The Word of God
Dan Vogel, ed.
Latter Day Saint Scriptures and the Doctrine of Propositional Revelation
Richard P. Howard
[p.1]The subject of Latter Day Saint scriptures and their relation to a doctrine of revelation is hard to explore comprehensively in a short essay. One reason is that for more than a century and a half, most leaders of the faith have tended to represent Latter Day scriptures as synonymous with divine revelation. The masses of Latter Day Saints have followed their lead. But the twentieth century has spawned professionalism in fields of history, theology, and philosophy. There has arisen a cadre of historians, theologians, and philosophers who have ventured to travel beyond tradition to sift the evidence, to scrutinize the documents, to consider new interpretations, and to raise new issues.
For example, some top officials of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS) have tended to move away from a doctrine of propositional revelation. By propositional revelation, I mean the divine revealing of certain knowledge or information about God and the church, usually in the form of propositions or doctrines. This contrasts with William Temple’s description of revelation as, simply, God’s self-disclosure. The following quotation is from a statement published in the Saints’ Herald in July 1969 by the RLDS church’s Basic Beliefs Committee. It provides an example of how RLDS leaders are moving towards an encounter doctrine of revelation and away from the propositional view:
[p.2]”For most Christians throughout the greater part of their history revelation has been understood as a message or series of messages. Those moments, or events, in which revelatory messages occurred were chronicled in the Bible. Whether or not the Bible needed to be interpreted or even supplemented by allied sources of truth was not in question; it was itself the word of God. Indeed, to many it was the very words of God. More recently in the course of history, however, especially in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, men have claimed the right to read the Bible as they would any other book and to apply to it the same standards of literary and historical criticism and interpretation they would to any other ancient document… This critical scrutiny has not resulted in the erosion either of Christian faith or of a belief in the validity of divine revelation. Instead, it has resulted in a shifting of the locus of revelation from literature to history, and from propositional understandings about God to personal experience with him. The thing that has happened is [we have begun to understand] that Jesus Christ is himself the Word of God, and that nothing can take his place as the center of revelation—not even the Bible.”1
The same committee published a statement on the subject of the scriptures the next month: “If scripture is to be accorded authority, it will be in some sense that is not incompatible with its human imperfection. Authority does not imply inerrancy either in the interpretations which produce the testimony or in the processes by which the record is transmitted. Neither the content of scripture nor our interpretation of it can be regarded as possessing the kind of infallibility that is universally and finally binding upon us. This properly belongs to God alone.”2
In recent years I have read scriptures in the light of such a view and have concluded that previous historical understandings about their backgrounds were often incompatible with this emerging view of revelation as encounter. This suggests that what may now be needed in the Latter Day Saint churches, among both leaders and members, is a reevaluation of both the content and character of LDS revelation and scripture. I hope this essay will help forward that reevaluation.
Any reconsideration inevitably raises new issues and problems. But this particular reappraisal could be a watershed for Latter Day Saints of whatever institutional persuasion. It might lead to [p.3] rethinking our historic images of Joseph Smith as prophet, seer, and revelator. Should that occur, then the approach to scripture and revelation of all of his successors in office, again of whatever institutional persuasion, would come under review. In the long run, the epistemological framework of Mormonism might be redrawn.
We can begin by considering Joseph Smith’s own self image. While dictating the Book of Mormon text in the spring of 1829, Smith came to the section we now know as 2 Nephi 2:10-35 (LDS 2 Ne. 3). The aged Lehi is conversing with his youngest son Joseph. After consecrating the land to Joseph and his heirs forever and pronouncing God’s blessings on him, Lehi confirms his family as descendants of the ancient Joseph of Egyptian fame. Lehi then informs his son that in due time a choice seer would be raised, also of the lineage of Joseph of Egypt, one like Moses with power to bring God’s word to Israel’s lineage in the latter days. That choice seer is named: “And his name shall be called after me; and it shall be after the name of his father” (RLDS 2 Ne. 2:29; LDS 2 Ne. 3:15).
