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Historians create visionary project

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About 30 years after he began his work on Joseph Smith's papers, Dean C. Jessee was asked to go home and rethink the project.

The request, however, was far from critical.

Instead, Jessee's colleagues were trying to give his project the attention and resources they felt it deserved. Jessee delivered on his assignment, and today the Joseph Smith Papers is in a place its founder never could have imagined.

"It was a good thing that we did, because it wouldn't have been nearly what it is now if it hadn't been (for) that change," Jessee said.

What was once a one-man operation in the old Church Historian's Office has evolved into a large-scale effort that Elder Marlin K. Jensen, current historian of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, called "the single most significant historical project of our generation." In the 1960s, Jessee pioneered the work of collecting, transcribing and publishing documents created by the LDS Church's founder. Now retired but still active in the work, he is witness to an ambitious project with the talent and resources to occupy an enviable position in the scholarly world.

"It is marvelous to say the least," Jessee said. "I can't flower up the language enough.... I had never conceived it would be the way that it is now."

THE JOSEPH SMITH PAPERS is a documentary editing project that over the next 20 years will publish 30 volumes of documents produced by the Prophet and his scribes or owned by his office, including journal entries, recorded revelations and discourses, correspondence, meeting minutes, and business and legal records. Approximately 2,000 documents will be included, along with annotations and visual aids. Each volume will be 500 to 700 pages long. But in a sense, the whole project began with a series of articles written by Jessee.

After obtaining a position with the church archives in 1964, Jessee, who studied church history at Brigham Young University, was asked by Truman G. Madsen to contribute to the scholarly publication BYU Studies by writing about Joseph Smith and early Mormon history. The assignment "reinforced in (me) a desire to understand and publish the documentary record of Joseph Smith," Jessee writes in an article called "Joseph Smith and His Papers: An Editorial View."

After eight years of working with manuscripts in the church archives, Jessee was approached by newly appointed Church Historian Leonard J. Arrington about joining the newly created history division.

"He apparently saw (the BYU Studies articles) and thought that I might know something," Jessee said.Arrington was assembling a team of historians with the goal of filling the void of information about church history. Joining Jessee were Ronald Esplin, now managing editor of the Joseph Smith Papers, and Richard Jensen, who is currently a research and review editor for the project.

"That was our charge — to write for the church and also for the scholarly community," Jessee said. "(Arrington) had a vision for some projects that would be important for church history."

Jessee, who had previously researched accounts of the First Vision along with one of Joseph Smith's early journals, undertook a project to produce a volume of the Prophet's writings "created by his own mind and his own pen," he said.

As Jessee went forward, he was inspired by various projects that were expanding the field of documentary editing, beginning with Julian Boyd's work on the Thomas Jefferson Papers in the 1950s — which Jessee said "set a standard for documentary editing" — and continuing with other projects on the Founding Fathers.

According to Esplin, Jessee thought the same methods could be applied to the founder of the LDS Church.

"(Those were) the kinds of things that mattered to him and that we ought to one day be able to do," Esplin said. "From the early '70s on, he has been on the task of trying to get his arms around Joseph Smith."

IN 1984, JESSEE PUBLISHED his first volume, called "The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith." The decade-long project was painstaking. Jessee was required to locate and transcribe the documents, a long process that meant some travel to repositories and a lot of typing. He also had to answer difficult questions, like whether he should leave the spelling as it appeared or "give Joseph a degree in English," he said. Using the Thomas Jefferson Papers' editorial procedure as a model, Jessee created a style guide for Joseph Smith's papers.

By the time the first volume was finished, Arrington, Jessee and Esplin had been transferred to BYU and became part of the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History. Following Arrington's retirement in 1986, Esplin took over as director. Under his watch, documentary projects, particularly Jessee's work on Joseph Smith, became one of the institute's "strategic pillars."

"With our encouragement, with some funding , with some student help and Dean's single-handed effort, he began to realize the dream he'd had for a couple of decades," Esplin said.

Jessee's initial plan was to produce nine or 10 total volumes, The second and third were published in 1989 and 1992, respectively, but as the project progressed toward the turn of the century, the idea of expanding the effort began to take hold.

