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What Is the Doctrine and Covenants? Part II.1, Joseph Smith’s Revelations Before 1832

Posted by joespencer on July 30, 2010

I would like here, in accordance with the outline I provided in my introductory post, to address first the question of the “canonical status” of Joseph Smith’s revelations before 1832—that is, before they began to appear in print for the first time. I will also here be addressing the associated question of what was at work in Joseph’s early (that is, also pre-1832) attempts to construct a history of the Church. In effect, the question here is to ask “What was the Doctrine and Covenants when it appeared in its most embryonic state: in the shape of so many manuscript revelations?”

Before Section 3

The earliest revelation-as-such that appears in the Doctrine and Covenants—or in any manuscript or published source—is the revelation now occupying the position of section 3 in the D&C. (Note that what is now section 2 was “received” earlier, but that it was not, technically, a revelation, instead consisting of a few words spoken by Moroni during his 1823 visits. It was not, importantly, even written down until 1838 or 1839—note that Oliver Cowdery’s 1834-1835 account of Moroni’s visit says nothing about the angel’s quotation of Malachi 4! Moreover, the fact that it did not find its way into the Doctrine and Covenants until 1876 is further significant, as will be seen in subsequent posts. For the moment, then, I will simply bracket section 2 and assume that section 3 should be taken as the “starting point” for Joseph’s written revelations.) Crucially, though, there is good evidence that Joseph Smith had received other revelations-as-such before he received what is now section 3. This seems to be implied in that revelation itself:

The works, and the designs, and the purposes of God cannot be frustrated, neither can they come to naught. For God doth not walk in crooked paths, neither doth he turn to the right hand nor to the left, neither doth he vary from that which he hath said, therefore his paths are straight, and his course is one eternal round. Remember, remember that it is not the work of God that is frustrated, but the work of men; For although a man may have many revelations, and have power to do many mighty works, yet if he boasts in his own strength, and sets at naught the counsels of God, and follows after the dictates of his own will and carnal desires, he must fall and incur the vengeance of a just God upon him. (D&C 3:1-4)

The most straightforward reading of this passage suggests that Joseph Smith had already received what could be called “many revelations,” revelations that he seems not to have written down or kept for any particular purpose. (Of course, one could suggest that the reference to “many revelations” is mere rhetoric, and that remains a genuine possibility. For my purposes here, I will explore the other possibility: that Joseph had indeed had many revelations.) A whole series of interesting questions suggest themselves in light of this rather simple point: Why did Joseph not write down the revelations he apparently had before he received section 3? What was their content or nature, and did they differ in any substantial ways from the kinds of revelations he received later? What induced Joseph rather suddenly to begin writing his revelations down when he received section 3?

Whatever the answer to these questions, one can nonetheless suggest that whatever revelations Joseph did receive before section 3 had a somewhat distinct status. It seems that it was only with this revelation in particular that he saw divine communications to him as being “worthy” of keeping in written form. Here, then, is a first indication of the “canonical status” of Joseph’s revelations before 1832: beginning with section 3, they were gaining a kind of normativity, since their being written and kept meant that they could be read and revisited, their words thus discovering for the first time a kind of consistent applicability. Though the revelations “in themselves” might have had the same importance before 1828, Joseph seems not to have recognized this, and so the shift toward written revelations with section 3 marks a crucial change in Joseph’s thinking about revelation, a kind of recognition for the first time that his revelations had a normative status.

From Section 20

From section 3 through section 19, there seems to have been a rather standard understanding of a what constituted a revelation: each revelation Joseph Smith received came because there were questions or circumstances calling for it, and the revelation received spoke directly to the circumstances by being addressed to an individual involved in the work. This changed rather suddenly when section 20 was received on April 10, 1830. (Note that the date of this revelation has only recently been definitively fixed. The time of its reception had been a point of argument for a number of reasons I won’t go into here, but the recent publication of the Book of Commandments and Revelations allowed its date to be sorted out at last.) There is something of a complex history behind this revelation, and that history is crucial to making sense of the change that section 20 unquestionably marked.