By the spring of 1829 then, a particular image of Joseph Smith was emerging for Smith and a few close friends: a modern Moses, one commissioned by the Divine to do a task as vital in the latter days as the ancient work of Moses. Moses had delivered God’s people from sure oblivion and from bondage to their Egyptian taskmasters. Now a modern Moses, named after Joseph of Egypt and after his own father (Joseph Smith, Sr.), would reinstitute the gospel in its pristine purity and fullness, effecting the salvation of the latter-day generation.
This same notion was featured in the lead article of The Evening and the Morning Star in November 1832. The Book of Mormon passage dealing with Smith’s lineage was reproduced in the article. The following February, Smith was working on his revision of the Bible. When he came to Genesis 50, he transferred essentially all of 2 Nephi 2:10-35 (LDS 2 Ne. 3) into the chapter. This confirmed for Smith and his followers that which had already been published and accepted as divine revelation in the Book of Mormon.
I believe that such documents demonstrate Smith’s consistent self-conception. For example, a similar notion is implicit in the following, recorded on the day the church was organized in New York in April 1830: “Behold, there shall be a record kept among you, and in it thou shalt be called a seer, a translator, a prophet, an [p.4] apostle of Jesus Christ, an elder of the church through the will of God the Father, and the grace of your Lord Jesus Christ; being inspired of the Holy Ghost to lay the foundation thereof, and to build it up unto the most holy faith… Wherefore, meaning the church, thou shalt give heed unto all his [Joseph Smith’s] words, and commandments, which he shall give unto you, as he receiveth them, walking in all holiness before me; for his word ye shall receive, as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith; for by doing these things, the gates of hell shall not prevail against you” (RLDS D&C 19:1-2; LDS D&C 21:1, 2, 4-6). This instruction, given on a day of rejoicing and new beginnings, reinforced the belief that Smith was the living oracle and mouthpiece of God.
Working with his scribe John Whitmer in the summer of 1830, Smith dictated the text of what would become Doctrine and Covenants 22 (Moses 1). Dated June 1830, this document reconfirms the coming of a latter-day Moses, implicitly the prophet Joseph Smith: “and in a day when the children of men shall esteem my words as naught and take many of them from the book which thou shalt write, behold, I will raise up another like unto thee; and they shall be had again among the children of men—among as many as shall believe” (RLDS D&C 22:24; Moses 1:41). In fact, the title affixed to this revelation came to reflect the emerging confidence about Smith’s place. In June 1830 the following title was given to the revelation: “A Revelation given to Joseph the Revelator, June 1830.” That title was recopied exactly later that fall. But on 8 March 1831, when John Whitmer was editing the text for publication, the title was changed and Joseph Smith given a more authoritative title: “A Revelation given to Joseph the Seer, June 1830.”3
This change gains significance within the context provided by other documents of the period. For example, in the revelation received on the day the church was organized (RLDS D&C 19; LDS D&C 21), Oliver Cowdery was assigned a status second only to Smith. In those pre-Sidney Rigdon days, Cowdery must have considered himself to be nearly, if not actually, Smith’s equal. Three months later, July 1830, Cowdery wrote to Smith, commanding him to delete the part of Doctrine and Covenants 17:7 (LDS D&C 20:37) which clarifies the basis upon which members would be accepted into the church through baptism—that they “truly manifest by their works [p.5] that they have received of the Spirit of Christ unto the remission of their sins.” The reaction of Smith is particularly revealing:
“I immediately wrote to him in reply, in which I asked him by what authority he took upon him to command me to alter or erase, to add or diminish to or from a revelation or commandment from Almighty God. In a few days afterwards I visited him and Mr. Whitmer’s family, where I found the family, in general, of his opinion concerning the words above quoted; and it was not without both labor and perseverance that I could prevail with any of them to reason calmly on the subject. However, Christian Whitmer at length got convinced that it was reasonable, and according to Scripture, and, finally, with his assistance, I succeeded in bringing, not only the Whitmer family, but also Oliver Cowdery, to acknowledge they had been in error, and that the sentence in dispute was in accordance with the rest of the commandments. And thus was their error rooted out, which having its rise in presumption and rash judgment, was the more particularly calculated (when once fairly understood) to teach each and all of us the necessity of humility and meekness before the Lord, that he might teach us of his ways, that we might walk in his paths, and live by every word that proceedeth forth from his mouth.”4
Smith’s unyielding position in this instance indicated his conviction that his rendering of Doctrine and Covenants 17 (LDS D&C 20) represented the very words of God, not to be tampered with by way of deletion or expansion. He also conveys a concern with his own status as prophet, seer, and revelator to the church, which he perceives as challenged by the Cowdery-Whitmer combination. Early in his presidency his devotion to the propositional revelation doctrine, which implies inerrantly communicated and recorded truths, was dictating the defensive stance of asserting his own infallibility while exercising the prophetic role.
