There is a strange paradox in much of what has been written about Joseph Smith. Believer and disbeliever alike have refused to tolerate human weakness in the man: believers by ignoring or denying any evidence that Joseph ever acted out of human needs or human limitations; disbelievers by disparaging him for imperfection. In the ideological warfare that has largely dominated the historical treatment of the Prophet, one side has seen him as chosen, a saintly spokesman for the Lord whose every word and every act is a divine command or a moral lesson; the other side reversed that immaculate image and portrayed him as depraved, hedonistic, lustful for power and worldly pleasure, a model of the religious hypocrite and fraud. In approaching Joseph from this absolutistic perspective, the antagonists have allowed the historical Joseph Smith to nearly vanish. The few attempts to break free of these cast-iron moldings have reached but a small number of readers.
Dean Jessee’s new volume, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, affords Mormon and non-Mormon readers a chance to look at the sources that Joseph Smith himself produced, material heretofore examined by only a handful of scholars. Here is a perspective of the Prophet that has largely escaped us, and it is not surprising that this Joseph does not fit entirely into either of the dichotomous molds. For this reason, The Personal Writings constitutes the most important source book on the Mormon prophet to be published since B. H. Roberts edited Joseph’s History of the Church just after the turn of the century.