Making Sense of the Doctrine & Covenants

Soon 2008 will pass away as all things must, and 2009 will bring with it the standard changes in Sunday meeting time slots, primary classes, and, most delightfully, Gospel Doctrine curriculum. You see, on January 4, we will meet together and study the old testament of our own fashioning. Concomitant with such shifts is an offering by Deseret Book to enrich the lives of the Saints. Two years ago, the offerings were excellent; last year, not so much. This year we have an intriguing volume…let’s see how it stacks up.

Nov_2008_making_sense_d_c_cover_productSteven C. Harper, Making Sense of the Doctrine & Covenants: A Guided Tour through Modern Revelations. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2008. 601 pp. Endnotes, index. Non-cloth Hardback. $35.95, ISBN 978-1-59038-921-8

Harper is one of the Revelations editors for the Joseph Smith Papers Project. His collaboratively edited volume 1 in the series is due out in the first quarter of 2009. Making Sense, however is a different sort of project. The introduction section of the volume, which chronicles the development of the Doctrine and Covenants, is explicitly apologetic, something to expect in a volume marketed to Latter-day Saints generally. For example, Harper briefly covers the major printings of the book and their significance, but when he describes the removal of the “Lectures on Faith” in 1921, he does not include that the “Lectures” were considered in 1835 to be the “Doctrine” section of the Doctrine and Covenants. However, Harper does note that editorial changes to the revelations were common, affirming to the reader that such changes do not contaminate their revelatory potency.

Harper then treats each section of the Doctrine and Covenants individually. Each revelation receives three discussions: 1) Origins – basically historical context; 2) Content – revelation summary; and 3) Outcomes – history and usage of the revelation.

Typically I have used two different references in approaching the Doctrine and Covenants. They both have significant weakness, mostly due to their dated vintage:

  • Robert J. Woodford, “The Historical Development of the Doctrine and Covenants,” 3 vols. (Ph.D. diss., Brigham Young University, 1974).

    Whatever its merit, Woodford deserves credit for cranking out 1874 pages of dissertation. BYU Studies released a digital version a couple of years ago. I don’t know about the digital version, but the hard copy is tedious in its comparison of every known (as of 1974) manuscript of the revelations. It has a nice introduction of the various volumes of the Doctrine and Covenants and has historical background for each section. Unfortunately some of Woodford’s work was limited due to the availability of certain archival materials. For example, William Clayton’s diaries were not available for researches at the time. Still, his textual development sections come in mighty handy.

  • Lyndon W. Cook, The Revelations of the Prophet Joseph Smith: A Historical and Biographical Commentary of the Doctrine and Covenants (Provo: Seventy’s Mission Bookstore, 1981).

    This out of print book goes for expensive on the used market, but is available in the various digital Mormon databases (Gospelink; LDSLibrary). Cook has no commentary on the Doctrine and Covenants as a whole, but includes for each section the putative date and location for the reception of the revelation. He includes historical context for each section and biographical overviews of individuals mentioned in them. Sometimes he gives a publication note.

As a matter of comparison, I decided to look at a handful of sections and see how the three different volumes hold up. For this comparison, I am not considering textual development as only Woodford regularly treats it.

Section 76 – “The Vision”
Woodford: History of the Church (HC) account of the reception; Philo Dibble retrospective of the reception; some JS commentary from HC; Brigham Young recollection on how the revelation troubled him, but he worked through it; Orson Pratt and John Murdock diary accounts on the controversy of the revelation; JS (HC) instructing elders not to talk about the revelation in their preaching; HC and Heber C. Kimball diaries on missionaries preaching it, sometimes with controversy and loss of converts; excerpts from the poetic paraphrase, attributing it to Smith.

Cook: Philo Dibble retrospective of the reception; cites controversy, in endnotes quotes BY recollection of trouble; quotes entire poetic paraphrase (8.5 pages) and attributes it to JS.

Harper: Introduction to Calvinist cosmology; JS family background; JS letter from holograph; cites Holifield and Bushman (RSR); SUMMARY; note about the urban legend that we would commit suicide to get to Telestial kingdom, notes two likely sources, (Charles Lowell Walker diary account of Wilford Woodruff recollection and Lorin Farr recollection in a holograph High Priests minute book, 1900. Both are different than the legend); testimony of Rigdon, T&S; general devotional thoughts on an expansive heaven; testimony of Woodruff, circa 1891; BY recollection of trouble; Joseph prooftexting Paul from JS journal (cites holograph and Faulring’s Signature version!); Commentary on the sons of perdition by the FP (holograph letter, 1833); Testimony of how awesome it is from “Manuscript History.”

