Joseph Smith, handbooks, and the evolution of Church liturgy

I’m working on a number of projects that analyze Mormon liturgy. One of the major themes across the projects is the shift from folk liturgy to formal. What that means is that in the early church, there were no rule books or written instructions describing how and why to perform various rituals and worshipful acts. Instead, people learned how to perform ritual generally by example or oral instruction. Those familiar with current church practice can recognize a difference in how things are done today.

In analyzing the situation, one important question is why there weren’t written ritual texts or handbooks. Such things are not uncommon in the time period. Nathan Hatch discusses the popular anti-creedalism in which Mormonism took part. But in rereading some of my notes, I came across William McLellin’s summary of a 1834 sermon in which Joseph Smith “preached three hours…during which he exposed the Methodist Dicipline in its black deformity and called upon the Elders in the power of the spirit of God to expose the creeds & confessions of men.” [1]

The Methodist Discipline was sort of a General Handbook of Instruction for the Methodist Episcopal church (schismatic Methodists also sometimes published their own versions). Smith’s characterization of the Discipline is pretty extreme (especially in light of Mormonism’s deep homology with Methodist polity and culture), and he reiterated his sentiments later in Nauvoo while discussing the famous case of Pelitiah Brown, who had been charged with teaching false doctrine. Smith responded: “I never thought it was right to call up a man and try him because he erred in doctrine, it looks too much like methodism and not like Latter day Saintism. Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be kicked out of their church. I want the liberty of believing as I please, it feels so good not to be tramelled.” [2]

But wait. What about the Doctrine and Covenants? It was a compilation of revelations and commandments that were binding on the Saints, as well as the theological “Lectures on Faith.” Didn’t the Doctrine and Covenants act as a creed or instruction manual?

I’m reading Mark Ashurst-McGee’s dissertation right now. Good stuff. Early in the dissy, he discusses the Book of Mormon’s political theology where dissension and contention are the most serious concern, not concentration of political power. Moreover, the greatest solution to dissension is the revelation of the hierarch assimilated by a receptive populous. I think this applies very well to Joseph Smith’s approach to church policy and government.

Joseph Smith’s approach to his revelation texts is particularly insightful. The early revisions and aggregations are important, but what we see in Nauvoo is rather abrupt turn towards oral communication of revelation. By the time Smith dies, he has all but deprecated the content of the Doctrine and Covenants. Smith was not willing to be constrained, even by his own revelation. When church members tried to use the structure of ecclesiastical law against Smith, he quelled the dissension (or tried to) by receiving more revelation. The idea that a book of law would be ultimately binding simply didn’t fit into Joseph Smith’s religious world.

As it relates to church liturgy, the Doctrine and Covenants only mentions laying hands on the sick. These revelations were given in the first couple of years of the church, but in subsequent years, JS and others introduced anointing with oil (on the head, on the area of affliction and drinking it), baptism for health, washing and anointing for health, and an adapted prayer circle ritual for health. Women were also important administrators of healing ritual. The healing liturgy was dramatically diverse. Most of the rituals were introduced in a period when oral texts were the primary source of revelation.


  1. Jan Shipps and John W. Welch, eds., The Journals of William E. McLellin, 1831-1836 (Provo, Urbana and Chicago: BYU Studies and University of Illinois Press, 1994), 152.
  2. WoJS, 183-84.


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    On the D&C acting as a creed, that was exactly David Whitmer’s problem with the Church.

  2. Great discussion, J. Briefly, how do you see the position of the Doctrine and Covenants after JS? It seems almost deprecated now, I mean in comparison to its status mid-20th century. Will we see an edited version some day?

  3. WVS, those are great questions. I think Robin Jensen and some others like Ben, are doing some really interesting work in this area. It seems like non Brighamites were the quickest to turn to the D&C. My sense now (which could be absolutely mistaken) is that in the early mid-twentieth century everyone who had folk knowledge had died and there was a sort of existential crisis and the D&C was a tangible anchor to the early Restoration. And is correlation, with its tendency to decontextualize and prooftext the reason for the current positioning?

    Kevin, I need to get a better handle on David Whitmer.

  4. Nicely done, J. Thanks.

  5. Great stuff, J. David Holland addresses some of these tensions in his book, since this topic touches on the issues of a tenuous and threatening open canon. It seems the Church’s relationship to revelatory “creeds” has vacillated over the decades, depending on different personalities, circumstances, and contexts. In the worst cases, the canon (including the regulation of liturgy) is mostly used as a tool to fit modern adaptation, and we read things back into the text. In other cases, I think the canon serves as a springboard for new ideas (not too dissimilar to JS’s approach to the canon), as in the case of the new quorums of seventies, which probably go beyond the originally understood earning of the text.

