Review: The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations: Manuscript Revelation Books

Eleven months ago, the Joseph Smith Papers Project inaugurated their publication efforts with the Journals series (review here). While the documents of that series had been previously available, the volume was nonetheless an extraordinary contribution to the study of Mormonism and its history. In September of this year, the Church Historian’s Press released their second volume, the first in the Revelations and Translations series: a facsimile edition, comprising two manuscript revelation books.

Revelations and Translation: Manuscript Revelation Books

This new volume contains images and transcripts of two early books used to record revelations. In early 1831 John Whitmer began collecting revelation texts and copying them into a manuscript record book. On the first page he wrote: “A Book of Commandments & Revelations.” Christened Revelation Book 1 (RB1) by the Joseph Smith Papers Project, this document contains the earliest extant versions of many revelations and was used in preparation for printing them in The Evening and the Morning Star, the Book of Commandments (1833) and the Doctrine and Covenants (1835). It came to Utah with the other records of the Church, but it appears that at some point near the turn of the twentieth century, Joseph Fielding Smith, Church Historian and later apostle, took possession of the volume in a collection housed in his safe. This collection became part of the First Presidency’s papers (sometimes referred to as the First Presidency’s vault [1]) when Smith became Church President in 1970. The book was carefully preserved by the First Presidency for the next three decades. For the entire twentieth century, the book was unknown to outside researchers and historians. When Church President Gordon B. Hinckley and his counselors directed staff to review First Presidency materials for possible inclusion in the Joseph Smith Papers, the document was identified and delivered to the Church History Library in 2005.

Unlike RB1, manuscript Revelation Book 2 (RB2) has been available for some time and is commonly called the “Kirtland Revelations Book.” Like most of Joseph Smith’s diaries, RB2 is available on Selected Collections. [2] While there is some overlap in content, generally Revelation Books 1 and 2 hold complementary material. Printers used both books for the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants; however, where possible, they relied on previously published revelations as the base text. As RB2 held most of the previously unpublished revelations, it was the primary manuscript book used in this process.

As with Journals 1, what follows is my anatomical and critical review.

Robin Scott Jensen, Robert J. Woodford, and Steven C. Harper, eds., Revelations and Translations: Manuscript Revelation Books, facsimile ed., in THE JOSEPH SMITH PAPERS, general editors Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2009). xlii, 707 pp. Cloth: $99.95; ISBN: 978-1-57008-850-6.

Manuscript Revelation Books (MRB) is a 9″x12″ oversized volume. It is heavy; my feet began to tingle as it laid on my lap while reading in bed. Unlike J1, MRB is printed on bright white dull coated paper for excellent image clarity. MRB retains the luxurious look and feel of J1 and with its augmented dimensions is an imposing beauty. At $99.95, it is also an incredible bargain.

Detailed Contents of Revelations Books

In the JSPP realm, each revelation gets a unique identifier, e.g., “Revelation, 11 November 1831—B.” This table lists the contents of the Revelations book by unique identifier, the scribe associated with it and the page number in the volume.


Comparative size of MRB.

JS Timeline and Map of JS residences
Handy, but not sure why these aren’t in the back matter.

Series Introduction
This six page intro discusses “Joseph Smith as Revelator and Translator,” noting that a revelation at the Church organization describes him as “a seer & Translater & Prop[h]et” (xix). For many outside of the Church, this is a crucial section in contextualizing the balance of the volume. After a brief discussion of Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon and his “first vision,” the editors introduce the reader to Smith’s seeric media—seerstones, or more contemporarily, interpreters/peepstones. In a volume where annotation is consciously scant (see below) the discussion of magic in this introduction may be the most debatable aspect of this monumental publication. While the editors do quote one contemporary source on Joseph Smith’s early folk divination, the article generally relies on and cites Bushman’s Believing History for its interpretation. [3] While there is nothing wrong with the Bushman-Givens patina on the introductory narrative, there is a fairly large and robust literature on the context of Smith family divination, including Papers editor Mark Ashurst-McGee’s important master’s thesis. [4] Not engaging that literature is a missed opportunity. The predicament perhaps typified by this less-than-robust review is the reference to ancient Urim and Thummim as means of revelation (xxi), a claim which is inherently controversial and not generally accepted by scholars. [5]

The editors discuss Smith’s various translation and printing efforts, sure to be of use to the uninitiated. They review the Book of Mormon, the JST – “perhaps best described as an inspired revision (and in some cases expansion) of biblical passages” (xxiii) – and Smith’s Egyptian translations.

