Overview of Changes to the Doctrine and Covenants
In previous overviews I've covered how Joseph Smith has made changes to his history and scriptures as his theology changed such as the evolution of the First Vision accounts, which then led to changes in the Book of Mormon. I also outlined in the priesthood restoration overview that Joseph Smith was willing to go along with Oliver Cowdery's addition of Peter, James, and John to the story to bolster his authority during a time when his credibility was being questioned by the Missouri branch of the church.
In this section I want to briefly examine some of the changes that Joseph Smith made to the Doctrine and Covenants well after they were originally recorded, and I want to briefly discuss how late some of the revelations were recorded. These changes are extremely important in understanding Joseph Smith's evolving theology as well as trying to understand how direct revelations from God could be changed so easily by Joseph as needed.
In 1833, the church printed a collection of Joseph Smith's revelations in a book known as the Book of Commandments. During the printing process, however, the mobs in Missouri destroyed the printing press and scattered the loose sheets, some of wihch were recovered by early members. This led to only a few hundred copies being bound together, which was not enough for the church membership.
This led to a new effort in 1835, when the church picked up the effort again to create a book that included all of the revelations from Joseph Smith as well as the Lectures on Faith. However, during this new effort many of the original revelations that Joseph Smith claimed to receive from God were altered, with some being changed in significant ways. The best explanation of this is from David Whitmer, who was with Joseph Smith in these early days and was aware of the process by which the revelations were changed:
"Some of the revelations as they are now in the Book of Doctrine and Covenants have been changed and added to. Some of the changes being of the greatest importance as the meaning is entirely changed on some very important matters; as if the Lord had changed his mind a few years after he gave the revelations, and after having commanded his servants (as they claim) to print them in the "Book of Commandments;" and after giving his servants a revelation, being a preface until His Book of Commandments, which says: "Behold, this is mine authority, and the authority of my servants, and my preface unto the Book of my Commandments, which I have given them to publish unto you, oh inhabitants of the earth." Also in this preface, "Behold, I am God, and have spoken it; these commandments are of me." "Search these commandments, for they are true and faithful." The revelations were printed in the Book of Commandments correctly. This I know, and will prove it to you.
These revelations were arranged for publication by Brothers Joseph Smith, Sydney Rigdon, Orson Hyde and others, in Hiram, Ohio, while I was there, were sent to Independence to be published, and were printed just exactly as they were arranged by Brother Joseph and the others. And when the Book of Commandments was printed, Joseph and the church received it as being printed correctly. This I know. In the winter of 1834 they saw that some of the revelations in the Book of Commandments had to be changed, because the heads of the church had gone too far, and had done things in which they had already gone ahead of some of the former revelations. So the book of "Doctrine and Covenants" was printed in 1835, and some of the revelations changed and added to." (Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ)
This section is crucial to understanding these problems because both church leaders and apologists have declared that the changes to the Doctrine Covenants have been mostly for grammar, spelling, or just small changes, but as we will detail here the changes not only altered the original commandments, but changed elements of church theology as well. Before we get to the changes, I want to highlight a few quotes from church leaders and writers to show how the revelations have been taught in the past:
Apostle Legrand Richards: "As far as I know there have been no changes at all in any of the revelations. If there have been any changes it would all have been fixing grammar or something like that." (Full interview)
Joseph Fielding Smith: "Inspiration is discovered in the fact that each part, as it was revealed, dovetailed perfectly with what had come before. There was no need for eliminating, changing, or adjusting any part to make it fit; but each new revelation on doctrine and priesthood fitted in its place perfectly to complete the whole structure, as it had been prepared by the Master Builder." (Doctrines of Salvation, Vol, 1, page 170)
Apostle John A. Widtsoe: "Within a few years after its organization, the Church had received practically all necessary supplementary laws and regulations. These also have remained unchanged. There has been no tampering with God's word.... the whole body of Church laws forms a harmonious unit, which does not anywhere contradict itself nor has it been found necessary to alter any part of it." (Joseph Smith—Seeker After Truth, pages 119 and 122)
Mormon writer John J. Stewart: "Several of his associates, sitting in his presence when some of the revelations were received, reported that Joseph would dictate them to a clerk at as fast and steady a pace as the clerk was able to write, maintaining an even flow of delivery, and never altering the words spoken." (Joseph Smith the Mormon Prophet, Salt Lake City, 1966, page 57)
Apostle Hugh B. Brown: "None of the early revelations of the Church have been revised, and the Doctrine and Covenants stands as printed including sections 5 and 7. These two sections and some others are addressed directly to certain individuals, but there are lessons in them for all of us, and therefore they have not been deleted." (1966 Letter to Morris L. Reynolds)
Please keep these quotes in mind as you read the sections below. There are many other quotes like this, but the bottom line is that these revelations were recorded as being directly from God before many crucial parts were changed to fit Joseph's evolving church doctrine. More recent apologists such as Hugh Nibley have claimed that "Revelations have been revised whenever necessary. That is the nice thing about revelation—it is strictly open-ended," but that comes out of necessity because source materials are so much more accessible today. David Whitmer, as cited below, details how the commandments were both received and changed, and why these chanegs can't be reconciled with the history and process that Joseph Smith claimed to receive revelation.