    As for the notion of creeds and handbooks in general, I think that is the natural progression of a religious denomination. Not all leaders can harness the eclectic and innovative charisma of JS, so there has to be a routenization at some point in order to maintain stability.

  6. WVS why do you think it depreciated again? It’s one year of study which seems pretty odd for a depreciated text.

    That said it seems to me the very doctrine of continuing revelation would entail that texts can’t act as trumps the way they tended to within Protestantism. Interestingly the religion that broke with Protestantism by the injection of a text ends up rejecting the textualism of Protestantism the most.

    The rise of correlation probably was one big reason for the rise of prominence of the D&C. I think the bigger influence was a particular way of doing exegesis – often via prooftexting – that had become popular with Joseph Fielding Smith. That is if you want to look at the origin look back to some of the intellectual batters between Talmage, Widstoe and Roberts on one side and McConkie and Smith on the others. The nature of the debate set, I think, the tone for how scriptures were taken up the next 50 years. Contrast this with say the Orson Pratt and Brigham Young battles where textuality really wasn’t an issue.

  7. Thanks, Christopher.

    And good points, Ben. There is certainly a Weberian dynamic at play. But the comments about the Discipline are so wildly harsh that it illustrates something else going on as well, I think. And I confess that I need to read Holland’s book.

  8. J: indeed. That “Discipline” quote is rich and deserves to be unpacked.

  9. Clark, when I wrote deprecated, I was thinking in a relative sense. In looking at some stats I’ve collected, it appears that D&C got relatively more references in church literature in the 1930-60s than in the 1970-2000s and from 1985 or so that there was a considerable relative decrease (relative to Bible and Book of Mormon references). If you eliminate certain key passages (about 10 I think) things are even more dramatic. And the usage of the D&C has seen a marked shift toward misreading I believe, but I’ll need to check. Conference usage follows the same pattern I believe. I think Pres. Benson tried a little backtracking on the BofM curse thing in favor of the D&C, but it never took. Our D&C year is really not focused on the D&C text much is it? From lesson 32 on it’s sort of historical as well. I don’t think it’s bound for decanonization or anything.

  10. especially in light of Mormonism’s deep homology with Methodist polity and culture

    Heh. I had thought this to be the case but am glad to find out it’s common knowledge, or that at least you agree.

    Moreover, the greatest solution to dissension is the revelation of the hierarch assimilated by a receptive populous.

    Would you mind unpacking this for me? It seems to me that what you are saying is that as long as folks support the people the leaders as genuine prophets, the threat of dissension is minimized regardless of the content of any prophecies.



  11. Hey Mogs. Christopher Jones has done a lot of really great work on Methodism and Mormonism. E.g., his recent article on the first vision. Hard not to see it in the documents, I think. Staker has tried to complicate things by pushing the Campbellites.

    Regarding the BoM stuff, I think what you wrote is correct. I’m still early in the dissy, but Mark’s thesis is that the BoM isn’t particularly interested in a bullet-proof political system, and especially not religious pluralism. Instead the goal appears to be unity (or the minimization of contention/dissent) with civilization and unity being tied to the introduction or availability of new scripture (or revelation). If the majority didn’t want or accept that, then destruction. If you have access to the dissy, it is in the 120-130 range.

  12. Great post.

  13. The demise of the Doctrine and Covenants is greatly exaggerated here, I believe. It is the best source by far for understanding how the church actually operates. It is the source material for the practice of the church, and only in relatively rare cases is it actually superseded pertaining to anything about the actual practice of church administration. That gives it a practical importance greater than the New Testament or the Book of Mormon, for example, so far as ecclesiology is concerned.

    I must also disagree strongly with the suggestion that Joseph Smith himself deprecated it during his lifetime either. One of the most striking things about the D & C is how accurately it prefigures almost everything that Joseph Smith ever taught. It is not like Joseph Smith changed direction after 1835 – he kept going in the same direction, and the text of the D & C sections as stabilized in 1835 provides plenty of evidence to demonstrate that.

    Read D&C 93, for example, which is substantially identical in every respect to the version published in 1835. It is the best source on the doctrine of exaltation (or theosis) we have, arguably much more fundamental than anything in D&C 132.

