“Chapter 5: Doctrine and Covenants 6; 8–9,” Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual (2017)
“Chapter 5,” Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual
Without a regular scribe, the translation of the Book of Mormon proceeded sporadically until March 1829, when the Prophet Joseph Smith was commanded to stop and wait for help (see D&C 5:30–34). In fulfillment of the Lord’s promise to “provide means” (D&C 5:34), Oliver Cowdery arrived at the Prophet’s home in Harmony, Pennsylvania, and offered his help. With renewed effort, Joseph Smith began translating again on April 7, 1829, with Oliver assisting as a scribe. Later that month, the Prophet received the revelation recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 6. In this revelation Oliver received counsel and confirmation concerning his role in the Lord’s work.
As the translation of the Book of Mormon proceeded, Oliver desired to translate. In a revelation received in April 1829 and recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 8, the Lord promised Oliver the gift of revelation and the ability to translate ancient records.
Oliver began his attempt to translate but was unable to continue. At Oliver’s request, Joseph Smith inquired of the Lord and received the revelation recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 9, in which the Lord explained why Oliver struggled to translate and also provided principles regarding revelation.
- Late 1828
Oliver Cowdery learned about Joseph Smith while living in Manchester, New York.
- April 1829
Oliver Cowdery traveled to Harmony, Pennsylvania, to meet Joseph Smith.
- April 1829
The translation of the Book of Mormon proceeded in earnest with Oliver Cowdery acting as scribe.
- April 1829
- April 1829
Oliver Cowdery attempted to translate.
- April 1829
Doctrine and Covenants 9 was received.
In early 1829, the Prophet Joseph Smith and his wife, Emma, were living in a small house near Emma’s parents’ home in Harmony, Pennsylvania. Joseph continued to translate the Book of Mormon plates during this time with assistance from Emma, but the work progressed slowly. In March, Joseph petitioned the Lord for help, and in response the Lord promised, “I will provide means whereby thou mayest accomplish the thing which I have commanded thee” (D&C 5:34). Soon afterward, Oliver Cowdery arrived and became Joseph’s full-time scribe.
Oliver Cowdery was a schoolteacher who was boarding in the home of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s parents, Joseph Smith Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith, during the winter of 1828–29. While in the Palmyra, New York, area, Oliver heard talk about the golden plates. He asked the Smith family about what he had heard, and after earning Joseph Smith Sr.’s trust, he learned more about Joseph Smith Jr.’s efforts to translate the plates. The Prophet Joseph Smith later recorded that the “Lord appeared unto a young man by the name of Oliver Cowd[e]ry and showed unto him the plates in a vision. … Therefore he was desirous to come and write for me” (in The Joseph Smith Papers, Histories, Volume 1:Joseph Smith Histories, 1832–1844, ed. Karen Lynn Davidson and others , 16; spelling, punctuation, and capitalization standardized).
Oliver Cowdery firmly believed that it was the Lord’s will that he go to Joseph Smith and help him, so he traveled with Joseph Smith’s brother Samuel to Harmony, Pennsylvania, arriving on April 5, 1829. Joseph and Oliver began translating on April 7, 1829. Not long after they began working together, the Prophet received instructions from the Lord providing direction to Oliver and clarifying his role in assisting Joseph.
The Lord invited the Prophet Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery to “keep [His] commandments, and seek to bring forth and establish the cause of Zion” (D&C 6:6). This is the first mention of Zion in the Doctrine and Covenants. To “bring forth and establish the cause of Zion” could be understood as the work of restoring the gospel of Jesus Christ, organizing the Church of Jesus Christ anew in our day, and preaching the gospel in order to gather others to Zion.
