Themes of Great Importance: The Doctrine and Covenants
December 1988

“Themes of Great Importance: The Doctrine and Covenants,” Tambuli, Dec. 1988, 18

Themes of Great Importance:

The Doctrine and Covenants

Contains the word of God, his commandments for our day, and his teachings for our eternal understanding

The Doctrine and Covenants is modern revelation received by the Prophet Joseph Smith and other presidents of the Church. It is remarkably comprehensive. Its laws and doctrines have the qualities of timelessness, inspiration, and foresight.

I have had a testimony of the Doctrine and Covenants for years. Yet for a long time, many of the most astounding achievements of the book were obscure to me. It contains a lot of basic information, primary source material, and unprocessed firsthand experiences. While such records are of great importance, they are usually not the easiest to read.

Also, there is no presently recognizable order in which revelations were given to Joseph Smith. The Lord gave his instructions as the need or question arose, from day to day, in an order that—to us—seems unpredictable. The Doctrine and Covenants today is still printed the same way, section by section, not systematically or by subject, or even in the order in which all the revelations were received.

So it was harder for me to read the Doctrine and Covenants than, for example, the exciting narratives of Nephi or the unforgettable parables of the New Testament. Reading the sections of the Doctrine and Covenants was, in some ways, like reading the letters of Paul, each one dealing with its own subject and insight.

As I searched for a more effective way to study the Doctrine and Covenants, I began to realize that it deals with certain main themes and identifiable objectives.

What are the themes and objectives in the Doctrine and Covenants? A few years ago I started to make a list of topics by classifying each section in the Doctrine and Covenants (or paragraph within larger sections), trying to account for every passage in the book by theme. I tried to let each text speak as much as possible for itself and tried to answer for each section the questions, “What is this section talking about?” and “What is this section trying to do?” From this study, I found eight main themes:

1. The Voice of Warning

2. The Plan of Salvation

3. The Scriptures

4. The Priesthood

5. Church Organization and Administration

6. Commandments to Church Members

7. Missionary Work and Instruction to Missionaries

8. Personal Instructions to Individuals

(In addition, I placed as an epilogue the accounts of the martyrdom of Joseph Smith, found in sections D&C 135 and D&C 136:34–42.)

In my judgment, these eight themes cover every verse in the Doctrine and Covenants. Organizing the book this way has helped me grasp and hold a mental image of what the book is about. This understanding helps me see a clear and impressive picture, and this helps to give the book meaning in my life.

Let me discuss the themes I see in the book.

1. The Voice of Warning

Rarely has there been a more amazing list of warnings than is found in the Doctrine and Covenants. Warnings are given to all the world, to the wicked, to the righteous, to kings, and to the very poor. No one will escape the day of God’s judgment. God expects us to take his revelations seriously, and no one who reads this book can say he or she has not been warned.

The Lord makes it unmistakably clear that severe judgments will fall upon mankind because of their willful unrighteousness. (see D&C 56:14–20.) He expresses his unequivocal displeasure with sin (see D&C 1:31), and of his anger being kindled against the wicked (see D&C 5:8; D&C 63:2).

But this voice of warning is not a voice of irrational rage. Indeed, it would be somewhat unfair if the Lord were to judge the world without first giving it a full warning and a fair chance to repent. Moreover, the revelations go on at great length to extend an arm of mercy and an invitation to repentance.

2. The Plan of Salvation

The Doctrine and Covenants gives us a great vision of the plan of salvation. In many cases, this volume of scripture is our only source of clear knowledge about this doctrine.

Here the reader learns of the basic relationship between God and man, premortal life, the creation of the world, the fall of Adam, the worth of souls, human agency to obey and obtain forgiveness and grow in light and truth, the second coming of Christ and his Millennial reign, the Resurrection and degrees of glory, the attainment of the highest degree of glory through the covenant of eternal marriage, and ultimately the infliction of eternal punishment upon Satan and his followers who reject the atonement of Jesus Christ.

The overall vision of these many segments offers each individual a comprehensive insight into his or her own eternal spiritual path.

3. The Scriptures

Another unmistakable theme that is found in the Doctrine and Covenants is the importance of knowing and following the word of God. Repeatedly, these revelations show God’s concern over the scriptures. He was intimately involved with the process of bringing forth the Book of Mormon. He was deeply concerned about our understanding of the Bible. He made it clear that anyone who neglects the scriptures does so at the peril of severe condemnation. (See D&C 84:54, 57.)

Accordingly, many sections of the Doctrine and Covenants deal directly with scripture. One section defines what scripture is. (See D&C 68:1–6.) Other sections affirm the fact that the Book of Mormon was translated “through the mercy of God, by the power of God” (D&C 1:29; D&C 20:8), and give instructions about the translation and importance of the Book of Mormon. There are revelations about Joseph Smith’s inspired translation of the Bible, and several specific passages from the Bible are explained.

