It is the bicentennial of Joseph Smith’s birth, and the prophet who was born in an obscure woods in Vermont will be celebrated, examined and reevaluated in light of the remarkable legacy he left behind. The Church he restored now numbers over 12 million and is the fifth largest denomination in the United States.
Already an authorized edition of the Book of Mormon has been published by secular Doubleday, marking an acknowledgement that the book has a significant audience, but this year also brings a series of other firsts and significant acknowledgements that whether the world recognizes him as a prophet or not, Joseph Smith is to be reckoned with.
Library of Congress, BYU Sponsor Conference on “Worlds of Joseph Smith”
The Library of Congress and Brigham Young University announced an academic symposium examining the religious, social and theological contributions of Joseph Smith Jr. to be held May 6-7 in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. The event will feature sessions focusing on Smith’s own world, his recovery of “past worlds,” his challenges to the theological world and his founding of a global religion.
The symposium is open to the news media and invited scholars in the fields of American religious history and religious studies. Each session will feature the presentation of a paper, three respondents and time for open discussion. Some seating by registration only will be available to the public. The program will also be broadcast via the Internet.
James H. Hutson, chief of the manuscript division at the Library of Congress, says people will find it instructive to be informed by a group of distinguished scholars exactly how the church, founded by Joseph Smith, evolved from a small, persecuted band to a major religion influential in the United States and world.
“Other religious persuasions important in American history—Puritanism, for example—traced the same trajectory but, unlike Mormonism, reached a limit from which their influence receded,” said Hutson. “This topic will be among the many subjects that should stimulate reflection and make the symposium an intellectual feast.”
Jack Welch, professor of law at BYU and co-planner of the symposium along with Hutson, is pleased that the Library of Congress and BYU could come together to sponsor a scholarly examination of Smith’s life.
“Joseph Smith is a towering religious figure. Perhaps for that very reason, he draws a lot of lightning but also channels extraordinary power,” said Welch. “The conference is not aimed at proselytizing or advocating any particular point of view. It will not involve polemics or propaganda. Anyone who would be interested in known how informed scholars approach the study of Joseph Smith, just as they might Buddha, Moses, Mohammed, St. Francis or any other major religious leader, will find the outcome of this conference informative, up-to-date, interesting and reliable.”
Robert Millet, the Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at BYU who was instrumental in the genesis of the symposium, says it will recognize and explore the impact of an important religious figure.
“Even if one doesn’t accept Joseph Smith’s claims of divine inspiration and authorization, it’s hard to dismiss his impact on the theological world,” said Millet, a professor of ancient scripture. “As we approach the anniversary of his birth 200 years ago, it’s important and worthwhile to examine and explore his contributions, which include the establishment of a worldwide church.”
Religion experts from Baylor, BYU, Columbia, Pepperdine and other major universities will make presentation and participate in the symposium. Elder Dallin H. Oaks, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles will be a featured speaker.
National Archives Commission Endorses Joseph Smith Papers Project
A commission affiliated with the National Archives has endorsed a Brigham Young University-sponsored project to publish a comprehensive volume of letters, diaries, transcriptions and other documents associated directly with Joseph Smith.
The National Historical Publications and Records Commission announced in May 2004 that it would formally endorse the Joseph Smith Papers Project, sponsored by the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History at BYU in cooperation with the archives of the Church.
The project’s aim is to create a comprehensive collection of all the documents associated with Joseph Smith.
Receiving the endorsement from the prestigious commission bestows a high level of credibility to the project, said Ronald Esplin, executive editor of the project at the Smith Institute. “It reassures libraries and scholars that this project has been undertaken according to the highest scholarly standards,” he said. “We’re confident that the quality of the papers will stand on their own.”
Esplin said the same care, procedure and scholarly standards that have been applied to similar projects for people such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin have been applied to this project.
“People can trust that the material is accurate and reliable,” Esplin said.
About 12 volumes in the project are scheduled for release toward the end of 2005 and will contain journal and diary transcriptions as well as many of Smith’s papers.
Some of those papers include personal letters Smith wrote to his wife Emma as well as to other individuals in the Church. Such letters demonstrate Smith’s personality, said Dean C. Jessee, LDS historian and general editor on the project.
Other documents transcribed in the project include letters addressed to Smith, administrative and legal papers and notes from his scribes.
The volumes will contain editorial material, such as contextual explanation for the time period, as well as accurate transcriptions. The volumes will be directed to both academic scholars and interested Church members, Esplin said.
The project adds to and builds upon two earlier volumes of documents titled, “The Papers of Joseph Smith,” edited by Jessee, who also edited another volume titled “The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith.”
Jessee began working on his own in 1970s on his publications with the help of LDS Church Archives and the Smith Institute. The Joseph Smith Papers Project was implemented with an expanded staff during the latter part of 2000.
The Chicago Historical Society, Yale University, Community of Christ and other repositories have opened their archives for use in the project.
NEH Funds Six-Week Seminar at BYU on Early Latter-day Saint History
The National Endowment for Humanities will run an intensive six-week seminar in the summer on the early history of the Church.
Grant Underwood and Richard Lyman Bushman from BYU’s Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History will co-direct “Joseph Smith and the Origins of Mormonism: Bicentennial Perspectives” from June 20 to July 30 for 15 selected college professors from around the nation.
“This NEH grant means that the premier humanities sponsor in the United States has decided that BYU faculty can be trusted to conduct with objectivity a seminar on the life and thought of the Church’s founding prophet. This represents no small recognition for BYU,” says Underwood.
Although BYU faculty professors have obviously received grants to conduct NEH seminars for secondary educations teachers, this is the first-time a BYU-hosted seminar for university professors has been funded. This is also the first time a seminar of any kind on LDS history has funded by NEH.
NEH Chairman Bruce Cole, in a letter to BYU, said the seminar has been designated part of the NEH’s “We the People” Initiative.
“The goal of the ‘We the People’ initiative is to encourage and strengthen the teaching, study and understanding of American history and culture through the support of projects that explore significant events and themes in our nation’s history and culture and that advance knowledge of the principles that define America,” Cole said.
“I anticipate that this project will contribute significantly to this effort.”
Underwood says that the “We the People” designation suggests that interest in Mormonism as an important part of American heritage is continuing to move from the margins to the mainstream.
“It shows that rather than being a kind of cultural quirk in American history, the Mormon experience is considered a significant strand in the tapestry that makes up American culture.”