Doctrine and Covenants Study
Joseph Smith’s Revelations, APPENDIX 1

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“Appendix 1,” Joseph Smith’s Revelations: A Doctrine and Covenants Study Companion from the Joseph Smith Papers (2020)

“Appendix 1,” Joseph Smith’s Revelations: A Doctrine and Covenants Study Companion from the Joseph Smith Papers


[This essay was originally published as the introduction to Revelations and Translations, Volume 1: Manuscript Revelation Books.]

Introduction to the Manuscript Revelation Books

Joseph Smith understood how important his revelations were to the work in which he was engaged. He marveled at them, defended them, and ensured that many were recorded, copied, edited, and published.1 And he and his followers acted on them, often at great cost. When the revelations called for a new gathering place despite inadequate resources, they responded. When the revelations commanded a small community with little means to construct an impressive House of the Lord, they complied. Joseph Smith’s revelations restored, organized, and built The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and oriented thousands who converted to it in his lifetime and millions since.

The earliest years of Mormon record keeping (1828–1831) consisted almost exclusively of recording revelatory texts. During that period Joseph Smith translated and published the 584-page Book of Mormon, began work on a revision of the Bible, and recorded many revelations. He dictated most of his written revelations between 1828 and 1834, and in summer 1830 he and John Whitmer began to arrange and copy them.2 Joseph Smith and his associates continued this effort for the next several years, ultimately compiling the revelations, along with a few additional documents, in the two manuscript books that are featured in this volume of the Revelations and Translations series. In The Joseph Smith Papers, these manuscript books are given the editorial titles Revelation Book 1 and Revelation Book 2, consistent with the widespread documentary editing practice of referring to documents by generic titles.

Revelation Book 1, the spine of which is labeled “Book of Commandments and Revelations,”3 was procured sometime during the first year after the church was founded in April 1830. The manuscript book, which was initially used to preserve revelation texts, was taken from Ohio to Missouri in November 1831 for use in publishing the revelations. Church leaders in Missouri continued to update the volume when they received copies of revelations sent by mail or in person from Ohio. Containing copies of more than one hundred revelations, Revelation Book 1 was the source text for multiple revelations published in the church’s first newspaper, The Evening and the Morning Star, in 1832 and 1833 and in the canonical compilation called the Book of Commandments (1833). After being returned to Ohio by May 1835, it also served as a supplemental source text for an expanded collection of revelations known as the Doctrine and Covenants, first published in 1835. Revelation Book 2, the cover of which is labeled “Book of Revelations” and which has often been referred to as the Kirtland Revelation Book, was obtained for use in Ohio shortly after Revelation Book 1 was taken from Ohio to Missouri. It too was used for preserving and later publishing revelation texts. Containing about fifty copied revelations, many of which were also copied into Revelation Book 1 in Missouri, this manuscript book was an important source text for the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants.

In most cases, the two manuscript books contain the earliest extant revelation texts. They also include texts for which there is no other known version, such as a revelation on securing a copyright for the Book of Mormon in Canada.4 Most of the revelations in these two books were published as Latter-day Saint scripture during Smith’s lifetime; others were later canonized by vote of the general membership of the church. Nine of the revelations in these two books have not been canonized by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

By late 1831, Joseph Smith was planning to publish the revelations. A dramatic expansion of print culture in America meant that a wide variety of religious and political groups were publishing newspapers and books, reaching wider audiences than ever before. Latter-day Saint missionaries valued the revelations and tried to use them in their ministry, but they had to rely on handwritten copies that they could obtain only at church headquarters or from other missionaries who had copies. As the number of converts increased, so did the need to publish the revelations. Already a revelation had assigned the experienced editor William W. Phelps to be a printer for the church.5 Joseph Smith convened a conference on 1 November 1831 in Hiram, Ohio, to plan publication of the revelations in book form. At this conference, Oliver Cowdery asked “how many copies of the Book of commandments it was the will of the Lord should be published in the first edition of that work.” The conference determined to publish ten thousand copies6 and later voted that the revelations should “be prized by this Conference to be worth to the Church the riches of the whole Earth.”7

The value placed on the revelations, and especially the plan to publish them, would enlarge a divide between Latter-day Saints and the mainstream Christian world for which the Bible was the complete and final word of God. The Book of Mormon, sometimes derided as “the Mormon Bible” because believers claimed it to be a companion volume of ancient scripture comparable to the Holy Bible, first opened the fissure. Reducing modern declarations of God to written words and then publishing them as “what may be termed a continuation of the Scriptures” must have seemed a presumptuous enterprise and further highlighted the Latter-day Saints’ rejection of the notion of a closed canon and their belief that God could speak to man in any age.8 While many of their Christian contemporaries believed that divine guidance was still possible, most believed that the Bible was the terminal formulation of scripture.

