Revelation Book 1: Digging in

This is the second post by Robin Jensen, in which he discusses the recently released Revelations and Translations, Volume 1 of the Joseph Smith Papers. His previous introduction to the volume is available here.

I hope to get our hands dirty with this post. Let’s dig out some interesting historical insights from the revelations as seen in the manuscripts published in the newly released Revelations and Translations volume of the Joseph Smith Papers.

The first manuscript published in the volume is the Book of Commandments and Revelations, or known by its editorial title: Revelation Book 1. This is the earliest and most complete collection of manuscript revelations extant. Begun in 1831, the book was largely created by John Whitmer, who seemed to be acting in his calling as church historian who was to “transcribe all things given” to Joseph Smith (D&C 47:1). In November of 1831, the leading council of the church moved to publish the revelations. Whitmer and Oliver Cowdery were appointed to take the revelations to Missouri, where W. W. Phelps would establish a print shop. Revelation Book 1 was a significant source for the printing of the revelations in The Evening and the Morning Star, the LDS church’s first newspaper, and the Book of Commandments. The volume was later used as a supplementary source for the publication of the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants. Scholars now have a tremendous source in Revelation Book 1. Not only do we have (a lot of) reliable, earlier revelation texts than previously studied, we now have the source used for part of the publication of three significant works. Due, in part to the release of these publications, I hope that textual scholarship for the Doctrine and Covenants will now become more and more common.

<em>Revelations and Translations, Volume 1</em>

Revelations and Translations, Volume 1

A striking feature of Revelation Book 1, and to a lesser degree of Revelation Book 2, is the markup on the document after the original text had been written. At the above-mentioned November 1831 conferences, it was decided that “Joseph Smith Jr correct those errors or mistakes which he m[a]y discover by the holy Spirit.” These errors or mistakes were explained to have resulted “either by the translation in consequence of the slow way of the scribe at the time of receiving or by the scribes themselves.” [1] This corrective process either turned up very few corrections, or it seemed to have been delegated to others; Joseph Smith’s handwriting is not found as frequently in the books as compared with the redactions of other scribes. Many additions, revisions, deletions, or other types of redactions were made by multiple people on the manuscript. Most of the texts found in these two revelation manuscript books were copied without punctuation and with many spelling errors. Thus a large percentage of the changes would be explained as presentation changes, or those types of changes necessary to present the revelations in printed form. This would include added punctuation, versification, slight grammatical changes, and correction of spelling errors.

Other changes were more substantive. Sidney Rigdon seemed to have a heavy hand in changing biblical pronouns to more modern pronouns. The beginning of a revelation received 9 December 1830 (current D&C 36) originally read “behold I say unto you my Servent Edward thou art blessed & thy sins are forgiven thee & thou art called to preach my Gospel as with the voice of a Trump.” [2] Phelps adding the punctuation and Rigdon adjusting the wording, changed the reading to “behold I say unto you, my Servent Edward, that you are blessed, & your sins are forgiven you, & you are called to preach my Gospel as with the voice of a Trump;” (changes indicated by underlining). Other than the capitalization and ampersands changed to “and”, the changed reading follows what is in the current Doctrine and Covenants. To many members this change is inconsequential, but to textual scholars this level of detail is important to establish. Many, many similar changes by Rigdon occur throughout Revelation Book 1.

I view these types of changes as personality-driven changes, making the revelations read more to an individual’s preference rather than correcting any error in transcription or copying. Rigdon and others appear to have felt comfortable making minor modifications to the revelations’ text, perhaps seeing it as an improvement of the wording. However, on some of these changes, as well as some of the more moderately substantive changes, a later scribe would revert the wording back to the original. For instance, in the Articles and Covenants of the church, later canonized as section 20, Rigdon changed “for the Lord God hath spoken it” to “for the Lord God has spoken it” (verse 16). John Whitmer, in his review of Revelation Book 1, crossed out Rigdon’s inserted “has” and wrote “hath” restoring the original wording. The text took an interesting turn, however, when it was published in the Evening and Morning Star (the 1835 reprint of the 1833 publication), by publishing “has” instead of “hath.” This reading was adopted by the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants and is found that way in the current reading.

This changing the wording back to the original had unintended consequences. In a revelation received on 7 August 1831 (canonized as D&C 59), the original wording (verse 2) read “for them that live shall inherit the earth & them that die shall rest from all their labours”. Rigdon correctly changed the wording to “for those who live shall inherit the earth & tho[se] who die shall rest from all their labours”. (The bracketed “se” is the likely reading—an ink blot has obscured the text). John Whitmer reverted the wording back to the grammatically incorrect original, and that reading is found in all significant publications throughout Joseph Smith’s life. Current reading bridges the two readings: “For those that live shall inherit the earth, and those that die shall rest from all their labors”.

