Relishing the Revisions: Joseph Smith and the Revelatory Process
Devotional Address Given at
Brigham Young University–Hawaii
October 13, 2009
Professor of History
Brigham Young University
Dear friends—from the bottom of my heart, aloha. I wish we had twenty minutes for me to express how much Sharee and I and our family have been enriched by the wonderful association that is possible here at BYU–Hawaii. I hope all of you students are basking in this experience. There's so much that I would wish to say. What a wonderful world it is here—to draw people from all over this planet of every conceivable race and culture and ethnicity and background and personal history, and bring them together so that they stand like George Q. Cannon and Jonathan Napela, back to back, hands raised to heaven. What a beautiful image that Brother Viliami [Toluta'u] did for us some dozen years ago. We today use the expression, "I've got your back." What a powerful image—the blending of two peoples, back to back, doing the work of the Lord. That is the beauty of BYU–Hawaii in a way that I know. There are many other places that it can be achieved. I hope you love and revel in your experience here. We certainly did for eight glorious years.
The beauty of a BYU devotional is that it can both inspire and inform, edify and educate. My hope this morning is that each of these purposes will be accomplished as we strive to deepen our understanding of how the great founding prophet of this dispensation, Joseph Smith, received, recorded, and published his revelations. As Brother Johnson mentioned, it has been my privilege for a number of years to be associated with the Church's Joseph Smith Papers project and to be assigned to work with the Prophet's earliest writings. Understand that Joseph himself actually wrote very little. Almost all his surviving letters, journals, and even his revelations are in the handwriting of scribes. When we look at the very earliest writings, those that have come from the Prophet during the years just before and after the Church's organization in 1830, what we find is that most of those documents are the written texts of the revelations Joseph received from the Lord. Even before Joseph started keeping a journal, writing his history, or producing doctrinal literature, he dictated texts for the revelations he received. Throughout my talk this morning, I'd like to use the phrase revelation texts, rather than just revelations, to preserve a distinction between the Prophet's inner experience of divine revelation and the words he used to express that revelation.
For a few moments let us review the process by which the revelation texts traveled from the lips of the Prophet to the pages of the Doctrine and Covenants. Because Joseph rarely left detailed descriptions of his revelatory experiences, we know less than we would like about a number of particulars. For instance, how much time elapsed between Joseph receiving a revelation and dictating the text of that revelation to a scribe? Typically, the time appears to have been very short, though in some instances, days or weeks seemed to have passed. And, in a few cases, such as with D&C 101 and D&C 132, the revelation texts appear to combine a series of divine impressions and communications received over several months or perhaps even several years.
Once a revelation text was dictated, it was often copied either by the individual to whom it was directed or by any interested Saint if it was addressed to the Church generally. In the Church's infancy, Joseph allowed the Saints to hand copy the revelation texts he dictated because that was the only way for them to have and study them. Far from living in our electronic age of instant internet and email access, it is interesting to note that more than half the revelation texts found in the Doctrine and Covenants were recorded before the Church even owned a printing press. Such was the Saints' eagerness to make personal copies of the revelation texts that Joseph once remarked to W. W. Phelps that they "have been snatched from under my hand as soon as given." This enthusiasm, of course, is hardly surprising. It was, after all, the wonder of having a living prophet, seer, and revelator on the earth that helped lead the Saints to join the Church in the first place.
Because making and circulating handwritten copies of the revelation texts was obviously a time consuming and inefficient way to make the Word of God available to the people, it was not long before Joseph and his brethren made plans to acquire a printing press and publish the revelation texts. A former newspaper editor who had joined the Church, W. W. Phelps, was called to be "a printer unto the church" (D&C 57:11), and Oliver Cowdery and others were appointed to assist him. In November 1831, a half dozen men, including Cowdery and W.W. Phelps, were designated by revelation (D&C 70) as a "Literary Firm" to oversee all church publications. By early the next year, a press had been purchased and transported to Independence, Missouri, a village on what was then on the western edge of the United States and the place the Lord had recently designated as Zion. In June 1832, the inaugural issue of the Church's first periodical came off the press. A sort of abbreviated Ensign/Liahona and Church News combined, this newspaper, titled The Evening and the Morning Star (but known among the Saints simply as the Star), regularly published revelation texts in its columns over the next year. Indeed, as seen in this slide, the first page of the first issue was entirely devoted to the Church's foundational Articles and Covenants, what we today know as D&C 20.
