Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

Why I Dislike Physics and the D&C

Posted by BrianJ on July 16, 2009

I enjoy studying the scriptures…well, most scriptures. I don’t really enjoy the D&C, and here’s why.

First, let me tell you why I don’t like Physics. I’m a scientist, so you might think I’d get all geeked up about anything science-y. And for the most part I do, but not Physics. It’s not that Physics isn’t interesting, it’s that I lack the vocabulary and foundation to recognize what is interesting. I took a few Physics course in college, of course, but they just didn’t prepare me to appreciate what cutting edge Physics is all about. I want to admire new discoveries in quantum mechanics, or enjoy the debates about string theory, but I know that it would require a time commitment that I’m not prepared to put in. So Physics, to me, is kind of like an Italian vacation: something I’d like to do some day but probably won’t due to other priorities and a lack of resources.

Now, about that D&C…. The problem isn’t quite the same as above: I have the basic vocabulary and foundational knowledge. But I still can’t appreciate what is really being said in all those revelations because I don’t have context. The other standard works are presented as stories (for the most part), so there’s a way to view the associated doctrine in light of the overall story. Except for a few sparse details in the Section headings, or the thoroughly summarized (and often glossed) history in the companion book Our Heritage, there’s practically nothing to go on.

That would be a problem for any book, but I think it’s amplified for the D&C. We often talk about modern revelation coming as a response to a prophet’s questions; i.e., God doesn’t just send doctrine down from above without being asked. This goes all the way back to the foundational story of Mormonism: Joseph’s question in the grove. That so little of the D&C can (readily, easily) be put into context thus becomes a major problem for the serious student.

The result: when I “study” the D&C, I’m overly distracted by the feeling that I’m totally missing the point; hence, I dislike studying the D&C.


Okay, I’m not just griping. I want your input. What I’m looking for is a text (preferably something more like a textbook, but not necessarily) that addresses the historical setting of every section of the D&C as well as the time between sections. It needs to consider events both inside and outside the Church, and in a non-biased way (e.g., I don’t need the history to try and prove to me that Joseph was a prophet; I already believe that). Ideally it would discuss, even briefly, areas where there is some debate among scholars, or where the historical record is sparse. Maps, charts, and tables are a bonus. It’d be nice if it was a history set up around the D&C, but even a good LDS history text would probably work as long as it at least referenced when different sections were revealed, recorded, and published; on the other hand, what I do not want is a doctrinal commentary on the D&C. Lastly, it needs to be “study-able” over the course of a year—no 5- or 14-volume sets.

There are a few resources I have tried, which I won’t mention because I want to see if anyone had success with them.


40 Responses to “Why I Dislike Physics and the D&C”

  1. Clark said

    Physics is fantastic. Don’t be a heathen. (grin)

  2. john willis said

    Have you had any sucess with Rough Stone Rolling ? While it doesn’t discuss each section of the D&C individually I have found this year in preparing for Gospel Docrtine classes that reading a section of RSR that covers the time period in which a given section was given does help me put the section into the proper context.

  3. Kristine said

    Well, you can always just go the impressionist lit-geek route and appreciate the poetry:http://bycommonconsent.com/2007/07/03/denn-der-herr-ist-freundlich-the-doctrine-of-friendship/

  4. Greg said

    BrianJ – I don’t believe there is a book yet that covers this ground. Or if there is, I haven’t found it yet. Years ago, facing the same dilemma, I decided to start building my own library. I now often wonder what do converts to the Church do to fill this void.

  5. larryco_ said

    The combination of Bushman’s book on the beginnings of Mormonism (NY years), Milt Backman’s book on Kirtland, and Flinder’s on Nauvoo will give you some historical context. Forget Missouri…it’s all too depressing.

  6. Ben Pratt said

    RSR has been great for me for this, though it does sometimes leave me with the feeling that a given section of the D&C is more applicable to John Whitmer or Jesse Gause than to me. I have to work a little more to liken the scriptures unto myself, and that’s not bad.

    Also, physics is phun. I just finished a summer institute session on electric circuits for high school physics teachers. Good times.

  7. joespencer said

    Oh, Brian, this book does very much need to be written. There are makeshift texts, and I think RSR (perhaps because it wasn’t written for this purpose) is about the best there is. But anything directly helpful has yet to be written. Forty years of the new Mormon history, and we never produced a decent commentary on the D&C. That alone convinces me that the entire project was—helpful and productive as it has undeniably been—fundamentally misguided.

  8. Jacob J said

    Very true. Commentaries on the D&C invariably disappoint. I recently bought the new “Making Sense of” commentary on the strength of Stapley’s review and it definitely has some good stuff it in, but I feel that something so much better will be done some day.