A final example brings us to more significant implication and meaning. It appears that Sidney Rigdon had the same difficulty with wording in the Articles and Covenants (D&C 20) as Oliver Cowdery did in the summer of 1830. [3] The original wording reads “& truly manifest by their works that they have received the spirit of Christ unto the remision of their sins, then shall they be received unto Baptism into the Church of Christ”. Rigdon changed “remision” to “conviction”. Whitmer later changed it to the original meaning by crossing out Rigdon’s insertion and writing “remission”. We don’t have time to get into the theological implications of Rigdon’s and Cowdery’s disagreement with this reading, but similar examples are found in the manuscript book.

This tension of changing and re-changing wording is perhaps due to the instruction by Joseph Smith to those working on the publication of the revelations in Missouri. After a discussion of revelation texts, Joseph Smith is careful to add to W. W. Phelps: “I will exhort you to be careful not to alter the sense of any of them for he that adds or diminishes to the prop[h]ecies must come under the condemnation writen therein.” [4]

We will now turn our attention to other intriguing modifications. The first recorded revelation received in July 1828 (current D&C 3), has several redactions to the text. Many of these are simple changes, but each one can lead to an interesting train of thought. The original reading of one passage (current-day verse 5) was “behold you have been intrusted with those things but strict was your commandment”. A later change modified the reading to “behold you have been intrusted with those things but how strict were your commandments”. Instead of one commandment regarding the plates, the reading has multiple commandments given. For a historian interested in reconstructing Joseph Smith’s earliest revelations, the difference in reading is quite important. The original of the next passage (current-day verse 5 again) was “& Remember also the Promises which were made to you if you transgressed them”. The modified reading makes for a different reconstruction of an unknown commandment “& Remember also the Promises which were made to you if you did not transgress them”. These two examples taken together, as can be seen, hint at a possible reason for the change. Rigdon, the individual making the changes, may have seen the mismatched “commandment” to the plural “them” and decided to change the singular “commandment” to a plural “commandments”. The original intent can be left to future scholarly debate.

Another change in a phrase from current Section 3 adds emphasis or clarification to the reading: “but because of transgression thou mayest fall” was changed to “but because of transgression if thou art not aware thou wilt fall”. A final example (though not the final example available) from current Section 3 is quite interesting. The reading “when thou deliveredst up that Which God had given thee right to Translate thou deliveredest up that Which was Sacred into the hands of a wicked man” [5] was changed to “when thou deliveredst up that Which God had given thee sight and power to Translate thou deliveredest up that Which was Sacred into the hands of a wicked man”.

All of the above is not to say that the manuscript revelation books contain simple minor changes. There were significant changes made to the text in both revelation manuscript books—sometimes entire phrases were added. Much of this could be understood as updating the non-static revelation texts to match the later revelations Joseph Smith had received. A clear example is found in a revelation given 1 November 1831 (canonized as Section 68) relative to instruction on church discipline. For instance the phrase “conference of high priests” was changed to “the first presidency of the chirch”. The changes made to this revelation were first incorporated into the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants, which was the first time some of these revelations were widely available to members of the church. In addition, these revelations were received well before some of the organizational changes had occurred. To publish a revelation regarding church organization and procedural practices of the church that pre-dated some of the significant organizational updates of the 1830s would have needlessly confused members of the church. The revelations needed to be current for 1835 thinking; the Doctrine and Covenants was not a book with historic texts but was a guide for their religious practices.

Several subtle details of the manuscript volumes indicating textual changes are noted in the annotation of this newly released Joseph Smith Papers volume. When editors of the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants made long changes to the revelation texts, they at times would write the additions on slips of paper and pin that slip of paper to the page needing the change. In days before paper clips or staples, pins, wax, or wafers were used to attach paper together. I will share two examples from Revelation Book 2. A slip of paper is currently found between pages 60 and 61 of Revelation Book 2, bearing the text of the heading of the revelation received 4 June 1833 (current Section 96) as printed in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants. Two pinholes on this slip of paper match the positioning of two pinholes found on page 60. Elsewhere in the manuscript volume (page 115) two sets of pinholes are found with no corresponding slip of paper. However, the positioning of the pinholes seems to correspond to an addition of several lines in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants not found in the manuscript. Several other examples of this physical element linked to textual changes occur (and I won’t spoil the surprise of giving away the meanings of the scratch marks on Revelation Book 1).

In looking at the examples above, it might seem like I’m letting you drink from a fire hose… and you’d be right. I’ve only shown you the metaphorical tip of the iceberg. I have tried to give you a taste of what is in the volumes, but have not been comprehensive in the types of changes made. There are many more examples of textual nuances in the published volume itself, including variant readings that were not meant as a change to the original text. But I’ll let you uncover these for yourself; it’s more fun that way.

[1] “The Conference Minutes, and Record Book of Christ’s Church of Latter Day Saints,” Church History Library, 16. [This record has been published by Donald Q. Cannon and Lyndon W. Cook, Far West Record: Minutes of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830–1844 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1983), 29.]

[2] “Book of Commandments and Revelations,” Church History Library, 48.

[3] See Dean C. Jessee, The Papers of Joseph Smith Volume 1: Autobiographical and Historical Writings (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989), 260 and 320.

