The Church Historian’s Press and the Argument in Favor of Mordred

February 25, 2008 | 21 comments
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The Church issued a press release today annoucing the creation of a “Church Historian’s Press” to handle the publication of the Joseph Smith Papers. (The press release also mentioned “works related to the church’s history and growth.”) I am not quite sure what the rationale for this is. Previous volume of the papers were published by Deseret Book, which did a nice enough job, although of late the physical publication standards at Deseret Book have been falling. Perhaps the new imprint is to insure library quality production values. Maybe it just reduces administrative hassle to have the production done in-house, particularlly in light of the way that technology has been dropping the costs of publishing. Or perhaps something bigger is afoot.

Perhaps this heralds a desire by the Church Historian’s Office to move more aggressively into the publication of more scholarlly materials on Mormonism. Note, the Church already publishes lots of stuff — CES Manuals, scriptures, etc. — and this is clearly meant as something different than the Church’s ordinary publishing. It is meant to boost Mormon scholarship, according to the press release. There are a number of ways that one might spin this. Perhaps, the Church is looking for a way of dealing with controversial or complex topics through some sort of an official imprint that is not tied to the ordinary demands of Church curriculum. At one extreme, this could be the second coming of Camelot, namely an attempt for the Church to provide scholarlly interpretation in-house, as it were. I hope not, as in the end I think that Mordred had a point.

I think that Mormon discussions are best served when we don’t have official interpretations of thorny historical problems. The theological stakes get too high and the cost of errors can become really big for some. A much better model is one in which the Church actively encourages faithful latter-day saints to look at these issues for themselves, and creates an enviroment in which Mormon scholars working independent of the church provide a rich literature on which interested saints can draw. It is best, however, that this literature not be published by the church, in my opinion. For example, I think that it is good both that the forthcoming book on MMM be published at Oxford. I hope that this means that the book’s interpretation gets judged on the merits rather than being seen as authoritative. One place where, I think a Church press could be useful is if it got into the business of providing high-quality library editions of original sources. Right now the most extensive collection of such documents — aside from the Selected Collections DVDs — has been done by Signature Books. I think that a Church press could produce such collections, and doing so would give them greater control over the sorts of copyright issues that always come up when publishing documentary collections. Even here, however, I hope that the Church Historians Press would tread softly, particularlly in its editorial policy. What I want to avoid is some sort of official interpretation of the historical texts. Much better to provide folks with good principles and good documents, and let them govern themselves.

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21 Responses to The Church Historian’s Press and the Argument in Favor of Mordred

  1. Marc on February 25, 2008 at 7:38 pm

    Part of the motivation for the Historian’s Press, as I understand it, is also chalked up to needing to find a publisher for the Joseph Smith Papers. I’d heard that Yale University had planned on publishing the papers, but, due to editorial disagreements pulled out of the project (which is why some have told me the papers are taking so long to be published). By publishing the papers itself, the Church avoids these sorts of obstacles. At least this is the sort of gossip running around the Mormon rumor-mill.

  2. Christopher on February 25, 2008 at 8:04 pm

    Nice write-up, Nate. The potential reasons for and implications of the new CHP were discussed in a post by David G. this morning at the Juvenile Instructor, as well as in the comments to his post.

  3. Nate Oman on February 25, 2008 at 9:25 pm

    Marc and Christopher: You (and the commenters at JI) are probably right that this is just a way of getting around the problem of finding a home for the Joseph Smith Papers, although why not simply publish them through Deseret Book or BYU Press? Also, the phrase in the press release about fostering publishing on Mormon history may simply be a throw away. Certainly as a practical matter, just getting any piece of the Joseph Smith Papers published would be nice ;-> Still, the press release makes it sound as though something more is going on. Maybe this is just puffery. Maybe not.

  4. dpc on February 26, 2008 at 10:08 am

    I don’t see anything strange about it. The Vatican has its own publishing house. As long as the church is publishing collections of historical papers for wider dissemination, I don’t see how it would count as interpretation.

  5. Nate Oman on February 26, 2008 at 10:24 am

    dpc: I basically agree, although it depends on how you publish the papers. For example, do you redact them? What do you choose to leave in and what do you take out? Do you provide elaborate interpretive essays for each document? Etc. etc.

  6. dpc on February 26, 2008 at 10:54 am

    For example, do you redact them?

    Only the Social Security and Bank account numbers. :) I would hope that there would be a facsimile of the original and possibly a text with updated (corrected) spelling and punctuation to aid the reader in understanding what is written. It would be sort of like a Loeb Translation, where you have the original Greek and the translation beside it. A reader could read the original and then ignore the updated version if they wanted to.

    What do you choose to leave in and what do you take out?

    This is a more difficult question. I am a completist, so I would hope that they include everything. There may be some papers of dubious authenticity, so I’m not sure what you would do with those. Maybe the publisher could include them in an appendix and state that they are of unknown provenance, but useful for study.

    Do you provide elaborate interpretive essays for each document?

    I think that these kinds of essays would be published by Deseret Book or BYU Press or some other independent book publisher. I see these types of books as allowing access to important historical documents to a wider audience than would otherwise be permitted because of the age and condition of the originals.