  14. Mark, no need to link to anti-Mormon sites, when the JSPP have full color facsimiles available. I think we’ll simply have to disagree, on the analysis, though.

  15. The JSPP facsimile of the D&C is essentially unusable, unfortunately. There is no way to navigate from section to section, and the search function does not work at all. There is no mapping of modern section numbers to original section numbers either.

    As long as the sites hostile to Mormonism provide resources that are much easier to find and use, many, many more people will actually find and use them.

  16. Could it be different circumstances and different needs?

    Trying to run a global church the way Joseph tried to run a Kirtland church would be disastrous.

    Its easy for a small business man to differentiate to customers by talking about speed to respond, flexibility to change to requests, and the personal nature of the business relationship. But as the small business grows to significant size, rules and policies are needed to produce quality and keep order.

    Yes, I am drawing a parallel to the leadership style of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and modern corporations. I am not saying that is a bad thing.

  17. Well I can’t disagree with WVS’ more qualified statement. I think one has to ask what is being emphasized in any particular decade and what helps with that. I’m not sure that entails a depreciation so much as other texts being more useful. I’ve noticed that the last 15 years the end of the prooftext era really changed how scriptures are used in talks. I see more emphasis on narratives with scriptures oriented towards those. There’s also more emphasis on people doing things. As such a more expository or legal text such as one finds in much of the D&C simply is less useful.

    I still think the D&C gets used a lot though, and as Mark noted, it provides the trajectory for a lot of our theology for which there aren’t many formal texts. (The King Follet Discourse is arguably the best for many of them and that’s a text I think has been depreciated compared with the 90′s — look at how little made it in the last Joseph Smith Priesthood manual) Also WVS did not that there are passages that get discussed a lot. D&C 84 and 89 being two obvious examples.

  18. Oh, regarding the focus in Sunday School (as opposed to the focus of particular teachers) it is interesting that the last manual does seem to try and shift more towards a narrative style than a doctrinal concept style. Contrast this with what was done during the heyday of McConkie. Perhaps some of this is due to faddism in academics where the last 30 years has seen much more emphasis on narratives. Perhaps part of it is how the Church has just depreciated the more legalistic style of exegesis popular in the McConkie era.

    It’s interesting that while there is a quasi-ordered structure to the course (more or less following the sections in order) it isn’t done to the degree one sees in the chronology of the Book of Mormon, OT, or NT. Further many lessons really jump around a lot.

    I’d not have made that observation had you not brought it up.

  19. Very interesting, J. And I am trying to envision running the global church the way Joseph ran Kirtland, as Heber13 mentioned. It probably wouldn’t work very well. But maybe I only think that because I was raised in the correlated church. It would certainly be very different without handbooks.

  20. Rebecca, I think it is pretty safe to say that Kirtland wasn’t the pinnacle of organization success and efficiency. I want to point out that this post isn’t a criticism of handbooks and their use in the modern church. It is attempt to understand why they didn’t exist in the early church.

  21. it's a series of tubes says:

    I’m greatly enjoying the willy-nilly abuse of the word “depreciated” in this thread. Note the OP’s correct use of the beautiful, incisive word “deprecated”, which is music to a developer’s ears. Deprecated != depreciated.

  22. You know, I had thought that this usage of “depricate” was fairly broadly understood. But perhaps it isn’t, in which case some might see it as an obscure metaphor, which if not recognize communicates something other than what is intended.

  23. That Smith quote in paragraph 3 makes me so happy, J. Especially this week.

  24. Deprecated when I use it in software means the features and APIs will be removed in the next version and you shouldn’t use it. I don’t think that’s good view of the D&C myself. But I’ll not go down the semantic debate route. I can see depreciating (although admittedly I misread deprecate as depreciate – probably because deprecate sounds much worse to me).

  25. BTW – why was a new edition of the D&C printed in 1844 if it was being deprecated?

  26. Clark, note that I didn’t say the Doctrine and Covenants was depricated, but that the content all but was. Why the 1844 version didn’t have the sorts of changes that the 1835 version did is an interesting question, and I pitched that question to Robin in a BCC Q&A. I should have been more careful, though, it wasn’t all the content that was superseded.

  27. “And is correlation, with its tendency to decontextualize and prooftext the reason for the current positioning?”

    I think it is. It would be interesting to see which passages in the D&C have been used in Conference talks — comparing those used pre-correlation to those used post-correlation. I wonder if a narrower range of quotations are used today?


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