“‘A Great and Marvelous Work’: Latter-day Voices of the Doctrine and Covenants,” New Era, Nov. 1973, 38–43
The Doctrine and Covenants—our book! So, of course, are the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Pearl of Great Price—they are all our books, springing as they do from the mind of our Father and the pens of our brothers. Yet, somehow, the Doctrine and Covenants, boldly proclaiming to our final gospel dispensation that “a great and marvelous work is about to come forth unto the children of men” (D&C 6:1), seems particularly ours, seems to mingle with the blood and sweat and spirit of the Saints of our dispensation as they trudged from Kirtland to Far West to Nauvoo to Winter Quarters, and, finally, to the valleys of the mountains. It speaks to us because we, the far-flung spiritual children of those noble pioneers, now dispersed through the whole earth, continue to suffer, in similar yet different ways, the arrows of sorrow that this world of probation contrives to fling at us.
In the Doctrine and Covenants we are suddenly at home. The names ring as familiar to our minds as a congregation’s singing of “Come, Come Ye Saints” on the warm Sunday nearest July 24: Samuel H. Smith, Joseph Knight, Edward Partridge, Emma Smith, Thomas Marsh, Parley P. and Orson Pratt, John, Peter, and David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery, Sidney Rigdon—names that read easily, names of next-door neighbors, names that ring as friendly as the names of the places where the revelations were given—Fayette, Kirtland, Jackson, Far West, Nauvoo, Winter Quarters—names that reflect the vitality of a zealous people with a purpose.
Yet the voices of the Doctrine and Covenants, and there are really only two, are familiar because they ring with that same authority that moves us in the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Pearl of Great Price, for they are the voices of God and his prophet, and they sound to us today much as the voices of Nephi or Enoch or Isaiah must have sounded in the ears of their contemporaries—fresh and vital, vigorous and pertinent. These latter-day voices of the Lord and the Prophet Joseph remind us, in our rampant materialism, that to the Lord spirit and flesh are one, that he is concerned about how we handle everything from finances to our homes and families, our government, and our hymnbooks, for to the Lord “all things … are spiritual, and not at any time have I given unto you a law which was temporal.” (D&C 29:34.) The Lord talks of all these matters to Joseph, his prophet. The Lord talked of similar matters to the Israelites, but when we find these matters chronicled in Leviticus or Deuteronomy, they seem distant. But in the Doctrine and Covenants, these same seemingly mundane concerns become pertinent, for this is our era, our history. Our present-day concerns remain similar to those of Latter-day Saints of the nineteenth century, and we are moved to realize again that the Lord is anxious to impart personal revelation to each of us that we might gauge more carefully our daily walks in the wilderness of Idumea, the Lord’s own name for the world. (D&C 1:36.)
The Doctrine and Covenants becomes, then, a record that demonstrates probably better than any other scriptural account the pattern of God’s intercourse with “his servants, the prophets.” This sacred book is a record of how young Joseph was transformed from that frightened boy-prophet who trembled before the Lord that spring morning in 1820 to that noble and confident prophet who spoke with certitude and courage when he declared that “I am going like a lamb to the slaughter; but I am calm as a summer’s morning.” (D&C 135:4.) It is a record of how God, close, immediate, caring, patiently revealed himself and his will to the young and inexperienced leaders of his fledgling church. These two voices, the first and foremost the voice of the Lord, and the second, the increasingly prophetic, increasingly authoritative voice of Joseph as he grew in his knowledge of the things of God, become the two central voices of the book of Doctrine and Covenants as the Lord leads his young prophet, through comfort and chastisement, admonition and reproof, to perfecting the organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which God would affirm some years after its founding as “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.)
In the midst of the many direct revelations from the Lord concerning the organization of the Church and the behavior of its members, we hear Joseph Smith’s own inspired personal voice demonstrating his increasingly dynamic leadership in the great cause. Thus the voice of Joseph, very much his own, very different from that of the Lord, teaches clearly, in sections 127 and 128, the procedure for baptism for the dead, the need for utilizing the keys of the priesthood “in obtaining a knowledge of facts in relation to the salvation of the children of men.” And in sections 113, 130, and 131 he speaks authoritatively in answering puzzling scriptural questions and in teaching the Saints about the Savior’s personal appearance, about sociality in the heavens, about the great Urim and Thummim whereon God dwells, about the necessity for acquiring knowledge, about the Father and the Son having bodies as tangible as those of men, and about all spirit being matter. These and several other profound doctrines Joseph Smith confides to the Saints in 31 brief verses of scripture!