The Lord promised Oliver Cowdery that if he would seek for wisdom, “the mysteries of God [would] be unfolded unto [him]” (D&C 6:7). In the scriptures, the phrase “mysteries of God” refers to “spiritual truths known only by revelation. God reveals His mysteries to those who are obedient to the gospel” (Guide to the Scriptures, “Mysteries of God,” scriptures.lds.org). While these truths are largely unknown and not understood and appreciated by the world, followers of Jesus Christ can gain knowledge and understanding of gospel truths through a study of the scriptures and the words of living prophets and from personal revelation received through the Holy Ghost. The Doctrine and Covenants encourages readers to seek for greater spiritual understanding of the mysteries of God by keeping the commandments and asking God in faith (see D&C 8:11; 42:61, 65; 63:23; 76:5–10, 114–17).
The gift possessed by Oliver Cowdery that is described in Doctrine and Covenants 6:10–12 is the gift of revelation (see D&C 8:2–5). All of Heavenly Father’s children can receive spiritual guidance when they pray and seek His help. Those who are baptized, receive the gift of the Holy Ghost, and diligently keep the commandments can receive the gift of revelation.
Oliver Cowdery was among the first individuals to ask God about the work of the Prophet Joseph Smith. As each of us must do, Oliver needed to learn how to recognize the manifestations of the Spirit. From the Lord’s words contained in Doctrine and Covenants 6:14–15, Oliver learned that he had received divine guidance as often as he had prayed. The Lord reminded Oliver that in response to his prayers the Spirit had instructed him and enlightened his mind (see D&C 6:14–15). The Lord also pointed out that the witness of the truthfulness of the restored gospel that Oliver had received in this way had led him from Palmyra to Harmony and to the work he was now engaged in. By reminding Oliver of previous revelatory experiences, the Lord helped increase Oliver’s capacity to recognize revelation through the Spirit in the future.
Elder Richard G. Scott (1928–2015) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught:
“One of the great lessons that each of us needs to learn is to ask. Why does the Lord want us to pray to Him and to ask? Because that is how revelation is received. …
“If you feel that God has not answered your prayers, ponder these scriptures [D&C 6:14–15]—then carefully look for evidence in your own life that He may have already answered you” (“How to Obtain Revelation and Inspiration for Your Personal Life,” Ensign or Liahona, May 2012, 45, 47).
Through the revelation recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 6, the Lord assured Oliver Cowdery that Joseph Smith was His servant. Oliver learned that he had a duty to “stand by,” or be loyal to and supportive of, the Lord’s servant (D&C 6:18) and to patiently receive “admonition,” or correction, from him (D&C 6:19). In his close working association with the Prophet, Oliver was also counseled by the Lord to “admonish” Joseph when needed (D&C 6:19). The Prophet had human frailties and never claimed to be infallible. Near the end of his life, Joseph Smith declared, “I never told you I was perfect; but there is no error in the revelations which I have taught” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith , 522). However, when describing the frailties of his youth, the Prophet gave this insight into his character: “No one need suppose me guilty of any great or malignant sins. A disposition to commit such was never in my nature” (Joseph Smith—History 1:28).
Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles observed: “Joseph Smith was a mortal man striving to fulfill an overwhelming, divinely-appointed mission against all odds. The wonder is not that he ever displayed human failings, but that he succeeded in his mission. His fruits are undeniable and undeniably good” (“The Prophet Joseph Smith” [Brigham Young University–Idaho devotional, Sept. 24, 2013], byui.edu/devotionalsandspeeches).
Revelation can be received in various ways. As recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 6:22–24, the Lord helped Oliver Cowdery recognize that he had been spiritually guided by receiving a feeling of peace. Elder Richard G. Scott affirmed: “The feeling of peace is the most common confirming witness that I personally experience. When I have been very concerned about an important matter, struggling to resolve it without success, I continued those efforts in faith. Later, an all-pervading peace has come, settling my concerns, as He has promised” (“Using the Supernal Gift of Prayer,” Ensign or Liahona, May 2007, 10).
A second gift promised to Oliver Cowdery was the gift and keys of translation. The Lord explained that the Prophet Joseph Smith and Oliver would become two witnesses who could testify that His words had been brought to light. It is significant that Joseph had Oliver at his side as a witness when other important events of the Restoration occurred. For example, Oliver participated in the following:
The translation of the Book of Mormon and its publication (see Joseph Smith—History 1:71, note).
The restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood through John the Baptist (see D&C 13).
The restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood through Peter, James, and John (see Joseph Smith—History 1:72).
The organization of the Church with two elders to lead it (see D&C 20:2–3).
The restoration of priesthood keys through Moses, Elias, and Elijah (see D&C 110).
It is not known whether Doctrine and Covenants 6:32, 37 refers to a literal or to a figurative experience. The Lord may have simply been reminding Oliver of an experience he had had earlier when he first heard about the Prophet Joseph Smith and the golden plates (see the commentary in the additional historical background for D&C 6 in this manual).
While acting as scribe for the Prophet Joseph Smith during the translation of the Book of Mormon, “Oliver Cowdery became exceedingly anxious to have the power to translate bestowed upon him” (Joseph Smith, in History of the Church, 1:36). The Lord had promised Oliver that “even as you desire of me so it shall be unto you” and told him, “I grant unto you a gift, if you desire of me, to translate, even as my servant Joseph” (D&C 6:8, 25). Oliver’s interest in translating may have also increased as he and Joseph became familiar with accounts in the Book of Mormon related to the gift of translation (see Mosiah 8:9–16). Under these circumstances, Oliver received through the Prophet Joseph Smith the instructions recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 8.
In a previous revelation, Oliver Cowdery had been promised the gift to translate (see D&C 6:25). This gift, however, required Oliver to “ask in faith, with an honest heart, believing” (D&C 8:1) in order to receive God’s help to translate.
The promise of receiving knowledge and revelation from God extends to all who ask in faith with an honest heart, believing that they will receive. Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles emphasized the importance of asking God when we need knowledge and understanding:
“Today we live in a world in which people don’t ask of God—they seem to want to ask of Google. Even when it comes to questions of faith, there are many who trust the Internet to provide accurate, fair, and balanced answers to their questions more than they trust the ultimate source of truth, our Heavenly Father. …
“… Today the Internet is full of those lying in wait to deceive the uninformed and inexperienced.
“In our search for gospel truth, we not only need to find reliable sources but we also need to give the Lord equal time in our daily pursuits. We need to study the scriptures and the words of the Lord’s servants. We need to be living right before God—we need to be doing His will [see John 7:16–17]. And we can never overstate the importance of taking our spiritual concerns directly to God and trusting His inspiration and guidance” (“Women of Dedication, Faith, Determination, and Action” [address given at Brigham Young University Women’s Conference, May 1, 2015], 5–6, womensconference.ce.byu.edu/transcripts).
One way that God reveals His will to His children is through “the spirit of revelation” (D&C 8:3). As The Lord explained to Oliver Cowdery through the Prophet Joseph Smith, this involves the mind (intellect) and the heart (feelings) (see D&C 8:2).
Revelation may come to either our heart or to our mind or to both. One way in which revelation can come to both our heart and mind is when inspired thoughts or ideas come into our mind and are confirmed to be true by the spiritual feelings that come into our heart. Elder Richard G. Scott explained additional ways the Spirit might communicate with our mind and heart:
“An impression to the mind is very specific. Detailed words can be heard or felt and written as though the instruction were being dictated.
“A communication to the heart is a more general impression. The Lord often begins by giving impressions. Where there is a recognition of their importance and they are obeyed, one gains more capacity to receive more detailed instruction to the mind. An impression to the heart, if followed, is fortified by a more specific instruction to the mind” (“Helping Others to Be Spiritually Led” [address to Church Educational System religious educators, Aug. 11, 1998]; see also Teaching Seminary: Preservice Readings [Church Educational System manual, 2004], 55).
The Lord explained that “the spirit of revelation” promised to Oliver Cowdery, which the Prophet Joseph Smith had, is the same spirit that directed Moses as he led the children of Israel through the Red Sea (see D&C 8:3). Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles explained some ways in which Moses’s example can help us to better understand the spirit of revelation:
“Why would the Lord use the example of crossing the Red Sea as the classic example of ‘the spirit of revelation’? Why didn’t He use the First Vision? … Or the vision of the brother of Jared? Well, He could have used any of these, but He didn’t. Here He had another purpose in mind.