Meanwhile, work was moving forward on producing the Book of Commandments, a compilation of virtually all the revelation texts received up to that point in time. Sadly, in July 1833, before this new book of scripture could be finished, a group of antagonistic neighbors broke into the Missouri print shop and vandalized it. Joseph and his brethren, however, were not to be defeated, and within two years they published a new compilation under the title Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of the Latter Day Saints, Carefully Selected from the Revelations of God. This first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants contained 102 sections. Today, the Doctrine and Covenants contains 138. The Doctrine and Covenants is larger now than it was in 1835 because Joseph dictated revelation texts after 1835 that needed to be added and because subsequent prophets decided that some of his other inspired expressions should also be included.
Scholars who have closely compared the wording of the revelation texts in the Doctrine and Covenants with that of earlier printings in the Star and the Book of Commandments have noticed that some passages read differently. It might be thought that this is because the Doctrine and Covenants corrected earlier errors and restored the pure, original text, but such is not the case. Actually the revised wording was designed to more fully and perfectly communicate the Word of God. Literally hundreds of these revisions, usually involving only a word or two but sometimes comprising an entire phrase or more, were made to the revelation texts between initial dictation and final publication in the Doctrine and Covenants. Most redactions (another word for revisions or editorial changes) made while preparing the revelation texts for publication in the Book of Commandments were grammatical or stylistic in nature or they sought to clarify meaning. Later revisions, those made while preparing the texts for publication in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants, often had as their objective to update and amplify the revelation texts to reflect recently revealed church organization or doctrine. Properly understood, these inspired revisions help us gain a deeper understanding of the revelatory process and a heightened appreciation for the Prophet Joseph Smith.
Thanks to a milestone publishing event that occurred last month, an unparalleled look at these early revisions is now possible. Just published by The Church Historian's Press is a beautiful, full-color volume containing photographic reproductions and transcriptions of every page of the two principal manuscript revelation books in the Church's possession. For our purposes this morning, I will focus on the earlier of the two volumes, the one titled the "Book of Commandments and Revelations" which I shall hereafter refer to by its acronym, the BCR. This 200+ page manuscript, begun before the Church was a year old, was kept by John Whitmer, the Church's first historian and recorder. Most of the time, Whitmer appears to have dutifully copied each revelation text into the BCR soon after Joseph dictated it. Whitmer's diligence resulted in the BCR being the one place a year and half into the Church's existence where a virtually complete collection of the revelation texts could be found. Thus, it is not surprising that when the decision was made at that time to publish the revelation texts as the Book of Commandments, the BCR was the primary source. The numerous textual revisions and editorial notations found in the BCR, such as verse numbers or printer's take marks that indicate the end of a page, illustrate that it was frequently used in preparing the revelation texts for publication.
From one perspective, the presence of textual revisions in the BCR is valuable because it allows us to look behind those revisions to an earlier wording not previously known. For individuals interested in getting as close as possible to the original dictation texts of the revelations, virtually none of which have survived, the BCR is often crucial, providing, as it does, the earliest version now known of dozens of revelation texts. Just as the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls generated worldwide excitement because the Scrolls provided the earliest known versions of certain books in the Bible, so some will value the recently published BCR because it takes them a step closer to the original.
But my point this morning is not to privilege the original. Rather, it is to relish the revisions! Let us look at a few examples. This slide shows a portion of the first revelation for which Joseph dictated text—D&C 3. Look at the phrase from what is now D&C 3:12 that in its revised form reads "God had given thee sight and power to Translate." Close examination reveals that beneath the overwritten "s" in "sight" lies an "r". Thus, prior to revision, the revelation text read "God had given thee right to Translate," and it was then changed to "God had given thee sight and power to Translate." The initial wording "right to translate" focused on the divine authorization given the Prophet to do the work of translating the Book of Mormon. Later, however, the impression came to restate the sentence so as to highlight the miraculous gift—the spiritual sight and divine power—Joseph had been given to enable him to translate. While the initial expression was fine and true, the rewording may be even better in that it prevents potential misunderstanding. How so? Conceivably, those unfamiliar with Joseph Smith may have read the statement and assumed that he was an accomplished linguist whom God simply authorized to use his skills to translate this ancient text. The phrase "sight and power to translate," however, makes clear that something extraordinary, something divine, was needed (and given) to facilitate the translation. That seems to me an even more desirable point to make when one only has a single line in which to summarize the experience.
