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What Is the Doctrine and Covenants? Part II.3, The Book of Commandments

Posted by joespencer on August 28, 2010

In my post on the printing of the revelations in the Evening and Morning Star, I have already outlined some of the basic history behind the Church’s development of its first efforts at putting Joseph’s revelations in print. The turn toward printing, it seems, worked itself out through a series of events: the unauthorized publication of section 42 in non-Mormon newspapers seems first to have precipitated the desire; the conversion of W. W. Phelps, already a professional printer, seems to have made for the actual possibility of printing the revelations; and the organization of the Literary Firm during the November 1831 conference in Kirtland seems to have sealed the deal. In that previous post, I avoided, for the most part, dealing with the plans to produce the Book of Commandments, focusing instead on the printing of the revelations in the Star, both because the Star was issued earlier than the Book of Commandments and because the Star commanded a much, much larger readership than the Book of Commandments ever did. Here I want to begin by returning to this early history but now with a focus on the Book of Commandments. After that, I will turn to the actual volume that is the Book of Commandments, along with the manuscript collections that tell us something about the production of the Book of Commandments. Finally, I will look at efforts at history-writing that were undertaken alongside the publication of the Book of Commandments. I will postpone discussion of the aftermath of the publication of the Book of Commandments until my next post, where I will deal with the publication of the Doctrine and Covenants in 1835.

Getting to the Publication of the Book of Commandments

The invention of the idea to publish a book, rather than a newspaper that could include relevant revelations, seems to have been a major development in early Mormon thinking about modern canon. In the Star, the revelations retained a kind of proto-canonicity, something already implicitly at work in many of the revelations received in Kirtland, though this proto-canonicity became all the more explicit and acknowledged when the revelations went to print. But because the printing in the Star was governed first and foremost by the interests of the Saints and not by any systematic attempt either to make available all the revelations that had been received or to sort out the relationships among the several revelations, the Church’s 1832 efforts at publishing the revelations never quite allowed them to achieve a fully canonical status.

Interestingly and importantly, plans for the Book of Commandments matured alongside of, rather than after, plans for the printing of the revelations in the Star. The only reason, ultimately, that the Book of Commandments came only after the Star was because it took a great deal more time to set and produce a book than to distribute a newspaper. One of the implications of this entanglement of the two publication efforts is that the Book of Commandments might be said to have lent something of its own canonicity to the publication of the revelations in the Star: there was certainly a general recognition that the Star‘s printing of revelations was in anticipation of the promised printed volume. At the same time, as I attempted to make clear already in my post on the Star, the printing of revelations in the newspaper also had an effect on the meaning of canonicity in the Book of Commandments, selecting out certain themes as privileged or more crucial.

But whatever the dialectical relationship between the Book of Commandments and the Evening and Morning Star in terms of canonicity, it is clear that the two projects had a shared point of historical origin. The November 1831 conference, however, seems to have been the most important event for the production of the Book of Commandments in particular. That conference—or, really, council—was called precisely in order to make official decisions about the publication of the book. A vote early in the conference determined that the Church would print fully 10,000 copies of the Book of Commandments, though this number was significantly reduced later (and, of course, only perhaps a hundred copies of the never-finished book were ever in circulation). Such an enormous project drove the conference’s two most consistent points of discussion: (1) whether the revelations should be printed at all; (2) how the Church could come up with the financial resources necessary to accomplish such a gargantuan aim.

Regarding the first of these two, a widely-circulated story suggests that there was critical discussion during this conference about the language of the revelations. William E. McLellin, as the story goes, criticized the grammar in the revelations, either suggesting that the revelations were therefore false or at least that the grammar should be corrected before publication. Joseph, however, received a revelation (now section 67) in response, which reads in part: “Now, seek ye out of the Book of Commandments, even the least that is among them, and appoint him that is the most wise among you; Or, if there be any among you that shall make one like unto it, then ye are justified in saying that ye do not know that they are true; But if ye cannot make one like unto it, ye are under condemnation if ye do not bear record that they are true. For ye know that there is no unrighteousness in them, and that which is righteous cometh down from above, from the Father of lights” (D&C 67:6-9). William E. McLellin, “having more learning than sense,” as the History of the Church famously puts it, took up the challenge, but failed completely to produce something as eloquently divine as the revelations. Accordingly, all present realized the folly of their concerns about the language of the revelations.

A 1993 article in Dialogue by Mark Grandstaff (“Having More Learning Than Sense: William E. McLellin and the Book of Commandments Revisited”), however, very helpfully dismantles the reliability of this well known story: it seems to have been mostly invented, and that in the late nineteenth century. The situation seems rather to have been something like the following.

