Gospel Doctrine Lesson #1: Doctrine and Covenants, Section 1.

Notes, commentary, and questions for LDS Sunday School teachers using the ‘Doctrine & Covenants and Church History’ manual.

The word “canon” is not widely used in the church in reference to its books of scripture. Perhaps part of the reason for this is the way it is used in most Christian contexts: a fixed rule by which all else is measured. Instead, we developed our own title for these books. “Standard Works” substitutes for canon and avoids the implication that the body of sacred texts is unchangeable. The term was broader initially than now, but still focused in scripture texts. Here’s George A. Smith, April conference, 1867:

I travel about occasionally, and sometimes, when I want food or a night’s lodging, I call at the house of a brother, who is probably of long standing in the Church, and who is raising a family of fine children. Now, a part of that man’s mission is to educate those children, to form their tastes, to cultivate their talents, and make a kingdom of holy men and women of them-a kingdom of priests unto God. But what has he got there to do it with? If you ask for a Book of Mormon, he will probably hand you one that old age seems long since to have passed its final veto upon, and if you undertake to pick it up you would say, “it stinks so that I cannot.” I do not know that there are many such Elders, it would be well for him to reflect that right here at the Deseret News printing office br. Kelly has the standard works of the Church for sale, and I would like every Elder in Israel to place a full set of them in the hands of his children;1

The reading schedule for lesson one consists of the explanatory introduction to the Doctrine and Covenants, the introduction to Our Heritage: A Brief History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and D&C section 1. In leu of the D&C introduction I suggest a read of the Joseph Smith Papers materials mentioned in J. Stapley’s opening salvo for this series. One of those is Robin Jensen’s discussion of the publication of Joseph Smith’s revelations.

The sections of the D&C are mostly given in chronological order. Section 1 breaks that ordering by virtue of its purpose: it was given as an introduction to the first attempt at publishing the revelations, initiated in 1831. In those days, the revelations went by various titles, “commandment,” “revelation,” and perhaps most interesting, “covenant.” The first two were descriptive of content. The last suggests the nature of the whole enterprise of the new church. The revelations were symbolic of renewal, restoration. D&C 1 speaks to that purpose, and possibly the most popular early work in Mormon bibliography, Parley P. Pratt’s, “A Voice of Warning” takes its title from the opening of section 1.2

D&C 1 styles that initial collection of revelations as a voice of warning. Truly, many of Joseph Smith’s early revelations are focused on, or hover in expectation of, the end times and the preparation of a Zion to meet the imminent Christ. A good way to read the revelation is with that feeling in mind: the time is short. For the early readers of the revelation, it was probably measured in a few decades, perhaps even less. This immediacy provides a nice contextual setting for reading the revelation and trying to understand what it meant for early church members (see vss 14-18).

In this vein, an interesting portion of the text is found in verse 6. The revelation “is mine authority, and the authority of my servants”. The world of Protestant readers would see this as heresy in the highest sense. At the same time, it follows a well-worn path. Can a text be authority for ministerial action? The reformers saw the Bible as authority. The Mormons were following suit. The text of D&C 1 and the other “commandments” (note the registration of the aborted “book of commandments”) is their authority.

There are a thousand points that might be made here, but I’ll just mention a couple of them. First, verses 8 and 9. The verse implicitly references the restoration of the “high priesthood” in its discussion of the high priests called to seal on earth and in heaven. Modern readers see a kind of metaphorical reference to the Mormon missionary force or possibly to modern church leaders. Early readers, ca 1831, saw this in a very different way both in terms of what those servants were charged to do, and who they were. In fact, without any hyperbole at all, these revelations from the period between June 1831 and December 1831 (D&C 1 dates from November 1) all float in the sea of the high priesthood. It surrounds them, supports them, and emanates from them (that’s right, it’s the force). You just have to read them correctly. Second, the revelation is full of repurposed text from Old and New Testament sources. It is a useful exercise to track those down and try to understand how they are used in similar or altered ways for the benefit of the Saints, this is the backing fabric of famous passages like verse 24.

