Gospel Doctrine Lesson #9: “The Only True and Living Church”

Friend of BCC, Joe Spencer, has generously written this guest post as part of our Sunday school series. Joe blogs at the awesome ‘Feast upon the word‘ where they also post excellent lesson materials.

Notes, commentary, and questions for LDS Sunday School teachers using the ‘Doctrine & Covenants and Church History’ manual. Feel free to share your thoughts or ideas regarding the lesson in the comments.

It appears that it was D&C 42 that turned the saints’ attention to the possibility—perhaps the necessity—of publishing the revelations. Many early officers in the Church made handwritten copies of that revelation to use in going about their duties. When one of those early officers apostatized and gave his copy to a couple of newspapers to print as the “secret bylaws of the Mormonites,” the Church’s leadership had to ask whether they wanted to have more control over the circulation of God’s word to them. Plans were then made to establish a printing outfit in Zion, to issue a newspaper, and to begin to assemble the revelations thus far received into a volume to be called the “Book of Commandments.” The first revelation to come off the newly assembled press in Missouri was, however, not the Church’s authorized version of D&C 42, but the so-called “Articles and Covenants” of the Church, the revelation we know as D&C 20.

D&C 20 was again privileged when a volume of Joseph’s revelations was finally produced. The “Book of Commandments” project fell apart when things in Missouri went sour, and what few copies of the unfinished volume were patched together weren’t the official product of the Church as institution. It was in the 1835 “Doctrine and Covenants” that the revelations were first officially presented to the body of the Church as a canonical collection. There again, D&C 20 was given pride of place as section II, the first revelation to appear in the volume after the revealed “preface” originally slotted to introduce the “Book of Commandments.” What we know as D&C 42 appeared as section XIII, a law that was still binding in certain ways but that had been problematized by the loss of Zion in 1833.

Along with D&C 107 (which was section III in 1835), section 20 is probably still the text most consistently privileged from among Joseph’s revelations. It’s always associated with the official organization of the Church, and it’s recognized to be foundational to the basic structure of the Church as we know it. There should be no surprise that a lesson on the official organization of “the only true and living church” is given primarily to this revelation.

But D&C 20 is a most complicated text. It was very heavily revised between its first appearances in print—first in 1831 in the Church’s first newspaper, and then in 1835 in the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. The reasons for revision were obvious: The structure of the Church had changed rather drastically in certain ways, and the institutional handbook that was the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants needed to serve the institution far more than it needed to serve historians. Orson Pratt (under Brigham Young’s direction) reorganized the Doctrine and Covenants in 1876, arranging the revelations in chronological order and adding historical information to the section headings, but this was only a partial re-historicization of the revelations. Orson didn’t restore the original wording of the revelations, so that the saints now had a quasi-historical, quasi-institutional collection whose status was unclear.

The curious status of D&C 20—and many other similar revelations—after 1876 is reflected clearly in the nature of this lesson. Are we looking back to the historical event of the Church’s official organization? Or are we looking at the institutional structure of the Church as we more or less live it now? Or are we doing a kind of illegitimate hybrid of the two, pretending that the Church looked in 1830 like what it actually only looked like in 1835? Or, perhaps a bit too frankly, are we ignoring all those difficulties in order just to ask ourselves half-thoughtful questions about how the Church, as an officially-organized institution, benefits us? Or should I be optimistic that we’re doing a bit canonical interpretation of a text whose shape is still being finalized?

I’m going to choose to be optimistic. What follows is a set of notes based on a canonical reading of sections 20, 21, and 27, those the lesson covers. As is my wont, my reflections and questions will be theological in nature.

In 20:2-3, we’re presented with the idea that Joseph and Oliver are the first and second elders of the Church. How are we to think about that presentation when we’ve no other “numbered” elders? I’m put in mind of the way the Nephite church had its beginnings at the waters of Mormon: Alma takes Helam out into the water, calls on God, and then “both Alma and Helam were buried in the water” (Mosiah 18:14). Not entirely dissimilar were the baptisms of Joseph and Oliver: “I baptized him first, and afterwards he baptized me” (JS-H 1:71). A community, it seems, can’t begin with one, but must begin with two, and that makes for awkward beginnings. What food might this give us for thought?