Preparing the revelation texts for publication—indeed the very act of capturing revelations in writing—also raised important issues for believers about the relationship between divine communication and human language.9 At the November 1831 conference, Joseph Smith dictated a revelation, designated as a preface to the anticipated book, that declared, “I am God & have spoken it[.] these commandments are of me & were given unto my Servents in their weakness after the manner of their Language that they might come to understanding.” Presented to the elders attending the conference, this revelation provided context for discussion of issues related to the authenticity and language of the revelations.10

The discussion apparently arose in response to Joseph Smith’s solicitation of an endorsement for the proposed publication. Smith stated, “The Lord [has] bestowed a great blessing upon us in giving commandments and revelations.” He asked the men present “what testimony they were willing to attach to these commandments which should shortly be sent to the world.” After “a number of the brethren arose and said that they were willing to testify to the world that they knew that they were of the Lord,” Smith oversaw the composition of a statement confirming that testimony. It stated that they had received divine inspiration assuring them that the revelations intended for publication were “given by inspiration of God & are profitable for all men & are verily true.”11 Smith’s history notes that “some conversation was had concerning Revelation and language.”12 By the following morning, it was apparent that some of the elders lacked the divine confirmation that the written testimony required them to affirm. Seeking a solution to the impasse, Joseph Smith dictated an additional revelation. It noted the elders’ disappointment and chided them for wishing to improve upon Smith’s imperfect language: “Your eyes have been upon my Servent Joseph & his language you have known & his imperfections you have known & you have sought in your hearts knowlege that you might express beyond his language.”13

This revelation also provided a novel way for them to test the divine origin of the revelations that were about to be published. It invited the wisest man present to produce a text on par with the “least” of the manuscript revelations. Failure to produce an equivalent text would be evidence that Joseph Smith’s revelations were from God. The men who were present would then be responsible to testify of them: “if you cannot make one like unto it ye are under condemnation if ye do not bear [record] that it is true for ye know that there is no unrighteousness in it & that which is righteous cometh down from above.”14 Joseph Smith’s later history tells that William E. McLellin, who the preceding week had served as scribe as Smith dictated, “endeavored to write a commandment like unto one of the least of the Lord’s, but failed.”15 According to the history, the elders who observed the proceedings responded with renewed faith “in the truth of the commandments and revelations which the Lord had given to the Church through my instrumentality; and … signified a willingness to bear testimony of their truth to all the world.”16

McLellin and four others signed the statement, and John Whitmer copied both the text and their names into Revelation Book 1, where thirteen additional men later signed it in support.17 The men present at the conference “arose in turn and bore witness to the truth of the Book of Commandments. After which br. Joseph Smith jr arose & expressed his feelings & gratitude.”18

Joseph Smith undoubtedly appreciated this demonstration of faith in his revelations. He stood in awe of the charge God had given him, calling it “an awful responsibility to write in the name of the Lord.”19 The revelation introducing the soon-to-be-published Book of Commandments affirmed that God “called upon [his] Servent Joseph & spake unto him from heaven & gave him commandment,” and another revelation declared, “This generation shall have my word through you.”20 By testifying to the divine origin of the revelations and signing a formal statement of support, believers helped shoulder this “awful responsibility.”

