Mormon Studies Periodically: Episode I

This first installment features Scott H. Faulring’s article, “An Examination of the 1829 ‘Articles of the Church of Christ’ in Relation to Section 20 of the Doctrine and Covenants,” available here. The long title introduces a careful examination of a fascinating document: the 1829 “Articles of the Church of Christ,” composed by Oliver Cowdery, is a little-known forebear to D&C 20, the 1830 “Articles and Covenants.” Faulring’s thorough treatment includes a discussion of the relationship between the two documents, a close summary of the “Articles,” and a complete holograph photographic reproduction of the handwritten text. The article raises compelling questions about the nature of revelation, the place of bibliographic research, and the role of the Book of Mormon in Latter-day Saint doctrine and practice. So go forth, read, and return and respond to the questions below, pose your own to Dr. Faulring, or otherwise discuss!

1. Scott Faulring presents almost all readers with a first-ever look at a document written by Oliver Cowdery in 1829, fully transcribed on pp. 76-79, and summarized on pp. 65-67. As you read this document, did it add anything to your understanding of Church history? How does it confirm or modify any assumptions you have made in the past about the beginnings of Mormonism? Is this an important document, or merely a footnote in Church history?

2. Terryl Givens’ By the Hand of Mormon argues that the Book of Mormon’s most important relationship to the restored Church is as “a concrete manifestation of sacred utterance, and thus an evidence of divine presence,” rather than as “a repository of theological claims”; that is, “what it signifies as an event may be more important than what it actually says.” Judging from the significant presence of Book of Mormon content in Cowdery’s “Articles,” should Givens’ point be qualified somewhat? Do you think that Cowdery would agree or disagree with Givens’ assessment of the Book of Mormon?

3. What, if anything, do Cowdery’s “Articles” tell us about the relationship between the Nephite church and the early restored Church of Jesus Christ?

4. Faulring sees quite a difference between Cowdery’s “Articles” and Section 20 of the Doctrine and Covenants. Do you agree with him? Is there any evidence that Joseph Smith had Cowdery’s document in mind as he revealed what would eventually be referred to as the “church articles and covenants” (D&C 33:14) or “the covenants and church articles” (D&C 42:13)? What do think is the nature of the relationship between the two documents?

5. Should bibliographic research be relevant to scripture study? If you could ask Scott Faulring a question about his bibliographic or documentary research in generating this article, what would you want to ask him? (With a little luck, we might be able to get him to answer!)

Special thanks to BYU Studies for their generous content sharing. Many articles published in BYU Studies are now available online free. Check the BYU Studies web site for forthcoming information about a new electronic subscription option.

28 comments for “Mormon Studies Periodically: Episode I

  1. I turned to the transcription first, wanting to read it for myself first. What strikes me right away is that this is a different voice. Not out of harmony with the revelations that came through Joseph, perhaps, but different in a way I am strugling to put into words. They carry authority, but not with quite the same richness. There is more of the Book of Mormon texture of language to them (“Behold ye shall go down and stand in the water….”) which seems slightly affected to me at least. Joseph Smith’s language is more straightforward and simple, which gives it greater power and distinguishes the style we find in the Book of Mormon from his more modern prose in the Doctrine and Covenants. If this is granted, it has, I think, some interesting implications for our understanding of how Joseph translated ancient scripture as opposed to dictating modern revelation.

    There is much more to look into here. This is just an initial impression and an attempt to show appreciation for a very exciting opportunity to engage with LDS scholarship in an innovative and dynamic way. Thanks very much!

  2. i’m a dork, when i read the title to the post i thought of star wars right off the bat.

    sounds so very interesting though!

  3. What a fantastic idea. Thanks very much for linking this article.

    Based on his “Articles,” it certainly does not seem like Oliver Cowdery would have agreed with Givens’ argument that the Book of Mormon is more important to church membership as proof of revelation than as a body of revelations of practical value. Cowdery seems to have imagined the restored church as one lifted directly from the world of the Nephites. I wonder how this fits into modern LDS conceptions of the Book of Mormon. My impression is that most LDS members are comfortable with the idea that the current church shares characteristics with both the Book of Mormon church and the New Testament church but is more complete than either. If this is an accurate impression, I wonder when and how things changed (or if Cowdery’s apparently practical reading of the Book of Mormon was unusual).

