Lesson 13: “This Generation Shall Have My Word through You” #DandC2017

Goal: “To help class members appreciate the Prophet Joseph Smith’s role in bringing forth the word of the Lord in this dispensation.” The Lesson has two main emphases: translation and the story behind the Book of Commandments. Both are interesting. Let’s start with translation.

Book of Mormon
Gospel Topics Essay on BoM Translation. Plates not consulted. Seer stone/interpreters in a hat. Dictation to a scribe.

Parchment of John
A parchment that JS never had access to. Seer stone (in a hat?). Dictation to a scribe.

…or as the JSPP folks calling, Joseph Smith Bible Revision. Revelations in Context essay on the JST. Kevin’s Dialogue essay (I thought he had a BCC post that summarized the types of things JS was doing but couldn’t find it. Can anyone help me here?) English Bible as base text. Edits, emendations, and revisions of various types. Seer Stone? Dictation to scribe? Collaboration?

Book of Abraham
Gospel Topics Essay on BoA. Egyptian papyrus and funereal items. Seer Stone? Dictation to scribe. As noted in the linked essay, JS’s “translation” of the facsimiles do not correspond to actual linguistic translations done by Mormon and non-Mormon scholars. BYU has published the translation of the hypocephalus.

So what does “translation” mean when we are talking about JS? In what way did JS translate the KJV Bible? In what way did JS translate the hypocephalus? In what way did JS translate the golden plates? What does it mean for something to be translated “correctly”?

Book of Commandments
We are all familiar with the Rollins girls bravely gathering published sheets of revelations and running to the corn fields. But there was a lot more going on. Crawley’s Descriptive Bibliography has been deprecated by JSP R2, but it still has a lot of good info (pp. 39-40):

By July 20, 1833, Phelps had printed five 32-page signatures. That afternoon a large group of Missourians swarmed into the Star office, threw the press and type out of an upper story window, and pulled down the building (see item 3). Close by, Mary Elizabeth Rollins and her younger sister Caroline watched the destruction:

When the mob was tearing down the printing office, a two story building, driving Brother Phelps’ family out of the lower part of the house, they (the mob) brought out some large sheets of paper, saying, “Here are the Mormon commandments.” My sister, 12 years old (I was then 14) and myself were in a corner of a fence watching them. When they spoke about them being the commandments, I was determined to have some of them. So while their backs were turned, prying out the gable end of the house, we ran and gathered up all we could carry in our arms. As we turned away, two of the mob got down off the house and called for us to stop, but we ran as fast as we could, through a gap in the fence into a large corn field, and the two men after us. We ran a long way in the field, laid the papers on the ground, then laid down on top of them. The corn was very high and thick. They hunted all around us, but did not see us. After we were satisfied they had given up the search, we tried to find our way out of the field. The corn was so tall we thought we were lost. On looking up we saw some trees that had been girdled to kill them. We followed them and came to an old log stable, which looked like it had not been used for years. Sister Phelps and family were there, carrying in brush and piling it up on one side of the stable to make their beds on. She asked us what we had. We told her and also how we came by them. She took them and placed them between her beds. Subsequently Oliver Cowdery bound them in small books and gave me one. I gave it to Apostle Richards shortly before he died. We have one, however, that belonged to Sidney Gilbert.8

Some time later, after the press had been moved from the street, John Taylor, a twenty-year-old Mormon convert of seven months from Kentucky, salvaged a second batch of sheets:

In 1833 at the time of the destruction of the Printing Press in Independence Jackson Co. the printed sheets of the Book of Commandments & the pied type & press were thrown in an old log stable by the mob. I asked Bp. Partridge if I might go & get out some copies of the Book of Commandments. He said it would most likely cost me my life if I attempted it. I told him I did not mind hazarding my life to secure some copies of the commandments. He then said I might go. I ran my hand into a crack between the logs & pulled out a few at a time until I got as many as I could carry, when I was discovered. A dozen men surrounded me and commenced throwing stones at me and 1 shouted out “Oh my God must I be stoned to death like Stephen for the sake of the word of the Lord.” The Lord gave me strength & skill to elude them and make my escape without being hit by a stone. I delivered the copies to Bp. Partridge who said I had done a good work and my escape was a miracle. These I believe are the only copies of that edition of the Book of commandments preserved from destruction.9

Sheets survived in other ways. William E. McLellin, for example, gathered up some as they blew about the streets of Independence. And it is apparent from the letter of Joseph Smith, S. Rigdon, and F. G. Williams of June 25, 1833, that Phelps had sent copies of the various signatures to Kirtland as they were printed.10

The Book of Commandments was based on edited manuscript copies of the revelations. Because it wasn’t widely circulated, these revelations were edited further when the church published the Doctrine and Covenants in 1835. Sometimes these revisions were significant (see e.g., WVS’s Dialogue article on 107). Does this mean that our revelations can be “translated”? If so, by who? What does this mean for Mormon conceptions of cannon?