But challenges to his authority had only just begun. In his 1843 history in the Times and Seasons, Smith reports that by September 1830, only two months later as he was arriving in Fayette, New York, he discovered that “Satan had been lying in wait to deceive, and seeking whom he might devour. Brother Hiram Page had got in his possession a certain stone, by which he had obtained to certain revelations, concerning the upbuilding of Zion, the order of the [p.6] church, &c. &c., all of which were entirely at variance with the order of God’s house, as laid down in the New Testament, as well as in our late revelations… Finding … that many [especially the Whitmer family and Oliver Cowdery] were believing much in the thing set forth by this stone, we thought best to enquire of the Lord concerning so important a matter, and before conference convened, we received the following.”5 This history then quoted Doctrine and Covenants Section 27 (LDS D&C 28), including the following:
“Verily, verily I say unto thee, no one shall be appointed to receive commandments and revelations in this church, excepting my servant Joseph Smith, Jr., for he receiveth them even as Moses; and thou [Oliver Cowdery] shalt be obedient unto the things which I shall give unto him, even as Aaron, to declare faithfully the commandments and the revelations, with power and authority unto the church… And thou shalt not command him who is at thy head, and at the head of the church; for I have given him the keys of the mysteries and the revelations which are sealed, until I shall appoint unto them another in his stead… Thou shalt take thy brother Hiram Page between him and thee alone, and tell him that those things which he hath written from that stone are not of me, and that Satan deceiveth him: for behold these things have not been appointed unto him: neither shall anything be appointed unto any of this church contrary to the church covenants, for all things must be done in order and by common consent in the church, by the prayer of faith” (RLDS D&C 27:2, 4; LDS D&C 28:2, 3, 6, 7, 11-13).
By September 1830 then, the two affirmations, which previously had been made separately—that Smith was to be likened to Moses and the church was to receive his words as though they were the very words of God—were combined in this one instruction to Cowdery. However, this instruction did not completely settle the matter of who could and could not receive divine revelation for the church. John Whitmer wrote of the situation in Kirtland, Ohio, in February 1831: “There was a woman by the name of Hubble who professed to be a prophetess of the Lord and professed to have many revelations, and knew that the Book of Mormon was true, and that she should become a teacher in the Church of Christ. She appeared very sanctimonious and deceived some, who were not able to detect her in her hypocrisy; others however had a spirit of discernment and her folies [sic] and abominations were made manifest. The Lord [p.7] gave revelation that the Saints might not be deceived, which reads as follows.”6 Whitmer then copied the complete text of Doctrine and Covenants 43, including the following:
“Ye have received a commandment for a law unto my church, through him whom I have appointed unto you, to receive commandments and revelations from my hand. And this ye shall know assuredly, that there is none other appointed unto you to receive commandments and revelations until he be taken, if he abide in me… None else shall be appointed unto this gift except it be through him, for if it be taken from him he shall not have power, except to appoint another in his stead; and this shall be a law unto you, that ye receive not the teachings of any that shall come before you as revelations, or commandments; and this I give unto you, that you may not be deceived, that you may know they are not of me” (RLDS D&C 43:1, 2; LDS D&C 43:2-6).
Contained here, it seems to me, is a double safeguard based on the assumption that if there is only one person in the church who can deliver revelations to the church for God, then there is only one channel through which any other person could be appointed to such a function. That channel would be prophet of the church. Now, theoretically at least, the church would be protected from spurious claimants to revelation. All that would now be needed was the prophet’s public denial of the authority of any such claimant; that would settle the matter.