Winner: Harper; however, it pains me that he didn’t include or discuss the controversy of the revelation. Woodford suffers from not having holograph or critical sources for the HC excerpts and both he and Cook use the poetic paraphrase that is now generally believed to have not been written by JS. Harper repeats the word “soteriology,” and includes nice reference to pertinent literature. I was unaware of the Lorin Farr recollection.

Section 107 – Ecclesiastical Structure
Woodford: Notes that the Three Witness chose the Twelve; Kirtland Council Minutes (from holograph) of the Twelve repenting and asking for direction; HC Kimball Journal (from holograph) account of the reception; explanation how the section merges 1831 and 1835 revelations with and editor (JS?) adding a dozen verses before canonization.

Cook: Background on the apostles getting ready for missions and they ask for the revelation; indicates that it is a combo of two revelations, though not the editing; endnotes reprint the Kirtland Council Minute Book, an uncanonized revelation to the 12 (HC), School of the prophets minutes, and the JS Diary entry on removing a member of the FP (holograph).

Harper: Quotes a holograph account of William McLellin; in lengthy note 2 Harper throws down and shows how the revelation is misdated, loads of great cites; description of the combination of the two revelations plus Joseph’s editorial additions in preparation for canonization, note includes specifics; SUMMARY; quotes RSR; some modern reflection about how awesome it is.

Harper, hands down. Quibble, he seems confident that JS was the editor, and from recent conversations, I am not sure how certain that is.

Section 130 – Earth a Urim of Thumim, etc.
Woodford: HC intro; note that it was never published until Orson Pratt put it in the 1876 edition; cites the JS journal as a source.

Cook: Intro based on JS Diary; note that Richards, who kept the diary, wasn’t actually there; reproduction of the William Clayton diary (actual source); recollection of BF Johnson of the event.

Harper: Intro based on JS Journal; cites BF Johnson recollection; SUMMARY; In summary quotes from sources and note that Apostle Church Historians expanded the text; focus on what we don’t know; allusions to temple.

Winner: I like that Cook includes the source account (though Harper cites it). This one is a toss-up. I was a bit disappointed that no one got into the nitty gritty of textual construction of this revelation. E.g., Orson Pratt merged the edited Richards’ version of Clayton’s diary and Clayton’s diary. Richards’ account appears in the diary as a sermon in the Morning and that the Clayton account is of a personal exchange in the evening. The D&C combines elements of both. Vs. 1-3, 7-8 are from Richards. Vs. 4-6 and 9-11 are from Clayton (This is one of the sketchiest inclusions in the D&C).

OD2 – Priesthood Announcement
Woodford: N/A. Written before 1978.

Cook: Church leaders believed the day would come; various pressures; Kimball studied a lot; cites Church News recollections of events leading up to it; lengthy excerpt of McConkie’s BYU address where he described the revelation; FP drafted and approved by the FP & 12; announcement.

Harper: Whites used bible to justify slavery (cites contemporary non-mormon lit); Church emerged in racially charged context; Book of Mormon and early leaders explicitly support racial equity in the Church; Elijah Able (cites Armand Mauss’s All Abraham’s Children) [misses Walker Lewis, though]; Joseph grew more progressive with time; at some point (hints to after JS’s death), Church leaders created a ban – by 1849; review of Abraham and Moses and asks some great questions, “Were blacks denied the priesthood because of an inherited curse or because Latter-day Saints, conditioned by cultural prejudices, misinterpreted the Pearl of Great Price, or for some other reason?” – doesn’t answer though; Kimball not sure if doctrine or policy; “a contradictory and confusing legacy of racist religious folklore”; Elder Oaks saying folklore “spectacularly wrong” and “man made to a great extent”; revelation came; SUMMARY of the reception based on Lengthen Your Stride; McConkie describing prayer that could be “cleansed and made free from sin so that we might receive the Lord’s word”; announcement; Church leader commentary on the effect of the revelation.

Winner: Harper, FTW! I don’t think I could understate how important Harper’s write-up is for the Church. It is a giant step forward. I’m moved and surprised and delighted. Would that all Gospel Doctrine teachers read and used this.


During this exercise, I had to keep reminding myself that the Joseph Smith Papers volume is coming out in three months or so, and that Making Sense is not to be confused with that project. Making Sense is historical-devotional literature to help general Church members understand the Doctrine and Covenants. Harper’s use of cogent literature and his mastery of the source materials make for a stunning success and Deseret Book deserves credit for publishing it. Harper brings up tough issues, as in section 132 where he notes Joseph Smith’s polyandry and instances of not telling Emma about plural wives; but his faith promoting spin left me skeptical. Generally, however, he is a skillful and successful commentator. I also imagine the things that I wish Making Sense had (biographical registers and textual development) will be in the JSP. All in all, a very significant volume.