In what is now section 18, Oliver Cowdery is told the following, in what might at first appear to be somewhat obscure words:

Now, behold, because of the thing which you, my servant Oliver Cowdery, have desired to know of me, I give unto you these words: Behold, I have manifested unto you, by my Spirit in many instances, that the things which you have written are true; wherefore you know that they are true. And if you know that they are true, behold, I give unto you a commandment, that you rely upon the things which are written; For in them are all things written concerning the foundation of my church, my gospel, and my rock. Wherefore, if you shall build up my church, upon the foundation of my gospel and my rock, the gates of hell shall not prevail against you. (D&C 18:1-5)

Taken simply as they stand, these words seem to suggest that Oliver was, Martin-Harris-like, doubting again that the work he had found himself engaged in was true. If the chronology in the History of the Church is to be trusted on these points, it seems that by the time section 18 was revealed, Oliver had not only already had the opportunity to receive the personal witness described in section 6, and had not only already assisted to translate the entirety of the Book of Mormon, but he had also already been with Joseph Smith when John the Baptist appeared and bestowed the Aaronic Priesthood on them, and he had also already had the experience of witnessing the angel displaying the plates to him and the other two of the Three Witnesses. There is little reason to suggest that Oliver was at this point doubting the divinity of the work.

So what is going on here? The verses quoted above were given in response to a rather different question Oliver had. As it turns out, he had been informed that he was to write up some kind of foundational or organization document, some kind of constitution for the Church. Having some questions about how to do that, he asked Joseph for a revelation. The verses quoted above are the Lord’s response: the reason the Lord is talking so much about the truth of what had been written was precisely because Oliver was to draw directly on the Book of Mormon in order to produce the document in question, since they outlined “the foundation of my church.” Oliver did so, quite faithfully, and produced a document that he titled the “Articles of the Church of Christ.” Oliver’s “Articles” were primarily quotations from the Book of Mormon, strung together so as to form a kind of handbook for the building up of the Church. This document—which is still in existence—was produced during the second half of 1829, months before the reception of section 20. As a number of people have pointed out (and even analyzed in detail), there is a strong relationship between Oliver’s document and what is now section 20, though the differences between them are enormous as well.

I don’t want here to get into any detail on these two documents and how they compare. My intention here is just to point out that it seems to have been Oliver’s “Articles” that first began to point the way towards the change in early understandings of revelation that would come to full fruition with section 20. All of Joseph’s revelations before section 20 was received are individualized and concerned with immediate, particular circumstances. Section 20, however, speaks in a kind of abstract voice, providing a revealed but not exactly commandment-like “constitution” of the Church. Interestingly, Oliver’s document does not speak in this more abstract, institutional voice. It is specifically labeled a revelation or commandment to Oliver specifically, about how he should go about building up the Church. But the fact that this commandment to Oliver is so clearly connected and intertwined with section 20 is important: the very idea of there being some kind of outline for the program of the Church, and that such could come through a direct revelation, opened onto the possibility of section 20’s being received.

At any rate, beginning most explicitly with section 20, it became possible to see revelation not simply as a direct word of the Lord regarding immediate and immediately problematic circumstances, but also as a direct divine word on larger, non-individualized concerns like the organization of the Church. And thus, importantly, other revelations followed suit: sections 21, 22, 27, 29, and 38 all follow the generalized address model of section 20. Of course, other revelations continued in the vein of the earlier revelations, too (sections 23-26, 28, 30-37, 39-40, for example). But new directions were definitely made possible by the reception of section 20, an understanding of revelation that began to recognize a kind of more consistently canonical notion of revelation. That is, if before the reception of section 3, the revelations of Joseph were understood to be not only immediate and local in their concern but not even of enough “lasting” importance to be written down, and if the revelations of Joseph from section 3 to section 19 were still understood to be immediate and local in their concern but of enough general importance to be taken down in writing, the revelations beginning with section 20 were coming to be understood as having, at least on occasion, or more generalized or global importance, a kind of constitutive or more directly normative status.

