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.