On the first day of the conference (the first of November), the conference opened by addressing the question of how many copies of the book to print. The decision was made collectively to print 10,000 copies. Thereafter, Joseph received the revelation that is now section 1 of the Doctrine and Covenants, a revelation that was received as the preface to the Book of Commandments. Then, according to the Far West Record (a collection of minutes from early meetings), “Br. Joseph Smith jr. said that inasmuch as the Lord has bestowed a great blessing upon us in giving commandments and revelations, asked the Conference what testimony they were willing to attach to these commandments which should shortly be sent to the world.” In order to provide something of a standard, Joseph then received by revelation a testimony that those willing to testify were to sign. It can be found in the History of the Church (where B. H. Roberts included a footnote explaining why it had never appeared in previous printings of Joseph’s history). And, interestingly, it has recently been found again in the Book of Commandments and Revelations, the recently published manuscript collection of revelations printed in the second volume of the Joseph Smith Papers Project (p. 215). There it was labeled a revelation. It is worth quoting here in full (I’m quoting the manuscript version):

The Testimony of the witnesses to the Book of the Lords commandments which he gave to his church through Joseph Smith Jr who was appointed by the voice of the Church for this purpose

We the undersigners feel willing to bear testimony to all the word of mankind to every creature upon all the face of all the Earth [&] upon the Islands of the Sea that god hat born record to our souls through the Holy Ghost shed forth upon us that these commandments are given by inspiration of God & are profitable for all men & are verily true we give this testimony unto the world the Lord being my [our] helper & it is through the grace of God the father & his Son Jesus Christ that we are permitted to have this privilege of bearing this testimony unto the world in the which we rejoice exceedingly by praying the Lord always that the children of men may be profited thereby Amen

Once Joseph had received this testimony by revelation (and its essentially parallel relationship to both the testimonies of the three and eight witnesses in the Book of Mormon, as well as to the testimony of the Twelve in the Doctrine and Covenants, should not be overlooked), the trouble at the conference began. There were some present who felt that they could sign the document because they felt they had received some kind of spiritual witness. But others did not feel that they had received any such witness. Section 67 was therefore received either that night after conference or the next day (the second of November) before conference started in response to those who felt they had not received any spiritual witness. It was not, then, a question of the grammar or language in the revelations, but a question of whether certain individuals had received the spiritual witness mentioned (“god hath born record to our souls through the Holy Ghost shed forth upon us that these commandments are given by inspiration of God”), that drove the reception of section 67. The wording of the revelation confirms this: “Ye endeavored to believe that ye should receive the blessing which was offered unto you; but behold, verily I say unto you there were fears in your hearts, and verily this is the reason that ye did not receive” (D&C 67:3). So the revelation goes on to provide them with an experiment through which the Lord would essentially prove to them that the commandments were divine: they would appoint the wisest among them to produce a revelation. Here, interestingly, is where the question of language comes up. And it is the Lord who introduces the question of language, not the elders (and certainly not William E. McLellin)—and, interestingly, the Lord brings it up only by saying that they have not mentioned this concern: “Your eyes have been upon my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and his language you have known, and his imperfections you have known; and you have sought in your hearts knowledge that you might express beyond his language; this you also know” (D&C 67:5). McLellin was, in accordance with the revelation, appointed to make the attempt, and his failure helped to convince all those who doubted that the commandments should be endorsed. By the end of the second day of the conference, “the brethren . . . arose in turn and bore witness to the truth of the Book of Commandments.”

The question that remains, however, is this: why did those who doubted doubt? The Lord seems to indicate in D&C 67:5, already quoted above, that there were concerns about Joseph’s weakness in grammar and rhetorical ability. But there seem to have been other concerns as well. David Whitmer, who, according to the minutes in the Far West Record, was indeed present at the conference, later claimed that he came out in open opposition to the plan to print the revelations (interestingly, his signature is not to be found on the manuscript copy of the testimony, though there are eighteen other signatures on it, and there is plenty of room left for Whitmer’s signature!). As he wrote many years after the event (likely conflating the event of the conference with the organization of the Literary Firm—on which more below—in the Spring of 1832):

