Fun with the Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations Vol. 2.

If you haven’t seen any of the Joseph Smith Papers Project volumes, then I want to draw your attention to the excellent materials available in the volumes in addition to the actual source documents themselves. I’ll take one example from Revelations and Translations vol. 2, which contains instances of the Book of Commandments and the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants in facsimile (I mean scans of a sort). The volume editors (Robin Scott Jensen, Richard E. Turley, Jr. and Riley Lorimer) offer the following thoughts on page xxv:

Printing the revelations put greater distance between the reader of the text and the persons who originally dictated and recorded it. Before publication, hearers or readers likely would have learned about a text’s creation or accepted interpretation from Joseph Smith or from his close associates. Once the text was printed, however, it generally had to stand on its own. Those who prepared the revelations for publication, therefore, sometimes provided additional contextual information. For example, they often inserted surnames and brief introductions. Nevertheless, because no oral and little written introduction accompanied the individual printed revelation texts, the revelations became more autonomous, meaning that members could increasingly interpret the texts outside of their original context and intended meaning.

I think this points to one of the issues with the current Doctrine and Covenants. It is generally used as a selective doctrine/practice poach-fest. It may be one of the most decontextualized books in the world. I’m curious about several things here:

1. Do you single out the Doctrine and Covenants for separate study? If you have children, do you read the D&C with them?

2. If so, do you read straight through?

3. Assuming you use them, do you find the headnotes useful?

4. What about footnotes? The practice of using a kind of word chase in constructing many of the notes is, I think, somewhat counterproductive in understanding the D&C. Do you agree? (I admit here that I tend to think of the revelations as historical documents as well as devotional material.)

5. The texts of the revelations tend to have subtle alterations of presentation over time – I mean as Joseph Smith “matures” the language of later revelations offers subtle differences. Do you find earlier revelations easier to understand than later ones? (For purposes of this post, let’s assume we’re not excluding any of the sections even though they may have originated as letters, etc.)

6. Do you find a commentary a necessary sidekick when studying the D&C? If so, what do you recommend?

7. Should study of the D&C be disconnected from the historical context and meaning of the individual revelations?

8. What about those revelations which were altered over time? Do you think earlier texts of a given revelation are important or irrelevant?

9. Do you think the D&C may/should expand by the addition of later written revelations (there are some 19th century examples from John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff and Orson Hyde for example) or existing proclamations/declarations?



  1. Researcher says:

    1/2 Personally? About once a decade. As a family we read the Book of Mormon and Bible and may never get around to the Doctrine & Covenants, but if we did read it we would read it straight through.

    3 Headnotes? Rarely since a brief glance identifies them as unreadable text due to the material that should be in footnotes. For example, Section 2 starts: “An extract from the words of the angel Moroni to Joseph Smith the Prophet, while in the house of the Prophet’s father at Manchester, New York, on the evening of 21 September 1823. HC 1:12. Moroni was the last of a long line of historians who had made the record that is now before the world as the Book of Mormon. Compare Malachi 4:5–6; also sections 27:9; 110:13–16; and 128:18.”

    It would be much more readable with the references in footnotes. Then the text would read: “An extract from the words of the angel Moroni to Joseph Smith the Prophet, while in the house of the Prophet’s father at Manchester, New York, on the evening of 21 September 1823. Moroni was the last of a long line of historians who had made the record that is now before the world as the Book of Mormon.”

    Even better would be to edit the last sentence to remove the phrase “now before the world.” Since I don’t know who wrote the notes, the flowery flourishes seem superfluous.

    In addition, I just plugged several of the headings into a readability calculator, and they’re coming up at a 12th grade or higher reading level. Wouldn’t it be better to rewrite the headings to a reading level which would make them more accessible to more people?

    I’m not suggesting that the scriptures be dumbed down, but I am suggesting that thought should be taken for the youth and general membership of the church.

    4 About half the contents of the footnotes seems superfluous, but I may not be the intended audience for the footnotes, and my reaction to them may have changed in the last decade or so due to the digital availability of the scriptures.

    And, since this comment is already too long, I’ll leave it at that.

  2. 3. I generally think that the headnotes are useless. I have to believe that the JSPP will result in a new edition of the D&C, with updated contextual materials.

