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What 3 historians learned researching the Joseph Smith Papers

New book of essays can be like a college course on the Latter-day Saint prophet with a different professor each day

“Know Brother Joseph: New Perspectives on Joseph Smith’s Life and Character” is a collection of short essays authored by more than 40 scholars and Joseph Smith Papers historians.
Deseret Book

For those who don’t think they can relate to Joseph Smith, his human nature was on full display in the final weeks of 1835, according to accounts.

Harsh words between the Latter-day Saint prophet and his younger brother William, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, led to a violent altercation between the two church leaders in Kirtland, Ohio.

After writing letters to one another, a family intervention on New Year’s Day in 1836 helped resolve the intense conflict and foster reconciliation. There’s a good lesson in the story, according to Anthony R. Sweat, an associate professor of church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University.

“It shows how — despite the difficult aftermath — they chose to heal and maintain their family bonds through humble confession and divine forgiveness,” Sweat wrote in an essay detailing the episode.

The eye-opening account is featured in a new book titled, “Know Brother Joseph: New Perspectives on Joseph Smith’s Life and Character,” edited by R. Eric Smith, Matthew C. Godfrey and Matthew J. Grow, and published by Deseret Book.

In addition to all three being general editors of the Joseph Smith Papers, Grow is the managing director of the Church History Department; Smith is the editorial manager of the Publications Division of the Church History Department; and Godfrey is the managing historian of the Joseph Smith Papers.

A statue of Joseph Smith stands on the Main Street Plaza as people walk to the Conference Center for a session of general conference on April 2, 2006. A new book of essays about Joseph Smith offers insights into his life from Joseph Smith Papers research.
A statue of Joseph Smith stands on the Main Street Plaza as people walk to the Conference Center in Salt Lake City for a session of general conference on April 2, 2006. A new book of essays about Joseph Smith offers insights into his life from Joseph Smith Papers research.
Keith Johnson, Deseret News

“Know Brother Joseph” is a collection of short essays authored by more than 40 scholars and historians who draw upon Joseph Smith Papers research to provide new insights into the life of the founding prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and who he was as a man.

Grow suggested readers might envision this book as something like a college course on Joseph Smith and the early church, with a different professor each day.

“One of the great things about ‘Know Brother Josephis that we asked the authors to write brief essays, using only about 1,500 words. As we explain in the intro, ‘Writing concisely, in a format intended for a broader audience, leads hopefully to a focused and accessible approach,’” Grow wrote in an email to the Deseret News. “It also allowed us to include many, many voices and analyses of Joseph in this relatively short book.”

The Deseret News interviewed the book’s three editors — Smith, Godfrey and Grow — to discuss what they have learned by studying Joseph Smith’s life. Here are their thoughts.

These interviews has been edited for length and clarity.

Deseret News: As part of the Joseph Smith Papers project, each of you has spent years reading Joseph’s letters, journals, revelations, legal and financial documents. What is one thing you have learned about the prophet that you didn’t know before?

R. Eric Smith: There are a million things I have learned about Joseph and his history by being part of the project (and a million more to learn still). One vista that has opened is how serious Joseph was about creating and keeping records, particularly from the early 1830s to the end of his life. As Robin Jensen says in his essay in “Know Brother Joseph,” we take it for granted that records were kept, but this was the result of deliberate planning and effort and was not necessarily a natural thing for Joseph and some of the other Saints who were less educated. Of course, Joseph relies mostly on scribes and clerks to create records, but the volume of records and the underlying organization is quite impressive. ... If Joseph was a fraud, his advising people and organizations to keep careful records was an odd move.

Matthew C. Godfrey: The biggest insight that has come to me is that Joseph was a human being who had to navigate the human experience just like you and I do. He had good days and bad days. He sometimes had disagreements with his family and friends. He suffered through the pain of losing loved ones to death — including several of his children, his father and several brothers. He was personally hurt when friends turned against him. He had financial worries. He was concerned when Emma or his children were sick. He felt pain when hearing about persecutions of those who belonged to the church. Sometimes he had to wrestle with questions that God didn’t immediately answer.

But he also loved life. He enjoyed playing with his children, talking to friends or spending an evening at home with his family. He approached trials and difficulties with a cheerfulness and trust in God that is admirable. In short, he was a real human being who was not exempt from the difficulties of life because of his calling as a prophet. For me, this has helped him become much more real and relatable — and it has also increased my admiration and love for him.

