Featured Stories

Historians, Scholars and Editors Share Their Stories While Finishing the Epic Joseph Smith Papers Project

Some staff members have contributed many years to the project. ‘I would do it again in a heartbeat. No regrets,’ one archivist says

Robin Jensen holds a volume of the Joseph Smith Papers that focuses on the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon, on January 19, 2022. The final volume of the project will be published in June 2023.
Download Photo


This story appears here courtesy of TheChurchNews.com. It is not for use by other media.

By Trent Toone, Church News

When the Joseph Smith Papers publishes its final volume in June, it will mark the end of a memorable era for many historians, editors, archivists and others who have contributed years of their lives to the project.

Here’s a sampling:

Launched decades ago, the Joseph Smith Papers has been a monumental effort by the Church History Department to collect, transcribe, contextualize and publish all the documents and writings of the Joseph Smith, the first President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Howcroft said it’s difficult to quantify 22 years of time and effort.

“It’s a lot of changing of my own perceptions. It’s a lot of assessment, analyzing of records. The time involved has been incalculable,” she said. “But it’s been very much worth the effort. If I was asked if I would do it again, I would do it again in a heartbeat. No regrets.”

For Lorimer, it was “14 years of blood, sweat and tears,” especially in the early years when the staff was smaller.

“The amount of effort required of any individual was herculean,” she said. “People worked so much and so hard.”

Smith, who was involved in making editorial decisions and helped create a complex style guide, said it was a “huge project in scope and of massive significance” to the Church. “It was a huge part of my life,” he said.

Godfrey said the perspectives of his three colleagues are reflective of a dedicated and gifted Joseph Smith Papers staff that often worked in anonymity.

“People don’t know all the people that worked on the Joseph Smith Papers, but the level of talent that we have had on this project has been amazing,” he said. “It’s been a blessing.”

As the Church prepares to release the final volume of the Joseph Smith Papers — No. 27 in the decadeslong series and in timing with the martyrdom anniversary of Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum Smith on June 27 — members of the staff recalled memories, experiences and feelings about the epic project.


‘Like Christmas Morning Every Day’

Jensen first found employment with the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History as a research assistant when he was a student at Brigham Young University. He immediately fell in love with the historian’s craft and knew it was what he wanted to do.

As his education progressed, Jensen learned the Joseph Smith Papers was hiring a research assistant. He leaped at the chance to apply.

“When I got the job it was like Christmas morning every single day,” he said.

Robin Jensen looks over the Letterbook No. 1, which was written or dictated by Joseph Smith, as part of his work on the Joseph Smith Papers project at the Church History Library in Salt Lake City, on Friday, September 11, 2009. The final volume of the project will be published in June 2023. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, courtesy of Church News. Copyright 2023 Deseret News Publishing Company.
Download Photo

When the project moved from BYU to the Church History Department, Jensen gained full-time employment. In the years that followed, he was assigned to work on the “Revelations and Translations” series of the project, which included the original and printer’s manuscripts of the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham.

When asked about memorable moments and highlights of his work, Jensen’s response was “How much time do we have?”

“I still cannot fathom how I got to be where I am,” he said with a smile. “I have held in my hands some of the most important documents of the Restoration. ... I have looked at the words of revelations that were eventually published, printed to the Church and texts that gave Latter-day Saints both past and present inspiration.”

Jensen considered it a sacred privilege and weighty responsibility to help tell the story of the history of Latter-day Saint scripture.

“This is why I do what I do,” he said. “Because the Latter-day scripture is so important to millions of people, and to understand the history of that scripture is to pay homage to those individuals who sacrificed to bring it forth.”

Robin Jensen, historian and editor with the Joseph Smith Papers, examines a page of the Book of Mormon original manuscript in the Church History Library in Salt Lake City on January 19, 2022. The final volume of the series will be published in June 2023.
Download Photo

Howcroft’s Journey

Those who associate with Howcroft might be surprised to know she didn’t like Church history as a young seminary student and had no intention of pursuing a career as an archivist with the Joseph Smith Papers.

When she finally gave Church history a chance, she was surprised at how much it resonated with her. Howcroft started with the project in 2000 when it was at BYU.

“I was led to this point,” she said. “As I went along in the project and I began to learn more about Joseph Smith, I realized how much more compelling he was than the things that I had read on him.”

Working on the papers, gathering and identifying records, learning to recognize the handwriting on the documents, it was a “journey of becoming” for Howcroft.