It also needs to be noted that a lot of this research (and the photos of the changes) were compiled by Jerald and Sandra Tanner, former Mormons who were considered anti-Mormon before many of these research topics were verified by the church through the essays and other admissions as the historical record became more readily available. Their work brought forth a lot of important details about church history, and without their hard work it is possible we would not even have the 1832 First Vision account. Thank you to the Tanners for uncovering some very difficult truths and spending decades fighting anti-Mormon charges for their work that was later proven to be almost entirely correct. I will link to their work at the bottom in the resources section, but the images below that outline the changes to Joseph Smith's revelations are from their website.
Overview of Key Changes to Joseph Smith's Revelations:
I Will Grant Him No Other Gift (D&C 5)
After completing the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith was to be done with creating scriptures by the very word of God. In a revelation from March 1829, Joseph is told: "...and he has a gift to translate the book, and I have commanded him that he shall pretend to no other gift, for I will grant him no other gift." (Book of Commandments as chapter 4. Verse 2)
David Whitmer confirms this revelation and the events surrounding it: "After the translation of the Book of Mormon was finished, early in the spring of 1830, before April 6th, Joseph gave the stone to Oliver Cowdery and told me as well as the rest that he was through with it, and he did not use the stone any more. He said he was through the work that God had given him the gift to perform, except to preach the gospel. He told us that we would all have to depend on the Holy Ghost hereafter to be guided into truth and obtain the will of the Lord. (An Address To All Believers In Christ, Richmond, Missouri, 1887, page 32)
However, Joseph Smith contradicted this revelation by "translating" the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, recordin numerous amounts of revelations, and later creating the Book of Abraham. Because of this, the revelation needed to be changed so that Joseph Smith could 'pretend to another gift.' The revelation was thus changed to the following:
"And you have a gift to translate the plates; and this is the first gift that I bestowed upon you; and I have commanded that you should pretend to no other gift, until my purpose is fulfilled in this; for I will grant unto you no other gift until it is finished." (Doctrine and Covenants, Section 5, verse 4)
This, of course, completely changes the meaning of the revelation from God that was recorded in 1829, and as we will note in these pages, the change is very beneficial to Joseph Smith. David Whitmer noted this change in the following way:
"As if God had commanded Joseph to pretend to no other gift but to translate the Book of Mormon, that he would "grant him no other gift," and then afterwards God had changed his mind and concluded to grant him another gift. God does not change and work in this manner. The way the revelation has been changed, twenty two words being added to it, it would appear that God had broken His word after giving His word in plainness; commanding Brother Joseph to pretend to no other gift but to translate the Book of Mormon, and then the Lord had changed and concluded to grant Joseph the gift of a Seer to the Church."
It is difficult to understand why God would change his mind so quickly after Joseph Smith recorded the initial revelation, but the obvious answer is that Joseph Smith decided to take his work beyond the Book of Mormon and needed to change the supposed revelation in order to make it work. These are both church sources above - we are not taking anything out of context or doing anything "anti-Mormon." These are directly from the historical record.
