The Doctrine and Covenants: Historical Background of the Doctrine and Covenants
September 1978

“The Doctrine and Covenants: Historical Background of the Doctrine and Covenants,” Tambuli, Sept. 1978, 50–52

The Doctrine and Covenants:

Historical Background of the Doctrine and Covenants

One of the distinguishing features of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the claim to continuous revelation from the Lord. To Latter-day Saints, revelation is a principle, which, if cultivated, brings about the same relationship with Deity as has occurred in other ages of the earth. Hence, revelation is not confined to the past and did not end when the last of the biblical writings was finished. This claim to the possible continuity of revelation is not a mere gesture. In Latter-day Saint literature there is a book, the major content of which is presented as revelation received in this latter day. This book has come to be designated as the Doctrine and Covenants. Mormonism cannot be understood apart from the contents of this book and a knowledge of the manner by which these contents came into existence. Within the pages of this volume, lies the key to an understanding of the founding of the Church, the nature of its organization and function, and the underlying motivation of its unique history and program.

The story of the origin of the book of Doctrine and Covenants centers around the Prophet Joseph Smith. He began receiving revelations before his fifteenth birthday and continued receiving revelations at irregular intervals throughout his life. (Adapted from William E. Berrett, Teachings of the Doctrine and Covenants, Salt Lake City, Deseret Book Company, 1961, pp. 1–13. Used by permission.)

The time at which Joseph commenced to record the more important revelations is difficult to ascertain. Many of the lesser revelations continued to be unrecorded throughout his life. This much can be said with certainty, however: By the spring of 1830 the Prophet was putting into writing many revelations pertaining to the Book of Mormon, the restoration of the priesthood, and the establishment of the Church.

On the 6th day of April, 1830, while in the process of organizing the Church, the Prophet received a revelation commanding the Church to appoint an historian and to keep a faithful record of all things. (See D&C 21.)

Oliver Cowdery was set apart as “Church historian.” At the conference of the Church on June 9, 1830, he was released because of other duties, and John Whitmer sustained in the position. Unfortunately, the records kept by these men as historians are brief and incomplete. From the founding of the Church, the Prophet Joseph faithfully kept a journal and collected together various letters and documents that proved invaluable in the compilation and writing of his history of the Church in 1838.

During the years 1830 and 1831, Joseph continued to receive revelations, the more important of which he reduced to writing. By the fall of 1831, he felt that these, together with earlier recorded revelations, were of sufficient number to justify publication in book form. With that purpose in view, Joseph called a conference of the priesthood members to meet at Hiram, Ohio, November 1 and 2, 1831. To that conference, he presented the motion that his collection of revelations be accepted as scripture and published under the title, Book of Commandments. It is not clear from the records of these proceedings how extensive a study was made by the group of these collected writings. Some study was made, as the minutes indicate criticism by certain members present. Part of this criticism is found in a revelation received on that occasion by Joseph Smith, while in the presence of the assembled group. (And here it may be pertinent to say, most of the revelations received by Joseph Smith were received during the light of day and in the presence of other people. He did not retire alone to dark corners or the cover of night for his contacts with the Almighty but prayed in the presence of his followers who both saw and heard him. The answer received was spoken to them by the Prophet or dictated by him to his clerk while they listened.) The revelation received on this occasion now appears in the book of the Doctrine and Covenants as Section One. In verse 24we read:

“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]

The word of the Lord is in the language of the prophet. If the prophet’s language is faulty and if he is subject in his speech to the grammatical errors common to most of us, we may expect grammatical mistakes in the written revelation until they are discovered and corrected. The mistakes are not the mistakes of God. In all of the revelations received by men from God, as portrayed in the Bible, this human element is present. The poet clothes the message of God in beautiful verses, the psalmist sets it to music, while the writer of prose stamps it indelibly with his own style. Thus the writings of Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Amos, and Habakkuk are different in style and perfection of expression, but all are the word of God spoken through prophets in their language that mankind might come to understanding.

The person who discovers in the scriptures, ancient or modern, mistakes in grammar must beware lest the finding leads him to undermine the sure word of God and result in a loss of his own faith.

There is no evidence that anyone in that small gathering at Hiram, Ohio, on the 1st day of November, 1831, beard any voice, saw any light, felt within his soul the impact of the same ideas as were dictated by the Prophet to his clerk as revelation. It is not surprising then that some still doubted that the various writings presented to them and the message then delivered were revelations from the Almighty. Some of the revelations bore so patently the form of expression of the Prophet that William E. McLellin challenged the Prophet openly, charging that Joseph had written some of the so-called revelations entirely out of his own mind.

McLellin’s challenge, together with the feeling that others might be similarly skeptical, caused the Prophet to turn again to the Lord for aid. Whether he prayed vocally or otherwise does not appear in the record, but the result was another revelation:

“And now I, the Lord, give unto you a testimony of the truth of these commandments which are lying before you.

“Your eyes have been upon my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and his language you have known, and his imperfections you have known; and you have sought in your hearts knowledge that you might express beyond his language; this you also know.

