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Doctrine and Covenants Lesson 1: “Introduction to the Doctrine and Covenants and Church History” (Sunday School)

Posted by joespencer on December 19, 2008

There are, in essence, two parts to this lesson. First, it serves as an introduction to the course, which is, in fundamental ways, quite different from the other Sunday School courses (Book of Mormon, Old Testament, and New Testament). Second, it covers the first section of the Doctrine and Covenants. My own notes and observations below will accordingly be broken up into two parts.

Before turning to the lesson itself, though, I should note this practical point from the lesson manual: “Point out that because this year’s lessons are thematic, some sections of the Doctrine and Covenants are not included in the reading assignments” (see the lesson here). To some extent, of course, this lesson is an exception: the focus is almost entirely on D&C 1.

Introducing the Doctrine and Covenants

The lesson manual draws heavily, so far as introducing the Doctrine and Covenants goes, on the “Explanatory Introduction” printed in the current edition of the D&C. And it certainly is worth probing a bit. Here are a few points that I think deserve attention:

From paragraph 2: “Most of the revelations in this compilation were received through Joseph Smith, Jun. . . . Others were issued through some of his successors of the Presidency. (See headings to Sections 135, 136, and 138, and Official Declarations 1 and 2.)”

From paragraph 6: “Several of the earlier sections involve matters regarding the translation and publication of the Book of Mormon (see Sections 3, 5, 10, 17, 19). Some later sections reflect the work of the Prophet Joseph Smith in making an inspired translation of the Bible, during which many of the great doctrinal sections were received (see, for example, Sections 37, 45, 73, 76, 77, 86, 91, 132, each of which has some direct relationship to the Bible translation).”

From paragraph 8: “A number of the revelations were published in Zion (Independence), Missouri, in 1833, under the title A Book of Commandments for the Government of the Church of Christ. . . . As the Lord continued to communicate with his servants, an enlarged compilation was published two years later in Kirtland, Ohio, with the title Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of the Latter Day Saints. To this publication in 1835, the written testimony of the Twelve Apostles was attached . . . .”

From the third to last paragraph: “Beginning with the 1835 edition a series of seven theological lessons was also included; these were titled the “Lectures on Faith.” . . . Although profitable for doctrine and instruction, these lectures have been omitted from the Doctrine and Covenants since the 1921 edition because they were not given or presented as revelations to the whole Church.”

Each of the excerpted snippets above provides, I think, a vital point that must be grappled with to make any real sense of the Doctrine and Covenants as a whole. A bit of commentary, then . . . .

Regarding the first snippet (from paragraph 2), it should be noticed that there is a definite break in the Doctrine and Covenants between Joseph’s contribution and the contributions of his successors. The parenthetical list is a helpful beginning: sections 135, 136, and 138, as well as official declarations 1 and 2, should be understood as falling without Joseph’s Doctrine and Covenants. I would also include in this list section 134, written by Oliver Cowdery along with another “statement on belief” that was subsequently removed from the Doctrine and Covenants.

The placement of all of these parts of the Doctrine and Covenants within the text is telling: everything after section 133 (section 137 excepted; see below) comes from a hand other than Joseph’s. If one wanted to speak, then, of Joseph’s Doctrine and Covenants, one would have to speak of sections 1-133. And indeed, the section headings of sections 1 and 133 themselves point this out. It is well known that section 1 was received as an inspired preface to the Book of Commandments; it is less well known (or at least, less frequently mentioned) that section 133 was received as an inspired appendix to the same Book of Commandments. The consequence: sections 1 and 133 form something like revealed bookends to Joseph’s contribution to the Doctrine and Covenants. Everything that falls outside of the stretch between section 1 and 133 thus falls outside of Joseph’s prophetic experience.

(The exception, as mentioned above, is of course section 137, a vision had by Joseph when he was anointed by his father in the Kirtland temple. This revelation is a relative latecomer to the Doctrine and Covenants, having appeared first in the Pearl of Great Price, only eventually being moved to the Doctrine and Covenants. Because of the relatively established order of the sections of the Doctrine and Covenants by that time, it was included at the end, rather than placed into its chronological setting within the section 1-133 stretch.)

In approaching the D&C, then, I think it is important to recognize that there are two essentially different parts—the Joseph Smith contribution, and the collective contribution of other prophets—and that one part (the Joseph Smith contribution) completely determines how we should read the rest of it. The core, then, of the D&C is sections 1-133.

Regarding the second snippet (from paragraph 6), I find it significant that the “Explanatory Introduction” is at such pains to show how the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants correspond to Joseph’s translation projects. Indeed, I think what the introduction here begins should be finished: not only should one take the earliest revelations in the D&C as associated with the Book of Mormon translation project (say, sections 2-19) and the middle revelations in the D&C as associated with the New Translation of the Bible project (say, sections 20-109), but one should also take the latest revelations in the D&C as clearly associated with the Book of Abraham translation project (say, sections 110-132).

