excerpt – Joseph Smith Revelations
Revelation is usually thought of as the imparting of truth to men and women by Deity. How this wisdom has been communicated between heaven and earth and bow it is different from ordinary human thought remains a mystery. For instance, Mormon church founder Joseph Smith (1805-44) was accompanied by scribes who sometimes recorded his most casual observations. For Smith, revelation seemed to come from day-to-day experience, from interactions with other people, and from the study of biblical texts.
In the early years of his life, Smith was a treasure seer who divined where precious things were hidden. As he acquired a prophetic mantle, he used the same methods, including seer-stone gazing, to produce his church’s foundational scripture, the Book of Mormon, and his first fifteen revelations.1
Smith began his ministry in the spring of 1828 at age twenty-two by dictating the contents of ancient gold plates to his scribe Martin Harris. When over one hundred manuscript pages of the dictated text were lost, Smith inquired of God about this matter. In July his prayer was answered, and this response became his first revelation: “The works, and the designs, and the purposes of God, can not be frustrated, neither can they come to nought, for God doth not walk in crooked paths; neither doth he turn to the right hand nor to the left; neither doth he vary from that which he hath said: Therefore his paths are strait and his course is one eternal round.”2
While these words were reportedly uttered by God through Smith, there is no first-person emphasis. The language is matter of fact and relates directly to the subject at hand: the lost manuscript of the dictated Book of Mormon text. However, in April 1829 one of Smith’s revelations to another scribe, Oliver Cowdery, uses the first person: “Behold I am Jesus Christ” and “Verily, verily, I say unto you.”3
While Smith did not comment on the manner in which he perceived God’s mind, the linguistic idiosyncracies are assumed to be his own. Whether he believed that the ideas or the words themselves were God’s is not completely understood. For instance, expressions that are borrowed from the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible seem to highlight the importance of the message.
Smith frequently revised the revelations in accordance with his developing theology. God’s word, relayed through fallible prophets, was neither inerrant nor static in Smith’s view—so as the need arose he revised the Bible and his own autobiography as well as the revelations.
However, in June 1829 instructions were given to twelve future apostles called to serve in the ministry:
And I Jesus Christ, your Lord and your God, have spoken it. These words are not of men, nor of man, but of me: Wherefore you shall testify they are of me, and not of man; for it is my voice which speaketh them unto you: For they are given by my Spirit unto you: And by my power you can read them one to another; and save it were by my power, you could not have them: Wherefore you can testify that you have heard my voice, and know my words. … Behold Ijesus Christ, your Lord and your God, and your Redeemer, by the power of my Spirit, have spoken it: Amen.4
And on 6 April 1830, the day the church was organized, a revelation referred to Smith’s authority as spokesman: “For his word ye shall receive, as if from mine own mouth.”5
One early disciple, Parley P. Pratt, wrote about the process of revelation:
After we had joined in prayer in his [Smith's] translating room, he dictated in our presence the following revelation:—(Each sentence was uttered slowly and very distinctly, and with a pause between each, sufficiently long for it to be recorded, by an ordinary writer, in long hand. This was the manner in which all of his written revelations were dictated and written. There was never any hesitation, reviewing, or reading back, in order to keep the run of the subject; neither did any of these communications undergo revisions, interlinings, or corrections. As he dictated them so they stood, so far as I have witnessed; and I was present to witness the dictation of several communications of several pages each. This inquiry was made and the answer given in May, 1831.)6
William E. McLellin was the scribe for Smith’s October 1831 revelation and for David Whitmer’s September 1847 illumination. McLellin wrote of the revelatory process:
I, as scribe, have written revelations from the mouth of both the Revelators, Joseph Smith and David Whitmer. And I have been present many times when others wrote for Joseph; therefore I speak as one having experience. The scribe seats himself at a desk or table, with pen, ink and paper. The subject of enquiry being understood, the Prophet and Revelator enquires of God. He spiritually sees, hears and feels, and then speaks as he is moved upon by the Holy Ghost, the “thus saith the Lord,” sentence after sentence, and waits for his amanuenses to write and then read aloud each sentence. Thus they proceed until the revelator says Amen, at the close of what is then communicated.7
Note that McLellin has each sentence read aloud by the scribe while Pratt states that there was no reading back. Many of the manuscripts do not have punctuation marks, perhaps indicating they were dictated too rapidly to have been read back and corrected. In any case, the revelations were written as nearly as possible as Smith spoke them. The early manuscripts have crossed-out words with substituted words above lines, which appear to have been written near the time of the first composition. The orthography is unique for each particular scribe. Smith, on the other hand, was responsible for the content of every message.
