“A man may have many revelations”

We’re four weeks into the year, and we’ve finally reached the beginning of the Doctrine and Covenants.  I know we started the book weeks ago, but what I mean to say is that this week we’re now working with the earliest material in the Doctrine and Covenants.  Section 3 is the first revelation from Joseph Smith for which a text has survived (even pre-dating the text of the Book of Mormon), while for Section 5 is the revelation for which we have the earliest extant copy of any of Joseph Smith’s revelations (a copy created by Oliver Cowdery after his arrival, around April 1829).[1]  The prior two sections that we’ve studied are placed before Section 3 because Section 1 was written as a preface for the Doctrine and Covenants and Section 2 is recalling events that occurred in 1823.  Section 2, however, was written in 1838-1839 as part of an official history and added to the Doctrine and Covenants in 1876 (by comparison, our Section 3 is Section 2 in the Community of Christ’s version of the Doctrine and Covenants), while Section 1 was written in 1831.  All three of the revelations we are studying this week were received in the period before the Church itself was founded or the bulk of the Book of Mormon as we have it was dictated, spanning the period of July 1828-March 1829.  As the earliest existing documents of the Latter Day Saint movement, they set some of the patterns about Joseph Smith’s revelations that were followed for most of his life.

One significant aspect of these revelations is that they allude to, quote, and use material found in the King James Version of the Bible as a part of their word choices on a regular basis.  Kevin Barney pointed this out in a discussion about Section 1 and Isaiah 34:5 over at By Common Consent a few weeks ago, but Section 4 is one of the clearest display of this.  Consider the following table of comparisons:

Section 4 verse Phrase Scripture Reference Reference Phrase
1 Now behold, a marvelous work is about to come forth among the children of men. Isaiah 29:14 Therefore, behold, I will proceed to do a marvellous work among this people, even a marvellous work and a wonder
2 Therefore, O ye that embark in the service of God, see that ye serve him with all your heart, might, mind and strength, that ye may stand blameless before God at the last day. Luke 10:27 And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.
3 Therefore, if ye have desires to serve God ye are called to the work;
4 For behold the field is white already to harvest; and lo, he that thrusteth in his sickle with his might, the same layeth up in store that he perisheth not, but bringeth salvation to his soul; John 4:35-36 Say not ye, There are yet four months, and then cometh harvest? behold, I say unto you, Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields; for they are white already to harvest. And he that reapeth receiveth wages, and gathereth fruit unto life eternal: that both he that soweth and he that reapeth may rejoice together.
5 And faith, hope, charity and love, 1 Corinthians 13:13 And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.
5 with an eye single Matthew 6:22 The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.
5 to the glory of God, 1 Cor. 10:31 (see also Psalms 19:1; Proverbs 25:2; etc.). Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.
5 qualify him for the work. Ephesians 4:12 (see also Acts 13:2; Acts 14:26) For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:
6 Remember faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, brotherly kindness, godliness, charity, humility, diligence. 2 Peter 1:5-7 And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to  virtue knowledge; and to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; And to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity.
7 Ask, and ye shall receive; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. Amen. Matthew 7:7-8 Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.

Similar observations can be made about Section 3.  Phrases like “after the dictates of his own will” (compare D&C 3:4 and Ephesians 1:11), “a just God” (compare D&C 3:4 with Isaiah 45:21), “the fiery darts of the adversary” (compare D&C 3:8 and Ephesians 6:16), and “God is merciful” (compare D&C 3:10 and 2 Chron. 30:9), among many other phrases, draw on the language of the King James Version.[2]

There is more at work here, however, than just copying texts from the Bible.  All these phrases are brought together from a variety of locations and woven into a coherent message in Section 4 about serving God.  Philip Barlow has noted, in speaking of Section 3, that: “It would be a mistake, however, to think of Smith’s revelation as merely a pastiche of biblical phrases. … Quite apart from the biblical building blocks of much of its prose, the revelation is an original religious creation. … For all the individual biblical phrases found in it, the revelation as a whole is literarily distinct.”[3]  Phrases from Biblical texts are used like Lego pieces to use in building revelatory texts that conveyed the will of the Lord.