  7. Ardis Parshall on February 26, 2008 at 11:20 am

    FWIW, talk in the hallways and with friends on the project says that they intend publication to be complete, with the most absolute minimum of redaction in the extreme case of sacred matters. The annotations include situating a document in time, notes about provenance and first publication and variants and scribes, identification of persons named, but no interpretive essays. The natural tendency of historians engaged with texts that interest them is to go farther and farther toward interpretation, but they keep reminding each other that they are not writing biography or church history but are preparing the raw materials for others to write biographies and histories. Since each volume has its own editor in addition to the overall editorial team, I suppose there will be variations among volumes as to where the line is drawn between preparing documents and interpreting documents. I don’t know how they’ve resolved the question of fakes and doubtful items — there is a balance to be struck between publishing them even with clear identification as “iffy” (do you want to lend weight to material that doesn’t merit it?) or omitting them (“hey, you forgot such-and-such — I’ll bet you left it out because it is critical of Joseph Smith, and you’re too cowardly to include it.”)

    Some members of that project read and occasionally comment here; I wish some of them would chime in, even anonymously, with anything that is fair to share. You know we’re interested.

  8. jrl on February 26, 2008 at 12:45 pm

    I’m sorry, but what is MMM?

  9. Ben H on February 26, 2008 at 12:49 pm

    My initial reading of the part about encouraging more high-quality scholarship was basically that they are providing sources, and will provide more (George Q. Cannon journals, etc.), which will provide a basis for more strong scholarship. This is great and minimizes the sorts of concerns Nate raises. It seems to me the best way for the church to encourage scholarship is to provide resources to support analysis and interpretation, and to acknowledge the value of scholarship in general terms, even sometimes to respond to it in very limited ways (as exemplified by the recent press release about former members), but mostly not to sponsors or publish analysis and interpretation, basically for the sort of reasons Nate gives.

  10. dpc on February 26, 2008 at 12:56 pm

    I’m sorry, but what is MMM?

    It’s part of the lyrics to a song by the Crash Test Dummies Crash Test Dummies entitled Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm, from their highly regarded God Shuffled His Feet album

  11. jrl on February 26, 2008 at 12:58 pm

    never mind # 8. I figured it out.

  12. BHodges on February 26, 2008 at 1:19 pm

    Open the archives!

    ;)

  13. David G. on February 26, 2008 at 1:20 pm

    Some members of that project read and occasionally comment here; I wish some of them would chime in, even anonymously, with anything that is fair to share. You know we’re interested.

    Maybe we don’t count or something, but I spent five years with the project and Christopher is currently employed with them.

    In terms of document selection, the project intends to be comprehensive. To my knowledge, nothing will be excluded because it is “sensitive,” with the exception of the Council of 50 minutes, and I’ve even heard that there is recent optimism from project editors that those may be included as well. From there, decisions on what to include or exclude become an issue of asking whether or not a document was actually written or dictated by JS or if there are some special circumstances that should allow something that was not produced by him to be included. So these kind of decisions will not be as interpretive as say, the BY papers, which due to their sheer size will necessarily be pared down (should that project ever actually get started).

    In terms of annotation, “editorializing” will hopefully be kept to a minimum in the introductory notes and explanatory footnotes. While not as much of an issue as interpretation in a scholarly monograph, of course there is always a degree of interpretation in these types of notes. For example, many founding father documentary editions produced during the 1950s reflect the moment in which they were produced, with backhanded and implied references to a “free America” that opens its archives in contradistinction to that other unnamed nation that did not. But I know that the JSPP editors are conscious of these limitations and make it a point to remove themselves as much as possible from the process.

  14. Ardis Parshall on February 26, 2008 at 1:51 pm

    #12 – I didn’t know either you or Christopher were working on the project, David. No slight intended. There are only like 3.5 kajillion of you up there, and I haven’t happened to gossip with you at the water fountain.

  15. David G. on February 26, 2008 at 2:00 pm

    No prob, Ardis. I was joking. ;)

  16. Christopher on February 26, 2008 at 2:02 pm

    There are only like 3.5 kajillion of you up there.

    Way to marginalize me, Ardis. :-) Technically, I’m not “up there” in SLC, but rather work primarily from BYU (with occasional excursions to the Church archives), and I haven’t publicized my limited involvement with the project, so no offense taken by you not remembering me at the water fountain gossip sessions.

  17. n8.c on February 27, 2008 at 7:19 pm

    Why are the Council of 50 Minutes so secretive, or at least so well gaurded? It has been hard for me to find much of any details on that whole matter. This doesn’t seem to be on the same level as “Temple Sacred” and doesn’t seem as contraverisal as..other items.

  18. Velikiye Kniaz on February 28, 2008 at 2:54 am

    By the by, Ardis, would you ever consider speaking to a group of the Sons of the Utah Pioneers (with plenty of sister pioneers in attendance as spouses and significant others). Sorry, for the minor threadjack, but I don’t know your e-maill address. I have always been fascinated by your contibutions to this site and would love to hear more. Oh, and you get a free dinner, too! Local venue, Salt Lake City chapter.

  19. Ross Geddes on February 28, 2008 at 7:02 pm

    # 9 Re the comment on the George Q. Cannon journals: Does anyone know what happened to the Historical Department’s project to publish these? Volume 1 appeared in 1999, but so far no more have followed.

  20. Ardis Parshall on February 28, 2008 at 7:59 pm

    Ross, it’s expected that projects like the Cannon journals will get underway again, now that the Mountain Meadows book has gone to the publisher. The MM project sucked up all available resources, including the time and attention of the scholars who had been working on the Cannon journals, so everything was put on hold. I haven’t heard any estimate of when to expect the next volume, though.

  21. Ross Geddes on February 28, 2008 at 8:09 pm

    Thanks for that update, Ardis.

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