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Sunday School Doctrine and Covenants Lesson 11: “The Field Is White Already to Harvest” (D&C 4, 11, 12, 14-16, 18, 31, 33, 75)

Posted by joespencer on March 8, 2009

[This post is still under construction. I’m posting it now for those who may be looking already for help. I’ll be adding to it each day.]

Below is a collection of notes on D&C 4, 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, 18, 31, 33, and 75, all meant to be something of a help for those teaching D&C Lesson 11.

D&C 4

This section is famous as the “missionary section” of the Doctrine and Covenants. But of course, quite a bit more should be said about it than just that. Some general thoughts, and then a few (quite brief!) verse by verse comments:

D&C 4 in General

The historical circumstances surrounding the reception of this revelation are somewhat obscure. The section heading draws on the information recorded in the History of the Church, according to which Joseph received the revelation in February 1829 and in response to a petition from Joseph’s father, Joseph Smith, Sr. In her history of Joseph’s life, Lucy Mack Smith (Joseph’s mother) described a visit she and Joseph Sr. made to Joseph something like “two months” after Martin had lost the 116 pages of manuscript translation. It was likely during this somewhat stressful visit (Joseph’s parents met Emma’s parents for the first time, etc.) that the revelation was received.

Historically speaking, this was only the second (written) revelation that Joseph had received, and it had not been long since he had received the first. D&C 3 was the first revelation Joseph had received and written down, and it was inseparably connected with the loss of the manuscript a few months earlier. D&C 4 has a very different tone and bearing than the earlier revelation. (Cf. a series of podcasted lectures I did on section 3.) The particularities of the earlier revelation (concern about Joseph specifically, or about Martin specifically, or about their places in the unfolding work) have disappeared, and the emphasis is on the unnamed masses: “ye” who desire, “ye” who embark, “ye” who develop the attributes listed, etc.

In other words, though this revelation seems clearly to have been received because of a petition from Joseph’s father, it is much less “historical” than it might at first seem: the revelation itself breaks with the particularities of its circumstances.

Moreover, this revelation was one of the first of a whole series of what came to be called “commandments.” Though it is common for us to refer to documents gathered into the Doctrine and Covenants as “revelations,” it is perhaps best to make a distinction between “revelations” and “commandments.” The earliest revelations, section 4 being the first of its kind, are all what were referred to as “commandments” (as in the Book of Commandments or in what were referred to in the 1835 D&C as the “covenants and commandments of the Lord to his servants of the church of the Latter Day Saints”). Commandments differ from revelations in that they are relatively short, incredibly personal words of commandment or instruction, delivered through the Prophet to a particular individual who wanted to know her or his place in the work. Revelations, more strictly speaking, are words directed to much broader groups, revelatory words of much broader applicability. Commandments, then, were something like a proto-patriarchal blessing, thus differing from revelations like D&C 29, for example, or D&C 45.

D&C 4, it would seem, hovers somewhere between these two kinds of revelation: it seems to have been received as a kind of proto-patriarchal blessing for Joseph’s father, and yet it is worded in such a way as to have relatively universal applicability. This is something we will see in a number of the commandments: portions of them are quite universal, while other parts will seem to be much more specific to the particular individuals involved.

All of that said…

D&C 4, Verse by Verse

Though this section of the D&C is quite familiar, its words deserve a great deal more detailed attention than we are wont to give to them. Because I will be trying to keep my comments here as brief as possible, I’ll comment only on three phrases from the revelation.

“a marvelous work”

The language here comes directly from Isaiah 29, a passage that had already begun to play an important role in the Restoration and one that would come to play a still more important role shortly after this revelation’s reception. Isaiah 29, it would seem, was quoted by the Lord Himself during the First Vision, since Joseph reports Him as having said of the rivaling religions of the day that “all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: ‘they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof'” (JS-H 1:19). Moreover, part of Isaiah 29 had already been “fulfilled” during Martin’s visit to New York and his talk with Charles Anthon. Though there has been some debate about exactly what happened during that encounter, as well as about exactly when Joseph Smith connected the event with Isaiah 29, there is good evidence that the connection had been made by Martin himself even before he returned to Joseph. Moreover, Joseph and Oliver would only a few months later find themselves translating 2 Nephi 26-27, where Isaiah 29 is not only adapted by Nephi, but also fleshed out in a remarkably detailed description of the Anthon incident.

This phrase is drawn from that same 29th chapter of Isaiah. In fact, it is drawn from the verse immediately following the one quoted by the Lord during the First Vision. The whole passage reads: “Wherefore the Lord said, Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men: Therefore, behold, I will proceed to do a marvellous work among this people, even a marvellous work and a wonder: for the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid” (Isaiah 29:13-14). One could perhaps say that D&C 4 follows from the First Vision: because of what the Lord had to say during that encounter, this work has to come forward.

More broadly, of course, the wording here invites one to take up D&C 4 within the context either of Isaiah 29 or of 2 Nephi2 6-27: what is the work?