    There’s a great story about editorial irony, apostasy and serendipity in the beginning of the Appendix (p. 75). I’ll never read references to Symonds Ryder the same way again.

    Again, thanks much for this collaboration with BYU Studies. This article alone has given me great things to study and think about this week.

  4. Thanks for setting this up, Rosalynde. It’s a terrific idea.

    A few comments on the article:

    1. p. 63, Scott indicates he favors the Porter timing for the restoration of the MP. I’m partial to the summer 1830 timing, but Scott appropriately flags the issue and sends the reader to the relevant literature on the subject at note 18. I felt that he should have done something similar as to the issue of the location of the organization of the church. He just assumes Fayette at p. 69, apparently oblivious as to the substantial debate between Fayette and Manchester as the location. I’m personally agnostic on this one, but there should have been a footnote covering the issue.

    2. p. 68, I found it interesting that D&C 20 may not have yet even existed in paper form at the organization of the church on 6 April 1830. I think this may tend to cut against what I regard as the incredibly silly Mormon tradition that D&C 20:1 was meant to be a statement of the date JC was born.

    3. I love the story of Symonds Ryder losing his faith because Joseph misspelled his name, and appreciated Scott’s pointing out that, in an ironic note, the D&C *still* misspells his first name! This is a great illustration of the dangers of fundamentalist attitudes towards our prophets.

    4. p. 77 of the transcriptions has an interesting Trinitarian forumula from Oliver.

  5. Thanks to those who have responded so far! Morgan, my response to the familiar-but-different diction of Cowdery’s “Articles” was similarly bemused; it reminded me of the times I’ve read “bad quarto” versions of Shakespeare plays, that weirdness of reading something intimately familiar but somehow just a little bit off key. I think the way we encounter Cowdery’s “Articles” orthographically on the page also adds to the strangeness: I’m so accustomed to reading “Thus saith the Lord” discourse on crinkly scripture paper, in the familiar scripture font, with the expected columns and margins and headings and footnotes, that to encounter it differently papered and published and formatted is really quite disconcerting. It just goes to show that canonization is complex process—institutional, sociological, and material—that profoundly affects the way I process text. (You make an interesting distinction between BoM and D&C prose, as well, which I’d never really noticed myself.)

    Laura, I tend to agree that the content of the BoM figured rather more largely in OC’sand JS’s minds then Givens argues, although OC and JS were probably atypical of early church members since they were so well acquainted with the contents of the BoM through the translation process. It’s also possible that OC was inclined to emphasize the importance of the BoM since he had been so involved in its production, and this would have bolstered his own position in the nascent church.

    Kevin, great comments (as always). I was also struck by the possibility that D&C 20 didn’t exist as such at the formal organization of the church; like you, I take from this as a warning against overly-literal or meticulously close readings of scripture. It also raises interesting questions about the relationship between revelation and historiography as discursive genres in the early church: both were unusually prominent, but we tend to assume that they serve very different functions and rest on very different epistemological bases. Maybe we need to rethink that a bit.

  6. Kevin: For what it is worth, I have always thought that D&C 20:1 was pretty slim evidence to hang the date of Christ’s birth on, however I don’t see how the existence of the revelation in paper form at the time of the Church’s organization makes any difference one way or another on the issue. I think that Talmage subscribes to the April 6th date in Jesus the Christ. Is there any other support, or authority for the date?

  7. I guess you’re right about the retrospective insertion of the date. Whether it was penned on the day itself or months later in retrospect doesn’t really affect the argument either way.

    I believe Talmage got the idea from B.H. Roberts, who appears to be the original source for the notion–late in the 19th century. I am unaware of any contemporary or near-contemporary of JS reading it that way. If it were intended as a statement as to the date of Christ’s birth, it strikes me as very strange that no one seemed to grasp or comment on such a momentous revelation.

    In my view, v. 1 is simply a fancy and legalistically formal (fitting for a document called “Articles and Covenants” or the “Constitution”) recitation of the date. Only people who don’t seem to know what *anno Domini* means are at all impressed by the argument that this was a revelation of the day Jesus was born..