Preparing the revelation texts for publication was no simple matter. Joseph Smith dictated the words of these texts to a scribe, who committed them to paper. A scribe then copied them into the manuscript books, portions of which were eventually typeset and published as scripture. Sometimes the process was more complicated. For example, Joseph Smith dictated a revelation on 6 December 1832 as Sidney Rigdon wrote it. Frederick G. Williams then made a copy of the text, Orson Hyde copied that copy, and John Whitmer then recorded Hyde’s copy into Revelation Book 1, from which it was edited for publication.21 It is unknown how many of the revelations in Revelation Books 1 and 2 made such an arduous textual journey, but it appears that few, if any, of the revelations is an original in pristine form. Changes both intentional and inadvertent were made throughout the process.

Joseph Smith and his followers considered his revelations to be true in the sense that they communicated the mind and will of God, not infallible in an idealized sense of literary flawlessness. “The revelations were not God’s diction, dialect, or native language,” historian Richard Bushman has written. “They were couched in language suitable to Joseph’s time.”22 Smith and others appointed by revelation (including Oliver Cowdery, Sidney Rigdon, John Whitmer, and William W. Phelps)23 edited the revelations based on the same assumption that informed their original receipt: namely, that although Smith represented the voice of God condescending to speak to him, he was limited by a “crooked broken scattered and imperfect language.”24 The November 1831 conference resolved that he should “correct those errors or mistakes which he may discover by the holy Spirit.”25

Although church leaders originally intended to print ten thousand copies of the Book of Commandments, limited resources forced a more modest plan of three thousand. But even that plan was upset, and only a few dozen incomplete copies of the Book of Commandments were actually produced. In July 1833, before William W. Phelps had finished the project, antagonistic citizens of Jackson County, Missouri, demanded that he cease printing what they called “pretended revelations from Heaven” and then destroyed the printing office and Phelps’s home to ensure that printing stopped.26 Most of the printed revelations were destroyed, but some uncut pages were preserved and later folded and bound. The manuscript book now known as Revelation Book 1, the primary source for the Book of Commandments, escaped the violence and was returned to Kirtland by May 1835. There, in September 1834, the high council had appointed and a general church council had approved a committee composed of Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, Sidney Rigdon, and Frederick G. Williams to prepare the revelations for publication in a new compilation.27 This endeavor resulted in the Doctrine and Covenants, which was first published in 1835.28 Both Revelation Books 1 and 2 were used as sources for the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants.

Joseph Smith was absent on business in August 1835 when a general church assembly convened to approve the new collection of revelations as authoritative for the church. In the conference Oliver Cowdery held up an unbound copy of the Doctrine and Covenants and proceeded to take a vote of those present, beginning with the church leaders. William W. Phelps said that he had carefully examined the book of revelations and that it was “well arranged and calculated to govern the church in righteousness, [and] if followed would bring the members to see eye to eye.” He further stated that he knew the revelations were true, “having received witness from Heaven & not from men.” John Whitmer followed with a similar expression of certainty, testifying “that he was present when some of the revelations contained therein were given, and was satisfied they come from God.”29

Expressions from representatives of each group of church officers present, from the presidency through the deacons, were followed by the votes of each group in support of the book. Levi Jackman, representing the high council of Missouri, said “he had examined as many of the revelations contained in the book as were printed in Zion, & as firmly believes them as he does the Book of Mormon or the Bible.” William W. Phelps read a statement in behalf of the recently called Twelve Apostles, absent in the East on their first quorum assignment. Bishop Newel K. Whitney testified that he knew the revelations “were true, for God had testified to him by his holy Spirit, for many of them were given under his roof & in his presence through President Joseph Smith Junr.” Thus continued the process by which Joseph Smith’s followers formally consented to his revelations, giving them canonical status. The conference culminated with “all the members present, both male & female,” giving “a decided voice in favor of it.”30

Others besides Joseph Smith arose in the early American republic claiming heavenly visions, but his revelations were a class apart. He produced distinctive revelatory documents that explore, in the words of one historian, “realms of doctrine unimagined in traditional Christian theology.”31 Others wrote in terms that were comparatively more modest, even ambiguous.32 As one scholar has noted, very few religious leaders “founded faiths based on new dispensations and discoveries [like] Joseph Smith’s creation of Mormonism.”33 By committing his revelations to writing and then seeing them published and canonized, Smith provided his followers with new scripture based on biblical precedents. The manuscript books featured in this volume affirm his commitment to create and preserve sacred texts and constitute a fundamental part of his effort to document his dealings with God.