“The Law,” Revelations in Context (2016)
“The Law,” Revelations in Context
“We have received the laws of the Kingdom since we came here,” Joseph Smith wrote to Martin Harris in February 1831, “and the Disciples in these parts have received them gladly.”1
Joseph had been in Ohio less than a month when he wrote those words to Martin Harris, who was still in Palmyra, New York. Prior to Joseph’s own move from New York, the Lord gave him a commandment to gather the Church in Ohio and promised: “There I will give unto you my law.”2 Shortly after Joseph’s arrival in Kirtland, he received the promised revelation, which in early manuscripts was entitled “The Laws of the Church of Christ.” It is now canonized as Doctrine and Covenants 42:1–73.
The Church’s need for the revelation at this time was acute. When he arrived in Ohio, Joseph found the Saints there to be sincere but confused about the biblical teaching that early Christians “were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common” (Acts 4:32).
Many of the Church’s converts in Ohio were members of “the Family,” a communal group that shared the home and farm of Lucy and Isaac Morley in an effort to be true Christians. While their intentions were in keeping with the account Joseph himself had recently received of Enoch’s Zion, where the people had achieved the ideal “of one heart and one mind” and completely eliminated poverty (Moses 7:18), the Prophet found the Ohio converts following practices that undermined personal agency, stewardship, and accountability—though they were “striving to do the will of God, so far as they knew it.”3 As a result, the converts were, in the words of Joseph Smith’s history, “going to destruction very fast as to temporal things: for they considered from reading the scripture that what belonged to a brother belonged to any of the brethren.”4
Very shortly after Joseph arrived in Ohio, the Lord revealed that “by the prayer of your faith ye shall receive my law that ye may know how to govern my Church.”5 A few days later, Joseph gathered several elders and in “mighty prayer” asked the Lord to reveal His law as promised.6
The revelation Joseph received in response upheld the first great commandment, loving God wholeheartedly, as the motivation for keeping all the others, including the law of consecration, suggesting that love for God is the reason for the practice. To consecrate, the early Saints were taught, meant to make their property sacred by using it for the Lord’s work, including purchasing land on which to build New Jerusalem and crowning it with a temple. The law revealed that consecration was as much about receiving as it was about giving, since the Lord promised that each faithful Saint would receive “sufficient for him self and family” here and salvation hereafter.7
The law clarified that consecration did not envision communal ownership of property. Rather, it required the willing to acknowledge that the Lord was the owner of all and that each of the Saints was to be a hardworking “Steward over his own property”8 and thus accountable to the actual owner, the Lord, who required that the Saints freely offer their surplus to His storehouse to be used to relieve poverty and build Zion.9
The Ohio converts’ faith in Joseph’s revelations led them to align their practices with the Lord’s revealed plan. As Joseph’s history put it, “The plan of ‘common stock,’ which had existed in what was called ‘the family,’ whose members generally had embraced the ever lasting gospel, was readily abandoned for the more perfect law of the Lord.”10
As time went on, Bishop Edward Partridge implemented the law as best he could, and willing Saints signed deeds consecrating their property to the Church. But obeying the law was voluntary, and some Saints refused. Others were untaught, and many were scattered.11 Some rebellious Saints even challenged the law in court, leading to refinements in its language and changes in practice.
Other early Saints understood that the eternal principles of the law—agency, stewardship, and accountability to God—could be applied in changing situations, as when Leman Copley decided not to consecrate his farm in Thompson, Ohio, sending the Saints gathered there on to Missouri to live the law, or again when a mob drove Church members from Jackson County in 1833, ending the bishop’s practice of giving and receiving consecration deeds but not the law itself. Just as the law of consecration, though revealed in February 1831, did not begin then, it did not end when some refused to obey and others were thwarted in their attempts. President Gordon B. Hinckley taught that “the law of sacrifice and the law of consecration have not been done away with and are still in effect.”12
In addition to expounding the law of consecration, the revelation answered many questions of importance to the Church at that time. Joseph and the elders who gathered in February 1831 in pursuit of the revelation first asked if the Church should “come to gether into one place or continue in separate establishments.” The Lord answered with what are now essentially the first 10 verses of Doctrine and Covenants 42, calling on the elders to preach the gospel in pairs, declare the word like angels, invite all to repent, and baptize all who were willing. By gathering Saints into the Church from every region, the elders would prepare for the day when the Lord would reveal the New Jerusalem. Then, “ye may be gathered in one,” the Lord said.13
The Lord then answered a question that had troubled Christianity for centuries: was Christ’s Church an orderly, authoritative institution or an unfettered outpouring of the Spirit and its gifts? Some people made extreme claims to spiritual gifts, and others responded with an equal and opposite reaction, stripping away the spontaneity of the Spirit, completely in favor of rigid rules. This dilemma existed in the early Church in Ohio, and the Lord responded to it with several revelations, including His law. The law did not envision the Church as either well ordered or free to follow the Spirit; rather, it required that preachers be ordained by those known to have authority, that they teach the scriptures, and that they do it by the power of the Holy Ghost.14
Other portions of the law restated and commented on the commandments revealed to Moses15 and included conditional promises of more revelation depending on the Saints’ faithfulness to what they had received, including sharing the gospel.16
“How,” the elders wondered, should they care for “their families while they are proclaiming repentance or are otherwise engaged in the Service of the Church?”17 The Lord answered with what has become verses 70–73, then elaborated further in later revelations, now found in Doctrine and Covenants 72:11–14 and 75:24–28. The concept was further clarified in the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants.
Early versions of the law also include short answers to two additional questions: Should the Church have business dealings—especially get into debt—with people outside the Church, and what should the Saints do to accommodate those gathering from the East? The answers have been left out of later versions of the text, perhaps because Doctrine and Covenants 64:27–30 answers the first question, while the answer to the second is so specific to a past place and time that it may have been considered unimportant for future generations.18
During that same month (February 1831), Joseph received what became Doctrine and Covenants 43, which commanded him to assemble a counsel to “instruct and edify each other, that ye may know how to act, and direct my church how to act upon the points of law and commandments, which I have given.”19 With that commandment in mind, Joseph convened a meeting of seven Church elders to determine how to act on disciplinary cases regarding the law of chastity revealed in the law20 and how the Church should enact the law in situations ranging from murder to meanness. These additional regulations were added to published versions of the law and now comprise verses 74–93 of Doctrine and Covenants 42.
The law, together with the Church’s founding “Articles and Covenants” (now Doctrine and Covenants 20), organized the rapidly growing Church under one set of regulations and unified the various budding congregations in their teaching and practice. It shows how the Lord has revealed, does reveal, and will yet reveal His will to the Saints. From clarifying parts of the law given to Moses and specifying how the Saints in 1831 should apply it in their circumstances, to promising further revelation as sought and needed in the future, this living document continues to serve as a law of the Church of Jesus Christ.