By July 1830

According to Joseph Smith’s history: “Shortly after we had received the above revelations [the last recorded being D&C 26, received in July 1830], . . . I began to arrange and copy the revelations, which we had received from time to time; in which I was assisted by John Whitmer, who now resided with me” (History of the Church, 1:104). Unfortunately, nothing of this first attempt to gather and arrange the revelations has survived, so it is completely unclear what kind of an organization was being imposed at this point on the revelations collectively. Nevertheless, this passing note in the History of the Church does make it clear that there was, within months of the Church’s organization, an increasing recognition of the need to compile and arrange the revelations. This would seem, at the very least, to suggest that there was an increasingly stronger notion, at least on the part of the Church’s leadership, of canonicity: the revelations were understood to be important enough not only to be committed to writing, but also to be kept together and arranged in some kind of logical order.

Thus, by late summer 1830, the Church made the first efforts in the direction of what would eventually become the Doctrine and Covenants. Establishing something like the foundation of these efforts was the increasing sense of normativity implied in the developments marked by sections 3 (committing the revelations to writing) and 20 (universally directed revelations succeeding particularly directed ones). In many ways, that is, the 1830 efforts to compile and organize the revelations directly followed from the changing understanding of the revelations in the previous months.

However, it should be noted that there was, at the time, no recorded expression of any plan to publish the several revelations. Indeed, given later opposition to publication efforts, it seems there is good evidence that nothing like a plan to publish the revelations was discussed in 1830. The work of gathering and organizing the revelations was more strictly archival than anything else. But even this archivization of Joseph Smith’s revelations is of obvious importance: though there seem to have been no intention to go public with the revelations at the time, it was precisely this archive that would eventually be published.

From Section 38 to Section 42

The revelations remained “private” through the remainder of the New York period of Church history, but a very important change in the Saints’ understanding of revelation occurred (or at least should have occurred) when section 38 was revealed at the beginning of 1831. Significantly, this change in the very idea of revelation—of its normativity, and so eventually of its canonical status—was coupled quite directly with another major change in the Church: it came through the revelation (section 38) that set out the Church’s move to Ohio, and that established the relationship between that move and the eventual plan to settle in Zion.

Importantly, the actual commandment to remove to the Ohio came earlier in what is now section 37 of the Doctrine and Covenants. But the barebones commandment to remove to the Ohio communicated little to the Saints about the significance of the move. Section 38 was received during the Church’s general conference just after the New Year in 1831, and so in the presence of most of the New York membership of the Church. Among many other things, the revelation sets the move to Ohio within a larger picture: the Saints are to move to Ohio on the way to Zion. That is, Ohio is something like Sinai was for the Israelites in exodus: they are to stop at a sacred place before proceeding to the actual land of promise. There, in Ohio, the Saints were, in particular to receive the “law” and to be “endowed” with power. Structured by the law—concerning which section 38 itself provided a kind of outline (see verses 21-27, 34-39)—and endowed with power, the Saints (understood at the time to consist of so many Gentiles) would then go throughout the world in order to find and gather Israel to the New Jerusalem they were in process of establishing.

The significance of this revelation in terms of developing notions of revelation should be clear: with the anticipatory announcement that the law would be revealed, a much stronger sense of normativity was clearly associated with revelation. Indeed, one might well argue that revelations received in Kirtland were understood to be quite explicitly normative. Thus when section 42 was revealed, only days after the New York Saints arrived in Kirtland, it came with a clear normative force, with what might indeed be called a kind of proto-canonical status: from the very moment it was received, it was understood by the Saints collectively to be the law of the Church. Moreover, section 42 quickly came to dominate subsequent revelations in a very specific manner. Section 43 stipulated that there would be a relationship between whatever revelations now followed and the foundation law that makes up section 42: all subsequent revelations were to be clarifications of the law, and such was in large part the case, as even a passing reading of the Kirtland revelations makes clear.