One final note that ties together this revelation and David Whitmer's comments about the changes is to refer back to the Lost 116 Pages. We are told by the church that God knew the original manuscript would be lost to the point where God had a second set of plates preserved thousands of years earlier to fill this gap in the records, yet God didn't realize in this revelation that He would be asking Joseph Smith to perform more works beyond the Book of Mormon just a few months later? As I've said in many of the overviews, these are the logical problems that you have to answer in order to make this plausible, but if you evaluate this claim like you would the claims of any othrer religious leader, it's pretty obvious that they are the creations of Joseph Smith.
Concerning (the Foundation of) My Church (D&C 18)
In June 1829, Joseph Smith claimed a revelation through the seer stone regarding the formation of the church. The part of the original revelation that is the focus here is as follows:
"Behold I give unto you a commandment, that you rely upon the things which are written; for in them are all things written, CONCERNING MY CHURCH, MY GOSPEL, AND MY ROCK. Wherefore if you shall build up my church, and my gospel, and my rock, the gates of hell shall not prevail against you." (Chapter 15 Book of Commandments)
In this revelation the "in them" phrase refers to the gold plates, but the problem is that the Book of Mormon did not discuss a lot of the additions to the church that Joseph Smith had been making since the Book of Mormon was finished. There, Joseph Smith ran into a problem where he could not keep the original revelation the same and continue to alter/add new positions to the church that were not already in the scriptures.
To reconcile this problem, Joseph Smith changed the word of God that was given through the seer stone (a tight translation as we discussed earlier) by adding three words that would give him the authority to create new positions in the church: "the foundation of." The newly edited revelation now reads as follows:
"Behold I give unto you a commandment, that you rely upon the things which are written; for in them are all things written, concerning the foundation of my church, my gospel, and my rock; wherefore, if you shall build up my church upon the foundation of' my gospel and my rock, the gates of hell shall not prevail against you." (D&C 18)
David Whitmer again sums up the problem with this change to the revelation in his address:
"These changes were made by the leaders of the church, who had drifted into error and spiritual blindness. Through the influence of Sydney Rigdon, Brother Joseph was led on and on into receiving revelations every year, to establish offices and doctrines which are not even mentioned in the teachings of Christ in the written word. In a few years they had gone away ahead of the written word, so that they had to change these revelations, as you will understand when I have finished.
That quote is very important, because it was Sidney Rigdon who brought the concept of the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods to Joseph, which leads us to our next big D&C change:
The Priesthood Restoration (D&C 20 and 27)
This is a revelation we go into much more detail in our overview on the priesthood restoration, but I want to highlight it on this page as well. When Joseph Smith originally published the restoration of the priesthood, there as no mention of John the Baptist being there nor were there any mentions of the Aaronic or Melchizedek priesthoods. Those ideas did not come around until Sidney Rigdon brought them over as part of the Campbellite branch of ministers.
Once Rigdon brought those ideas over, Joseph Smith began using them shortly afterwards, but they still do not appear until the revelation was changed in 1835. When Joseph Smith was ordained to the higher priesthood in 1831 (another big difference from official history), it was still referred to as the 'high priesthood.'
In order to account for this evolving theology, Joseph Smith had to drastically alter not one but two different revelations. We are going to put the images of both below and highly encourage you to read our overview on the priesthood restoration. These two pages very clearly demonstrate how Joseph Smith retrofitted these revelations to fit his new beliefs on the priesthood, which are a massive problem for the credibility of Joseph Smith as a prophet of God.
The bottom line is that not only was the story of Peter, James, and John not original to Joseph and Oliver's story of the priesthood restoration, but the very revelation that claims this story was retrofitted to include the story that Oliver introduced in 1834 when Joseph's authority was being challenged.
Beyond this, Joseph Smith also makes a significant change to elevate his authority in the church to be unmatched. Until 1835, both Joseph Smith and Olivery Cowdery were referred to as elders in the church. The Book of Commandments states the following:
3 Which commandments were given to Joseph, who was called of God and ordained an apostle of Jesus Christ, an elder of this church;
4 And also to Oliver [Cowdery], who was called of God an apostle of Jesus Christ, an elder of this church, and ordained under his hand (Book of Commandments, Chapter 24)
Now compare these two verses to the altered version of the revelation that is now Doctrine and Covenants 20:
2 Which commandments were given to Joseph Smith, Jun., who was called of God, and ordained an apostle of Jesus Christ, to be the first elder of this church;
3 And to Oliver Cowdery, who was also called of God, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to be the second elder of this church, and ordained under his hand (D&C 20)
As I mentioned above, this revelation was altered as Joseph Smith was facing intense scrutiny from the church which required him to elevate his authority to be unmatched. These changes above might seem small, but Joseph Smith is altering a revelation from God in order to consolidate and elevate his authority, which is another element of the First Vision account being a late addition to Joseph Smith's history as well. Please read our overview on the priesthood restoration and then look at how much Joseph Smith changed below in these images.
