Most Latter-day Saints have little difficulty reading the Book of Mormon and the four gospels of the New Testament. The familiarity of their stories and their basically chronological presentation allow us to read them much the same way we read other books. Though the Old Testament is more difficult to read, it too contains chronological history, as well as familiar stories, psalms, and proverbs. The Pearl of Great Price echoes the narrative portions of the Old Testament.
But the Doctrine and Covenants is different. Unlike the other books of scripture, it is a collection of loosely related revelations given to various people at various times for various purposes. It is organized only loosely into chronological order, and most of the revelations contain no stories. For this reason, the Doctrine and Covenants can be difficult to study. Inevitably, the question arises: What is the purpose of the Doctrine and Covenants?
Fortunately, the Lord has not left us to wonder about that. Section 1, which the Lord himself entitled the “Preface,” outlines the reasons he gave the Doctrine and Covenants to us. With those ideas in mind, we can better understand what the Lord wants us to learn from this book of latter-day revelation.
Section 1 begins with the word hearken—it occurs twice in the first verse. This is not unusual; about thirty sections of the book begin with the word hearken, thirty more with behold, and several with hear or listen. The Lord’s purpose is evidently to get our attention so we will be ready to receive his message.
With the first hearken, he addresses the “people of [his] church.” With the second hearken, he addresses the “people from afar,” and those “upon the islands of the sea.” The second verse clarifies that “the voice of the Lord is unto all men.” The Lord wants our full attention; we will not understand or profit from his words if we do not pay attention.
The Lord states the major theme of the Doctrine and Covenants in verse 12 [D&C 1:12]: “Prepare ye, prepare ye for that which is to come, for the Lord is nigh.” The injunction to prepare is obviously important, since it is repeated more than ninety times in the book.
In many cases, such as here in the Preface, the injunction to prepare is coupled with a warning of calamities that will come when those who do not heed the warning—either from the Lord himself or from his servants—will be “cut off from among the people.” (D&C 1:14.) This voice of warning is clear and emphatic; in fact, each of the purposes of the Doctrine and Covenants relates to being prepared.
There are about a dozen of these purposes, and all are interrelated. They fall into two distinct categories—those aimed at the Church or the world as a whole (D&C 1:18–23 and D&C 1:30), and those given primarily to guide and comfort individual members (D&C 1:25–28).
We can see the urgency of the Lord’s purposes from the language of the revelations aimed at the world. They are clearly worded in short, easy-to-understand verses. Their themes are amplified and reiterated in other sections of the Doctrine and Covenants, forming a unified body of doctrine. They tell the Saints and the world to prepare for what is to come. By examining each purpose separately, we can learn what the Lord considers most important and how we can prepare for the “great and dreadful day of the Lord.”
Another major theme of the Doctrine and Covenants is the Church’s establishment and the fulfillment of its mission. In the Preface, the Lord states that one of the purposes of the book is “that every man might speak in the name of God the Lord.” (D&C 1:20.)
There is some ambiguity here; “speak[ing] in the name of God” might occur in a number of ways. One meaning relates to missionary work. A second meaning has to do with strengthening members to bear testimony of the Savior. In this sense, the word man is a generic term—it refers to all members of the Church, both male and female. The third and probably most significant meaning of the expression, as indicated in verse 8, is power of the priesthood. If men are to exercise the priesthood and “speak in the name of God,” they need to know what to say and how to say it. Consequently, one of the main purposes of the Doctrine and Covenants is to educate priesthood holders and direct the priesthood’s functioning.
This purpose is more explicitly stated in verse 30, where we read instructions to “those to whom these commandments were given, [that they] might have power to lay the foundation of this church, and to bring it forth out of obscurity and out of darkness, the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased.” The Doctrine and Covenants is one important means by which the Lord laid that foundation.