Indeed, I think this is vital. Joseph is pronounced in the Doctrine and Covenants (and somewhat more clearly in the early Book of Commandments) as being primarily (if not only) a translator: his work was primarily that of translation, and it seems best to me to take all of his revelations as being closely associated with the work he was undertaking with his several translation projects.

Moreover, I find that if we break down Joseph’s prophetic “career” into three translation projects, it becomes very easy to begin to make sense of things. The three periods:

(1) 1820-1830, The Book of Mormon translation period
(2) 1830-1835, The New Translation of the Bible period
(3) 1835-1844, The Book of Abraham translation period

Associated with each of these periods is at least (1) a unique conception of the priesthood, (2) a unique conception of the endowment, and (3) a unique conception of church organization (of the role of the Quorum of the Twelve specifically). Importantly, each period’s unique conceptions are very clearly tied to the translation project of that period, a point that deserves a great deal more attention.

Regarding the third and fourth snippets (from paragraph 8 and the third to last paragraph), I think it is absolutely vital for the serious student of the Doctrine and Covenants to be aware of the publication history of the text. As with the second snippet, though, I think the two points raised by the third snippet need to be triangulized: not only is it important to know of the 1833 Book of Commandments and the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants, it is important to know of the 1844-through-1921 edition(s) of the Doctrine and Covenants. A bit of background history, then . . . .

The 1833 Book of Commandments was a project that began in 1831, and it was for it that sections 1 and 133 were received as preface and appendix. It gathered the earliest revelations, almost all of which were “commandments” (meaning, revelations to one or more individuals providing specific instructions or guidelines). And it gathered them in chronological order, as the D&C now does. It was thus understood as a sort of revelatory history of the work of translating and promulgating the Book of Mormon, as that history led up to the establishment of Zion as it was underway in 1831 (the last revelations printed in the book find Joseph in Jackson County, receiving revelations about what it means to live in Zion, etc.). It is clearly to be associated with Joseph’s first translation project: though it does have occasional reference to issues arising from the earliest efforts at re-translating the Bible, its entire focus is on the work of translating and following out the implications of the Book of Mormon.

The 1835 Doctrine and Covenants was very different. Not only did it gather together the “commandments” that had already appeared in the Book of Commandments (all of which dated, as mentioned above, no later than 1831) and a number of subsequent “commandments” (received between 1831 and 1835), but it contained various other kinds of documents that made it differ drastically from the earlier publication. In addition to “commandments” and beyond the content of the Book of Commandments (which, by the way, were revised and updated in many important instances), then, it contained: (1) many revelations associated with the New Translation project, (2) revelations associated with the structure and systematization of the Church, (3) revelations concerning the priesthood, (4) revelations concerning the building and organization of the temple, (5) theological lectures delivered in the School of the Prophets (the Lectures on Faith), and (6) official “statements of belief,” meant to clarify the Church’s position on several issues concerning which there had been public accusation (specifically: on political procedure and marriage). Moreover, the chronological ordering of the Book of Commandments was disrupted, for the most part: not only did the Lectures on Faith come first (they were considered the “Doctrine” and the subsequent revelations were considered the “Covenants”), but the revelations themselves were placed in what might be termed “institutional” order (that is, the revelations on priesthood and the order of the Church were presented first, etc.). All of this reflects major differences between the Church in 1831 and 1835, as well as the association of the 1835 D&C with the second translation project: the Doctrine and Covenants was clearly to be taken as something like the handbook of the institutionalized Church, the product of a systematic reworking of the Bible in preparation for the endowment to be received shortly thereafter in the Kirtland Temple, etc.

The compiled revelations of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has, since that time, all retained the name “Doctrine and Covenants,” but it has changed quite a bit over the years. A second edition of the D&C was announced in 1840, but it was not published until 1844. It differed little from the 1835 D&C, adding only a few revelations (few of them from Joseph’s letters and none from his “items of instruction,” such as now make up the majority of the last part of the D&C). (The revelations it added are what are now: sections 103, 105, 112, 119, 124, 127, 128, and 135. It should be noted that the last, the announcement of the martyrdom, was added as a capstone to the 1844 edition.) More or less this same publication went through two more American editions in the 1840s and six European (British) editions in the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s, as need arose. But it was the 1876 D&C that began to give the D&C the shape it now has. Orson Pratt, who was in charge of assembling it, added as sections items drawn from Joseph’s history (now sections 2 and 13, for example), items drawn from Joseph’s letters (now sections 121-123, for example), and items drawn from Joseph’s sermons and teachings (now sections 129-131, for example), as well as Joseph’s capstone revelation of section 132 and Brigham Young’s revelation (section 136 now). All of this made the D&C a fleshing out of Joseph’s career, one that was completed with the 1921 edition of the D&C, by which edition (1) the revelations had been put back into chronological order (as in the Book of Commandments), (2) the Lectures on Faith had been deleted, (3) one of the two “statements of belief” had been deleted (the other remains, fortunately or unfortunately, as section 134), (4) the first Official Declaration had been included, and (5) the last part of the Doctrine and Covenants had been made into a kind of sampler of Joseph’s Nauvoo discourses. All of this finally brought the D&C into full accordance with Joseph’s final translation project, the Book of Abraham: now, because it drew more heavily on Joseph’s Nauvoo letters and for the first time on Joseph’s Nauvoo discourses, and perhaps especially because it now included what is now section 132, the final sections of the D&C made it a potpourri of Abrahamic reflections. Moreover, through the return to chronology—which gives the current D&C a kind of threefold structure, the one I outlined above (sections 2-19; sections 20-109; sections 110-132)—the “institutional” character of the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants was finally abandoned in favor of a kind of “developmental” D&C, one that is very cognizant of its history.