I will now tell you of a prophecy which the Lord gave through me to Brothers Joseph Smith and Sydney Rigdon, of what should come to pass if they printed those revelations. In the spring of 1832, in Hiram, Ohio, Brothers Joseph and Sydney, and others, concluded that the revelations should be printed in a book. A few of the brethren—including myself—objected to it seriously. We told them that if the revelations were published, the world would get the books, and it would not do; that it was not the will of the Lord that the revelations should be published. But Brothers Joseph and Sydney would not listen to us, and said they were going to send them to Independence to be published. I objected to it and withstood Brothers Joseph and Sydney to the face. Brother Joseph said as follows: “Any man who objects to having these revelations published, shall have his part taken out of the Tree of Life and out of the Holy City.” The Spirit of God came upon me and I prophesied to them in the name of the Lord: “That if they sent those revelations to Independence to be published in a book, the people would come upon them and tear down the printing press, and the church would be driven out of Jackson county.” Brothers Joseph and Sydney laughed at me. Early in the spring of 1833, at Independence, Mo., the revelations were printed in the Book of Commandments. Many of the books were finished and distributed among the members of the church, and through some of the unwise brethren, the world got hold of some of them. From that time the ill-feeling toward us began to increase; and in the summer of 1833 the mob came upon us, tore down the printing press, and drove the church out of Jackson county. Brothers Joseph and Sydney then saw that I did have some of the Spirit of God, after my prophecy had been fulfilled. (An Address to All Believers in Christ, pp. 54-55)

If David Whitmer’s recollection is not mostly fabricated (and there is the obvious possibility of self-serving embellishment here), then it seems that some of those who had “doubts” and so did not feel comfortable signing the revealed testimony were driven to their decision first and foremost by their concern about circulating the material in the revelations. Some may have been concerned about Joseph’s weakness; some may have been concerned about letting the world see the revelations that they regarded as secret; and some may have simply had doubts about the truth of the revelations. Whatever their concerns in the end, though, it seems they were all united in the decision to print the revelations by the end of the second day of the conference. So much for the first consistent point of discussion during the conference.

The second consistent point of discussion during the conference, as I have already mentioned, was the question of how to fund the printing of the Book of Commandments. After the first two days of the conference, which were devoted to the questions already addressed above, the conference seems to have adjourned for several days. The brethren met again beginning on November 8th. The first day of meeting again seems to have been given first and foremost to practical details of printing the revelations: who was to copy the revelations for a printer’s manuscript; how scribal errors were to be corrected; etc. The next few days were given to making missionary assignments, clarifying who was to settle in Jackson County, etc. Then finally, on November 12th and 13th, the subject of discussion became the question of funding the printing of the revelations. A revelation had been received on November 11th in connection with the assignments to remove to Missouri—the revelation is now section 69 of the Doctrine and Covenants—in which Oliver Cowdery and John Whitmer were commanded to “carry unto the land of Zion” the revelations for printing (D&C 69:1). Consequently, Joseph Smith opened the November 12th session of conference by proposing, according to the Far West Record, that “brs. Oliver Cowdery & John Whitmer & the sacred writings which they have entrusted to them to carry to Zion be dedicated to the Lord by the prayer of faith.” After the conference voted in favor of the proposal, Joseph blessed the two brothers and the revelation manuscripts they were to carry with them.

Next, the minutes of the meeting record: “After deliberate consideration in consequence of the book of Revelation now to be printed being the foundation of the Church & the salvation of the world & the Keys of the mysteries of the Kingdom & the riches of Eternity to the Church. Voted that they be prized by this Conference to be worth to the Church the riches of the whole Earth speaking temporally.” Turning from theory to practice, a revelation was then received—now section 70 of the Doctrine and Covenants—which appointed Joseph Smith, Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, and John Whitmer (and, a little bit later, William W. Phelps) to be “stewards over the revelations and commandments” (D&C 70:3). The revelation provides the details of this stewardship: those included in what came to be called the Literary Firm were to generate the capital, through business endeavors within the law of consecration and stewardship, necessary for the printing of the Book of Commandments. The idea seems to have been that these men would form a kind of firm within the larger setup of the law of consecration in order to produce excess capital, particularly if “average” members of the order could not produce such capital in short order. The organization of this Literary Firm would have massive historical consequences.

With these arrangements in place, the conference finally adjourned, and Oliver Cowdery and John Whitmer set off for Jackson County with a copy of the revelations in hand. So soon as W. W. Phelps had his printing outfit in order (about the middle of 1832), the work of printing the Book of Commandments was underway.

The Process of Printing the Book

Printing the Book of Commandments was slow work. The number of copies to be printed was reduced at some point to 3,000, making the job much more manageable, but funding was not generally forthcoming—despite the efforts of the Literary Firm—and printing a book in such a small outfit was a slow job at best. Unfortunately, there is no history of the printing of the Book of Commandments that has been written, though it has recently been recognized that it needs to be done (and that it is more possible than ever, given the recent publication of the Book of Commandments and Revelations). A few details from the process of printing the volume, however, might here be brought together to bear on the notion of canonicity embodied in the Book of Commandments.