  8. Rosalynde (#5): I take from this [the facts about the historical provenance of D&C 20] as a warning against overly-literal or meticulously close readings of scripture.

    I fail to see how the provenance of canonized scripture is particularly relevant to the appropriateness of either overly-literal or meticulously close readings of it. I’m not interested in defending the “overly literal” (though I suspect that to say that an interpretation is overly literal is only to say that I don’t accept that particular interpretation, for whatever reasons). But I’m not sure why the history of the section cuts against a meticulously close reading of it. Are you assuming something about authorial intention and its divination by the interpreter? I doubt that, on the one hand, given your training in literature. But, on the other hand, I can’t see what else would make the history of D&C 20 count against meticulous readings of it?

  9. Jim, I’m not making a very fine point here, and you may be right to call me on it. My point is only that the revelations (and the Book of Mormon, as Royal Skousen’s research shows) have undergone changes in the process of transmission—some intentional, but some unintentional, surely—and the uncertain dating of Section 20 illustrates the fact that transmission is not always straightforward. Thus it seems a little dangerous to wring scriptural meaning from individual words and phrases, rather than taking meaning from the broad outline of a section or chapter or book, when it’s possible that individual words and phrases may have been unintentionally altered in transmission.

    That said, there’s a real (and, for me, unmatched) pleasure in performing close reading oneself, or in watching a skilled reader do so. You’re one of those skilled readers, so by all means, please keep reading closely!

  10. (And by the way, I’m not a reader who discounts authorial intent: authorial intent is always relevant to a text (although authors can be cagey or misleading about their intentions), though it’s often not sufficient to produce a full interpretation.)

  11. Rosalynde, I think we disagree about the importance of authorial intent, but probably only as to its degree. However, that isn’t really that relevant to the discussion. My point was that the interpretive strategies for a canonized text are quite different than those for one not canonized. That is especially true for books like the Book of Mormon or the Doctrine and Covenants where we have the original language, including whatever changes were made to that language. The general outline of the text isn’t canonized; the text itself is, and it is canonized in a particular form. As a result, the relevance of changes in early versions of the text, etc. may be relevant–though how they are is very difficult to decide–but the canonization of the text creates a new object from an existing text, a new object in which the words and phrases have a definitive status, regardless of how the words and phrases in the text came to be.

    What I say, however, applies only to latter-day scriptures in English. Translations, of course, create all kinds of difficulties. The English Book of Mormon, in its present form as approved by the Prophet and Twelve, is the canonized form, and its translations are “parasitic” on that. The Bible compounds the translation problem in multiple ways. The problem isn’t just that there may be translation or transmission errors. In fact, I think that is the least of the problems. The problem is identifying what has been canonized. Our evangelical friends have an answer to that, but I don’t think their answer will work for us.

  12. Jim, you make an interesting point about current canonization being what matters, with provenance somewhat irrelevant. Continuing revelation is what gives force to this argument.

    But this point is somewhat moot, because continuing revelation also significantly weakens the importance of the very idea of canonization for Mormons. Because of continuing revelation, every canonization is already “dead on arrival,” or at least dangerously mortal. More recent sources (latest conference addresses, individual interpretation by the Spirit, …) trump whatever has been formally sustained.

    That there is difficulty discerning what has been canonized is one practical symptom of the fact that canonization is not all that important.

    A second is that canonization have not always kept up with current belief and practice. For example, polygamy was practiced and considered necessary for exaltation for decades while the canonized Article on Marriage forbad it. How worthwhile would close readings of the Article on Marriage been during this period?

  13. “a concrete manifestation of sacred utterance, and thus an evidence of divine presence,” rather than as “a repository of theological claims”

    Grrr. I loved Givens’ book but this part made me bristle. I think the Book of Mormon is chock full of unique theology. Granted, it talks mostly about faith, repentance, baptism, the Holy Ghost, and Charity, but it is precisely in what it says about those subjects that the Book of Mormon is most revolutionary. Most of us just don’t read it enough to appreciate its uniqueness in terms of content.

