Notes, commentary, and questions for LDS Sunday School teachers using the ‘Doctrine & Covenants and Church History’ manual. Feel free to share your thoughts or ideas regarding the lesson in the comments.
I sure wish chalkboards were linkable. Why? Because then I would begin with this modified Attention Activity*:
List some or all of the following subjects on the chalkboard before class begins.
Invite a class member to erase from the chalkboard anything that has not been revealed through the Prophet Joseph Smith. Help class members see that nothing can be erased from the chalkboard—that all of these truths were restored through the Prophet Joseph. Then pick any of the above to click into and discuss more in-depth using these helpful resources from By Common Consent.
Five hours later…
I also dipped into my husband’s computer files in regards to the section “Many ancient and latter-day scriptures have come through Joseph Smith” to bring you all some scholarly insights on the Book of Commandments. All his quotes are from his 2011 Mormon History Association presentation on “Publishing, Printing, and Preserving: New Insights into the Book of Commandments”
Robin: On a summer afternoon in 1833, two teenage girls rushed into the streets of a Missouri frontier settlement determined to save printed sheets of an unfinished book of scripture. They ran with armfuls of uncut sheets from a vigilante group of Missourians who had thrown the press out the window, pied, or scattered the type and press furniture, and had destroyed the printing office where the book had been printing for the past six months or so. One participant later recalled the events of the day. “They (the mob) brought out some large sheets of paper, saying ‘Here are the Mormon commandments.’ My sister, 12 years old (I was then 14) and myself were in a corner of a fence watching them. When they spoke about them being the commandments, I was determined to have some of them.” Through their, and others’ efforts, about 30 known copies of the Book of Commandments survived for future generations. To these girls, saving the sheets of the book was more than an act of bibliophilia; to them the sheets represented the faith they and their family had recently adopted. Containing the revelations dictated by Joseph Smith, the Book of Commandments served as a symbol for early Mormons’ faith for both believers and non-believers alike.
This would be a good time to ask the manual’s question “What does the story of Mary Elizabeth and Caroline Rollins teach about how we should value the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants?”
Robin: The printing of the Book of Commandments itself illustrates the tension between the optimism of the early Latter-day Saints and the harsh reality of printing in the early nineteenth-century and on the American frontier. In early November 1831 leaders of the church met to discuss the prospect of printing a book of Joseph Smith’s revelatory commandments. The conference voted to print 10,000 copies. A decision to print more copies than there were members of the church represents the optimism early Mormons must have felt about the work and the future of the church. At a time when most editions of books were in the hundreds rather than the thousands, the early Saints clearly printed for a future audience: the growing church membership that they felt inevitably would come. Those involved with printing moved quickly. About three months after the November conference, Oliver Cowdery wrote to Smith indicating that the entire printing operation was ready with the exception of the paper. Cowdery, John Whitmer, and W. W. Phelps had obtained a press and type and had prepared a building in which to print a thousand miles away from the church leadership in Ohio on the frontier of America. Once established, the nearest press was over a hundred miles away. Not only did the number of books indicate a future membership, the location of the press symbolized a hoped-for community to these early followers of Smith.
Obviously, that did not materialize due to a myriad of problems, but you could discuss the publishing of the Doctrine and Covenants today, maybe seguing into the new Scripture Changes.
Robin: Turning to the Book of Commandments itself: contemporary observers of the volume would have seen it as a book with little context. Everything about the work assumes the reader has a certain degree of knowledge not provided within the actual book. For instance, the full name of Joseph Smith—the founding leader of the church and the individual responsible for the contents of the book—is nowhere to be found in the book. In fact, other than W. W. Phelps, the printer of the church, and the name used to indicate the company printing the work, no complete names are found in the work. While the vast majority of the Book of Commandments is made up of revelatory texts dictated by Joseph Smith to individuals, the reader would not know that fact from information found exclusively in the book. This opaque presentation matches the earlier mentality of restricting access to revelation manuscripts. Presenting the revelations with a veiled context allows informed readers greater understanding of the revelations than those without that non-supplied context, though they are reading the same text.
Interestingly, as you sit in a Sunday School class, you are likely engaging in this same sort of oral context to the revelations in a group setting that many of the early Saints engaged in as they studied the new revelations. Cool, eh?
Robin: The work is a “Book of Commandments, for the Government of the Church of Christ.” To insiders, “commandments” were understood to be the sacred, revelatory texts dictated by Joseph Smith to others, as opposed to the more generic sentiments of “a divine command.” As understood by followers of Joseph Smith, this book was to contain the actual sacred texts dictated by Smith coming from the voice of God, and not a divinely, moralistic set of rules. The commandments, while different in their approach, meaning, and intended effect, are boiled down to one purpose on the title page: to govern the church. And not just any church, but the Church of Christ “organized according to Law, on the | 6th of April, 1830.” Perhaps seeking some legitimacy of charges of being a sect of “Mormonites” the title page emphasizes the fact that the church is legitimately organized according to law, with a book of commandments to govern the church. This emphasis may counteract the other emphasis found on the title page: the newness of the organization. The date of the organization “6th of April, 1830” is set in larger type size than any other phrase on the title pages except for “COMMANDMENTS” and “Church of Christ.” The Church of Christ was a brand new religion, whether organized according to law or not, and this emphasis highlighted the dramatic change of religious legitimacy in America’s early republic.
Do we today look at the Doctrine and Covenants the same way that these early followers likely looked at the revelations?
*Feel free to add favorite blog posts (and not just from BCC, I just did that because this is BCC and I’m sure I missed other great ones just from BCC) in the comments that work as well.