(Just a note about the 1981—that is, current—edition of the D&C. To it were added three items, two of which are very important for the meaning of the current D&C. These are section 138 and Official Declaration 2. The former is important because it situates the vital importance of Joseph F. Smith in the development of the post-Joseph-Smith Church. The latter is important because it doubles and nicely complicates the first Official Declaration: the two together have a fascinating story to tell about what Mormonism means in practice. Each of these two additions, in its own way, updates the Doctrine and Covenants so that it fits into the late twentieth century Church. But discussion on that point will have to await another time.)

So much, at last, for commentary on the snippets drawn from the “Explanatory Introduction” to the Doctrine and Covenants. And perhaps that is enough for now on what the D&C looks like on the whole. There is, of course, much more that can be said. (An example: How should we think about the JST period, during which the Church was split between two different locations and two different temple-building projects?) But I will leave the introductory matter at this and turn to D&C 1.

Prefacing the Doctrine and Covenants

Section 1 of the Doctrine and Covenants, as mentioned above, is a “revealed preface,” given to Joseph Smith in November of 1831 for publication in the 1833 Book of Commandments. Indeed, note that verse 6 still retains the title of the original book for which it was to serve as preface: “Behold, this is mine authority, and the authority of my servants, and my preface unto the book of my commandments, which I have given them to publish unto you, O inhabitants of the earth.” Consequently, a series of questions: (1) What did D&C 1 mean in its “original” setting, that is, in the Book of Commandments? (2) How did that meaning change with its removal to the 1835 D&C? (3) How did that meaning change again with the further developments in the Doctrine and Covenants? And (4) how should we therefore read it today?

First, I should note that, relatively speaking, this revelation has remained unrevised during the whole of its existence. That is, unlike many revelations first published in the Book of Commandments, this section was not heavily edited or revised. (A few grammatical changes were made in certain editions, but they are of no consequence whatsoever. To see all of the changes that were made, see here.) This means that the questions I’ve just laid out do not ask how the revelation changed in content as it traveled from one canonical text to another, but how the revelation changed in context in its movement through these several inspired publications. Each question, then, might be taken up in turn.

In each of the following discussions, I will take the revelation in its various parts by breaking it down as follows:

(1) verses 1-6
(2) verses 7-16
(3) verses 17-23
(4) verses 24-28
(5) verses 29-36
(6) verses 37-39

D&C 1 in the Book of Commandments

(1) The first six verses of the section open the revelation with a heavy emphasis on messengers coming to the whole world. The whole thing is set up in a curious way: the first verse addresses the whole revelation to the “people of my church” as well as to the “people from afar,” thus to the two parties in question. The one is told that the other will be sent, such that every person will hear.

This hearing of the message, in turn, is phrased in language reminiscent of Isaiah 6: it is a question of ears hearing, eyes seeing, and hearts being penetrated (a veritable reversal of the ears that could not hear, the eyes that could not see, the hearts that could not turn, etc.). But this seeing/hearing/penetrating is not presented as a light event: it will result in a revelation of wickedness, the sins of the wicked being made public (a theme that deserves a great deal of attention on its own). All of this is labeled “the voice of warning.”

And then come verses 5-6, the really important part of this introductory portion of the revelation. First, it is important that verse 5 introduces the word “commanded.” The Lord has commanded the servants. This, of course, has reference to the book being published: it is made up of the commandments with which the Lord has commanded His servants. So it is that the next verse goes on to speak of the Book of Commandments specifically. The messengers will go forth because God has commanded them, and so here are the commandments. And so the Lord says that all of this—the sending forth, etc.—is His authority and His preface to the Book of Commandments.

What this shows is that this revelation was meant, in its original setting, to show how the commandments, gathered together in chronological order, cannot be separated from the going forth of the messengers to the whole world. The Book of Commandments, it would seem, was meant to be a kind of historical, almost genealogical, explanation of what the messengers were doing in their missionary work. The commandments, gathered together, make up a kind of systematic exposition of how these messengers were sent forth, for what purposes, etc.

(2) So the Lord follows up this introductory bit with an explanation of why the messengers are being sent forth. It is a several-fold explanation.

