely as possible.” They have therefore “gathered every known Joseph Smith document, verified each transcript at least three times, and provided extensive annotation on the historical context. The documents shed light on many dimensions of Smith’s life and personality, his strengths and weaknesses, and the successes and failures of the movement he led.”
The Editors continue,
Of the thousands of items in the Joseph Smith papers, his revelations are among the most significant and contested. According to his own account, the revelations came in a number of forms: visions, inspired words in the voice of God, what he called ‘translations,’ and impressions of the Holy Ghost. Although the revelations have religious meaning to us as Latter-day Saints, we present them in these volumes without comment on their ultimate source. In the tradition of documentary editing, our aim is simply to reproduce the documents and their historical setting so far as we can reconstruct it.
To assure balance and rigorous scholarly standards, we have consulted a national advisory board of distinguished scholars. With their guidance, we have sought to produce volumes on which scholars and Latter-day Saints can rely for accurate information (v).
The Project is further endorsed by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), an organization which “promotes the preservation and use of America’s documentary heritage essential to understanding our democracy, history, and culture” (http://www.archives.gov/nhprc/).
The Papers Project will apparently speak for itself. It will allow a person to study the life and character of Joseph Smith from primary sources. The Joseph Smith Papers Project, then, is an ideal—and perhaps the ideal—way for one to learn not just about Joseph Smith, but whether the Church he organized “[is] of God” (John 7:17) or otherwise.
Next article in the Joseph Smith Papers series: Journals, Volume 1