“The Story of the Doctrine and Covenants,” Ensign, Dec. 1984, 32
We think of the “knowledge explosion” as a twentieth-century phenomenon—modern printing presses, humming computers, and chattering teletypes. But for Latter-day Saints, the explosion started even before the organization of the Church, with the Prophet Joseph receiving revelation upon revelation, sometimes several a day, for the guidance and instruction of the Saints.
We think of the Doctrine and Covenants as a tidily defined book, quietly resting with the other scriptures. But the story of how those revelations were written, prepared for publication, and moved through various stages until they reached our present edition is the story of trying to keep up with a flood of revealed knowledge—the story of how the prophets received revelation for the Church, how it was recorded, and how it was edited for publication. This article tells how we obtained our current edition of the Doctrine and Covenants.
Even before the Church was organized, the Prophet had received a number of revelations—for example, the First Vision and sections 2 through 19. Early Church members knew that continued revelation from God was one of the most important and distinctive aspects of the Church, and they were always eager to learn what the Lord communicated through the prophet in their behalf, At the first conference, in June 1830, members voted to receive from the Prophet “revelations and Commandments for this Church.”1 Members copied them for their own study. Missionaries recorded them for help in instructing converts. Orson Pratt remembers:
“We often had access to the manuscripts [of the revelations] when boarding with the Prophet; and it was our delight to read them over and over again, before they were printed. And so highly were they esteemed by us, that we committed some to memory; and a few we copied for the purpose of reference in our absence on missions, and also to read them to the saints for their edification. These copies are still in our possession.” (The Seer [Mar. 1854]: 228.)
Many other people made copies of the revelations; but because care was not always taken in copying, many errors were made, repeated, and multiplied as the copies were copied. Realizing the importance of having correct copies, the leaders of the Church determined to publish them. Because the originals contained spelling and grammar errors, a Church conference moved that Joseph Smith should make the necessary corrections. (Far West Record, p. 16.) This was the beginning of controversies and charges made by persons who do not know or understand that the text of recorded revelation can be edited and “changed.”
First, we must recognize that Joseph Smith’s purposeful changes are in a different category from copying errors. Orson Pratt, who worked closely with him, described some of these changes:
“Joseph, the Prophet, in selecting the revelations from the Manuscripts, and arranging them for publication, did not arrange them according to the order of the date in which they were given, neither did he think it necessary to publish them all in the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, but left them to be published more fully in his History. Hence, paragraphs taken from the revelations of a later date, are, in a few instances, incorporated with those of an earlier date. Indeed, at the time of compilation, the Prophet was inspired in several instances to write additional sentences and paragraphs to the earlier revelations. In this manner the Lord did truly give ‘line upon line, here a little and there a little,’ the same as He did to a revelation that Jeremiah received. And even though this revelation was burned by the wicked king of Israel, the Lord revealed the central message again with great numbers of additional content. (See Jeremiah xxxvi.32.)” (Millennial Star 17 [25 Apr. 1857]: 260.)
An example appears in section 20 [D&C 20]. When part of this revelation was originally given in 1830, the offices of bishop, high councilor, and high priest were not yet part of the Church, so Joseph Smith added them to the 1835 edition, as footnotes in the editions between 1876 and 1920 explain. Section 107 [D&C 107] is another example. Close textual study shows at least five separate revelations received between November 1831 and 28 March 1835, the latter date being assigned to the compilation.
