The recent article in the Ensign about the the Manuscript Revelation Books of the Joseph Smith papers has me reflecting on an early encounter with church history.
Occasionally I'd browse the shelves of the 4th floor of the BYU Harold B. Lee Library when I had enough of homework and needed a break. One day I pulled out what looked like a book, but was instead an solid piece of painted wood inscribed with "The Joseph Smith Collection." This led me to the special collections department where I was told I needed to apply for permission to view this collection. I was intrigued.
I found a professor to sponsor me, was interviewed, filled out a form, waited for this to be reviewed, and was granted access.
What I found was worth the trouble. It was microfilm copies of some of the original materials of church history. Various records, letters, revision notes for the Pearl of Great Price, Wilford Woodruff's diaries, historical records, etc. Of particular interest was a revelations section that included some of the original handwritten texts, which will be published in this series.
Browsing through the revelations was quite an experience for me. It seemed I was just a couple of steps from the voice of God as I viewed handwritten revelations that were dictated from Joseph Smith.
This summer I had lunch with a friend and we talked about the Joseph Smith collection. He had a similar experience discovering this collection. We both found a section called "Revelations not in the D&C." Neither of us were aware there were additional revelations. We laughed when we discovered that we each independently smuggled tape recorders in and whispered these revelations onto tape, later transcribing them. I wonder how many others have done this?
What I recall today were more sensational items like altered revelations, a revelation telling the brethern to marry Lamanite women in order to make their posterity's skin white, a polygamous marriage ceremony revealed by the Lord with power "obtained by the Holy Melchisedeck Gehdro and others of the Holy Fathers." I asked several language professors and grad students who or what "Gehdro" might be to no avail, however I today I think most assume it was "Jethro."
Attempts to publish original materials by church historians have had only partial success. In 1984 Dean Jessee published The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, but it was riddled with Hoffman forgeries. In 1989 & 1992 he published volumes 1 & 2 of the "Personal Writings of Joseph Smith," but the promised volume 3 was never published due to discomfort among some church leaders. Anti-Mormons & fundamentalist Mormons published some of the revelatory content (for example see fundamentalist Mormon Fred Collier's Unpublished Revelations of the Prophets and Presidents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and a 2nd volume).
Jan Shipps, non-Mormon historian says this step by the church marks the transition towards a religious tradition with a more mature approach by the church publishing materials previously kept under wraps. Church historian Elder Marlin K. Jensen calls this project the most important church history project of our generation.
For me it is interesting to see my own experience come full circle, from a dark microfilm room to an anticipated 30+ volumes published by the church. My early experience solidified my love of church history, and opened the door to a remarkable journey. I see that all twelve thousand copies of the church's book sold out in less than 24 hours. The church historian's press will have more copies available in January if you haven't obtained a copy yet.