This month’s Ensign features a ground-breaking discussion of the nuances in the Doctrine and Covenants creation process — and it’s all about edits, like you’ve never seen them before. Elder Marlin K. Jensen of the Seventy, who is the current church historian, writes at some length about the general process, including the fact that there were later changes and edits made to earlier manuscripts:
One of Joseph Smith’s tasks in reviewing the manuscripts prior to their publication was to “correct those errors or mistakes which he may discover by the Holy Spirit.” Joseph knew from experience that the human process of writing down revelations, copying them into manuscript books, and then passing them through various hands in preparation for publication inevitably introduced unintentional errors. Sometimes changes were required to clarify wording. Occasionally, later revelations would supersede or update previously received revelations, necessitating the editing of documents to alter previous versions. Various other changes were also made from time to time. Most of these, such as dividing the text into verses or clarifying meaning, did not involve substantive corrections.
Joseph seemed to regard the manuscript revelations as his best efforts to capture the voice of the Lord condescending to communicate in what Joseph called the “crooked, broken, scattered, and imperfect language” of men. The revealed preface to the published revelations also seems to express this principle: “I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language” (D&C 1:24).
Joseph and his associates were appointed by the actions of Church conferences to prepare the revelations for publication by correcting the texts. Recent analysis of both manuscript revelation books reveals how and when many of the changes were made. For example, some changes were made before selected items were published in Missouri, while others were made in Ohio before the 1835 publication of the Doctrine and Covenants.
One common example involves changes made by Sidney Rigdon. He often changed the language in the revelations from the biblical “thee,” “thy,” and “thine” to the modern “you,” “your,” and “yours.” Many of these changes were later reversed. He also corrected grammar and changed some of the language to clarify and modify words and meaning.
In a few cases, more substantive changes were made as revelations were updated for the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants. For example, section 20 was originally received in 1830, before much of the leadership structure of the Church as we know it today was revealed to Joseph Smith. By 1835 Joseph had organized many offices and quorums by revelation. To include this newly revealed ecclesiastical order, several text changes and additions were incorporated into section 20. Our current verses 65–67 on ordaining men to priesthood offices, for instance, had been revealed after the 1833 publication and were subsequently added to the 1835 publication.
Joseph Smith reviewed many of his associates’ editorial changes and made slight alterations in his own hand before A Book of Commandments was published in 1833. He made additional changes, including adding surnames to individuals mentioned in the revelations, just before the Doctrine and Covenants was published in 1835. . . .
The editing and updating of revelation texts in the early years of the Church demonstrate the process of continuing revelation to Joseph Smith. The revelation manuscripts reveal how men grappled in trying to make certain that the ideas and doctrines Joseph received were transcribed and printed accurately—a process that for the publication of any work risks the introduction of error. In some instances, when a new revelation changed or updated what had previously been received, the Prophet edited the earlier written revelation to reflect the new understanding. Thus, as his doctrinal knowledge clarified and expanded, so did the recorded revelations. They were characterized by the changing nature of his understanding of the sacred subject matter. The Prophet did not believe that revelations, once recorded, could not be changed by further revelation.
I personally don’t recall ever seeing this level of detail in the Ensign (things like the section 20 changes) — it’s something I’ve seen in other sources, but which the general membership all too often remains oblivious about.
I tend to agree with friends like Kevin Barney, that it’s good to help spread a better historical understanding among members. While church history is becoming more well known, there are still a significant number of church members who don’t understand some of its subtleties. This can be fine, as long as those members stay sheltered, but it can lead to disillusion as they pick up true additional information (often learned in a hostile context).
Articles like Elder Jensen’s are a very good way to help spread a broader and more complete understanding of church history among the members. And besides, a better understanding is fun. It may surprise some members to learn that the D&C didn’t come straight from the pen of God as is, but that’s okay; the real history is more interesting than a pen-of-God approach anyway.
In addition, the appearance of Elder Jensen’s article now seems to underscore a shift in the church’s approach towards history, which is worth celebrating. The church as an institution was not always this open (as one can read about at length in sources like Leonard Arrington’s book, Adventures of a Church Historian). But recent years have been characterized by an extremely open approach. The Ensign ran an article about Mountain Meadows in 2007, and an assistant church historian co-authored a new book on Mountain Meadows with full church support. Now, the Joseph Smith Papers Project is in full swing, and at the same time, Elder Jensen now publishes this interesting article with significant discussion on revelations and how they changed over Joseph Smith’s lifetime — in the Ensign. Meanwhile, friends who research church history are telling me about unprecedented access to sources.
These are all signs of a major and important institutional shift — and cause for celebration among those of us observing the Church’s official stance on its history.
(And finally, I would be remiss not to note that the Ensign article credits the able assistance of both my friend Rob Jensen, and my former mission companion Josh Perkey. It’s a small world, isn’t it? Any article with both Rob and Josh’s contributions is definitely worth checking out.)