But, besides being a revelator, Joseph also demonstrates in the Doctrine and Covenants his gift of seership, and we, still couched in the uncertainties of time, marvel at the timeless visions revealed to Joseph, the seer.
It is in the 76th section of the Doctrine and Covenants that Joseph speaks for the first time in his own voice. And what a voice it is. With power and joy and solemnity, the words of Joseph burst upon a dark and doubting and fearful world, declaring that on February 16, 1832, “We, Joseph Smith, Jun., and Sidney Rigdon, being in the Spirit … By the power of the Spirit our eyes were opened and our understandings were enlightened, so as to see and understand the things of God—Even those things which were from the beginning before the world was. …” (D&C 76:11–13.) Joseph then relates that they saw and conversed with Jesus Christ, in all his resurrected majesty, and Joseph and Sidney add, in ringing phrases, that “after the many testimonies which have been given of him, this is the testimony, last of all, which we give of him: That he lives! For we saw him, even on the right hand of God.” (D&C 76:22–23.)
The unfolding of this vision, which must rank with the First Vision as one of the greatest revelations ever received by mortals, a vision ranging from the glory of the Father and the Son to the condition of resurrected men in eternal glory, to the fall of Lucifer and the torment of the damned, hurtles Joseph Smith, Jr., to the forefront of all the prophets of God from the beginning of time. And each of us, reading humbly, can detect in the pattern of God’s dealings with Joseph the pattern of God’s dealings with us—that he will reveal unto us his will regarding our walk through Idumea. Line upon line, precept upon precept, he will give to us, just as he gave to Joseph, those things that we prepare ourselves to receive—until at the last the whole range of eternity will burst upon our prepared senses, just as on that day, and on other occasions, those insights burst upon the disciplined and prepared soul of the Prophet Joseph.
So the Doctrine and Covenants lies before each of us as a kind of indelible tape that replays, unhindered by intervening years, those moments when suspended time lifts into eternity. And when the moment faded, and when the world flooded back into Joseph’s sensibilities, this record remained for him and for us a kind of instant replay of the sweep of eternity. What a profound blessing for mankind! Where else but in the Doctrine and Covenants can we read such visions as that contained in the 76th section, or in section 110, where again the veil was swept from the minds of Joseph and his companion, Oliver Cowdery, and they saw, standing on the breastwork of the Kirtland Temple, the Lord himself and heard him bear witness of their forgiveness, of his acceptance of the newly built edifice, and of the divinity of their callings.
And where else but the Doctrine and Covenants can we find the witness of the visits of Moses, Elias, and Elijah, who “burst upon” the pair in “another great and glorious vision”? Where but in this sacred record of divine visitations can we read of Joseph’s description, in section 128, of his hearing the voices of Michael, of Peter, James, and John—not in the wastes of Judea, not in the mountains of ancient South America, but “in the wilderness between Harmony, Susquehanna county, and Colesville, Broome county,” everyday names, everyday places, reminding us that God works, today, in the suburbs of Brisbane, on the Bahnhofstrasse in Zurich, in east Los Angeles, in Provo, in Kobe, or in downtown Lima. He works if we, his children, are ready for the new insight he is always willing to give. Whether at Harmony, or at Fayette, where Joseph heard the voices of Gabriel, Raphael, and those of “divers angels, from Michael or Adam down to the present,” Joseph was ready—as each of us can be—to receive another wedge of eternity, a wedge that would open further and further until the Lord, as with the brother of Jared, could no longer withhold himself from revealing the expanses of eternity.
But while the Doctrine and Covenants is a record of Joseph as seer and revelator and prophet, it is also a record of Joseph Smith as an inspiring human being. We thrill at the visions and the revelations and the doctrines, but we identify with Joseph as he struggles to subdue the flesh, to learn how much trust to place in his fellowmen, to keep unspotted from the world in the midst of earning a living and directing the affairs of a vigorous church and heading a family and being a husband and mayor and editor and translator and general and teacher. We identify for we must face the same challenge in our lives—being students and workers and children and parents and teachers and home teachers and human beings, all of this while trying simultaneously to be Saints. It is for us, as it was for Joseph, a staggering but most worthwhile challenge—it is what life is all about.