4. The Priesthood

Hand in hand with the return of the Book of Mormon came the restoration of the keys of the priesthood. The Doctrine and Covenants repeats the themes of the priesthood, delivering an extensive basic handbook on the nature, the offices, and the ordinances of the priesthood of God. This document constitutes the essential order of the priesthood.

It includes the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood (see D&C 13), and the restoration of the keys of the Melchizedek Priesthood (see D&C 27:5–14; D&C 110:6–16). Each office of the priesthood is also defined in terms which are both inspirational and practical.

The Doctrine and Covenants goes yet another step as it describes in clear detail the manner in which priesthood officers should carry out their duties and how they should perform the ordinances of the priesthood. The later part of section 121 [D&C 121] is an unmatched explanation of how one should exercise the rights of the priesthood. In other sections there are discussions on blessing children, baptism, the sacrament, the endowment, and baptism for the dead.

5. Church Organization and Administration

Holding the power of the priesthood of God, the Saints are authorized to act as the body of Christ. The Doctrine and Covenants instructs this group how to act. These instructions are inspired, perceptive, concise, demanding, and rewarding. When seen with all they embrace, they inspire nothing less than our best and highest degrees of sacrifice and obedience.

Besides affirming that the Church was established by God and is “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased” (D&C 1:30), the Doctrine and Covenants give us many principles important for Church administration. These include the use of membership records, the keeping of a history of the Church, and the conduct of meetings.

6. Commandments to Church Members

A list of personal commandments also emerges from the Doctrine and Covenants. No person desiring to live a life pleasing to Father in Heaven could do any better then to learn from the laws of the gospel revealed here. These rules give guidance with respect to murder, theft, dishonesty, adultery, brotherly kindness, pride, idleness, fairness, and the obligation to teach and warn others. We are also counseled on the observance of the Sabbath, teaching one’s family and children, the Word of Wisdom, seeking education, caring for the poor, avoiding materialism and debt and many other subjects.

Several of the section in the Doctrine and Covenants might seem dated to a modern reader, since they instruct the Church to build specific buildings, like the temples in Kirtland and in Missouri, and the Nauvoo House in Nauvoo. But behind even these instruction are vital precepts of how we today must learn to deal unselfishly with property. Often the message is said in ways which we can easily recognize in our own lives as the laws of consecration, tithing, stewardship, and temple building.

7. Missionary Work and Instructions to Missionaries

Worthy of a category by itself are the sections dealing with missionary work, including specific instructions to those called to preach the gospel. These sections form a sizable collection, reflecting the importance of missionary work to the Lord, to the Church, and to the individual. The instructions begin with the wonderful fourth section:

“Now behold, a marvelous work is about to come forth among the children of men.

“Therefore, O ye that embark in the service of God, see that ye serve him with all your heart, might, mind and strength, that ye may stand blameless before God at the last day.

“… Remember faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, brotherly kindness, godliness, charity, humility, diligence.

“Ask, and ye shall receive; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” (see D&C 4:1–2, 6–7.)

Every member and missionary will benefit by knowing all that the Doctrine and Covenants instructs on missionary work. Also powerful are the missionary calls extended to many individuals in the Doctrine and Covenants.

8. Personal Instructions to Individuals

In addition to containing missionary calls to particular individuals, the Doctrine and Covenants also records private revelations to specific people. More than fifty different people are named. Taken individually, these private statements are often disregarded by the casual reader. Yet, taken collectively, they convey a forceful message of God’s love and concern for people—that he knows and cares what individuals do.

These statements to specific individuals are also important for another reason: many of them are expressions of general principles from which all people can benefit. For example, personal instructions to Joseph Smith serve to remind us all:

“Verily I say unto Joseph Smith, Jun.—You have not kept the commandments, and must needs stand rebuked before the Lord;

“Your family must needs repent and forsake some things, and give more earnest heed unto your sayings, or be removed out of their place. …” (D&C 93:47, 48.)

It is clear that each reader should apply in his own life the general principles included in the Lord’s instructions to someone else: “What I say unto one I say unto all,” the Lord has said. (See D&C 93:49.)

For me, this is what the Doctrine and Covenants is all about: a warning, the plan of salvation, the scriptures of God, the priesthood of God, and the people of God—their way of life, their mission in life, and their place in God’s life. I find the Doctrine and Covenants impressive—in what it says, how much it says, how fully it says it. For me, approaching the Doctrine and Covenants this way has made it much easier to understand and hearken unto the word of the Lord. Can anyone afford not to behold and hearken? As the Lord himself has said: “Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me.” (D&C 1:24.)

  • John W. Welch is a professor at the J. Reuben Clark Law School, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

Photos by Eldon Linschoten