We were very pleased to attend an invitation-only press conference on Tuesday, Aug 4th, announcing the publication of the latest volume of the Joseph Smith Papers: Revelations and Translations, Volume 3: Printer’s Manuscript of the Book of Mormon (in two parts). The short event was well-publicized and included a very significant announcement.
We heard first from church historian Elder Steven Snow. The blockbuster announcement he made was that images of the seerstone used by Joseph Smith to translate the Book of Mormon would be published for the first time (see pp. xx-xxi of part 1). He added that images would be displayed at the new historic site at Harmony, PA, to be dedicated on Sep 19th by Elder Russell M. Nelson. These images will also be included in a display at the remodeled Museum of Church History and Art reopening later this fall. He also announced that an article looking at Joseph Smith as seer—written by Richard Turley, Robin Jensen and Mark Ashurst-McGee—would appear in the October issue of the Ensign (to read the article early, visit www.lds.org/ensign/2015/10/joseph-the-seer).
Elder Snow cited the publication of this volume as one of the best, most recent examples of cooperation between the LDS Church and the Community of Christ and noted the “common restoration paths.” He recognized the groundwork laid by earlier generations of historians and archivists that has gone on for many decades back to the 1970s. Acknowledging a debt to these pioneers, he also recognized the efforts of current Community of Christ historians such as Ron Romig, Lachlan Mackay and Mark Scherer, referring to them as “colleagues and friends.” Snow thanked them for being “careful stewards of the manuscripts” and noted that LDS employees have helped with “some conservation” along the way. In closing, he noted that both the Community of Christ and the LDS Church are trying to be more open in sharing their collections and acknowledged that the “Internet brings both challenges and opportunities.”
Next we heard from President Robin Linkhart, Community of Christ President of Seventy and Missionary Coordinator for the western US. On behalf of the Community of Christ, she expressed “deep appreciation for your acknowledgment of our role in the Joseph Smith Papers Project.” Referring to the forthcoming online publication of images of the printer’s manuscript, she noted that this will “graciously afford for study without barrier to anyone.” She then gave a brief overview of LDS-Community of Christ historian relationships beginning with the pioneering work of Richard Howard and Earl Olson. Crucially, in 1968, Robert Matthews was granted access to Joseph Smith Bible revision manuscripts in the RLDS archives in Independence. In the 1970s, Leonard Arrington and Richard Howard gradually strengthened this relationship, leading to a formal agreement to exchange microfilms of documents in 1974. In 1988, Richard Howard received permission from RLDS leaders to allow Royal Skousen access to the printer’s manuscript and for Nevin Skousen (Royal’s brother) to photograph the manuscript in color. In closing, she noted the Community of Christ commitment to solid history that assists in their “identity formation.”
Following the conference, we chatted with several JSP staff members. Matthew Grow (a general editor) agreed that photos of the seerstone—in addition to being important in their own right—were significant as a symbol of the Church History Department’s goal to be transparent and further the production of candid, scholarly history. Robin Jensen (co-editor of this volume) discussed the slightly different goals of the current edition of the printer’s manuscript and Royal Skousen’s critical text project, noting that Skousen’s edition was focused on producing a text while the JSP treatment is in the vein of documentary editing. As such, the latter is a bit more conservative and will represent more characters with a diamond shape indicating the editors are unsure what letter was intended. Robin also commented on the provenance of the seerstone from Joseph Smith until it was reacquired by the church from Zina Young Card. She purchased it from Brigham Young’s estate, feeling that it did not belong in private hands. She then donated it to the church in 1896, wishing it to remain in the archives of the church from that point forward. We talked about 19th Century attitudes toward artifacts/books, etc.—because they were so close to the events, people often did not realize the significance of things in their possession. Finally, we talked to Riley Lorimer who was the lead editor for this volume. She talked about the painstaking care required to typeset this volume. She and Robin Jensen spent numerous hours reading the manuscript aloud to one another to ensure accuracy.
The printer’s manuscript is beautifully presented in this volume (published in two parts). As a “facsimile edition,” a high-resolution scan of the original is presented on the left side with the transcription (color-coded to show the different scribes) on the right. Brief annotation in the margin tracks changes in the text in editions of the Book of Mormon published during Joseph Smith’s life as well as explaining typesetting marks. The manuscript is readable throughout (thanks to the state of preservation of the pages as well as the large-size reproduction) and fascinating to peruse. The obvious care involved in identifying scribal handwriting is also quite intriguing—particularly that of “Scribe 2.” Despite comparing handwriting with multiple possibilities, this particular hand remains a mystery.
Certainly the most audible reaction to the publication of this volume has involved the seerstone photos. The four high-quality photos of the stone (and bag—thought to be Emma’s handiwork) represent a willingness to discuss the role of seerstones generally and specifically in the translation of the Book of Mormon. Despite scattered “official” mentions of the use of a seerstone in translating, it is safe to say that the average Mormon is not aware of this aspect of history. Drawing on Mark Ashurst-McGee’s research, the editors conclude that “for much of the translation, though, Joseph Smith used a different instrument: a seer stone.” They acknowledge that “Joseph Smith owned more than one seer stone, though evidence generally points to the brown seer stone as the one used in translation.” As has been the case throughout the project, the conclusions of the editors are candid, concise and well-documented. The books themselves are of the same high caliber—well-bound and beautifully designed, they are a fitting presentation of groundbreaking and officially approved research.