The Joseph Smith Revelations
by H. Michael Marquardt
[p.331] We have only a minimal understanding of Joseph Smith’s view of the revelatory process. The written manuscripts and printed texts imply that the words received in most of the revelations were uttered in the name of Jesus Christ. Yet circumstances in 1834-35 motivated church leaders to change many of the revelations, demonstrating concern for more than just the original wording. Events that did not unfold as proposed in the revelations were revised. As priesthood ideas developed, changing the texts provided a way to revise original concepts to conform to an evolving theology.
The 1835 D&C committee consisted of Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, Sidney Rigdon, and Frederick G. Williams. This committee was not reluctant to make changes, despite initial reservations expressed by Cowdery. In fact, the Kirtland Revelations Book contains revisions in Smith’s own hand, showing that he for one did not consider the earlier texts definitive. Revisions were inserted in about a third of the early revelations, and when published, the revised texts were presented as what was said at the time and place where the original text was first received.
Since no record is known of the committee’s reasons for making and arranging the revisions, we are left to examine the relevant material in order to understand the committee’s reasons ourselves. And since the church leaders seemed to understand that the revelations were originally inspired, they undoubtedly considered the message to be the word and will of God as it came through Joseph Smith.
Most of the significant emendations occurred in preparing the 1835 D&C. Apparently the 1835 committee wanted to keep the message of the text alive and credible, and Smith as an editor/manager wanted both to accommodate the immediate past and present new insights to his followers. Except for the 1835 revision, the revelations afterwards followed for the most part the earliest known text. The events of 1834-35 that necessitated textual revisions—(1) a court case involving consecrated property, (2) the expulsion of church members from Jackson County, Missouri, (3) the failed redemption of Zion, and (4) the church’s problems at Kirtland, Ohio—had passed.
To make significant changes and additions to any revelation was a serious matter. Since many of the revelations were given to individuals, one wonders if the 1835 committee received permission from those individuals to change the text. Besides this, many of the documents had been copied by church members and printed in The Evening and the Morning Star. While the pages of the BC manuscript (except eight pages) had been destroyed, copies had been made and preserved by [p.332] faithful members. Other manuscripts of some of the revelations existed, so the committee had the basic wording of those early texts.
One of the first ways to amend a previous revelation was to revoke the earlier instructions with a new commandment.1 When additional instructions were needed to clarify the law of the church,2 revelations were directed to those needs and material was added to the previously written text.3 Subsequent problems were sometimes solved through additional revelations, as well.
The Articles and Covenants was published in the Evening and Morning Star reprint in January 1835 with a note prior to the revised text that stated, “With a few items from other revelations.”4 But there is no evidence of separate revelations received either to fill in additional text or to revise wording.
The majority of textual revisions were made to revelations from the period of the translation of the Book of Mormon to the establishment of the Kirtland High Council (1828-34). Before February 1834, the highest ecclesiastical group in the Church of Christ was the presidency of the high priesthood organized in March 1832. This presidency of three high priests was called the First Presidency in 1835.
According to the 1835 revision, Smith was told in March 1829 that he should be “ordained and go forth and deliver my words unto the children of men.”5 Mention was also made of three servants (witnesses) “whom I shall call and ordain, unto whom I will show these things.” The 1835 text stated, “And you must wait yet a little while; for ye are not yet ordained.”6 These additions relating to ordination were inserted into the revelation after the events occurred.
How do these revisions relate to the pronouns “my” and “I” as God gave words of comfort in 1829? By retaining the March 1829 date in the 1835 version, the changes leave the impression that the altered text as now published was as Smith had originally received it. Like the three additions above, many of the other revisions indicate that the added words are those of Jesus Christ, something that readers accepted uncritically in 1835, not knowing that their history had been rewritten.
Changes were sometimes made in one document but not in another. For example, the Articles and Covenants (June 1830) has “The Elders are to conduct the meetings according as they are led by the Holy Ghost” to which were added in 1835 the words “to the commandments and revelations of God.”7 A March 1831 revelation also mentions that the elders of the church are “to conduct all meetings as they are directed and guided by the Holy Spirit,”8 without the addition. Oliver [p.333] Cowdery asked Newel K. Whitney, church bishop in Kirtland, for the original text of the law of the church.9 But when the revelation was republished, it appeared as an altered text.10 Cowdery editorialized:
Some have said, and still say, that this Church, “has all things common.” This assertion is meant, not only to falsify on the subject of property, but to blast the reputation and moral characters of the members of the same.
