An Interview with Robin Scott Jensen on the JSP Published Revelations

Robin Scott Jensen is an editor with the Joseph Smith Papers, working extensively on the Revelations and Translations series. He has kindly agreed to answer a few questions regarding the material of the recently released, Revelations and Translations, Volume 2: Published Revelations (review here). A little over a year ago, Robin answered questions on the Manuscript Revelations Books (here and here). We thank him for his time and engagement.

Question: Today the name “Doctrine and Covenants” registers primarily as the name of book of scripture to Latter-day Saints. When the first edition was printed, however, the words had specific meanings and to a certain degree represented a shift in Mormon parlance. Can you discuss the evolution and use of the terms “commandment,” “revelation,” and “covenant” as they are employed in R1 and R2?

RSJ: It is difficult to track with certainty the nomenclature of what we now know as revelations when there are very few sources outside the revelatory texts themselves. It appears, though, that the earliest followers of Joseph Smith called them “commandments.” The early texts refer to “commandments,” and the earliest published book that assembled the texts reflected that terminology (the 1833 Book of Commandments). There seemed to be an early distinction between “commandment” and “revelation,” the former being more of a divine communication commanding early members concerning various activities while the latter seems to have been a distillation of theology or divine knowledge. Of course, the distinctions were never solid, nor did these distinctions remain in place for long. A few other terms to describe the revelatory texts were used in early LDS history, including “law,” “prophecy,” and “covenant.” It appears that by late 1830 or early 1831, the term “revelation” became more part of the terminology within the revelatory texts themselves. For instance, section 43 (a text dictated in February 1831) indicates that one of Joseph Smith’s roles is to “receive commandments and revelations.” The title pages of the 1835 compilation stated that the “Doctrine and Covenants” were “carefully selected from the revelations of God.” The introduction to the second part of the 1835 compilation (the actual revelations; part 1 comprised the Lectures on Faith) stated that the second part of the book contained the “Covenants and Commandments of the Lord.” The term “covenants,” therefore, seems to have been used for a short time to describe the revelations during the mid-1830s but then faded from Mormon usage for this particular context—except, obviously, the term remained in the title “Doctrine and Covenants.”

Question: It is pretty clear from this new volume, and especially when compared to R1, that there was a textual dynamism in many revelations over time. This is especially evident in the transition between manuscript and Book of Commandments and 1835 Doctrine and Covenants. It seems to me that Joseph Smith was willing to expand the text with his expanded vision. It is also clear to me that even though his vision had greatly expanded in Nauvoo, the 1844 Doctrine and Covenants does not reflect it. Why did the 1835 text stay crystallized? Are you aware of any evidence indicating when Latter-day Saint began to look at the texts as immutable?

RSJ: If I can be simplistic for a moment to make a point: there is “revelation” as text and there is “revelation” as experience. As I see it, the average Latter-day Saint largely views the texts found in the Doctrine and Covenants as the former. The revelations are texts Mormons study, ponder, and cross-reference to other books of scripture. Joseph Smith and other early leaders of the church, on the other hand, seem to have seen the texts largely as a way of describing the revelatory experience. As such, of secondary importance was the wording of the revelations; often the text was a way to get at the revelation, not the representation of the revelation itself. Therefore, the real question in my mind is not this dichotomy of revelation as text versus revelation as experience, but the relationship between the two in Joseph Smith’s mind. Regardless, the revelations themselves acknowledged the imperfect nature of the revelations as texts: “these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding” (D&C 1:24). The revelations, therefore, were produced not as perfect texts, but “in their weakness, after the manner of their language,” bringing readers or hearers to an understanding, or as I would put it, to the revelation.

