Some time ago, I had the opportunity of hearing a presentation by Daniel Walker Howe, a historian who won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for his book What Hath God Wrought: A History of the United States, 1815-1848. In the course of the seminar, Howe made a plea for academic historians to stop ignoring the general public in their work, declaring that it was time for historians to stop talking only to each other and to engage the larger public. As a trained public historian, I appreciated Howe’s words, recognizing that much of my own work falls within the long-standing historical tradition of attempting to bridge the popular/academic divide. Working first as a historical consultant and now as a documentary editor, I have had many opportunities to engage a broader audience than just academics. In my consulting work, I wrote reports and histories for such entities as the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the National Park Service, the U.S. Department of Interior, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Southern Nevada Water Authority. Few of those who read my work had a background in history, although many professed an interest in it. All of this work was done under contract at the behest of clients who generally had clear notions of what they wanted their history to look like. From these projects—and from reading the experiences of other consultants—I learned how to write scholarly history that was acceptable to disparate audiences.
In 2010, I shifted careers and took a job as a documentary editor with the Joseph Smith Papers, a project sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the church that Smith founded. Although I was not sure that my years as a historical consultant would provide any kind of useful experience for this new work, I soon discovered that the issues of audience and engagement were really no different in my new job than they were in my old one. Many documentary editing projects do not receive widespread attention from the general public, but the Smith Papers are different, as they involve a man that many consider a foundation of their religious beliefs. Therefore, trying to produce history that was scholarly, unbiased, and engaging was essential, especially given the audiences that existed for Joseph Smith’s papers, the wide-ranging interpretations and emotional reactions that discussions of Smith evoke in those audiences, and the difficulties that some members of the church face when confronted by history that differs from the faith-promoting stories they are told in church meetings and classes.
Both the print volumes and the website of the Smith Papers are geared primarily toward a scholarly audience. “The web and print publications,” the project’s website explains, “are designed for historians, religious studies specialists, teachers and writers of American history and religion, and other scholars and serious students of Joseph Smith and early Mormonism.” Yet because members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints revere Smith as the founder of their church and as the one who, in their minds, restored the true church of Christ to the earth, many of them have a strong interest in his life.
When the first volume in the Journals series, which was also the first volume the project produced, was published in 2008, the initial printing of 11,000 copies sold out “almost immediately.” To date, the volume has sold over 63,000 copies, an astonishing figure in the field of documentary editing. According to Richard Turley, assistant church historian, the commercial success of the volume was “in great part [due] to the interests of the Latter-day Saints. They crave information about the early history of the church, and they’re eager to get their hands on that kind of material.” Thus, although the target audience for the Joseph Smith Papers is scholars, ordinary Latter-day Saints are a prominent secondary audience.
Producing volumes that appeal to scholars who profess no belief in Smith as a prophet or mouthpiece for God, to historians who disregard Smith’s claims as a prophet but who believe he was an integral part of American history, and to members who anchor their religious faith on Smith’s prophetic claims is a challenge. Indeed, Joseph Smith generally invokes a strong reaction in people. As one of Smith’s biographers, explained, “He has been variously described as a pretender after worldly power, religious fanatic, or God’s mouthpiece on earth.” In the words of another historian, “two Josephs” exist: “the one who started out digging for money and when he was unsuccessful, turned to propheteering; and the one who had visions and dreamed dreams, restored the church, and revealed the will of the Lord to a sinful world.”
With such divergent opinions, it is not surprising that anything written about Joseph Smith receives close scrutiny—by academics for evidence of bias and advocacy in favor of Smith and by members of the church for evidence of bias and advocacy against Smith. That the editors of the Joseph Smith Papers are all believing Latter-day Saints, and that some members of the church hierarchy review each volume before it is published (as part of a more comprehensive review process), complicates matters.
However, practitioners of public history—especially those doing contract history for clients—face similar dilemmas as they confront conflicting audiences for their work products. Coming to the Joseph Smith Papers from a historical consulting background, it became apparent to me that the issues that editors of the Joseph Smith Papers confronted were not dissimilar to those I faced when writing histories under contract with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or for the National Park Service. In the next installment, I will examine these similarities, as well as address ways that historians can successfully create products for disparate audiences.
~ Matthew C. Godfrey is Associate Managing Historian for the Joseph Smith Papers
 One exception to this is the Margaret Sanger Papers. Because of her writings on birth control and reproductive rights, Sanger’s induction into the Arizona Women’s Hall of Fame in the 1990s sparked controversy and an increased interest in Sanger’s papers. As Esther Katz, the editor of her papers, recalled, both those in favor and those against Sanger’s induction attempted “to use Sanger’s papers as ammunition in the service of rationalizing a particular political position—and ask[ed] me to produce the smoking gun.” Katz, “The Editor as Public Authority: Interpreting Margaret Sanger,” The Public Historian 17 (Winter 1995): 43.
 Dan Vogel, Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2004), vii.
 Jan Shipps, “The Prophet Puzzle: Suggestions Leading toward a More Comprehensive Interpretation of Joseph Smith,” in The Prophet Puzzle: Interpretive Essays on Joseph Smith, Bryan Waterman, ed. (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1999), 44.
 Mormon historians are not alone in this dilemma. When a historian who was a member of the Seventh-Day Adventists published a history of its prophet Ellen G. White that drew on naturalistic explanations of her theology, it created a firestorm in the church. As one article related, the historian discovered that it was “impossible . . . to deal with her life objectively without being accused of adopting a negative tone.” Jonathan Butler, “The Historian as Heretic,” Spectrum 23 (August 1993): 50; see also Ronald L. Numbers, Prophetess of Health: A Study of Ellen G. White (New York: Harper & Row, 1976). In addition to reviews by members of the church hierarchy, each volume in the Joseph Smith Papers is also reviewed by scholars and academics, including leading authorities in documentary editing such as Sue Perdue and Stephen Stein.