In RLDS archives in Independence, Missouri, is a four-volume work by Thomas Hartwell Horne called An Introduction to the Critical Study and Knowledge of the Holy Scriptures. In the front of each volume is penciled the autograph of Joseph Smith, Jr., Kirtland, Ohio, 1834. This commentary is the fourth edition (1825) out of Philadelphia. When Smith became owner of these volumes is unknown. To what extent he studied them is not indicated in any source I know of. Whether he had access to Horne’s commentary prior to 1834 I do not know either. But what seems clear to me is that Horne and Smith are in fundamental agreement on the matter of the inerrancy of scriptural writers when writing by the Holy Spirit. Smith’s argument with the Bible was not with the original prophets who received the truths of God but with the translators who bore responsibility for the loss of vital original truths. Horne similarly argued for the inerrancy of the original scriptures:
[p.8]”Something further is requisite, besides a pious life and a mind purified from passion and prejudice, in order to qualify them to be teachers of a revelation from God, namely, a divine inspiration, or the imparting such a degree of divine assistance, influence, or guidance, as should enable the authors of the Scriptures to communicate religious knowledge to others without error or mistake, whether the subject of such communications were things then immediately revealed to those who declared them, or things with which they were before acquainted… It is reasonable that the sentiments and doctrines, developed in the Scriptures, should be suggested to the minds of the writers by the Supreme Being himself. They relate principally to matters, concerning which the communicating of information to men is worthy of God; and the more important the information communicated, the more it is calculated to impress mankind, to preserve from moral error, to stimulate to holiness, to guide to happiness; the more reasonable is it to expect that God should make the communication free from every admixture of risk of error. Indeed, the notion of inspiration enters essentially into our ideas of a revelation from God; so that, to deny inspiration is tantamount to affirming that there is no revelation; and to doubt the possibility of inspiration, is to call in question the existence of God. And why would inspiration be denied? Is man out of the reach of Him who created him? Has he, who gave to man his intellect, no means of enlarging or illuminating that intellect?—And is it beyond his power to illuminate and inform, in an especial manner, the intellects of some chosen individuals,—or [is it] contrary to his wisdom to preserve them from error, when they communicate to others, either orally or by writing, the knowledge he imparted to them, not merely for their own benefit, but for that of the world at large, in all generations.”7
Of course, Smith took the additional step of aligning his own revelations with those of earlier scriptural writers. The Holy Spirit which Horne emphasized also spoke to Smith, who saw himself as a modem Moses and a vehicle for modern scripture.
This notion that Smith was prophet, seer, and revelator to the young church became closely tied to a conviction that translation was a specific manifestation of propositional revelation. In those early years Smith and the church he led consistently affirmed that the Book of Mormon was translated by the “gift and power of God.” [p.9] One searches in vain for a more definite account from the prophet himself. It was not until 1835, however, that Smith chose to write about the external, objective media facilitating the translation. He interpolated the phrase “by the means of the Urim and Thummim” into Doctrine and Covenants 3:1 (LDS D&C 10:1; compare Book of Commandments, chap. 9).
Others did write about the translation process before 1835, describing such artifacts as spectacles, seer stones, or the Book of Mormon’s term, “interpreters.” (The terms “Urim and Thummim” do not appear in the Book of Mormon.) It may be that Smith’s 1835 decision to call the translating media by the biblical terms, Urim and Thummim, was influenced by the use of those terms in W. W. Phelps’s paper, The Evening and the Morning Star. The feature article of the January 1833 issue had noted that the Book of Mormon “was translated by the gift and power of God, by an unlearned man, through the aid of a pair of Interpreters, or spectacles—(Known, perhaps, in ancient days as Terephim, or Urim and Thummim.)”8
What is clear from Phelps’s comment is that over three and a half years after the completion of the Book of Mormon, a knowledgeable church leader could still express uncertainty about precisely what artifacts were used in translating the book. He first used the term “Teraphim,” generally agreed to have been the household gods of Laban and ultimately recognized as having little spiritual value. The second choice, Urim and Thummim, were a means of divination used by the high priest to provide yes or no answers to questions posed. There is no hint that Urim and Thummim were used in ancient Hebrew culture for language translation. In 1835 this fact had not been clearly established, and thus no obvious problem was suggested by designating the translating media by the biblical terms, Urim and Thummim.