First, it seems that several manuscript sources were used to produce the volume. Likely the most important of these was the Book of Commandments and Revelations, recently published for the first time in the first Revelations volume of the Joseph Smith Papers. This manuscript collection of revelations not only provides the earliest manuscript sources for many of the revelations, but it also sports many of the changes made to the revelations—sometimes in the work of preparing the revelations for publication in the Book of Commandments, sometimes in the work of preparing the revelations for publication in the Doctrine and Covenants, and sometimes in the work of preparing the revelations for publication elsewhere (in the Star, for example). It is an invaluable source.

The BCR (as it is now being called) was principally written in the hand of John Whitmer, who was serving as the Church’s official historian, and who was appointed at the November conference, along with Oliver Cowdery, to carry the revelations to Missouri for printing. That the revelations were edited before appearing in the Book of Commandments is not terribly surprising. The minutes of the November conference record the following for November 8th: “Remarks by br. Sidney Rigdon on the errors or mistakes which are in commandments and revelations, made either by the scribe translation in consequence of the slow way of the scribe at the time of receiving or by the scribes themselves. Resolved by this conference that Br Joseph Smith Jr correct those errors or mistakes which he may discover by the holy Spirit while receiving the revelations reviewing the revelations & commandments & also the fulness of the scriptures.” Of course, it is clear from the manuscripts that much more than mere scribal errors must account for the changes. It seems Sidney Rigdon took a hand at one point in correcting grammar and attempting to render the language more elegant or at least less awkward. It seems clear also that Oliver Cowdery took the time to make adjustments to the revelations that made them a bit smoother. At times Joseph Smith’s own hand appears in the BCR making changes, sometimes rather drastic. At any rate, it seems clear that the move to put the revelations in a printed volume called for some clean-up and correction.

The BCR, like the Book of Commandments then in process of production, organizes the revelations chronologically. It is not as strict on this point as the Book of Commandments itself would be, probably because some revelations did not come into the hands of John Whitmer until after he had already recorded later revelations (this is a problem especially further along in the BCR; Whitmer was in Missouri, and new revelations received in Kirtland had to be sent to him, something that didn’t always happen in the best order for a chronological ordering of the revelations in the manuscript record).

Though the Book of Commandments was being printed at the same time and in the same office as the Evening and Morning Star, it employed a completely different approach to the revelations. While the Star had been selective, clearly printing revelations of a certain kind and with a certain emphasis, the Book of Commandments arranged the revelations in strict chronological order (the preface and the appendix being the only intentional exceptions), and there is no evidence that any revelation is privileged because of its particular content. The revealed preface (chapter 1 of the Book of Commandments, now section 1 of the Doctrine and Covenants) seems to have prescribed this approach to the publication: it makes clear that because the revelations in the Book of Commandments “were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding” (D&C 1:24), and therefore because the revelations trace the basic history of “lay[ing] the foundation of this church, and [of] bring[ing] it forth out of obscurity and out of darkness” (D&C 1:30), it would have to be a kind of chronicle tracing the trajectory of the Church’s revelatory history. Each revelation was, in the Book of Commandments, to add to the last, all of them collectively moving in the direction of increasingly complete organization.

Unfortunately, it is not known how many revelations were intended to printed in the Book of Commandments. The printing press was destroyed in July 1833 before the volume was complete (the printing was completed up through what is now D&C 64 at that point), and the project was never completed. Revelations up through D&C 70 were received by the end of the November conference, but one presumes that, because more revelations were received subsequent to the conference but before the printing of the Book of Commandments would be complete, these later revelations would have been included as well. By the time the printing outfit was destroyed, revelations up through D&C 96 had been received, but it remains a mystery how many of these would have made their way into the volume.

The story of the destruction of the printing outfit is rather well known. The whole difficulty with the Missourians that led to the event seems to have been sparked by William W. Phelps’ weighing in on the slavery issue in his June printing of the Star. When that brought a good deal of criticism, he effectively reversed his position in the July issue, and it wasn’t long before a mob formed. The destruction of the press seems to have been motivated by anger about the Star, but it had dire consequences for the Book of Commandments primarily. Of course, there is the famous story of the teenage girls who dashed into the fray in order to retrieve loose sheets of the Book of Commandments, then running into the cornfields and lying on top of them until the mob had disappeared. These saved copies of the Book of Commandments were subsequently bound into a handful of incomplete volumes, and they circulated to some extent among the Saints.