    A big part of the problem, in my opinion, is how multi-faceted the D&C is. The commentary I want will most certainly be multi-volume and will cover:

    Historical context and outcome: I really like that Harper has a bit of commentary on each section saying not what led up to the revelation but what were the outcomes and reactions. There are still a lot of sections that we seem to know very little about in terms of historical context and I can’t tell if that really because we don’t know or just because no one is telling me.

    Religious philosophy (meant as a broad term to encompass everything from theology/eschatology/soteriology/etc.). I want someone to help situate the ideas expressed in the D&C in the context of the religious world at the time of JS as well as throughout history.

    Biblical studies: Harper’s commentary on D&C 77 is woefully inadequate in frankly terrible in that it doesn’t even attempt to comment on how the interpretations in D&C 77 compare to modern Biblical scholarship on the same verses. The D&C explicitly talks about the Bible a lot and it draws on Biblical language even more. I want someone to help me with good commentary on the parts of the D&C that interact with the Bible.

    Textual criticism: Woodford did some amazing work here which we seem to just ignore in all commentaries on the D&C that I have read.

    Probably I’m forgetting something important, but as I write this I am reminded why it is so hard. All scriptural commentary needs all this stuff, but I think the D&C makes room for more commentary in more areas than most other books. But then, maybe I’m wrong about that.

  9. aquinas said

    BrianJ, I feel your pain.

  10. CBeeton said

    I too have always felt asea when trying to put the D&C revelations into a historical context, and a bit of a fraud as I’ve tried to teach it in Gospel Doctrine. One text that was unexpectedly helpful at helping me keep general events of the restoration in order was the first few volumes of Gerald Lund’s Work & the Glory series. Obviously it’s not useful as a text for SS, but on the other hand it *is* entirely story! :) One of the best things about historical fiction is that it introduces us to facts we can use later on as guideposts. Or, hooks upon which we can hang our own conclusions.

  11. BrianJ said

    No, no, no, no, no! You all get a FAIL! You’re supposed to be pointing me to fantastic books and free online resources to address my need, and then arguing about which is super-fantastic and which is uber-awesome. Now I’m more desperate than ever!


  12. gomez said

    If you want a single volume that provides brief context and reaction without much commentary then I think Harper’s “Making Sense” actually does quite well. I’m not sure that what you really want can be done in a single volume.

  13. I like the D&C. And physics.

  14. Tanya S. said

    Ironically, the D&C is my favorite scripture specifically because it doesn’t have the boring story parts. I don’t care about the stories in the other books of scripture (much). I just like my doctrine straight up without any of that annoying context (slightly overstated perhaps, but… true).

    Still, had anyone suggested a book or two, I’d have bought them. I already read RSR (and loved it).

  15. RuthS said

    Re# 11, maybe you could write that book and put up some on line information for everyone. You could start be reading the eight volume (7 plus and index) History of the Church by Joseph Smith. It was edited by B. H. Roberts and contains Journal entries from Joseph Smith’s personal journal, minutes from conferences and other meetings, letters to and from the prophet. So you will find the full text of the doctrine and covenants pretty much in the context each part of it was given. Joseph Smiths papers were published more recently as well as Wilford Woodruff’s journal. Woodruff was a witness and scribe during the early most of the time period when the D&C was given. The forthcoming publication of early Joseph papers especially the ones about the early editions of the Book of Commandments will be a great help.

  16. Greg said

    BrianJ: If that’s what you want, that’s what you get. I highly recommend The Words of Joseph Smith which covers the Nauvoo period. Not yet online, but I believe a third edition is in the works.

  17. Here’s an idea. You could do research yourself and try writing an abridged history of the beginning of the church as if you were Mormon abridging the plates of Nephi to make the Book of Mormon.

    “I, Brian, having been born of goodly parents.. having had the itch to study church history and the doctrines of the prophets in the Doctrine in Covenants in the context of history, do make an abridgment with my own computer..”

  18. joespencer said

    The mention of the History of the Church impels me to make a quick comment. According to Orson Pratt, Joseph began his history in 1838/9 because he wanted to narrativize the D&C: his aim was to create a book of scripture that set all the revelations of the Restoration into an unfolding story (something like Acts or Mosiah). It seems clear to me that Orson had this very much in mind when he put together the 1876 D&C. Between 1835 and 1876, the D&C had been arranged in what I call an “institutional” ordering, where the revelations appeared in the order of their importance for the organization of the Church, etc. Orson rearranged them chronologically and excerpted a number of revelations, visions, events, and teachings from Joseph’s history (D&C 2; 13; 110; 129-131, for example) to include in the Doctrine and Covenants. The result was something as close to what Joseph had envisioned as possible under the circumstances.