From all this, it is clear that the first months of 1831 saw a major development in the Saints’ understanding of revelation. What before had been regarded as having some kind of increasingly apparent normativity were now anticipated as so many clarification of an absolutely normative and arguably proto-canonical law. (Indeed, section 42, now along with section 20, was commonly reproduced in copies carried by the elders of the Church, and these copies were often read into conferences and meetings.) In the end, in fact, it would not be difficult to argue that it was section 42 specifically that began to turn the attention of the Saints to the possibility of printing, distributing, and canonizing Joseph’s revelations. This seems especially to have been the case once section 42 appeared, through the machinations of an early apostate, in a newspaper, there announced to be the “secret bylaws” of the Mormons that then seemed to be taking over the Kirtland area.

In short, it seems that by the summer of 1831, the revelations had moved from (1) their original, almost ignored, unwritten status, through (2) their subsequent, more normative status as written revelations that nonetheless had nothing by local or particular force and (3) their still more subsequent, still more normative status as written revelations that by then were gaining in universal or generic force, as well as through (4) a development in which the leaders of the Church began to realize that it was worth gathering and arranging the revelations in some kind of archived order, to (5) a nearly absolute normative status with clearly proto-canonical force, such that attention was being given at last to the possibility of promulgating the revelations. This almost strictly linear development would culminate, by the end of 1831, in a decision actually to begin printing the revelations. But that decision is the subject of my next post. For the moment, it suffices to recognize how strictly developmental early understandings of what constituted revelation were. What came to be the idea of a publishable or distributable collection of revelations only took shape gradually over the course of the years 1827/1828-1831. The idea would continue to evolve rapidly over the next few years as well, but each subsequent stage deserves individual treatment, since each of them presents a model of understanding the revelations that works out a distinct notion of canonicity, while the developments traced in this post collectively work towards what might be said to be the Saints’ first notion of canonicity, that worked out at last with regard to section 42. A concluding word, then, might be said by way of summary of this first notion of canonicity.

When it finally came into its own, the first model of canonicity through which the Saints made sense of Joseph Smith’s modern revelations (as opposed to translations of ancient texts) seems best to be described as a question of proto- canonicity. That is, the New York revelations were, by the time the Saints arrived in Kirtland, being arranged in some kind of archivable order, but none of the New York revelations were understood to have been other than occasional commandments, divine instructions worth keeping on file, certainly, but documents whose normativity did not really extend so far as canonicity. Arguably, it was only with the entanglement between sections 38 and 42, an entanglement that produced the idea of proto-canonicity, that normativity began to orient the Saints toward the idea of producing a canonical collection. Once revelations could be anticipated, and could be anticipated as normative in advance (section 42 being anticipated as the law of the Church), it was possible for revelations to take on the importance of canon. Moreover, when subsequent revelations were suddenly being understood to be expansions on and clarifications of the law, it was possible for all subsequent revelations to share in that proto-canonical force.

In a word, by the summer of 1831, the first model of canonicity was in place, and its shape was that of a kind of vague recognition that the revelations being given would eventually need to be gathered together in a canonical volume. Canonicity was on the horizon, though its shape was anything but decided.

12 Responses to “What Is the Doctrine and Covenants? Part II.1, Joseph Smith’s Revelations Before 1832”

  1. Margaret said

    I love your work and look forward to every post. Keep up the good work – for they that be reading are far more than they that be commenting.

  2. joespencer said

    Thanks, Margaret. It’s good to know someone bothers to read all this stuff I produce. :)

  3. Robert C. said

    Yes, Joe, great work. This is a desperately needed project, and I am a very happy and anxious consumer of your efforts…!

  4. Sam Bishop said

    I am a little confused by something. How do I reconcile this:

    Oliver did so, quite faithfully, and produced a document that he titled the “Articles of the Church of Christ.” Oliver’s “Articles” were primarily quotations from the Book of Mormon, strung together so as to form a kind of handbook for the building up of the Church.