[4] Joseph Smith to William W. Phelps, 31 July 1832, Church History Library, 5, as found in Dean C. Jessee, Personal Writings of Joseph Smith rev. ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2002), 273.

[5] This reading is actually “when thou deliveredst up that Which that which God had given thee right to Translate thou deliveredest up that Which was Sacred into the hands of a wicked man” but the second “that which” was later crossed out by an unknown hand. This example has ignored the second “that which”.


  1. “remision” to “conviction”


    But I’ll let you uncover these for yourself; it’s more fun that way.


    Thank you very much, Robin. This is really a great look into the importance of this volume and the types of studies that will hopefully be gracing us soon. Congrats, again.

  2. Steve Evans says:

    Pinhole matching! Amazing stuff.

  3. First thoughts.

    Sidney Rigdon nearly always sets off my warning alarms (for some reason just imagine him being all “Evangelical” and I don’t know why this bothers me). This “revelation” doesn’t necessarily help, but am I just being prejudiced because I know how the story ends? Of course, that sounds a lot harsher than how I actually feel…

    Next, it would seem to me that these revelations are exactly what I usually imagine them to be — extended thoughts and inspiration that flashes into the prophet’s mind and he (or someone else) had to struggle through the process of putting it into words. I’m actually amazed there is as much writing on the page as possible. Sometimes my brain is searching for words I know the spirit is conveying to me and it’s almost like my tongue has to start wiggling in order to make any sense of it. But I don’t think I have completely understood and personally internalized the concept anyway.

    It’s just interesting for me to see revelation seeming to work exactly the same way for the prophet that they do for most of us. Although I’ve never had a “revelation” of similar scope!

  4. Molly Bennion says:

    Robin, This is a firehose you can aim this way anytime. Thank you and J for fascinating introductions and thank you for your contributions to the most exciting intellectual project of the Church in my lifetime.

  5. thanks, Robin.

  6. Thank you, Robin. This is fascinating.

  7. “To publish a revelation regarding church organization and procedural practices of the church that pre-dated some of the significant organizational updates of the 1830s would have needlessly confused members of the church. The revelations needed to be current for 1835 thinking; the Doctrine and Covenants was not a book with historic texts but was a guide for their religious practices.”


    [I usually talk and write way too much, but I think I've said enough, here, in a word.]

  8. Thanks, Robin.

  9. Thanks to our guest for taking the time for such a detailed writeup.

    What is the vintage of the manuscripts shown in R1? The various reviews leave the impression they are equivalent to the printer’s manuscript of the BOM – early copies but not necessarily the manuscript written by the scribe who heard the revelation given.

    Are they the earliest manuscripts extant for each revelation?

  10. Clair, Robin can correct me if I am mistaken, but I believe that the version in R1 is frequently, but not always, the earliest extant manuscript.

    If Robin is fielding questions though (and he isn’t saving this for later), I’d be interested in hearing how they determined, for example, who added a coma.

  11. Excellent discussion, Rob. (Thanks for treating us all like we found the marble in the oatmeal. :) ) You’re going to make everyone want to go buy the book now.

  12. This is absolutely fascinating. I can’t wait to get my hands on my copy.

  13. Robin Jensen says:

    Thanks for everyone’s interest.

    Clair (sorry to be getting back you to you late, I’m traveling and therefore find time and internet access a rare commodity). Yes, while many particular revelations published in this volume are the earliest extant copies, it does not seem to me that there are any original dictated manuscripts written directly into either one of these books. It seems that standard practice was to dictate to a scribe who was writing on loose paper, which was then copied by individuals and/or into the manuscript books. There are some earlier extant revelation copies in the Whitney collection at BYU, for instance, or in other collections at the Church archives, but by and large, this will provide users with the earliest, extant revelations. In addition, these were the sources by and large, the editors used to publish the revelations, so there is an added value in these particular versions.

    But I also wouldn’t say that either of these books were printer’s manuscripts. They eventually became such, but both of the volumes had different origin purposes. The Book of Commandments and Revelations seemed to have been the Church Historian’s collection of revelations and the Kirtland Revelation Book seems to have been an official office copy kept on file.

    J. This is what we say in our Editorial Method: “Ink analysis aids in identifying the scribes of many emendations and redactions. Studying the sentence structure and ink flow of surrounding material often provides more clues about who inscribed small words, numbers, and punctuation than does studying the shapes of the characters themselves. Great care has been taken to accurately identify the scribes of all emendations and redactions, but improving technology may alter some of the identifications in this volume.”

    In other words, if we’ve positively identified a word or phrase as being in the handwriting of Phelps and that exact shade of ink is found in the added punctuation, we identified the punctuation as Phelps. Very rarely is punctuation unique enough to identify as a particular individuals. But in a day of differing ink recipes, many inks age differently and therefore result in its own “fingerprint” or characteristic color and quality.

  14. Wow. This is amazing! I guess I better gather up my pennies!

  15. Robin, thanks for your marvelous contributions.

  16. Thanks for taking the time to do this, folks.


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