Occasionally, a passage was edited more than once. An example comes from the Articles and Covenants text dealing with elders' conferences, which allows us to see several layers of revisions made between 1831 and 1835. It also illustrates how the revelation texts were revised to keep current with emerging church organization and procedures. The BCR text originally read: "The several elders composing this church of Christ are to meet in conference once in three months to do church business whatsoever is necessary." When the passage was revised for publication in June 1833, a new phrase, here underlined in red, was inserted above the original line. To the statement "once in three months" was added "or from time to time as they shall direct or appoint." Later, as Articles and Covenants was being prepared for publication in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants, the passage was further revised to include the words underlined in blue that reflect more developed administrative arrangements. Since then the wording has remained unchanged. Thus, in its final form, the passage included a combination of original text (here represented in black), 1833 text (in red) and 1835 text (in blue).
A truly significant contribution of the BCR is that it allows us to see the textual revisions in their original handwritten form. What immediately stands out is that nearly all the redactions in the BCR are in the handwriting, not of Joseph Smith, but of his scribal associates Sidney Rigdon, John Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery, and W. W. Phelps, each of whom was a member of the church's Literary Firm. The widespread involvement of these men sheds important light on Joseph Smith's role in revising the revelation texts. Just as we have reason to believe that he dictated, rather than wrote, most of the original revelation texts, it is possible that he dictated many of the revisions, particularly those made in November 1831 after being specifically charged by a council to review the revelation texts and make such "corrections" as he felt impressed by the Holy Spirit to make. There is also some evidence that thereafter he occasionally edited the revelation texts as well. A brief journal entry for December 1, 1832, for instance, reads: "wrote and corrected revelations &c."
Still, most of the 1832–1833 redactions found in the BCR were made by John Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery, or W. W. Phelps, apparently without the direct involvement Joseph Smith. This invites us to adjust our assumptions about his role in revising the revelation texts and, therefore, about how he viewed the revelatory process itself. To borrow a word from the British, it may be helpful to characterize the Prophet's views toward the revelation texts as "latitudinarian" and his views toward assistance from members of the Literary Firm as inclusive rather than exclusive. It seems that in producing a revelation text, Joseph focused on the message, the ideas, or what he called "the sense" of the revelation he received, and welcomed assistance in the refinement of the language used to convey those ideas.
To be sure, Joseph recognized that he had the ultimate responsibility, and he took the oversight. He was, after all the, the "revelator". That reality had been formally recognized in the November 1831 decision to have him lead out in revising the revelation texts where prompted. Five months later, however, Joseph presided at a council meeting in Missouri at which "brs. William [Phelps], Oliver [Cowdery] & John [Whitmer] [were] appointed to review the Book of Commandments [BCR] & select for printing such as shall be deemed by them proper, as dictated by the spirit & make all necessary verbal corrections." Based on the evidence now available in the BCR, "verbal corrections" primarily, though not exclusively, meant grammatical and stylistic revisions. Although the word correction often implies changing the wording to match a "correct" original, the Missouri editor-printers construed their commission from the Prophet more broadly to include a variety of textual improvements or revisions. Because such redactions had the potential to spill over into substantive changes in meaning, several months later Joseph warned W. W. Phelps regarding the revelation texts to "be careful not to alter the sense of any of them." Significantly "altering the sense" of the revelations was the boundary line, and analysis of the BCR revisions made by members of the Literary Firm in 1832 and 1833 shows that most redactions respected that boundary.
