This Sunday begins our quadrennial Gospel Doctrine romp through the Doctrine and Covenants and Mormon History. The contributors here at By Common Consent are committing to provide weekly supplements to the lessons, with context, questions, and discussion for those interested. While we will have regular authors in the series, we will also have various experts join in the schedule. Look forward to the weekly roundup.
I’d like to kick the year off with a bit of an introduction to the Doctrine and Covenants, along with some links and suggested reading that will enhance your lesson preparation or participation. Then I’d like to discuss three common ways of reading the scripture.
This year holds some important and dramatic differences from any previous cycle through this curriculum. The primary distinction is the availability of the work of the Joseph Smith Papers Project. While Revelations and Translations, Volume 1 (R1) and Volume 2 (R2) (reviewed here and here) are tremendously important, even key to a serious approach to the revelation texts, the Joseph Smith Papers website is almost overwhelming in its documentary and contextual goodness (http://josephsmithpapers.org/). For example, it has the earliest revelation texts in the documents section, the manuscript and published revelations collections in the revelations section, and biographical sketches of all those mentioned in the supplemental materials.
As a primer for the origin of the Doctrine and Covenants, I would recommend the introductions to R1 and R2. Robin Jensen is the JSPPs resident expert on the revelations and his interviews here, here, and here (the latter on the publishing of the revelations will be particularly useful) are really extraordinary. The introduction to Harper’s Making Sense of the Doctrine and Covenants (reviewed here, the best thing Deseret Book has to offer on the Doctrine and Covenants as a whole), and Turley and Slaughter’s recent How We Got the Doctrine and Covenants will be helpful.
Now let’s consider three different ways of reading scripture:
As Mormons we take the exhortation to liken the scriptures to ourselves seriously. I think that this often plays out in a way that renders the scriptures as a catalyst. The scriptures become a means of revelation. I think that there are lots of different ways and practices people use to find inspiration. What scholars call bibliomancy—the common Christian practice of opening the Bible at random—is an example.
We like to hate on the traditions of their fathers, but the reality is that traditions play a key part of any cohesive group. As Mormons we pay particular attention to readings of scripture that have been promoted by Church leaders. We invest particular phrases and sentences with meaning. For example, if I say “stand ye in holy places,” or “seek ye learning out of the best books” fellow Mormons will hear with a shared cultural understanding that isn’t necessarily connected to how the first listeners understood the phrases. This mode of communication has a tremendous explanatory power, and informs fundamental narratives like what priesthood means (see, e.g., WVS’s awesome series on 107).
This is what the JSPP is all about, and I’m looking forward to the Documents volumes due out at the end of the year that should really facilitate this sort of approach to individual revelations. Trying to understand the text as it was understood when delivered.
Some people believe that these readings are incompatible or that they threaten each other. I think that they can be complimentary. I will be honest, however, that my general interest is focused on contextual readings. I personally find meaning through contextual readings that resonate with my lived experience as a human being and as a Latter-day Saint. I feel more connected to our faith and our religious progenitors. Your mileage may vary.
Lastly as an interesting exercise, I submit the following questions regarding these significant iterations of the revelations texts:
- Manuscripts: How were they received and recorded? How were they transmitted? What variation exists between them? Is there a difference between a Commandment, Revelation, and Vision?
- Book of Commandments: Why did the Saints start publishing the revelations? How successful was the print run? Do you have an original copy, and can I have it?
- 1835 Doctrine and Covenants: What sorts of changes exist between this edition and the Book of Commandments? Why do they exist? Are there similar shifts in subsequent printings?
- 1876 Doctrine and Covenants: Why did Orson Pratt have to scrape for Nauvoo-era material? What sorts of materials were added?
- 1921 Doctrine and Covenants: Doctrine?
- 1981 Doctrine and Covenants: What is the most recent “revelation” text included in the current D&C? What else besides OD2 was added?