First reason: the words concerning the Second Coming—the destructions, especially—that are to be found in the commandments will all come to pass, especially because the everlasting covenant (another theme that deserves individual attention) has been broken. Hence, a second reason: the messengers sent have the power to seal up the righteous and the wicked to the day of that coming.

But whence this power? And whence these commandments?

(3) What gets all of this started—what results eventually in the sending of the messengers as well as in the bestowal of the sealing power—is a single event: “I the Lord, knowing the calamity which should come upon the inhabitants of the earth, called upon my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and spake unto him from heaven, and gave him commandments” (v. 17). Again with that word: “commandments.” The commandments that make up the Book of Commandments began with commandments to one person, Joseph Smith.

But the commandments soon go to others: “And also gave commandments to others, that they should proclaim these things unto the world” (v. 18). That explains the events behind the construction of the book.

But why, again? To this the remainder of this portion of the revelation returns: “and all this that it might be fulfilled, which was written by the prophets” (v. 18). What was written? That the preaching to go to the ends of the earth is for the reestablishment of the everlasting covenant. And that, it would seem, is the whole trick.

(4) The Lord next addresses how the commandments given were meant to benefit the messengers as much as the preached-to. In one sense, the point is relatively simple: the saints to whom the commandments were given were weak, and the revelations make that very clear. But if this simple point is considered in light of the historical or even genealogical purposes of the Book of Commandments. The weakness of the servants sent apparently must not be missed by the preached-to: everyone receiving the gospel should clearly recognize the failings and hesitations on the part of the messengers, who nonetheless come to preach with the sealing power itself.

This tempers, to some extent, the way that these verses are usually read: whereas they are generally cited as evidence that academic study of the history of the Church needs to be undertaken in order to study scripture, here it would seem that the emphasis was rather on the fact that this message comes to the world despite its human messengers. The point is something like Paul’s in Second Corinthians: the weakness of the servants makes it clear that the gospel delivered is not theirs, but God’s.

(5) This portion of the revelation returns to the narrative of part 3, the narrative of Joseph’s being called and the remainder of the Church’s being given commandments in suit. Here Joseph’s own mission is extended from his passive work as a receiving prophet to his relatively active work of translating texts, specifically the Book of Mormon. The rest of those receiving commandments then also have their work extended from a passive to an active work, but one very different from Joseph’s. Whereas he had the (sole?) task of translating, they had the task of “lay[ing] the foundation of this church, and to bring it forth out of obscurity and out of darkness.”

But if this would seem to set Joseph and the early saints off from the world, verse 34 changes the picture: the Lord is not drawing lines between the good and the evil here, but between the messengers and the preached-to. He is willing—indeed, it is His entire purpose—to have the messengers deliver this message to all, and so soon as others receive it, they too will join in the work.

It is only with this carefully described extension of the work to all that the Lord concludes this portion with a promise that the saints will be saved from the world, etc.

(6) Finally, the revelation concludes with a word of “recommendation,” the Lord Himself offering up a sort of testimony of the Book. Its really striking moment, of course, is its equation of the Lord’s voice and the voice of His servants, which nicely sums up the movement of the entire revelation.

D&C 1 in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants

Before looking at each passage in D&C 1 in the 1835 D&C separately, I should mention that the revelation had a rather different place in that publication than it had had in the 1833 Book of Commandments. Because the 1835 D&C split itself into two parts (the “Doctrine”—that is, the Lectures on Faith—and the “Covenants”—that is, the revelations), section 1 was not at the beginning of the book, but at the beginning of the second part of the book, at the beginning of the revelations.

The result is that the revealed “preface” now functioned as a preface to the “covenants.” What this ends up meaning for D&C 1, of course, will be worked out in the comments below.

(1) As discussed above, the first six verses of the revelation focus on the sending forth of messengers. And it should be noted that the shift from the 1833 Book of Commandments to the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants did not render this theme irrelevant or out of place, though it decidedly recontextualized it. The 1835 text was, without question, focused on the missionary efforts of the Church. But it should be noted that they were at that time in an essential suspension. The 1835 D&C turned, in many ways, on the revelation that commanded the building of the Kirtland Temple. The missionaries—which were then being for the first time defined as the newly ordained Twelve and the several quorums of Seventy to be ordained and organized under the direction of the Twelve—were to wait until the endowment was received in the Kirtland Temple. This suspension drastically alters the meaning of even these first six verses of the revelation.

Whereas before the preface had announced that the revelations in the Book of Commandments explained in a kind of genealogical way how it is that the messengers who had been and still would be sent all over North America had come to that point (that is, it had explained what was already going on), the preface now announced essentially that the messengers were being prepared to be sent, that something was about to happen (that is, it now announced something was about to happen). This change means a good deal.