The kinds of changes these men typically made can be seen in their revision of part of the Articles and Covenants' description of a teacher's duty. The original BCR wording was that teachers were to, "see that there is no iniquty in the church nor no hardness with each other nor no lying nor backbiting nor no evil speaking & see that the Church meets to gether often & also every member does his duty . . . & invite all to come to Christ." Oliver Cowdery and John Whitmer recognized that this phrasing stood in need of refinement. Prior to publication, the awkward phrase "nor no" was deleted, and Cowdery, whose revisions are in blue, replaced it with "neither" or simply "nor," as indicated with angle brackets. John Whitmer, whose redactions are in red, similarly revised the final two lines to read more smoothly. Apparently, the Prophet Joseph did not view this linguistic tidying up of the revelation texts, these "verbal corrections," as tampering with the basic message or altering its sense, because he allowed their redactions to remain. Indeed, except for the subsequent deletion of "nor" in front of "backbiting," Cowdery and Whitmer's revisions still constitute the official wording of the scriptural text today.
That Joseph gave the Literary Firm some linguistic leeway in preparing the revelation texts for publication is implicit in another statement made in his July 1832 letter to W. W. Phelps: "You mention concerning the translation [of the Bible.] I would inform you that they will not go from under my hand during my natural life for correction, revisal or printing and the will of [the] Lord be done therefore you need not expect them this fall." What is noteworthy about Joseph's statement is his understanding that once the JST texts went out "from under [his] hand," they would experience "correction, revisal [and] printing." The BCR data causes us to take notice of this statement in a way that we may not have before. "Correction, revisal [and] printing" seems to be precisely what Literary Firm editor-printers Phelps, Cowdery, and Whitmer were doing with the revelation texts. As long as the fundamental "sense" of the revelations was not altered, Joseph apparently allowed these trusted associates to make whatever textual "revisals" they felt impressed by the Spirit to make. Joseph seems to have had a healthy awareness of the inadequacy of finite, human language, including his own, to perfectly communicate an infinite, divine revelation. As he pled on one occasion: "Oh Lord God deliver us in thy due time from the little narrow prison [of] . . . a crooked broken scattered and imperfect language."
So what does all this suggest about the revelatory process that eventually produced the final edited version of the revelation texts? Perhaps most significantly, it seems to encourage a view of those texts as the "word of God" (AoF 8) rather than the very words of God, or, as expressed in the title of a book dealing with the Bible, the Word of God in Words of Men. Some Latter-day Saints may assume that the Prophet was not involved in any way whatsoever with the wording of the revelation texts, that he simply repeated word-for-word to his scribe what he heard God say to him, but our investigation has suggested otherwise. Examination of the BCR and the history of the D&C revelation texts from dictation to final form lead us to a richer, more nuanced view, one that see Joseph as more than a mere human fax machine through whom God communicated finished revelation texts composed in heaven. Joseph had a role to play in the revelatory process. His associate Oliver Cowdery, after all, had earlier been chided for assuming the process required no effort, for supposing that God would simply "give" him the words without any thought on his part (D&C 9:7–8).
I believe it enhances our appreciation of the Prophet Joseph Smith to see him as the extraordinarily gifted servant of the Lord that he was, who, as Orson Pratt remarked, received messages from God and then had to "clothe those ideas with such words as came to his mind." Elder John A. Widtsoe of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles explained: "Seldom are divine revelations dictated to man. . . .Instead, ideas are impressed upon the mind of the recipient, who then delivers the ideas in his own language." If, therefore, Joseph's diction, vocabulary, and grammar, and even that of some of his associates, are discernible in the revelation texts, is that not impressive testimonial of the fact that even in communicating his word and will to his prophets, God does not override their humanity? The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has no official statement on the nature of the interaction between Divine Revealer and human revelator in the genesis of scripture, but, as we have seen, a number of its leaders have offered explanations of the revelatory process that allow for Spirit-aided, yet still mortal, articulation and refinement of the divine message. Thus, to borrow an ancient Christian affirmation, the revelation texts can be seen to be both fully divine and fully human.