    I wonder if we’ll ever complete the project.

  19. FrankM said

    When I was teaching Gospel Doctrine back in the ’90s, I found the following book to be helpful:

    The Doctrine and Covenants Commentary
    by Hyrum Smith and Janne Sjodahl
    Deseret Book (1950)

    It had extensive historical notes, including details about any obscure name that is mentioned in any section. It’s out-of-print, but I just saw some used copies available on Amazon.

  20. sjames said

    I have the Smith & Sjodahl 1972 revised edition, I like this book the older it gets – not a verse by verse treatment but almost.
    I am just as wary of Joe’s ‘new mormon history’ as I am of the old mormon history, its an interesting read all the same.
    Also Doctrine & Covenants: Our Modern Scripture, Richard O Cowan 1978, this one could do with a revision.
    Both only go as far as D&C136.

  21. sjames said

    A brief addendum re the new mormon history.

    After reading RSS I was left with a poor impression of Joseph Smith Snr. Bushman’s treatment of JS Snr really needs to be explained – references to a failed father; his ‘drinking’; his’lacking’; a father ‘who had given his son only hardship’ etc and a somewhat neutral reference to his role as Patriarch, imo collide with other accounts.

    Compare the portrayals by Lorenzo Snow in his autobiography who records his first meeting with Father Smith, at a blessing meeting in the Kirtland Temple, a meeting which was to precipitate Lorenzo’s baptism and future inspiration on the nature of God and man, said Father Smith: ‘You will become as great as you can possibly wish – even as great as God, and you cannot wish to be greater’. Couple this with Snow’s numerous references to the goodness and faithfulness of Father Smith, his presiding and facilitating role in the Kirtland Temple,etc. and one is left wondering about the perspective and interpretive work of the ‘new mormon history’.

  22. RobF said

    So why aren’t we building something like this on the FUTW Blog?

  23. Matt W. said

    I’ve heard many good things about “Making Sense of…” But haven’t personally read it.

    The Institute Manuals (History and D&C) are okish, and the seminary manual is a step below that, but still better than the sunday school manual.

    I think the Joseph Smith Papers Project will contribute to the eventual production of something quite excellent along these lines.

    But personally, I’d just move in with Joe Spencer if you really want to get into the D&C.

  24. NathanG said

    Brian, I am currently preparing a SS lesson D&C 121 and 122. I wanted to figure out why the verses pertaining to the priesthood are sandwitched between all this discussion on the tribulations. I had made my conclusions, and then read the full letter as contained in history of the church (at least I think it’s there, I read it in Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith) and had to abandon my conclusions and start over. I haven’t read much else from History of the Church, but it seems like a reasonable start. I will try to post my notes for SS lesson when I get back from vacation.

    As to physics, I love physics, but never talk about String Theory or what not. Perhaps your goals in physics are missing the beauty of physics. I like physics as it helps me understand what I see in the world around me. Same probably can apply in why we want to study scriptures. What we want to get from something is likely to lead us to different resources and lead to different enjoyments (not that I would attempt to criticize your gospel study, but physics…:)

  25. joespencer said

    Yes, everyone, move in with me! :)

    Rob, you raise the question of questions here. We ought collectively to be producing this commentary at the wiki. The problem I encounter there is that the wiki is not appealing to me at all if it is not a community project: if I’m just writing and sending things out into the middle of nowhere, with no indication that anyone is reading, rewriting, countering, etc., I find myself moving on to other places where this kind of collective work can be done (as in, for example, the Mormon Theology Seminar). How can we generate a genuine community of productive commentators at the wiki?

    I think this is the central question of our work on the Feast project.

  26. Larrin said

    I liked “Making Sense of the Doctrine & Covenants: A Guided Tour Through Modern Revelations” by Harper and “Doctrine and Covenants Compendium” by Sperry. Best free online source would be the institute manual.

  27. I would like to third the recommendation of _Making Sense of the Doctrine & Covenants_ by Steven C. Harper. It has really helped me with understanding the historical context behind what would otherwise be disjointed seeming sections.

  28. JonesZ said

    As far as a silver bullet, I haven’t found one yet, but RSR does a great job of presenting the history without the “gloss,” although as noted above, it does have some subjectivity that creeps in. I have also found the Sperry Symposium Classics on the Doctrine and Covenants (http://rsc.byu.edu/SperrySymposiumClassics.php) to be helpful on the select sections that the articles cover. I also refer to scriptures.byu.edu and look for references from the Journal of Discourses, which will often give historical context. It would be great to have a way to aggregate and index all of the sources for future reference, however.