Polygamy/Plural Marriage (D&C 101:4 from Original Doctrine and Covenants)
One of the most drastic changes in the Doctrine and Covenants came with polygamy/plural marriage. Joseph Smith entered a revelation in D&C 101 that included the following:
"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 the case of death, when either is at liberty to marry again." (D&C 101:4)
Now keep in mind that Joseph Smith did not personally write this section of the D&C, but this statement was produced after he was under scrutiny for his sexual relationship with Fanny Alger. While Joseph Smith did not personally write the section (or claim to receive it via revelation), he did include it in the first Doctrine and Covenants in 1835. Those issues are all covered in-depth in our polygamy overviews. and are very important to understanding the history behind these sections in the D&C. You can also see this revelation posted in the Times and Season here.
However, Joseph Smith could not keep this section in the Doctrine and Covenants and also continue to marry and have sexual relations with other women, so he dictated what is now known as D&C 132 in 1843. Instead of changing D&C 101:4 as he did with other revelations, he create an entirely new revelation which was necessary in order to properly lay out the very clear and distinct rules for polygamy/plural marriage, as well as offer warnings to the wives of the Saints (in particular Joseph's first wife Emma) who did not agree to let their husbands take additional wives that they would be destroyed for not approving.
In our polygamy overviews you can read about how Joseph Smith was able to dictate this revelation without the aid of the seer/peep stone, and how it impacts the church to this day as the "new and everlasting covenant." In my opinion it is a great example of how Joseph Smith was able to write revelation to benefit himself and to use the voice of God to get those around him to fulfill his desires. We've also written a blog post about how D&C 132 came to be, which is really crucial in understanding how Joseph produced revelations especially compared to prophets after him.
The church removed D&C 101:4 from their canonized scriptures in 1876, because it was clearly at odds with D&C 132. One last note in this section is that the church has changed the header to D&C 132 in order to give some wiggle room to Joseph Smith having already been married to other women long before the revelation was recorded. They changed the heading to note that Joseph had been thinking about this revelation since 1831, which is a very deceptive statement: The history tells us that the only mentions of polygamy going back to 1831 were for missionaries to marry who they thought were the Lamanites (Native Americans), so that they could turn their children whiter and more delightsome: "[I]t is my will, that in time, ye should take unto you wives of the Lamanites and Nephites, that their posterity may become white, delightsome, and Just, for even now their females are more virtuous than the gentiles."
Consecrate All of Your Property to the Church (D&C 42)
In the Book of Commandments chapter 44, Saints are commanded to consecrate all of their properties to the church. This was likely a revelation that was brought forward from Sidney Rigdon, as his Campbellite branch lived in a more 'communistic' order, and Joseph Smith possibly sought to adapt that concept as well.
However, Joseph later changed this revelation from "consecrate all" to "consecrate of" in D&C 42, which of course completely changes the meaning of the revelation. This change was made after charges that the church was being run in a communistic/socialistic manner. Fawn Brodie (former LDS member) wrote that "Joseph's enthusiasm for the United Order was always tempered by the fact that it was Rigdon's conception." (No Man Knows My History, page 108) You can see the changes to this revelation below.
A Sprout, a Rod, or the Gift of Aaron? (D&C 8)
Oliver Cowdery was a co-founder of the church, and just like Joseph Smith had a background in magic. While Joseph Smith used his seer stone to look for buried treasure, Oliver Cowdery used a diving rod This is a revelation that actually changed multiple times as outlined below:
Original commandment: "remember this is thy gift now this is not all for thou hast another gift which is the gift of working with the sprout Behold it hath told you things Behold there is no other power save God that can cause this thing of Nature to work in your hands" (Joseph Smith Papers)
Book of Commandments 7:3: "Now this is not all, for you have another gift, which is the gift of working with the rod: behold it has told you things: behold there is no other power save God, that can cause this rod of nature, to work in your hands, for it is the work of God."