That those sacred texts bear the marks of the Prophet's mind was not always recognized with thoughtful appreciation in his day. A group of elders was reproved thus: "His language you have known and his imperfections you have known & you have sought in your hearts knowledge that you might express beyond his language" (D&C 67:5). Subsequently, their encouraged attempt to improve upon Joseph's articulation failed, and the elders seemed to realize that the inspiration of the revelation texts was more than merely a matter of language. The preface to the Book of Commandments, dictated about this same time, taught that God's inexpressibly perfect, infinite, transcendent thought can only become accessible to mortal minds through their own imperfect, finite language: "these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding" (D&C 1:24). In the end, the elders' concerns were resolved, and they willingly became witnesses to the truthfulness of the Book of Commandments. They had learned that although particular words or phrases or sentence structure in the revelation texts may have been "weak" or "imperfect," through the special attendance of the Holy Spirit, the inspired whole was decidedly greater than the sum of its admittedly ordinary linguistic parts.
A number of scriptural texts make clear that that revelation is something that is part of, not apart from, a prophet's mind. D&C 8 declares: "I will tell you in your mind & in your heart by the Holy Ghost which shall come upon you. . . . Behold this is the spirit of Revelation" (LDS D&C 8:2–3). And the prophet Enos remembered that "while I was struggling in the spirit, behold, the voice of the Lord came into my mind again, saying. . . ." (Enos 1:10) The "voice" of God appears to be "heard" more often internally than audibly. As President Boyd K. Packer remarked, "I have come to know that inspiration comes more as a feeling than as a sound." Just two weeks ago, Elder Richard G. Scott offered precious insight into the revelatory process, including the recipient's role in articulating the divine communication in his own words as well as how revisions might also be an inspired part of the process. Listen carefully to Elder Scott's explanation.
"In that environment, strong impressions began to flow to me again. I wrote them down. The message included specific counsel on how to become more effective as an instrument in the hands of the Lord. [I continued to write the feelings that flooded into my mind and heart. As faithful as possible, I'd reach powerful impressions recorded.] I pondered the feelings I had received to determine if I had accurately expressed them in writing. As a result, I made a few minor changes to what had been written. Then I studied their meaning and application in my life. Subsequently I prayed, reviewing with the Lord what I thought had been taught by the Spirit. When the feeling of peace came, I thanked him for the guidance given."
Did you notice that Elder Scott focused in particularly on the fact that although he received "specific" instructions from the Lord, he had to express them in his own words and then ponder "to determine if I had accurately expressed them in writing. As a result," he added, "I made a few minor changes [revisions] to what had been written." Neither Elder Scott nor the Prophet Joseph were merely secretaries taking down divine dictation. They had a role to play in conveying the message of their revelations.
Hopefully by now we are realizing that to acknowledge that divine revelation is spiritually perceived, communicated in language that reflects a prophet's historical and cultural setting, and is open to revision and expansion in no way detracts from its divinity. As renowned Catholic scholar Raymond E. Brown has observed regarding the scriptural word of God, "The fact that the ‘word' of the Bible is human and time-conditioned makes it no less ‘of God'." Otherwise, notes Evangelical scholar Don Hagner, "the genuinely human factor of the biblical documents is in effect denied in favor of a Bible that floated down from heaven by parachute, untouched by human hands or the historical process." Seeing scriptural texts as both fully divine and fully human allows ample room for regarding as inspired both the earliest wording of, and the subsequent revisions to, the revelation texts.
In conclusion, let us listen to two great students of the Prophet Joseph Smith. The first is F. Henry Richards, one of our Community of Christ (formerly RLDS) "cousins" and longtime member of their First Presidency. Edwards counseled readers of the Doctrine and Covenants to "not be unduly concerned about the exact phrasing in which revelation is recorded, nor even when further light makes it possible to enrich this phrasing in the attempt to convey this further light. What is important is that the record shall prove the gateway to understanding, as it has to many thousands who have studied it under the guidance of the Holy Spirit." My brothers and sisters, however we may view the process by which scriptural texts are composed, Edwards reminds us that in the end those texts should become a "gateway" to God rather than an idol that replaces Him. Similar thoughts were expressed by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland in his April 2008 general conference address, and to him we give the concluding word. Said he,
"The scriptures are not the ultimate source of knowledge for Latter-day Saints. They are manifestations of that ultimate source. The ultimate source of knowledge and authority for a Latter-day Saint is the living God."
In the spirit of Elder Holland's insightful reminder, may we ever strive to let the written "word of God" in its full divinity and humanity lead us to the Living Word himself. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.