I recently had the privilege to interview Matt Godfrey. Godfrey is the managing historian and general editor of the Joseph Smith Papers.
Kurt Manwaring: Welcome! Before we begin, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you first got involved with the Joseph Smith Papers?
Matt Godfrey: I have history in my blood — both of my parents (Ken and Audrey Godfrey) have advanced degrees in history.
My dad spent his career in the Church Education System, and did his doctoral dissertation on causes of conflict between Mormon/non-Mormon citizens of Hancock County, Illinois. He also wrote numerous articles over the course of his career on Nauvoo and Joseph Smith.
My mother was focused more on Utah history and did a master’s thesis on the women that accompanied the soldiers to Utah Territory during the Utah War.
I received a Ph.D. in history from Washington State University and did my dissertation on government investigations into the Utah-Idaho Sugar Company, a corporation in which the Church had a large interest, in the 1910s. I published this as a book with Utah State University Press in 2007.
After I received my Ph.D., I started working for a historical and archeological consulting company in Missoula, Montana (Historical Research Associates, Inc.), and spent eight and a half years there, the last two and a half of which I served as president/CEO of the company.
We mainly did expert witness work for the U.S. Department of Justice when they were being sued over issues with historical roots, such as water rights or Native American issues. I also wrote several administrative histories of federal government entities, including districts of the Army Corps of Engineers and units in the National Park Service.
In 2009, my dad received an email from Ron Barney, who was then with the Joseph Smith Papers project, asking if he thought I would be interested in applying for a job with the project. I knew of the great reputation of the project and was looking to bring my family back to Utah, so I applied and was fortunate enough to be hired. I started working with the project in August 2010.
Kurt Manwaring: You received your Ph.D. from Washington State University. Did you have any mentors while pursuing your doctorate that continue to influence the way you think about history?
Matt Godfrey: Yes. One of the primary fields for my doctorate was public history, and I worked closely with Dr. Orlan Svingen, who oversaw the public history program at Washington State.
Orlan really opened my eyes to how important it is to produce history that speaks not just to academics but to the general public as well. He trained me well in public history methodology and introduced me to the world of consulting, which led to my job at HRA.
Orlan did nothing with Mormon history, but his emphasis on addressing the general public has been very influential for me in thinking about the Joseph Smith Papers and its importance to both scholars and church members.
Kurt Manwaring: Would you comment on your experiences soon after joining the Joseph Smith Papers? What were some of your observations when you first came on board? Was there anything that surprised you? Were your thoughts immediately welcomed by the team? Was there ever a point in your first few months you thought, “I can’t believe I get to do this for my job”?
Matt Godfrey: I was hired by the project at a time when it was going through a transitional phase. Instead of relying on academics at BYU to edit Joseph Smith’s papers, the project was hiring Ph.Ds who would work for the Church History Department and produce the content internally.
So it was an exciting time to come aboard.
I think one of my first observations was how many smart and capable people worked on the project. The Joseph Smith Papers historically and today employees some of the brightest minds in the field of Mormon history and Mormon studies, and it was a pleasure to associate with them on a daily basis.
I feel like Ron Esplin and Jeff Walker, who were managing the project when I joined, were very open and accepting of ideas to improve the project. Not all of these could be implemented, of course, because the project already had certain ways of doing things, but I never felt as though I couldn’t offer suggestions. Ron and Jeff were very good at listening to those suggestions. They very much helped me feel a part of the team from my first day.
In terms of a moment when I thought, “I can’t believe I get to do this for my job,” it came on my very first day when I was walking towards the beautiful Church History Library, saw the temple in the background, and realized I was now a part of the seminal Mormon history project of the twenty-first century.
Kurt Manwaring: You are the general editor and managing historian of the Joseph Smith Papers. What is the difference between these two responsibilities?
Matt Godfrey: The managing historian responsibility is more of an administrative job. It means I sit on the Joseph Smith Papers management team, which guides the project. I also have ultimate responsibility for the fifteen historians who work on the project, and I oversee the project’s budget.
The general editor responsibility means that I read everything that the project produces both to try to improve content and to preserve the project’s tone and style.
To put it simply, the managing historian is more of an administrative responsibility; the general editor more of an academic one.