While all this work of printing and then of destruction was going on, the Literary Firm was experiencing its subsequent developments as well. Once the Church was definitively split between Kirtland, Ohio, and Jackson County, Missouri, two distinct literary firms developed, and then Joseph Smith received a revelation commanding that the two be constructed as a single United Firm (written as United Order in the published versions of the revelations), joining efforts in Ohio and Missouri to produce the capital necessary for the Church’s various projects. After the mobbing in Missouri in the summer of 1833, and especially after the Church was effectively driven out of Jackson County, and then after the attempt to redeem Zion through Zion’s Camp in 1834 had been unsuccessful in terms of immediate redemption, the Lord revealed that it was time to disband the United Firm (or United Order) completely (D&C 104), calling for a return to the more streamlined original program of the law of consecration and stewardship. About the same time, however, a new organization effectively replaced the United Firm: the High Council. Within a year, the high council had become the basic hierarchical organ in the Church, and the several quorums were finally organized in 1835. With that, a rather different era of the Church was launched, and a completely distinct collection of the revelations—to be called the Doctrine and Covenants—was published. Of course, the story of that publication will be the subject of my next post. Here I want only to point out that there is a remarkably complex historical relationship between the Book of Commandments as a failed project and the Doctrine and Covenants as a successful one.

The Book of Commandments as Canon

So far, this post has been quite history-heavy. There is, I hope, good reason for that: the history, in this instance, bears a good deal on the notion of canonicity at work in the Book of Commandments. It seems to me that it does so in at least four major ways. First, the events surrounding the decision to print the volume tell us a good deal about how the revelations were and came to be viewed in terms of canonicity: that the November conference initially determined to publish 10,000 copies; that the Lord bothered to reveal a preface and an appendix to the volume specifically; that there were those who hesitated to sign the revealed testimony concerning the revelations; that this was overcome through a kind of showdown between William McLellin and Joseph-as-the-Lord’s-mouthpiece; that there were those, apparently, who eventually outrightly opposed the printing (or at least one: David Whitmer); that the printing of the book was to be undertaken specifically in Zion; etc.—all these historical details tell us something about the notion of canonicity at work in the Book of Commandments. Second, the organization of the Literary Firm (and eventually the United Firm), as well as its post-Book of Commandments demise, had such enormous historical, organizational, and even scriptural ramifications that the financing efforts in this curious case actually have a good deal to teach us about the notion of canonicity embraced in the Book of Commandments. Third, the process of printing the volume—particularly the fact that the printing was undertaken alongside the printing of the Star, and the fact that there is such a close relationship between the Book of Commandments and the BCR—has something to say about the idea of canonicity at work in the Book of Commandments. And finally, the events surrounding the destruction of W. W. Phelps’s printing outfit, particularly the decision never to resume the project, determines in very strong ways the notion of canonicity at work in the Book of Commandments.

I’ll take each of these historical points one by one.

The first detail from the events surrounding the decision to print in the first place: the November conference originally determined to print 10,000 copies of the Book of Commandments. By all accounts, this was a bizarre decision. At the time the decision was made, the Church seems to have had no more than seven hundred members total. This seems to suggest that one of two ideas was in the mind of those involved in the conference. Either (1) they collectively believed that the Church would massively expand by the time the printing of the book was completed, or (2) they collectively understood the volume to be published as much for non-members as for members of the Church—whether this means that the Book of Commandments was to be used as a proselyting tool, or whether this means that the book was to be used as a kind of public relations tool. These two motivations are ultimately quite distinct, and each would imply something rather different about the canonicity of the volume. If the conference participants assumed that Church membership would quickly reach the kinds of numbers that would justify the printing of 10,000 copies, then it seems that there was an idea that the volume would serve some kind of official purpose in the Church—as if simply being a member of the Church meant that one would need or at least desire to consult the revelations. If, however, the conference participants had in mind the idea that the Book of Commandments would or could be used for something like public relations purposes, then it seems that the volume’s notion of canonicity would have entailed its being a rather official “face” of the Church. In the latter case, canonicity would be less a question of establishing practices or doctrines within the Church than of provided a unified Mormon “front” to the non-Mormon world; canon formation, that is, would have been first and foremost a question of ensuring that there were not misunderstandings about this singular group in emergence. This latter approach probably makes the best sense, especially given that the decision to put the revelations in circulation seems to have been in large part driven by the unauthorized publication of certain revelations by “enemies” of the Church.

The second detail: the Lord revealed a preface and an appendix to the book. Both of these revelations have a kind of systematization about them. Both of them speak, as it were, outside of time, addressing themselves to any and every reader of the Book of Commandments, rather than to an individual or a group of individuals seeking revelation under very particular circumstances. Importantly, together, the preface and appendix organize an understanding of what is at work in Joseph Smith’s revelations in general, the preface by outlining the Lord’s reasons for giving revelations in the first place, the appendix by outlining the eschatological setting in which revelations have their setting (and by establishing a rather direct relationship between the revelations in the Book of Commandments and the biblical text). And crucially, the preface opens by addressing the whole book to the entire world. Here, then, as with the first detail, there is a rather strong emphasis on the Church’s need to give a public face to the world, and the Book of Commandments seems to have been intended to play that role.