Production values of the volume are less than desirable. For $35 bucks, I would have appreciated cloth binding and a cleaner page cut. And the title is a little too self-helpy for my tastes.

Recommendation: High.


Also new on the Doctrine and Covenants: Hedges, Fluhman and Gaskill, The Doctrine and Covenants: Revelations in Context: The 37th Annual Brigham Young University Sidney B. Sperry Symposium (Salt Lake City: RSC/Deseret Book, 2008). Maybe I’ll get a review of this up before the end of the year as well.


  1. Thanks for the review, J. I flipped through this the other day, and agree with yuor assessment that this is a huge step in the right direction for Deseret Book.

    I think the real benefit of Harper’s book is that people like my parents are likely to read and appreciate it (whereas they are less likely to get much out of the JSP). I’m going to see if I can get my ward to spring for each GD teacher to get a copy of this book (I’m SS president).

  2. Thanks, J. I’ve got a lot of respect for Steve as a scholar, although you’re right that he’s got the faith-promotion bit down. That comes from teaching in the Rel. Ed. department, I suppose. This looks to be a great way to introduce tough issues to ordinary members.

    note about the urban legend that we would commit suicide to get to Telestial kingdom, notes two likely sources, (Charles Lowell Walker diary account of Wilford Woodruff recollection and Lorin Farr recollection in a holograph High Priests minute book, 1900. Both are different than the legend)

    Dick Bennett told me several years ago that this “legend” first appears in the records of the Southern Utah mission, coming from Woodruff, IIRC. I haven’t done the research on that though to verify. I wouldn’t be surpised if Sam has dug up the source on the legend.

  3. Wow.

    I don’t think I could understate how important Harper’s write-up is for the Church.

    Yeah, no kidding. And from DB, no less. Someone must really be easing back on the narrow-mindedness over there.

  4. Mark Brown says:

    Thanks for this review, J.

    I’m happy that this book was written by a member of the RelEd faculty at BYU and published by DB.

    I just figured out what I’m getting somebody I know for Christmas.

  5. J., thanks much.

  6. Chris, I agree. It is too bad the price point is so high; I worry that it won’t get as much traction because of it.

    David, I remember Partriach Smith in the late 60’s or early 70’s using it in a BYU devotional. That had to have stoked the folklore furnace. Walker’s diary account would lead me to think that other Woodruff accounts are likely extant.

  7. J, you’re likely right. I also seem to remember first hearing the quote on Madsen’s tapes.

    I’d like to track down the source, if for nothing else than to give some context to the reliability of the source next time it comes up in Priesthood or SS (it came up a few weeks ago).

  8. Here is the Patriarch Eldred Smith bit:

    The Prophet Joseph Smith told us that if we could get one little glimpse into the telestial glory even, the glory is so great that we would be tempted to commit suicide to get there. (March 10, 1964, BYU Speeches of the Year, 1964, pg. 4)

  9. I didn’t realize Woodford attributed the poetic paraphrase of 76 to Smith. I thought it was Phelps. What’s the current thinking on this?

  10. Thanks for this, J.

  11. BTW – the issue of D&C 130 and the problem of it as a reproduction of what Joseph said has always been interesting to me. As you said it’s pretty sketchy. I’d like to see more grappling with this (although I tend to favor the traditional theological reading)

    How about a comparison with D&C 131 which seems equally problematic?

  12. Clark, yeah, Hick’s made the compelling case in 1994 (pg. 64) that Phelps wrote it.

    131 isn’t as problematic in my view.

    Woodford cites the HC and states that Pratt extracted 131 from there.

    Cook reprints the William Clayton diary source material and cites a T&S account of a Methodist reaction.

    Harper doesn’t reproduce the diary but cites it (Intimate Chronicle and WoJS). Has some nice discussion involving the JS diary.

  13. This book is actually cheaper from Deseret Book than Amazon. And at Amazon they say there is a 3 to 5 week wait while at Deseret it ships within 1 to 2 days.
    Uuh, I believe the first Sunday of 2009 falls on January 4.
    Thanks for this compelling review. I think this book will be a good investment.

  14. Jones, you are right, it is December that starts on 7. Crap. Fixing it…

  15. By problematic relative to D&C 131 I meant as a clear representation of Joseph’s thought. The obvious example is the three degrees. Are those simply the traditional degrees or three extra degrees within the Celestial kingdom.

  16. Oh, I agree Clark. I was refering to the textual reconstruction. 130 is a bit more convoluted. But yes, generally taking notes from a diary and trying to tweeze out canonical meaning is equally difficult between them.

  17. Kevin Barney says:

    The comparative approach to several sample sections was a great way to do this. Thanks for the review.