I’m fascinated with the dynamic relationship between revelation and the manner in which Joseph Smith chose to share that revelation. Attempting to write a “revelatory history” of Joseph Smith by only reviewing the Doctrine and Covenants (or even all the written revelations) would be missing a critically important element of Smith’s revelatory teaching. Scholars must not forget blessings, councils, sermons, private teaching, history writing, and letters in which Smith slipped effortlessly into the voice of Deity, commanded in the name of the Lord, or revealed ancient mysteries. It seems that Joseph Smith exuded revelation and tried to get it out in any way possible, often experimenting with the manner until he found one that worked for his circumstances. As I see it, by the time the second edition of the Doctrine and Covenants was being prepared in Nauvoo, there were a few factors at play that seem to have driven the decision to not dramatically change the edition, or change the revelations within that edition. First, church members had much more access to the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants and used it in their church activity. One could make an argument that because so few individuals ever saw the 1833 Book of Commandments, let alone owned a copy, Smith and others felt that they could adjust the text of the revelations because of the scarcity of the text (I go into this a bit later). Second, Joseph Smith’s involvement with the inception of the Nauvoo project appears to have been much less than in the Kirtland effort. On the Nauvoo publication, Ebenezer Robinson stereotyped the book through page 109 from the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants, essentially establishing the format, style, and concept of the second edition. Because Joseph Smith was not involved in this initial phase, and because he appears to have been minimally involved in the later effort, there was little chance to adjust the text as dramatically as occurred in the Kirtland edition. Finally, it appears that Joseph Smith, other leaders, and the church itself had largely moved past revelatory texts as means of revealing new information to the church. In Nauvoo, new information was revealed primarily through sermons and private councils, not through revelation texts per se. Therefore, when it came time to print the second edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, the church to some large degree had moved past the model of communicating “breaking news” from heaven via formal revelation texts.

Question: The introduction of the volume includes a discussion of succession, which I think is subtle but hugely important. Ehat’s succession narrative, while somewhat flawed, has maintained significant influence. It emphasizes the oracles of the temple as the real method of discerning the veracity of revelations and consequently successors. It seems to me that you are taking a different analysis of some major events after JS’s death, including Sidney Rigdon’s trial. In what way is your analysis superior? Whereas some churches today speak of “biblical” Christianity, do you see jockeying after JS’s death for the most “Doctrine and Covenantal” Christianity?

RSJ: Historians of the book look not just at the inception and production of a given book, but how the book, or books in general, were received. Given the paucity of sources, we could not fully explore the critically important element of how these publications were treated, read, or interpreted by members of the church. I see the reception history of the revelatory texts as a critical area of study in future research. Our brief discussion of the use of the Doctrine and Covenants in the succession “crisis” following the death of Joseph Smith—and particularly in the August 1844 trial of Sidney Rigdon–was a way for us to provide just one example of how the early Latter-day Saints used the publication. We found that in the immediate aftermath of Joseph Smith’s death, a number of people or parties used his revelations to support their claims to succession: because the revelator was dead, Joseph Smith’s followers turned to the revelations he produced as the next best thing. We didn’t intend to offer a full analysis of the succession crisis. If I were to write a piece on the crisis I would take a different approach; the introduction to Revelations and Translations, volume 2, was a discussion centered on the published revelations. I do believe that the published revelations as found in the Doctrine and Covenants became the basis for many theological debates following the death of Joseph Smith. So many of the claimants found legitimacy in their citing, quoting, and expressing belief in the revelations given by Joseph Smith. Unrecorded esoteric teachings or public sermons only went so far in the debate on succession—especially in reaching people who had not been present when those teachings or sermons were given. The Doctrine and Covenants, then, became an important base from which Mormons of all stripes could begin and make their claim.

Question: How unique is your proposed sixth gathering of the Book of Commandments in documentary editing circles?

