"The Lord has bestowed a great blessing upon us in giving commandments and revelations," taught Joseph Smith at a Church conference in 1831. Later, the members voted that the revelations were "worth to the Church the riches of the whole Earth."
Yet today many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints know little about how these revelations came to be. Fewer still have seen the precious early manuscripts of the revelations or the early editions of the Doctrine and Covenants and its predecessor, A Book of Commandments.
How We Got the Doctrine and Covenants tells the story of this vital book of scripture, tracing each important step in accurate but easy-to-read language. It is richly illustrated with fine photographs of rarely seen manuscripts and books, as well as of the people who sacrificed to help preserve and publish the revelations.
Authors Richard E. Turley Jr. and William W. Slaughter detail the changes, additions, and refinements that occurred with each successive edition of this standard work. The story begins even before Joseph Smith's First Vision and tells how the revelations were reduced to writing, circulated as manuscripts, and published despite mob violence, eventually penetrating the world as prophesied.
How We Got the Doctrine and Covenants will help you come to know that revelation is not just an event. It is part of a continuing process of unfolding God's will and word "line upon line" and "precept upon precept," according to the needs of his people in each generation.
- Size: 7 x 10
- Pages: 208
- Published: 09/2012
About the Authors
Richard E. Turley Jr., Assistant Church Historian and Recorder for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is the chairman of the editorial board for The Joseph Smith Papers series. He is the author or co-author of several books, including How We Got the Book of Mormon, with William W. Slaughter; Massacre at Mountain Meadows, with Ronald W. Walker and Glen M. Leonard; and Stories from the Life of Joseph Smith, with Lael Littke. In addition, he is the coeditor of the series Women of Faith in the Latter Days, with Brittany A. Chapman. He and his wife, Shirley, live in Taylorsville, Utah.
William W. Slaughter is a photograph historian and consultation archivist for the LDS Church History Department. He is the author or coauthor of several books, including Joseph Smith’s America with Chad Orton and Trail of Hope with Michael N. Landon. William and his wife, Sheri, live in Salt Lake City.
The Original Manuscripts
Kirtland, Ohio, where many of Joseph Smith’s revelations were received and recorded.
Like the New Testament and other books of scripture, the Doctrine and Covenants is made up of several types of documents, including dictated revelations, epistles, visions, minutes, a dedicatory prayer, and even a translation.1 The most common component of the volume is dictated revelations—that is, documents in the voice of the Lord dictated by the Prophet Joseph Smith and others and recorded by scribes.2
One of Joseph Smith’s associates, Parley P. Pratt, witnessed the dictation process and left an account of what he saw. “Each sentence,” he wrote, “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.”
A remarkable aspect of this dictation was its fluency. “There was never any hesitation, reviewing or reading back, in order to keep the run of the subject,” Parley explained, “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.”3
Over time, the revelations did undergo revision—sometimes quite substantial—primarily for three reasons. One was that scribes made errors in their recording and transcription. A second reason was to prepare the revelations for publication. The third was to update, supplement, or refine the texts as additional light and knowledge came “line upon line and precept upon precept.”4
The first form in which the revelations became fixed was as ink on paper. “The scribe seats himself at a desk or table, with pen, ink, and paper,” wrote William E. McLellin, an early apostle of the Church who observed the process. “The subject of inquiry 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.”5 The scribes who recorded Joseph Smith’s dictation typically did so on loose sheets of paper.6
Edward Partridge, the first bishop of the Church, made this early copy of what are now Doctrine and Covenants sections 4 and 27 and part of Joseph Smith’s translation of Genesis.
Page from Joseph Smith’s 1836 journal in which scribe Warren Cowdery recorded the vision that became Doctrine and Covenants section 110.
Few original copies of scripture manuscripts—ancient or modern—have survived the ravages of time. In the case of the books that make up the Bible, no original manuscripts are known to exist today. Rather, the Old and New Testaments have been translated from manuscript copies made many years after the originals.7 The original manuscript of the Book of Mormon was placed by Joseph Smith in the cornerstone of the Nauvoo House. Moisture that seeped into the stone over time destroyed much of it.8 In the case of the Doctrine and Covenants, however, a small number of original copies have survived. In addition, a few copies survive that are not originals but were made earlier than those found in the official Church record books. An example of such an early copy is one made by Edward Partridge, the first bishop of the Church, of revelations that include one Joseph Smith dictated for his father in 1829.9
The west pulpits on the first floor of the Kirtland Temple. On April 3, 1836, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery witnessed a vision here that was recorded in Joseph’s journal by Oliver’s brother Warren.
Another example of an original manuscript comes from the journal of Joseph Smith. After the dedication of the Church’s first temple at Kirtland, Ohio, in 1836, Joseph and his associate Oliver Cowdery retired behind the veils in the temple’s first-floor west pulpits. There they experienced a vision of Jesus Christ and ancient prophets. Joseph’s scribe Warren A. Cowdery—Oliver’s brother—recorded the event in Joseph’s journal not long after it occurred. That record constitutes the original manuscript of what later became Doctrine and Covenants 110.10
Three sections of the Doctrine and Covenants come from a letter Joseph Smith dictated to scribes Alexander McRae and Caleb Baldwin while they and their fellow prisoners suffered in this jail at Liberty, Missouri, in 1839.