    4. I don’t use the footnotes either. Though, in some cases they are useful in pointing out biblical allusions.

    5. My person devotion requires understanding the reception history among the Saints from the earliest moments and over time. That is how I roll. I don’t expect that is a particularly common perspective.

    6. Though dated and consequently flawed in several areas, I still like Woodford’s dissy. I like Cook’s Revelation’s of Joseph Smith, though dated a bit. Harper’s Making Sense is also useful. The JSPP website is extremely useful, and your various websites, like your annotated HC are very useful WVS.

    7. Um, no.

    8. Absolutely. Church doctrine as creation ex nihilio is a cancer.

    9. I’m not opposed to later additions, though the revelations I would be most interested for inclusion don’t appear to have been committed to writing (the adoption revelation and the revelation on the priesthood). I do think that Pratt’s 1870s expansion is generally idiosyncratic and I would likely push for other or more of JS’s Nauvoo era texts.

  3. I love the Doctrine and Covenants. It’s probably my favorite scripture, and probably that is because it is, on the surface, the most accessible. The inevitable obscuring due to the passage of time is at its most minimal, and it addresses people and discusses places and events that I can grasp far better than anything in the Bible or the Book of Mormon.

    Although I’ve done it (twice), the Doctrine and Covenants doesn’t lend itself to reading straight through. As a reader, I need a narrative to connect the pieces and make any sense of them. I let my reading of church history be that narrative, and read the Doctrine and Covenants in connection with that. For example, lately I’ve been reading all I can find about Joseph Smith’s editing of the Bible and searching for the revelations that were received as a result of that Biblical study. and coordinating that with my own Bible study.

    The headnotes are only useful to me as a convenient reminder of the date of a revelation; it’s my “outside” knowledge placing that date in context of church history that is useful, not the too-brief, sometimes garbled explanatory parts of the headnotes. I don’t find the section subheads to be especially helpful and am quickly replacing them in my own “reader’s edition.” And the footnotes suffer from the same myopia as all the LDS edition footnotes — they may be very useful to someone doing a topical study in a prooftexting sort of way, but that’s not how I study scripture. There *are* good and useful links to other scriptures, but there are so many to-me-useless topical lists and interpretations that the useful ones are drowned out and I’m out of the habit of even glancing at the footnotes very often.

    I would love to have an ever-expanding Doctrine and Covenants, as long as the additions were as significant, say, as JFS’s Vision of the Redemption of the Dead. More routine functional or organizational sections wouldn’t be valuable at all. I look at the topics selected for the Topical Guide barely a generation ago and note a number that reflect the peculiar interests or politics of the late 1970s and its leaders, and which have little resonance to me today, and I would not have liked that committee to have selected additional sections for the Doctrine and Covenants reflecting the same dated interests. Yet I have little doubt that a careful search of the writings of church leaders of the 20th century would yield more than a few timeless statements and pieces of counsel that would fit quite comfortably into an expanded Doctrine and Covenants.

  4. Steve Evans says:

    The discussions about the headnotes and the acontextual readings of the D&C are interesting. I strongly suspect that there is a significant percentage of our membership and leadership that generally favor acontextual scripture readings in general. This is what we do in all of the standard works in order to establish prooftextual foundations for many of our doctrines. I don’t see why the D&C should be particularly exempt from this practice, except that the historical context for the D&C is far more known than for any other book of scripture. I’m not saying that this sort of acontextual reading is appropriate or even necessary, but it’s de rigueur and we need to recognize this.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    I pretty much just devote significant attention to the D&C during the Church history curriculum year. I use the headnotes just as a reminder of the date and place of reception. The footnotes are pretty much useless to me. I do think a commentary is necessary; I use Cook, but if I’m still teaching GD in 2013 I’m sure I’ll get Harper as well. I’m interested in the textual history of the revelations. And I’m fine with not adding stuff just for the sake of adding it; if we’re going to add something, it should be significant (like D&C 137 and 138), not procedural or bureaucratic material. I personally don’t favor adding the recent proclamations.

  6. I generally think that the headnotes are useless. I have to believe that the JSPP will result in a new edition of the D&C, with updated contextual materials.

