Revelations 1: Why are these early texts significant?

This is third and final post by Robin Jensen, volume editor of the recently released Revelations and Translations, Volume 1 of the Joseph Smith Papers Project. Previous posts are available here and here. We extend our hearty thanks for his insightful commentary and congratulations on a work well done.

In my last post, I discussed a small part of the textual elements found in the two manuscript volumes that comprise the first volume of the Revelation and Translation Series of the Joseph Smith Papers. This final post will discuss some historical insights about Smith’s revelations and early Mormon record keeping gleaned from both these manuscript volumes. I cannot pretend to be comprehensive in this post, but I can give a flavor of what Revelation Book 1 and Revelation Book 2 can offer. However, any one of the vignettes below could easily be a post by themselves or even an article.

Image (c) <a href="http://www.deseretnews.com/photo/gallery/story/705330527/History-detectives.html"><em>Deseret News</em></a>.

Image (c) Deseret News.

Why are these early versions of the revelations significant? Many scholars seem to struggle over incorporating Mormon revelation texts into their research, but in reality, they are some of the most important contemporary sources for much of the church’s early years, and virtually the only contemporary source for the pre-church years, except for the Book of Mormon text. Even rarer are the scholars who have taken seriously the different versions of the revelation texts themselves. [1] Textual scholarship is a burgeoning field in Mormon studies, perhaps due to lack of interest or maybe the inaccessible nature of the texts. One priority of the Joseph Smith Papers project is to provide accurate and easy-to-read texts created or owned by JS. In turn we hope this will spark continued and better use of the documents.

I’m not sure the many scholars of LDS history know how well they have it. Biblical textual scholars have many hundreds of more variants dating decades, sometimes centuries after they were originally created, many needing translation from the ancient written language. While the field of textual studies in restoration scripture seems a much easier field, treatments should still be done with care and caution. Improper placed commas, misspellings of words, paragraph indicators, inserted versification, ever so slightly changed readings. This kind of detail must first be established in order to compare and learn from the variant texts of Mormon scripture. I believe that the work of the Joseph Smith Papers will go a long way in helping scholars use the texts more and more responsibly.

Now let’s delve into some analysis. A common feature of Joseph Smith’s early revelations is the generic reception date. Revelation Book 1 contains many headings with dates not previously known, therefore already revising our understanding of the historical timeline. For instance current Sections 35 and 36 are both traditionally only known by the month of reception: December 1830. Revelation Book 1 now provides a specific day for both these revelations, 7 and 9 December 1830 respectively. Some historians looking at the big picture might take these specific details for granted, but for individuals who spend a lot of time researching the revelations, this is an important point. Another revelatory text likely received in December was thought to have been received over one year later in January of 1832. The explanation of 1 Corinthians 7:14 now canonized as Section 74 bears this heading in Revelation Book 1: “given to Joseph the Seer at Wayne County. N.Y. 1830.” This particular text is between a revelation dictated 6 January 1831 (D&C 40) and another dictated 4 February 1831 (D&C 41). This placement can be important, especially considering Revelation Book 1 is largely a volume in chronological order. However, the 1830 heading seems to indicate that the explanation was given sometime in late 1830, when Joseph Smith would have been in Wayne County. The likely acceptance of January 1832 as the traditional date is interesting and cannot entirely be covered in this post, but the bottom line likely deals with having out-of-order texts in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants and scribes working on the history of the church who were not early members of the church.

The Articles and Covenants is another text found in Revelation Book 1 with an exact date of 10 April 1830. This is important due to the fact that the 1833 Book of Commandments bears a June 1830 date and none of the other early printed sources has any date attached to this text. The curious thing about this seemingly odd date is that the editors of the Book of Commandments used Revelation Book 1 to publish. If the manuscript book had one date but the printed source had another, what can we say about the publication process? It may be that the printers were attempting to date the acceptance of this document by the church members rather than when it was actually created. At a conference 9 June 1830, the “Articles and Covenants [were] read by Joseph Smith jr. and received by unanimous voice of the whole congregation.” [2] While this explanation helps us understand why the Book of Commandments may have gone against the reading in Revelation Book 1, the fact that editors went against another reading seems to reinforce the fact that the editors are not blindly following what’s in Revelation Book 1, which moves us into our next insight.