Items of note in the introduction include the announcement that the JSPP will reproduce the 1830 Book of Mormon, Book of Commandments (1833), the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants and the earliest JST manuscript. No mention of the KEP.

Volume Introduction
Whereas the idea of Joseph Smith’s revelations might be difficult to grasp for those outside the faith, many Mormons may have difficulty contextualizing the publication process of Smith’s revelations. This section will be helpful in this area. Volume editors describe the history of Revelation Books 1 and 2 and the controversy and resolution surrounding Joseph Smith’s dictated language. Editors also introduce the reader to the process of inscription, later editing and sometimes expansion by scribes and subsequent publication. While there is a whiff of Mormon exceptionalism, this process was generally and truly exceptional, and editors cite some important works of American historical context.

While I realize that the volume is already enormous, with regard to RB1, I wish editors would have included more information from Woodford’s recently published paper introducing RB1 and virtually all of Jensen’s paper on its provenance. These papers were first delivered at MHA 2009 in Springfield, Ill., and are now available in BYU Studies. [6] Jensen’s paper includes particularly valuable information and analysis. I also would have liked some explication on how researchers came to certain conclusions; e.g., what the sources are for the circuitous textual history of Revelation, 6 December 1832 (xxvii-xxix).

The editors also make important distinctions between this volume and the later Documents series, namely that MRB includes introduction and context on the revelation books and virtually no context or annotation on the content of the individual revelations. It will be the Documents series that will include the earliest texts (sans later editing) with extensive background and annotation, all presented in chronological order (xxvi, see also xxxv). While many readers will consequently be better served reading the Documents series, there is nevertheless a tremendous amount of data available uniquely in MRB.


Pages of MRB

Editorial Method and Note on Photographic Facsimiles
A helpful description of transcription methodology and photograph preparation. In contrast to J1, MRB contains transcripts that are much closer to “diplomatic” versions. Every erasure, strike, emendation, and anomaly is noted in either the transcript or annotation. Astonishing detail, really.

Photographers prepared digital images using specialized equipment to capture what is essentially a composite of four images, each with a separate spectral character. Each image holds 229 megabytes of data (xxxvii), but specialists reduced them to 300 dpi CMYK files in preparation for printing.

Source Notes and Historical Introductions

Before the facsimiles and transcripts of the individual revelation books, editors include descriptions of the two documents, their provenance and historical context. Some of this material is redundant to the forward matter, intentionally so.

Facsimiles, Transcription and Annotation
The meat of the volumes (USDA Prime, no less). Open the volume to this section and on the left will be a full color reproduction of the original document page. The transcript is on the right. The base typescript is in black, unless it was originally written by Joseph Smith, in which case it is black with a cream background. Each line of transcribed text lines up with the original manuscript text. Later edits are also marked, with every editor having a uniquely colored text, a legend for which is included on every page. For example, W. W. Phelps’ editing appears as blue text. Unidentified edits, though rare, are included as red text. My only complaint is that under less than optimal reading light, it is hard to distinguish stray edits by Oliver Cowdery (orange) from the unidentified scribe (red). I guess I need to stop reading in bed. Annotations relate to the document and text, not the content of the revelations. All of this work is simply magnificent. The Joseph Smith Papers team deserves extensive and repeated kudos for their work bringing these documents to a level of accessibility, generally beyond that of any historical document to any researchers.

Much of the early buzz surrounding MRB relates to RB1, not surprisingly. It is a rare thing in our day to find such a penetrating and unknown source. Commenters have focused on two previously unavailable revelations as loci for this excitement: the “Canadian copyright revelation”(31-33) and “A Sample of pure Language” (265). These two revelations should receive attention. They are important; but there is a great deal beyond them.

