The New Scriptural Headings and Historicizing the Revelations

There is lots to be said about the new edition of LDS scriptures. (Race! Polygamy! Abraham!) One of the more seemingly mundane changes, but perhaps the most frequent, concerns the reference’s to Joseph Smith’s history.

Much of the historical changes come as a result of the great work being done by the Joseph Smith Papers Project (see here). And a major result of this new research has called into question the reliability of BH Roberts’s History of the Church, a seven-volume series based on earlier manuscripts. (See my overview here.) Put simply, these books took historic sources and often modified the language to make them seem more authentic and written in Joseph Smith’s own voice. They have been under increasing scrutiny, especially as the original sources these books were based on have come available. A few years ago, the Church’s RS/PH manual Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith explicitly mentioned that it bypassed the source because of those problems. Now the transition has influenced the section headings for the Doctrine and Covenants. A quick glance through the comparative changes shows dozens of headings that had references to the History of the Church removed.

While history geeks (Stapley!) and documents nerds (Rob Jensen!) rejoice in this move in and of itself, I think it represents a deeper and more significant change within our historical conscience. Take, for instance, how the introduction to Section 2 was altered:

1981: “An extract from the words of the angel Moroni to Joseph Smith the Prophet…”

2013: “An extract from Joseph Smith’s history relating the words of the angel Moroni…”

Or Section 13:

1981: “Ordination of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery to the Aaronic Priesthood…

2013: “An extract from Joseph Smith’s history recounting the ordination of the Prophet and Oliver Cowdery to the Aaronic Priesthood…”

Or Section 35:

1981: “As a preface to his record of this revelation the Prophet wrote…”

2013: “As a preface to the record of this revelation, Joseph Smith’s history states…”

Seems mundane, right? Yet I think this is worth contemplating. (Note: similar changes were made to Sections 33, 36, 45, 49, 50, 63, 67, 76, 77, 110, and 133). The major problem with Roberts’s History was that it was dogmatic and ahistorical, meaning that it tried to specify too neatly how history happened, and sometimes got it wrong. But that’s that thing: we often want our history settled, established, and clear cut. We want to know exactly what Joseph Smith said, what Moroni said, what John the Baptist said. But history is much more messy than that. Sometimes, all we have are the narratives, the recountings, and the extracts. Sometimes, history is much more tricky than we’d like.

In this way, the new D&C headings help us historicize our revelations, and the circumstances in which they emerged, because they highlight (or at least hint to) the complexity of the past. They are less dogmatic. In some revelations, like 42, 75, 102, and 107, the headings don’t shy away from how tricky those composite texts really are. This is more than just factual corrections; they are paradigm alterations. On their face, these seem simple alterations of the historical record; but significantly, they represent how we approach history.

Perhaps because these types of shifts take place along an extended time frame we don’t really recognize them, but they do happen. And they are happening right before our eyes, within these seemingly mundane editorial changes.


  1. Glad I sold my set a few months ago before they dropped value as of today. Then again, most people are probably unaware of the Church’s rejection of the source.

  2. Leonard Reil says:

    I find interesting the new text before both of the official declarations, which provide a very brief background for each. Both are interesting in their own right, but for OD 1, I found interesting the declaration that monogamy is the “norm”. For OD 2, I found interesting the frank acknowledgement of Joseph’s ordinations, the uncertain of the when and why the ban was started, and of the belief that revelation was needed to alter that practice.

  3. Leonard Reil says:

    I should also have added that I appreciated the whole post, Benjamin, and think you hit the nail on the head re: the importance of those small changes. That the Church produced a “side-by-side comparison” is also very welcomed; recognizing that people will be curious, that someone else would have created it, and doing it in advance.

  4. Leonard Reil says:

    Sorry for the now-triple posting, but I just saw the other posts on the same topic… I’m a little slow today.

  5. This new presentation of the D&C is also arguably more consistent with the way the Book of Mormon presents itself as opposed to the way the Bible as been presented by inerrantists: an inspired compilation of extracts and “abridgement[s],” often quoting extracts other sources (who sometimes in turn quote extracts from other sources), as opposed to a divine dictation.