At a momentous conference of the Church in Ohio, beginning 1 November 1831, a council of high priests of the Church in Ohio (Joseph Smith presiding) made the decision to publish the revelations under the title Book of Commandments and voted 10,000 copies for the first edition. (D&C 1; Far West Record, p. 15.) The Lord’s will concerning the publication of the revelations was manifested when Joseph Smith received section 1, the Lord’s “preface” to the book, during an interlude. Then began a lively discussion by Joseph Smith asking the elders what testimony they were willing to attach to the commandments. Some said they were willing to testify that the revelations came from God; others, however, expressed criticism of the language in which the revelations were expressed. (Far West Record, p. 16, History of the Church, 1:224.) Out of the discussion emerged a revelation, now section 67, in which a challenge was given by the Lord to anyone present to write a revelation equal to “the least” among those already given. (D&C 67; History of the Church, 1:225.) William E. McLellin, “having more learning than sense,” tackled the project overnight and failed. (History of the Church, 1:226.)
That experience settled the controversy. Oliver Cowdery read section 67 the next morning and “the brethren then arose in turn and bore witness to the truth of the Book of Commandments.” (Far West Record, p. 16.) During this same session, Joseph Smith received by inspiration a statement intended to be a verification of the truthfulness of the revelations that the elders were apparently going to sign and include in the Book of Commandments, somewhat as the testimony of the Three and Eight Witnesses included in the Book of Mormon. However, this declaration was not published at the time, probably because the press was destroyed in the middle of the project. (History of the Church, 1:226.) With a few minor changes in wording, the revelation now appears in the introductory pages of the Doctrine and Covenants as “Testimony of the Twelve Apostles to the Truth of the Book of Doctrine and Covenants.”
It may be a surprise that the brethren at the conference would express any opposition to the wording of the revelations. Elder Parley P. Pratt, describing how the revelation which is now section 50 [D&C 50] was given, wrote:
“After we had joined in prayer … he dictated in our presence the following revelation—(Each sentence was uttered slowly and very distinctly, and with a pause between each, sufficiently long for it to be recorded, by an ordinary writer, in long hand.)”
Elder Pratt continued:
“This was the manner in which all his written revelations were dictated and written. … As he dictated them so they stood.” (Autobiography, 5th ed., Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1961, p. 62.)
Since all of the sections have been edited at some time or other, Elder Pratt’s description, while it may be accurate in describing the dictation, is not complete in accounting for the final form of the revelations. President Wilford Woodruff defined revelation as “the inspiration of the Holy Ghost to man. Joseph Smith said to Brother John Taylor in his day: ‘Brother Taylor, you watch the impression of the Spirit of God; you watch the whisperings of that Spirit to you; you carry them out in your life, and it will become a principle of revelation in you, and you will know and understand this Spirit and power. Joseph Smith was full of revelation. He could translate anything given to him of God. He could receive revelation without the Urim and Thummin. … [The revelations] were given to him by the inspiration of Almighty God.’” (Millennial Star, 12 Oct. 1891, p. 642.)
Elder Orson Pratt confirmed President Woodruff’s statement and added: “Joseph … received the ideas from God, but clothed those ideas with such words as came to his mind” (italics added).2
Joseph Smith, acting on the vote of the conference that he correct the errors of language and clarity that he could discover, under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, set to work at once. The conference did not end until November 12 and Oliver Cowdery and John Whitmer, the messengers who would take the revelations to be printed in Independence, Missouri, were planning to leave by November 15. Actually, they didn’t set out until November 20, arriving in Independence on January 5.
A few months later, in the spring of 1832, Joseph Smith joined them for conferences and also to transact more business about the book. At an April 30 meeting, they decided to print only 3,000 instead of 10,000, to restrict availability of the manuscripts to those concerned with the printing, and to appoint Oliver Cowdery, W. W. Phelps, and John Whitmer to review the revelations again and “select for printing such as shall be deemed by them proper, as dictated by the Spirit and make all necessary verbal corrections.” (Far West Record, p. 25.) This last motion gave these brethren the responsibility of selecting those revelations to appear in the LDS newspaper, The Evening and Morning Star.