In communicating in this manner, these early revelations set the pattern by which Joseph Smith would continue to convey God’s will for many years.  Sometimes called dialogic revelations by historians and theologians in the Church today, the texts of these revelations read as direct responses to situations and questions in the voice of the Lord (i.e., a response in a dialogue between Joseph and the Lord).  In this regard, Joseph Smith’s revelations are closest in style to the revelations in the Hebrew Bible in the books of Isaiah, Ezekiel, and some other prophets.

Yet, even early Latter-day Saints wondered whether the texts represented verbatim transcripts of messages from God or whether they were Joseph Smith’s words.  I mentioned this in discussing Section 1 a few weeks ago, and Section 1 openly admits that: “these commandments are of me & were given unto my Servents in their weakness after the manner of their Language.”[4]  Yet, just as with Book of Mormon translation, there are variations in understanding how tightly the Lord controlled the language of the revelations.  These early revelations seem to have been dictated with the aid of seer stones or the Urim and Thummim, though Joseph Smith would discontinue using those for the revelations sometime around 1830.[5]  For the majority of Joseph Smith’s revelations, he dictated them, in the words of Elder Orson Pratt, “as the inspiration of the Holy Ghost rested upon him.”[6]  In both cases, having never spent time in Joseph Smith’s head, we aren’t entirely sure what the full process of receiving the revelations was like for him.  As a result, even coming from a perspective of believing that the revelations were authentic, it is difficult to decide whether they are word-for-word accounts of what the Lord said or whether the revelations were conceptual in nature and then Joseph Smith worked to capture them in words.

Part of the difficulty in answering the question is that the early Saints left contradictory evidence about the nature of the revelations.  On the one hand, the early Saints certainly seem to have viewed these written documents as carrying more authority than oral pronouncements of Joseph Smith, especially in the early days of the Church.[7]  The revelations themselves read as though it is the Lord speaking, not Joseph.  In the words of Richard Lyman Bushman: “The speaker stands above and outside Joseph, sharply separated emotionally and intellectually.”[8] Even within a month of his own death, Joseph Smith assigned a special authority of inerrancy to his revelations and teachings despite personal weaknesses: “I never told you I was perfect—but there is no error in the revelations which I have taught.”[9]  Descriptions of Joseph receiving revelations like the one found in The Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt tend to further this image with statements that Joseph Smith dictated his revelations without “hesitation, reviewing, or reading back” and that they didn’t “undergo revisions, interlinings, or corrections. As he dictated them so they stood, so far as I have witnessed.”[10] These pieces of information imply that the Prophet was dictating for God and the texts that resulted from this dictation came out perfect.

On the other hand, there is evidence that Joseph Smith and other early Church leaders didn’t see the revelations as perfect representations of the Lord’s voice.  Joseph Smith received the revelations in an ongoing process, sometimes compiling multiple revelations received over a period of time into one revelation, or returning later to revise and update previous revelations.[11] When a Church conference asked Joseph Smith in 1831 to “correct those errors or mistakes which he may discover by the Holy Spirit,” the request was both acceptable to the Prophet and carried out by him on multiple occasions.[12]  President Brigham Young also bluntly stated on one occasion that: “I do not even believe that there is a single revelation, among the many God has given to the Church, that is perfect in its fulness.”[13]  These seem to indicate that the process of recording the will of the Lord in text was seen as an ongoing, dynamic process that included the potential for refinement.

When it comes to describing how revelations are received, the Doctrine and Covenants includes statements like “you must study it out in your mind,” rather than simply asking with no thought beforehand (D&C 9:7-8), and that understanding comes “by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118). Joseph Smith also described in one discourse that “Holy Ghost has no other effect than pure inteligence” and that it works by “expanding the mind enlightening the understanding & storeing the intellect with present knowledge.” Likewise, the “Spirit of Revelation” was characterized by “pure Inteligence flowing into you” and “sudden strokes of ideas.”[14] It may be that the ideas and pure intelligence were concepts and thoughts that came through the Spirit, but not necessarily specific words—those had to be worked out later as an attempt to capture and communicate the actual revelation. While records of angelic visitations and visions of God indicate that this was not the only way the Prophet received revelations, it does seem to be a major part of the revelatory process for him.