In the shift from the 1833 publication to the 1835 publication, moreover, the words “book” and “commandments” in verse 6 were changed from being capitalized to not being capitalized. What had been, in 1833, a reference to the title of the published Book of Commandments now became, in 1835, a generic reference to revelations in general. This is important, because the very word “commandment” thus took on an importantly different meaning: whereas before it had been the word the saints used to describe the personalized revelations given by Joseph on their behalf (through, say, the Urim and Thummim or the seer stone), it now came to designate simply anything revealed from the Lord, much of which was not directed to any one person.

(It should be noted, of course, that the second part of the 1835 D&C was opened with a heading that read, not simply “Covenants,” but “Covenants and Commandments,” thus making a distinction between the organizational “covenants” and the originally genealogical “commandments.” However, I don’t think that this single heading—it only appears that once in the 1835 text—annuls the point I’m making here. The D&C was called, of course, the Doctrine and Covenants, not the Doctrine, Covenants, and Commandments.)

The result, then, is that the entirety of the preface, as outlined in these first six verses, no longer had its original meaning: it was now an announcement of messengers still to come, and these messengers were to be understood simply as having been sent to the world. The genealogy of their coming forth was now pressed into the background, and their clearly defined authority was foregrounded.

(2) The second portion of the revelation, however, seems more or less to bear its original meaning, except in perhaps one particular. The sealing power, the power to seal up a congregation or a person to wrath or blessedness at the Second Coming, had been deemphasized with the institutionalizing work of 1835. The reference to this power remained in the preface, but it must already have seemed a bit quaint.

Of course, it should be pointed out that Joseph felt very free to edit revelations published in the Book of Commandments for the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants—he edited and revised many of them, some of them quite heavily—and so the fact that he did not edit this point out of the text is interesting and important. Perhaps because the Kirtland endowment had not yet been given, Joseph did not know how to anticipate what might be revealed there. He might have been trying to leave the door more or less open to the possibility of sealing powers being bestowed. As it turned out, of course, such a power was given, though in a way that the saints had not anticipated—that Joseph himself had not anticipated—namely, through Elijah. Of course, that means that these verses specifically would take on a very different meaning in the 1844-and-beyond editions of the Doctrine and Covenants. But in the 1835 text, it must have had a semi-quaint but also anticipatory feel: what was to be revealed when the temple was completed?

(3) Because the word “commandments” is central to this portion of the revelation, it takes on a rather different meaning in the 1835 text: the “commandments” given to Joseph and then to others would most likely have been identified with the organizational documents (placed prominently as the first sections after the preface in the 1835 text), like (what are now) D&C 20, 84, 107, etc. That is, the commandments, in 1835, shift from a series of personalized revelations that send individuals out to gather the scattered of Israel to Zion to a progressive series of revealed instructions about how the Church is to be organized so as to prepare for the possibility of sending out an army of missionaries.

Again, then, there is a shift from explanation of the past to anticipation of the future: rather than describing the present work of the small Church, the words now anticipate what is about to unfold. It should be noted that the “everlasting covenant” is thereby tied to the endowment then still to be revealed in the Kirtland Temple.

(4) The words included in the revelation about the “conditions” of the commandments being given—the weakness of the saints, and the Lord’s mercy in delivering the commandments in the language and terms of those weak saints, etc.—now takes on a different meaning as well. Rather than explaining that the messengers of the covenant were reluctant earthen vessels, it becomes a kind of explanatory apology for the personalized character of many of the revelations. Apology, as it were, replaces description.

This is vital: the institutionalization of the Church then underway was, in some significant ways, at odds with the historical series of personalized commandments. This, again, is highlighted by the ordering of the revelations in the 1835 text: the organizational and institutional revelations, which were, as it were, contextless, were given priority in the text, by their being placed first, but also by their prominent bold headings, etc. The historical series of personalized commandments, which had made up the bulk of the Book of Commandments, almost seem like a kind of tack-on bonus, appended to the text.

And so this particular portion takes the shape of a kind of explanatory apology for those revelations that no longer fit the mold. The very text would seem to be sorry that there is a history of the Church, that there is a genealogy behind its institutional presence.

(5) Now, in light of the apology (verses 24-28) that has interrupted the narrative flow of verses 17-30, this passage (especially verses 29-30) takes on a very different significance as well. Rather than simply picking back up the thread of the narrative that begins in verse 17, it stops it short. A bit of explanation needs to make this clear.

Verses 17-23 (portion 3 above) and verses 29-30 (portion 5 here) made up, in the 1833 text, a kind of summary narrative of the events covered in the commandments gathered together chronologically. Thus verses 24-28 (portion 4 above) functioned in the 1833 text as a kind of interruption of the narrative, after which the story simply continues on from where it left off (with the developments described above, that is, in the discussion of section 1 in the 1833 Book of Commandments).

