The Doctrine and Covenants: Revelations in Context
Alonzo L. Gaskill, Andrew H. Hedges, J. Spencer Fluhman
Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, and Deseret Book Company, 2008
232 pages (includes bibliographical references and index)
This volume covers the lectures presented at The 37th Annual Brigham
Young University Sidney B. Sperry Symposium, held at BYU in 2008. It
honors Dr. Sperry who was part of the school’s religious education
faculty for forty-five years, and was noted for his scholarship and
I attended the Sperry Symposium annually for the first ten or twelve
years I lived in Utah, but stopped going a few years ago when some of my
favorite presenters, like Robert J. Matthews, ceased participating or
died. My reasoning was the new crop was “upstarts,” and their
scholarship and presentations could not touch those of my favorites. So,
when the current work arrived for review, I was a little apprehensive.
It didn’t take long before I realized just how wrong I was. The current
crop of lectures is among the finest I have perused in some time.
Ten lectures are included as chapters in this collection. I will
enumerate them, and then comment on three. The chapters are: "Acceptance
of the Lord," by Elder C. Max Caldwell; "Discoveries from the Joseph Smith
Papers Project: The Early Manuscripts," by Robert J. Woodford; "One
Continuous Flow: Revelations Surrounding the 'New Translation,'" by Kerry
Muhlestein; "The Joseph Smith Revelations and the Crisis of Early
American Spirituality," by J. Spencer Fluhman; "John the Beloved in
Latter-day Scripture (D&C 7)," by Frank F. Judd, Jr. and Terry L. Szink;
"'The Laws of he Church of Christ' (D&C 42): A Textual and Historical
Analysis," by Grant Underwood; "Joseph Smith, Emanuel Swedenborg and
Section 76: Importance of the Bible in Latter-day Revelation," by J. B.
Haws; "Universalism and the Revelations of Joseph Smith," by Casey Paul
Griffiths; "Redemption’s Grand Design for Both the Living and the Dead,"
by Jennifer C. Lane; and "'All Things are the Lord’s': The Law of
Consecration in the Doctrine and Covenants," by Steven C. Harper.
The Joseph Smith Papers Project has been years in the making, and will
eventually fill about thirty volumes. One of the most anticipated parts
of the series is that dealing with the revelations. Robert Woodford’s
paper gives us a tantalizing taste of what is to come. Woodward serves
as an editor for two volumes in the Documents Series which deal with
revelations through 1833. The earliest complete manuscript of the
revelation is used, and all others will be listed as source notes. The
text also deals with variations in the text. I found it interesting
Woodford felt it necessary to state, “It is important to note that these
alterations have historic value only, and the current edition of the
Doctrine and Covenants is the only authorized text of these
As a result of research, we can now date the revelations with greater
accuracy. I found the comments regarding Section 23 (April, 1830) of
particular interest: “This section is actually a composite of five
revelations first printed in the Book of Commandments. In that book they
were dated April 6, 1830. Although that specific date was not duplicated
in later printings of section 23, it is important that we now know that
April 6 could not have been the date of reception, and what was printed
in the Book of Commandments was in error. This removes part of the basis
for the argument used by some that the location of the organization of
the Church was in Manchester, not Fayette, New York.” (29)
The final topic of the paper deals with “Linking the Revelations with
Historic Fact.” An example: “Section 20 Question: How could a revelation
written during the same month the Church was organized have information
concerning presiding elders, traveling bishops, high councilors, high
priests, presidents, high council, and bishops (verses 66-67) when those
offices were not revealed until years later?
“Answer: In editions from 1876 until 1920, there was an asterisk
preceding verse 65 with an accompanying note at the bottom of the page
that read: ‘Verses 65, 66, and 67 were added sometime after the others.’
There are no manuscript versions of section 20 that include these
verses, and the earliest version with them is in the 1835 edition of the
Doctrine and Covenants.” (32) This is truly exciting stuff.
Casey Paul Griffiths teaches seminary in Sandy, Utah. His essay,
“Universalism and the Revelations of Joseph Smith,” is a good one. He
examines the religious background of the Smith family, considers how
that background prepared Joseph for his work, and how it framed his career.
Griffiths begins with a discussion of the reactions of early Saints to D
& C Section 76, dealing with the “Three degrees of glory.” Although
Joseph and others were ecstatic over the revelation, others were not.
Brigham Young stated, “When God revealed to Joseph Smith and Sidney
Rigdon that there was a place prepared for all, according to the light
they had received and their rejection of evil and practice of good, it
was a great trial to many, and some apostatized because Gid was not
going to send to everlasting punishment heathens and infants, but had a
place of salvation, in due time, for all, and would bless the honest and
virtuous and truthful, whether they ever belonged to any church or not.
It was a new doctrine to this generation, and many stumbled at it.”
(170) Brigham also confessed, “My traditions were such, that when the
Vision first came to me, it was so directly contrary and opposed to my
former education, I said, wait a little: I did not reject it, but I
could not understand it.” (171) Joseph, himself, instructed missionaries
going to England to not mention it until a foundation for understanding
it was in place.