There is a debate among some scholars respecting the place of the organization meeting held on 6 April 1830. The traditional account has placed this meeting at Fayette, New York, while other important sources and some historians have claimed Manchester, New York. A significant and early, though not a solitary source heretofore cited is the heading of several revelations published in the Book of Commandments. Current-day Section 23 was originally received as five distinct revelation texts with similar wording given to Oliver Cowdery, Hyrum Smith, Samuel Smith, Joseph Smith, Sr., and Joseph Knight. All five revelations found in Revelation Book 1 were originally given the generic date of “1830” and all five state that the revelation was received in Manchester, New York. The revelation to Oliver Cowdery was later changed to “April 1830”. The problem arises when they were published. “A Revelation to Oliver, given in Manchester, New-York, April 6, 1830” reads one published heading, and the four other headings are also given as 6 April in Manchester, New York. Now that we have the source behind the Book of Commandments, we can see that 6 April was not on the manuscript itself and would have been added to the published version for unknown reasons. These dates were modified in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants publication when all five texts were combined into one and the heading was changed back to the generic “April 1830.” To make matters more complicated, the revelation that has traditionally been identified as given on 6 April 1830 (D&C 21), was indeed originally identified as being received in Fayette in Revelation Book 1, however, the original date is given as 1829 later changed by two different scribes to 6 April 1830. This episode needs some sorting and now that we have an important piece of the puzzle, we can go back to the drawing board and see what a fresh analysis of the sources can reveal.

Many other historical insights will be uncovered by multiple scholars who become acquainted with Revelation Book 1. The volume is, after all, a significant source of information spanning from the testimony of the witnesses to the revelations redacted by many individuals to the historical introductions written by Whitmer, these examples and more provide tantalizing clues to revelations; clues we did not know about before. For instance, taking note of what revelations were not found in the volume but were published in Missouri indicates that slight, supplemental copies of other revelations were available to the printers, making me wonder what other versions were used. As mentioned in the last post, the above is the tip of the iceberg with respect to what these manuscript sources can tell us. They answer so many questions but raise just as many, if not more.

For those who have paid attention to the news releases of Revelation Book 1, two revelatory texts are found in the volume that have not appeared in print anywhere else. The revelation known as the “Canadian Copyright Revelation” and the “Sample of Pure Language” are two texts that, in my opinion, are worth the price of the volume itself. Much ink has been spilt with respect to the revelation supposed to have been received by Joseph Smith concerning the selling of the copyright in Canada. David Whitmer, Hiram Page, and William McLellin seem to have been our most important sources, but they all were leaving reminiscent accounts of what happened. We now have the actual revelation instruction that prompted the men to sell the copyright. This episode will be drastically revised now that copy of the revelation survives. This vignette should be a caution to us all that one new source can have lasting influence on a traditional position in history.

