Edits have never been so cool

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.)

29 comments for “Edits have never been so cool

  1. Robert J. Woodford, “How the Revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants Were Received and Compiled,” Ensign, Jan 1985:

    Many revelations recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants do not now appear as when they were first recorded. However, a correct understanding of the nature of the revelations the Prophet Joseph Smith received and how he updated them in light of continued revelation explains why many changes occurred. Indeed, each of the sections has been edited to some degree, demonstrating that Joseph Smith did not receive all these revelations as word-for-word dictations from the Lord (although he may have received some this way). Rather, he received inspiration and wrote the revelations using his own words, often couched in Victorian English.

    The historical background of section 20 is somewhat clouded, as indicated by the various dates suggested for its reception. These vary from March through June of 1830, but, in actuality, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery probably received parts of section 20 in 1829. And those portions that are quoted from the Book of Mormon were received prior to that. [. . .] First, when a comparison is made between the current text and various earlier printings of section 20, it is clear that this section has had numerous additions and deletions. [. . .] The second matter involves a letter that Oliver Cowdery wrote to Joseph Smith in July or August of 1830, asking that a part of verse 37 which he considered to be in error be taken out of the revelation.

  2. Thanks for the added citation, John. I must missed that one from 1985 (but then, I wasn’t even a teenager then).

    Do you know of additional discussions in the interim? Or has it really been 25 years since the last in-depth Ensign discussion of the D&C composition process?

  3. For more detail along the lines of the Ensign article, take a look at “Discoveries From the Joseph Smith Papers Project: The Early Manuscripts,” by Robert J. Woodford (an editor on the project), in The Doctrine and Covenants: Revelations in Context (Deseret Book and the Religous Studies Center, 2008). The book contains papers from the 37th Annual Sperry Symposium.

  4. I’d like to nominate Elder Jensen for a Niblet, something along the lines of “Best thing to happen to Mormon history since, well, since Joseph Smith.”

  5. Kaimi, thanks for this. I would say that how we treat Church history is a sensitive issue. You can’t just blurt everything out at once to Primary children (“today’s topic, six-year-olds: polygamy!”) but on the other hand I agree with you that trying to gloss over our history causes testimony problems later on when people are confronted with uncomfortable truths. I guess the best rule I can think of is: milk before meat. Let people learn the basics and then bring on the details of Church history layer by layer, so to speak.

    I would say the fact that Joseph revised the D&C is not surprising to me and makes perfect sense: the revelatory process has been proven to be ongoing, and Joseph’s knowledge increased over time.

  6. Knowing the historical fact that there were significant edits is important enough – it is one of those things that should without question be documented in a preface or appendix to the Doctrine and Covenants but is not. Without that information, the section headings are misleading, and learning about this fact can be somewhat of a shock – it was to me, when I first heard about it.

    There are places, by the way, where the changes are of some real theological significance, typically demonstrating a development in understanding from a more traditional Protestant-ish view to a more recognizably Mormon one. Some of these changes (between the Book of Commandments and the Doctrine and Covenants) were apparently significant enough that they motivated some to leave the Church.

    I would very much like to see an analysis of all of those changes, if anyone has ever done such a thing. I am also curious if anyone knows where I might obtain a reprint or online edition of the Book of Commandments.

  7. I agree about Elder Jensen being deserving of an award. I was kind of hoping the award would be to be called to the apostleship so we could hear from him more often in Conference (although I guess that would mean he could do less good work on the history side).

  8. I’m not sure if you asked Elder Jensen that he would consider being called to the apostleship an “award.” But I’ll admit that I was kind of thinking the same thing, no offense to Elder Andersen, love him…

  9. Mark D.

    See this website (http://www.irr.org/mit/boc/) for fairly poor scans of both the Book of Commandments and the 1835 D&C. With regard to a source documenting changes in the revelations: Nothing surpasses Robert J. Woodford’s dissertation. If you have access to ProQuest, you should be able to download the work. It’s called “The Historical Development of the Doctrine and Covenants,” written in 1974 (BYU). Michael Marquardt has updated some of that work, but it’s still not as thorough as Woodford’s dissertation. (“The Joseph Smith Revelations: Text and Commentary,” Signature Books, 1999).

  10. Also from the golden days of Brother Wenger’s childhood, before darkness fell not to be dispelled until 2009, Melvin J. Petersen, “Preparing Early Revelations for PublicationEnsign, Feb 1985:

    These quotations tell us that eternal truth is given through a mortal in the language he is competent to use. We assume, then, that the person must express the message he has received in words and phrases with which he is familiar. In Joseph Smith’s case, in attempting to communicate clearly in written form truths received by revelation, he enlisted the help of others as directed by the Lord.