But in the 1835 text, things are completely different. Verses 17-23 now describe the organizational revelations (under the term “commandments”) rather than the chronological personalized commandments, and so they have a kind of independent and essentially non-narrative function in the text. Rather than beginning a story, they simply refer the revelations as a whole to their (at times forced) institutional character. Thus verses 24-28 do not function as an interruption of the narrative in the 1835 text, precisely because there is no narrative: they function, as described immediately above, as an apology for the fact that many of the revelations don’t sound institutional or organizational. After that apology, the present portion of the revelation takes on, not the shape of a continuation of an interrupted narrative, but the shape of a clarification of the apology: the historical contextualization that is—unfortunately, so to speak—at work in the once-chronological revelations can be not only apologized for but also explained, here by making reference to Joseph’s work of translation and the saints’ work in general of establishing the Church.

In short, portion 4 now apologizes that the institution has a history, but then portion 5 goes on, once the apology is made, to explain what that history looks like, at least in outline.

(6) Finally, the last few verses take on a new shape as well. Whereas before they had the task of setting a kind of divine seal on the Book of Commandments, now they function as a kind of divine guarantee that the institution is inspired: this text is, in its organizational and institutional significance, not to be questioned, since the Lord has spoken.

D&C 1 in the 1844-and-beyond Doctrine and Covenants

Given the long and rather complex history of the other-than-first editions of the Doctrine and Covenants, it is difficult to summarize things in any precise way. What I will do in analyzing the meaning of each portion of the revelation in this last part is try to analyze the trajectory of the text’s meaning in its slow movement from 1835 to 1981 (the present edition).

(1) Slowly over the several other-than-first editions of the Doctrine and Covenants, the first six verses of the prefatory revelation came to assume something like its original meaning. In the 1876 edition, the revelations were reassembled in chronological (rather than institutional) order, and so they began to take on, all over again, a the role of “commandments,” more or less as they had in the Book of Commandments. Further, in the 1921 edition, the Lectures on Faith were dropped from the text, making the prefatory revelation the actual preface to the whole Doctrine and Covenants. This again more fully restored something like the original meaning of the “commandments.”

But if one can thus detect a kind of gradual return to the original Book of Commandments approach to the text, one must not therefore overlook the important changes in connotation that have never been—and like never will be—overturned. Once “commandment” had lost its “I go to Joseph and get a personalized revelation that involves me in specific ways in the building up of Zion” meaning, it has never fully recovered that meaning. Rather, this all-important word in these first six verses now simply means something like “revealed will of God,” whether that takes the shape of a personal piece of instruction (such as the early “commandments”), or whether that takes the shape of an institutional document (such as the somewhat later “covenants”), or whether again that takes the shape of a bit of off-the-cuff instruction that was subsequently canonized (such as the still-later parts of the Doctrine and Covenants like the current sections 129-131).

A subtle but very important consequence of the 1835 bottleneck, then, through which the revelations have passed, is the centralization of the authority bestowed by the giving of commandments. The average Latter-day Saint likely reads every name in the Doctrine and Covenants as referring to an “early church leader,” though many of them were nothing more, in the hierarchy, than elders, etc. But there is a definite tendency, after the institutionalization efforts of 1835, to assume that whatever revelation is given is given in the highest echelons of the Church. This will have important effects on the rest of the revelation.

In a word, the current Latter-day Saint most likely reads the reference to the Lord’s “commandments” in this first portion of the revelation as referring to whatever communicated will comes from the Lord—“commandment” as a particular instance of “modern revelation.”

(2) The announcement of the sending forth of the messengers definitely lost its anticipatory sense after the Kirtland endowment was given. And the second edition of the Doctrine and Covenants didn’t come until 1844, after the Nauvoo version of the endowment had already been revealed to the Twelve. But if D&C 1 thus returns again to its descriptive purposes (rather than anticipatory purposes), it nonetheless does not exactly return to a genealogical explanation. Rather, it simply describes the messengers being sent.

Again, though, it must not be overlooked that the centralization of the authority of the Church had a major effect on how this part of the revelation would be—and is—read. The sealing power, now redefined in light of the Elijah visit and the temple ordinances of Nauvoo, was and is now understood to be the privilege of a select few, not the prerogative of any holder of the Melchizedek Priesthood (as it was in 1833). The messengers that are sent, the current reader assumes, are the Brethren, who have the sealing power in full.

This is reinforced by the reference in verse 14 to the prophet and apostles. This might have been understood in 1833 as a reference to the Bible; but now it clearly appears as a reference to the Brethren.

The shift in the meaning of the sealing power has a profound effect on the text. For example, the references in this passage to the Second Coming wind up sounding like an allusion to Malachi 4: if the sealing power is not given its place in the world, the Second Coming will be a time of wasting the earth. Moreover, the straying of the world from the ordinances of God, etc., now appears to be a reference to the rejection of the temple and of the associated covenants, rather than to the general apostate condition of spiritualizing Christianity.

In a word, this portion of the revelation now takes on a wholly modern Mormon feel: it seems to be intertwined with modern temple Mormonism, as well as with the centralized hierarchy.