They made their selections from revelations that Oliver Cowdery and John Whitmer had brought to Independence in January 1832 and from those Joseph Smith brought the following April. Starting in June 1832, each issue of the Evening and Morning Star for over a year contained one or more revelations. Unfortunately, these copies contained printing errors. When Oliver Cowdery began reprinting the Evening and Morning Star in Kirtland in 1834, after mob violence stopped publication in Independence, he explained: “In the first 14 numbers, in the Revelations, are many errors, typographical, and others, occasioned by transcribing manuscript; but as we shall have access to originals, we shall endeavor to make proper corrections.” (Evening and Morning Star, 26 Sept. 1834, p. 192.)
While the revelations were appearing in the Evening and Morning Star, the same manuscripts were being used to print the Book of Commandments. This particular printing involved a long and arduous process. Not only were they using a hand press, but proofsheets had to go over a thousand miles to Kirtland to be checked by the Prophet. Some sheets must have reached him by 1 December 1832 since he spent that day correcting revelations in Kirtland while printing was continuing in Missouri.3
The next major decision, written in a letter from Sidney Rigdon on 25 June 1833, on behalf of the First Presidency, was not to bind the books—Independence had no binderies and it would take too long to ship them elsewhere. The letter also listed some typographical errors found in the part they’d received. (History of the Church, 1:362–364.) A week later, Sidney Rigdon wrote further instructions about shipping the books to Kirtland, but a mob destroyed the press and burned most of the printed pages less than three weeks later on 20 July 1833. (History of the Church, 1:390.) Several courageous members saved some incomplete copies4—up to the middle of verse 36 in our present section 64.
These precious copies were bound and circulated—eagerly quoted by missionaries,5 and cited officially.
Persecution in Missouri did not dampen the Saints’ determination to print the Prophet’s revelations. In April 1834, Sidney Rigdon was set apart to arrange the “Book of Covenants” for publication; Oliver Cowdery was assigned to aid him as well as to reprint all former issues of the Evening and Morning Star. In September, they were joined by Joseph Smith and Frederick G. Williams.6 Other elders began gathering funds, and Edmund Bosley even covenanted to consecrate his property to that end. (History of the Church, 2:161.)
While this committee was preparing this edition, Oliver Cowdery was issuing the Kirtland reprint of the Evening and Morning Star. The revelations contained in the reprint were corrected, and since they agree favorably with the same ones later published in the Doctrine and Covenants, he must have been using the same manuscripts that the committee was using.
Some of the revelations were reprinted on handbills or broadsheets in Kirtland, only a few of which have survived. Sections 59, 88, 89, and 101 were printed in December 1833 or January 1834.7 Since they seem similar to the texts used in the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, they must have been printed because they were judged too important to wait for the publication of that edition. Broadsheets of section 109 were also printed in Kirtland at the time of the temple dedication.
Since the book was to be presented at the conference of 17 August 1835, several priesthood leaders were apparently given unbound copies to read ahead of time. They were then able to testify at the conference to the truthfulness of the revelations. After hearing the testimonies, the whole conference voted, first as quorums, then as a congregation, to accept the book as arranged. Our present section 134 [D&C 134] was also unanimously voted into the publication, as was a section on marriage penned by Oliver Cowdery which was deleted from the book in 1876 and replaced by section 132 [D&C 132] on the eternal marriage covenant. Members who could not attend the conference were informed by the publication of the high council minutes of 17 August 1834, in the Doctrine and Covenants itself, and in the Latter-day Saints Messenger and Advocate, their Kirtland newspaper.8
The book was bound in Cleveland and was ready for distribution by the second week in September.9
The change of the name from Book of Commandments to Doctrine and Covenants reflected a change in the contents of the book. The Book of Commandments contained only revelations. The Doctrine and Covenants contained the “Lectures on Faith”—seven theological treatises—in the first part, which was titled “On the Doctrine of the Church of the Latter-day Saints”; and the revelations, or “PART SECOND, Covenants and Commandments” in the second part. The title, “Doctrine and Covenants,” probably came from the titles of the two parts of the book. In 1921 the “Lectures on Faith” were removed from the Doctrine and Covenants, “not because they were called in question, for they are excellent lectures of great value on the the principles of faith, but because they were not revelations.” (Hyrum M. Smith and Janne M. Sjodahl, Doctrine and Covenants Commentary, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1957, p. xvii.)
