“What difference did it make to adopt the visions of the Prophet Joseph Smith and of President Joseph F. Smith ‘officially’?” Ensign, July 1978, 31–32
Melvin J. Petersen, professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University In 1830, Oliver Cowdery was instructed by the Lord that “no one shall be appointed to receive commandments and revelations in this church excepting my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., for he receiveth them even as Moses.” (D&C 28:2.) Thus, from the beginning of the Church, the Lord has made it clear that his will concerning the Church will come through the single head of the Church.
However, this does not mean that the Lord speaks only to the President of the Church; and it also does not mean that every word of the prophet is immediately recorded as part of the standard works of the Church. As the Lord told Oliver Cowdery, “And if thou art led at any time by the Comforter to speak or teach, or at all times by the way of commandment unto the church, thou mayest do it.
“But thou shalt not write by way of commandment, but by wisdom.” (D&C 28:4–5.)
It is interesting that the Lord draws a distinction between written and spoken inspiration: Oliver Cowdery could speak by way of commandment, when inspired, but could only write by way of wisdom, giving advice.
That same instruction can apply to us today. Many Saints have sat in a particularly inspired Sunday School class, where insights from the teacher or class members answered serious questions or changed people’s lives. A bishop receives inspiration in many things pertaining to his ward, and Saints heed instructions and callings from their local leaders. All these things are the workings of the Lord.
But they do not pertain to all people and to all times. Though the bishop is inspired to call a woman to serve as Relief Society president in the ward, this does not mean she will always serve in that calling. Though a wise and inspired teacher gives an insight that can help a wandering soul find the right path, that insight may not always apply to the person’s life—and it may not apply to all Church members.
Many of the utterances of the prophets themselves, even though inspired of the Lord, are not recorded as part of the standard works. One important reason is that new scripture may contain new information. What is accepted as part of the standard works are the revelations that contain eternal truths, insights, instructions, and commandments from the Lord, which add to our understanding of the Lord and his gospel.
When a revelation is added to the standard works, as has happened periodically since the Church was organized, the sustaining vote means that the members of the Church recognize and accept the Lord’s direction that the particular revelation be considered his enduring word, either because of the specific doctrines or instructions in it, or because of the insights and wisdom that can come from studying it. In sustaining the action, the members also willingly make themselves accountable to the scriptural instruction.
Thus the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants contained 103 sections, growing to 111 in 1844, with 26 more sections added in 1876 (including section 132, which replaced an earlier statement on marriage). The Pearl of Great Price, too, was only assembled after a period of years, and did not originally appear in its present form.
Did the addition to the Pearl of Great Price of the visions of Joseph Smith and Joseph F. Smith make those visions any more true? Not at all! They were true when they were received, they were true when they were written down, and they are true today. But their addition to the standard works makes a great difference to the Saints, because we no longer read them as written “by wisdom” only—they are not the word of the Lord at one time, to one group of Saints, but have now been recognized as part of the standard which we are to use in knowing the truths of God. Raising our hands to sustain their addition to the scriptures did not make them true—it made us, instead, bound as Church members to obey the instructions in them and to believe the doctrines revealed by them. They become part of the canon of scripture—the measuring rod against which we judge all other writings.