"In the late '90s it became clear that there was a possibility of doing a little bit more than that and that it wasn't a one-man project," Esplin said.

By 2000, a board of scholars had been assembled to provide direction for the project, and by the end of the year the group was considering expanding its scope. Esplin addressed the issue with his staff and asked for Jessee's input.

"He came back a few days later with a new structure and a greatly expanded plan that's the basis of what we're doing today," Esplin said.

The new objectives were to divide the volumes into series, making them more comprehensive and employing a team of scholars that would produce a couple dozen volumes.

Looking ahead to the soon-to-be-published first volume, which will hit the shelves in December, Jessee can appreciate the care that's gone into the new product — whether it's the enhanced annotations or the acid-free paper they'll be printed on. He calls the work a "monument to Joseph Smith.

"I think it deserves the very best shot we can give it," said Jessee, who retired from BYU in 2000 but continues to serve as a general editor on the project to this day. "Back early on, I can see now that the quality of that work would not be what it is had it been published earlier. We wouldn't have had the fine quality that we have now."

THE TEAM EFFORT, HOWEVER, didn't materialize without some help, and it required the assistance of a well-known owner of another team to move the project forward. "If it was going to get done, we needed more resources," Esplin said.

In March 2001, he found himself in a meeting with Utah Jazz owner Larry H. Miller with the intention of "see(ing) if we could interest him in helping us expand the base."

Miller came into the meeting already familiar with Jessee's work and, according to Esplin, "had an idea that he maybe had a role to play in this."

By the end of the evening, one of Utah's most prominent businessmen was asking Esplin how he could help. When he was informed that the project had yet to receive official church approval, the man who purchased the Jazz and built the Delta Center chuckled and said, "Well, I know a little bit about risk," according to Esplin.

A month later, the LDS Church authorized the project as a joint effort between the Smith institute and the church archives. When the Smith institute disbanded in 2005, the Joseph Smith Papers relocated to Salt Lake City and now operates under the Church History Department.

Miller's assistance and the church's approval are high on the list of favorable conditions that allowed the project to become what it is today. About a dozen full-time scholars work on the Joseph Smith Papers, and only a "handful" are employed by the church, Esplin said. "All the rest are supported by the endowment that Larry and Gail (Miller) have provided."

The resources have allowed the one-time one-man operation to become a "massive project," according to Robin Jensen, who works as a volume editor.

"It's well beyond what most documentary editing projects are," Jensen said.

The Millers' generosity also puts Esplin in an enviable position with respect to his contemporaries.

"I don't spend my life fund-raising," Esplin said. "And most of my counterparts ... have to spend a major part of their time raising funds. It's just the nature of the beast.

"We have the resources to do a quality job."

With complete access to the church archives, Esplin estimates that approximately 90 percent of the documents the scholars need are right at their disposal.

"Most of it is here," Esplin said. "We don't have to go all over the world."

About 6 percent of the records, mainly legal documents, are scattered throughout the country, while the remaining 4 percent are owned by the Community of Christ, formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has granted the project access to its documents.

Both Esplin and Jessee agree that the project has been fortuitous in finding the right personnel. Esplin describes the scholars as energetic and imaginative, and said that the right individuals seem to "drop into our laps." Jessee said he couldn't have envisioned such a talented staff when he was going about the project alone.

"It seems like each person has been prepared in the pre-existence to come in here just for this particular task," he said with a smile. "These people are very good at what they're doing."

According to Jeffrey G. Cannon, a document specialist, the scholars are detail-oriented people whose conscientious approach benefits the end product.

"These are people who care about the jots and tittles of church history," he said.

Richard Lyman Bushman, author of the acclaimed Joseph Smith biography "Rough Stone Rolling," serves with Esplin and Jessee as general editors. Jessee praised Bushman's knowledge of U.S. history and ability to put the Prophet's life in historical context.

"That's the value of having his insight there," Jessee said.

The project's founder also had plenty of praise for Esplin, who supported his research early on and is now "doing all the heavy work," Jessee said.

"To find a man of that talent and that skill, not only in the mechanics of documentary editing but also as a person who can lead a group of people of this nature — historians are a bunch of hard-nosed people — he's able to take them and mold them into a unit that is marvelous."

Email: ashill@desnews.com