    [ . . .]

    These quotations make clear that others helped Joseph Smith prepare the revelations for publication. We know that Joseph Smith realized the seriousness of editing the revelations.

    [. . .]

    Editing apparently was done for a variety of purposes. The word apparently is used because seldom did the Prophet give reasons for the editing he performed.

    [. . .]

    Most of Joseph Smith’s editing was done without written comments stating why it was done. As we analyze the editing, however, it is quite easy to deduce some of the objectives.

  11. How can anyone read “Occasionally, later revelations would supersede or update previously received revelations, necessitating the editing of documents to alter previous versions.” and not think 1984?

  12. Apparently quite easily, anon. Do you have trouble accepting revised medical texts when knowledge advances? Are you still using your WordPerfect 4.2 manual to help you with your word processing? Do you keep a current owner’s manual in your car, or rely on whatever came with your grandfather’s Model T?

  13. So, John Mansfield, is it your view that the membership is generally aware of the D&C writing process?

    And if so, what’s the point of the Ensign article? We’ve already gotten at least two 25 year old explanations; clearly no further discussion is needed.

  14. If you had attended my adult Gospel Doctrine Sunday School class four years ago, you might have learned much of the information given in this article; to the best of my ability as an amateur to express it at the time. I was interested in these questions. I found photocopies of original documents on the Internet, often from dubious sources and made comparisons and drew conclusions myself. I did my best to figure it out and share what I learned and thought with my class. No big surprizes from this quarter.

    Some people in the ward complained that I was not following the manuel and going too far, but others expressed appreciation. I don’t think I got too many of the details wrong, but I can’t vouch for 100% accuracy. Articles like this warm my heart. I think the Ensign is a better place for them than a classroom discussion.

    If the Ensign doesn’t do articles like this, other aspiring and inquisitive teachers like myself are going to attempt to study this material and share it with their friends and ward members. The leaders are not going to have much control over what is said without resorting to unpleasant measures and it may not be as accurate.

  15. “So, John Mansfield, is it your view that the membership is generally aware of the D&C writing process?”

    To the degree that they wish to be, yes, though the interest of the Saints runs more to content than provenance, to material such as another article that Robert J. Woodford wrote, “The Remarkable Doctrine and Covenants,” Ensign, Jan 1997. Our education can always be improved, so it is valuable that Elder Jensen prepared this article and that such things are periodically brought to our attention.

    I disagree with labelling Elder Jensen’s article as “ground-breaking,” a sign of a shift to a new day of openness. On this website, Ardis Parshall wrote

    Church members whose awareness of the Archives is based on [Davis Bitton’s 1983] essay — now nearly a quarter of a century out of date — believe the Archives are “closed,” that “all the good stuff is restricted,” even that there is a spirit of hostility and concealment actively working against scholarship.

    That just isn’t so.

    The Archives are open — wide open — magnificently open. No, you cannot get immediate access to every document you might wish to see. But in almost eight years of spending virtually every business day mining the Archives, I have yet to run out of treasures, nor have I ever disappointed a client by being unable to find sufficient data for a project.

    The depiction made here of Elder Jensen’s Ensign article as “ground-breaking” is one that praises one small thing largely as an opportunity to condemn the larger setting it exists in.

  16. The earlier articles are certainly interesting reading. One of the ground breaking aspects of this month’s article is the fact that it has a general authority as an author; I’m not aware of earlier discussions of this sort coming from a general authority. (And John is off to the races to disprove that line.)

    As for your citation to Ardis, I don’t think that it helps your argument much. I’m happy to agree with Ardis’s assessment of the state of the archives. I don’t see how the openness of the archives in 2006 (Ardis’s date of writing) contradicts my initial assertion (which seems to bother you) that “recent years have been characterized by an extremely open approach.” (I also cite the 2007 MMM article for this assertion.)

    In fact, I think that Ardis’s post supports this idea. She writes that the archives have “come of age,” and the entire point of her post (stated repeatedly) is that the then-present archives (2006) are quite different than they were in 1983. Ardis goes on at some length about recently opened collections of documents. Nate states in a comment that “there are literally hundreds of thousands of pages of documents that are available today that were not available in 1983.” Stapley agrees. Suzanne cites a Carmon Hardy comment about “helpful, welcoming spirit displayed in recent years by stewards of the church’s archives.” All of this seems to support the idea of a shift towards greater openness.

    John writes:

    The depiction made here of Elder Jensen’s Ensign article as “ground-breaking” is one that praises one small thing largely as an opportunity to condemn the larger setting it exists in.


