This series constitutes a leisurely stroll through the halls of Doctrine and Covenants section 77. I don’t have any particular schedule in mind, future posts will appear as seemeth me good. Part 1 of the series is here.
A wonderful thing about the Joseph Smith Papers (JSP) is its permitted exploration of the First Presidency historical document collection. Recently rediscovered within that collection was a manuscript book of revelations, designated Revelation Book 1 in the JSP. This is a foundational text for several reasons.
1. It offers in many cases, not autographs (an autograph in the text world is what might be termed the first text, the “original manuscript” perhaps) but texts perhaps only one or two copies removed from those autographs.
2. It served as the source for the first attempted publication, and then one of the sources for the later landmark first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants in 1835.
In this part 2 of the series I want to compare some of the text of section 77 of the Doctrine and Covenants with the text found in Revelation Book 1, and discuss it just a bit.
On the left in the two columns is the RB1 text, on the right is the text of the first printing of the revelation, from the August 1, 1844 issue of the Nauvoo Times and Seasons. It appears there as a part of the ongoing publication of Joseph Smith’s history. Pointy brackets < > indicate interlinear insertions in, or modifications of, the manuscript.
Q What are we to understand by the Book which John saw which was sealed <on the back>* with seven Seals
Ans. We are to understand that it contains the revealed will.
Q What are we to understand by the Seven Seals with which it was sealed?
A We are to understand that the first seal contains the things of the first thousand years and the second also of the second thousand years and so on until the seventh.
What are we to understand by the book which John saw, which was sealed on the back with seven seals.
We are to understand that it contains the revealed will, mysteries and works of God; the hidden things of his economy concerning the earth during the seven thousand years of its continuance, or its temporal existence.
What are we to understand by the seven seals with which it was sealed?
We are to understand that the first seal contains things of the first thousand years, and the second also of the second thousand years, and so on until the seventh.
*This insertion was by John Whitmer who also penned the entire document.
This excerpt suggests that early Mormon cosmology was little different than that of the Protestant world from which it emerged. The earth has a “temporal existence” that is mapped by what is essentially the Ussher chronology: Adam came on the scene roughly 4000BC and the alotted time for the earth’s existence as a home for mankind is 7000 years.
I take this to be an interpretative announcement assigning a meaning internal to the text of Revelation. That is, I see these passages, not as a revelation of the nature of the universe, but as an interpretation internally consistent (in one view) with that of the KJV text of Revelation.
This is important in two ways. First, the revelation is situated by its RB1 preamble as a part of Joseph Smith’s and Sidney Rigdon’s project of revising the text of the Bible. One vision of this project sees it as a restoration of what the text meant in its most ancient form. Hence, we may view this segment of section 77 as a recitation of how the author of Revelation saw the world. In a sense, Joseph “translates” the text by supplying context for the passage, possibly even the context that the original author of the book of Revelation had (I think this may be true in some cases of the Bible project, not in others).
Second, a contextual view may relieve some readers of the burden of finding correspondence between what we know about the nature of the universe and the ancient cosmology of Revelation. After all, Ussher was not the only person who could count, the author of Revelation clearly saw the universe through the lens of the Old Testament too.
What Was Joseph Smith’s View of Nature?
Joseph, as evidenced by his own preaching and writing, saw Genesis as a (perhaps somewhat attenuated) picture of the universe and it origins. This is supported in a nuanced way by his revelatory emendations of the book of Genesis in ca. 1830 and his additional creation text in the Book of Abraham (1835/1842). Joseph, I think, was quite capable of rejecting the conclusions of science in favor of Scripture. That said, he was not shy about overturning Protestant exegesis.
How does that guide us today though? Seeing cosmology through a biblical lens is certainly possible. But I see such folk as a shrinking breed.
I hope as you have opportunity, you teach young people in the church that our scripture does not require them to choose fabulous chronology over reality. Taking at least some of Joseph Smith’s involvement in the ancient world as I have very briefly described it at least allows faith and inspiration its due while also allowing students to see science as progress rather than threat.
Next time, a little more comparison between these two earliest texts (earliest available manuscript, earliest imprint) and a little more on cosmology and Joseph Smith.
 In the case of Joseph Smith’s revelations, the original was almost always an oral text. That is, a dictation. The Book of Mormon is a perfect example. Hence, many of the Revelation Book 1 texts are probably two steps from the original in this sense. Text theory in this case is less well developed. Nevertheless, this is an important distinction and applies in several ways to Joseph Smith, in particular to his sermons.
 There are several, not mutually exclusive visions of what the project was doing and accomplished. Pursuing this takes us too far afield right now.