A Few Items of Interest in Documents, Volume 1: July 1828-June 1831, Part I

Gerrit Dirkmaat is a historian working as an editor of The Joseph Smith Papers volumes. He joined the Joseph Smith Papers project in 2010 and has since served as a historian/editor on Journals Vol. 2, Documents Vol. 1, and as the lead volume editor of Documents Vol. 3, which will be published in 2014. He is currently serving as an editor for the first volume in the Administrative series. We are super-stoked to have him as our guest.

Deciding what is of most interest in a volume you have researched, written, and edited is probably similar to attempting to determine which of your children you love most.  It all seems very important from my perspective, but clearly there are things in Documents, Volume 1 that will be of particular interest to both scholars and non-scholars alike.

Volume Introduction

Like Journals, Volume 2, with its frank yet brief discussion of polygamy in the introduction, Documents, Volume 1 has an introduction that addresses a difficult issue—i.e., the way revelations were received and the way Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon. While space limitations made an exhaustive explanation on this point impossible, readers will find a very straightforward discussion of Joseph Smith’s use of seer stones both to translate the Book of Mormon and to receive many of his early revelations.  The accounts of Joseph Smith’s scribes and confidants give a clear picture of how he apparently used the seer stones. He placed either a single seer stone or the two seer stones (or interpreters) he had received from Moroni (which later came to be called the Urim and Thummim) into the bottom of a hat and used it to block out the light so he could read the words of the translation that appeared on the stone(s). For those unfamiliar with Joseph Smith’s use of a seer stone placed in a hat to receive early revelations, the volume introduction will provide a brief, understandable explanation, with many of the important sources either quoted directly in the text or cited in the footnotes.

Doctrine and Covenants Section 19                  

Many of the changes to the headings in the new 2013 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants stem from discoveries made and research undertaken by scholars with the Joseph Smith Papers.  While a number of those changes came from information provided in the dates and headings written in the Book of Commandments and Revelations (or Revelation Book 1), some of the changes came from other research surrounding the context of the revelations.  Section 19 of the Doctrine and Covenants, for instance, had been since the 1833 Book of Commandments regarded as a late March 1830 revelation.  This dating has affected both scholarly and lay interpretations of its content.  Under the old interpretation, Martin Harris was depicted as fretting over the hefty investment he had made to publish the Book of Mormon, and this revelation was consequently regarded as having been given to him after the publication was completed to help assuage his consternation.  Research and analysis of the early manuscripts and surrounding documents led the editors of Documents, Volume 1 to conclude that section 19 was not a March 1830 revelation, but a summer 1829 revelation (see detailed discussion in Documents, Volume 1, pp. 85–92).  With this new dating, the context of the revelation changes almost completely.  Rather than a communication designed to encourage Martin Harris to feel better after the fact about having mortgaged his property to pay for the Book of Mormon, in the new 1829 context this revelation now is recognized as the commandment that instructs Martin Harris to mortgage his property in order to pay for the printing.  Harris had promised to pay for the printing as early as 1827 but apparently balked when it came time to actually give up nearly all of his property, thus necessitating the reception of section 19 in summer 1829. The new dating sheds light on several other documents and events, such as Harris’s mortgage to E. B. Grandin in August 1829, the delay in beginning the publication process until early September 1829, Harris’s January 1830 agreement with Joseph Smith to be allowed to recoup his investment through the sale of books (pp. 104–108), and the condemnatory nature of the revelation text itself.

Doctrine and Covenants Section 20 and Oliver Cowdery’s “Articles of the Church of Christ”

While Oliver Cowdery’s “Articles of the Church of Christ” has often been seen as an early draft of “Articles and Covenants of the Church” (or Doctrine and Covenants 20), Documents, Volume 1 contains both documents and examines them independently (pp. 116–26, 368–76).  The editors conclude that while the documents are related, Cowdery’s “Articles” was actually written at a different time, and for a different purpose, than the document that would come to be known as section 20. In addition, the editors found that the earliest text of what is now section 20 was not contained in the Book of Commandments and Revelations or any other early manuscript source.  Instead, the earliest version, and the one featured in Documents, Volume 1, is the one that was derisively published by the noted anti-Mormon antagonist Eber D. Howe, publisher of the Painesville Telegraph. Howe’s version helps demonstrate that Joseph Smith began making changes to the document within months of its initial presentation to the church in 1830 in order to respond to the growing church.