Particularly interesting are the early revelations, their edits, and sometimes re-edits by subsequent scribes. The early content is a crucial view into early Mormonism and the edits are important in elucidating the dynamism of revelatory publication (and canonization). A Sampling of such important material:

  • Rigdon’s edits and subsequent redaction by, e.g., Cowdery (11), Phelps (13, 15), and Whitmer (81).
  • Discussion of Cowdery’s gift [ D&C 8] as a “sprout” and “thing of nature” (17).
  • Cowdery’s identification as an Apostle, circa June 1829 (23) compared to the earlier extant text [7].
  • Zion to be “among the Lamanites” (53) [D&C 28].
  • Adoptive language, which is persistent in early revelations, extended to “sons and daughters of God” (61) [D&C 34].

While seemingly minor details, they are each important in expanding our limited view. Such examples also show a weakness of the presentation, though one intended by volume editors: there are no annotations helping to potentially contextualize or compare these data. As designed, readers will need to look to the Documents volumes for potential aid. On items involving later edits, volume editors have left researchers to fill the explanatory void themselves, hopefully using the MRB for publication; viz., Rigdon’s editorial beat-down. While the Documents series will enhance the content of MRB I doubt that it will communicate the intimacy of traversing the premillennial ebullience of entry after entry in the manuscript registers.


MRB without dust jacket.

RB2 will continue to take a back seat in the felicity wagon by default. We’ve known its general contents for decades. This should not, however, dissuade the interested reader. The work to demarcate scribal edits and thrice-verify transcripts is as important as the work on RB1. This material will certainly further research. There are other items in RB2 beyond the revelations, however. For example, the interpretation of a glossolaliac’s song (509) offers a fascinating opportunity to view a “translation” not of text but of ecstatic expression. [8]

In Nauvoo, Joseph Smith’s historians used the back of RB2 as a register for item inclusion in Joseph Smith’s History. The transcription and annotation follow the rest of the volume and highlight a potential pitfall for some researchers. Willard Richards wrote a note about Joseph Smith saying that the Lord had decided that doctors were not to be healing Mormons in 1831. However, Joseph Smith is documented as saying the opposite a few years later, and, like other popular evangelists during the Second Great Awakening, he remained a supporter of botanic medicine for the remainder of his life. [9] Richards was himself a Thomsonian physician, whom friends frequently referred to as “doctor.” I wonder if there are similar items outside of my competency that I simply missed.

Chronology for the Years 1828-1835

Major events for each year. Pointer to online chronology and Journal and Documents series for more context.

Scribal Directory
This is a very handy set of biographical sketches for each of the individuals whose writing is identified in each book. Sketches focus on early life, but also include notations of idiosyncratic handwriting characteristics.

Works Cited
Due to the editorial scope, this list is quite short. Still, I’d love to read “‘Inventory of President Joseph Fielding Smith’s Safe,’ 23 May 1970. CHL.”

Correspondence of Items in Revelation Books 1 and 2 with Selected Published Versions
This is a table that indicates the correspondence between revelations in the manuscript books and their various published locations (The Evening and the Morning Star, Book of Commandments, and the 1835, 1844, 1981 and 2004 [CoC] Doctrine and Covenants).

The Use of Revelation Books 1 and 2 in Preparing the Revelations for Publication
As the content of the Revelation Books is not the focus of editors, this section is presented in the place of an index. This section includes three tables based on the first three publications of revelations: the Star, the Book of Commandments and the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants. In each table, the material is presented by the appearance of the material in the corresponding publication. Data include the material location in the Revelation Book(s) which were used in preparation of publication as well as the type of editing marks indicated on the manuscript.

It is hard to overstate the significance of Revelations and Translations: Manuscript Record Book to Mormon historiography. Editors have transformed these foundational records, much of them only recently discovered, into a vividly accessible volume that exceeds all documentary standards and reveals the process of Mormon revelation in stunning detail. While this volume presents its materials in a fashion that leaves space for other editions to fill, its unique approach makes it essential to the scholar’s library. It will be the basis for all future research on Mormon textual history. Congratulation, Joseph Smith Papers, you have exceeded this reviewer’s expectations.

