The documents to be published in The Joseph Smith Papers reveal a man of considerable accomplishment. As noted by Dean C. Jessee, a Church historian who has extensively studied Smith’s life, Joseph Smith’s papers are extraordinarily voluminous for a person who did not consider himself a writer and who had only a modest education and no literary aspirations.
The diversity and expansiveness of this documentary collection stem from Smith’s extensive leadership in religious and civic roles, Jessee notes. Smith was a translator, revelator, church president, city builder, mayor, city council member, judge, militia leader and presidential candidate. His papers, Jessee said, reflect all those roles and provide essential resources for the study of Joseph Smith’s life and times.
Jessee’s studies have led him to conclude that “of all the American visionaries of his time, Smith had the most lasting impact.” In Joseph Smith’s lifetime, Mormonism attracted tens of thousands of converts in the United States and Great Britain. Following his death and the Church’s exodus to the West, Latter-day Saints settled hundreds of communities in the desolate regions of the Great Basin.
Two centuries after Smith’s birth, the movement he founded has millions of members in over 150 countries, is recognized as a major feature on the American religious landscape, and is increasingly significant globally. Sociologist of religion Rodney Stark said that Mormonism affords the rare opportunity to study the origins of a world religion. The Joseph Smith Papers give access to those beginnings.
Of all the pages of Joseph Smith’s journals, which number about 1,500 pages, only about 36 of them have his handwriting on them. He depended upon more than a dozen scribes and clerks to help him in the writing. Jessee notes, “You have different levels of Joseph Smith’s personality showing through in the journal, and it’s helpful to distinguish where the one leaves off and the other begins so you can get a little picture of his personality.”
The various writings show that Smith did not consider himself above those he communicated with and that on occasion he would call attention to his own weaknesses or perceived weaknesses. For example, in a letter dated 4 September 1833 to Vienna Jacques, he stated he wanted to send her a few words if she would be willing to receive them “from your unworthy brother in Christ.” He concluded his letter in a similar fashion, stating, “I must bid you farewell and subscribe myself your unworthy brother in Christ amen.”
Joseph Smith appreciated his many friends, including his scribes. In his journal entry dated 22 December 1835, while discussing an address he gave to Church members earlier that evening, he wrote, “The Lord blessed my Soul, my scribe also is unwell O my God heal him and for his kindness to me O my soul be thou greatful to him and bless him and he shall be bless of God forever I believe him to be a faithful friend to me therefore my soul delighteth in him Amen.”
“I think he hesitated to do much writing himself,” Jessee said. “He didn’t have a lot of formal schooling, very little. And he felt kind of out of his element to write himself and that’s why he depended so much on scribes. But when you look at his handwriting, I think it stacks up quite well with a lot of people of his time.”
Richard L. Jensen, review editor for the Joseph Smith Papers Project, said: “As we deal with this written material, we realize that Joseph Smith was more comfortable with delivering things orally. He was quite fluent with the spoken word. His journal entries become more voluminous as he’s dictating than they are when he’s writing things down in his own hand.”
In the journals a picture of Joseph Smith’s passion for his calling and the people is evident. “Joseph Smith comes across to me as someone who is emotionally intense, very much invested in what he is doing. He is very concerned with harmony and unity. He agonizes over disunity, and this is something very troubling to him,” Jensen said.
Mark Ashurst-McGee, co-editor of the first and third volumes of the Journals series, explained that the scribes give insights into Smith’s personality that Smith’s own writings do not. “For example, when it’s recorded that he breaks up a fight in Nauvoo when he’s the mayor and he says, ‘Nobody’s allowed to fight in this city except the mayor,’ that’s a side of Joseph Smith you don’t get in his own handwriting or in his oral dictation."
Ashurst-McGee adds, “If you really want to study Joseph Smith, whether you’re a Latter-day Saint or an interested scholar, then you need his papers so you can start to understand what he was doing, what he was working on, what he believed in, and to see his sincerity and all his genuine efforts.”