Joseph, though optimistic and positive by nature, faced, as must most of us, great despair at several points in his life. Through frequent court trials, mobbings, tar-and-featherings, false accusations, and malicious betrayals, he kept his courage. Yet in the Doctrine and Covenants we read, in the 121st and 122nd sections, of what must have been his darkest moments, for how can a prophet fulfill his destiny if he is shut up, Jonah-like, in the bowels of a jail? Degraded and insulted, jeered at and threatened, Joseph is brought to such a state that he cries, from his quarters in Liberty Jail (a name so harshly ironic), “O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?” (D&C 121:1.) He pleads with the Lord to soften the persecution of the Saints and prays for godly compassion. “Remember thy suffering saints, O our God,” he cries. (D&C 121:6.)
And then to Joseph, as to each of us who knocks with faith, comes that beautiful answer, that moment when the two central figures of the book come into moving dialogue, and the Lord answers in a voice that moves us today just as it moved Joseph: “My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine affliction shall be but a small moment; and then, if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high; thou shalt triumph over all thy foes.” (D&C 121:7–8.) How the peace of God must have filled the soul of Joseph on hearing this response! How rapidly must he have ascended from the depths into which his momentary doubts and sorrows had flung him! The Lord, in section 122, then reminds Joseph that whatever temporary trials may confront him—and us—we must remember that “The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?” (D&C 121:8.)
Joseph has stepped behind the veil of eternity, his work completed. Yet the clear record of his voice, prophetic, visionary, but human, speaks to us through the pages of our latter-day scripture, a magnificent voice of admonition, of warning, of hope and joy, echoing to us through space and time, “Art thou greater than he?”
But it is not Joseph’s voice that is dominant in this marvelous modern scripture; it is the voice of the Lord himself that we hear as we open the book to its first page—the voice of the Creator, our Savior, our Elder Brother, the voice of the Son, the voice of God:
“Hearken, O ye people of my church, saith the voice of him who dwells on high, and whose eyes are upon all men . … For verily the voice of the Lord is unto all men. …” (D&C 1:1–2.)
Here is no mysterious, undefinable essence removed and separate from the concerns of man. Here is that grand and glorious personage who patiently guides and directs the reestablishment of his church in time, gradually revealing the plan and purposes for this world as his servants become ready: priesthood, baptism, the apostleship, temples, the endowment, celestial marriage—a benevolent Father making their feeble language his language, adopting his infinite knowledge to their finite understandings, letting them wait, letting them struggle, allowing them the experience of their own mistakes, restoring the understanding and authority of the gospel to mortal men “in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.” [D&C 1:24]
And it comes, this understanding, not only to Joseph and Oliver and Hyrum and Sidney, not only to the Saints in Colesville and Kirtland, but to us, now: to Fred and Becky, to Hazel and Richard, to John, Juan, or Johannes comes the voice of the Lord, alive and significant to us in our day as it was to Joseph and his friends.
The book of Doctrine and Covenants reminds us just how deeply our own lives are involved in the Lord’s work and the Lord’s word. For each of us there is a unique message in the pages of this book, for the book speaks pointedly to us as Latter-day Saints, not just members of a church, but as inhabitants of a world created for God’s purposes. The voice of the Lord speaks to us from this book, giving blueprints for the building of a whole new society, the brotherhood of Zion. Because the Doctrine and Covenants is Zion’s handbook, the Lord fills this canon with practical, temporal, and material matters: instruction on finance, building, printing, schools, properties, towns, and colonies swell the pages of this book. And while we need the context of history to see the immediate occasion that evoked the revelation, even without the historical background we can feel the predominant theme of the Lord’s concern: everything is spiritual; the eternal and the mundane are inseparably connected. The Lord reminds us, then, that the gospel is not a Sunday gospel. It is part of all we think and do and are, from the way we care for our homes and clothes to the words we use and the food we eat. Clearly and unmistakably the voice of the Lord comes to us:
“Behold, verily, thus saith the Lord unto you: In consequence of evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days, I have warned you, and forewarn you by giving unto you this word of wisdom by revelation. …” (D&C 89:4.)
But it is not the physical problems of the Saints that are central to the Doctrine and Covenants. More important still is the gradual revelation of the understanding of the doctrine of the priesthood. In the Doctrine and Covenants the Lord speaks directly to us as bishops, presidents, and patriarchs. In these pages the new deacon can hear the word of the Lord explaining to him directly his responsibility. In these pages the seeking priest or elder can find his stewardship defined: “The priest’s duty is to preach, teach, expound, exhort, and baptize, and administer the sacrament, And visit the house of each member, and exhort them to pray vocally and in secret and attend to all family duties.” (D&C 20:46–47.) In their familiarity the words may even seem common to our ears. Certainly they are part and parcel of growing up in the Church, as long-time member or convert. But that very fact attests to the profound significance this record of the Lord’s word has in our lives.
