SALT LAKE CITY — Dean C. Jessee can remember a time in his career when gaining access to early LDS Church documents such as "The Book of the Law of the Lord" seemed harder than "breaking into Fort Knox."
Several decades ago, certain documents could only be viewed in certain offices, with a supervisor peering over the researcher's shoulder. Sometimes the researcher's notes had to be reviewed, said Jessee, a founder of the Joseph Smith Papers and member of the National Advisory Board.
"It was like getting the key to the atomic bomb," Jessee said. "It was a real challenge."
A significant amount of documents were uploaded to the Joseph Smith Papers website this week, including the last installment of Joseph Smith’s journals and complete footnotes for his multivolume manuscript history.
Other new content added to the website includes about 150 documents — letters, discourses, Nauvoo City Council minutes, land deeds and other various items — from the Nauvoo era, along with links to primary source material for B.H. Robert's "History of the Church."
Finishing these projects not only marks a milestone for the Joseph Smith Papers project, but it's meaningful for the 87-year-old Jessee, who began working with Joseph Smith's documents in 1972. Jessee oversaw the publication of early versions of Joseph's journals ("Personal Writings of Joseph Smith", first edition in 1984 and a revised edition in 2002; and "The Papers of Joseph Smith, Vol. I and II", 1989 and 1992) and has devoted years to identifying primary sources as part of the work on the manuscript history.
Jessee is glad his early projects were discontinued because they were no match for the vision and quality of the Joseph Smith Papers project, he said.
"In the last 50 years, from the 1960s to 2010, the church has gone through a tremendous transition. … To be there early on and see the state of church history and the archives, and to see what's happened since would blow your mind. There would be people turning over in their graves," Jessee said. "It's amazing to see that, along with the transparency in telling our story. … I'm grateful to have been around to see the history of it. It's evidence to me of a divine power involved in this work."
Nathan Waite, an associate editorial manager for the Joseph Smith Papers, said Jessee started out in the 1970s with a couple of research assistants. Decades later, the project involves more than 30 full-time employees and other support staff that have consistently cranked out two volumes a year while maintaining the website.
"I don’t know if hastening the work is the right phrase to use because we use it for missionary work, but it’s something like that," Waite said.
With the complete Joseph Smith Journals series now in print and online, people can read in greater detail about the last year of the Prophet's life (May 1843 to June 1844), including the events that led up to his murder at Carthage Jail. "The Joseph Smith Papers: Journals, Vol. 3," was first published in print in 2015.
The last entry in Joseph Smith's journal is June 22, five days before he was martyred, but Willard Richards was with the Prophet at Carthage Jail and recorded what happened in his journal, Waite said.
"You can get a day by day and hour by hour account of Joseph's martyrdom. It's a very interesting and obviously tragic account," Waite said. "I think it brings new insight that we’ve never had before about Joseph Smith’s martyrdom."
Users can also view updated versions of Revelation Books 1 and 2.
Jessee hopes the Joseph Smith Papers project will continue to reflect his love and admiration for the prophet and his life's work.
"When I started (in 1972), I said here is the crowning prophet of all dispensations. This man deserves the very best shot it's possible to give editorially and in publishing a book. We ought to treat his papers the very best that can be treated."
For more on the Joseph Smith Papers project, visit JosephSmithPapers.org.