For the first time ever, scholars and faithful Mormons can crack open a book and examine photocopies of the original writings and revelations of LDS church founder Joseph Smith.
The second in a series of weighty volumes that eventually could top 30, The Joseph Smith Papers: Revelations and Translations , was released Tuesday by The Church Historian's Press, an imprint of the church's history department.
The revelations, from 1828 to 1834, are in the hand of Smith, John Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery and Sidney Rigdon, among others, and include the Book of Commandments and Revelations and the Kirtland Revelation Book .
Both texts were sources for the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants, considered scripture by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In the new volume -- with the subtitle Manuscript Revelation Books -- the photocopied documents are on the left pages; transcriptions, including corrections and revisions in color ink corresponding to the name of each scribe, are on the right. It includes 320 pages of revelations.
The documents give a glimpse of the church's earliest days, when followers called their prophets by their first names, Prophet Joseph and Brother Brigham, Church Historian Marlin K. Jensen said at a news conference unveiling the 705-page volume.
"There was a wonderful connection with the prophet," Jensen said, "and tremendous excitement with the idea that he was in touch with God."
The historian, who also is a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy, said the church knew there would be a risk in publishing all the documents pertaining to the church's first prophet, an endeavor that has been under way for 20 years. The first volume, Joseph Smith Papers: Journals was published last December.
"Joseph Smith was only a prophet, only a man," Jensen said, "a means to an end."
While it is "healthy and necessary" to explore early Mormonism, Jensen said, the church hopes that publishing the prophet's papers will lead more people to learn about Jesus Christ.
Elder Russell M. Nelson, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said that while the revelations are of "eternal significance," the book should be considered only as a supplement to scripture.
"We would not ask any of them [members] to make a sacrifice they can't afford," said Nelson, referring to the book's $100 price tag. "Everything they need ... for exaltation is already available to them."
Three historians who were the volume's editors, Robin Scott Jensen, Robert J. Woodford and Steven C. Harper, said that looking at the original documents gave them a better understanding of revelation and of Joseph Smith.
"One of the fascinating things ... is the way you see Joseph Smith, the farmer, and Joseph Smith, the seer, on the same pages," said Harper, associate professor of church history and doctrine at church-owned Brigham Young University.
"It's just remarkable to me that the people who knew Joseph Smith best believed him most," Harper said. "The people who watched him do it, believed. That's really compelling to me."
Woodford, a retired instructor for the church's Institute of Religion at the University of Utah, said the documents should better inform Latter-day Saints about the nature of revelation.
While church members for decades believed revelation was word for word from God's lips, Woodford said, many of the revelations to Joseph were recorded in the prophet's own words via inspiration of the Holy Ghost.
Jensen said future volumes, particularly those dealing with documents, will help put the revelations in better context.
Richard Turley, assistant church historian, said the new volume should resolve some questions about early LDS history, such as where the church was organized in April 1830.
The first church printer, William W. Phelps, wrote that it was in Manchester, N.Y., but the manuscript he used verified the city as Fayette, N.Y.
The volume is dedicated to the late Larry H. Miller, who helped fund the historical research for the book.
The Joseph Smith Papers will focus on records from six areas -- journals, history, documents, administration, revelations and translations, and legal and business. The first volume, Joseph Smith Papers: Journals came out last December. The latest volume, Revelations and Translations: Manuscript Revelation Books, is available now. Volumes on documents and history are due out next year.
For more information, go to josephsmithpapers.org.