Latter-day Saint historian gets a tough calling: Write a fresh biography of Joseph Smith

“Joseph the Prophet” will join a long list of books about the church founder, with authors ranging from his mother to an apostle to Fawn Brodie and Richard Bushman.

(Image courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Church founder Joseph Smith will be the subject of a new official biography.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has commissioned a new official biography of its 19th-century charismatic founder, to be titled simply: “Joseph the Prophet.”

The new volume about Joseph Smith will be written by Richard E. Turley Jr., who has produced more than 20 books — including two treatments of the infamous Mountain Meadows Massacre — and served as the faith’s assistant church historian and recorder as well as other roles for the global faith.

One of Turley’s subjects for a previous biography, Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the church’s governing First Presidency, announced the plan Friday during his keynote address in the opening session of a two-day conference discussing the landmark Joseph Smith Papers project.

It will take “years to complete the volume,” according to a church news release. Teams of church scholars, including many who worked on the papers project, will help with the research.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Dallin H. Oaks of the First Presidency speaks at the Joseph Smith Papers conference in the Conference Center Theater in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 15, 2023.

The biography itself “will be written as a narrative for a general audience,” the release said, and the church expects it “to garner a wide readership.”

In his remarks, Oaks, who was an “apostolic adviser” in church history for 20 years, described the origins of the Joseph Smith Papers project.

“It was a generous couple willing to heed spiritual promptings that provided the key to catapulting the project forward on a grand scale,” the longtime Latter-day Saint apostle said. “They were Larry H. and Gail Miller, prominent Utah philanthropists who owned an automobile sales empire and the Utah Jazz basketball team, among other enterprises.”

For his part, Turley was humbled by the challenge.

“Although I can’t think of a topic on which I would rather write, I also feel the heavy responsibility that now rests on my shoulders,” the historian told The Salt Lake Tribune. “Gratefully, I am surrounded by brilliant and thoughtful colleagues who are contributing to this project.”

Indeed, it is an overwhelming assignment. Many others from the church’s founding in 1830 to today have tried to capture what they believed was the essence of the man — whether prophetic visionary or shrewd charlatan.

That list includes:

• J. B. Turner, “Mormonism in All Ages: Or the Rise, Progress, and Causes of Mormonism, with the Biography of Its Author and Founder Joseph Smith,” 1842.

• Lucy Mack Smith, “Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet, and His Progenitors for Many Generations,” 1844.

• George Q. Cannon, “Life of Joseph Smith the Prophet,” 1888.

• I. Woodbridge Riley, “The Founder of Mormonism: A Psychological Study of Joseph Smith,” 1903.

• Harry M. Beardsley, “Joseph Smith and His Mormon Empire,” 1931.

• Fawn M. Brodie, “No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith the Mormon Prophet,” 1945.

• John J. Stewart, “Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet,” 1966.

• Leon R. Hartshorn, “Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration,” 1970.

• Donna Hill, “Joseph Smith: the First Mormon,” 1977.

• Truman G. Madsen, “Joseph Smith, the Prophet,” 1989.

• Robert V. Remini, “Joseph Smith,” 2002.

• Dan Vogel, “Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet,” 2004.

• Richard L. Bushman, “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling,” 2005.

(Photo courtesy of Richard Bushman) Latter-day Saint scholar Richard Bushman wrote the highly acclaimed "Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling."

Bushman, considered by many to be the premier Latter-day Saint biographer of the founder, discussed many previous attempts in “Joseph Smith’s Many Histories,” including their perspectives and biases.

John G. Turner, author of the 2012 biography “Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet,” is now nearing completion on his look at Young’s predecessor.

“I can’t imagine a better time to research the life of Joseph Smith,” Turner wrote in an email. “The Joseph Smith Papers project has made it so much easier to examine the sources that document his life.”

At the same time, he notes that Smith had “very little to say about some of the key moments in his life. He preferred not to discuss the details of the Book of Mormon translation, and he only made oblique references to plural marriage. So it’s still an intimidating task to try to write a biography of Mormonism’s founding prophet.”

For Turner, who is not a Latter-day Saint, the good news “is that there’s plenty of room in this vineyard for many writers.”

The engaging but controversial Smith led “a complex, multifaceted” life,” he said, “and it’s essential that historians bring different backgrounds and presuppositions to the task of better understanding him and the movement he started.”