20:5 gives us a very early—and strikingly brief—account of the First Vision: “it was truly manifested unto this first elder that he had received a remission of his sins.” That description is much more like the 1832 account Joseph inscribed in his journal but didn’t circulate than it’s like the 1838 account that was eventually canonized. And we might note that this brief account of the First Vision was canonized and widely circulated three years before someone produced the version we know from Joseph’s official history. For the moment, I’m entirely uninterested in questions about what actually happened in 1820 (or thereabouts), but want to ask instead: How does this way of describing the First Vision, especially within the very brief story being told in verses 5-8, give us to understand Joseph’s prophetic beginnings? Is it inaugural? A false start? How does the text here understand the event?

However we answer that question, we have to recognize that this revelation presents the visit of Moroni and the consequent translation of the Book of Mormon to be the founding event of the Restoration. That may be important. How do we think about the Restoration if it’s the event of the Book of Mormon’s emergence, much more than the calling of a prophet as the head of a dispensation, that gets the ball of Mormonism rolling?

20:9-36 is a remarkable analysis of the Book of Mormon’s significance. Much time might be spent working carefully through its many details. I’ll just indicate a few points of particular interest, all from verses 9-16. (I’m happy to leave the “doctrinal” survey of verses 17-36 for another occasion.)

Right from the start (verse 9), there’s talk of fullness. But fullness, significantly, “to the Gentiles and to the Jews also.” How does that qualification give us to rethink the nature of the Book of Mormon’s fullness?

The method of announcing the book, described in verse 10, seems to be drawn from Moroni 7:29-32, a passage that brings to its culmination a fascinatingly developed Nephite angelology. How does that angelology inform the one we’ve developed in the wake of all Joseph Smith had to say about angels?

Verse 13 notes that the world will be judged by the Book of Mormon (due to what, according to verses 11-12, it accomplishes by way of testimony regarding the Bible and the continuation of divine intervention). But then it qualifies the judgment in question by applying it only to those who “shall hereafter come to a knowledge of this work.” How might we think about that relatively limited scope?

Verses 14-15 suggest that the judgment announced will be a question first and foremost of “receiving” or “rejecting” the Book of Mormon. How should we understand these terms? Given that this will be followed by a rehearsal of the Book of Mormon’s teachings (systematized and developed in certain directions, of course), should we understand reception of the book to constitute careful study? Or are we talking about Terryl Givens’s Book of Mormon—more sign than signified?

The announcement about judgment, it’s claimed in verse 16, came directly from God: “the Lord God has spoken it; and we, the elders of the church, have heard and bear witness to the words of the glorious Majesty on high.” This is, so far as I know, the only account we have of this event, if event it was. What might we say about this?

And now I’ll move on to section 21. The remainder of section 20 is organizational, and it’s what has been most drastically changed. There are interesting questions to ask, but I shouldn’t let this get too long. And in turning to section 21, I’ll leave off theological questions for a bit of sermonizing, didactically addressing myself to Mormon historians . . . .

First, something needs to be said about the opening gesture of D&C 21. This passage is often cited by Mormon historians in order to point out that the record-keeping practices of the saints began from day one—if not in order to suggest, however subtly, that the very discipline of history has been sacralized by God Himself! But note that that’s not the point of what the Lord says about “a record [being] kept.” The point is that in the record to be kept, Joseph will “be called a seer, a translator, a prophet, an apostle of Jesus Christ, an elder of the Church,” etc. (verse 1), and that that establishes a certain relationship between Joseph and the Church: “Wherefore, meaning the church, thou shalt give heed unto all his words and commandments,” etc. (verse 4). The record to be kept, at this point, is prepared less to ensure that the Church’s history is preserved than to organize a certain order in the Church. This is more the codification of a structure and, even, a law than the beginnings of an official history.