Doctrine and Covenants 8:6-8: "Now this is not all thy gift; for you have another gift, which is the gift of Aaron; behold, it has told you many things; Behold, there is no other power, save the power of God, that can cause this gift of Aaron to be with you. Therefore, doubt not, for it is the gift of God; and you shall hold it in your hands, and do marvelous works; and no power shall be able to take it away out of your hands, for it is the work of God."
These are incredibly significant changes, and also follows the attempts to normalize Joseph's use of a 'seer stone' to translate the Book of Mormon by calling it the Urim and Thummim. After the Book of Mormon times, the church sought to avoid discussing the magic elements that Joseph and Oliver used to bring forth the Book of Mormon, and as such changed the revelation from a sprout to a rod of nature to the gift of Aaron.
Marvin S. Hill, an assistant professor of history at BYU, even admitted that "when Oliver Cowdery took up his duties as a scribe for Joseph Smith in 1829 he had a rod in his possession which Joseph Smith sanctioned." (Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Winter 1972, p.78) Marvin Hill takes that even further when he states: "Some of the rodsmen or money diggers who moved into Mormonism were Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, Orrin P. Rockwell, Joseph and Newel Knight, and Josiah Stowell." It is worth noting that Joseph Smith and two of the three witnesses were known as rodsmen, treasure seekers, or money diggers.
A picture of a divining rod along with the changes to the D&C can be seen below.
Adding in New Church Positions (D&C 20)
This next change comes from chapter 24 of the Book of Commandments. David Whitmer discussed these changes as follows:
"The heading over it in the Book of Commandments is as follows: "The Articles and Covenants of the Church of Christ, given in Fayette, New York, June, 1830." Two paragraphs have been added to it, having been thrust into the middle of it. Paragraphs 16 and 17 is the part added, [verses 65-67 in current Utah Ed.] which part speaks of high priests and other high offices that the church never knew of until almost two years after its beginning: As if God had made a mistake in the first organization of the church, and left out these high important offices which are all above an elder; and as if God had made a mistake and left these high offices out of that revelation when it was first given. Oh the weakness and blindness of man!" (An Address To All Believers In Christ, page 59)
Again, Joseph Smith changed the revelations as his theology and needs changed. As Joseph Smith was challenged by early church members, he evolved the priesthood restoratino to delineate between the high priesthood and lower (Aaronic) priesthood. An apologetic response is that God reveals his word line by line, precept upon precept. Occam's Razor would tell us that the most likely explanation is that Joseph Smith, being the author of these revelations, took liberties to change them as needed, knowing that members would listen to revelations from God more than changes from Joseph Smith. The changes are outlined below:
Emma Smith to be Supported 'From' or 'In' the Church? (D&C 25)
In the Book of Commandments, chapter 26 states that Emma Smith would be supported from the church. When the revelation was changed for the Doctrine and Covenants, the wording was changed to Emma being supported in the church. (D&C 25)
This is one of the smaller changes in the D&C, although it is noteworthy that Joseph adds a disclaimer to the beginning of the blessing to note that Emma will receive this "if thou art faithful and walk in the paths of virtue before me, I will preserve thy life, and thou shalt receive an inheritance in Zion."
The change of language from being supported "from" the church as opposed to "in" the church is more significant in that the church has always found paid ministry to be an abomination, so the change was necessary to say that Emma was not being supported in any way financially because Joseph Smith was the founder. The church has paid leaders over the years, but has always been very careful to avoid calling it a salary because of the opposition to paid ministry from other churches.
The Parchment of John (D&C 7)
As a quick last example, I want to revisit D&C 7, which is a revelation where Joseph Smith is translating a lost parchment from John the Beloved through his seer/peep stone. This arises during the Book of Mormon translation, as they have a question about whether John the Beloved 'tarried in the flesh or died.'
What is fascinating about this revelation is that Joseph Smith claims to see the parchment with the seer/peep stone (they call it the Urim and Thummim, but we've covered before that they retrofitted that term to make Joseph Smith's treasuring digging stone seem more normalized), and he translates the writing directly off the parchment.