The church at Jerusalem, in the days of the apostles, had their earthly goods in common; the Nephites, after the appearance of Christ, held theirs in the same way; but each government was differently organized from ours, and could admit of such a course when ours cannot.11
One problem here is how church members could obey a revised law given in 1835 as a “Revelation given February 1831.” This could hardly be considered the same revelation since it required such different actions of the members. The laws of the church, especially the law of consecration and stewardship, would now require a radical alteration in lifestyle. The alterations in the text were not made because of transcription errors, but because of new circumstances. Rather than have members obey the old requirement, the law was changed due to the new conditions. These changes from early manuscripts and the BC text were made ostensibly because of typographical errors. But the changes were more substantive. The 1835 law of consecration was substituted for the original form of the law given in February 1831. The new language of the revelation made a difference in how the Saints were to follow the church law.
New insights and information inserted into the text of older revelations created a problem. While some may have considered that the new material brought the text up to date, others accepted the revised text as though it were the original. When republished in the Evening and Morning Star, the text was said to follow the original, so members did not expect the changes. Did the additions and omissions make the texts better? Did the variants in the documents merely correct typographical errors and follow the original texts?
A revelation given in November 1831 said that the commandments “were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.” It also stated that the commandments were “true and faithful.” The message continued: “What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself, and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice, or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.”12
As the revelations were first given, the messages were presented in their own [p.334] historical setting and time. Because of the changes, Smith’s later views were mixed in with earlier instructions and practices, making it difficult to understand if the revelations were intended to come literally from God, in the sense of God speaking directly to Smith. What we find is that Joseph Smith and his associates were themselves responsible for altering the ideas in the revelations, commandments, and instructions, so that these documents seem more like directives to the church than the direct words of God.
That a number of Smith’s revelations were altered means that revelations were changed with little regard to the integrity of the original text. For example, the role of Adam in LDS theology is an important topic.13 When the revised revelations appeared in the 1835 D&C, the identification of Adam as Michael was introduced into the canon. Sidney Rigdon wrote, referring to the book of Daniel, “for who could the ancient of days be but our father Adam? surely none other: he was the first who lived in days, and must be the ancient of days.”14 The 1835 D&C included additional material concerning Adam: “and also with Michael, or Adam, the father of all, the prince of all, the ancient of days.”15 It had been established by September 1835 when the D&C was printed and bound that Michael16 was the name of Adam and was the ancient of days.17 Additional wording to what is now LDS D&C 78 and RLDS D&C 77 indicated that Michael held the “keys of salvation under the counsel and direction of the Holy One.”18 Joseph Smith taught by 8 August 1839 that “the Keys have to be brought from heaven whenever the Gospel is sent.—When they are revealed from Heaven it is by Adam[‘]s Authority.”19
On 21 January 1836 Smith reported that he received visions and revelations while in a meeting. Warren Parrish recorded in the prophet’s journal, “[I] saw father Adam, and Abraham and Michael and my father and mother, my brother Alvin that has long since slept[.]”20 Smith’s father was at this meeting and his mother was probably at home in Kirtland. As Smith and other church members came to understand that Michael and Adam referred to the same person—even though the original text indicates that Smith saw Adam and Michael as separate beings—the wording was changed so that now LDS D&C 137:5 reads, “I saw Father Adam and Abraham; and my father and my mother; my brother Alvin, that has long since [p.335] slept.” This deletion of “and Michael” was important to avoid contradicting the other revelations referring to Adam as Michael.
To further understand why the words “and Michael” are not in current editions of the D&C, we need to know about the revelation’s textual history. Clearly, Smith said he saw in vision “Adam, … and Michael.” This entry was recopied into the Manuscript History by Willard Richards in 1843.21 Then the Manuscript History, Book B-1, was later recopied into the duplicate history, Book B-2.22 The vision was published in Salt Lake City in the Deseret News issue of 4 September 1852. At this time the words “and Michael” were dropped.23 One reason for this is that President Brigham Young had in April 1852 proclaimed that Adam was Michael (Joseph Smith had taught the same) and that Adam was God.24 The original journal entry was probably thought to be in error and the two words were dropped. This revised vision appeared as part of the “History of Joseph Smith” or “Life of Joseph Smith” and was later reprinted in the Millennial Star. The LDS History of the Church was edited by B. H. Roberts from the Millennial Star and published in 1904.25
In 1976, at a meeting of the First Presidency and Council of the Twelve Apostles in the Salt Lake temple, leaders voted to add the January 1836 vision to the official canon as part of the PGP. Later, in 1979, the church announced that the vision would be removed from the PGP and added as section 137 to the planned 1981 D&C. Thus the deletion of two words impacted future theology.