Readers may also be interested in reading volume editor Robin Jensen’s series discussing RB1 here, here and here. Also of interest may be a two-part interview with Joseph Smith Papers editors here and here.

Bookmark Review: Revelations and Translations: Manuscript Revelation Books, JSPP


  1. Though brief, the most complete discussion of the “First Presidency’s vault” to date, including some of the spurious claims associated with it, is Richard E. Turley, Jr., Victims: The LDS Church and the Mark Hofmann Case (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992), index: “First Presidency—vault.”
  2. Revelations Collections [1831–1876], Church Archives, MS 4583, Selected Collections from the Archives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2 vols., DVD (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, [Dec., 2002]), 1:19.
  3. Richard Lyman Bushman, Believing History: Latter-day Saint Essays, edited by Reid L. Neilson & Jed Woodworth (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).
  4. Mark Ashurst-McGee, “A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith Junior as Rodsman, Village Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet” (M.A. thesis, Utah State University, 2000).
  5. Based on an informal survey of scholars. See also, ibid., 58.
  6. Robert J. Woodford, “Introducing A Book of Commandments and Revelations, A Major New Documentary ‘Discovery'” and Robin Jensen, “From Manuscript to Printed Page: An Analysis of the history of the Book of Commandments and Revelations,” BYU Studies 48, no. 3 (2009): 7-17 and 18-52. This volume also includes interesting articles on RB1 by Grant Underwood, Ronald E. Romig, and volume editor Steven C. Harper.
  7. Scott H. Faulring, “An Examination of the 1829 ‘Articles of the Church of Christ’ in Relation to Section 20 of the Doctrine and Covenants,” BYU Studies 43, no. 4 (2004): 79.
  8. Though the source of the song and translator is not identified in the text, since publication, JSPP staff have identified later attributions and will make the information available in the published errata.
  9. Jonathan A. Stapley and Kristine L. Wright, “The Forms and the Power: The Development of Ritual Healing in Mormonism to 1847,” Journal of Mormon History 35 (Summer 2009): 70-1.


  1. Just awesome Stapers. I can’t wait for my own copy. Thanks for the great primer.

  2. Thanks Scott.

    As an editorial note, readers should be aware that the first image is a pre-press promotional image, and the actual dust jacket is a bit different.

    And as another example of the material available in this volume and its relation to our day-to-day conversations, for those that participated in JNS’s somewhat controversial thread about D&C 21 and the phrase about Christ being crucified by “sinful men for the Sins of the world,” the phrase was a later addition made by Sidney Rigdon.

  3. Magnificent review, magnificent book. Good work & thanks!

  4. …also should have noted that the only map in the volume is Hamertastic.

  5. thanks for this, J; I finally get mine next week, and I am really excited about it.

  6. Regarding:
    “JS Timeline and Map of JS residences: Handy, but not sure why these aren’t in the back matter.”

    The plan is for every volume in the JSP to open with the two-page spread of the one page overview timeline of JS’s life and the one page overview map of JS’s life. The idea is for this to stand in for the edition’s general introduction, which is found only in the first volume of the Journals series. Many researchers in academic libraries will be pulling this or that volume down off the shelf without having a good grasp of the general spatio-temporal trajectory of Smith’s life. And the chronologies and maps in the back-matter reference material are all volume specific (some covering less than a year). So the introductory timeline and map are handy context for anyone working in a particular volume and its specific timeframe.

    Loved the review J. Thanks.

  7. Great review, Jonathan. I think we all owe a debt of gratitude to Joseph Fielding Smith for secreting away RB1 to come forth only in our day.

    Knowing that this document (and possibly others) were removed from the inventory of archived documents does shed some light on the reorganization of the Church Historian’s Office in 1972. As recounted by Leonard J. Arrington when relating his call as Church Historian in 1972, “[President N. Eldon] Tanner acknowledged that despite specific revelations to record church history for succeeding generations, no one had done so for forty years.” (Adventures of a Church Historian, p. 79.)

    But to his credit, it was Smith who started the ball rolling: “During the 1960s Joseph Fielding Smith, church historian and recorder, recognized the need for a professionalization of the Church Library and Archives …. Thus began … the employment of professional librarians and archivists, the systematic cataloguing of record books and manuscripts,” etc. (Adventures, p. 69.)