    I do not think OC and JS would agree with Givens assessment at all.

  14. Christian Y. Cardall (#12): I’m not sure what you mean when you say there is difficulty discerning what has been canonized. It seems straightforward to me, the Standard Works.

    I’m one of those who has argued that continuing revelation makes Mormon self-understanding quite different than the self-understanding of other Christians. Indeed, I think it means that we are a practical rather than a theological religion. But it doesn’t follow that canonization is moot, only that the canon can change. I think it is too much to say, “More recent sources (latest conference addresses, individual interpretation by the Spirit, …) trump whatever has been formally sustained.” What would be an instance of a conference address trumping something in canonized scripture?

    As for your last comment about the Article on Marriage: help me out here. I confess to being sufficiently ignorant not to know what you are referring to.

  15. Christian Y. Cardall (#12): I’m not sure what you mean when you say there is difficulty discerning what has been canonized. It seems straightforward to me, the Standard Works.

    I thought I was agreeing with the second-to-last sentence of your (#11): “The problem is identifying what has been canonized.”

    As for your last comment about the Article on Marriage: help me out here. I confess to being sufficiently ignorant not to know what you are referring to.

    On Nate’s thread a few months ago on the English (as opposed to American) nature of the Mormon Constitution, I commented a bit on the Article on Marriage—and, interestingly enough, the Articles and Covenants of the Church that is the subject of this thread.

    Here is the first thing that comes up on a Google search for the terms “article on marriage doctrine covenants”. It seems to have some basic background as well as the text.

    Sorry if this looks like a threadjack. I am actually reading Faulring’s paper carefully, and plan to comment on it eventually.

  16. Christian, I have to get back to work and away from blogging. My comment about discerning what has been canonized was a remark only about the Bible. I’ll take a look at the Article on Marriage and see if I have anything to say.

  17. On the question of the year of Christ’s birth being inferred from D&C 20, I have also thought this was interpreted too literally. But I did find it interesting, as I read Bushman’s J.S. and the Beginnings of Mormonism, that there was some premeditation to the date on which the Church was organized. I’m too lazy to go find the references, but I did come away with the impression that April 6 was not by accident, that Joseph waited for that date, possibly because he was instructed to. That information made me think twice about dismissing the Talmage interpretation too readilly. It still does not resolve the matter for me, however. There could be other reasons why April 6 is significant. Perhaps it was the anniversiary of the first vision, or of the resurrection. I’m all ears if someone has a persuasive argument either way, but I think persuasive arguments on these counts might be kind of hard to come by.

  18. Yes, the article talks about how Joseph explicitly chose the date April 6th in advance as the date to organize the Church. And certainly it has been an important date in the culture of the Church ever since, for all sorts of reasons. But it doesn’t follow that Joseph thought the date important for the really big reason most modern Mormons assign to it.

  19. Jim, thanks for the response. If I understand you correctly, you’re saying that once a text is canonized, any changes that occured in transmission are de facto endorsed; in other words, we ought to have confidence that the words that appear on the page are precisely the words God intends us to receive as scripture, whatever the method by which they made their way to the page. Is this what you’re saying? If so, then how, precisely, would transmissional changes be relevant, as you said they may be, other than as historical curiosity? And how then do we explain transmissional errors (again, I realize that for restoration scripture the matter of transmission is less salient, but there still was a transmission process that took the text from manuscript to print)–did God carefully orchestrate each alteration in order to produce the specific and correct canonized version?

    I know I’m pressing a rather trivial point here, since it’s unlikely that any transmissional errors have changed fundamental (or even peripheral) doctrines of the gospel. But as you say, these matters do affect the interpretive strategies we adopt when reading scripture (and as I mentioned above, we encounter scripture very differently than we encounter other kinds of text).

  20. A revelation given to Cowdery fits Joseph Smith’s liberal dispersal of charisma in the months leading up to the organization of the church in April 1830. Cowdery translates with Smith, gets the priesthood with Smith, sees angels with Smith, is promised the power to translate as Smith (D&C 9), is the Second Elder next to Smith. A “thus saith the Lord” revelation to Cowdery is not out of character with Smith’s dispersal of revelatory power during the pre-organization months.