There were some additional changes made in the Doctrine and Covenants. Some revelations were combined; for example, chapters 17–19 in the Book of Commandments were combined into our section 23; chapters 30–33 became section 30; and chapters 44–47 became section 42. Chapter 28 was combined with another revelation to become our current section 27.
Additional revelations, some of which had been received after the destruction of the press in Missouri, were also included, along with the minutes of the 24 September 1834 high council meeting (which authorized the publication) and the minutes of the 17 August 1835 conference (in which the book was approved). The title page of this edition made it clear the book contained a “careful selection” of Joseph Smith’s revelations. A brief preface was also included.
None of the Quorum of the Twelve was present at that August meeting—they were all on missions in the East but W. W. Phelps read into the minutes10 a testimony from the Quorum of the book’s truthfulness. This testimony was almost identical to the statement the Prophet Joseph Smith had received by revelation four years earlier during the 1831 conference in which the Brethren approved the Book of Commandments. None of the Quorum objected to his name being attached to this four-year-old document. But William E. McLellin would claim thirty-five years later that the testimony was a forgery and that he could not have had faith in the Doctrine and Covenants, since most of the revelations had been edited from those in the Book of Commandments.11 Some dissidents have relied on his testimony without realizing that it totally contradicts his earlier support, recorded before his excommunication and apostasy. He had, as clerk of the Quorum of the Twelve, signed a document citing the Doctrine and Covenants as the basis for a decision. (History of the Church, 2:395.) He was also present at the 1831 conference where the elders put on record their willingness to bear witness to the Book of Commandments. (History of the Church, 2:245; Far West Record, pp. 15–16.)
There were some at the time the book was published who objected to the editing of the revelations,12 apparently misunderstanding the process of revelation and the principle of “precept upon precept” that the Lord applied as he continued to give new understanding to the Saints. The Church’s viewpoint, however, is adequately explained by Elder B. H. Roberts:
“Some of the early revelations first published in the ‘Book of Commandments,’ in 1833, were revised by the Prophet himself in the way of correcting errors made by the scribes and publishers; and some additional clauses were inserted to throw increased light upon the subjects treated in the revelations, and paragraphs added, to make the principles or instructions apply to officers not in the Church at the time some of the earlier revelations were given.” (History of the Church, 1:173.)
Soon after all the Twelve arrived in England on their missions, they met on 6 April 1840 and voted to publish both the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants.13 The Book of Mormon appeared; the Doctrine and Covenants didn’t—probably because the First Presidency announced that in October a new edition was to be published in Nauvoo. (Times and Seasons [Oct. 1840]: 186.) In fact, when the first British edition finally appeared in 1845, it followed the format of an 1844 Nauvoo edition.
That second edition came a little easier than the first. As early as July 1840 Samuel Bent and George W. Harris were assigned as fund raisers; Ebenezer Robinson began stereotyping (a type of printing) the Doctrine and Covenants and the hymnbook sometime between spring and August of 1841; Joseph Smith “read proof” on the new edition in February of 1843; the Quorum of the Twelve voted in November 1843 to raise money for the paper, and on December 5 the Prophet had them send the money to Orson Hyde in the East with an order to buy the paper.14
On 12 June 1844, the Nauvoo Neighbor ran a notice that the Doctrine and Covenants would be ready in about a month, but the assassination of Joseph Smith and the wounding of publisher John Taylor delayed the work. It probably appeared sometime in October 1844, since the Neighbor stopped running the notice after its October 30 issue.
Some changes had been made: eight sections were added, including one written after Joseph Smith’s death—sections 103, 105, 112, 119, 124, 127, 128, and 135 in current editions. The minutes of the approving 1835 conference were dropped.