    Prior restrictions were not the point of the post, which has all of one sentence about them. The post focuses on inoculation and openness as good things. Your characterization does not reflect what the post actually says.

  17. You know, we regularly agonize over why, oh, why didn’t we learn about MMM earlier in our church lessons, with some of us pointing out that the story was openly available to those who made even a cursory effort to read beyond the Sunday lessons, and others insisting that the church itself must teach that history on Sundays in order to reach the general church membership.

    This thread seems to follow the same line: Yes, the academic awareness of the editing of revelations has been freely available at least since Robert Woodford studied the topic all those years ago. Yet most members of the church had never heard the idea, because it isn’t a standard part of our lesson cycle and because very few people make a practice of reading church magazines from a generation ago. I’m weird. I read them. But then, I’ve already admitted to being weird.

    The essential knowledge may not be new, but this article is the first time in this generation that it has been presented in an accessible way for the general church membership. In that sense of breaking new ground for a large segment of the church who is too young, too distant from academic studies, or too newly members of the church, this article is a blockbuster.

    Can’t we at least agree that it’s a new idea for many people? Even if it’s familiar ground to Bloggernacle savants?

  18. Ardis, Your comment doesn’t make sense: When a new car (or word processing) manual comes out, the previous manual is NOT ‘necessitating the editing of documents to alter previous versions’, it is simply a new manual.

  19. Perfect comment, Ardis — and a perfect illustration of why I voted for you as best commenter (and why everyone else should, too!). :)

  20. When you said “creation process” I was thinking as in light/darkness, Adam/Eve, and all that. Wasn’t sure what you meant by “D&C creation process.”

    Darn! I’ve always wanted to discuss whether or not we can teach our kids the TEMPLE version of creation, as opposed to the publicly printed one.


    Amen, Ardis. And not just those “too distant from academic studies” but those too distant from academic study of Mormonism.

    Geoff, I understand what you’re saying. And it does cause testimony issues. I grew up in Utah, went on an annual school field trip to the Beehive House, graduated from seminary, attended at graduated from BYU, and moved to Florida. It was then, reading Mormon Enigma, that I first learned that Joseph Smith was a polygamist.

    Thinking that I must have just been in a coma until I was 27, I actually mentioned in church that Eliza R. Snow was married to two prophets. The house nearly came down. No one there knew. And some claimed I made it up.

    I really felt deceived by what felt to me like straight up lying.

    So, my problem with the layer-by-layer approach is that it sounds EXACTLY like what all my evangelical friends tell me Mormons do. They suck you in with the clean living and plates of brownies. It’s only LATER that they tell you the real deal. I really don’t know if that’s honest or fair, even though I understand the position.

    Frankly, I think–particularly in a day when the layers are only as far away as google–we (meaning our leaders) just need to step up and explain some stuff.

  21. Alison Moore Smith:

    I can relate to your experience in church mentioning something colorful in our history and everyone thinks you are making it up. It happens to me all the time and I actually enjoy it. The best example, I remember a conversation I had in the foyer with this lady in our ward who was getting ready to teach a lesson in Relief Society about getting along with your husband, or something along those lines from the Joseph F. Smith book. I mentioned to her that Joseph F. should know since he was married to about 6 women. She didn’t believe me. Then I related that his first wife divorced him and I was accused of slander. Oh, that can’t be true! Prophets never get divorced. When I added that some sources circulate a story about Joseph F. getting so angry with her that he threw her out of the house and actually slapped her, I might as well have painted my face black and had “Missouri Mobster” printed across my shirt.

    The problem with the milk-before-meat approach is that if you don’t keep watering the milk down, it goes sour after a while.

  22. 22: The essential part of my comment — the part you evidently didn’t read closely — was this:

    I’m weird. … I’ve already admitted to being weird.

    That should make all other parts of my comment perfectly acceptable to you.

  23. Perhaps we could distinguish “meat” from “some sources that circulate.”

  24. My problem with believing that Joseph Smith is a prophet and that the Book of Mormon is the word of God is that it sounds EXACTLY like what all of my evangelical friends say Mormons do.

  25. Jonathan: What happens to meat after you cook it and season it and chew it up and swallow it? Some of it comes out the other end, which is not unlike my less reliable circulating peristaltic sources, such as my memory or my family folklore.

    The other point (I am not making very well) is that if the church only feeds its people milk and maybe a little mush, then bored foyer characters like myself (or worse) are going to entertain themselves by making church history into a circus. Honest and more complete truth telling in our history will take some of the “fun” out it. Or maybe even take it to a level where something useful might happen.

    BTW Ardis, the church archives are still pretty much closed to me; because I am too lazy to go there and too stupid to know exactly where they are. Out west in Utah somewhere, is it?

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