Still another purpose of the Doctrine and Covenants is found in verse 21 [D&C 1:21]—“that faith also might increase in the earth.” Faith is the first principle of the gospel; it is the one upon which all others depend. Without faith, none of the Lord’s purposes can be accomplished. Just how important faith is can be seen by the fact that a list of the references to it in the Doctrine and Covenants’s index takes up almost an entire column.
Another of the Lord’s purposes for the Doctrine and Covenants is “that [his] everlasting covenant might be established.” (D&C 1:22.) Many parts of the Doctrine and Covenants refer to the restoration of covenants made with patriarchs and prophets of old, making it clear that covenants are necessary to establish the Lord’s church. This purpose is related to the others, since covenants cannot be made or kept without an increase of faith on the earth or without the authority needed to establish such covenants. It is imperative that such covenants be restored, that through faith and the power of the priesthood all might be fulfilled.
If these were the only purposes of the Doctrine and Covenants, they would be enough. But the Lord knew that individual Church members needed chastisement, guidance, and comfort. In verse 24, he states that “these commandments … were given unto my servants in their weakness” for a variety of purposes—the first of which is “that they might come to understanding.” The Doctrine and Covenants can help us to understand the Lord’s ways. Several sections of it were given for the specific purpose of elucidating other scriptures—such as section 77, which explains parts of the book of Revelation. Other sections give details about the united order and instructions about individuals’ callings and daily lives.
Yet another purpose for the Doctrine and Covenants is that “inasmuch as [Church members] erred it might be made known.” (D&C 1:25.) To make an individual’s errors known to others might seem unfair. But errors may be exposed in order for others to learn from them. From the Prophet Joseph Smith’s error in allowing Martin Harris to take home the 116 pages of translated material, for example, we can learn to trust the Lord and to heed his counsel. From Oliver Cowdery’s failure to translate, we can learn about individual revelation and faith. In this way, one person’s errors become strengths for others and for the Church as a whole.
Another purpose of the Doctrine and Covenants is that “inasmuch as [Church members] sought wisdom they might be instructed.” (D&C 1:26.) Several times in the book the Prophet Joseph Smith tells about pausing while he engaged in other activities in order to question something he did not understand—an idea found while translating a verse of the Bible, or a new doctrine that seemed inconsistent. When this happened, he received wisdom not only for himself, but also for those who followed him. Section 89 is even called “The Word of Wisdom”! The lesson is clear: if we ask humbly and in faith for wisdom, it will be given to us.
Another purpose of the Doctrine and Covenants is one people don’t like to think about: “Inasmuch as they sinned they might be chastened.” (D&C 1:27.) Error can be unintentional, but sin never is. The Prophet Joseph Smith is chastened several times in the Doctrine and Covenants—once for losing the 116 pages, another time for not keeping the commandments. (See D&C 93:47.) In section 93, the Prophet, Frederick G. Williams, and Sidney Rigdon are rebuked for not teaching their children. (See D&C 93:41–49.) However the Preface also makes it clear that the Lord’s purpose in chastening us is “that [we] might repent.” (D&C 93:27.) One of the most important ways we can prepare for the “great and dreadful day of the Lord” is to repent—and repentance is another major theme throughout the Doctrine and Covenants.
The final purpose stated in the Preface is that “inasmuch as [Church members] were humble they might be made strong, and blessed from on high, and receive knowledge from time to time.” (D&C 93:28.) This verse can give us comfort and joy. After our errors and sins are made known, after we have been chastened and have repented and have been instructed in wisdom, if we are sufficiently humble, our faith and labor will be rewarded with strength, knowledge, and blessings. The Lord’s concern is always for his children’s happiness and well-being.
Although some of the purposes mentioned in section 1 are primarily aimed at the Church or the world, it is ultimately the individual who is responsible for knowing and doing the will of the Lord. At the end of the Preface, the Lord states that “these commandments … are true and faithful, and the prophecies and promises which are in them shall all be fulfilled.” (D&C 93:37.) Those promises are the very reason we need to study the Doctrine and Covenants—and to live by the Lord’s words found therein.