    What I find striking about the article is that there almost no mention of Joseph Smith pulling back on the reigns on the dispersal of charisma after the organization of the church. In the fall of 1830, Smith cuts down the authority of any one outside the president of the church to give revelation for the church. The problem was not only Hiram Page and his seer stone. The problem was Cowdery himself. He had criticized a passages in the new Articles and Covenants not in keeping with his own views and had persuaded some of the Whitmers to the correctness of his position. In response, Smith got a revelation clarifying Cowdery’s role.

    Hereafter, Cowdery was not to “write by way commandment, but by wisdom.” (D&C 28:2-7). By this time, Smith had recognized the power of two people to receive “thus saith the Lord” revelations “for the church” could throw the church into chaos. There had to be more distance between the positions of First and Second Elder than there were in the pre-organization years. That distance is reflected in D&C 21, which speaks to Smith alone as the “seer, translator, prophet” and apostle. “For his word ye shall receive”–and not Cowdery’s–“as if from mine own mouth” (21:1, 5)

    Given this battle for authority, it should not surprise that Cowdery’s revelation does not survive in D&C 20 in its current form. No “thus saith the Lord” revelations other than Smith’s make it into the 1833 Book of Commandments. By 1835, Smith felt comfortable enough the the dispersal of charisma to allow the Kirtland High Council minutes stand next to the revelations (D&C 102), but this was a safe, conversative move. A council was a far cry from a single rival revelator.

    Our own D&C 28 has the answer. Faulring makes brief mention of the revelation but doesn’t explain Cowdery’s own provocation.

  21. Rosalynde (#19): With regard to canonized scripture, you ask whether this is what I am saying: We ought to have confidence that the words that appear on the page are precisely the words God intends us to receive as scripture, whatever the method by which they made their way to the page.

    Close, but not quite. I take it that canonized scripture is something that the Presidency and the Twelve have offered and that we have agreed to accept as canon. Canonization is something the Church does, not something that God does. As a Church we agree to accept canonized scripture as our standard text. I assume that process is an inspired one, but that is different than saying that the words on the page are the precise words that God intends us to receive as scripture. They are the precise words that we have agreed to be bound by, whatever the method by which they made their way to the page. There have been lots of revelations other than those canonized, but only canonized scripture binds us in that peculiar way, not because they are informed by a different kind of inspiration, but because we have agreed to be bound by them.

    Christian Y. Cardall (#15): Sorry to have taken so long to get back to your question. I haven’t been ignoring it. I’ve just been trying to take care of a couple of more pressing things.

    The short and real answer is “I don’t know.” Perhaps the most obvious solution would be to say that what was canon and what was not was still indeterminate at the time the Article on Marriage was accepted. Obviously the problem is what to do with something that is probably canonical and which we know, now, to have been untrue–or at least not to have applied to everyone. Or perhaps that is the way to deal with it: the Article on Marriage was canonical and, therefore, open to close reading, but there were those for whom there was a “higher” canon. Though I find that way of thinking personally objectionable, I think it may actually be something like the answer. It seems to be the way the early leaders of the Church thought about polygamy, so perhaps my personal distaste for it is just a reflection of my particular political and cultural biases. (I’m also not all that keen on infant circumcision or animal sacrifice, but that doesn’t mean it was wrong.)

  22. I loved Givens’ book but this part made me bristle. I think the Book of Mormon is chock full of unique theology.

    But Givens’ point, as I read him, wasn’t that there are no new ideas, no new message in the Book of Mormon. His point was about what we have done with it, that we have emphasized its role as “a concrete manifestation of sacred utterance, and thus an evidence of divine presence,” rather than as “a repository of theological claims”. I took this to be partly a complaint, and Givens’ two chapters on the unique theological message of the Book of Mormon to be an effort to use it as a repository of theological claims.

    Most of us just don’t read it enough to appreciate its uniqueness in terms of content.

    Here I think you and Givens are on the same page (and I read statements in the D&C and by recent prophets including Ezra T. Benson as agreeing on this too).

  23. Jim, your account of canonization is new for me, but I like it: on your view, canonization is a form of voluntary social relationship mediated by text. This still doesn’t help me know how to deal with transmissional errors, but it offers a way to relate to the text as it stands.