Since stereotyping is a process that produces metal plates, the 1845 and 1846 Nauvoo editions duplicated the 1844 edition. During the exodus from Nauvoo, Church leaders carefully instructed the three trustees left behind in Nauvoo to bring the stereotype plates with them to Winter Quarters, but the plates were never used again and must have been lost.15 Instead, the Utah Saints imported copies from England in 1854. In fact, until a greatly revised edition was printed in Salt Lake City in 1876, all of the Church’s editions of the Doctrine and Covenants were printed in England.
As in America, the history of the Doctrine and Covenants was a lively one. When Wilford Woodruff was sent on his second mission to England in 1844, one of his purposes was to publish the Doctrine and Covenants.16 His mission acquired sudden urgency when he learned that John Greenhow, a member of Sidney Rigdon’s break-away Church of Christ, was planning to publish the Doctrine and Covenants in England and thus secure the copyright.17 Elder Woodruff, in a little over three months, published first and thus kept the copyright in the Church.
This 1845 edition was useful for two reasons: it supplied books for members in Britain, who were hungry for the Prophet’s revelations, and it helped deflate slanderous articles that the Church had printed a “secret book” in the United States full of “heresy, blasphemy, slavery and treason.”18
This edition copied the Nauvoo editions, as did later editions published in 1849, 1852, 1854, 1866, and 1869. From 1852 to 1869, stereotype plates were used.
The 1854 edition was intended for the Saints in Utah and most of the copies were shipped to Saint Louis, then brought west by wagon.
The 1854 edition also established the need for a textual change. Orson Pratt, who was in charge of publishing that edition, discovered that a disaffected member named Charles B. Thomson was publishing a newspaper containing “revelations” he supposedly had received from “Baneemy.” Since “Baneemy” was the code name for “the elders” that Joseph Smith had given in Section 105:27 [D&C 105:27], Elder Pratt proposed that the real names be printed in the next edition, thus exposing Thomson.19 Because changes in the stereotype plates would have been so costly, the changes were actually made in the 1876 edition.
Orson Pratt was an important figure in the next stage of the history of the Doctrine and Covenants. In January 1875 he was deep into an extensive revision to divide the sections into verses, add other revelations the Prophet Joseph Smith had received, arrange the sections in chronological order, and add “in parentheses” the real names after the code names—the change he had recommended over twenty years earlier.20 He also wrote new introductions to many sections. In all this he was following the counsel given him by President Brigham Young. This edition was ready for distribution in 1876.
The major change, however, was the addition of twenty-six sections. Sections 2 and 13 [D&C 2; D&C 13] contain significant historical events; sections 77 and 113 [D&C 77; D&C 113] include interpretations of scripture by Joseph Smith; sections 85, 121, 122, and 123 [D&C 85; D&C 121–123] are extracts of letters; section 109 [D&C 109] was the dedication prayer for the Kirtland Temple; section 110 [D&C 110] recorded the visit of the heavenly beings who appeared in the temple 3 April 1836; sections 116, 129, 130, and 131 [D&C 116; D&C 129–131] were inspired statements by Joseph Smith; section 136 [D&C 136] was a revelation Brigham Young received after the Prophet’s death; and the greatest number—sections 87, 108, 111, 114, 115, 117, 118, 120, 125, 126, and 132 [D&C 87; D&C 108; D&C 111; D&C 114; D&C 115; D&C 117–118; D&C 120; D&C 125–126; D&C 132]—were revelations included in Joseph Smith’s history but never before published in the Doctrine and Covenants.
Orson Pratt was also involved in a project to publish the Doctrine and Covenants in the Deseret alphabet and left Salt Lake on 18 July 1877 to go to England for that purpose. But he returned on 27 September 1877, after learning of Brigham Young’s death, and that particular edition never was finished.