An axiom for the last several decades has been that early Mormons didn’t use the Book of Mormon. They used primarily the NT, but the mere existence of the BoM was an essential witness for the Restoration. Could we say something similar about JS?


  1. Christopher says:

    Good stuff, J. Thanks.

  2. Crickets. No one wants to discus this?

    I keep having more thoughts on the idea that Joseph Smith was receiving revelations from God and he very much believed he was translating, but the he was not above embellishing with extra stuff he thought was true. Any one else?

  3. J. Stapley says:

    incog, I posted this Friday night. Probably not the best time to induce conversation. Blake Ostler’s famous Dialogue article on translation I think goes where you are going. But more generally, I’m unaware of any type of translation where the translator doesn’t bring his or her world to the project.

  4. DeAnn S. says:

    Great post. I look at the JS translation as equivalent to Jewish commentaries on the Hebrew bible. A kind of biblical targum or midrash. I wish the JS translation were called a commentary because much of it reads like a verse-by-verse commentary.

  5. How the lesson went in my ward yesterday:

    Teacher recounts a story of Oliver Cowdery writing a letter to JS insisting that he change some words in a revelation. With a tone of “poor silly misguided Oliver still doesn’t get it after all this time,” we read D&C 5:10 (“this generation shall have my word through you”) and moved on. QED, apparently. There was no discussion of the fact that Oliver was one of a handful of JS associates on a revision committee that made countless changes to revelations–something I had a vague inkling of (not being a history buff) and confirmed in a quick google search. This could have been a great discussion of how revelation is received, and the difference btw saying JS receives God’s “word” vs his “words.”

    Next, teacher recounts the story of Hiram Page using a seer stone. Rather than talk about the similarity to JS’s own stone, and then getting into a discussion of how we would have sorted out who was the correct prophet if we had lived at the time, we simply read D&C 27:7 with that same tone of “poor silly misguided Hiram still doesn’t get it that only JS can receive revelation.”

    A couple more stories along the same lines, with the same tone. Then we read Wilford Woodruff: “The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as president of the Church to lead you astray.” No discussion.

    And that was it. Reinforcing once again the old joke: Catholics say the pope is infallible but act like he isn’t, while Mormons say the prophet isn’t infallible but act like he is.

  6. The Oliver Cowdery story is about D&C 20, right? If I remember, his beef was over the verse that said converts had to demonstrate by their works that they had truly received the spirit of Christ before they could be baptized. Oliver and the Whitmers thought that was too much embracing a works-based gospel.

    Aside from the theological objection, though, as to the question of authority, Oliver’s position was not unreasonable, because a previous revelation through Joseph Smith had directed him, Oliver Cowdery, to “build up my church” by “relying on the things that were written” (meaning the Book of Mormon), so Oliver felt like adding that verse was adding unauthorized doctrine to the Book of Mormon verses that he had pulled to compile what would later become section 20. At the very least, it was ambiguous whether Joseph had the authority to overrule Oliver with respect to his specific commission to build up the church, so when Joseph asserted that authority, and ultimately convinced the Whitmers that he wasn’t trying to impose works-based salvation, and Oliver agreed to defer to Joseph, it was not just “silly old Oliver just didn’t get that Joseph was the head man,” it was a real open question that had to be resolved.

  7. I didn’t know the backstory beyond what the teacher recounted. I wish she had brought up those details. Could have been a great discussion. I don’t know much church history beyond what I read in Rough Stone Rolling and the topics essays, but even that’s been enough that much of GD has been a huge disappointment so far this year. This week’s lesson was yet another example.

  8. Elizabeth says:

    adano: Why don’t you look at the lesson manual ahead of time and read all the suggested extra readings. That way you can contribute what you’ve learned at the proper time and improve the lessons considerably. Most likely your teacher will be very appreciative. A class that sit like lumps and wait for you to pour knowledge into their heads is huge disappointment also. May you one day be called to be a Gospel Doctrine teacher.

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