  6. Just a small quibble with attributing the Documentary History to Roberts. I would argue that the Documentary History is only a reissuance, with modifications,by Roberts, of the extant History of the Church, of which Richards, Smith, Woodruff and Young were the editors. Perhaps Roberts should never have republished the volume, or should have done a better job in correcting the many errors introduced by prior redactors and editors. But to put all the blame on him seems a little harsh.

  7. David H: I discussed the composition of the HC more in depth at the JI post I linked to above. My attribution to Roberts was more an identification to the person n whose name is tethered to the volume (for good or ill) than an indictment of him personally. I apologize if it came off different than that.

  8. Actually, going back to my JI link, I see that I didn’t give as much background as I thought. I reccomend Dean Jesse’s excellent articles on the topic. Roberts was mostly reproducing the work of the Historian’s office between 1839 and 1857, though he certainly made influential changes himself.

  9. Grateful for the new changes and glad to see the church moving in a more transparent direction.

  10. The announcement of the new scriptures has (rightfully) overshadowed another noteworthy development: The Kirtland Egyptian Papers and the papyrus fragments have been now posted to the Joseph Smith Papers website. See the notice and links on their homepage:

  11. With many of the changes, particularly the clarifications on the Fall, Bruce McConkie and Joseph Fielding Smith are turning onto the Church equivalent of Marty McFly’s siblings during the big dance scene: slowly fading from the photo.

  12. Rachael says:

    I’m so glad you pointed these out, Ben. Those subtle additions really are important; acknowledgment of the *transmission* between JS, his experiences, and the D&C revelations reinforces that they are not all one in the same; language, interpretation, memory, etc., all affect the form in which the audience receives the revelation, and the original experience itself. Such a great step!

  13. Last year I was assigned to speak about the scriptures for an upcoming Stake Relief Society Conference. At the time I sighed at the topic, but now it’ll be exciting teaching it so soon after the announcement of the new scripture edition.

    Since yesterday morning I have spent many hours reading these blog discussions and going through the materials from the Church to try to get a grasp on the new edition to teach to the women of the stake in a couple of weeks. I probably won’t spend more than a few seconds on typos, but I will mention “The Fall of Adam and Eve” from the Bible Dictionary, and the introductions to the Official Declarations.

    Anyway, on the topic of this post, here is one change from the Doctrine & Covenants section headings (Section 82) that stood out: the code names and references to the code names that were so intriguing in my childhood scriptures have finally totally disappeared. (And of course that change brings to mind Ardis’s fascinating MHA presentation and blog series on codes in Mormon history, “The Qmlbwpnygax Eujugec Have Not the Power to Ktgjie the Wzznlhmpygtg.”) (No, I didn’t remember her title! I had to look it up!)

    So, if removing the History of the Church references provides more historical complexity, wouldn’t removing the code names provide less? (But that’s 100 percent fine with me!)

  14. “A few years ago, the Church’s RS/PH manual Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith explicitly mentioned that it bypassed the source because of those problems.”

    Ben, did I miss something obvious? The linked material doesn’t seem to be “bypassing” anything. It talks at length about the complexities of the B.H. Roberts volumes, but it then speaks very glowingly of them at the end.

  15. AB: just that they are bypassing any references to them, instead relying on the earlier sources.

  16. #13- were there changes to the Adam and Eve entry in the Bible Dictionary? I don’t see that on the church website.

  17. Nona, see “Fall of Adam and Eve” under “F” in the dictionary. (Assuming you’ve probably already seen that by now…)

  18. J. Stapley says:

    I’ve been offline most of this week and wasn’t really able to follow things as they happened. I agree with your post Ben. After looking over things it seems to me that a major priority was to maintain pagination, and therefore revisions were significantly constrained. I presume this was to not pressure people to get new scriptures. Despite the good and important things you outline, I’m generally left with conclusion that the new edition is missed opportunity. Alas.

  19. otaddict says:

    Re cessation of citing HC. I think Aaron Brown was on the right track, and I wonder if the OP overstates the “reliability” negatives of HC as the reason it is no longer cited. The JSPP are very careful not to brand what the new scriptures now call “Joseph Smith’s history” as deceptive, but instead indicate that the practices employed by the early brethren were in line with the custom of the day. The intros to the D & C sections omit citing the HC as much because HC is only rarely and expensively available and even with the internet version the volume and page citations are cumbersome, as because of problems with reliability. The virtue of the JSPP is as much universal free availability as it is improved reliability.

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