Preparing Early Revelations for Publication

By Melvin J. Petersen

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    During a conference of the Church held 1 and 2 November 1831 at Hiram, Ohio, William E. McLellin attempted to write a revelation. The Prophet Joseph Smith recorded:

    “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.” (History of the Church, 1:226.)

    This interesting historical account identifies a “language of Jesus Christ” separate from the language of a prophet or a man writing for Jesus Christ. Little is written concerning the experience of William E. McLellin. But after that experience, he and those elders present accepted the revelations under consideration as being in the “language of Jesus Christ.” The question may well be asked, how is the language of Jesus Christ couched in the language of a man? How is such a phenomenon possible?

    President Brigham Young gave the following enlightening information:

    “The revelations of God contain correct doctrine and principle, so far as they go; but it is impossible for the poor, weak, low, grovelling, sinful inhabitants of the earth to receive a revelation from the Almighty in all its perfections. He has to speak to us in a manner to meet the extent of our capacities. …

    “If an angel should come into this congregation, or visit any individual of it, and use the language he uses in heaven, what would we be benefitted? Not any, because we could not understand a word he said. When angels come to visit mortals, they have to condescend to and assume, more or less, the condition of mortals, they have to descend to our capacities in order to communicate with us.” (Journal of Discourses, 2:314.)

    The concept President Young explains is also discussed by Nephi:

    “For my soul delighteth in plainness; for after this manner doth the Lord God work among the children of men. For the Lord God giveth light unto the understanding; for he speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding.” (2 Ne. 31:3; italics added. See also Ether 12:39.)

    When the Lord revealed the preface of his revelations, now identified as section 1 of the Doctrine and Covenants, he taught:

    “Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.” (D&C 1:24.)

    These quotations tell us that eternal truth is given through a mortal in the language he is competent to use. We assume, then, that the person must express the message he has received in words and phrases with which he is familiar. In Joseph Smith’s case, in attempting to communicate clearly in written form truths received by revelation, he enlisted the help of others as directed by the Lord. When the Prophet was commanded to prepare a proclamation to be sent “to all the kings of the world … to the honorable president-elect, and the high-minded governors of the nation in which you live, and to all nations of the earth scattered abroad” (D&C 124:3), he was instructed in the following manner:

    “Let it be written in the spirit of meekness and by the power of the Holy Ghost, which shall be in you at the time of the writing of the same;

    “For it shall be given you by the Holy Ghost to know my will concerning those kings and authorities, even what shall befall them in a time to come.” (D&C 124:4–5.)

    As the revelation continued, the Prophet was directed to obtain assistance as follows:

    “And again, verily I say unto you, let my servant Robert B. Thompson help you to write this proclamation, for I am well pleased with him, and that he should be with you; …

    “Again, let my servant John C. Bennett help you in your labor in sending my word to the kings and people of the earth, and stand by you, even you my servant Joseph Smith, in the hour of affliction; and his reward shall not fail if he receive counsel.” (D&C 124:12, 16.)

    Robert B. Thompson died at the age of 30. In the Prophet’s journals it was recorded:

    “Elder Robert Blashel Thompson died at his residence in Nauvoo, in the 30th year of his age, in the full hope of a glorious resurrection. He was associate editor of the Times and Seasons, colonel in the Nauvoo Legion, and had done much writing for myself and the church.” (History of the Church, 4:411.)

    These quotations make clear that others helped Joseph Smith prepare the revelations for publication. We know that Joseph Smith realized the seriousness of editing the revelations. “It was an awful responsibility to write in the name of the Lord,” he wrote. (History of the Church 1:226.) One would conclude that Joseph Smith was careful to do only what he was authorized to do.

    Editing apparently was done for a variety of purposes. The word apparently is used because seldom did the Prophet give reasons for the editing he performed. In a letter to W. W. Phelps from the First Presidency at that time, Joseph Smith, Jr., Sidney Rigdon, and Frederick G. Williams, Brother Phelps was instructed:

    “We have found the following errors in the commandments, as printed: fortieth chapter, tenth verse, third line, instead of ‘corruptible,’ put ‘corrupted.’ Fourteenth verse of the same chapter, fifth line, instead of ‘respector to persons,’ put ‘respector of persons.’ Twenty-first verse, second line of the same chapter, instead of ‘respector to,’ put ‘respector of.’ Fourty-four chapter, twelfth verse, last line, instead of ‘hands’ put ‘heads.’” (Joseph Smith, “Journal History 1830–1833,” Historical Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City.)

