At first glance, the title of this work may imply it is a documentary history project, but in fact, Mark Ashurst-McGee, Robin Scott Jensen, and Sharalyn D. Howcroft have not compiled a collection of documents, but rather a series of essays by other scholars (with the exception of Howcroft who includes her own entry in the volume) about these foundational documents. The editors lay out the purpose of the book, which “insists on the importance of taking a closer look at the essential texts that historians use to reconstruct the founding era of the Church” (1). They further state that since these major sources have been used and will continue to be used extensively by writers, these texts need to be understood and viewed with a more critical eye.
The editors begin their introduction crediting Dean C. Jessee’s landmark work in the 1970s as the start of the present compilation. Jessee (to whom the volume itself is dedicated) discovered that the History of Joseph Smith, the Prophet, by Himself, was actually largely compiled by scribes and assistants and was not, in fact, written by Joseph at all, though the project was certainly under his direction. Ashurst-McGee, Jensen, and Howcroft then appropriately recognize that “while the complex production of Joseph Smith’s history may make it the archetypical example of the need to understand how and when and by whom a document was created, there are several other foundational sources, used frequently by those researching and writing in early Mormon history, that are not what they appear to be on their face” (4). Their volume reviews these “other foundational sources” and offers greater context to their creation and subsequent publication and reception (4).