Kurt Manwaring: The JSP is a very academic project, and yet there are a significant number of laymen who read the volumes. Why does the project appeal to both academics and the population of Mormons?
Matt Godfrey: First of all, I think it’s important to note that our primary audience for the Joseph Smith Papers is a scholarly one. We are producing these volumes so that scholars working on Joseph Smith or the Joseph Smith-era of church history have available to them Joseph Smith’s own words and the documents surrounding his life.
However, many church members are very much interested in the church’s history and naturally want to know more about Joseph Smith. The Joseph Smith Papers serves as a resource for them as well.
I think it’s also an important resource for church members because we live in a day where there is much positive and negative information on Joseph Smith available online.
Members now have a credible and scholarly place they can go to read the sources and see what they say for themselves.
Kurt Manwaring: Would you set the stage for this volume? What was going on in the life of Joseph Smith and in the church as a whole from September 1839—January 1841?
Matt Godfrey: When Documents, Volume 7, opens, Joseph Smith and the Saints have been in the Commerce area—what would become Nauvoo—for only a short period of time. They had just endured a summer of disease, as mosquitoes spread the ague, or malaria, among them. In fact, some still suffered from the disease and would continue to do so through the fall and winter.
The Commerce area was not a pleasant place at this time. Located on the flats along the Mississippi River, it was essentially a swamp that Joseph Smith reportedly described as “a low marshy wet damp and nasty place.”
But throughout this volume we see Joseph’s optimism of what the area could become: the city of Nauvoo, “a cornerstone of Zion,” as a 19 January 1841 revelation declared, and even “the greatest city in the world” as Joseph told a congregation of Saints in July 1840.
And that’s what’s exciting about this volume—it deals with this initial period when the Saints take Nauvoo from a swamp to an incorporated city with its own charter.
This is also a time when the church is still reeling from the Missouri expulsion—something that hovers above Joseph Smith and the Saints throughout the volume. Joseph is determined to get redress for the persecution of the Saints in Missouri, and he travels to Washington DC in the fall of 1839 seeking such redress.
In addition, the volume covers a period when the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles commences a mission to Great Britain, and we have several letters to and from Joseph and the apostles about this mission.
Kurt Manwaring: What are two or three highlights from this volume you are really excited about?
Matt Godfrey: The letters from the apostles in England are one highlight for me. There is an extensive letter Heber C. Kimball writes to Joseph Smith in July 1840 that is essentially Heber’s journal of his journey to England and his impressions of the country upon arriving.
Letters from Brigham Young and Willard Richards also comment on the condition of the people they are preaching to in England. Brigham and Heber especially are shocked by the great poverty they see. For example, they describe in detail being accosted by children begging for money and food as they walk through the streets of England.
Another highlight for me are the documents surrounding Joseph’s trip to Washington DC.
Two documents especially stand out.
One is a lengthy memorial that Joseph, Elias Higbee, and Sidney Rigdon prepare with the help of the Illinois congressional delegation to submit to Congress. This memorial conveys in excruciating detail all that the Saints endured in Missouri and asks for $2 million in reparations. It is a haunting explication of religious persecution in the United States, one that highlights the issues that minorities faced when they ran afoul of the majority.
The other document from the trip that I find especially interesting is a letter that Matthew Davis, a newspaper correspondent, wrote to his wife Mary Greene Davis after hearing Joseph preach in Washington DC. This letter describes not only the contents of Joseph’s sermon but Joseph’s appearance as well, stating that he was “what you ladies would call a good looking man.”
Another valuable document is a petition that Joseph sent to the Nauvoo high council in June 1840, essentially asking to be relieved from the responsibilities of overseeing land sales in Nauvoo. Joseph told the high council that these responsibilities took so much of his time that he felt his spiritual leadership of the Saints was suffering.
I think this shows the heavy burden that Joseph faced in this period because he had gone into a huge amount of debt to purchase land in the Commerce area and across the Mississippi River in Lee County, Iowa Territory, for the Saints. Temporal responsibilities weighed heavy on him during this period.
Kurt Manwaring: What kind of research might this volume facilitate in the coming months and years?
Matt Godfrey: I hope that it facilitates additional research into this key part of the history of the church, one that I think historians sometimes overlook.