(3) This third portion of the revelation now seems to follow much more immediately from the preceding section than in earlier editions: God, knowing that the sealing power was all that could give the earth its true purpose, called on Joseph Smith for that reason. In earlier editions—1835 as much as in the 1833 Book of Commandments—the divine appeal to Joseph seemed to have been aimed at overcoming the general apostasy of the world. Now, however, it reads as if Joseph were summoned precisely because the world would be, if the sealing power were not restored, completely destroyed.

Thus phrases like “everlasting covenant” and “fulness of my gospel” (in verses 22-23) take on a decidedly post-1844 feel. Rather than having reference to, say, the building up of a Jackson County Zion and the restoration of Israel, they are taken as having reference to temple ordinances and the restoration of sealing keys.

Joseph’s entire mission is thus given a new orientation: he was, from the very first, called to restore the sealing keys. (This was reinforced in the 1876 edition especially by Orson Pratt’s including in that version what is now section 2: Moroni’s rephrasing of Malachi 4.)

Moreover, it should be pointed out that, whereas in earlier versions, this portion of the revelation had a kind of narrative feel, it does not have one here. Rather than narrative, we have here exposition: this is an explanation of the reasoning behind God’s orchestration of a well-known event (Joseph’s being called as a prophet), rather than a narrative story about the obscure calling of a New York kid.

(4) Given that the previous portion of the revelation no longer has a narrative quality, this portion no longer has an interruptive quality. If anything, these words become, as they had been in the 1833 text, a kind of description of how the revelations in general were given. But this is now severed, it should be noted, from the genealogical thrust of the prefatory revelation in the 1833 Book of Commandments. What results, then, is not an explanation of these messengers in particular (as in 1833), nor an apology for the semi-historical feel of the revelations that make up the last part of the Doctrine and Covenants (as in 1835), but instead a description of what all revelation is like.

That is, these verses, in light simply of the changes in the Doctrine and Covenants after the first edition, very quickly came to assume intrinsically the meaning they are now usually portrayed as having: they explain that all revelation—indeed, all religious experience generally—can only be understood if one is attuned to historical contexts, etc. These verses essentially gave themselves to the modern historian, to be used as a kind of divine stamp of approval for the historian’s academic work. (I’ll only point out parenthetically that there is a something disingenuous about this particular way of using these verses: one assumes that these verses can be taken without appeal to the historical context so as to prove that everything else in scripture must be understood only by the historian, etc.)

More importantly, though, than the academic appropriation is another meaning that develops within the text in its post-1835 situation. It now, given the developments especially in and after Nauvoo, comes to describe not only the conditions in which revelation comes, but the very purposes of revelation: it comes to correct, to instruct, to call to repentance, to impart knowledge, etc. And because this revelation is definitively centralized in the Brethren, these verses become a kind of description of what the Brethren are supposed to do, a description of what the Church, as an institution, is all about.

(5) This section, in the post-1835 developments of the D&C, as well as in the post-1835 developments of the Church, come finally to take on the role of simply tying the Book of Mormon to the destiny of the Church: the Church began with the Book of Mormon, and its very foundations were laid in fidelity to it. And, in verses 31-36, the promulgation of the Book of Mormon thus becomes the essential key to the spread of “these things” among all un-respected persons, etc.

In other words, whereas these verses served in 1833 as part of the narrative that eventually separated Joseph Smith out as the translator and the remainder of the people as the messengers to the world; and whereas these same verses served in 1835 as the whole of a brief narrative meant to describe the basic outline of the contextual history behind the unfortunately historical revelations; these verses now take on—especially after the 1986 return to the Book of Mormon—the role of tying the Book of Mormon to the very nature of the Church.

(6) Only a slight shift characterizes the last few verses. They do, as in 1833, place a kind of seal on the text, and they do, as in 1835, place a similar seal on the institution. In addition, they now confirm the centralized revelatory apparatus discussed above.

Wrapping things up

It is time to bring this sprawling post to a conclusion. I want only to offer up a final (metadiscursive) thought: What have I been doing in all the above? (Beware: philosophical reflection ahead!)

What I think I’ve been doing, in working this all out (and it has taken me much longer than I usually spend on a post for the blog), is trying to work systematically through a materialist reading of a text. While the text has remained constant, its material presence in the midst of other very real and concrete writings and circumstances has given the text new meanings at almost every turn. (One could, in fact, give a similar analysis for each major change in the text of the D&C after 1835, something I’ve done only in the briefest of outlines in my third section of part two above.) The meaning of the D&C—of scripture generally—cannot be disentangled from the materiality of the text.

And this is why, I think, the scriptures are so important: unlike the spoken word, which dissipates so soon as it is said, the written word has an enduring material presence that allows us to recognize the materiality of the word, to recognize that we are constantly shifting our interpretations and our understandings. And this is what makes the scriptures infinitely relevant, always ready for us. As I hope the ridiculous amount of detail above—which, it should be noted, is outlined in great haste and in a far too brief treatment—shows, it is we who need to catch up with the scriptures, not the scriptures who need to catch up with us.