Leman Copley and Sections 41, 49, and 54

Although many Mormons are somewhat familiar with the Shaker-turned-Mormon Leman Copley, Documents, Volume 1 demonstrates just what an important figure he was in early Ohio as the area began to be settled by migrating New York Mormons.  Section 41, the heading to which was one of the most dramatically changed headings in the 2013 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, is shown to be a response to Copley’s offer to move Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon and their families to Thompson, Ohio, onto his substantial landholdings (pp. 241–45).  Copley offered to build Smith and Rigdon houses, as well as provide them food and clothing, all offers that one would have expected the nearly destitute Smith and the recently evicted Rigdon to have accepted gladly. Instead, Joseph Smith inquires of the Lord and receives section 41 in response, which instructs that a house should be built in Kirtland for him. The standard explanation given in the History of Church that section 41 related to “false spirits” is discredited because of information found in other early sources. Copley’s importance is also seen in the in-depth discussion surrounding section 49 and the Mormon attempts to convert the Shakers (pp. 297–303). The redating of section 49, from March 1831 to May 1831, while perhaps appearing unimportant on the surface, actually changes the way scholars understand section 54 as well.  Section 54, the early June revelation that responded to Copley’s eviction of Newel Knight and the Colesville Saints from his Thompson farm, is now understood as occurring in the immediate aftermath of the failed mission to the Shakers (pp. 334–36).  Copley did not stew over the failure for months throughout March, April, and May of 1831 before deciding to evict the Mormons with the help of Ashbel Kitchell, a Shaker elder.  In fact, the eviction was essentially a knee-jerk reaction that happened immediately after the failure of the mission outlined in section 49.

Ezra Thayer, Joseph Smith’s Unpublished 15 May 1831 Revelation, and Section 56

Another insight that can be garnered from Documents, Volume 1 is that Ezra Thayer was in no way related to the land controversy instigated by Leman Copley’s eviction of Mormons living on his land in Thompson, as previous headings had indicated. The chastisement of Thayer in section 56 had been interpreted previously as a connection to the problems surrounding Colesville Saints living on Copley’s farm (pp. 339–42). Documents, Volume 1 includes the text and the historical background of a mid-May uncanonized Joseph Smith revelation that demonstrates the real cause of Thayer’s chastisement: Thayer’s desire to be reimbursed for money paid toward the debt on Frederick G. Williams farm (pp. 309–14) before he departed on his mission to Missouri that had been outlined in section 52 of the Doctrine and Covenants (pp. 327–332).

More interesting tidbits to come in Part II, coming this Thursday.


  1. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks for the thoughts Gerrit. I’m working my way through volume 1 slowly, and am finding it very gratifying, and extraordinarily useful. Solid work.

  2. I’m reading through Docs 2 now, and I enjoyed Docs 1 thoroughly. As a dilettante my perspective is a little different, but I feel in some ways that this is the most real glimpse I’ve gotten into what the Prophet was really like.

  3. Great stuff. Already finding it useful in understanding events in 1843. Excellent work in Docs. 1 and 2.

  4. Thanks for this, Gerrit. Really interesting stuff.

  5. Thank you Professor Dirkmaat – your explanations are understandable and interesting – just like in your Utah History class. Looking forward to more on Thursday.

  6. Thank you, thes are fascinating details, and it adds a lot to the meaning of these scriptures.

  7. Gerrit Dirkmaat says:

    Granny, are you a former student of mine? I hope you enjoyed the class :)


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