Tonight KJZZ featured an hour long documentary on the Joseph Smith Papers Project. It was billed as a television foreward.
The first 15-20 minutes of the documentary consisted largely of devotional material such as a series of interviews with LDS Church conference goers about how they felt about Joseph Smith. We then proceeded to some discussion of past (and ongoing) efforts to compile and edit the papers of prominent Americans such as presidents and founding fathers. The program proceeded to recount some of the standard information about the genesis of the project in Dean Jessee’s efforts to compile Joseph Smith’s papers. What was supposed to have been a 9 volume effort was recognized as more than one man could accomplish. Soon after the idea gained support from the Church. At this point, it was explained that the next stage of the project occured when Larry H. Miller attended a lecture by Ron Barney on Joseph Smith. Miller was stirred and set up an appointment with Barney, but was unable to come to a determination as to why he was there. Both discussed a few programs that prominent historians were working on, but none struck them. Later, the connection was made that brought Miller in as the major funding force behind the project.
Elder Marlin Jensen, Church Historian and Recorder said that he agreed with Harold Bloom that Joseph Smith was one of the least studied geniuses of our time.
The documentary cameras followed Ron Esplin, one of the general editors, home and onto the Trax on the way to work in Salt Lake. On the trax, Esplin explained that the vision was of a shelf of books, about 30 volumes, and a living website. He said that the books would be good for a generation or two, but the website was meant to be living and capable of updates that would enable the addition of documents and an expansion of knowledge of already published documents. When asked if there were things in the documents that “we don’t want to know about”, Esplin answered that when you get into real history, you have to adjust your expectations, the ritualized version we tell each other is too condensed and doesn’t get into rich detail. At that level of detail, it’s fascinating. There’s nothing we’ve found to be afraid of.
When asked, What do you hope it does for the membership and the outside world? He answered, I hope we finally come to terms with our documentary record in a comprehensive way. We don’t even have a list of the documents much less an understanding of the record. It’s past due. Question: Will the complete JS Papers make it more dificult for enemies of the Church to do what they do? Esplin said, in essence, today you can get by with some shoddy scholarship because it’s hard to get into the record, but scholars will be held to a higher standard.
One of the highlights of the documentary was the myriad shots of the scholars with the actual documents they were working on. Mark Ashurst-McGee and Robin Jensen were shown with some of the revelation books and diaries.
Mark Ashurst McGee is working on the three volume series of the diaries of Joseph Smith.
Sharalyn Howcroft, documents specialist for the legal series, discussed how though many aspects of Joseph Smith’s life have been touched upon, one of the least researched areas has been his legal history. Esplin related that it was previously thought that Joseph Smith was involved in about 30 legal cases. Now we know that there were over 200 cases where he was involved in some way in the proceedings.
There will be a volume on authorized histories of Joseph Smith, one of which was written by John Corrill.
The JSP is getting high marks from national boards of documentary editors.
One segment showed how the use of UV light shed new light [no pun intended] on the writings of Joseph Smith. One piece of writing of Joseph Smith says, “Lord, spare thou the life of thy servant, amen.” Looking under the UV light, you can see that under the word “the” was written “me”, so he first wrote, “Lord, spare me (then “thou” over “me”).
Elder Marlin Jensen, Church Historian and Recorder said that Pres. Hinckley has said that all that we have is a lengthened shadow of Joseph Smith. “I want to be careful to stress that Joseph Smith himself would have viewed himself as a means to an end, not the end himself.”
The last 15-20 minutes were largely devotional in nature as well with shots of the scholars expressing testimonials of the character of Joseph Smith. Apparently starting in January there will be a weekly series of about 50 documentaries that will talk about not only advancements with the project, but segments of many of the editors and other Mormon history scholars at significant Church sites explaining their convictions about the Prophet Joseph. The final quote was from Harold Bloom about how Joseph Smith, “remains the least-studied personage, of an undiminished vitality, in our entire national saga.” ( The American Religion: The Emergence of a Post-Christian Nation, [New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992], 95.)
A few comments. I thought that one of the strengths of the documentary was that a good number of scholars were featured on film. Many who have not had the opportunity of visiting scholarly conferences have had no exposure to the authors who have shaped Mormon history. Milton Bachman, Richard Bushman, Ron Esplin, Ron Barney, and many others were shown and in many cases with the documents they were working on, which was also a positive feature. I feel the documentary’s presentation and editing was somewhat poor as documentaries go. “The Mormons” was certainly better presented, even Groberg’s “American Prophet” was better produced. I was somewhat turned off as well by the narrator.
Oh, I almost forgot. Toward the end, Ron Esplin put three spiral bound volumes on his desk and mentioned that there were the first three volumes and that they expected to, “with some luck” publish them and perhaps a fourth, next year. They did mention that three were expected per year thereafter. I, for one, will be praying for their efforts!