That we can get running is, as always, my hope.

8 Responses to “Doctrine and Covenants Lesson 1: “Introduction to the Doctrine and Covenants and Church History” (Sunday School)”

  1. rick said

    Wow! Nice work, Joe.

  2. Robert C. said

    Joe, this is great. I wonder if you couldn’t try to elaborate on this final point a bit more. (Essentially, I’m going to ask you to try and articulate Badiou’s notion of a truth procedure in layman’s terms appropriate for this blog and/or Sunday school, I think….)

    What’s initially surprising about the general interpretive approach you seem to be suggesting that it gives a kind of fluidity and indefiniteness to scripture. That is, rather than revealing principles that are “immovable” and “determinate,” it seems you are suggesting that scripture is something much vaguer and more indefinite—perhaps a kind of calling that is, in its essence, without content (though not without structure, which is tantamount, I think, to saying the scriptures reveal types and structural principles/commandments rather than specific commandments…?).

    I’ve been chewing on this way of thinking for a while now, so I think I see its radical potential for making the scriptures really come alive—but I’d really like help trying to digest the implications of all of this. So, I hope we can generate some discussion here. It’s hard for me to believe that others are going to buy these ideas without some sort of a fight or counter-argument, and because I’m already largely on board regarding this general interpretive direction, I’m most interested here in trying to hash out how such a move can be discussed in the Church (i.e., without invoking explicitly Badiouian terminology—if, by the way, you see other thinkers influencing your approach here in particular ways, I’d be interested in hearing how you see yourself drawing upon them, though this discussion is probably more appropriate at lds-herm…).

    Finally, let me say that I think one way to make this initially-jarring way of thinking about things (i.e., the word only a fixed structure, not content), is to appeal to marital covenants: we covenant to love and serve each other, through thick and thin, but all of these words have unknown content at the time of making the covenant. Life subsequent to the act/event of covenanting, then, is what determines the content of these words and makes the initial “merely structural” covenants meaningful and fleshed out, so-to-speak.

  3. […] If you’re new here, you may want to subscribe to my RSS feed. Especially if you came from Mormon Archipelago as it only includes my major article posts. Thanks for visiting!» A note on commentsThis picture summarizes so much about the internet. Much more than a thousand words.» Doctrine and Covenants Lesson 1: “Introduction to the Doctrine and Covenants and Church History”… […]

  4. […] Posted in Uncategorized at 6:46 pm by mommywhat [From the post itself:] There are, in essence, two parts to this lesson. First, it serves as an introduction to the course, which is, in fundamental ways, quite different from the other Sunday School courses (Book of Mormon, Old Testament, and New Testament). Second, it covers the first section of the Doctrine and Covenants. My own notes and observations below will accordingly be broken up into two parts. Read the rest of this entry » […]

  5. Joe M said

    great stuff.

    Another contextual point, referring to your item #4 above:

    “The point is something like Paul’s in Second Corinthians: the weakness of the servants makes it clear that the gospel delivered is not theirs, but God’s.”

    This nicely sets up Section 67, which is recorded just after Section 1 in History of the Church, where some folks had been complaining about language used in the revelations, and thought they could do it better. They apparently saw the weakness of a messenger (Joseph, in this case) but learned that the revelations were the Lord’s, not Joseph’s. From HC, volume 1 pg 226:

    The Folly of William E. M’Lellin.

    After the foregoing was received, William E. M’Lellin, as the wisest man, in his own estimation, having more learning than sense, endeavored to write a commandment like unto one of the least of the Lord’s, but failed; it was an awful responsibility to write in the name of the Lord. The Elders and all present that witnessed this vain attempt of a man to imitate the language of Jesus Christ, renewed their faith in the fulness of the Gospel, and in the truth of the commandments and revelations which the Lord had given to the Church through my instrumentality; and the Elders signified a willingness to bear testimony of their truth to all the world. Accordingly I received the following:

    The testimony of the witnesses to the book of the Lord’s commandments, which He gave to His Church through Joseph Smith, Jun., who was appointed by the voice of the Church for this purpose; we therefore feel willing to bear testimony to all the world of mankind, to every creature upon the face of all the earth and upon the islands of the sea, that the Lord has borne record to our souls, through the Holy Ghost, shed forth upon us, that these commandments were given by inspiration of God, and are profitable for all men, and are verily true. We give this testimony unto the world, the Lord being our helper; and it is through the grace of God, the Father, and His Son, Jesus Christ, that we are permitted to have this privilege of bearing this testimony unto the world, that the children of men may be profited thereby.

    “having more learning than sense”… :)

  6. joespencer said

    Nice insight, Joe M.

  7. Joe M said

    Thanks, Joe.

    Do you find it ironic that we’re teaching the D&C by topic, instead of chronologically? Are we back to looking at the D&C institutionally instead of chronologically as a church?

  8. […] Doctrine and Covenants Lesson 1: “Introduction to the Doctrine and Covenants and Church Histor… […]

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