Sharalyn Howcroft, who started work with the Joseph Smith Papers in 2000, poses for photos at the library on Friday, January 19, 2018. Photo by Scott G Winterton, courtesy of Church News. Copyright 2023 Deseret News Publishing Company.
Download Photo

“This was not my chosen profession but it became my chosen profession,” she said. “That process of becoming, I think, is really a testament to how, if we put our lives and the work that we do in the hands of God, he makes more of us than we can make of ourselves.”

One highlight came when Howcroft was working with a team in Hancock County, Illinois, and found some elusive documents she had been searching for decades to find.

“To see something in person that I had been waiting to see since 2002, and to have that moment of eyes on paper was extremely gratifying,” she said.

In January 2010, she went to New York City to assess some early Church history manuscripts at an auction house. There was more there than the auction house had originally supposed, most notably documents related to Joseph Smith.

“These were brand new, absolutely new information,” she said. “Those moments are particularly sublime.”


‘Big and Important’

Lorimer reflected on two memorable moments from her years on the project.

The first came when she pressed the button to send the files of one of the first volumes to press and was able to share the excitement of the moment with Barbara Oberg, an editor with The Papers of Thomas Jefferson and a friend of the Joseph Smith Papers project.

“I remember the feeling that our project was already being recognized and respected by people doing similar and very well regarded work,” Lorimer said. “That was a big moment for me as a young editor, just starting out, to feel like what we were doing is big and important.”

Many years later, Lorimer was the lead editor on the volume featuring the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon. Most of the work was done at home during the pandemic and was “very challenging,” she said.

When it was published, she was among those invited to meet and receive recognition from the First Presidency.

Riley M. Lorimer, a former lead editor with the Joseph Papers, speaks at the Church History Library in 2013. The final volume of the Joseph Smith Papers series will be published in June 2023. Photo by R. Scott Lloyd, courtesy of Church News.All rights reserved.
Download Photo

“I was touched,” she said, “that it mattered enough to them — all these years and all these volumes — for them to thank us for our work.”

One lesson Lorimer learned while working on the project is the importance of asking questions. Joseph Smith’s first question about which church to join led to the gospel Restoration. The Doctrine and Covenants is a book of answers to questions.

“I think sometimes we worry that questions are disrespectful or inappropriate or whatever,” she said. “But I think any reasonable study of Joseph Smith’s life suggests that God is not only not threatened by questions, God wants our questions. He wants to communicate with us, He wants to help us understand.”

Transparent and Church-Supported

For Howcroft, another highlight has been “a process of learning,” especially in the early days of the project.

On several occasions, she witnessed a look of enlightenment in the eyes of seasoned and knowledgeable scholars as they examined documents and learned something new about Joseph Smith.

“As the project gained momentum, that happened more and more,” she said. “It was indicative of when you have unprecedented access to the sources, when you have a group of people who are deeply committed to church history and finding answers, you find so much more in the process of that work. It’s indescribable.”

That process of learning and discovery can be credited in part to the Church. Godfrey expressed appreciation for the high level of support the project received from Church leadership and its commitment to transparency so that “anyone who wants to know about Joseph Smith can find out who he was as a person in these documents.”

“We have never had a Church leader tell us ‘You can’t publish that document or you have to redact this in the Joseph Smith Papers,’” he said. “There has just been this constant level of support, this knowledge that we have to do this right, and we have to get this out into the world.”

Matthew Godfrey, general editor and historian of the Church History Department, reads documents, found in a volume of the Joseph Smith Papers, at the Church History Library in Salt Lake City, Monday, 9, 2016. The final volume of the series will be published in June 2023. Photo by Hans Koepsell, courtesy of Church News. Copyright 2023 Deseret News Publishing Company.
Download Photo

‘Who He Really Was’

If Godfrey is able to meet Joseph Smith in the afterlife, this is what he hopes the Prophet will say about the Church’s effort to document and publish his records.

“I hope Joseph will be able to say to us, ‘You were fair to me. I think you presented me in a light that was good and a light that was fair to who I was as a person,’” Godfrey said. “I think that is what we have striven for — historical accuracy, to be fair and to be able to portray him to the world as who he really was. I hope we have accomplished that.”

Learn more about the Joseph Smith Papers at josephsmithpapers.org.

Copyright 2023 Deseret News Publishing Company.

Style Guide Note:When reporting about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, please use the complete name of the Church in the first reference. For more information on the use of the name of the Church, go to our online Style Guide.