Signature page of a letter dictated by Joseph Smith from Liberty Jail in March 1839. Joseph’s signature is followed by those of his fellow prisoners. Caleb Baldwin and Alexander McRae, the last to sign, were the scribes who penned the letter.
Joseph Smith’s 1836 journal, shown here, contains the original manuscript of what became Doctrine and Covenants section 137.
Joseph Smith’s office in the west end of the Kirtland Temple attic. Joseph’s account of the vision he had here on January 21, 1836, became Doctrine and Covenants section 137.
Yet another example of an original Doctrine and Covenants manuscript is an epistle, or letter, dictated by Joseph Smith while in prison at Liberty, Missouri, in March 1839. The Liberty Jail—an ironic name—became the location of some of Joseph’s most poignant thoughts and feelings as he and his companions endured months of captivity in the dark, filthy, unwholesome prison. The spiritual promptings he received during these difficult days led assistant Church historian B. H. Roberts to call the jail “a prison-temple.”11
Joseph’s March 1839 letter, dictated to fellow prisoners Alexander McRae and Caleb Baldwin, became the source of sections 121, 122, and 123 of the Doctrine and Covenants.12
On January 21, 1836, Joseph Smith and his associates attended to preliminary temple ordinances in the west part of the uppermost floor of the Kirtland Temple. In Joseph Smith’s journal, scribe Warren Cowdery recorded for the Prophet what happened next: “The heavens were opened upon us,” Joseph recalled, “and I beheld the celestial Kingdom of God, and the glory thereof, whether in the body or out I cannot tell.” The vision Joseph saw on that occasion later became section 137 of the Doctrine and Covenants.13
All of these revelations, together with other documents that today make up the Doctrine and Covenants, were originally recorded on loose sheets or as parts of such other documents as Joseph Smith’s journal. As critical as recording these revelations was, it was just the first step toward having them become part of the Doctrine and Covenants.
John and Elsa Johnson’s home, Hiram, Ohio. A conference held in Hiram in 1831 voted to print revelations of Joseph Smith that previously were available only in manuscript form.
^1. Epistles, or extracts of epistles, include sections 85, 121, 122, 123, 127, and 128 of The Doctrine and Covenants of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1981). Sections 2, 76, 110, 137, and 138 are examples of recorded visions. Section 102 is the original minutes of the Kirtland High Council. Section 109 is the dedicatory prayer for the temple in Kirtland, Ohio. Section 7 is a translation.
^2. Doctrine and Covenants 1 through 134 and 137 come from the Joseph Smith period. Section 135 is a tribute to the martyred Prophet and his brother Hyrum. Section 136 was received by Joseph’s successor, Brigham Young, and section 138 is the record of a vision of sixth Church president Joseph F. Smith.
^4. 2 Nephi 28:30; see also Isaiah 28:10, 13; Doctrine and Covenants 92:12; 128:21. For an understanding of these processes, see Robin Scott Jensen, Robert J. Woodford, and Steven C. Harper, eds., Manuscript Revelation Books, facsimile edition, first volume of the Revelations and Translations series of The Joseph Smith Papers, edited by Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman (Salt Lake City, UT: Church Historian’s Press, 2009); Robin Scott Jensen, Richard E. Turley Jr., and Riley M. Lorimer, eds., Published Revelations, vol. 2 of the Revelations and Translations series of The Joseph Smith Papers, edited by Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman (Salt Lake City, UT: Church Historian’s Press, 2011).
^8. Joseph F. Smith, “The Original Manuscript of the Book of Mormon,” Improvement Era, November 1899, 64; “Original Manuscript of the Book of Mormon,” Improvement Era, March 1900, 389–90; Dean C. Jessee, “The Original Book of Mormon Manuscript,” Brigham Young University Studies 10 (Spring 1970): 264; Royal Skousen, “Book of Mormon, manuscripts of,” in Dennis L. Largey, ed., Book of Mormon Reference Companion (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2003), 125; Royal Skousen, “Book of Mormon, Manuscripts and Editions,” in Arnold K. Garr, Donald Q. Cannon, and Richard O. Cowan, Encyclopedia of Latter-day Saint History (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2000), 120; Royal Skousen, The Original Manuscript of the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, Brigham Young University, 2001), 6–7.
^10. Dean C. Jessee, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Richard L. Jensen, eds., Journals, Volume 1: 1832–1839, vol. 1 of the Journals series of The Joseph Smith Papers, edited by Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman (Salt Lake City, UT: Church Historian’s Press, 2008), 218–22; Dean C. Jessee, ed., Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, rev. ed.(Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book; Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 2002), 217–19; Lyndon W. Cook, The Revelations of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1985), 218–20.