Additional problems can be created when textual emendations are considered important enough to be added to an earlier document. One concern is how the revised text would be interpreted when considered in the milieu from which it emerged. Adding ideas, phrases, and commentary to documents considered inspired of God creates misunderstandings of the historical setting and theological development of the early church.
With careful examination, we develop a better appreciation of the early history and of the Saints’ need for receiving instructions from their founding prophet. We can now see things that they could not have seen, such as the historical problems caused by changing the wording of documents. Doctrinal teachings of another period now in revised form also show us that theological concerns have always been present in determining what to publish.
The benefits of having the early texts of these documents are, one, that they help promote an understanding of the historical situation at the time the original revelations were received. Second, they enable us to appreciate better the development of both the revelator Joseph Smith and of the early LDS church. The revela-[p.336]tions trace the development of a new religious movement and illuminate the changing nature of its doctrines. From Smith’s early beginnings as he dictated the Book of Mormon, he showed concern for the religious heritage he shared with other Christian denominations, for instance.
Just like a photograph that is meant to document experience, but is not the experience itself, a revelation is much the same. It is meant to express words and thoughts believed to have been inspired by Deity. In Mormon tradition the inspired words were written down as Joseph Smith dictated them to the person acting as his scribe. The scribe tried to write the words as exactly as possible, and what the scribe wrote became the original text. Other persons made copies. Differences in these copies were mostly minor. For instance, the BC manuscript was copied from the originals or early manuscripts in November 1831. When the revelations were prepared for publication, there were insignificant differences between the original texts and the prepared manuscript. Most of these variants had no impact on the meaning of the text.
So the history of the revelations as a living document shows them changing and growing. Every stage of the development provides us with valuable insights. Yet one cannot overemphasize the essential nature of the earliest texts in uncovering what is presumably nearest to the original intentions and meanings within the historical circumstances surrounding them. An early text leads to a greater appreciation of the early Restoration movement. As the 1981 LDS D&C states concerning the pseudonyms, “Since there exists no vital need today to continue the code names, the real names only are now used herein, as given in the original manuscripts.”26 The same applies to the texts of the revelations. The early texts preserve historical accuracy and help to uncover original meaning.
As Smith perceived the divine will, he revealed additional ordinances and doctrines that further set Mormonism apart from American Christian churches. Many ideas had their roots during the years of thought and reflection before the Nauvoo, Illinois, period of church and priesthood development, but then blossomed there.
Smith’s projects in Illinois—the temple for the priesthood, the Nauvoo House for his family—were monumental tasks requiring strict obedience. But there are fewer explicit revelations during this period when the church president’s instructions were considered inspired guidance to those privileged to hear them.
In Nauvoo the prophet’s private teachings remained private. He felt a need to have members keep secret instructions regarding temple-related ordinances, including plural marriage. The revelation on marriage of 12 July 1843 is a long treatise on the subject, the next-to-last revelation Smith received (document 169 in this collection).
As a final note, I feel that Smith’s revelations do not tell the full impact of the prophet’s leadership, but they do show his growing desire to experience the divine will in times of need. With his death on 27 June 1844, his memory has been partly preserved in the revelations, especially in the originals but also in the later revisions.
19. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, 1980), 8. See Joseph Smith et al., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1959), 3:386.
20. Joseph Smith 1835-36 Journal, 136, 21 Jan. 1836, LDS archives; Dean C. Jessee, ed., The Papers of Joseph Smith: Journal, 1832-1842 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1992), 2:157. See also T. B. H. Stenhouse, The Rocky Mountain Saints (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1873), 63-64; and Lyndon W. Cook, The Revelations of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Provo, UT: Seventy’s Mission Bookstore, 1981), 303. See document no. 137.
23. “Life of Joseph Smith,” Deseret News 2 (4 Sept. 1852): , Great Salt Lake City, U.T. Manuscript History, Book B-1 or Book B-2, was used for printing the “Life of Joseph Smith” entry of 21 January 1836 in the Deseret News. The Deseret News contains the edited version.
24. Sermon delivered by Brigham Young on 9 April 1852, Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (Liverpool, Eng.: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1854-86), 1:50-51. For further discussion, see David John Buerger, “The Adam-God Doctrine,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15 (Spring 1982): 14-58.