On September 19, a team of editors introduced the latest volume from the Joseph Smith Papers Project to a small group of scholars and bloggers gathered both in person and via skype. I readily agreed to participate when invited because of the excitement surrounding this particular volume. The first and only volume in the Project’s Administrative Series, it makes available the complete 1844-1846 record of the Council of Fifty, a secretive religio-political organization founded by Joseph Smith just months before his June 1844 death. The editors informed me that they wanted a representative from The Junto to attend because they anticipate that the volume’s content will be of interest to many early Americanists.
The Council’s minutes, shrouded in mystery and kept locked away in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ archives for more than a century, have been the subject of much speculation over the years and are now available to researchers for the first time. And historians are already plumbing their contents to great effect. Our own Ben Park recently published an essay at Religion & Politics describing how they speak to the “disillusionment” many Americans in the 1830s and 1830 felt toward “the American democratic experiment:”
The Mormon experience in the 1830s and 1840s demonstrates that the radical extensions of the majority’s rule has a significant and sobering context, and the Council of Fifty presented only one radical response. In an irony befitting for our national history, Joseph Smith’s theocratic vision proved to be an important moment in America’s democratic experiment.
I don’t know that I have much to add to what Ben’s written, and encourage anyone interested to read his piece in full (and to anticipate with excitement the larger project of which that essay is only a preview). Instead, I thought I’d briefly describe the event hosted by the JSP team and then reflect on the experience. The folks at the Joseph Smith Papers have held events of this sort since the release of the very first volume eight years ago. Seeking to take advantage of the well-established Mormon blogosphere, they use the events to both advertise and introduce each volume’s contents and to discuss its import. Invitees are provided with a complimentary copy of the volume in advance, and asked to briefly write about it at their blog or another media outlet. At the event, volume editors take turns previewing what they each regard as the book’s most important contents and features: For this particular volume, the editors not only laid out how the minutes speak to questions of religious freedom and the complicated intersections of church and state in antebellum America, they also rehearsed the provenance of the documents, and shared some of the original manuscripts for attendees to see. A brief Q&A followed, in which those in attendance asked follow-up questions about specific parts of the volume’s contents, future plans for publication of related documents, and the like.
The idea behind the meetings is both to sell more copies of each volume and to allow the scholar-editors who have devoted several recent years of their lives to the book to share with others what they’ve learned and to describe why its contents are interesting and/or useful to researchers. This strikes me as a quite useful idea other documentary editing “Papers” Projects might consider adopting. It allows the documentary editors and historians to more directly engage with the larger historical community, to share the specific importance of particular volumes, and (potentially) to sell a few extra copies and expand the audience of these important (and often unheralded) projects.