    Of course I thought that about the Book of Mormon and Skousen’s critical text (not to mention 30 years of scholarship on the Book of Mormon that radically changed how people read it). Let’s face it. Our scripture editions are ridiculously dated. Further more and more people are using iPhones, Android devices or the like to read their scriptures in Church. The Church could easily at least update the electronic versions. That they haven’t, let alone the print editions, is one of those things that makes me go “huh.”

  7. On the other hand maybe they were just waiting for the JSPP to be finished before launching into a revision of the scriptures. If so then maybe my “any day now” hope of the past 20 years will finally be rewarded. If so I just hope they break away from the verse structure which I think makes reading the scriptures much more difficult (although it makes finding proof-text quotes in Sunday School much easier).

  8. 8. I think it would be cool if the original versions of some of the revelations were included. Like you could have section 78a with the original united order revelation and then 78b with the Enochian version.

    9. I think that we definitely should add some of the uncanonized revelations to the Doctrine and Covenants. Even if some of the revelations aren’t as interesting, I think that it would be good for our scriptures to be as complete as possible lest Jesus rebukes us like he rebuked the Nephites for not including Samuel the Lamanite’s words in their scriptures.

    P.S. I’ve never heard of any Orson Hyde revelations. Could you point me towards where I could read the text?

  9. I’ve heard a rumor from my former stake president who is now working in CES that the Church is working on a new edition of the Doctrine and Covenants and that they are going to add some stuff. I sure hope so.

    Clark: I don’t think that they should entirely get rid of the verses, but instead do it like how most Bibles do it nowadays. They put things into paragraphs and verse but put the verse numbers in superscript.

  10. Here is Hyde’s revelation on Jame’s Strang.

  11. Thanks.

  12. Robinson and Garrett’s recently-published 4-volume ‘Commentary on the Doctrine and Covenants’ has been extremely helpful to me.

  13. I would love to see the D&C expand, as well as a few of the “historical flavor” sections dropped. They know who they are…

    (BTW, is it heresy to want to exclude previously canonized text from the canon?)

  14. Kyle, no, not at all. I think that 132 should be replaced with JS’s 1842 revelation on the same topic that is much, much, more amenable to modern faith.

  15. Mapmap I like the way both my copies of the NAB and JB do it with a dot where the verse break happens and then a number representing the verse number in the margin. If they did a quad like that with the poetry broken out where appropriate I’d be in heaven.

    I think it would be unfortunate if D&C 132 were removed for a variety of reasons. Even though we’re all pretty uncomfortable with the main topic for obvious reasons there are a lot of important things in there such as its discussion of the Holy Spirit of Promise. I also think it would be somewhat deceitful about our history to remove it. Kind of like removing OD1 and OD2.

    As for adding stuff it would be interesting to see what gets added. Personally I think a good “Bible” Dictionary that encompasses the BoM & D&C would be fantastic for new members. As for revelations I don’t know what I’d add. Part of me wants to go out on a limb and say the King Follet Discourse and Sermon in the Grove. (Heck the KFD was even published and studied over two weeks in the PH/RS manual not that many years back)

  16. “It may be one of the most decontextualized books in the world.” I saw this post a few weeks ago, and this hyperbolic statement keeps coming back to me, so I came back here to make a comment. Most books, I would argue, or more decontextualized than the D&C. How many chapters in the Bible include a reference to when and where the chapter was written and by whom? What the book does not have, however, is much of a narrative structure, and the revelations are often not in narrative form. What you really seem to be saying is that in your opinion, the book’s format and notes do not require enough context for interpretation.

  17. Actually, AR, I was waiting for someone to bring up the Book of Mormon. Anyway, hyperbole yes. But I do think the way the D&C is quoted is most often *way* out of context.

    Clark, the sermon in the grove is very poorly documented compared to KFD. (Parts of) The KFD is a much more certain text (not the version we currently use however) and is certainly a better candidate for revelatory extraction than most of what Orson dug up (which partly represented corrections to some of his own doctrinal missteps, partly stuff of which his was ignorant when it was originally given and partly stuff relevant to the first operational temple since Nauvoo, just then (1876) about to come online).

  18. Fair enough to say that we often quote it out of context. And again, I would say that it’s because the revelations themselves aren’t narratives, and they don’t necessarily run together as a narrative, so more context is required than in other books. I guess my point was just that we’re talking about a very different kind of book.

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