The death masks of Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum Smith at the Church History Museum of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah Friday, Sept., 4, 2009. A new book with essays offers insights into the prophet’s life from Joseph Smith Paper’s research.
The death masks of Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum Smith at the Church History Museum of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah, Friday, Sept. 4, 2009. A new book with essays offers insights into the prophet’s life from Joseph Smith Paper’s research.
Mike Terry, Deseret News

DN: How has studying Joseph’s life and papers influenced your life and faith?

Matthew J. Grow: Immersion in the sources of Joseph Smith’s life has deepened my faith in his prophetic calling.

Smith: I will answer this in a way that is different than perhaps is expected. Over the years, I have felt the quiet influence of the Spirit sustaining us in the work of researching, editing and publishing Joseph’s papers. This is generally not a dramatic witness, but a feeling of being buoyed up by a higher power. There is so much work and coordination that has gone into publishing the papers. It requires patience, forbearance, love and incredible persistence on the part of everyone who is involved to pull it off, in addition to all the historical and editorial expertise. In other words, that the Lord has sustained us in publishing the papers is another evidence to me that Joseph is a prophet.

Godfrey: Sometimes I’m asked how working on the Joseph Smith Papers project has affected my testimony. At times, I think the individual asking the question is expecting me to say that it has had a negative impact. But nothing could be further from the truth. As I’ve studied his life, I don’t see a megalomaniac intent on gaining power or a deceptive man who was trying to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes. Instead, I see a man who was doing his best to fulfill his divine calling as a prophet at the same time he was trying to be a husband, a father and a friend to others. Because of Joseph’s humility and willingness to navigate trials with faith, God was able to do a great work through him. Seeing that makes me believe that perhaps God can do a great work through me — despite my own weaknesses and imperfections — if I just do the best I can with what he has asked me to do. Studying Joseph’s life has thus helped me become more confident in myself and in my abilities to do hard things, while also increasing my own testimony of Joseph as a prophet.

DN: What advice would you give to anyone struggling with questions about Joseph, who wants to understand him better or who wishes to learn more about him?

An illustration of Joseph Smith by Danquart Weggeland made at an unknown time (Weggeland died in 1918).
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Smith: (Regarding someone who is struggling with questions) A friend of mine gave this advice. If you have two beliefs in your mind that appear to be contradictory, you can allow them to coexist. For example, you may have a spiritual witness of the Book of Mormon that led you to become converted to the church, and at the same time you may have questions or doubts about some aspect of church history. It is totally compatible to have a testimony of the gospel and the Restoration while having questions or confusion about some aspects of the history. Questions and doubts are natural. Turn to the Lord in humility and be patient as you wait for his help and his answers. Seek, seek, seek, and wait, wait, wait for answers. Don’t stop doing the spiritual things while you are seeking and waiting. Sometimes the answer is to be at peace with something even though you don’t understand it. The answers and comfort and peace you seek will come, and they will come through the Spirit. I know many people whose testimonies became stronger after periods of doubt and uncertainty.

Godfrey: I love something that my colleague Elizabeth Kuehn pointed out in her work on “Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Vol. 5.” Because of the failure of the Kirtland Safety Society and other issues, a lot of turmoil occurred in Kirtland, Ohio, in the mid-1830s. Many members of the church, including several of the Twelve Apostles, chose to interpret what was going on as evidence that Joseph was a fallen prophet and left the church — some choosing to become bitter enemies of Joseph. Other Latter-day Saints, however, remained faithful and true to their testimony of Joseph ... When we study Joseph Smith and church history, we have that same choice. Undoubtedly there are things in the past that might seem strange to us and make us wonder what was going on. But they don’t have to drive us away from the church or destroy our testimonies — they don’t have to make us question spiritual experiences we’ve already had in life. We can choose faith.

Grow: To people who have questions about Joseph, I would say that one of the primary reasons of the Joseph Smith Papers is that anyone who wants to study Joseph now has unfiltered access to his voice and his thoughts. We don’t need to only access Joseph through other sources, whether positive or negative. A deep study of Joseph Smith will include grappling with the records that he left behind, with how he explains himself and his own life. The Joseph Smith Papers is thus a tremendous resource for those who want to know more about Joseph and his ministry.

In addition, the church has made available so many other quality sources on Joseph and the early church in recent years. I’d encourage those with questions about Joseph to also spend time with “Saints: Volume 1,” with “Revelations in Context,” and other resources produced by the church.

Finally, resolving doubts about Joseph cannot just be an intellectual activity. It has to be a spiritual activity as well.