It's written by a man many consider a confident and charismatic religious prophet, but Joseph Smith's journal immediately betrays an inkling of self-doubt: His first sentence is scratched out.
SALT LAKE CITY — It's written by a man many consider a confident and charismatic religious prophet, but Joseph Smith's journal immediately betrays an inkling of self-doubt: His first sentence is scratched out.
"He's making this very deliberate effort to keep a record. At the same time, he has this self-consciousness," said Richard Turley Jr., assistant historian for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "So he writes it out, scratches it out, takes a deep breath, writes it again."
By the next line, Smith is on his knees in prayer as he asks for God's help.
For Turley, the picture of Smith — unvarnished and somehow more human than a prophet should be — represents the beauty of the "The Joseph Smith Papers," the first book published by a new Mormon church-owned press.
"What I get from this — besides the information, most of which has been accessible in the past — what I get from this is a feeling for the man," Turley said Monday, when the book was released to the public.
Smith founded the Mormon church in 1830 with just six adherents, most of them members of his own family. By the time he was shot and killed in 1844, hundreds had joined the church, which was maligned and persecuted for its practice of polygamy and the exhortations of its colorful leader.
Painstakingly transcribed from hundreds of fragile, handwritten pages, the 500-page volume builds on decades of historical scholarship to provide a more accurate and complete look at the early church and Smith's life, Turley said.
The inaugural work of The Church Historian's Press covers Smith's writings from 1832 to 1839 and includes his account of the "First Vision," in which God and Jesus Christ tell Smith he must restore the original church on Earth.
The series is expected to run more than 30 volumes, Turley said.
Dozens of scholars collaborated on the project, looking for new sources of information, fact-checking historical records and crafting explanatory passages, maps and organizational charts to provide a fuller record, he said.
Historians have long criticized the Mormon church for glossing over the unflattering parts of its history and censoring materials of interest to scholars.
Publishing Smith's papers marks a brave departure from that past, said Jan Shipps, a professor of religious history and a Mormon expert at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
"It's saying our story is there for anybody to see," she said. "They are becoming a full-fledged religious tradition and they are not trying to hide the details."
Shipps calls the book "very, very valuable," not just because of the improved scholarship but also for its accessibility.
"It puts the sources of history into the hands of historians as well as putting the papers into the hands of believers," said Shipps, who read an early copy of the book.
Turley thinks church members, which exceed 13 million worldwide, will appreciate the chance to see Smith without the filter of a biographer. He doesn't think Smith's average-Joe struggle to make ends meet, to maintain family harmony or to overcome health problems will alter his revered status as the church's original prophet, seer and revelator.
"For those who see Joseph as a prophet, it doesn't diminish that viewpoint by making him more human," he said. "Instead, it creates a greater sympathy for him as a person."