Robin Scott Jensen is an editor with the Joseph Smith Papers, working extensively on the Revelations and Translations series. As always, his work represented here is his alone and not representative of the church nor the JSP. He has posted with BCC before on his detailed work with the revelations. And even though he is a Sunday School instructor for the 16-17 year olds, the welcomed youth program put a kink in his planned D&C lectures, so he instead shares one with us today. -EmJen
Two remarkable points stand out to me when I think of Joseph Smith and his revelations: his willingness to share his prophetic responsibilities with others and the ever-evolving way in which he introduced new revelation to the Saints. These two points complement and inform one other and can shed light on our own understanding of what it means to receive revelation.
The revelations to Oliver Cowdery regarding the translation of the Book of Mormon have become more and more fascinating to me as I step back and try to understand what Joseph Smith was actually doing. A man less than thirty years old, with no formal education, claimed visions of an angel, the discovery of ancient plates, and their subsequent “translation.” And he promptly offered his scribe, whom he had known for less than a month, to share in this critically important and spiritual task. Oliver quickly learned what subsequent members would discover. Mormonism was a participatory religion. Joining Mormonism meant joining with full commitment—both temporarily and spiritually. This commitment stretched people beyond their comfort level. In the first revelation to Cowdery, dictated in April 1829, the Lord tells him that he had a gift. This was a gift that “cometh from above” and promised “great and marvelous” mysteries. But there was more. Besides the gift of knowing mysteries, the Lord promises him another gift: “behold I grant unto you a gift if you desire of me, to translate even as my servant Joseph.” What an incredible statement. I would love to have heard a bit of the pre- or post-revelation conversation between Joseph and Oliver.
But it was not to be. The story is well known: Oliver attempted to translate, failed, and received an additional revelation instructing him in the necessity of doing more than simply asking. “Behold you have not understood, you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no though, save it was to ask me.”
But hang on. Isn’t that what the earlier revelations told him to do? “If thou wilt inquire, thou shalt know mysteries.” “Behold as often as thou hast inquired, thou hast received instruction of my Spirit” “thou knoest that thou hast inquired of me, and I did enlighten thy mind” “as Shuredly as the Lord liveth…so shure shall ye receive a knowledge of whatsoever things ye shall ask with an honest heart believeing that ye Shall receive, a knowledge concerning the engraveings of old Records which are ancient which contain those parts of my Scriptures” “whatsoever ye shall ask to tell you by that means that will he grant unto you” “do not ask for that which ye had not ought ask that ye may know the mysteries of God & that ye may Translate all those ancient Records which have been hid up.” If there was any “theme” of the revelations leading up to the failed attempt to translation, it was that Oliver was to ask for what he needed.
So what should we make of this? Was God/Joseph leading him on, simply setting him up for failure to make a point about “study[ing] if out in your mind”? I don’t believe so. But I think in order to make sense of Cowdery’s struggle with translation, we have to explore my second point about Joseph Smith’s revelatory process.
The same April 1829 revelations that encouraged Cowdery to translate and then explain why he couldn’t also gave a varied understanding of revelation. The following are the different ways Joseph and Oliver were promised they would gain access to God: JS speaking authoritative texts from God, answers to prayer, inspired direction by the spirit, an enlightened mind, confirmation by other human witnesses or testifiers, peace to a troubled mind (of which the Lord said “What greater witness can you have than from God?”), divine communication, the ability to translate (records containing the gospel), manifestations of the Holy Ghost in the mind and heart, ability to manipulate divining rods, divine or inspired learning, burning in a bosom, a feeling “that it is right,” and inspired writing. Oliver was not presented with a commandment that explained revelation; he was inundated with multiple revelatory options.
These revelations teach us that the Lord would bombard Joseph and Oliver with revelation, inspiration, and divine manifestations. I don’t know why Oliver failed to translate, given the fact that we’re missing so much context of the episode. An additional revelation may be missing, possible instructions from Joseph Smith are unknown, or Cowdery may have felt uncomfortable (Cowdery was told “you feared and the time is past”) with the responsibility and “commence[d] again to write for” Joseph. What I do know is that the options for communicating and receiving communications from God were/are staggering.
Unfortunately, most end the story with Cowdery’s failure to translate. But in light of the two points of Joseph’s sharing and expanding his revelations, I think the story should end a month later. After all, Oliver shared with Joseph in the vision of John the Baptist—one of the most important divine manifestations the church preaches about to this day.
Of course the story doesn’t actually end here. Cowdery would go on to receive many other revelations jointly with Joseph, including a vision in the Kirtland Temple. And Joseph would further expand the way the Saints received revelations, including blessings, sermons, councils, private instructions, correspondence, temple liturgy, translating additional ancient languages, and simple conversations. And every one of these methods was entrusted to others. The expansive nature of not only who could receive revelations but how God reveled himself to the Saints is wrapped up in the early story of Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith translating the Book of Mormon.
But stepping back, I think this only makes sense. Joseph was on the cusp of what scholars recognize as the communication revolution of America. As Americans expanded their own ability to communicate information and form networks, so too did Joseph Smith seek out more expansive means to communicate with and receive communication from God. As nineteenth-century Americans discovered, the expansion of communication resulted in a radical upheaval of American culture. While the forms of communication shifted according to newly developed technology and cultural expectations, the ability and desire to communicate increased. The society became increasingly dependent upon being able to communicate with one another and consuming the increasing amounts of information. Similarly, it’s as if the ideology of developing communication of the 19th century found its way into the understanding of divine communication in Mormonism. Joseph built up a church dependent upon divine communication. As additional avenues for revelation opened up, the church changed, adapted, and solidified around the act of revealed communication. Seer stones and divining rods expanded into inspired commandments. Commandments expanded into blessings, councils, and private instructions, which expanded further into temple liturgy, ancient languages, and sermons. And along the way, there were people sharing in the revelation process. Mormonism was, in part, about speaking to the heavens and expecting answers in return. The enthusiasm for revelation was so great that Joseph had to curtail it on several instances. But one important thing to remember—especially as we’ve canonized only one part of this revelatory process—is that revelation within early Mormonism is not about the Doctrine and Covenants. Understanding the sacred communication revolution within Mormonism is so much more than that.
So when we speak of “continuing revelation” I hope we remember that it is about the “continuing [modes of] revelation” and “continuing [to share] revelation.”