The third detail: there was hesitation over signing the official testimony Joseph proffered through revelation. That Joseph received by revelation an official testimony for the brethren to sign is of great import in itself. It certainly seems to suggest that Joseph saw the Book of Commandments, as early as November 1831, as being of equal canonical status as, say, the Book of Mormon—though of course there is a difference between having eleven witnesses sign statements about the actual existence of the plates and having a number of witnesses sign a statement about their testimony of the truth of the revelations. This is only confirmed by the fact that some hesitated about signing the statement: those who were slow to sign obviously recognized the proposed canonical weight of the text. Of course, that these hesitated suggests that not everyone was quite as ready as Joseph Smith to see the revelations in collection as fully canonical or fully normative. Now, it might be that Joseph’s desire to have a testimony introduce (or, more likely, conclude) the volume was just another facet of the Book of Commandments’ being directed to the whole world: a testimony was necessary to help induce outsiders to take the book seriously. That some hesitated about the testimony here may simply reflect a lack of surety about the propriety of putting the revelations on display before the world.

The fourth detail: the Lord staged a kind of showdown in order to prove to the brethren that the testimony should be signed. Ultimately, this “showdown” was an odd sequence in Church history. It seems to have been motivated, on the Lord’s part, by the necessity of having the testimony signed and added to the book. But by rerouting the conviction of the signers from spiritual confirmation to recognized (relative) inability, the Lord employs such a remarkably—almost crassly—practical approach to guaranteeing the canonicity of the volume that it leaves one wondering whether those now testifying to the revelations’ truth had a stronger or weaker sense of their normativity or canonicity. Besides, the fact that a practical response to an individual’s inability to reproduce the language of a revelation replaced a spiritual response to the Lord’s preface with its explanation of what the volume would entail suggests that the model of canonicity actually at work in the text as eventually constructed was effectively replaced, in the minds of those at the conference, with a model of canonicity that regarded each revelation as being, in itself and separately from the others, sublime or supernaturally given. This point certainly complicates things.

The fifth detail: there was some outright opposition to the publication. Though this seems to have been relatively limited, it also seems to have been vehement, at least on the part of David Whitmer. What is interesting is that it marked, not Whitmer’s lack of faith in the revelations themselves, but his lack of faith in the idea of canonicity that was apparently being constructed. What bothered him, it seems, was that the revelations were being regarded as displayable before the world. One might suggest that the revelations’ normativity was effectively compromised by their developing canonicity. Of course, Whitmer would be one of the most prominent and most vocal of those to lose faith in the revelations’ truth later on, and one wonders whether some concern over the revelations was not ultimately at the bottom of these concerns (if indeed Whitmer did not embellish the whole account in his history). At any rate, it seems clear that there were some who thought it best to leave the revelations with their essential proto-canonicity, not allowing them to develop any kind of actual canonicity. But, of course, this only highlights the fact that with the Book of Commandments, a strong sense of actual canonicity was being developed.

The sixth detail from the events of the November conference: the printing effort was to be undertaken in Zion specifically. This detail finally calls for what is perhaps the most important point thus far to be raised about the actual nature of the model of canonicity put to work in the printing of the Book of Commandments—one I’ll be expanding on below in my discussion of the history of the printing—namely, that the volume organized the revelations chronologically. This is important in terms of this particular detail about Zion because the revelations were arranged chronologically, it seemed, in order to tell the story of the revelation, the founding, and the establishment of Zion. As the volume was actually published—that is, ending, as it eventually did, in the middle of what is now section 64—the volume culminates in Joseph Smith’s arrival in Zion and the imposition on the Saints there of a sense of the sacrifice necessary to fulfill all the promises made by the Lord with regard to the city. Moreover, that the printing itself was to be undertaken in Zion suggests that the volume and its way of arranging and promulgating the revelations cannot be divorced from the entire theology of Zion worked out in the early years of the Church. The volume and its model of canonicity, even as it had a rather strong sense of normativity, did not need bear any strong traces of institutionality, simply because the volume gathered the revelations historically in such a way as to point to institutions that were in effect separate from the book. This would change drastically with the publication of the Doctrine and Covenants.

After all these small details about the November conference, it is next necessary to consider how the organization and subsequent history of the Literary Firm affects the concept of canonicity at work in the Book of Commandments. While subsequent attempts to publish the revelations for the Saints would play into the ever-strengthening institutionalization and hierarchization of the Church, this attempt actually called for the construction of institutional organizations that did not exist, forcing the organization of the Literary Firm to enable the Church to afford the project of printing the volume. In many ways, of course, it was precisely the organization of the Literary Firm that led to the subsequent institutionalization and hierarchization of the Church: it was the complex rhythm of the history of the Literary Firm in particular—as this gave way to the United Firm/United Order and then eventually to the organization of the High Council and the several quorums of the priesthood—that drove the Church toward its 1835 systematization of the organization. But what does this suggest about the notion of canonicity modeled in the Book of Commandments?