Sometimes we go from the Saints suffering from disease in the summer of 1839 to the Saints beginning the Nauvoo temple without discussing what occurs in between.
I think this volume helps to fill in the gaps of what occurred in the intervening months.
I also hope this volume promotes more research into women in Nauvoo during this early period. Numerous land transactions occur in Nauvoo during 1839 and 1840 as more Saints move to the area and enter into agreements with Joseph Smith for land.
We provide samples of some of the documents generated in these transactions.
One that we feature is a purchase of land by Jane Miller, a woman in Nauvoo about whom we know very little. She was probably a single woman in the area, perhaps a widow. She purchased a lot in Nauvoo for $200 and executed five promissory notes for payment.
I would love to see more studies on the economic conditions of such Nauvoo women.
The document also contains a pay order that Joseph fills out for a “Mrs Young,” who we surmise is Mary Ann Young, Brigham Young’s wife. This pay order, coupled with letters that Phebe Woodruff and Vilate Kimball wrote to their husbands in England, highlight the impoverishment of the families of the apostles who were overseas. The pay order for “Mrs Young” instructs Newel K. Whitney to let her “have any thing she wants” from the church’s storehouse, indicating that she is in great need.
More detailed studies of the economic conditions of the wives and families of the apostles during their mission to England would be wonderful.
Kurt Manwaring: How has your perception of Joseph Smith evolved since you first joined the Papers project?
Matt Godfrey: I think I now see Joseph Smith more as a real person than the mythical character that we sometimes have in mind.
I think we often hold Joseph to an impossible standard—that he never made mistakes, that he knew everything about the gospel when he exited the Sacred Grove, that he never felt real human emotions like anger and sorrow.
And of course that’s a completely unfair way to look at him because no human being is like that.
Working on the Joseph Smith Papers has shown me that Joseph experienced life much the same way that we all do.
He worried about the health of his children. He experienced sorrow and pain at the deaths of several of his children, some at childbirth, others as infants. He was trying to figure out how to lead a church at the same time that he was trying to fulfill his roles as a husband, a father, a son, a brother. He learned “line upon line, precept upon precept,” just like we all do and, although he sometimes experienced revelation through glorious visions and visitations, he often experienced it as a feeling or thought, the same way we are taught revelation comes to us.
Sometimes the Lord let him figure out things on his own, making mistakes along the way.
So for me, Joseph has become much more of a human being, someone who is not difficult to relate to as I go through life.
Kurt Manwaring: Should religious believers be afraid of history if it occasionally reveals findings that deviate from long-held beliefs? Have you ever encountered a historical issue that tried your faith?
Matt Godfrey: I personally don’t think that we need to be afraid of our history. It is what it is, and it sometimes is messy, just like life is messy.
I think we run into trouble if we are afraid of new insights and knowledge. Because it seems that Joseph Smith and that era of church history has been explored ad nauseam, it’s been surprising to me to realize just how much we don’t know about Joseph as a person and about his history and the church’s history during these years.
There is much to learn from the documents that we are publishing in the Joseph Smith Papers and that is a good thing. It illustrates the complexity of Joseph Smith and the need to keep studying and learning about him.
I personally have never had a specific historical issue that tried my faith.
I believe that you can find an explanation about anything that is satisfactory, as long as you realize that there are two sides to every story, that everyone has a bias in what they write, and that there are some things we just don’t know.
And it helps too — for me, anyway — to do what Elder Neil L. Andersen counseled us to do: “Give Joseph a break.”
I hope that people looking back on my life give me the benefit of the doubt and think that I was trying my best even when I made mistakes, and I try to have that same perspective when looking at historical figures.
Kurt Manwaring: If you could go back in time to observe any event or procure any document from Mormon history, what would you do and why?
Matt Godfrey: I’m going to cheat and give two.
First, I would have loved to have been at the funeral service for Seymour Brunson in August 1840 when Joseph first spoke about baptism for the dead. This seems to have been a doctrine that was very pleasing to the Saints, and it would be interesting to see the Saints’ reaction when Joseph unveiled the doctrine.
Second, my heart is really in the Kirtland period of church history, so I would have loved to have attended the dedication of the Kirtland Temple—maybe not for Sidney Rigdon’s two-and-a-half hour talk at the dedication, but for everything else.