    Most of Joseph Smith’s editing was done without written comments stating why it was done. As we analyze the editing, however, it is quite easy to deduce some of the objectives.

    Grammar Corrections

    Grammar and syntax corrections suggest that the Prophet was assisted by those better trained in this area. The Book of Commandments was the first attempt to publish the revelations. How they read before they appeared in the Book of Commandments is not always known, as it is difficult to determine which of the manuscript accounts may be original sources.

    Many of the editing changes occurred after the revelations were printed in the Book of Commandments. Editions of the Doctrine and Covenants later than 1835 followed the editing of that edition. Since most observable editing occurred when the Book of Commandments was being prepared for the 1835 printing of the Doctrine and Covenants, most of the following examples come from that source.

    Grammar corrections account for much of the editing. Examples of this type of editing appear below; quotations from the Book of Commandments, with the word or words in question italicized, are on the left. The same verses from the 1981 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants are printed on the right, adjacent to the Book of Commandments verses. Editions of the Doctrine and Covenants where the editing occurred are in parentheses, listed by year, section, and verse.

    Book of Commandments

    Doctrine and Covenants

    Chapter 9:12—Now this is not all, their faith in their prayers were, that this gospel should be made known also.

    D&C 10:49—Now, this is not all—their faith in their prayers was that this gospel should be made known also. (1835 edition, 36:11.)

    10:12—I am the same which came unto my own, and my own received me not.

    D&C 11:29—I am the same who came unto mine own and mine own received me not. (1835 edition, 37:12.)

    24:46—The elders or priests are to have a sufficient time to expound all things concerning this church of Christ to their understanding.

    D&C 20:68—The elders or priests are to have a sufficient time to expound all things concerning the church of Christ to their understanding. (1835 edition, 2:19.)

    54:1— … and them who are heirs according to the covenant.

    D&C 52:2— … and those who are heirs according to the covenant. (1835 edition, 66:1.)


    Surnames were incomplete—or omitted entirely—in the Book of Commandments, with identifying initials sometimes used in place of the full surname. Chapters 53, 54, 55, 57, and 65 illustrate this. In the 1835 edition, names were more complete. Note the following illustrative quotations which come from the Book of Commandments and the 1981 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. The word or words in question are italicized, with edition, section, and verse in which the change occurred in parentheses:

    Book of Commandments

    Doctrine and Covenants

    Chapter 54:12—And let my servant Lyman beware, for satan desireth to sift him as chaff.

    D&C 52:12—And let my servant Lyman Wight beware, for Satan desireth to sift him as chaff. (1835 edition, 66:3.)

    54:23— … let my servant Isaac and my servant Ezra (B.,) take their journey.

    D&C 52:23— … let my servant Isaac Morley and my servant Ezra Booth take their journey. (1835 edition, 66:5.)

    54:24— … let my servant Edward and Martin take their journey with my servants Sidney and Joseph.

    D&C 52:24— … let my servants Edward Partridge and Martin Harris take their journey with my servants Sidney Rigdon and Joseph Smith, Jun. (1835 edition, 66:6.)

    Addition of Words

    As the following verses illustrate, in some cases the Prophet added words to clarify or enlarge upon an idea in the Book of Commandments.

    Book of Commandments

    Doctrine and Covenants

    Chapter 53:41—Wherefore I am in your midst; and I am the good Shepherd.

    D&C 50:44—Wherefore, I am in your midst, and I am the good shepherd, and the stone of Israel. He that buildeth upon this rock shall never fall. (1835 edition, 18:8.)

    65:30—Behold now it is called today, and verily it is a day of sacrifice, and a day for the tithing of my people.

    D&C 64:23—Behold, now it is called today until the coming of the Son of Man, and verily it is a day of sacrifice, and a day for the tithing of my people. (1835 edition, 21:5.)

    24:35—The elders are to conduct the meetings as they are led by the Holy Ghost.

    D&C 20:45—The elders are to conduct the meetings as they are led by the Holy Ghost, according to the commandments and revelations of God. (1835 edition, 2:9.)