Not only was Urim and Thummim added in revising Doctrine and Covenants 3 (LDS D&C 10) in 1835, but Smith again used those terms in July 1838 in the Elder’s Journal.9 By 1842 a more detailed description appeared in the “Wentworth Letter,” published in Times and Seasons (1 March 1842).10 By this time he was also describing their use in receiving revelations (RLDS D&C 2, 6, 7, 10, 12, 13, 14, 15; LDS D&C 3, 6, 7, 11, 14, 15, 16, 17). However, none of the introductions to those documents, either in the 1833 Book of Commandments or in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants, describes the [p.10] Urim and Thummim as instrumental in the reception of these revelations.
Of those eight revelations, listed in Joseph Smith’s history and printed in the Times and Seasons as received through Urim and Thummim, only one seems a translation in any way comparable to the Book of Mormon. Doctrine and Covenants 7 (LDS same) is represented as having been translated from a parchment written by the beloved disciple John, presented to Smith either in person or in some sort of visionary experience, translated by Smith, and then hidden away by John. The manner of the parchment’s disposal is similar to the later disposition of the Book of Mormon plates by the angel messenger. Section 7 seems to be a clear case of translation issuing in propositional revelation—i.e., information from a supernatural source, conveyed to the mind of Smith, translated, and written in manuscript form.
There are other clues about what “translate” meant to Smith. Our traditional emphasis on the mechanical aspects of translation such as Urim and Thummim and golden plates often minimizes another dimension of Smith’s translation experiences. This involves the important part played by the mind and the emotions of the translator as these are enlightened by the Holy Spirit. This dimension is explicated in Doctrine and Covenants 6, 8, and 9 (LDS same). Soon after Cowdery had begun to serve as Smith’s scribe in April 1829, he apparently wrote from Smith’s dictation what we now call Section 6, which informed Cowdery that he too could expect to function in the “translating” capacity if he followed certain conditions: “Behold, I grant unto you [Oliver] a gift, if you desire of me, to translate even as my servant Joseph … and now I command you, that if you have good desires, a desire to lay up treasures for yourself in heaven, then shall you assist in bringing to light, with your gift, those parts of my Scriptures which have been hidden because of iniquity” (RLDS D&C 6:11, 12; LDS D&C 6:25-27). The gift was not described in this document. Cowdery was promised that should he demonstrate a single mindedness in heavenly concerns, he would be able to engage in the sort of translation activity that until then had been the sole province of Smith.
Encouraged by this promise, Cowdery apparently pressured Smith for knowledge about how he would be able to translate the ancient record—and for the privilege to do so. According to Smith’s [p.11] 1842 history, “Whilst continuing the work of translation during the month of April, Oliver Cowdery became exceedingly anxious to have the power to translate bestowed upon him, and in relation to this desire, the following revelations were obtained.”11 Smith printed the text of Sections 8 and 9 with no indication of what occurred between the recording of the first one and the second one. Section 8 takes up again the gift of translation:
“Oliver Cowdery, verily, verily I say unto you, that assuredly as the Lord liveth, who is your God and your Redeemer, even so sure shall you receive a knowledge of whatsoever things you shall ask in faith, with an honest heart, believing that you shall receive a knowledge concerning the engravings of old records, which are ancient, which contain those parts of my scripture of which have been spoken, by the manifestation of my Spirit; yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you, and which shall dwell in your heart. Now, behold, this is the spirit of revelation” (RLDS D&C 8:1-2; LDS D&C 8:1-3).
The original version of the revelation, published in the Book of Commandments, went on to describe the media involved in exercising the gift of translation. It was the gift of “working with the rod,” a “rod of nature,” probably a divining rod then in common use for locating underground water sources and buried treasure, with a history of occasional use by mystics for religious reasons. When preparing the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants, Smith deleted references to the “rod” and substituted the more general “Gift of Aaron” (D&C 34:3, 1835 ed.). The original version suggests that Smith felt the “rod of nature” could be used by Cowdery in the translation endeavor—whatever stone artifacts Smith himself might have been employing.