However, when the revelation is revised prior to the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants, Joseph Smith expands the text of the revelation from 143 words to 252 words - almost doubling the text. This is a problem beacuse with this particular revelation not only is it a "tight translation," but it's being translated directly off parchment. How could Joseph Smith make such vast changes to it in 1835 when he had already translated the parchment through the seer/peep stone?
This is a very clear example of how Joseph Smith made changes as he saw fit, and in this case some of the changes are designed to fit Joseph's later story on the priesthood restoration. In the changed text, Joseph Smith adds the following text:
"And I will make thee to minister for him and for thy brother James; and unto you three [Peter, James, and John] I will give this power and the keys of this ministry until I come." (D&C 7:7)
This addition fits directly with the priesthood restoration story that Oliver Cowdery first creates in 1835 and then Joseph Smith retrofits into D&C 27. As I've said repeatedly in these overviews, these changes cannot be taken in isolation, but need to be viewed in totality. Here Joseph Smith is altering a direct translation from a parchment written by John the Beloved to match the new story of the priesthood restoration in D&C 27. This is no small detail, but a massive fingerprint showing that Joseph Smith is the author of these texts, and he is making these changes out of necessity to correlate his evolving history and beliefs.
Apologetic Responses and Conclusion
I’ve highlighted in previous overviews how Joseph Smith was willing to change the words of God as necessary to fit his later evolution in theology, so the changes to his claimed revelations should be no surprise if you’ve been reading these overviews in order. With that said, some of the changes to the revelations from God are quite significant, so that forces us to address what revelation is and what the changes tell us about these revelations from Joseph Smith.
As I outlined above, for the most part the church does not readily admit that Joseph Smith altered revelations, but much like changes to the Book of Mormon they contend the changes were merely limited to grammar or scribal errors. This is clearly not the case as can be seen just by looking at the examples given above.
I want to quickly cover some of the apologetics that go beyond quotes from the leaders of the church itself, because these are important not just to the revelations, but to the scriptures that Joseph Smith was responsible for as well.
B.H. Roberts suggested that changes to the revelations were made to adapt the text so that the revelations would apply to newly added positions in the church that were not developed when the revelations were originally recorded. In his words:
“Some of the early revelations first published in the “Book of Commandments,” in 1833, were revised by the Prophet himself in the way of correcting errors made by the scribes and publishers; and some additional clauses were inserted to throw increased light upon the subjects treated in the revelations, and paragraphs added, to make the principles for instructions apply to officers not in the Church at the time some of the earlier revelations were given. The addition of verses 65, 66, and 67 in sec. XX of the Doctrine and Covenants is an example.” (Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 1:173, note)
This explains a few of the changes, but it doesn’t answer most of what is outlined above. We can see that the changes are not the result of errors from scribes or initial publishing due to the vast additions that Joseph Smith made to many revelations, and just a few of these changes were actually due to additional church offices being added.
Much like the “tight vs loose translation” overview, this is where we fall into the problem where an apologetic argument that seeks to resolve one of these problems leaves many others unsolved. If one wants to argue that Joseph Smith is correcting errors as so many have claimed, they have to explain why the changes to some of these revelations are not just adding large swaths of text, but substantially changing the meanings of the revelations in the process.
Furthermore if Roberts wants to argue that beyond the scribal errors Joseph Smith was adjusting to the new officers in the church, he then has to explain not just why those officers weren’t revealed in the original revelations, but why so many of the other changes benefit Joseph Smith’s historical story and authority as the sole spokesman for God.
The other problem, which again mirrors the tight vs loose translation debate, is that we have accounts of these revelations that make clear that Joseph Smith was channeling the words of God through his seer/peep stone. While grammatical changes of course will always happen, lengthy additions or substantial changes should not be occurring. Parley P. Pratt explains Joseph Smith’s revelations in the following way:
“After we had joined in prayer in the 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 an 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.)” (Pratt 1874, 65-66)
This is the same problem we run into with the Book of Mormon issues – there are too many accounts that tell us the process was a tight translation, but the problems within these texts require a loose translation to even make them plausible as being from God. This line of thought has led to the apologetic response that I discussed in the priesthood restoration, which is the idea that Joseph Smith would alter and expand revelations as his understanding grew.