    24:32— … to administer the flesh and blood of Christ according to the scriptures.

    D&C 20:40–41—And to administer bread and wine—the emblems of the flesh and blood of Christ—
    And to confirm those who are baptized into the Church, by the laying on of the hands for the baptism of fire and the Holy Ghost, according to the scriptures. (1835 edition, 2:8.)

    24:14—And that he gave unto the children of men commandments, that they should love and serve him the only being whom they should worship.

    D&C 20:19—And gave unto them commandments that they should love and serve him, the only living and true God, and that he should be the only being whom they should worship. (1835 edition, 2:4.)

    3:2—Remember temperance, patience, humility, diligence, ask and ye shall receive, knock and it shall be opened unto you: Amen.

    D&C 4:6–7—Remember faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, brotherly kindness, godliness, charity, humility, diligence. Ask and ye shall receive; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. Amen. (1835 edition, 31:2.)

    4:4— … and to none else will I grant this power, to receive this same testimony among this generation.

    D&C 5:14—And to none else will I grant this power, to receive this same testimony among this generation, in this the beginning of the rising up and coming forth of my church out of the wilderness—clear as the moon, and fair as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners. (1835 edition, 32:3.)

    6:1—And the Lord said unto me, John, my beloved, what desirest thou?

    D&C 7:1—And the Lord said unto me: John, my beloved, what desirest thou? For if you shall ask what you will, it shall be granted unto you. (1835 edition, 33:1.)

    Organizational Terms

    Church organization was very simple when the revelations were first being printed; the term elder was used to designate anyone holding priesthood responsibility. As the organization of the Church gradually unfolded, that general term was replaced by the name of a more specific office.

    Book of Commandments

    Doctrine and Covenants

    Chapter 44:26— … and they shall be laid before the bishop of my church, and two of the elders, such as he shall appoint and set apart for that purpose.

    D&C 42:31— … and they shall be laid before the bishop of my church and his counselors, two of the elders, or high priests, such as he shall appoint or has appointed and set apart for that purpose. (1835 edition, 13:8.)

    44:29—And the residue shall be kept in my storehouse to administer to the poor and needy, as shall be appointed by the elders of the church and the bishop.

    D&C 42:34Therefore, the residue shall be kept in my storehouse, to administer to the poor and the needy, as shall be appointed by the high council of the church, and the bishop and his council. (1835 edition, 13:10.)

    51:6— … as is appointed to him by the bishop and elders of the church, according to the laws and commandments.

    D&C 48:6— … as is appointed to him by the presidency and the bishop of the church, according to the laws and commandments. (1835 edition, 64:2.)


    The Prophet Joseph Smith also deleted some statements from some of the earlier revelations. For example:

    Book of Commandments

    Doctrine and Covenants

    Chapter 4:5–6—And thus, if the people of this generation harden not their hearts, I will work a reformation among them, and I will put down all lyings, and deceivings, and priest-crafts, and envyings, and strifes, and idolatries, and sorceries, and all manner of iniquities, and I will establish my church, like unto the church which was taught by my disciples in the days of old. And now if this generation do harden their hearts against my word, behold I will deliver them up unto satan, for he reigneth and hath much power at this time, for he hath got great hold upon the hearts of the people of this generation: and not far from the iniquities of Sodom and Gomorrah, do they come at this time: and behold the sword of justice hangeth over their heads, and if they persist in the hardness of their hearts, the time cometh that it must fall upon them.

    D&C 5:19—For a desolating scourge shall go forth among the inhabitants of the earth, and shall continue to be poured out from time to time, if they repent not, until the earth is empty, and the inhabitants thereof are consumed away and utterly destroyed by the brightness of my coming. (1835 edition, 32:3.)

    4:8— … but if he will go out and bow down before me …

    D&C 5:24— … but if he will bow down before me … (1835 edition, 32:5.)

    16:13—Wherefore, I command you by my name, and by my Almighty power, that you repent.

    D&C 19:15Therefore I command you to repent. (1835 edition, 44:2.)

    16:22—And I command you, that you preach nought but repentance; and show not these things, neither speak these things unto the world.

    D&C 19:21—And I command you that you preach naught but repentance, and show not these things unto the world until it is wisdom in me. (1835 edition, 44:2.)