However, Orson Pratt returned yet again to England late in 1878 to print a new edition of the Book of Mormon using electrotype plates. The idea of doing an electrotype edition of the Doctrine and Covenants as well came up, and Elder Pratt, President John Taylor, and William Budge, president of the British Mission, corresponded extensively about it.21 Basically, it would follow the 1876 format, with the addition of an index in place of the table of contents and footnotes. When President Taylor also requested that Elder Pratt include marginal references and footnotes, he called four reliable elders, John Nicholsen, Hugh Findley, John Rider, and Moroni Snow, to help.
Soon, one complete set of electrotype plates was shipped to Salt Lake City, and the first edition published from them in Utah appeared in 1880, a year after the first electrotype British edition.
In the October 1880 general conference, President George Q. Cannon held up copies of the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price and said, “As there have been additions made … by the publishing of revelations which were not contained in the original edition, it has been deemed wise to submit these books with their contents to the Conference, to see whether the Conference will vote to accept the books and their contents as from God, and binding upon us as a people and as a Church.” President Joseph F. Smith so moved, it was seconded, and the congregation voted affirmatively. (Deseret Evening News, 11 Oct. 1880, p. 2, col. 4.)
In the next thirty-eight years, no fewer than twenty-eight printings of the Doctrine and Covenants were made, most from the electrotype plates made in 1879, others in a similar format. Some were bound to make double or triple combinations; some were vest-pocket size; later Salt Lake editions added a concordance—but all of them had a constant text with unaltered footnotes, and the same material could be found on the same page.
When the 1908 edition came from the press, it contained the first addition since Orson Pratt’s edition in 1876: President Wilford Woodruff’s declaration, the Manifesto, concerning the practice of plural marriage. Most usually, the Manifesto was on a separate page that was glued in; some printings, especially vest-pocket editions, didn’t contain the Manifesto as a regular part of the text until the 1921 edition.
The next major changes appeared in the 1921 edition. On 18 March 1920, Elder George F. Richards was appointed chairman of a committee to prepare a new edition of the Book of Mormon.22 That project went to press in December. In March 1921, the First Presidency assigned the same committee to prepare a new edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. The committee, including Elders Anthony W. Ivins, James E. Talmage, Melvin J. Ballard, and Joseph Fielding Smith, worked intensively for another nine months, and the new edition was published in December.
Their revisions reworked the footnotes, expanded the introductory statements at the beginning of the revelations, divided the text into double columns, and deleted the “Lectures on Faith.”
The edition in use today was published in 1981. It was expanded to include Joseph Smith’s Vision of the Celestial Kingdom and Joseph F. Smith’s Vision of the Redemption of the Dead—transferred from the Pearl of Great Price—becoming sections 137 and 138 [D&C 137; D&C 138], respectively. The statement of the First Presidency regarding the revelation extending the priesthood to ‘all worthy male members of the Church,’ released 9 June 1978, was also added as Official Declaration—2 [OD 2]. President Woodruff’s 1890 manifesto remained as Official Declaration—l [OD 1], and his explanation for issuing the manifesto has also been added.
The new edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, incorporating these additions, also included some alterations. The footnotes were revised according to the format of the footnotes in the LDS edition of the King James Version of the Bible, which had previously been published and distributed to members of the Church. These footnotes included cross-references to the Topical Guide in the Bible. In addition, the introductory statements at the beginning of each section were revised and a gazetteer was included. (For further information, see Bruce T. Harper, “The Church Publishes a new Triple Combination,” Ensign, Oct. 1981, p. 8.)
With the publication of this new edition, study of the Doctrine and Covenants enters a new era. Members of the Church now have easier access to the historical and doctrinal setting in which this book of scripture was produced.
Early Non-English Editions of the Doctrine and Covenants (1851–1948)
The Doctrine and Covenants is now available in twenty-seven languages other than English with plans to publish it in many more.