But why this order of things? Verse 7 claims to provide an answer to this question: “For thus saith the Lord God: Him have I inspired to move the cause of Zion in mighty power for good,” etc. And God, we’re told in verse 8, has paid careful attention to Joseph’s “weeping for Zion.” God, it would seem, has called Joseph to a task, and Joseph has responded to that call in a way that marks his appropriateness (I won’t say either “goodness” or “worthiness”) by investing seriously in the welfare of Zion. Codification, then, and undeniably hierarchical, but less in a bureaucratic than a charismatic direction. It’s Joseph’s weeping that lands him in the “record” more than anything else. His weeping is what makes his words echo God’s, such that the saints are to “receive” Joseph’s words “as if from [God’s] own mouth.” The weeping God calls a weeping prophet.

And then there’s a turn to this curious relationship between Joseph and Oliver that is such an obsessive theme in revelations from 1830. Here, though, it’s cast specifically in terms of this first-and-second-elders business. There’s a good deal to riddle through in verses 10-12. Given the relationship Joseph sustains to the Church (“wherefore,” at the beginning of verse 10), Joseph is to be ordained by Oliver. What does that mean? And that ordination—Oliver ordaining Joseph—is “an ordinance unto [Oliver],” apparently constituting him “an elder under [Joseph’s] hand” (verse 11). How does that work? Apparently it works because Joseph is “the first unto [Oliver]” (still verse 11). How is that to be understood? And all this renders Oliver “the first preacher of this church unto the church, and before the world,” Gentiles and Jews (verse 12). How does this relationship between first and second elder establish the first preacher? There’s much to be worked out here, just by way of basic exegesis.

Whatever’s going on in verses 10-12, the whole of section 21 is becoming clear. The point is to establish, from the first day of the Church’s organization, the nature of the Church’s hierarchy. We might do well to spend a good deal more time looking at this revelation. But let me get on to section 27, so that I can wrap these notes up. (I might note that in section 27 we again have a heavily edited revelation, but since I’m not bothering with such issues, I’ll leave this note between parentheses.) I haven’t much to say about the first verses of this revelation, so let me just note a thing or two about verses 5-14, and then a thing or two about verses 15-18.

In verses 5-14 we have our first glimpse in the Doctrine and Covenants of the idea of Adam-ondi-Ahman, as well as one of the earliest emphases in the Restoration on the importance of keys. Thus Moroni is here less—as he was in section 20—“an holy angel, whose countenance was as lightning, and whose garments were pure and white above all other whiteness” (D&C 20:6), and more him “to whom [God has] committed the keys of the record of the stick of Ephraim” (D&C 27:5). That difference is striking. How does this focus on keys, guided by the idea of the future meeting at Adam-ondi-Ahman—change our understanding of things? However we answer that question, it’s worth noting that it’s only at this point and in connection with these ideas that Joseph’s revelations begin to draw on the Pauline notion that God “will gather together in one all things, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth” (D&C 27:13). What’s at stake in this shift?

Turning to verses 15-18, we get another Pauline borrowing: the image of the armor of God. We’ve all had a dozen lessons where the imagery here is developed at length (how does truth protect the loins? how does righteousness protect the breast? how does faith serve as a shield? how is the Spirit the one means of attack? etc.). My question is why this imagery of armor—this imagery of war—appears suddenly here and in connection with the idea of Adam-ondi-Ahman. (It might be noted that both the Adam-ondi-Ahman/keys material and the armor-of-God material are added to the revelation in the same editorial move.) How are we to think about this double interest in Paul—in this set of images and ideas from the (likely actually pseudo-Pauline) letter to the Ephesians? I suspect there’s much to be learned in thinking about the transformation of Mormon apocalyptic and the sudden interest in these themes.

For now, I’ll leave these as open questions.


  1. Every now and then a post just stands on its own and people evidently can’t think of anything adequate to say in reply. (Perhaps it was the effect of the Academy Awards this weekend, lowering the IQ of the American public.)