    Jed (#20): What a great comment; thanks for formulating some ideas I’d been tossing around recently. Coincidentally, Jim’s Sunday School questions this week deal with precisely the passages you cite, and they’re quite relevant to the Faulring piece. I was struck by (what seemed to me) the hardening and shifting ways in which charismatic authority was re-allocated to Joseph: at first, in section 28, authority seems to organized around a oral/written distinction: Oliver can “speak or teach” with authority, but he is not to “write by way of commandment.” A few months later, by section 43, charismatic seems much more tightly concentrated in the single person of the prophet, and language of “ordination” begins to link charismatic to institutional authority. By section 50, a few months later still, priesthood office is even more prominent, and one begins even to sense the doctrine of stewardship that is our present-day flood-control system for receiving and disseminating revelation.

  24. I’m with Ros, Jim, this is a very nice treatment. Could it be the kernal of an article?

  25. Good question, Ben. I don’t know. I’ll have to think about it. It seems to me that if it became an article, it would be a rather short one. I could perhaps pad it with historical references or some such. I could contrast this view of canonization with other views, but in the end, I wouldn’t have a lot more to say about it than I said in that paragraph (#21).

  26. So has anyone else had a chance to read the article? The post has slipped off the front page now, but I think we can still get some good discussion out of it, and in an attempt to generate some I’ll take a stab at some of the questions myself.

    1. I’m not sure that Oliver’s “Articles” are central to the history of the church’s origins; that is, I’m not sure they’re “important” in a traditional historiographical sense. But I think the document illustrates certain relationships and processes that are centrally important to the church’s origins, namely the evolving relationship between Joseph and Oliver (which Jed addresses above) and the nature of the revelatory process.

    With regard to the latter, it was really quite disconcerting for me to encounter the boldness of Oliver’s revelatory voice and claims: “listen to the voice of Christ,” “Behold I am Jesus Christ, “These words are not of men nor of man but of me”—this is language I’m accustomed to hearing only in canonized scripture, and, in that context, taking at face value as a literal transcription of the Lord’s utterance. But Oliver’s ambiguous revelatory authority, the uncanonized status of the document, and its pervasive intertextuality–Faulring shows that more than half of the total text is direct quotation or close paraphrase from the Book of Mormon, and on top of that there is quotation from the New Testament and earlier latter-day revelation–makes me doubtful that Oliver actually took dictation from the Lord in this way. It seems to me that Oliver understood “revelation” as something less like an event–something that he “had” or “received”–and much more like a genre–a way of writing, a particular authorial voice and kind of rhetorical authority. Revelation, for Oliver, was the particular kind of language that carries spiritual and ecclesiastical authority, so he set about duly composing a revelation when it was time to get things done. And if Oliver understood revelation in this way, it seems likely that Joseph, at least at first, understood it in this way too, given how closely the two worked together. That really does change, for me, the way I read the voice of the Lord in, say, the D&C; I don’t reject it as binding–as Jim has articulated above, canonization has more to do with social relationships than textual provenance–but I am more prone to read the divine utterance contained therein as a mediated rather than direct voice. But I’m willing to be convinced otherwise, and in some ways would like to be so convinced.

  27. 2. I’m a big fan of Givens’ work: I thought _By the Hand of Mormon_ was really great, and I was fully persuaded by his argument when I read the book. I still think Givens is mostly right–and right in the most important ways–when he argues that the BoM was more important as sign than as signifier for the early Saints, but I also think he pushes a little too hard on the claim (which may be a necessary rhetorical evil when writing that sort of book for that sort of audience). Clearly Oliver did see the BoM as a repository of theological claims and liturgical and ecclesiastical forms—and he raided the repository for the material with which he drew up his version of a basic organizational substrate for the nascent church. Oliver perhaps was more dependent on the BoM than was Joseph, who, it could be argued, enjoyed a more direct revelatory relationship with the heavens and thus needed to rely less heavily on intertexts. I’m not well enough versed in church history to assess the role of the BoM in the theology or teachings of any of the other early church leaders. Anyone else want to give it a shot?

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