“Now, seek ye out of the Book of Commandments, even the least that is among them, and appoint him that is the most wise among you;

“Or, if there be any among you that shall make one like unto it, then ye are justified in saying that ye do not know that they are true;

“But if ye cannot make one like unto it, ye are under condemnation if ye do not bear record that they are true.

“For ye know that there is no unrighteousness in them, and that which is righteous cometh down from above, from the Father of lights.” (D&C 67:4–9.)

The above challenge calls for a unique test of revelation applicable to any age. It is a challenge to all thinking men—it is simplicity itself. It reflects the so oft-repeated introduction to God’s word, “Let us reason together, that ye may understand.” (D&C 50:10.)

McLellin, perhaps under the urging of others, accepted the challenge. He retired from the conference and, in the solitude of his room, attempted to write that which might sound like a revelation from the Lord. On November 2 he appeared again in the conference and with tears in his eyes begged the forgiveness of the Prophet, of his brethren, and of the Lord. He could not write a revelation. Try as he might, he could not write that which would sound as if it were a revelation from the Lord. Everyone who puts the matter to the test must come to the same conclusion. The uninspired man can only write those thoughts presently in his mind; and when he has put them in writing, he finds that they are but a rehash of ideas long known to mankind. The writings may have literary or educational value—but if nothing new is revealed, they are not revelation. On the other hand, if writings enrich the world with ideas and information not previously known, then by the same test, they are revelation, and, the newly found truth should be accepted and followed.

The experience and testimony of McLellin had a profound effect upon the little gathering at Hiram. One after another arose and bore testimony concerning God’s dealings with the Prophet Joseph. Following these testimonies, the conference authorized the publication of the revelations as the Book of Commandments, and appointed Oliver Cowdery to go to Independence, Missouri, to supervise the publication.

Oliver Cowdery did not leave at once upon his assignment. Winter was at hand and the traversing of a thousand miles of snow-covered prairie was no easy task. It was not until the summer of 1833 that the printed sheets for the Book of Commandments were assembled, ready for binding. The work on the old hand press of W. W. Phelps & Co., at Independence, Missouri, had been slow and tedious. Material for book covers was lacking but proved unnecessary. On July 20, 1833, a mob broke into the printing establishment, carried away the press, scattered the type, and burned most of the papers and printed matter. One of the elders working on the publication, upon seeing the mob at the front door, hastily snatched up an armload of the assembled sheets of the Book of Commandments, and finding his way through the rear door, buried them beneath the hay of an old barn. The copies, at least twenty in number, were preserved.

The publication of Commandments was effectively stopped. By the time another printing press was purchased, the Saints had been driven out of Jackson County; numerous revelations not contained in the Book of Commandments had been received; and there was need for a larger and more comprehensive publication. Accordingly, a committee composed of Joseph Smith, Assistant President Oliver Cowdery, and Counselors Sidney Rigdon, and Frederick G. Williams, was appointed by the August, 1834, conference to select and compile a new book of revelations. During the conference held August 17, 1835, at Kirtland, Ohio, the committee made its report. The collection of writings presented to the conference contained matters other than revelations and omitted some revelations which had no direct bearing upon the problems of the Church.

A new name was presented for the collection, Book of Doctrine and Covenants, thought by the committee to be more descriptive of its contents than Book of Commandments.

The Book of Commandments was destined to reach publication under far different circumstances and auspices than planned in the November, 1831, conference. Of the several copies of the original printing one found its way into the hands of Wilford Woodruff, later President of the Church, who donated the copy to the Church Historian’s Library, where it now reposes with other copies. Still other copies are to be found in various collectors’ libraries.

The Book of Doctrine and Covenants, as presented to the conference of August 17, 1835, was accepted as scripture by the members of the Church assembled, who indicated their approval by their uplifted hands.

The first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants was published during the winter of 1835. It contained 103 sections, though they were not all in the same order in which we find them today. Then, in 1844, another edition was printed containing 111 sections. The Prophet Joseph had worked on this edition just prior to his death.

The bulk of additions to the Doctrine and Covenants is found in two great editions, those of 1876 and 1921. In the 1876 edition, 26 sections were added. These sections contained revelations and extracts from the sermons and letters of Joseph Smith, published earlier in the newspapers and periodicals of the Church, but not previously printed in the Doctrine and Covenants. Footnotes and cross references were added to the text which was divided for the first time into verses.

The changes in the 1921 edition are largely mechanical. For the first time, an edition appeared with double columns. Historical notes and cross references were also improved.

In the more than 140 years it has been in existence, the Doctrine and Covenants has been printed in many languages and in many different locations. Like the Book of Mormon, it has withstood the test of time and the scrutiny of critics. It both confirms and adds to the other accepted scriptures. Today nearly four million Latter-day Saints regard it as containing the word of God to a modern-day people.

Nauvoo from across the Mississippi River. (Photography by George E. Anderson, 1860–1928.)

Canandaigua Road and the Hill Cumorah. (Photography by George E. Anderson, 1860–1928.)

Kirtland Temple. (Photography by George E. Anderson, 1860–1928.)

Joseph Smith Sr. home, Palmyra, New York. (Photography by George E. Anderson, 1860–1928.)

Schoolhouse in Royalton, Vermont. (Photography by George E. Anderson, 1860–1928.)