  18. Thanks, Jonathan.
    Of course, I am especially excited about Harper’s discussion of OD2, though I wish he had provided an answer to the questions he poses. I wonder if he was constrained by the publisher from doing that.

    I do wish there were some official repudiation of the idea of a lineage-based curse (or any other folklore) as the basis for priesthood restriction. Alas, we are further from that repudiation now than we were at the beginning of the month. With the PA difficulties the Church finds itself in after Prop 8, I can’t see any leaders touching the race issue for a LONG time, since so many people link the Church’s stance on priesthood restriction and its stance on homosexuality.

    I’m glad this book will be available, though.

  19. J (or Margaret), can you point me to the Oaks quote on folklore?

  20. Dallin H. Oaks, quoted in “Apostles Talk about Reasons for Lifting Ban,” Provo Daily Herald, June 5, 1988, 21. In the same note, though he doesn’t quote from it, Harper cites LeGrand Richards, interview, SLC, Utah, August 16, 1978, L. Tom Perry Special Collections. I’m interested why he included that.

    I’ve seen the Oaks quote before, but haven’t seen the actual article. A while back, I did see that someone put it up as a blog post, but I am unaware as to the accuracy of their transcription.

    I will say that Harper’s review of Abraham and Moses was slanted towards the interpretation that the ban was a mistake.

  21. Thanks for the link, J. It’s great that Elder Oaks was so clear about the folklore; I wish he wasn’t so clear about the revelatory nature of the ban. But oh well.

    I’m also interested in the Richards quote. Maybe we can get Ben or Chris to go dig it up.

  22. Steven Harper is one of the BYU RelEd department’s best-kept secrets. I’ve taken two church history classes from him and he has been one of my all-time favorite professors. He knows the Doctrine & Covenants almost inside and out.

  23. I’d be interested to learn whether the transcript featured on is complete and accurate.

  24. Indeed, Justin. That’s a fascinating document, if legitimate.

  25. Great review, thanks.

  26. Thanks for the review. I was just thinking I would like to have something like this.

  27. I sent an email to Dr. Harper pointing him to the review. He response was helpful, and he agreed to let me share it here.

    He mentioned that Deseret Book basically didn’t require any changes. Two exceptions to this approach were 1) that DB was not comfortable with him mentioning that Joseph F. Smith had a tobacco problem, and 2) they asked him to rephrase a statement indicating that two sentences in the italicized heading to section 119 in the D&C are inaccurate. On the second issue, he mentioned that they let him provide the accurate info. for the 119 heading without directly contradicting the heading.

    Concerning his approach to OD2, he stressed that he didn’t answer the question he posed specifically because he does not know the answer, and that his purpose in writing the book was to provide an historical and textual analysis, and he strived not to be dogmatic.

    From previous interaction with Dr. Harper and especially after this conversation, I really think he performs an invaluable service as one with academic credentials and intellectual curiosity who simultaneously loves the gospel and scriptures and genuinely cares about the people he teaches and interacts with. In short, I think he is what professors in BYU’s religion department should strive to be.

    I should also mention that the next issue of the Religious Educator (due out in January) includes an interview with Harper entitled “Learning by Study and Also by Faith” in which he explains his approach to teaching Church history and details somewhat more than what I’ve indicated here regarding his balanced approach.

  28. Thanks for the feed back Christopher (and Stephen Harper). That is very encouraging.

    Also, after chatting with some folk, I should clarify that the Revelations volumes will be critical transcripts of the earliest manuscript only, with minimal annotation. The Document volumes will include the textual history and loads of annotation.

  29. Last I heard, the Revelations volumes are going include images of the documents on glossy pages, and are going to cost a fortune. :(

  30. Last I heard, the Revelations volumes are going include images of the documents on glossy pages, and are going to cost a fortune.

    I think that’s still the plan. Because of the images, they will be oversized volumes. I haven’t heard anything recently about the prices, though.

  31. That is my understanding as well. Image and color-coded transcript (the images seem superfluous to me, but I may just not be “getting it”). The pricepoint I have heard is less that the recent Signature special editions (Brown and Marquardt’s, that is).

  32. dude, staples, the images aren’t superfluous. if they could figure out a scratch-n-sniff to give you the scent of the old documents, I’d pay extra $ for it.

  33. Joseph F Smith had a tobacco problem? Is that true?

  34. Steve Harper says:

    Joseph F. Smith struggled with tobacco as a young man.

  35. Ah yes, the infamous Joseph F. Smith vs. Marlboro thumb wrestle.

  36. If you go to FAIR, you’ll save a few dollars over DB.

  37. henry miles says:

    You can buy this book at Costco for about $22 if I recall correctly.

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