At the very least, the organization of the Literary Firm marks the striking importance placed on the project by the Church. That the institution seems to have been subordinate (or at least in the service of) the printing of the volume, whereas the printing of the Doctrine and Covenants would effectively be subordinate (or at least in the service of) the institution in 1835, suggests that there is a stronger sense of normativity (or at least of importance) with the Book of Commandments than with other printing projects. At the same time, it is arguable that, precisely because there is no strong institutional orientation in the volume, it is not as strikingly canonical in the usual sense of the word: traditionally, the very notion of canon-formation suggests that there is a process of institutionally-oriented editorial work going on. Since relatively little of that kind of thing was at work here, it seems that the role of the Literary Firm indicates that the Book of Commandments was at once obviously more strikingly canonical than its predecessor models, but was not exactly canonical in any full sense.

Of course, it was, according to my argument (and it is an argument I plan on fleshing out in much greater detail in my post on the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants), precisely the organization of the Literary Firm that led to the strong institutionalization of the Church, and so to the subordination of the 1835 D&C to the institution as such—that is, to the more strongly canonical organization of the subsequent volume. This will be detailed in my next post.

For the moment, then, let me turn to the actual process of printing the Book of Commandments, which obviously deserves attention in terms of how it shaped the model of canonicity for the volume. Here there are several points to consider. Here it is necessary to look at the relationship between the printing of the Book of Commandments and the printing of the Star, to look at the relationship between the Book of Commandments and the manuscript sources used in the process of printing, and to look especially at the fact that the Book of Commandments arranged the revelations in a strictly chronological order. Each of these points bears in important ways on the sense of canon at work in the volume.

In my previous post, I have discussed at some length the printing of the Evening and Morning Star and its model of canonicity. There, the revelations were organized according to something like “immediate relevance,” which allowed the printed revelations to be distributed between two categories (the institutional normative and the eschatologically informative). In the Book of Commandments, such a distribution is entirely effaced. Interestingly, moreover, it could be said that—particularly in light of the preface and appendix revealed for the volume—the Star‘s distributive approach to the revelations is effaced precisely because the Book of Commandments submits the whole collection of revelations to the “eschatologically informative” category. Both the preface and the appendix lay heavy emphasis on the eschatological, on the events that are about to come to disrupt the history of the world. As such, they set up all the revelations suspended between them as being given in order to prepare the Saints and the world more generally for the eschaton.

That the revelations appear in the volume in chronological (or, if you will, “historical”) order only confirms this point. It is hard to discover any strong sense of institutional normativity in a chronologically ordered set of revelations (unless, of course, one is looking for a kind of line-upon-line pattern of increased institutionalization in the revelations—but, strictly speaking, this can’t be detected in the revelations collected in the Book of Commandments so much as it can be found in the much later editions of the Doctrine and Covenants, and it is pretty weak even there). The revelations, organized into a chronological sequence, obviously tell the story of learning more and more about Zion and the law associated with it, the story of setting up in Zion and coming to understand how consecration and stewardship are to be deployed there. And Zion is thus, unsurprisingly, associated with the eschaton.

This departure from the approach modeled in the Star is interesting. If the model of canonicity in the Book of Commandments is to be measured by the “traditional” notion of canonicity drawn from biblical studies (and mentioned above), then it would seem that in many ways, the Star lent the revelations a stronger sense of canonicity than did the Book of Commandments: because the revelations were there organized according to institutional concerns, the Star recognized in them or even provided to them a sense of traditional canonicity. The Book of Commandments, however, obviously bears a stronger sense of normativity than did the newspaper publication of the revelations, and so it is best to recognize that the Book of Commandments less moves away from canonicity than it revises the notion of canonicity. The Book of Commandments submits the canon to a single principle of organization—emphasis on the eschaton—and then arranges the revelations in a simple chronological order.

Of course, this chronological order itself deserves attention. Here one can take up the question of the relationship between the Book of Commandments and the various manuscript sources that seem to have been used in the process of producing the volume. The most clearly employed manuscript source is the Book of Commandments and Revelations (BCR), already discussed to some extent in the previous post. This collection, like the Book of Commandments, organized the revelations in as strict a chronological order as possible. Interestingly, the BCR contains more historical information than does the Book of Commandments in its headings or introductions to the revelations, which perhaps simply means that the Book of Commandments’s chronological ordering should not be taken as a strictly historical way of organizing the record. Just to put the revelations in the order they were received, with rough dates provided for their reception, seems to have been enough for the volume.