    Thank you for the thoughts — lots of interesting things to think about regarding the context of the revelations. I do appreciate all these BCC Gospel Doctrine lessons since I rarely get to Gospel Doctrine right now. I should come visit Feast Upon the Word more often.

  2. This is so great. Thanks for the effort to put these questions out there, Joe.

  3. Thanks Amy and Robin. Rereading these notes just now, I realize how much I raced through them (busy, busy, busy!), so I apologize for their disjointedness….

  4. Joe, this is fantastic stuff.

    I am only just getting to them now but just wanted to ask about this first and second elder stuff, to anyone who is reading. Recent interpretations of this passage that I have heard have tried to connect these roles with D&C 135 and the martyrdom; making sure to observe, of course, that Oliver forfeited his role as second elder. This clearly ex-post reading obscures the fact that JS most probably intended something else. Are they a crossover from another religious tradition, perhaps Methodism?

    Your subsequent question regarding this passage reminds me of Bonhoeffer’s ‘Life Together’. One of the impressions that came to me while reading that book was the suggestion, not quite explicit – perhaps his personal experiences seems to have constrained his ability to go down this route completely, that Christians cannot worship in solitude.

  5. So, I’m curious if you know the source of the additional verses that showed up in the 1835 edition of the D&C. They’re not there in RB1 or the Book of Commandments, but have made their way in by the time they are published in the Evening and Morning Star and the 1835 D&C.

  6. Aaron R. – I’ve come across the sorts of interpretations you’re mentioning as well. So far as I can tell, it was Joseph Fielding Smith who got that line of interpretation started, and he (if I’m remembering right—it’s been a while) grounds it in D&C 124:91-96 (see especially verse 95), which sets up a logic of replacement: Hyrum is to take over Oliver’s role. Whatever the merits of the larger tradition of interpretation in this vein, there is something at work in that passage that suggests that Oliver had a privileged position next to Joseph Smith, and that that was taken over by Hyrum. It doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to take that as an interpretive key to making sense of texts like D&C 21 (and a number of others in these early revelations). Whether it suggests anything about who should have died at Carthage is, of course, another story!

    All that said, I’m not a historian, so I can’t speak to whether all this first/second elder business comes from elsewhere in American religion. I’d hope others can chime in on that. But in the meanwhile, you have my thanks for the Bonhoeffer reference!

    Nate S – I don’t know the source, though I’d be thrilled to know it. Robin Jensen would be a better person to answer any such question. I’ve done a bit of reading about the process behind the production of the 1835 D&C, but I think much of the last revisions made before that edition appeared are unclear….

  7. Thank you for the questions and context! You and my class thank you :)

  8. I love what you said about “The weeping God calls a weeping prophet.” I am definitely going to use this as I teach this lesson today.

  9. cherylem says:

    Joe, I taught this lesson this morning, and used your notes and outline pretty precisely, adding a bit here and there. Thank you. I did read from Rough Stone Rolling the page on the first church meeting, and related it a little our current testimony meetings: no sermons, just people testifying of the restoration and of their knowledge of Jesus Christ, by the power of the Spirit – I know that first meeting probably looked nothing like our meetings (I believe it was all male, for one thing), but still. It seemed a decent parallel to draw.


  10. rosalyndewelch says:

    “The weeping God called a weeping prophet.”

    This made me weep, and will be a centerpiece of my lesson tomorrow. Thank you thank you for these great spurs to thought, Joe.

  11. rosalyndewelch says:

    I doubt anybody is up in real time to answer my question, but just in case: To clarify, what we have in our current edition of the D&C *includes* 1835 revisions to the original 1830 “Articles and Covenants”? In other words, the words we have do not reflect exactly what was presented to the church in June 1830? Does anybody know for sure?

  12. J. Stapley says:

    Ros, the current edition definately includes the subsequently edited version. In April 1830, there were only Elders, Priests, Teachers, and Deacons. The other offices mentioned were introduced later, sometimes by years.

  13. rosalyndewelch says:

    Thank you, J!

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