So, why all the fuss? Most early converts came into the Church from
what the author refers to as “heaven or hell” Protestantism. If a person
lived a good life, and accepted Jesus, he/she would go to heaven;
otherwise the individual would be condemned to hell.
Perhaps Joseph Smith had no problem in accepting the revelation because
his family had a background in Universalism which declared, “We believe
that there is one God, whose nature is Love, revealed in one Lord Jesus
Christ, by one Holy Spirit of Grace, who will finally restore the whole
family of mankind to holiness and happiness.” (172)
Asael Smith, Joseph’s grandfather, was of a philosophical bend similar
to the founder of Universalism, John Murray. Eventually, Asael settled
in Vermont where he and two of his sons, Jesse and Joseph, Sr. organized
a Universalist society in Tunbridge. Jesse ultimately became an ardent
Calvinist, while his brother remained attached to Universalism
philosophically even as he removed himself from it institutionally.
Although the Prophet’s immediate family had no formal ties to any
Universalist organization, it is probable its doctrines played a part
during his youth. It is of interest to note that Martin Harris, the
Hezekiah Peck and Joseph Knight families, all early converts to
Mormonism, were Universalists.
This review is already too long, but I am happy to suggest a study of
this paper will be of great interest to its readers.
I’ll state without reservation that J. B. Haws, “Joseph Smith, Emanuel
Swedenborg, and Section 76: Importance of the Bible in Latter-day
Revelation,” is of prime importance. Its very inclusion in this volume
is, to me, an indication of the trend towards openness in LDS historical
inquiry. Although I became aware of Swedenborg a number of years ago, I
hadn’t read any of his works. That is until I met Sam McBride of the
Swedenborg Foundation in Salt Lake City. I was introduced to him by Jeff
Needle at the Sunstone Symposium. Mr. McBride sent me on my way with an
armful of literature, and even included a very fine DVD on Helen Keller
and the influence the writings of Swedenborg had on her. I recommend the
DVD to you.
The question raised in this paper centers on what effect, in any, did
Emanuel Swedenborg’s writings have upon Joseph Smith. What did
Swedenborg teach? Did Joseph have access to those teachings? Did Joseph
“lift” Swedenborg’s concepts and adopt them as his own? Or did Joseph
Smith and the eighteenth century Swedish visionary come to similar
understandings, particularly of the concept of heaven and hell, by their
study of the Bible?
Among other things, Swedenborg taught the concept of angels without
wings, eternal marriage, and a three-tiered heaven with marriage being a
condition of admittance to the highest level. All these ideas are
familiar to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Did Joseph have access to Swedenborg’s ideas or writings? Michael Quinn
suggests Joseph could have seen some of the advertisement and sale of
Swedenborg tracts in and around Palmyra, Joseph’s boyhood home. It is an
established fact that Emma Smith and her children lived with Sarah and
John Cleveland for part of 1839 while Joseph was in jail. Although Sarah
was converted to Mormonism, her husband was a Swedenborgian. Haws
suggests Smith would certainly have become familiar with the Clevelands
after he was released from jail in Missouri, and traveled to Quincy.
(George Smith, in his recently published Nauvoo Polygamy, claims Joseph
took Sarah as a plural wife; however Todd Compton’s “In Sacred
Loneliness” does not include her as such.) Another possibility is
Joseph became aware of Swedenborg through Sidney Rigdon as Swedenborgian
evangelists were active in Pittsburgh, where Rigdon lived in the 1790’s.
Whether Sidney taught Joseph Swedenborg’s view is open to debate; what
is not debatable is Rigdon’s involvement with Section 76.
After a discussion of I Corinthians 15: 40-42 as a passage central to
Section 76, Haws finds Swedenborg never cites this passage in any of his
writings. This suggests to him that Joseph and Swedenborg came to their
understanding of the heavens independently. Although both use the term
“celestial kingdom” for the highest degree, Haws finds the term a
“common synonym for heaven in the Christian vernacular,” and feels it a
“serious stretch to see in this shared vocabulary a direct borrowing of
Swedenborgian thought in Joseph Smith’s writings.” (151) The fact that
Joseph refers to the second level as “terrestrial,” while Swedenborg
calls it “spiritual” and the term “telestial” does not appear in any of
the latter’s works is evidence that Smith’s vision was unique and not
borrowed. (I am simplifying the discussion here.) I find it interesting,
and somewhat comforting to note Haws acknowledges, “Latter-day Saints
could accept that, to a remarkable degree, Emanuel Swedenborg and Joseph
Smith both experienced actual visions of the afterlife reality.” (156) Wow!
In summary, this volume should be in the hands, and read by, serious
students of the Doctrine and Covenants and of Church history. If the
reader is looking for old, dry regurgitated arguments, he/she will need
to look elsewhere. I applaud the publication of these papers from the
recent Sperry Symposium. Rest assured I will be in attendance at the
next symposium, prepared to be challenged.