Section 9 suggests that Cowdery may have attempted to translate using his “gift” but failed. Smith specifies the reasons for that failure: “It is because that you did not continue as you commenced, when you began to translate, that I have taken away this privilege from you… Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought, save it was to ask me; but, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right, I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore you shall feel that it is right; but if it be not right, you shall have no [p.12] such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought, that shall cause you to forget the things which is wrong; therefore, you cannot write that which is sacred, save it be given you from me. Now, if you had known this, you could have translated” (RLDS D&C 9:2-4; LDS D&C 9:5-10; italics added).
The process of translation depicted in these three sections is not a linguistic exercise involving transference of ideas and proper names and a narrative of events from one language into another by a mind steeped in the symbols of both languages. For Smith, translation was something very different. Through what he perceived as the power of the Holy Spirit, his mind and heart intuited language symbols and a flow of ideational content which was specified as the stories of Book of Mormon migrations, wars, and civilizations, propositional information about John the beloved, propositional truth about forms and functions of ministry and mission in the church of Jesus Christ, and divine laws and procedures by which the economic life of the community is to be governed, and on and on.
Employing his notion of translation, Smith began a task of Bible revision which was to engage his mind and energies from 1830 until his death in 1844. Of significance is the fact that his early work (summer 1830 through 7 March 1831) in Genesis was almost entirely devoted to “receiving revelations” for the benefit of the church. This carried him through Genesis 19:35. Then on 8 March he began working on the New Testament with Sidney Rigdon. At the top of the very first page of manuscript was inscribed “A Translation of the New Testament translated by the Power of God.”12
The original manuscript of the work on the New Testament revision provides substantial evidence that for Smith “translation” connoted revelation and revelation meant the transference of divine truths through him as revelator and seer to the people of the church. “Translation” did not involve fluency in language other than Smith’s own native tongue. Rather, after earnest study and meditation and prayer, the inner feelings of the prophet registered, cognition took place, and decisions were reached as to the rightness, the authenticity, the divinity of ideas which were to be written.
Through this process Smith could approach the King James text and subject it to the scrutiny of his prophetic mind. As he had done in 1829 with lengthy portions of the King James text he incorporated into the Book of Mormon, he could—under the impress of [p.13] what he affirmed to be the Holy Spirit—revise and supplement (“translate”) that text. Translation, equated with revelation, was both the process and the ink-and-paper product of the metaphysical experience.
The propositional view of revelation was to give rise to the infallibility of the prophet’s statements made under inspiration. The early Restoration church (1830-44) never made canonization a legislative matter. This may have been because the language in which the revelations were couched and the content of those documents, which addressed the status of their prophet, combined to obviate this necessity in the minds of the people. Thus such key founding sections as Doctrine and Covenants 17 (LDS 20) and 42 (LDS same) were committed to paper by a scribe and became the law of the church with no need to ratify or study their contents before accepting them as the word of God. It was in this fashion that the Book of Commandments was commissioned and begun near the end of 1831. In this same style the Book of Doctrine and Covenants was ratified prior to its release from the press in August 1835.
The Book of Mormon, the revelations, and the New Translation of the Bible were all viewed as inerrantly communicated and recorded through the living oracle, the one like unto Moses, Joseph Smith, Jr. When Smith spoke to the elders, “Hearken, O ye people of my church, saith the voice of him who dwells on high” (RLDS D&C 1:1: LDS same) or, “Behold, I am God; give heed unto my word” (RLDS D&C 6:1; LDS D&C 6:2) or, “Listen to the words of Jesus Christ, your Lord and your Redeemer” (RLDS D&C 13:1; LDS D&C 15:1) or, “Behold, I, Jesus Christ, your Lord and your God, and your Redeemer, by the power of my Spirit, have spoken it” (RLDS D&C 16:7; LDS D&C 18:45), his people could rest assured that what was conveyed was indeed the words of God. It would be for later generations to ferret out clues as to relationships between what was recorded and the complex milieu in which those messages came into being.