    24:11—Which book was given by inspiration and is called the book of Mormon, and is confirmed to others by the ministering of angels.

    D&C 20:10—which was given by inspiration, and is confirmed to others by the ministering of angels … (1835 edition, 2:2.)

    44:55–57—Thou shalt contract no debts with the world, except thou art commanded. And again, the elders and bishop, shall counsel together, and they shall do by the direction of the Spirit as it must needs be necessary. There shall be as many appointed as must needs be necessary to assist the bishop in obtaining places for the brethren from New York, that they may be together as much as can be, and as they are directed by the Holy Spirit; and every family shall have a place, that they may live by themselves.—And every church shall be organized in as close bodies as they can be; and this for a wise purpose;—even so. Amen.

    These verses were omitted. (1835 edition, 13.)

    Archaic Word Changes

    Some archaic word forms were changed to more modern forms. This type of editing is found in all of the editions but was not carried through to completion.

    Book of Commandments

    Doctrine and Covenants

    Chapter 49:11— … that all may be benefitted, that seeketh or that asketh of me, that askest and not for a sign that he may consume it upon his lusts.

    D&C 46:9— … that all may be benefited that seek and that ask of me, that ask and not for a sign that they may consume it upon their lusts. (1921 edition, 46:9.)

    58:3—Behold I the Lord commandeth, and he that will not obey shall be cut off in mine own due time.

    D&C 56:3—Behold, I, the Lord, command: and he that will not obey shall be cut off in mine own due time. (1835 edition, 69:2.)

    60:28—Yea all things which cometh of the earth, in the season thereof, is made for the benefit and use of man.

    D&C 59:18—Yea, all things which come of the earth, in the season thereof, are made for the benefit and the use of man. (1835 edition, 19:4.)

    Other Changes

    The principle of “command and revoke” was revealed to the Church in June 1831. (See D&C 56.) Earlier that month, certain brethren had been paired as missionaries by revelation. (See D&C 52.) Ezra Thayer did not respond properly to the assignment given unto him, and so by revelation (D&C 56) the Lord chastized him and replaced him. Another interesting incident teaching this principle is related to the calling of Jesse Gause as a member of the First Presidency. In a study of the Doctrine and Covenants, Robert J. Woodford records:

    “In the index of the Kirtland Revelation Book, the entry for section 81 is—‘Revelation to Jesse Gause March 15, 1832,’ however, in the revelation itself, Jesse Gause’s name is crossed out and Frederick G. Williams’ name is written above it.” (Robert J. Woodford, “The Historical Development of the Doctrine and Covenants,” 2:1017, unpublished doctoral dissertation, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, 1974.)

    According to the Kirtland Revelation Book (p. 10), Jesse Gause and Sidney Rigdon were ordained by Joseph Smith to be his counselors in the presidency of the High Priesthood, 8 March 1832. Later that year Jesse Gause was excommunicated from the Church, so he was replaced by Frederick G. Williams. The instructions regarding being a counselor to Joseph Smith were transferred to the person receiving the call of replacement.

    Today, some scriptures of the past are enigmatic. President Brigham Young wrote of this problem:

    “When revelations are given through an individual appointed to receive them, they are given to the understandings of the people. These revelations, after a lapse of years, become mystified to those who were not personally acquainted with the circumstances at the time they were given.” (Journal of Discourses, 3:333.)

    President Young was referring to the revelations which now appear as section 58 in our current Doctrine and Covenants. He went on to say:

    “This revelation is as plain and clear to the understandings of those who know the circumstances that called it forth, as it would be for you to understand me should I talk about making a canal to bring the waters of Big Cottonwood to this city for irrigating our gardens and the farming lands. It is plain and easy to be understood, it is familiar to us who were in that country at the time, we know all about it.

    “But a portion of this congregation have not been personally acquainted with the early experience and travels of this Church, and with the sayings and the doings of the Prophet Joseph, and it may be that they do not fully understand what this revelation really does mean.” (Journal of Discourses, 3:334.)

    A revelation directed to Oliver Cowdery, section 8 in the current Doctrine and Covenants, is a good example of what President Young was referring to.

    Book of Commandments

    Doctrine and Covenants

    Chapter 7:3—Now this is not all, for you have another gift, which is the gift of working with the rod: behold it has told you things: behold there is no other power save God, that can cause this rod of nature, to work in your hands, for it is the work of God.