Faithful historian and church patriarch Richard Bushman explained it in the following way:
“He revised his own revelations, adding new material and splicing one to another, altering the wording as he saw fit. He felt authorized to expand the revelations as his understanding expanded...Joseph once said that Methodists 'have creeds which a man must believe or be kicked out of the church. I want the liberty to believe as I please, it feels so good not to be trammeled. Revelation meant freedom to Joseph, freedom to expand his mind through time and space, seeking truth wherever it might be...The balance between freedom and control makes it difficult to keep Mormonism in focus. Was it authoritarian or anarchic, disciplined or unbound? The printed word of God constituted a doctrinal authority that at the same time was open-ended, allowing visionary freedom to Joseph's successors after his death.” (Rough Stone Rolling)
I highlighted this quote in the priesthood restoration overview because this is a very important apologetic response. On one hand, it allows Joseph Smith as a self-proclaimed prophet to alter the words of God as needed to fit his evolving theology. On the other hand, it is indistinguishable from outright fraud.
As I’ve repeatedly mentioned in the previous overviews, while these problems with Joseph Smith’s texts are not all the same, there are common threads that tie them together. Starting with Joseph’s involvement with treasure digging to the story of the gold plates to the issues with the translation process, every apologetic response implicitly allows for the possibility that Joseph Smith made it up.
This expansion model has been detailed by Blake Ostler, and he explains the process in a similar manner to Bushman:
“The model of revelation I propose here is that of creative co-participation. It seems to me that the Book of Mormon makes most sense if it is seen as both a revelation to Joseph Smith and as Joseph's expansions of the text. This view requires a theology of revelation focusing on interpretation inherent in human experience. This view is grounded in two fundamental premises: (1) There can be no revelation without human experience and, (2) there can be no human experience without interpretation. According to this view, revelation is continuing, dynamic, and incomplete. It results from free human response to God.” (Ostler, "The Book of Mormon as Modern Expansion of an Ancient Source."DIALOGUE 20 (Spring 1987): p. 66-123)
While Ostler here is referring specifically to the Book of Mormon, the same process of changing the words of God is applicable to the Doctrine and Covenants as well. Again, this is an apologetic that arises out of necessity and, while it might appear to resolve a few of the problems it addresses, it leaves many other problems unanswered.
Furthermore, this idea of expansion requires there to be an ancient core to the Book of Mormon or, in the case of the revelations, a foundation to the text that is consistent and accurate. As I outline extensively in the Book of Mormon overviews, every aspect of the text is based off the King James Bible with surrounding influences of the 1820s creating key storylines and themes. If there is an ancient core that Joseph Smith is expanding from, it is not one that I’ve seen isolated by scholars that Joseph Smith expanded the text from.
With the Doctrine and Covenants, the revelations tend to almost exclusively benefit Joseph Smith, whether it’s getting members to listen to his commandments in the voice of God such as getting Martin Harris to fund the Book of Mormon, getting Nancy Marinda Hyde to “hearken to the counsel of my servant Joseph in all things whatsoever he shall teach unto her” which leads her to recruit new polygamy wives for him, or telling his wife Emma to accept polygamy or be “destroyed.”
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard when looking at the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, or church history is to simply view them as you would any other book, religious figure, or church. When you read these changes in the context of both when and how Joseph made them, what is the most logical conclusion?
Just like the evolution of the First Vision accounts, the changes to the revelations track with the changes in Joseph Smith’s personal theology and needs. While the apologetic response is that these changes were minor, as I outlined above there are significant changes to the revelations that cannot be explained by the errors of scribes or understanding.
These issues are not isolated, but part of a pattern that weaves through the Book of Mormon, Book of Abraham, and Doctrine and Covenants. As I’ve stated often in these overviews, these problems need to be viewed in totality to understand that they are not just small details in isolation, but are patterns that show Joseph Smith’s fingerprints throughout his works. If any other religious leader was knowingly changing the revelations he claimed were from God, what would your reaction to their claim as a prophet be?
I understand these are difficult issues and I know how excruciatingly tough it is to be open to the possibility that the church is not what it claims to be, but these changes are historical record and are not “anti-Mormon” fabrications. Furthermore, as I outlined with both the First Vision and priesthood overviews, these changes parallel Joseph’s evolving ideas and contemporary needs.