“called to the work”; “qualif[ied] for the work”

These two phrases come from verses 3 and 5 respectively. I think it is helpful to draw them, making note of their connection with the “marvelous work” that is about to come forth among the children of men. If verse 1 announces the coming forth of the work, verse 3 explains how one is called to that work, and verse 5 explains how one is qualified for that work: to be called, one must simply desire to serve God, but to be qualified, one must have faith, hope, charity, and love with an eye single to the glory of God. A great deal, obviously, can be said about both this calling and these qualifications, but for brevity’s sake, I’ll leave such comments for another time.

“Remember faith,” etc.

The whole of verse 6 read quite differently in the original revelation. From the Book of Commandments (3:2): “Remember temperance, patience, humility, diligence, &c.” The subsequent change to the revelation that rendered the text as it now stands seems to have been undertaken in order to connect the revelation with 2 Peter 1 (a chapter very much worth the attention of the saints!). This shift is, I think, quite interesting. Whereas the revelation originally seems to have, at this point, enjoined its readers to remember all things moderate (note that the list here covers all kinds of self-imposed virtues of moderation: temperance, patience, humility, diligence, etc.), the revelation as it now stands enjoins the reader to a careful progression of sorts among specified virtues, all leading from simple faith to complex and complete charity. Emphasis in engagement in the work of God is thus shifted from one’s essential modesty in preaching to one’s personal relationship with God—one’s quest for an always more charitable approach to preaching.

D&C 11

The circumstances surrounding this revelation are relatively obscure. It is clear that the revelation was received because of the petition of Hyrum, Joseph’s brother. But it is odd, perhaps, that no such revelation is on record for Joseph’s younger brother Samuel, who had come to inquire about the work about the same time. Whether this should be taken as an indication of the role Hyrum was to play in the work or not remains unclear, but it should not be overlooked that this is a real possibility. Though Hyrum would not take up an essentially central place in the Restoration until 1841 (at which point he would take Oliver’s curious place as well as become the Church Patriarch), he was already receiving relatively detailed instructions in May of 1829.

In light of these details, it is interesting to see that Hyrum is instructed, in a very famous passage, to be patient, studying and preparing for a time when his tongue would be loosed. On the reading guided by the above thoughts, that time of patient study and preparation lasted a full decade and more. But then Hyrum emerged as one of the most important figures of the Restoration, having inherited the place of Oliver.

In order to keep this post as short as possible, I will deal here only with the passage mentioned above: D&C 11:21-22. And I’ll deal with it simply by linking to a podcasted mock zone conference talk on it I gave in 2007: http://teachyediligently.mypodcast.com/2007/10/Zone_Conference-45234.html.

D&C 12, 14, 15, 16

These four sections are perfect examples of what I described above as “proto-patriarchal blessings.” The formulaic nature of these revelations is remarkably obvious: compare D&C 12:1-5 with D&C 14:1-5 and D&C 15 in its entirely with D&C 16 in its entirety. The two sections that perhaps deserve more extended historical contextualization are sections 12 and 14.

Background to Sections 12 and 14

Section 12 was a proto-patriarchal blessing given to Joseph Knight. In some sense, this is a unique such revelation, because Joseph Knight was one of very few pre-1830 followers of Joseph who never subsequently left the Church. He had been one of Joseph’s consistent helpers, though he never played any of the most obviously central roles in the early events of the Church: he did not see the plates as one of the three-and-eight witnesses; he did not help to translate the record at any point; he did not finance the printing of the Book of Mormon; etc. But he was faithful and constantly helpful (having provided food at needed times, the wagon Joseph and Emma took to Cumorah to retrieve the plates in 1827, etc.). And, as already mentioned, he remained faithful: unlike Oliver, Martin, and David, he never wavered or rebelled against Joseph.

Section 14 is, as already pointed out above, parallel in part with section 12. But this revelation is the longest and most expansive of the four under consideration here. This is likely because it was given to David Whitmer, who played a very central role in the earliest events connected with the Restoration, and who would play a very central role in the first serious apostasy in the Church (in 1837-8). That David is being somewhat privileged here should be clear from the fact that section 14 was received right alongside sections 15 and 16, these latter being identical to each other (but not to section 14) and much shorter.

Much could, of course, be said about David Whitmer’s part in the early history of the Church. I will leave such discussion off here, however, for purposes of focusing on the text.

The Texts of D&C 12, 14, 15, and 16

What unites these proto-patriarchal blessings?

3 Responses to “Sunday School Doctrine and Covenants Lesson 11: “The Field Is White Already to Harvest” (D&C 4, 11, 12, 14-16, 18, 31, 33, 75)”

  1. joespencer: Thanks for this information. You have articulated clearly some of the thoughts jumbling around my head. Many of these sections are a confusing combination of formulaic and specific (or individualized, at least). I, too, had the thought that these seemed like the forerunners of patriarchal blessings. One of the challenges with this lesson, I think, is coming up with the take away principles. Everything is either very broad (keep the commandments, build up Zion) or very specific (i.e, counsel to Thomas Marsh regarding his family). I am still thinking that over.

    Thanks for plowing through these sections. I look forward to later posts.

  2. SmallAxe said

    Thank you very much for this. It is very helpful, please keep it coming.

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