  29. Dennis said

    I don’t think anyone’s mentioned A Commentary on the Doctrine and Covenants by Stephen Robinson and Dean Garrett (4 vols.). I don’t think this commentary is what people are looking for (I agree with Joe and others that a truly substantial commentary on the D&C has not yet been written), but it’s OK. It provides fairly nice historical backgrounds and is more “honest” than the CES manuals. There is a fair amount of “faith-promoting” doctrinal commentary (but it’s not simply general authority quote listing), but, for me, it was more helpful than anything else I’ve seen, in terms of understanding context (in terms of specific commentaries for the D&C). I don’t think it’s worth the money, though (it’s 4 hardcover volumes that each are listed for $20 or more).

  30. Dennis said

    I should mention that the Robinson and Garrett volumes are pretty good about providing the historical nuances of when sections were (or possibly were) received, when published, how they changed through different versions of the D&C, etc. This information probably doesn’t have a lot of historical nuances, but more than I’ve seen in any other D&C commentary (but I haven’t read this Harper one people are talking about).

  31. Robert C. said

    @ #25: I’m in the midst of a move, but once things settle down a bit for me, I’d really like to make a push for a communal project at the wiki again. My experience with the Mormon Theology Seminar has been very good, and as more people get involved I think a lot of good work will be produced, but I think there are a lot of things that wiki projects can do better. Anyway, stay tuned—perhaps not this fall, but by the winter or next spring or so I expect to have time again to start contributing here again and making a push for some collaborative projects at the wiki….

  32. joespencer said


    I agree, and in fact have been doing some work at the wiki the past few days (when I haven’t been on the road). To the wiki!

  33. sjames said

    Robert C

    Thanks for linking to the Mormon Theology Seminar, a stimulating work.

    I particularly like the places where the focus on textuality leads beyond a ‘realist’ view to considerations of how the text works to construct or ‘suggest’ such views.

  34. BrianJ said

    Okay, I’ve been away on vacation (and other things) so let me catch up. There seems to be a consensus about a few books that I’d like to summarize. I don’t mean to exclude anyone’s comments, just to summarize what stood out as frequent recommendations:

    Rough Stone Rolling. I own this one already. This is a great resource and a readable book (except that first chapter. Ugh!) It’s written in the right tone, but the layout is really not helpful as a reference text. It likely misses several sections of the D&C as well, and there are very few maps or other visual aids. Overall, this is a book I use to help me with the D&C, but it doesn’t quite get me all the way there.

    Making Sense of the D&C (Harper). Sounds like a good start and, at least in terms of format, closer to what I want than RSR. Hopefully I’ll have saved up enough to buy it before the next run through the D&C in four years (yes, $35 is something I save up for!)

    Feast Upon the Word (wiki). An awesome and free resource. The answer to robf’s question, “Why aren’t we doing this now?” is part of my post: I’m not doing this because I don’t know enough to be doing this.

    Thanks again to all.

  35. Jess said

    I don’t think it’s exactly what you’re looking for, but it’s done for me what I was looking for:

    “Your study of the Doctrine and Covenants made easier” by David J Ridges.

    He provides a detailed historical background for each section (which is in part what you’re looking for) as well as cross references, breakdown of the text, outlines, possible interpretations, etc. (which is, of course, what you said you AREN’T looking for). I just thought I’d throw out there what’s worked for me.

  36. BrianJ said

    Huzzah! Thanks to a friendly lurker on this blog I am now the grateful—and very surprised—owner of Stephen Harper’s “Making Sense of the D&C”. “Ask and ye shall recieve”? Make that: “Blog and ye shall receive”!

  37. WVS said

    Brian, perhaps a lot of what you are looking for is in the “annotated history of the church” at boap.org. The link for it is on the home page. Of course, it only goes up through the middle of 1833, but that is the large part of the D&C. There are text variants, bios, and other stuff for each section up that point. Might be useful to you.


  38. I have spent much of the last 8 years working up exactly the book you are looking for – the Historical Context of the Doctrine & Covenants. I too could not find a good reference and finally decided I would have to write it myself. I am a lawyer and spend my career learning to understand batches of documents, so I applied those same tools to the D&C. Last month I began posting chapters online. It is now posted through D&C 40, and I expect to have it posted through D&C 70 (335 pages) within another month or so. The history to D&C 71-123 is only about halfway written and will take another couple years to complete. You can check it out at kurtelieson.com/scriptures/historical-context-doctrine-covenants.htm.

  39. Robert C. said

    Kurt, thanks for this link—fascinating! Please keep us posted as you make progress. (BTW, here’s a clickable link: http://kurtelieson.com/scriptures/historical-context-doctrine-covenants.htm.)

  40. BrianJ said

    Kurt Elieson: I’ve only had a chance to briefly look at your project. I must say that it looks excellent! Thank you for posting the link and for your hard work.

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