While we can always “fill in the gaps” of the story with a divine intervention, the reality is that to resolve the problems with God’s revelations being changed, we have to not just accept, but believe that God was either not clear with Joseph Smith when they were originally given or that God intentionally left out important material, that God did not correct Joseph when they compiled the revelations into the Book of Commandments, but that God finally gave Joseph Smith the fullness of these revelations shortly after for the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants.
On the other hand, from a critical viewpoint the scenario is much less complicated to explain. Joseph Smith had been producing revelations as needed since he began translating the Book of Mormon, knew that they were going to compile all of them for a book that every member of the church would have access to, and needed to correlate what he originally stated with what they were currently practicing. Thus Joseph Smith changed revelations to update to his current theology, added in the story of Peter, James, and John after Oliver introduced the story in 1834, and added text to the original revelations that would bolster his authority as the sole prophet of God.
These changes are a problem, and Elder Boyd K. Packer addressed them in the April 1974 General Conference in the following way:
“Some have alleged that these books of revelation are false, and they place in evidence changes that have occurred in the texts of these scriptures since their original publication. They cite these changes, of which there are many examples, as though they themselves were announcing revelation. As though they were the only ones that knew of them.
Of course there have been changes and corrections. Anyone who has done even limited research knows that. When properly reviewed, such corrections become a testimony for, not against, the truth of the books.
The Prophet Joseph Smith was an unschooled farm boy. To read some of his early letters in the original shows him to be somewhat unpolished in spelling and grammar and in expression.
That the revelations came through him in any form of literary refinement is nothing short of a miracle. That some perfecting should continue strengthens my respect for them.
Now, I add with emphasis that such changes have been basically minor refinements in grammar, expression, punctuation, clarification. Nothing fundamental has been altered.” (Boyd K. Packer, "We Believe All That God Has Revealed," Ensign May 1974, p. 93)
I’m writing this overview in 2021 as the Come Follow Me manual is focused on the Doctrine and Covenants, and I guarantee that they are still teaching closer to Elder Packer’s dishonest talk at General Conference that these are minor changes (if they mention changes at all) compared to the historical record that shows Joseph Smith absolutely did make “fundamental” alterations to his claimed revelations from God.
Before I end I also want to revisit a quote from a 1966 letter written by Apostle Hugh B. Brown that I cited at the beginning:
"None of the early revelations of the Church have been revised, and the Doctrine and Covenants stands as printed including sections 5 and 7. These two sections and some others are addressed directly to certain individuals, but there are lessons in them for all of us, and therefore they have not been deleted." (1966 Letter to Morris L. Reynolds)
The fact is Brown's statement here is a complete lie. Not only have early revelations been revised, but D&C 5 and 7 are both outlined above detailing just how much they were revised to the point of changing the meaning of parts of the revelation. While a charitable view of Brown's letter is that he simply did not know he was lying, the fact is that the church continually teaches a narrative that is not true, and when they are pushed on it they demonize the doubter before they are willing to actually deal with the problems at hand.
Furthermore, D&C 7 is a great example of how Joseph Smith claimed revelations from God to answer any question whether it was about a Bible question or an issue with a specific member of the church. Joseph Smith could even get revelations on which young women in the church were commanded to marry him, and yet the current church today cannot get revelations on any of the problematic parts of their doctrines and history? Wouldn't it be great if a modern leader could give a revelation on why the Book of Abraham translation is completely wrong, why the church's scriptures say dark skin is a curse from God, or why the Masonic ceremony is not the ancient endowment as taught by early church leaders?
The reason is obvious, and it is because Joseph Smith had no problem speaking in the voice of God as needed, where leaders since have never been able to replicate Joseph's works whether it's because they know they would be lying about receiving these revelations or because they simply do not receive any revelation from God.
Like I’ve now said in multiple sections: Treat these problems like you would any other text, religious leader, or church. The moment we stop privileging Joseph Smith against the evidence, it becomes clear that he is the sole author of these texts, and that his fingerprints are all over them in both the way they were written, the material he used, and the errors he created in the process.
Thank you so much for following along with me on these overviews, and now it is time to move to the other major scripture created by Joseph Smith in his lifetime: The Book of Abraham.
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Next section: The Book of Abraham Overview, Part 1: The Translation