Interestingly, one can trace a kind of displacement of the revelatory from strictly historical concerns that runs parallel to the printing of the Book of Commandments. In my post on the printing of the revelations in the Star, I noted that John Whitmer was producing a history much like a fleshed out BCR at the time the Star was being printed. There is perhaps a sense there that the distribution of revelations between two categories in the Star called for a separate historical endeavor that maintained a strictly historical significance for the revelations as well. As the revelations, however, found their way into a kind of historical but more strictly chronological ordering in the Book of Commandments, contemporary efforts at producing a history of the Church effectively left the revelations behind. The most significant effort at producing history in 1832-1833 (and into 1834) is, without question, Joseph Smith’s earliest journal, which begins with an overview of Joseph’s early history and visions, and continues into his daily activities for the remainder of that time period. What is significant is that it is, unlike the Whitmer history, completely bereft of recorded revelations. While the Whitmer history was clearly in part an attempt to situate the revelations in an unfolding history, the Joseph Smith journal parallel to the publication of the Book of Commandments was essentially a history that left revelations to one side. It was, as the heading to the journal explains, “An account of his [Joseph’s] marvelous experience and of all the mighty acts which he doeth in the name of Jesus Chist [sic] the Son of the Living god of whom he beareth record. Also an account of the rise of the Church of Christ in the eve of time according as the Lord brought forth and established by his hand.”

Of course—and here I turn to the last point I want to take up in this post—in some sense, everything I have said here has to be drastically revised because of one crucial detail: the Book of Commandments was was never actually completed! This point must be considered carefully.

Most of what I have argued in this post effectively pretends that the Book of Commandments was completed, and so it deals more or less only with what model of canonicity the Book of Commandments would have employed had it actually been published. The project was only underway—how near it was to completion is unfortunately unknown—when a mob destroyed W. W. Phelps’s printing outfit in Jackson County. How near it was to completion is unfortunately unknown: this is not because we don’t know how much of it had been printed to that point; this is because we don’t know how many revelations were going to end up in. The printing had come to about halfway through what is now section 64 of the Doctrine and Covenants. Though only a half-dozen more revelations than that had been received by the time of the November 1831 conference, and so though original plans may not have pointed much beyond what was actually printed, another two and half dozen revelations were received between that conference and the time the press was destroyed, some or all of which may have been slotted for publication as well.

Of course, the most significant effect of the destruction of the press was simply that all the notions of canonicity worked out in the above were never really promulgated among the Saints. This is especially true given that the project was completely abandoned with the destruction of the press. Thought a couple of young women saved some stacks of signatures from the printing effort, and though these were subsequently bound into a few makeshift volumes, to launch the Book of Commandments project anew would have required not only the purchase of a new press, but a beginning all over again from the start of the printing effort.

Of course, a reprinting effort could have been undertaken, but significant obstacles stood in the way of the Book of Commandments ever being printed in the same way that had originally been projected. For one, Jackson County was definitively lost, so the promulgation of the record from Zion itself was no longer a real possibility. For two, the 1831 organization of the Literary Firm had, in the nearly two years following, led to major institutional changes that had changed the vision that had once lurked behind the project. For three, within a year, there would be major changes in the Church’s self-presentation, priesthood organization, and plans to build a temple in Kirtland. In some sense, the printing of the Book of Commandments was part of an era that had already definitively begun to pass.

The result of all this is that the model of canonicity at work in the Book of Commandments became yet another pre-canonical projection, like its predecessors, giving way to what would be, really, the first fully articulated and accepted model of canon in the 1835 publication of the Doctrine and Covenants. At the same time, though, the effort to print the Book of Commandments had involved all of the leading figures of the first years of Mormonism, and so its importance could not exactly be effaced. A relatively significant number of those leading figures obtained copies of the incomplete volume, and all of them undoubtedly remembered the way the project had given them to understand the nature and status of the revelations. But, strictly speaking, no strong model of canon emerged even so.

In a word, while the Church worked through a whole series of models of “canonicity” between the period before the reception of D&C 3 in 1828 and the period that formed the immediate aftermath of the destruction of the Zion press in 1833, no lasting and universally recognized way of understanding the Mormon canon of modern revelation would really come along until 1835. That complex affair will be the subject of my next post.

One Response to “What Is the Doctrine and Covenants? Part II.3, The Book of Commandments”

  1. Robert C. said

    Joe, I’m finally—slowly but surely—catching up on these fascinating posts.

    As mostly a side note, I hope sometime that you’ll comment more directly on the eschatological nature of these revelations, and how this bears on the notion of canonicity, and vice versa. D&C 133 in particular intrigues me, and its such strange-to-modern-ears descriptions of things like the continents returning together, etc.

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