RSJ: One element of documentary editing has traditionally been to seek out original texts based on later surviving versions. This effort of capturing the original text is what’s known as a critical text edition (Royal Skousen’s recent publication of the Book of Mormon with Yale is an example of this). The effort to “finish” a work that was never complete is not nearly as common but something we couldn’t pass up. Historians of Mormonism, book collectors, and members alike have often speculated what the Book of Commandments would have looked like had it been finished. When the “Book of Commandments and Revelations” (Revelation Book 1) was published in Revelations and Translations, volume 1, the source text to the 1833 Book of Commandments became available and the task of “finishing” the Book of Commandments was more possible. As a quick recap, Revelation Book 1 was used in Missouri for the publication of the Book of Commandments. The book bears editing marks that correspond to the Book of Commandments’ unique changes (inserted verse numbers, word changes, etc.), meaning that Revelation Book 1 also includes editing marks made in preparation for that part of the publication that wasn’t published because the press was destroyed. I need to stress that what we presented in Revelations and Translations, volume 2, is our best effort to come up with the final gathering of the Book of Commandments, and that it is still open for interpretation.

Question: How did you decide which BoC and D&C imprints to image?

RSJ: There is a subtle difference between how we viewed the featured texts in the first two volumes of the Revelations and Translations series. In the first volume, the approach was to feature these unique manuscript texts in their present-day settings as artifacts. For the second volume, the point was to focus on the printing and publication of the Book of Commandments, The Evening and the Morning Star, Evening and Morning Star, and the two Doctrine and Covenants editions, and not necessarily any particular artifact. Thus based on that philosophy, as long as we featured a complete volume, the particular copy would not matter. Yet one early choice we made already decided which versions we would publish. Before finishing our first volume, the staff on the Joseph Smith Papers decided upon specific, early copies of the scriptures that would be the standard set of scriptures for the project in all of our citations throughout the edition. This was done to bypass any minor difficulty with changes of versions within one edition. As such, we felt that publishing that standard set would also allow anyone access to the very versions that we ourselves cited. The decision about which copy of each volume to choose came down largely to which copies were most accessible (copies held at the Church History Library) and which were in good enough condition to be photographed.

Question: Regarding your proposed sixth gathering, had it been published in 1833, do you think it would have impacted how the texts were later used in 1835? I’m thinking specifically of what is now our section 107 of the Doctrine and Covenants.

RSJ: Counterfactual history is something I’m intrigued with, but I’m not very good at it. Had the sixth gathering been published, and had the Book of Commandments been distributed as planned, several things may have happened. Three thousand copies of the Book of Commandments would have saturated the church’s membership. A big reason the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants was produced so quickly is that the church leadership did not feel that they had yet published a book of revelations. One result of a successful 1833 publication would have possibly been to delay the next edition of a compilation of revelations. That perhaps would have solidified the place of revelations within church discourse, meaning that fewer substantive changes to the revelations might have been made. Bear in mind, however, that several of the revelations that were changed in the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants were in fact available to many members of the church in The Evening and the Morning Star (admittedly in much smaller numbers than would have been available had the Book of Commandments been published in three thousand copies). The availability of those revelations in the newspaper didn’t stop editors of the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants from making changes to the revelation texts. Of course, a text published in a book would have had much more apparent longevity and stability than one published in a newspaper. I do wonder if the widespread availability of the revelations in a book would have discouraged the editors from changing the texts as they did.

The case of current section 107 is interesting, because it was not available anywhere in print before being published in section 3 of the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants. When the November 1831 revelation that makes up part of modern section 107 was featured, it was featured as a distinct text within the larger text created in 1835. The November 1831 revelation speaks directly to church government. I’m going to go out on a limb and speculate that if the November 1831 revelation had been published in 1833, then D&C 107 as we now know it would not have existed. I believe that one of the reasons editors of the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants expanded the text was because the revelation wasn’t in print before. As I see it, the text we know as section 107 was a statement on priesthood and government that quotes an earlier revelation. I think Joseph Smith and other church leaders would have found a different way of expressing what needed to be stated about church government, priesthood, and doctrine had the November 1831 revelation been publically available earlier.

Question: What insight about the current version of the D&C can we gain from a knowledge of the earlier versions?

