The Church issued a press release today annoucing the creation of a “Church Historian’s Press” to handle the publication of the Joseph Smith Papers. (The press release also mentioned “works related to the church’s history and growth.”) I am not quite sure what the rationale for this is. Previous volume of the papers were published by Deseret Book, which did a nice enough job, although of late the physical publication standards at Deseret Book have been falling. Perhaps the new imprint is to insure library quality production values. Maybe it just reduces administrative hassle to have the production done in-house, particularlly in light of the way that technology has been dropping the costs of publishing. Or perhaps something bigger is afoot.
Perhaps this heralds a desire by the Church Historian’s Office to move more aggressively into the publication of more scholarlly materials on Mormonism. Note, the Church already publishes lots of stuff — CES Manuals, scriptures, etc. — and this is clearly meant as something different than the Church’s ordinary publishing. It is meant to boost Mormon scholarship, according to the press release. There are a number of ways that one might spin this. Perhaps, the Church is looking for a way of dealing with controversial or complex topics through some sort of an official imprint that is not tied to the ordinary demands of Church curriculum. At one extreme, this could be the second coming of Camelot, namely an attempt for the Church to provide scholarlly interpretation in-house, as it were. I hope not, as in the end I think that Mordred had a point.
I think that Mormon discussions are best served when we don’t have official interpretations of thorny historical problems. The theological stakes get too high and the cost of errors can become really big for some. A much better model is one in which the Church actively encourages faithful latter-day saints to look at these issues for themselves, and creates an enviroment in which Mormon scholars working independent of the church provide a rich literature on which interested saints can draw. It is best, however, that this literature not be published by the church, in my opinion. For example, I think that it is good both that the forthcoming book on MMM be published at Oxford. I hope that this means that the book’s interpretation gets judged on the merits rather than being seen as authoritative. One place where, I think a Church press could be useful is if it got into the business of providing high-quality library editions of original sources. Right now the most extensive collection of such documents — aside from the Selected Collections DVDs — has been done by Signature Books. I think that a Church press could produce such collections, and doing so would give them greater control over the sorts of copyright issues that always come up when publishing documentary collections. Even here, however, I hope that the Church Historians Press would tread softly, particularlly in its editorial policy. What I want to avoid is some sort of official interpretation of the historical texts. Much better to provide folks with good principles and good documents, and let them govern themselves.