  8. Hamertastic maps make my heart sing.

    J, I cannot wait to get my hands on one of these. Thanks for your thoughtful and interesting review.

  9. Excellent review. Thanks. My admiration for the presidency of GBH continues to grow and grow.

    One question regarding the Introduction, J.: You note the “Bushman-Givens patina” given to the issue of stones and magic, but make reference to a “missed opportunity” because the editors didn’t engage the contextual history of Smith family divination. At the same time, I wonder if the discussion in the intro is not at least a step in the right direction towards historical accuracy, in that it highlights a previously-unknown (to the uninitiated) aspect of JS’s translation methods? And published and funded by the Church, no less! So, I guess my question is, Do you see what IS in the Introduction as significant? (This is probably all so much quibbling, though, as the introduction is not the meat of this volume, of course.)

  10. J,

    Thank you for the helpful review! A quick side note to your paragraph toward the end about JS’s statements about doctors in 1831: He seems to publicly denounce professional physicians with some regularity (the instance on 13 April 1843 are particularly fun), and just as frequently offers his own advice on proper medical treatment (26 December 1842 and 13 & 19 April 1843 for example). He even throws out the occasional compliment to physicians, as with Levi Richards on 19 April 1843 and John Bernhisel on 17 September 1843. Levi Richards’ records that at the 17 September meeting JS spoke for an hour and a half on the “Medicine of Quacks & qualified Doctors”. Not surprisingly, his late Nauvoo statements on the abuses of medicine usually include a reference to William Brink, whose gory malpractice case JS presided over in March 1843.

  11. Sorry, one more thing. You mentioned briefly the size of the original photographs that appear on virtually every page of the book. One thing that propriety did not permit to be included in the Note on Photographic Facsimiles was a tribute to Church lead photographer Welden Andersen’s care and precision in creating these photographs. Impressive technical equipment aside, Welden’s decades of experience and a commitment to painstaking perfection that can only be described as obsessive are the real reason for the quality of the document images in the book.

  12. Mark – that makes sense. Thanks for the clarification.

    Dave – I think that, especially considering the other responsibilities he had, JFS sometimes gets short shrifted. As you note, he contributed greatly to where we are today.

    Hunter – I think it is absolutely a great thing that the editors included as much discussion as they did. As you say these are generally quibbles. Also, the Bushman-Givens vibe is present throughout the intro, and as I said, that is not a bad thing.

    Alex – thanks for both of your comments. I noted in rereading that I accidentally included an early draft of that paragraph in the post, which has been updated. You are absolutely correct that Mormon generally and Joseph Smith specifically had some harsh things to say about heroic allopathic or mineral remedies. All the citations you point to are important context. Brink’s case still gives me the willies (for some reason, I thought Nate and Sam were going to write something up on that).

  13. Piggyback on #11. Don’t forget Charlie Baird from Church printing, who spent hours and hours of extra time to make seamless the transition from Weldon’s light images to the ink settings of the printer’s press. Even amazing RGB photography can be ruined in the transition to CYMK and the actual ink settings of the printing press. Thanks also to CHP for insisting on quality paper to hold the ink right.

  14. This is a great and very thorough review. Thanks. I have already used the volume to write and submit a paper for publication, and found the critical annotations to be extremely helpful. They even note pinholes through the pages, which turned out to be quite useful for my purposes. Thanks to all the great folks who worked on these volumes!

  15. Dale Green says:

    very nice review. thanks for sending the link. I just may have to acquire this due to your persuasive review. I too want my feet to tingle…

  16. Kevin Barney says:

    Excellent review, J. Very well done.

  17. Well done, J.
    Benchmark had plenty of copies when I picked mine up a week ago. It’s a wonderful volume. Your review is great.
    Congrats to all involved.

    On Dana v. Brink, I still have a draft of the medical setting and interpretation of the case in my files–I think Nate and I just got distracted. Perhaps we should try to finish it some time.

  18. Thanks, J.

  19. A meticulous, thorough, and well-illustrated review for a book that is likewise! Very fitting, Stapers! :-)

  20. As always, thanks for the thorough review, J.

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