Lesson 1: Introduction to the Doctrine and Covenants and Church History
This guide accompanies Lesson 1 in the LDS D&C/Church History Gospel Doctrine manual.
Lesson 1 focuses on the Doctrine and Covenants as a whole, and discusses its initial creation. It also introduces the Our Heritage book that will be used for teaching church history.
This addendum, and those for later lessons, will attempt to draw on a wide array of relevant and trustworthy sources to provide both historical context and applicable spiritual lessons.
The Church’s History Might Be Very Different Than You Expect
Many people who were raised in the church have been shocked when they started researching church history and found that it contains a large number of controversial issues that they were never taught. Some have claimed that this is the result of a deliberate, organized program to dishonestly whitewash the church’s story of any unflattering facts. Though there are some troubling individual instances of facts being covered up, there is not evidence (journals, memos, meeting minutes, etc.) to show that there was a widespread cover-up conspiracy within the church.
The explanation for the one-sided history is more subtle. The church history that we were raised with came to us through a chain of people and institutions. Each link in the chain is subject to fears and biases. Scholars may soft-pedal issues for fear of being seen as disloyal. Then church leaders and department staff pick from a biased set of those scholars’ facts, and introduce some bias themselves by excluding the more challenging facts from manuals. Then instructors bias things further by avoiding difficult topics. And finally class members introduce bias into their own understanding by only hearing/remembering things that confirm their beliefs, and by being afraid of bringing up challenging facts during class. Even though few, if any, people in the process have dishonest intent, the system as a whole works dishonestly. The following graphic illustrates this point.
Prominent LDS scholar Richard Bushman has said this about how the church’s view of its history is changing:
The leadership were not entirely informed of history for many years, but recently they have had to get up to speed. The recent Church historians have done a great job of informing the Brethren. The gospel topics were a surprise to many. They are often charged with concealing the truth. I think the fact is the old narrative was all they knew. I don’t think that all believe we have to tell the whole story. Why bring all that up they are wont to say. But those on the side of transparency are prevailing.
We are in a period of transition with regard to our history. The narrative is in the process of reconstruction. Right now that means there is the standard, comforting story, and then a series of controversies. Teachers are wondering how many of the surprises can be brought up in Sunday School without disrupting the spiritual purposes of the class. In time I think this problem will go away. All the controversial questions will be absorbed into the standard narrative and we won’t have a sense of two tracks. We will explain that Joseph Smith looked in a hat to translate just as now we say he looked in a stone box to find the gold plates. There are already lots of surprising things in the standard narrative. We will simply flesh that out. We must, however, not relent in getting all this material included. We want the story we tell each other to be based on the best possible historical evidence. Any shrinking from that mandate will only lead to more problems down the road. I think the Church is trying to create that kind of comprehensive, accurate narrative. In a few years there won’t be any more surprises.1
The history of the Doctrine and Covenants shows that scripture is not immutable. Writings are canonized and decanonized with varying frequency. This happens with other books of scripture as well; the canonization of the Bible shows a similar pattern of books being added and removed over time. The following table summarizes the changes to the Doctrine and Covenants (except where noted, section numbers refer to today’s numbering).
|1831||Decision to publish the Book of Commandments (BoC).|
|1833||Printing ceases when press destroyed by mob during printing of chapter 65.|
|1835||Doctrine and Covenants (D&C) published. Many new sections added. Several old sections substantially modified. Several short BoC chapters combined into single D&C section.|
|1844-1847||Sections 135 and 136 added during administration of Quorum of the Twelve.|
|1844||Sections 103, 105, 112, 119, 124, 127, 128, and 135 added.|
|1876||Former section 101 (the “Article on Marriage”) removed. Twenty-six more sections added, including D&C 132 (the revelation on polygamy) and D&C 13 (the account of John the Baptist ordaining Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery) . Other revelations moved into chronological (instead of topical) order.|
|1890||Manifesto issued (ending church’s public promotion of polygamy).|
|1918||Joseph F. Smith’s vision of the spirit world published (would later become Section 138).|
|1921||Lectures on Faith removed.|
|1978||Official Declaration 2 issued (ending ban on blacks entering temple or being ordained to priesthood).|
|1981||Sections 137 and 138 and Official Declaration 2 added. Code names for people and places, as given in the original revelations, replaced with actual names.|
|2013||Section headings revised to incorporate research from Joseph Smith Papers.|
Some of these changes reflect how the church’s teachings have changed over time.
Early church teachings did not focus on priesthood authority and offices to the extent they do today. The Book of Commandments version of our D&C 27 made no mention of Joseph and Oliver’s 1829 ordination by Peter, James, and John. Those verses were added to that section when the D&C was published in 1835. Our D&C 13, which recounts Joseph and Oliver’s ordination by John the Baptist, was first published in the Times and Seasons in 1842, and then added to the D&C in 1876.
Section 101 of the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants was known as the “Article on Marriage”. It provided specific instructions on where marriages should be performed (“a public meeting, or feast”), listed who could perform them (“a presiding high priest, high priest, bishop, elder, or priest”), and provided exact wording for the ritual.
It also included this statement:
Inasmuch as this Church of Christ has been reproached with the crime of fornication, and polygamy, we declare that we believe that one man should have one wife; and one woman but one husband, except in case of death, when either is at liberty to marry again.
The exact form of the “reproach” mentioned in this section is not clear. Several sources indicate that Joseph taught individuals about polygamy in 1831 and 1832. This paragraph in the Article on Marriage seems to have been included to quell disapproving rumors about these teachings.