RSJ: Current section 42 provides a good case study. A small portion of this revelation was published in the 1833 Book of Commandments but was not published in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants, and therefore is not part of the current reading of this section. This portion reads as follows in chapter 44 of the Book of Commandments:

“55 Thou shalt contract no debts with the world, except thou art commanded. 56 And again, the elders and bishop, shall counsel together, and they shall do by the direction of the Spirit as it must needs be necessary. 57 There shall be as many appointed as must needs be necessary to assist the bishop in obtaining places for the brethren from New-York, that they may be together as much as can be, and as they are directed by the Holy Spirit; and every family shall have a place, that they may live by themselves.— And every church shall be organized in as close bodies as they can be; and this for a wise purpose:— even so. Amen.”

In the Book of Commandments, our current section 42 was published in two chapters (chapters 44 and 47). The editors of the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants decided to publish these two chapters in a single section (section 13). The editors began by using chapter 44 of the Book of Commandments as a source text but then switched to the version published in The Evening and the Morning Star (and later reprinted in Evening and Morning Star). This matters because the newspaper version was an incomplete “extract” version; that is, the editors in 1835 were using an incomplete copy of the revelation for a source text. Had they used the complete version from the 1833 Book of Commandments, the above lines would have very likely been included in section 13 of the 1835 publication, and would likely have been available in the current edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. (The textual history of current section 42 is even more complex than outlined above, but I will refrain from exciting people too much with these fun textual nuances.)

Another example comes from better understanding the Evening and Morning Star. In 1835 and 1836, the printing office in Kirtland, Ohio, published a reprint of the church’s first newspaper. The masthead of this reprint bore the shortened title Evening and Morning Star. The first half (or so) of the revelations found in the newspaper were used to print those same revelations in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants (meaning that the first iteration of the changes for those revelations first appeared in the newspaper and not in the Doctrine and Covenants). The majority of the second half of the revelations found in the Evening and Morning Star simply copied the iterations found in the Doctrine and Covenants. There are, however, slight differences in a few revelations published in Evening and Morning Star that do not follow the reading in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants. These differences are not reflected in the current edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. These differences are nothing to get excited about; they are thoroughly minor differences. But to a textual scholar, they should not be ignored. One example from current section 38 of the Doctrine and Covenants will suffice. All the Joseph Smith-era versions and the current (1981) version read: “I am the same which spake, and the world was made, and all things came by me. I am the same which have taken the Zion of Enoch into mine own bosom.” The version published in Evening and Morning Star reads: “I am the same who spake and the world was made, and all things came by me: I am the same who have taken the Zion of Enoch into mine own bosom:” (D&C 38:3–4; emphasis added). To me it appears that even after the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants was published, the concept of “imperfect” language used within the revelations was still an understood concept.

Comments

  1. Great stuff. Thanks J. and Robin for doing this.

  2. Very nice. Thanks J. and Robin.

  3. Outstanding. Thank you!

  4. Awesome stuff, Rob. Thanks for putting it together, J.

  5. Yes, thanks Robin. I must confess that I am really quite interested in how the 1835 publications functions as a textual anchor, and with how revelatory dynamics over time incorporate (or don’t) the text.

  6. Excellent. Thanks Robin and J.!

  7. Thanks J. and Robin. Very interesting.

  8. Therefore, the real question in my mind is not this dichotomy of revelation as text versus revelation as experience, but the relationship between the two in Joseph Smith’s mind. Regardless, the revelations themselves acknowledged the imperfect nature of the revelations as texts: “these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding” (D&C 1:24). The revelations, therefore, were produced not as perfect texts, but “in their weakness, after the manner of their language,” bringing readers or hearers to an understanding, or as I would put it, to the revelation.

    I would really like to see more of this developed in Sunday School, the Ensign and in Conference to remind and revisit the issue for the Church as a whole.

  9. J.

    We share the same fascination (as if that’s any surprise). As I indicated in the review, theories utilized by book historians and bibliographers really could help scholars explore the place of these texts in Mormon history. This is something I’ve tried to do and plan to do in the future with various papers I’m writing. It’s an important approach that has had little attention.

    ethesis,

    I agree that the revelation process, because of its individuality, needs to be approached in its complexity. I’m also very much in favor of applying this same approach to our history. I believe that, just like members, scholars also need to be reminded and revisit the complexity of revelation and the roles it played in Joseph Smith’s life and in the lives of his followers. That too is something I’ve tried to do in some of the writing I’ve done.

