SALT LAKE CITY -- Anyone wanting a look into the mind of Joseph Smith Jr. and other early leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will now have an easy way of doing that.
The church Wednesday announced the release of what was always meant to be the first volume published of its Joseph Smith Papers Project documents series that contains texts dating back to the earliest efforts and revelations of Smith and other church leaders called to help him.
Ronald Esplin, managing editor of The Joseph Smith Papers project and the former director of the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saints History at Brigham Young University, said the documents in the project are allowing people to become -- through their reading -- eye witnesses to the period in history they cover.
"People come away and say 'I thought I knew that history. I did not know,'" he said.
This volume released Wednesday is called volume one even though it was published eighth in a series of other books. This volume took more than a decade to compile and research, historians said, because of the complications in identifying the chronology of various documents.
The overall project was created by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to make publicly available every document produced by Church founder Joseph Smith or by his scribes. The first volume of the project was published in 2008.
"This new Documents series will publish, in chronological order, all the early historical documents associated with the Restoration of the Church," said Elder Steven E. Snow, Church historian and recorder. "Together, these texts provide unparalleled insight into the life and prophetic thought of Joseph Smith, one of the most important figures in American religious history."
The 640-page book released Wednesday, Documents, Volume 1: July 1828-June 1831, features Joseph Smith's earliest surviving papers, including more than 60 of his revelations, most of which were later canonized in the Doctrine and Covenants, said to information released by the church.
Also included are letters he sent and received, minutes of meetings he participated in, and other documents.
This volume covers a foundational period of Mormon history, when Joseph Smith translated and published the Book of Mormon and organized the Church. Documents, Volume 1 will arrive in bookstores within the next few weeks.
Snow said the documents in volume 1 help people to understand how revelation works.
"There is a perception that Joseph Smith walked out of the grove with instructions on how to run the church," Snow said. "That didn't happen."
Snow said he believes by reading the documents, people will understand Joseph Smith better.
"I think in he future, it will be impossible to write about Joseph Smith without using these documents," Snow said.
"(These documents) caused people to act and to become agents and to follow a prophet," said Reid L. Neilson, Managing Director of the Church History Department.
Richard E. Turley Jr., assistant Church historian and recorder, said the documents in the series provide a candid look at Joseph Smith.
"This set of documents allows you to see, without any intervening filter, what Joseph Smith produced," Turley said. "It's an excellent way to understand Joseph Smith and his life, because it gives you the pertinent documents, and it gives them to you in a chronological order, so you can see what comes before and after."
William Hartley, a former association professor in the department of history at Brigham Young University and an editor of Volume 1, said he believes church members and non-members who are troubled by what they've heard about church history can find answers through reading original documents.
"History doesn't convert and it doesn't de-convert," he said. "It's the set of the sail that determines what history does to a person. It's how a person looks at it."
Historians and advisers for the Papers project have collected thousands of documents related to the life and work of Joseph Smith. Due to the limitations of printing, not all of the available documents will be included in the books, but all materials will be available for free on the project's website, josephsmithpapers.org.
The website provides digital images of the original documents side-by-side with detailed transcriptions, providing easy access for anyone from scholarly researchers to casual history buffs.
Some of the fragile, 19th-century documents have never before been available to the public, while others were available only in various archives and libraries around the world, said church released information.
Kenneth Minkema, director of the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale Divinity School, has said that the Joseph Smith Papers "will rank among the most significant projects in the history of American religion."
Volume 2 is scheduled for release in early December and includes documents from July 1831 through January 1833.
As researchers have combed through the documents, new information has emerged about the life of Joseph Smith and the early years of the Church.
The Papers project has been endorsed by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, a division of the National Archives.
The commission approves qualified documentary editing projects, including collections of the papers and writings of George Washington, Thomas Visit josephsmithpapers.org for more information about the project.
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