PROVO — An endorsement of a historic document project could put top-tier research on LDS Church founder Joseph Smith in a league with work on other notable Americans, such as Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln.
The National Historical Publications and Records Commission, a division of the National Archives, has endorsed an ongoing project sponsored by the Joseph F. Smith Institute at Brigham Young University. In conjunction with the archives of the LDS Church, the institute is compiling more than 5,000 documents pertinent to Smith, including personal correspondence, legal documents and revelations the early LDS Church leader recorded.
The completed project will not be traditionally published or available through the National Archives, according to the Smith Institute, but the accreditation will ensure the research is conducted with a high level of scholarly professionalism.
However, upon completion the compiled documents will be available in libraries, homes and on a Web site that will launch in 2005.
"Serious historians always have to go to primary sources, and this will make (research on Joseph Smith) accessible worldwide," said Kay Darowski, research and documentary editor of the project. "They won't have to go to a secondary source; they can go to the primary document to get their information. That's invaluable to have it more accessible and to not have to go to a repository."
According to Darowski, an endorsement by the commission is akin to getting a stamp of credibility from the watchdogs of standards in the documentary-editing field. The commission meets twice a year to discuss approval and review the lengthy applications they receive.
When deciding what research projects to endorse, the commission considers, among other things, the consistency of documentation, methodology in gathering information, qualifications of those involved in the research and the significance of the individual in American history.
Darowski submitted the 166-page application and cited statistics to support an argument that Smith is an important figure in American history. The application also noted the growth of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
According to an annual report compiled by the National Council of Churches, the LDS Church ranks as the fifth-largest denomination in the United States.
"The interest in Mormonism is a result of the dramatic increase of the church, and the church's effort to be in contact with the religious community," said Brian Birch, director of religious studies at Utah Valley State College. "I think the place of Joseph Smith has been more recognized and more carefully studied as a result of the dramatic growth of the church in the world and in the United States."
The Smith institute received the accreditation in May, but the project has been under way since the early '90s, and it may take years until it is completed.
Among the documents obtained are journal entries made by Smith, and incoming and outgoing correspondence with the First Presidency at the time.
Documents included in the project are strictly checked for forgery. Anything that cannot be verified as authentic is not used.
The documents will be compiled into volumes. For example, researchers plan to compile a financial series that will include Smith's business records and transactions. There also will be a legal series, with records from some of Smith's court cases. Darowski said they may even produce a volume of correspondence, made up of letters written by Smith and his wife, Emma.
Most importantly, Darowski said, the project will provide solid, credible resources for those seeking information about Smith.
"They'll be able to get a more accurate portrait of him, and it will be from his own pen or from the pen of one of his scribes," Darowski said, "not from a historian writing with his or her own agenda."