“First of all, revelation almost always comes in response to a question, usually an urgent question—not always, but usually. Moses’ challenge was how to get himself and the children of Israel out of [the] horrible predicament they were in. …
“You will need information, too, but in matters of great consequence it is not likely to come unless you want it urgently, faithfully, humbly. Moroni calls it seeking ‘with real intent’ (Moroni 10:4). If you can seek that way, and stay in that mode, not much that the adversary can counter with will dissuade you from a righteous path.
“The Red Sea will open to the honest seeker of revelation. The adversary does have power to hedge up the way, to marshal Pharaoh’s forces and dog our escape right to the water’s edge, but he cannot conquer if we will it otherwise. That is lesson number one about crossing the Red Sea, your Red Seas, by the spirit of revelation.
“In the process of revelation and in making important decisions, fear almost always plays a destructive, sometimes paralyzing role. …
“That is exactly the problem that beset the children of Israel at the edge of the Red Sea. That is lesson number two. It has everything to do with holding fast to earlier illumination. The record says, ‘And when Pharaoh drew nigh, the children of Israel lifted up their eyes, and, behold, the Egyptians marched after them; and they were sore afraid’ (Exodus 14:10).
“… Our faith will be tested as we fight through self-doubts and second thoughts. Some days we will be miraculously led out of Egypt—seemingly free, seemingly on our way—only to come to yet another confrontation, like all that water lying before us. At those times we must resist the temptation to panic and to give up.
“‘And Moses said unto the people, Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord. … The Lord shall fight for you’ (Exodus 14:13–14).
“Again, that is the second lesson of the spirit of revelation. After you have gotten the message, after you have paid the price to feel His love and hear the word of the Lord, go forward. Don’t fear, don’t vacillate, don’t quibble, don’t whine.
“The third lesson from the Lord’s spirit of revelation in the miracle of the crossing of the Red Sea is that, if God has told you something is right, if something is indeed true for you, He will provide the way for you to accomplish it” (“Remember How You Felt,” New Era, Aug. 2004, 7–8).
Everyone who seeks to follow Jesus Christ can enjoy the gift of revelation that was promised to Oliver Cowdery (see D&C 6:10–12). The Lord taught that in order to receive this gift we must “apply unto it” (D&C 8:4). Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles discussed how we can “apply unto” the spirit of revelation:
“Sincere desire and worthiness invite the spirit of revelation into our lives. …
“… In the scriptures, the influence of the Holy Ghost frequently is described as ‘a still small voice’ (1 Kings 19:12; 1 Nephi 17:45; see also 3 Nephi 11:3) and a ‘voice of perfect mildness’ (Helaman 5:30). Because the Spirit whispers to us gently and delicately, it is easy to understand why we should shun inappropriate media, pornography, and harmful, addictive substances and behaviors. These tools of the adversary can impair and eventually destroy our capacity to recognize and respond to the subtle messages from God delivered by the power of His Spirit. Each of us should consider seriously and ponder prayerfully how we can reject the devil’s enticements and righteously ‘apply unto it,’ even the spirit of revelation, in our personal lives and families” (“The Spirit of Revelation,” Ensign or Liahona, May 2011, 87–88).
When the revelation in Doctrine and Covenants 8 was first published in the 1833 Book of Commandments, Oliver Cowdery’s gift was described as “the gift of working with the rod” (see “Book of Commandments, 1833,” page 19, josephsmithpapers.org; see also Jeffrey G. Cannon, “Oliver Cowdery’s Gift,” footnote 9, in Revelations in Context, ed. Matthew McBride and James Goldberg , 19, see also history.lds.org). This may have referred to an object that Oliver Cowdery used on occasion, known as a divining rod. However, the Prophet Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery left no account as to how such a “rod” may have been used. In the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, the phrase “the gift of working with the rod” was changed to “the gift of Aaron” (see “Doctrine and Covenants, 1835,” page 161 [section XXXIV, verse 3], josephsmithpapers.org; see also Melvin J. Petersen, “Preparing Early Revelations for Publication,” Ensign, Feb. 1985, 20). This adjustment demonstrates that the central message is the gift of receiving revelation and also the divinely guided power to translate ancient records.
