Friday, 5 December 2008

The Joseph Smith Papers

With its usual modesty and demonstrating its typical self-effacing character the Mormon Church has announced the publication of The Joseph Smith Papers. Aimed at scholars and “serious students of the life of Joseph Smith”, it draws on some 6,000 documents taken mainly from the archives of the Mormon Church but also from the Re-organised Church (The Community of Christ) and some private collections. The aim is to produce a definitive, scholarly edition of Joseph Smith’s papers in approximately thirty volumes produced at a rate of two volumes a year at just under $50 a volume.

Did someone say hubris? One wonders how many Mormons, let alone non-Mormons, will actually end up with a set. If you’re determined to own a set yourself it will likely take you fifteen years to complete it, although they hope to speed up production. Certainly, for the average Christian what you meet on the doorstep will not change. The story of Joseph Smith as presented by missionaries and shared by the typical Mormon will be the same.

There is extensive information on the web site including a very interesting FAQ section. Of course, FAQ’s are not always genuine FAQ’s but are often simply questions devised by the publishers as a device for presenting a positive apologetic for their work and/or to anticipate difficult questions and head them off at the pass. Some of their questions and answers raise further questions and doubts in this writers mind.

A very apposite FAQ is addressed, i.e. can the LDS church expect to maintain scholarly credibility while publishing its own works? Their answer, in brief, is wait and see and an appeal to trustworthy scholarship. We are led to believe that the published collection will be exhaustive. This is difficult to judge of course since this project is entirely a church project and the vast majority of sources are exclusively held in notoriously inaccessible church facilities in SLC.

We are promised a high level of scholarship and they go to great lengths to point out endorsements from respected independent institutions such as The National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC). However, since such endorsements come from institutions concerned principally with methodology and organising principles and given the Mormon Church’s history of hiding documents (remember their denial for years of the existence of different accounts of the so-called First Vision), and the discriminating nature and doctrine-driven character of official Mormon history (remember Boyd K Packer’s assertion that not all scholarship is “helpful”) one might be forgiven for having doubts.

Two things stand out for me. The first is that these papers will serve the same purpose for the average Mormon and Mormon missionary as the encyclopaedic collection of works produced by the late Hugh Nibley. It was said of Nibley’s often dense and impenetrable writings that most Mormons didn’t read Nibley, it was enough for them to know that he was there. In the same way, we will no doubt find Mormons citing the Joseph Smith Papers to “prove” that their church has nothing to hide without actually going to the trouble of finding out whether their naive claim actually stands up.

For the Christian this highlights the constant need to be determined not to be easily impressed. The fact of thirty volumes, the apparent level of scholarship involved, the endorsement of academic institutions do not together in any way prove the claim to integrity and veracity, much less the claim of Mormonism to be “restored Christianity”.

Secondly, there is an irony in the fact that the original claim of Mormonism is that, in the absence of prophets, the inevitable obfuscation of apostasy followed upon man’s having to fall back on scholarship and his own wit in doing the best he can to arrive at the truth of his Christian faith. Prophets, it is claimed, have restored the truth, shone the light of revelation where there was only darkness and brought understanding where there was confusion.

Traditionally, Mormons have been urged to trust their Prophets over against anything as prosaic as scholarship, Christian or secular. Having a hotline to God historically divided learning for Mormons into two categories: the flawed learning of the world and the thoroughly reliable learning of Mormon “knowing”. The world and its scholarship, it is insisted, has never “understood” Mormonism and the church has to continuously correct misconceptions but “when the prophet speaks all debate is ended”.

Mormon-watchers will have observed however that, in recent years, it is Mormon “Para-church” organisations like FAIR and FARMS and Mormon educational establishments like BYU and the Neil A Maxwell Institute that are making the running in defending Mormonism against critics, in developing and teaching Mormon theology. While the Mormon leadership does occasionally issue statements aimed at clarifying issues that come up in the press etc. and make policy announcements they seldom engage meaningfully with any major issues of traditional Mormon teaching and theology. FAIR and FARMS, etc. on the other hand, are consistently engaged in producing apologetics, refutations, sturdy defences and counter arguments in response to church critics and in simply explaining the faith.

As this foray by the Mormon Church from the world of special revelation and blind faith into the conventional but disciplined world of scholarship becomes normative it is inevitable that a) more and more Mormon history and controversy will come under the spotlight and b) the Mormon Church’s ability to live up to its claims of scholarly integrity and theological verity will be tested. They will be found wanting.

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Clean Cut said...

I think that Richard Bushman's landmark biography of Joseph Smith, "Rough Stone Rolling", already put that spotlight on the Church history as well as Joseph Smith. The Joseph Smith papers simply will remove the filter of a biographer.

Mike's 4 Tea said...

I would agree that the proof of the pudding etc. but I fear that if Bushman's filter is removed it will only be replaced by others. As I have already noted, the attitude of the church leadership as represented by Boyd Packer in his infamous quote should alert us to beware of church editors and scholars making sure the published work is "helpful" in a way not envisioned by a wider acadaemia.

I know I sound cynical and perhaps I should confess it right now but years of experience in dealing with official Mormon obfuscation has taught me to avoid a disingenuous approach to these things. It seems to me that, notwithstanding the undisputed academic qualifications and endorsements associated with the project, plenty still can and probbably will be done to avoid a "true understanding" of the unvarnished truth. And that is the key, i.e. it is not the story it is how you tell it.