  10. Thanks, Robin and J. Very interesting. The way revelation was communicated is very interesting to me. Delivering information in sermons, councils and small groups was the Nauvoo way as you say, but those methods are by definition somewhat ephemeral and the room for error was large in future propagation of that information. The institutional value of recovering an “earliest” form of that ephemeral communication is probably small, but it may change the way historian’s approach early Mormonism. In short, looking forward to more excellent stuff from the JSPP guys.

  11. This whole process of producing the various volumes in the JSPP is fascinating to me. Robin and J, thanks for taking the time to share this with us.

    Robin, the whole concept of counterfactual history intrigues me as well, but it is usually viewed with some disdain by many in academic circles. Add to that the idea that our history must have all rolled out exactly to a higher plan, and therefore couldn’t have happened any differently, seems to run in direct opposition to the concept of agency. It’s an area that I also think could benefit from some serious scholarly inquiry. Niall Ferguson is a big advocate of it in terms of secular history. I’d like to see more discussion of our history and the possible alternatives that could have taken place.

  12. Two thumbs up.

  13. Steve Evans says:

    Very interesting interview. Building the canon is a far more layered and nuanced process than I would have thought. To what extent is your work modfying or perhaps expanding our view of the canon, and what happens if non-canonical elements (such as, say, the current introductory paragraphs that precede sections in the D&C) are shown as contradictory to the historical record?

  14. Thanks guys.

    Robin, I think you might have the most interesting job in the world.

  15. Thanks J and Robin! Amazing stuff. I think we share in our own lives a parallel to this phenomenon of expanding revelatory texts. For example, one of my most significant answered prayers, to go on a mission, has taken on a lot more meaning to me some 12 years later, surely a lot more meaning than the original meager journal entry captured. If I were to transcribe my journal today I can’t help but think that I would expand the revelatory experience with text reflecting my gained knowledge/understanding/etc, etc.

  16. Robin, will a future volume contain the 1st ed. BOM or is that to be had in previously published volumes outside of the project?

    Thanks again for your work on two of the most exciting volumes of the JSPP!

  17. #14 – Amen, Mark.

  18. Thanks for the encouragement from everyone and sorry for the late response. I’ve had a hectic couple of days lately.

    Steve, you raise some interesting questions that I’ll try to answer. If one defines the “canon” to be the officially sanctioned set of scriptures (1981 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants), then I believe our work is having no impact on that canon right now. We’re of course not publishing these volumes as a way of expanding or modifying the official edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. We may be influencing members’ interpretation of the canon, but our ultimate goal (as I see it) is to present the texts so that scholars can gain access to these important revelatory texts in order to better understand Joseph Smith’s papers, history, and life. If the work we do will have an impact on any future modification or expansion of the canon, I can only imagine that that work will have to come through the official channels outside of the work we are doing on the Joseph Smith Papers. Similarly, the headings or other non-canonical elements would also have to be written and approved by official channels. I can’t imagine that the work we’ve done will not be utilized in some manner, but I don’t know when or how that work would be done.

    n8c, as far as I understand, there are plans to feature the 1st edition of the BoM in some way or another with the JSP (i.e. either in print or online). Those plans are still up in the air with all the other volumes we’re currently working on. There are reprint editions of the BoM out there to be had–I think I’ve even seen them at Deseret Book, though I may be mistaken or they may have ceased to carry them.

  19. Thanks for the information, Robin, and the great comments. This is a fascinating project. On the 1st edition Book of Mormon, I think it is only the Community of Christ that sells reprints these days. I picked up a copy of the reprint done up by Deseret in 1980 to makr the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the church while I was on my mission. I think it would be cool if they did something similar for 2030.

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