Many of the revelations are explicitly attributed to God, as illustrated by the following salutations:
thus saith the Lord (OT; BOM; 1830-43)
saith the Lord (OT; NT; BOM; 1830-43)
Verily thus saith the Lord (1831-43)
Behold thus saith the Lord (NT; BOM; 183 1-38)
verily I say unto you (NT; BOM; 1829-43)
Verily, verily, I say unto you (NT; BOM; 1829-1843)
I am God (OT; BOM; 1829-33)
I am Alpha and Omega (NT; BOM; 1830-43)
Listen to the voice (NT; 1830-32)
I the Lord have spoken it (OT; 183 1-33)
Behold I am Jesus Christ (BOM; 1829-3 1)
listen to the words of Jesus Christ (1829)
give heed unto my word (1829)
In a revelation received on 25 January 1832, the wording commences: “Verily verily I say unto you I who speak even by the voice of my spirit even Alpha and Omega your Lord and your God … behold this is the will of the Lord your God concerning you even so Amen.”8 Smith stated this was a “commandment of Jesus Christ.”9 In another revelation, he dictated, “these are the words of Alpha & Omega even Jesus Christ.”10 William W. Phelps underscored Smith’s role as God’s voice in a song, a portion of which reads: “The commandments to the church,/ Which the saints will always search,/ (Where the joys of heaven perch,)/ Came through him from Jesus Christ.”11
A peculiarity in the revelations is that when there are minor differences between the original and subsequent versions, the meaning has usually remained the same. Theological and historical revisions are more apparent. The most drastic alterations were made in 1835, when the texts were amended, added to, excised, and in some cases assigned different historical settings. About a third of the texts from July 1828 to 23 April 1834 were revised. Among other emendations, the changes softened language, reinterpreted economic matters, added offices existing at the time of revision, and inserted references to priesthood restoration.
The earliest prophetic statements were addressed to individuals as a comfort or chastisement or to the church regarding organizational issues. Economic ideals, religious expectations, and millennial warnings were also prominent features. Missionaries were called to preach to the world for the last time.
The majority (51.7 percent) of the commandments, revelations, and instructions was received in Kirtland and Hiram, Ohio (1831-38), as doctrines, ordinances, and authority structures were solidified. From the revelations, it becomes clear that dissent was common and forgiveness was often offered to those who transgressed.
Some of the revelations were not only for a specific recipient, but were specifically withheld from the public. Martin Harris was instructed in March 1830: “And I command you, that you preach nought but repentance; and show not these things, neither speak these things unto the world, for they can not bear meat, but milk they must receive[.]“12 Almost a year later in March 183,1 the church was told: “& now I say unto you keep these things from going abroad unto the world that ye may accomplish this work in the eyes of the people & in the eyes of your enemies that they may not know your works until ye have accomplished the thing which I have commanded you[.]“13
At the 1 November 1831 church conference, a revelation authorized publication of the Book of Commandments: “What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself, and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice, or by the voice of my servants, it is the same[.]“14 Originally the commandments were to be kept from the world—”And for this cause these commandments were given; they were commanded to be kept from the world in the d[a]y that they were given, but now [November 1831] are to go forth unto all flesh.”15
Realizing that some of the revelations were not intended for the world underscores the importance of the early texts. Joseph Smith together with a few associates selected the revelations from the original handwritten copies for canonization. Chapter 1 discusses these manuscripts as it explores the historical development of the canon.
1. See Dean C. Jessee, ed., The Papers of Joseph Smith: Autobiographical and Historical Writings (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1989), 1:287, 289, 292, 294. See also H. Michael Marquardt and Wesley P. Walters, Inventing Mormonism: Tradition and the Historical Record (San Francisco: Smith Research Associates, 1994), 104, 188-89, 195n49-51.
2. BC 2:1; LDS D&C 3:1-2; RLDS D&C 2:1.
3. The words “Verily, verily, I say unto you” are in the Gospel of John (KJV) and in the Book of Mormon. The shorter wording “verily I say unto you” is in the New Testament Gospels
4. BC 15:36-41, 50; LDS D&C 18:33-36, 47; RLDS D&C 16:5, 7.
5. BC 22:5; LDS D&C 21:5; RLDS D&C 19:2.
6. Parley P. Pratt [Jr.], ed., Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1994), 48. See LDS and RLDS D&C 50.
7. William E. McLellin, ed., The Ensign of Liberty 1 (Aug. 1849): 98, Kirtland, Ohio.
8. See LDS D&C 75:1, 12; RLDS D&C 75:1-2.
9. Smith toW. W. Phelps, 3l July 1832, LDS archives. See Dean C. Jessee, ed., The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1984), 244.
10. See LDS D&C 81; RLDS D&C 80 (15 Mar. 1832).
11. Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate 2 (Oct. 1835): 208; A Collection of Sacred Hymns, for the Church of the Latter Day Saints (Kirtland, OH: Printed by F. G. Williams & Co., 1835 ), 33-34.
12. BC 16:22. For the 1835 D&C the instruction to Harris deleted “neither speak these things,” while adding “until it is wisdom in me,” to read: “show not these things unto the world until it is wisdom in me; for they cannot bear meat now, but milk they must receive” (1835 D&C 44:2). See LDS D&C 19:21-22; RLDS D&C 18:2.
13. Manuscript in LDS archives. After the words “keep these things from going abroad unto the world,” six words were added for the BC: “until it is expedient in me” (BC 48:68; LDS D&C 45:72; RLDS D&C 45:15). The manuscript written by Edward Partridge does not contain these words nor does a copy made by William E. McLellin. See Jan Shipps and John W. Welch, eds., The Journals of William E. McLellin 1831-1836 (Provo, UT: BYU Studies/Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 240.
14. BC 1:7; LDS D&C 1:38; RLDS D&C 1:8.
15. The Evening and the Morning Star 1 (May 1833): [2; whole page no. 90], Independence, MO; LDS D&C 133:60; RLDS D&C 108:11 (3 Nov. 1831).