    D&C 8:6–8—Now this is not all thy gift; for you have another gift, which is the gift of Aaron; behold, it has told you many things; Behold, there is no other power, save the power of God, that can cause this gift of Aaron to be with you. Therefore, doubt not, for it is the gift of God; and you shall hold it in your hands, and do marvelous works; and no power shall be able to take it away out of your hands, for it is the work of God. (1921 edition, 8:6–8.)

    The meaning of this revelation as recorded in the Book of Commandments and in the Doctrine and Covenants is not clear. History does not record that Oliver Cowdery or anyone else living at the time it was given had a problem understanding it, but today some of the revelation is unclear to us.

    Most of the revelations found in the Doctrine and Covenants were dictated to scribes. Spelling and punctuation became a responsibility shared by them. In a communication to Edward Partridge and Frederick G. Williams, who were concerned about the spelling and faulty grammar of early revelations, Joseph Smith wrote:

    “Firstly, you have given us to understand that there are glaring errors in the revelations, or rather have shown us the most glaring ones which are not calculated to suit the refinement of the age, in which we live, of the great men, etc. We should say by way of excuse that we did not think so much of the orthography or the manner as we did of the subject matter; as the word of God means what it says. … Now the fact is, if we have made any mistakes in punctuation, or spelling, it has been done in consequence of Brother Oliver having come from Zion in great afflictions, through much fatigue and anxiety, and being sent contrary to his expectations to New York, and obtaining press and types, and hauling them up in the midst of mobs, when he and I and all the church in Kirtland, had to lie every night for a long time upon our arms, to keep off mobs of forties, or eighties, and of hundreds to save our lives and the press and that we might not be scattered and driven to the four winds.”

    Spelling problems are most persistent with names. In the 1835 edition, and continuing to the 1921 edition, Leman Copley’s first name is spelled Lemon. (D&C 49:1, 4.) As late as 1968, in a missionary edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, Emer Harris is spelled Elmer Harris. (D&C 75:30.)

    Church members sometimes ask why the Doctrine and Covenants increases in content so slowly. Elder John A. Widtsoe has given a thoughtful comment regarding that question. He said:

    “There is, in view of what has been said, need of continuous revelation. However, we must understand that there are two classes of revelation given by God to man. The first deals with the structure and content of the plan of salvation. Once given it does not need to be given again. Adam received it. … Christ gave the same revelation to man in His dispensation. So did Joseph Smith in his dispensation. The foundation, or platform, once given does not need to be given again unless men forget the truth.

    “Then there are revelations that fit the changes in our lives, meet our new needs, help us overcome unforeseen conditions—revelations for our daily guidance.

    “This great country, the United States of America, has found itself in a great depression. We have the Gospel. What did the Lord do? He spoke to his Prophet, and we have what is known as the Welfare Program. It is the application of the eternal principles of the Gospel to present day needs. It is as revelation. We have that type of revelation continuously.

    “So, when people say: ‘We ought to have revelation now as we did in the day of Joseph,’ we must answer, ‘Open your eyes; we do have revelation every day; such as we need from day to day.’

    “Revelations have been given to Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, Lorenzo Snow, Joseph F. Smith and President Heber J. Grant. Every one of them has had revelation whereby the Church has been guided.” (John A. Widtsoe, “Modern Revelation and Modern Questions,” The Deseret News, Church Section, 28 January 1939, p. 6.)

    As it has always been, the Church continues in constant need of revelation and guidance. Each president helps those over whom he presides to understand the revelations pertinent to their salvation, need, and blessing. When new revelation has been received that the President of the Church, under inspiration from the Lord, feels should be placed in the Doctrine and Covenants, it has been included. The most recent example is Official Declaration 2, the revelation received by President Spencer W. Kimball in 1978 extending the priesthood to “all worthy male members of the Church.”

    The Doctrine and Covenants is a book of modern revelation that is necessary for the Saints. As such, it will continue to reflect the Lord’s will for his people in these latter days.

    Joseph Smith,” by Alvin Gittins

    Illustrated by Robert Barrett

    Illustrated by Robert Barrett

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    • Melvin J. Petersen is a professor of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University. He is the father of eight and currently serves as a counselor in the BYU Eighth Stake presidency.