Finally, I’ll just mention the evolution of the text. One of the big issues for Evangelicals in Joseph Smith’s environment was the way scripture was perceived. Is the Bible a historical document? The question may seem silly, but it was a vital one for many who saw the text as Divine, effectively atemporal. Mormons have some of the same angst going on and this is found in discussions about authorship of New Testament books, etc. I’m a history man myself and I think there is much to be learned by examining texts as historical objects if you will. The earliest text available for D&C 1 is found in Revelation Book 1 [RB1] (Joseph Smith Papers, Manuscript Revelation Books). There are three important intermediate texts of the revelation: the one printed in anticipation of distributing the first incarnation of the Doctrine and Covenants3, the one appearing in the Evening and Morning Star, the church newspaper in 1833 Independence, Missouri, and one copied into the manuscript history of the church (ca. 1841 -W. W. Phelps). The latter determined (through a string of texts) the text as it eventually appeared in volume 1 of the B. H. Roberts edited History of the Church. The stemmatics of the revelations is great fun, if you’re into that sort of thing. The differences between the current version of the text and the RB1 text are not great. Without detailed study behind this assertion, I think the RB1 text is quite near the original. Unfortunately, the autograph is lost to us. It’s worth the effort to do a word by word comparison between D&C 1 and the RB1 text. I’d do it here, but this already exceeds the intended length by a healthy margin.

[Note: The Gospel Doctrine posts for this year will be archived for your convenience here. A bunch of history and religion hot shots will be contributing. Feel free to use them for your own lesson prep, or for anti-boredom purposes. (grin) Best wishes from the BCC team.]
[Lesson #2 is here. All hail Tracy.]
1. George A. goes on to mention the Bible and Doctrine and Covenants but not the Pearl of Great Price. The latter didn’t exist as a “standard work” yet. There is a lot that can mined from George A.s quote here, and perhaps someone will do this in the comments.

2. The book was Parley P. Pratt’s most influential contribution to Mormon literature for many years and formed a part of that widened group of “standard works” that only later narrowed to the four books presently given that title.

3. The first publication attempt in 1833 was called The Book of Commandments. Doctrine and Covenants was a title formulated in 1835. It referenced two classes of texts. “Doctrine” referred to lectures composed for education purposes in a “school of the Elders” in Ohio (the “Lectures on Faith”). It was probably composed by Sidney Rigdon. “Covenants” referred to those revelations (or visions, policy statements, etc.) selected and edited for publication. The “Doctrine” was seen as unhelpful by most leaders in Utah and some like Orson Pratt moved to discard it in the 1876 edition. It was not eliminated until 1921. The name stuck in spite of this change.


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Good stuff, thanks.

  2. You’re welcome Kevin. Looking forward to the other installments.

  3. This is fantastic. Thanks for writing and posting it. I, too, am looking forward to the entire series.

  4. J. Stapley says:

    I had to think about the date of GAS’s sermon a bit. I think I’ll track down the original. Is the term “stand works” common outside of Mormonism at all? It will be a while before primary and Sunday School. And I imagine that lived Mormonism was still very often a struggle for survival in many of the settlements.

  5. “Standard Works” was not exclusive to Mormons. It was reasonably common as a reference to a selection of sermons, say, or founding literature of one sort or another. Its broader usage among the Mormons matches this and that’s the way GAS used it. Using standard works exclusively for the scriptures came later. Brigham Young used it to mean the “other” items beyond the scripture texts a year later. By 1879 it’s still being used in a fairly broad way. I’m guessing that it gravitated to just the four books as the other items dropped out of missionary use. Last LDS edition of Voice may be 1928? (RLDS also published it well into the 20th century.)

  6. Your discussion of “Standard works” is interesting, looking at wordusage here http://corpus.byu.edu/gc/ it appears that standard works was used quite generally up until the early twentieth century, at times even meaning only those publications that don’t form a part of the canon.

  7. ‘A good way to read the revelation is with that feeling in mind: the time is short.’

    This is a great insight, WVS. I wonder how a teacher would make more of this particular dynamic. Certainly the urgency is in the text itself but we must dull it through our own lack of anti-millennial fervor.

  8. Aaron, I think a bit of sensitivity is required. This is all about seeing the revelations as historical documents, fitting them in the time and space of origin. I think a careful teacher might point to New Testament passages that seem to suggest Christ’s return within a short period, say. Going too far down that road probably requires more time than a Sunday School session. Might be fun to see it as a kind of returning theme over several lessons though. Truman Madsen once said something like “every college student learns to entertain ideas he or she doesn’t believe.” This kind of exercise might be fruitful for some readers, others not so much. I’d love to hear ideas about fitting historical treatments of the revelations into a devotional setting.

  9. Loved reading this WVS. Thanks for contributing to my excitement for studying the D&C this year! I love your suggestion if mining the JSPP materials for background and introduction. Also, loved your reference to the Evening and Mormoning Star!

  10. Thanks, John f.

  11. It’s so interesting to see where these words and phrases so rich in meaning in the Mormon context have come from.

  12. I meant to say in the OP, not that the intro to the D&C should be skipped (it’s not online apparently) but that the JSPP links were much deeper and in some cases, a bit corrective. You can also find an intro to the D&C here. It is shorter than the JSPP reads, but longer than the internal introduction. Context for the D&C is vital I think.

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