The church’s official teachings on polygamy began to reverse course in July of 1843, when Joseph received the revelation that would become D&C 132. It was shared only with a limited number of people at first, then became public after the migration to Utah. The discrepancy between the church’s practice and scripture persisted until 1876, when the Article on Marriage was removed from the D&C and replaced with the revelation on polygamy. (I can only imagine the shock of any converts who emigrated to Utah after Section 101 assured them that the church didn’t practice polygamy, and then found they had been misinformed.)
The church’s teachings would be reversed again fourteen years later when the Manifesto was issued in 1890, ending the church’s promotion of polygamy.
The Doctrine and Covenants never prohibited blacks from entering the temple or being ordained to the priesthood. That restriction arose under Brigham Young and was reinforced by subsequent church leaders, but was never added to scripture. They justified the restriction with teachings that blacks were less valiant in the premortal life, or had inherited the curse of Cain or curse of Ham.
In 1978, Official Declaration 2 changed the church’s policy, allowing black members to enter the temple and black males to receive the priesthood. It did not, however, repudiate the earlier policy or the teachings that had justified it. The church’s 2013 Race and the Priesthood essay condemns the earlier teachings, but stops short of concluding that the earlier policy was wrong.
Scripture Contains Both God’s Words and Man’s
In describing how Joseph Smith received revelation, Orson Pratt said that “Joseph … received the ideas from God, but clothed those ideas with such words as came to his mind”.2
Understanding this aspect of revelation invites us to ponder on what concepts God may have been trying to convey and consider how the prophet’s environment and experiences may have contributed to the words chosen. Hopefully, it will ultimately move us to ask God to share His meaning with us through direct inspiration.
This point may be controversial. There are many Christians who believe that the Bible is the 100% infallible word of God. There are many Mormons who believe the same about our additional scriptures. But even the prophet Moroni acknowledged the fallibility of scripture when he said “if there are faults they are the mistakes of men”. God does not require us to believe that imperfect messengers have conveyed His message perfectly.
Ambiguous or Contradicting Historical Accounts Should Make Us Humble About Our Claims
or “History is Often Ambiguous. Deal With It.”
Sometimes historical records contradict each other, and we have to either pick one source and disregard the other, or live with the uncertainty of not knowing which is correct. For example, there are conflicting accounts of when it was decided to print the Book of Commandments. In early November of 1831, church leaders met in Hiram, Ohio to discuss the issue. The editors of the Joseph Smith Papers Project (JSPP) have written the following about that meeting’s minutes:
The minutes of the 1–2 November conference open with a query regarding how many copies of the Book of Commandments (a compilation of revelations) should be published. Because the conference opened with a question about the size of the print run, the actual decision to print the revelations was likely made prior to the conference. William E. McLellin recollected, however, that it was at the conference that “it was first determined to print the revelations.” McLellin may have been correct that the decision was made at the conference, or he may not have been informed about the decision until the conference. Either way, the minutes focus on the number of copies to be printed and fail to note discussion about publishing or a decision to publish.
Was the decision made before the meeting, as indicated by the minutes, or at the meeting, as recounted by McLellin? A couple points to consider:
- The minutes were written down on the same day as the meeting, by a person assigned to accurately record what was discussed. These factors tend to strengthen the minutes’ worth as evidence.
- McLellin’s statements about the decision to print the Book of Commandments were made in 1871, forty years after the meeting was held. This long gap between the event and its recollection tends to decrease the memory’s worth as evidence. Memory fades over time.
Though the minutes’ account seems likely to be more accurate, we may never be completely sure. There may always be ambiguity from these conflicting accounts. In this case the historical ambiguity does not have very high stakes; no one has committed their life to a belief in when exactly it was decided to publish the Book of Commandments. However, such contradictions are common in dealing with historical documents. Later lessons will discuss more challenging contradictions surrounding events such as the First Vision and the restoration of the priesthood.
When confronted with high stakes ambiguity, it is regrettably common for people to defend their positions by overemphasizing supporting sources while underemphasizing conflicting ones. This defensive habit is the norm in both online forums and Gospel Doctrine classes. Honest historians, like the JSPP editors who wrote the excerpt above, strive for accuracy by acknowledging ambiguity and quelling their defensive impulses. But even non-historians have reason to make this effort. Ambiguity provides an opportunity to exercise charity for those with whom we disagree. It allows us to say “Though I disagree with you, I can see the reasonableness in what you believe.” This humble approach to ambiguity can prevent heated disagreements and bring us much closer to living Jesus’s commandment to “be one”.
- Chronological Order of [D&C] Contents. lds.org.
- Timeline: The Early History of the Mormons, In the Beginning - 1838. PBS.
- Timeline: The Early History of the Mormons, 1839 - 2007. PBS.
- Minutes, 1-2 November 1831, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed Dec. 22 2016.
- Woodford, Robert J. The Story of the Doctrine and Covenants. Ensign, December 1984.
- Godfrey, Matthew C. William McLellin’s Five Questions. Revelations In Context, 3 January 2013.
- Best, Karl F. Changes in the Revelations, 1833 to 1835. Dialogue, Vol. 25, No. 1 / Spring 1992, pp. 87-112.
- Van Wagoner, Richard S. et al. The ‘Lectures on Faith’: A Case in Study in Decanonization. Dialogue Vol. 20, No. 3.
- Mormon Sunday School Podcast, Doctrine & Covenants Lesson 1: Introduction.
- The Article on Marriage: What Is (Was) It?, Wheat and Tares.