Many might think that Revelation Book 2 would not offer as much fresh historical insight. This is partly true. The manuscript volume has been available to scholars for several decades and several studies have been written about the source. But I hope the publication of Revelation Book 1 doesn’t make people forget about the second volume of manuscript revelations. It was, after all, an important source in publishing the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants and contains many historical insights. For instance the first item copied into this volume is an account of a vision of the three degrees of glory now known as Section 76. If one reads that account, the spirit commands Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon four times to write the vision down. They seem to do so, not just on loose paper as was certainly the precedent, but they seemed to have purchased a blank book in order to copy the account of the vision therein. The next item in the volume is an uncanonized revelation to Lincoln Haskins and then a journal-type record of Joseph Smith’s recent activities. It’s as if the scribes are not sure what to do with the volume once they copied “The Vision” into the volume. However, the volume quickly becomes a register of revelations received by Joseph Smith in 1832 through 1834. I am particularly struck by the use of the volume in ca. early 1834. At this point, the plans were beginning to publish the revelations anew. The destruction of the printing office in 1833 forced early Latter-day Saints back to the few copies of the Book of Commandments and did not satisfactorily fill the void of the need for the revelations. Revelation Book 2 appears to have been used as a collection of previously unpublished revelations to that point. Beginning on page 83, ten revelatory texts were copied into the book in 1834, all dated between October 1830 and the end of April 1832, anywhere from three and a half to two years earlier. Seven of the texts had not been published and of those ten texts, all but one of them was eventually published in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants. It’s as if Revelation Book 2 was used as a repository to copy and store unpublished revelations in order to publish them.

From the perspective of Latter-day Saints, Revelation Books 1 and 2 are some of the most important manuscripts created. From the perspective of scholars, these two volumes are an important window into the thinking of Joseph Smith and the early Mormons. To have them presented for both scholar and Latter-day Saint alike is thrilling. Perhaps this post has been too much like a laundry-list of historical insights without the in-depth analysis. But that analysis will come when more and more users—you who are interested in the origin of Mormon scripture—approach the volume with the questions that can only be answered by a close reading of the revelations as distinct documents and the manuscripts as a whole. The truly exciting thing about the publication of this volume is what will come afterward: the added insights offered by scholars who will use this volume in their own research.

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[1] Co-volume editor Robert J. Woodford pioneered the scholarship (Woodford, “The Historical Development of the Doctrine and Covenants,” Ph.D. diss. Brigham Young University, 1974.) H. Michael Marquardt has also contributed to that scholarship in The Joseph Smith Revelations: Text and Commentary, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 1999).

[2] “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), 1.]

Comments

  1. Thanks again, Robin, for this series and this post in particular. As it relates to early Mormon record keeping, how far are you away from finishing your dissy? I’m looking forward to reading it.

    And since I’m asking, is it too early to tell how well the volume is selling?

  2. I love the way you have become so intimately familiar with these books that the paper and ink seem to speak to you independently of the words on the page. It is so important for us all to recognize that how and why and when a document came to be can shift our understanding of the text. Nothing is ever quite as black and white as it looks in the printed volume.

    While this may be your third post, I certainly hope it’s not your final post, Robin. If this were PBS, your posts would be a blend of Sherlock Holmes, Masterpiece Theater, and Secrets of the Dead.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Great stuff, Robin. It will be interesting to see the direction the Fayette/Manchester debate takes based on this new information.

    I broke down and ordered a copy. I may be sleeping on the couch when my wife sees the VISA bill, but I trust it will be worth it.

    Thanks so much for your very enlightening guest posts here.

  4. I haven’t had time to digest the volume in any detail, but just from initial casual reading, it is amazing. The facsimile prints are striking, and worth the price all on their own.

    I bought mine online at B&N, which had the lowest price I could find ($70). BN.com is now sold out, which has to be a good sign.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    How’s that for timing; my copy arrived in today’s mail. I’ve just flipped through it, but it is extremely impressive, just as everyone has said.

  6. Robin,

    Would you mind briefly explaining the signifiance of the “Pure Language” revelation?

  7. John T., in Utah Orson Pratt gave a sermon about a revelation which discussed Ahman, and sons Ahman (JD 2:342). This revelation has heretofore not been extant. Enter J1.

  8. This contribution is really remarkable. I have to say though that I find the constant references to the new volume extremely agitating, given the fact that my assistant professor salary won’t cover the cost of this treasure! But, that aside, we are all in your debt.

  9. Indeed, thanks Robin.

  10. I really appreciate all the people who have worked on the Papers taking time to do posts like this to help explain the significance of these volumes. Thanks Robin.

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