In the Bible we read of “people receiving spiritual manifestations by means of physical objects such as rods, a brass serpent on a pole … , an ephod (a part of the priestly clothing that included two precious stones), and the Urim and Thummim” (Richard E. Turley Jr., Robin S. Jensen, and Mark Ashurst-McGee, “Joseph the Seer,” Ensign, Oct. 2015, 49). Biblical accounts of Moses and his brother Aaron describe their use of rods as instruments and outward manifestations of God’s will and power (see Exodus 4:1–5, 17; 7:9–12; 14:15–18; Numbers 17:1–10). Hence, the phrase “the gift of Aaron” (D&C 8:6) may be a more general way of referring to Oliver’s gift of “working with the rod” as well as confirming the link that the Prophet Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery had with the roles held by Moses and Aaron. After recognizing Oliver’s “gift of Aaron,” the Lord again assured Oliver that the gift of translation would be added to the revelatory gifts he already possessed if he acted in faith and “trifle[d] not” with these sacred gifts (see D&C 8:8–11).
Like Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery only spoke English and could not translate an ancient record unless he had help through the power of God. Oliver Cowdery began his attempt to translate the Book of Mormon plates by the gift and power of God, but he “did not continue as [he had] commenced,” and so the privilege was taken away from him (D&C 9:5). In a revelation given through the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Lord promised Oliver that he would have a future opportunity to translate other records. The Lord counseled him to continue serving as scribe for the Prophet until the translation of the plates was completed.
We don’t have many details about Oliver Cowdery’s attempt to translate. He certainly had a great desire to translate the Book of Mormon record, but after he began, he was unable to continue. The Lord explained that Oliver “did not continue as [he had] commenced” (D&C 9:5) and said that if he had used the principles of receiving revelation, he “could have translated” (D&C 9:10). The Lord suspended Oliver’s opportunity to translate, but He told Oliver that there were “other records” that he would be allowed to help translate (D&C 9:2).
Though the Lord informed Oliver Cowdery that He had “other records” that would need translating (D&C 9:2; see also D&C 6:26), we do not know if Oliver actually helped to translate any of them. However, Oliver did act as scribe for the Prophet Joseph Smith during the inspired translation of the Bible. Also, Joseph Smith later came into possession of some Egyptian artifacts that included papyri, and the Prophet’s examination of the papyri led him to receive revelation about Abraham’s life and teachings. While we do not know exactly how Joseph Smith translated the book of Abraham, we do know that Oliver assisted him as scribe.
We receive personal revelation according to the Lord’s will and timing. Some ways that we can prepare to receive personal revelation include gaining a righteous desire (see D&C 6:8, 20), asking in faith (see D&C 8:1), and obeying God’s commandments (see D&C 63:23). Oliver Cowdery learned that before asking God for answers concerning an issue, he should “study it out in [his] mind” (D&C 9:8).
Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles clarified the need that Oliver had to combine both study and faith: “The correct relationship between study and faith in the receipt of sacred knowledge is illustrated in Oliver Cowdery’s attempt to translate ancient records. He failed because he ‘took no thought,’ but only asked God. (D&C 9:7.) The Lord told him he should have ‘stud[ied] it out in [his] mind’ and then asked if it was right. (D&C 9:8.) Only then would the Lord reveal whether the translation was correct or not. And only on receiving that revelation could the text be written, because ‘you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me.’ (D&C 9:9.) In the acquisition of sacred knowledge, scholarship and reason are not alternatives to revelation. They are a means to an end, and the end is revelation from God” (“Alternate Voices,” Ensign, May 1989, 30).
