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Miller funding Joseph Smith project

26 volumes are planned about life of LDS leader

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Larry H. Miller talks to the LDS International Society Monday about the Joseph Smith Papers Project, aimed at boosting worldwide exposure of the LDS leader.

Larry H. Miller talks to the LDS International Society Monday about the Joseph Smith Papers Project, aimed at boosting worldwide exposure of the LDS leader.

Stuart Johnson, Deseret Morning News

PROVO — One of Utah Jazz owner Larry H. Miller's favorite LDS hymns is "Praise to the Man" because of the line, "Millions shall know Brother Joseph again."

Miller likes it so much he is bankrolling a project to boost the worldwide exposure of Joseph Smith, who —175 years ago tomorrow — founded The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The Joseph Smith Papers Project is expected to produce 26 volumes stuffed with more than 5,000 documents related to Smith, including journals, diaries, correspondence, discourses, written history and legal cases.

The first three volumes of the project are due out next year, Miller and Brigham Young University church history professor Ron Esplin said Monday during a presentation at the annual conference of the LDS International Society.

The society is a worldwide network of LDS Church members. Esplin asked for their help to place sets of the Joseph Smith Papers in libraries and with scholars.

"When Dean Jessee published 'The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith' in 1984, I made a statement that no longer could scholars write about Joseph Smith without using his own papers," Esplin said. "It wouldn't be credible research. It turns out the book is not in libraries or on the shelves of scholars. Scholars still weren't forced to confront this."

Esplin said the Joseph Smith Papers Project will change the landscape of scholarship on Smith, allowing historians to access original documents by going to the set of volumes or to a Web site.

The project earned a major stamp of scholarly approval last year when it was endorsed by a division of the National Archives, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.

Miller stepped in to help in 2001, when the project was expected to be nine volumes.

"I was surprised how modest the amount of money was they asked for," Miller said of early meetings with project organizers. "I told them, first, you did not ask for enough money, and second, you need to do more."

Esplin praised Miller during his lecture but said afterward that Miller is humble about his involvement. The acknowledgements at the front of the first volumes have just one line thanking Miller and his wife Gail for their contributions, the amount of which are undisclosed.

The Family and Church History Department of the church and BYU's Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History haver provided space, resources and manpower, but funding comes from the Millers. That money has purchased technology and additional manpower.

"This simply could not be done without the resources the Millers have provided," Esplin said. "With their help we can do more, do it quicker and do it better. We could not do it on this scale or with this richness without their help."

Miller's chief role, he said, is to accelerate the project. In addition to funding, he has contributed the same hard-nosed, bottom-line business sense that made it possible for him to build a car-sales empire, preserve the Jazz franchise and finance the Delta Center.

For one thing, he has pushed the editors to complete the project by 2015.

"I suggested we try to finish while Dean Jessee is still around," Miller said.

Jessee, in his early 70s, is the project's general editor.

Miller is also the financial backer of a historical fiction film about the founding of the church, "The Work and the Glory." He announced last week he will fund two sequels based on a series of books by the same name.

Along with a symposium planned next month at the Library of Congress — "The Worlds of Joseph Smith" — scholars see an increased interest in the founder of the LDS Church.

Miller, of course, welcomes the interest, although he knows some are nervous about the scrutiny of the man church members revere as a prophet who claimed to see God and Jesus Christ.

"Joseph can and will stand up to any degree of scrutiny he's put under," Miller said. "I haven't read as much as these scholars, but the more I read, it's clear the more we know and understand him the clearer it will become that he was who he said he was."

One scholar who anonymously reviewed plans for the Smith Papers project wrote, "Joseph Smith continues to be an enigma to many, and it's time we get to know him better."

That's music to the ears of Miller, who said he particularly enjoyed a new arrangement of "Praise to the Man" during general conference last weekend. The treatment emphasized the line "Millions shall know Brother Joseph again."

"The arrangement had the choir sing that line three times," Miller said. "That made my day."

E-mail: twalch@desnews.com