This ferreting out has been progressing for some time now. In the past leading writers of both main bodies of the Mormon tradition have denied that the revelations ever went through any editing process. At best these writers simply ignored the changes Smith made—perhaps because they did not know how to handle them. Or it may be that the implications of the fact of such changes [p.14] were too troubling and far reaching. Certainly both traditions have continued to hold to the propositional prophetic tradition, if in different ways and for equally divergent reasons. However, we cannot continue to ignore the changes—and the implications of these changes for a doctrine of propositional revelation.
We earlier considered Doctrine and Covenants 7, Smith’s “translation” of a parchment written by John of the New Testament. This section provides a telling example of the problems associated with changes made. When first published in the Book of Commandments in 1833 (as chap. 6), this 1829 document concerned itself with only one matter: whether the beloved disciple John has tarried on earth—a possibility hinted at in John 21:23. The answer initially was: yes, he tarries until Jesus’ second coming. The 1835 Doctrine and Covenants revision (Section 33) greatly elaborated on John’s functions while he tarries and added the new information that Peter and James also tarry and minister until the parousia. The question becomes: when and how did Smith obtain this new information? Smith glosses over the matter in his 1842 history printed in the Times and Seasons. He reports the document in the stream of April 1829 events but uses the 1835 wording. He makes no attempt to delineate the history behind the evolution of the content. The historian must ask why Smith fails to explain how he can expand a document “translated” from the parchment of John if produced on the basis of propositional inspiration-i.e., free from distortion. What kept Smith from making forthright statements about his extensive editorial treatment of this section as well as other documents in the Book of Commandments?
Smith, as we have seen, insisted to Cowdery during their conflict over Doctrine and Covenants 17:7 (LDS D&C 20:37) that no one had the right to add to or diminish from any of the revelations of God to the church. In this matter Smith was affirming that the content of such an important document as the Articles and Covenants of the Church of Christ had been verbally inspired and communicated and preserved for the church for all time. But again, Smith expanded this same document when preparing the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, making a total of 102 revisions. Many of these were simply stylistic and grammatical, but others were doctrinal and institutional. They reflected the changing institutional structure and functioning of the church between 1830 and 1835. These [p.15] kinds of revisions demonstrate the fallibility of the prophetic instrument even while acting in the capacity of prophet, seer, and revelator. That which he had caused to be recorded in 1830 and published in 1832 simply did not and could not foresee or comprehend the provisions which later would have to be interpolated to take into account institutional growth.
It thus appears that the concept of revelation as the inerrant conveyance of divine truths and information and propositions has a built-in problem. The resulting documents require reinterpretation with the passage of time and with accompanying and inevitable institutional growth. This is especially so, it seems to me, when the deliverer of revelation maintains the stance of infallibility, or when his people make such a demand upon him or when they live in such expectation.
Doctrine and Covenants 42 also provides an instructive example of Smith’s changes and suggests further implications of the doctrine of propositional revelation. Much of this document was first published by the church in the July 1832 issue of The Evening and the Morning Star. The wording in the periodical was identical to the text which appeared in the Book of Commandments (chap. 24), but it was subjected to 138 changes by Smith as he prepared it for the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants. Again most of the changes were stylistic and grammatical, but in paragraphs 8-11 (LDS vv. 30-39), forty-two changes were recorded. Most of these are substantive, reflecting doctrinal and methodological developments in the area of stewardship and also the shifting institutional alignments both within the church and in the church’s relationship to the larger community.
For example, the earlier printing had instructed the people that “thou shalt consecrate all thy properties, that which thou hast unto me with a covenant and a deed which can not be broken.” In 1835 this provision was changed to read, “thou wilt remember the poor, and consecrate of thy properties for their support, that which thou has to impart unto them, with a covenant and a deed which can not be broken” (D&C 13:8, 1835 ed.). Clearly the people in 1831 were required to consecrate all they had to the church. They no longer owned property, either real or personal. But the experiences of trying to implement such total Christian sharing perhaps constituted a revelation in itself to the prophet. Thus by 1835 Smith re-phrased the instruction to match more closely the realities of the [p.16] situation. Thereafter the Saints were required to consecrate only their surplus properties to alleviate the distress of the indigent.