The process of obtaining personal revelation can often require effort and even struggle on our part. Elder Richard G. Scott taught why we need to do more than simply ask for answers: “I am convinced that there is no simple formula or technique that would immediately allow you to master the ability to be guided by the voice of the Spirit. Our Father expects you to learn how to obtain that divine help by exercising faith in Him and His Holy Son, Jesus Christ. Were you to receive inspired guidance just for the asking, you would become weak and ever more dependent on Them. They know that essential personal growth will come as you struggle to learn how to be led by the Spirit” (“To Acquire Spiritual Guidance,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2009, 6–7).
Through the Lord’s counsel recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 8:2–3, Oliver Cowdery learned that the Lord speaks to His children’s minds and hearts by the power of the Holy Ghost. In Doctrine and Covenants 9:8–9, the Lord reminded Oliver that he could recognize revelation through his feelings and thoughts. The Lord taught him that if the translation was correct, he would “feel that it is right” (D&C 9:8). The Lord also used the phrase “your bosom shall burn within you” (D&C 9:8) to describe the workings of the Spirit.
Elder Dallin H. Oaks clarified how the Spirit may communicate with us through a burning in our bosom: “What does a ‘burning in the bosom’ mean? Does it need to be a feeling of caloric heat, like the burning produced by combustion? If that is the meaning, I have never had a burning in the bosom. Surely, the word ‘burning’ in this scripture signifies a feeling of comfort and serenity. That is the witness many receive. That is the way revelation works” (“Teaching and Learning by the Spirit,” Ensign, Mar. 1997, 13).
It is important to remember that the Lord’s statements “your bosom shall burn” (D&C 9:8) and “you shall have a stupor of thought” (D&C 9:9) were given to the Prophet Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery specifically to guide them as they translated the Book of Mormon. When we seek for spiritual guidance, it may be unwise to anticipate that the Holy Ghost will always communicate with us in this specific manner. The scriptures remind us that the Holy Ghost can communicate with us in a variety of ways (see D&C 6:23; 8:2–3; 9:8; 11:12–13; 85:6; 128:1).
Elder Richard G. Scott explained what is meant by the “stupor of thought” described in Doctrine and Covenants 9:9: “The Lord clarifies, ‘But if [what you propose] be not right you … shall have a stupor of thought.’ That, for me, is an unsettling, discomforting feeling” (“Using the Supernal Gift of Prayer,” 10).
President Spencer W. Kimball (1895–1985) taught:
“In our day, as in times past, many people expect that if there be revelation it will come with awe-inspiring, earth-shaking display. …
“Expecting the spectacular, one may not be fully alerted to the constant flow of revealed communication” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball , 240–41).
When we take important questions to the Lord in prayer, we have a promise from Him that “if it is right … you shall feel that it is right. But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings” (D&C 9:8–9). However, sometimes it is difficult to distinguish whether we have received an answer.
Elder Richard G. Scott taught what we should do when we don’t feel that we have received an answer from God: “What do you do when you have prepared carefully, have prayed fervently, waited a reasonable time for a response, and still do not feel an answer? You may want to express thanks when that occurs, for it is an evidence of His trust. When you are living worthily and your choice is consistent with the Savior’s teachings and you need to act, proceed with trust. As you are sensitive to the promptings of the Spirit, one of two things will certainly occur at the appropriate time: either the stupor of thought will come, indicating an improper choice, or the peace or the burning in the bosom will be felt, confirming that your choice was correct. When you are living righteously and are acting with trust, God will not let you proceed too far without a warning impression if you have made the wrong decision” (“Using the Supernal Gift of Prayer,” 10).
President Brigham Young gave the following insight: “If I ask him to give me wisdom concerning any requirement in life, or in regard to my own course, or that of my friends, my family, my children, or those that I preside over, and get no answer from him, and then do the very best that my judgment will teach me, he is bound to own and honor that transaction, and he will do so to all intents and purposes” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young , 46).