    With this?

    Interestingly, Oliver’s document does not speak in this more abstract, institutional voice. It is specifically labeled a revelation or commandment to Oliver specifically, about how he should go about building up the Church.

    Are these references to the same document?

    • joespencer said

      They are, Sam. But I’m not sure I see why that’s difficult to reconcile. Any further explanation of why it seems odd to you?

      • Sam Bishop said

        Hi, Joe. Thanks for taking my question.

        Reading this all over again, I see that I could have done a better job picking my first quote. I should have included this sentence:

        As it turns out, he had been informed that he was to write up some kind of foundational or organization document, some kind of constitution for the Church.

        So the outcome of this was a “revelation or commandment to Oliver specifically, about how he should go about building up the Church”? (Emphasis mine this time.)

        I don’t know anything about this incident, but it sounds like he set out to write a constitution for the church and ended up writing marching orders for himself.

        Thanks for the post, by the way. I really enjoyed it.

  5. kirkcaudle said

    Joe, slowly but surely, I am reading this series of posts. Very good. I do not really have much to add, but I am sure you would like to know that others are taking the time to read it.

    This comment is kind of a tangent to your original post, but I’ll share anyway.

    At the start of your second section (“Before section 20”) you state, “From section 3 through section 19, there seems to have been a rather standard understanding of what constituted a revelation.” I think this not only applies as a church, but perhaps to us personally as individuals.

    I think it is easy to get used to God answering our prayers and providing us with “revelation” in very specific ways. I know when I am looking for revelation in my life it always seems to come in the same basic fashion every time (ie no booming voice or angels with trumpets). However, if we really have faith that revelation can come in forms other than our “standard understanding” perhaps they will. Perhaps we receive revelations due to our current understanding of the gospel.

    Thus, the better we understand the gospel, the more ways we open ourselves up for God to speak with us in a variety of different ways.

  6. Dane said

    This is wonderful work. I’m teaching D&C now, and just beginning to realize how sparse my knowledge on the topic is. My question for you is procedural — do we have any record of how Joseph received these early translations? I mean, would he prepare himself with Urim & Thummim, paper and pen, and purposefully receive the revelation, or were they more extemporaneous events which he would record ex post facto by the best dictates of his memory?

  7. Dane said

    Also, could you point me in the direction of the information about the date of April 10th for D&C 20?

  8. joespencer said

    Hi Dane,

    (1) I’m nothing of an expert on this first question, but what I’ve gleaned in my reading is something like the following. Usually, people looking for a “commandment” came to Joseph, and then he asked on their behalf—somehow—through the Urim and Thummim (read: seer stone). He would then dictate what was received. I assume there is more to say about all that, but I’m not familiar enough with the source material—or have not looked at it with that question in mind—to give a better answer.

    (2) The April 10th date is, so far as I am aware, only to be found in the Book of Commandments and Revelations. The only commentary on the D&C that provides that date is Steve Harper’s, since he was already familiar with the BCR by the time he was producing his commentary. (If you look at earlier articles and studies of D&C 20, there is a good deal of speculation about when it was received.)

  9. Dane said

    Thanks, Joe. I appreciate you taking the time reply. Now I get to go see who Steve Harper is :) By the way, how did you aggregate all this information? Are you involved in historical studies professionally, or was this a project you managed for fun in your spare time?

  10. joespencer said

    I’m never quite sure whether I’m a “professional” of some kind, or whether I’m just doing this for “fun.” :)

    I’m currently a graduate student in philosophy, but I’m pretty heavily involved in Mormon studies—writing papers, presenting at conferences, etc. (I have my first book coming out sometime in the next few months). This project on the Doctrine and Covenants has grown out of a few interpretive questions I’ve had about the place of the D&C in the larger setting of “uniquely Mormon scripture.”

    So, no, I’m not an historian. I do philosophy and theology, almost always focused on scripture. Where history is necessary for getting at the meaning of a text, I do history. And that means that I do a lot of history. :)

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