Another portion of the 1835 version of the revelation (RLDS v. 11; LDS v. 39) affirms that “I [the Lord] will consecrate of the riches of those who embrace my gospel among the Gentiles, unto the poor of my people who are of the house of Israel.” This appeared to guarantee that many Gentiles would convert to Mormonism and that their riches (surplus) would work to alleviate the hunger and privation of the poor and distressed of the church. But one must recall the original wording of the statement to appreciate the context within which Smith was working. As first published it read: “for I will consecrate the riches of the Gentiles, unto my people which are of the house of Israel.”13 Now imagine yourself as a “gentile” shopkeeper in Independence, Missouri, on that hot July day in 1832. You read this on page one of the Latter Day Saint newspaper. Depending on your particular prejudices about the “strange Mormons,” you might interpret that statement to mean that the Saints have been given to know that the Lord has his eye on your shop, with nothing but the good of his Saints at heart. And you might act accordingly—which many of them did a few months later. Of course the hostility was based on more than this single phrase. But one of the grievances against the church cited by Jackson County citizens in 1833 was the Saints’ boldly proclaimed presumption that the whole of the county was their divinely appointed inheritance. The original wording of D&C 42:11 (LDS D&C 42:39) can be seen in this context as significant in shaping the attitude of Jackson County citizens toward the church. The troubles there probably influenced Smith to revise the text as he did in 1835.
This textual development of Doctrine and Covenants 42, documented against the history of the church between 1831 and 1835, helps to underscore the difficult position of Smith as prophet and seer to the church. Documents already committed to paper and to the hearts of the Saints made Smith’s followers strong adherents of the propositional view of revelation and committed them to an image of Smith as a modern Moses.
But the events of history were inexorably leaving their mark on the church and on Smith. Events called him to reevaluate the meaning of what he had delivered in the name of the Lord. Thus it may be sound to submit that history itself drove Smith in 1835 to [p.17] make massive changes and interpolations in many of the documents—first appearing in the Book of Commandments—now being prepared for release in the Doctrine and Covenants. And it may also be accurate to state that history itself drove Smith into silence on the matter of why he had so edited the revelations. Perhaps he sensed that he was in large measure defined by the expectations and demands he perceived in the responses of his followers, both to him personally and to his documents. For Smith to have issued written explanations for his editing the revelations in 1835 (and the Book of Mormon text in 1837) might have fostered a credibility crisis among people who had been comforted by a propositional view of revelation and the accompanying notion that Smith was the living oracle.
Today we must confront the difficulties of maintaining a doctrine of propositional revelation. We must confront the human element in revelation and scripture. This means grappling with questions of interpretation of history and of empirically inscrutable metaphysical experiences. The churches continue their quest for an authentic assessment of the prophetic office not only in the experience of days gone by but also in the responsible life of the church in today’s world.
Richard P. Howard, author of Restoration Scriptures: A Study of Their Textual Development, is Church Historian of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. “Latter Day Saint Scriptures and the Doctrine of Propositional Revelation” first appeared in Courage: A Journal of History, Thought and Action 1 (1971): 209-25.
3. The original manuscripts of the New Translation are housed in the archives of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Independence, Missouri; hereafter RLDS church archives. See O.T. Ms 1:1; O.T. Ms 2:1; O.T. Ms 3:1.
4. “History of Joseph Smith,” Times and Seasons, 15 Feb. 1843, 108; cf. Joseph Smith, Jr., et al., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1964), 1:104-105 (hereafter HC); see also Joseph Smith III and Heman C. Smith, History of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, 4 Vols. (Independence, MO: Herald Publishing House, 1952 ed.), 1:113-114 (hereafter RLDS Hist.).
6. John Whitmer, “The Book of John Whitmer, Kept By Commandment”, 18, RLDS church archives; see also F. Mark McKiernan and Roger D. Launius, eds., An Early Latter Day Saint History: The Book of John [p.18]Whitmer, Kept by Commandment (Independence, MO: Herald Publishing House, 1980), 42-43.
12. The stimulus for this New Testament work came on 7 March 1831 and can be seen in D&C 45:11 (LDS 45:60-61): “It shall not be given unto you to know any further concerning this chapter, until the New Testament be translated, and in it all these things shall be made known; wherefore I give unto you that you may now translate it, that ye may be prepared for the things to come.”