The information above seems to indicate that the revelations were not seen by Joseph Smith as pure dictations from God, but conceptual revelations followed by an effort on the Prophet’s part to capture those revelations in the English language. After pointing out some of the evidence mentioned above, Philip Barlow noted that Joseph Smith “does not generally seem to have conceived of his revelations as verbally exact dictations from God that he then recorded in secretarial fashion. More often, the language used is apparently his own attempt to convey the ideas of the revelations he experienced.”  As for why we find Biblical language so deeply engrained in these revelations, Barlow added that: “the Prophet’s mind was … immersed in biblical language, whether by personal study of scripture, by listening to sermons, by natural participation in the biblical idioms of family conversation, or by some combination of these.”  Hence, “when recording the impressions of his revelations, he naturally fell into the language accessible to him.”[15]

Whether the revelations are secretarial records of the Lord’s words or whether they are Joseph Smith’s words attempting to capture conceptional revelations, however, it is interesting to see how deeply interwoven the text of the revelations we read in the Doctrine and Covenants is with the text of the King James Version of the Bible, beginning with these very early revelations of 1828 and 1829.


Further Reading:



Lead image from “Revelation, July 1828 [D&C 3],” p. 1, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed January 18, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-july-1828-dc-3/1

[1] https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/church-historians-press/jsp-revelations/dc-005-1829_03_01_000?lang=eng.

[2] For a more detailed analysis of this, I suggest: Rasmussen, Ellis T., “Textual Parallels to the Doctrine and Covenants and Book of Commandments as Found in the Bible” (1951). Theses and Dissertations. 5059.

[3] Barlow, Mormons and the Bible, 25.

[4] “Revelation, 1 November 1831–B [D&C 1],” p. 126, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed January 18, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-1-november-1831-b-dc-1/2.

[5] See “Seer Stone,” Glossary, The Joseph Smith Papers, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/topic/seer-stone.  

[6] Orson Pratt, in Journal of Discourses, 10 July 1859, 7:176.

[7] The most famous incident of this sort is John Whitmer’s refusal to serve as Church historian unless the Lord would “manifest it through Joseph the Seer,” though several other examples of the authority of the written revelations exists (see Bushman, Rough Stone, 129).

[8] Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, First Vintage Books Edition (New York: Vintage Books, 2007), 69.

[9] Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 6718-6720). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition.

[10] Parley P. Pratt, The Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, ed. Parley P Pratt, Jr. (Chicago: Law, King & Law, 1888), 65-66, https://archive.org/details/autobiographyofp00prat/page/64/mode/2up.

[11] The current introduction to the Doctrine and Covenants states that: “Joseph and the early Saints viewed the revelations as they did the Church: living, dynamic, and subject to refinement with additional revelation. They also recognized that unintentional errors had likely occurred through the process of copying the revelations and preparing them for publication. Thus, a Church conference asked Joseph Smith in 1831 to ‘correct those errors or mistakes which he may discover by the Holy Spirit.’” See also Bushman, Rough Stone, 174.

[12] See Bushman, Rough Stone, 173-174.

[13] Brigham Young, July 8, 1855, JD 2:314.

[14] Joseph Smith Sermon, 27 June 1839, Words of Joseph Smith.

[15] Barlow, Mormons and the Bible, 23-24.

1 comment for ““A man may have many revelations”

  1. I’d be shocked if it wasn’t both (depending on the situation). Perhaps the closest that I have come to receiving that sort of revelation is in giving Priesthood blessings directed by the Spirit. At times inspiration comes as a concept or even an emotion that I am left to struggle to put into words. At other times, the words themselves are given and I am simply the voice conveying those words.

    If the Lord can use multiple methods with someone as essentially irrelevant as me, why in the world would we think that He couldn’t use multiple (or perhaps all) methods with someone as essential to His work as Joseph Smith?

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