But if the words of instruction and explanation seem by now familiar, the experience they deal with is by no means commonplace. Imagine, if you will, the divine confrontation implicit in the oath and covenant of the priesthood as, in effect, the Lord gazes into our eyes, reaches out his hand to us, not just as a gesture of friendship (though we may become his friends), but in testament and promise, inviting us to seal this bond, this eternal covenant available only to those who accept in full faith the powers, prerogatives, and responsibilities of this priesthood. Whether priest or apostle, it is the same relationship as each one of us stands in that great moment before his God:
“And also all they who receive this priesthood receive me, saith the Lord. …
“And he that receiveth me receiveth my Father;
“And he that receiveth my Father receiveth my Father’s kingdom; therefore all that my Father hath shall be given unto him.” (D&C 84:35, 37–38.)
Certainly for every priesthood holder, hearing the voice of the Lord in the Doctrine and Covenants is a moving, precious experience. But while instruction in the duties, responsibilities, authority, and spirit of the priesthood is one of its dominating themes, this book is not simply a directive to Church leaders and office holders. This is the voice of the Lord to all men, instructing us not only in what God is but in how he may be approached, how each of us may come closer to the condition referred to by the Savior when he prayed, “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” (John 17:3.) It is that same Jesus who addresses us in our day with the same message:
“I give unto you these sayings that you may understand and know how to worship, and know what you worship, that you may come unto the Father in my name, and in due time receive of his fulness.” (D&C 93:19.)
And just how we are to come is made strikingly clear. Without complication or sophistication, in language unmistakable to all, he says:
“It shall come to pass that every soul who forsaketh his sins and cometh unto me, and calleth on my name, and obeyeth my voice, and keepeth my commandments, shall see my face and know that I am.” (D&C 93:1.)
The plainness and simplicity of the Lord’s voice leaves no room for doubt or question either for the child in Primary or the theologian in his study.
But if the theology is simple, it is also profound. For while the Lord declares in plainness that we can seek him and find him, he also reminds us that he is God. And as we hear the Lord characterized we begin to sense a grandeur and eternal glory completely beyond our finite capacity to comprehend. Thus, while he invites us to call on him, the Lord rightly reminds us who he is:
“The light and the Redeemer of the world; the Spirit of truth, who came into the world, because the world was made by him, and in him was the life of men and the light of men.
“The worlds were made by him; men were made by him; all things were made by him, and through him, and of him.” (D&C 93:9–10.)
As the vision begins to dawn upon our own mortally dulled senses, as we begin to grasp who this being is who speaks to us from the pages of this remarkable volume, well might we exclaim with Joseph Smith:
“… how glorious is the voice we hear from heaven, proclaiming in our ears, glory, and salvation, and honor, and immortality, and eternal life; kingdoms, principalities, and powers!” (D&C 128:23.)
What a great blessing is our book, the book of Doctrine and Covenants! No Latter-day Saint who reads with even slight attention can turn from that scripture with any doubt as to the message entrusted to him. In voices clear and moving the Lord and his prophet proclaim to all that man must repent and serve God. In voices clear and moving God and his prophet proclaim that we walk, by faith and at high risk, a tightrope between the eternities, but that a loving Father stands anxiously by, not holding our hands but urging and comforting with helpful admonition, ready to chasten when we make foolhardy moves, ready to cushion falls and restore us in our wavering moments, ready to greet us with open-armed embrace when we reach the not-too-distant goal.
Such is the Doctrine and Covenants to us. Such is continuing revelation, for as Joseph wrote in section 128 [D&C 128], so the Lord writes to us, that “I have many things to say … but shall now close … and continue the subject another time.” (D&C 128:25.) The Doctrine and Covenants stands as a record of the Lord’s thoughts on many topics, and when we read this book by the light of the Spirit, we feel to shout “Amen” and “Hosannah” as we experience anew the stirring voice of Joseph crying to our day:
“Brethren, shall we not go on in so great a cause? Go forward and not backward. Courage, brethren; and on, on to the victory! Let your hearts rejoice, and be exceedingly glad.” (D&C 128:22.)