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Doctrine & Covenants: An Introduction

Doctrine & Covenants: An Introduction

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Doctrine and Covenants (D&C) is a collection of texts, mostly from Joseph Smith, that Mormons regard as modern revelations for the benefit of the restored Church. It is divided into 138 “sections,” with two “Official Declarations” (OD) appearing at the end as appendices. We may summarize the sections of D&C as follows (using the LDS Church’s own dating in D&C):

  • Harmony, PA and Fayette/Manchester, NY period, 1823-January 1831 (D&C 1-40, 133)
  • Kirtland, OH period, 1831-1837 (D&C 41-112, 134, 137)
  • Far West, MO/Nauvoo, IL period, 1838-1843 (D&C 113-32)
  • After Joseph Smith (D&C 135, 136, 138, OD 1, OD 2)

Joseph Smith is credited as the sole author of all of the sections from the first three periods with two exceptions: D&C 102 consists of council minutes written by Oliver Cowdery in 1834 and edited by Joseph; Cowdery wrote D&C 134 in 1835. The items from the post-Joseph Smith era are credited to John Taylor (135, his eulogy of Joseph in 1844), Brigham Young (136, regarding the Saints moving west in 1847), Joseph F. Smith (138, a vision of paradise in 1918), Wilford Woodruff (OD 1, regarding polygamy in 1890), and Spencer W. Kimball (OD 2, regarding admitting people of color to the LDS priesthood in 1978).

 

TABLE 1: NUMERICAL DISTRIBUTION OF REVELATIONS IN D&C

 

Joseph Smith

Others 

Years

1828

1829-33

1834-38

1839-43

1844-48

1849-present

D&C

2

99

21

12

2

3

 

The most striking thing about the history of these revelations in D&C is the disparity between the flood of new revelations that Joseph Smith received, especially in the first five years or so of his work as the LDS prophet, and the drought of new revelations incorporated into the LDS scriptures after Joseph’s death. Table 1 gives a chronological overview of the distribution of the revelations published in D&C, using five-year increments except for 1828 (when Joseph was just getting started) and for 1849 to the present. (D&C 2, which the LDS Church dates to 1823 but was unknown before about 1839, is omitted.) We include OD 1 and 2 in the table even though there are reasons to question whether these can be described as revelations (as suggested by the fact that the LDS Church appends them to D&C as “official declarations” and not as regular sections).

Mormons emphatically insist that what separates their religion from other forms of Christianity is their belief in continuing revelation. Recall their statement in chapter 9 of Gospel Principles,, “Many people find it easy to believe in the prophets of the past. But it is much greater to believe in and follow the living prophet” (42). The truth is that Mormonism is essentially a religion that follows a prophet from the past, Joseph Smith. For example, although Brigham Young ruled the LDS Church as President for more than twice as long as Joseph Smith did (1847-1877), he contributed only one short revelation to the LDS scriptures, basically giving the Mormons instructions for their westward trek (D&C 136). This is not because Brigham had nothing to say about doctrinal matters—he expounded on them constantly and had many original things to say. Yet none of his theological ideas made their way into the LDS scriptures and Mormons today generally ignore what he taught.

It is also interesting to note that D&C actually contains far less material than it did a century ago. From 1835 to 1921, D&C included the Lectures on Faith, a series of seven theology lectures with catechism-like questions and answers. These lectures, which ran some seventy pages, were part of LDS scripture during the terms of the first six presidents of the LDS Church. Indeed, they were the “doctrine” portion of Doctrine and Covenants. They were removed early in the term of the seventh president, Heber J. Grant, the first LDS president to have been born after the death of Joseph Smith. A major factor in the decision to drop Lectures on Faith was undoubtedly the fact that it did not agree doctrinally with Joseph Smith’s later teachings. Specifically, the Lectures taught that God was a personage of Spirit, Christ was a personage with a physical body, and the Holy Spirit was the mind or spirit that the Father and the Son shared. This doctrine clearly did not agree with the later view that the Father and the Son both had physical bodies and that the Holy Ghost was a third personage (of spirit). (We discussed these differences briefly in our article on Mormon Doctrine and the Trinity.)

It is in the revelations found in Doctrine and Covenants that Joseph Smith really began taking the LDS Church outside the pale of historic Christianity. Table 2 lists just a few of Joseph’s more notable revelations in D&C and offers some brief comments on them.

 

TABLE 2: NOTABLE REVELATIONS OF JOSEPH SMITH IN DOCTRINE & COVENANTS

D&C

Summary

Comment

1

(1831)

Christianity had become apostate, so the Lord called Joseph Smith to translate the Book of Mormon and establish “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth.”

The teaching that Christianity had become completely apostate so that the church would need to be restored contradicts Jesus’ promises to be with the church he founded until the end of the age (Matt. 16:18; 28:20; see also Jude 3).

10

(1828)

116 pages of Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon had been lost. Joseph claimed that the Lord revealed to him that evil people planned to alter the translation and then produce it after Joseph re-translated the same material in order to make it appear he was a false prophet. To circumvent this danger, the Lord told Joseph to translate a different set of gold plates that happened to have a parallel version of the same material he had first translated.

Joseph’s claim that the Lord told him to translate a different set of plates to avoid being exposed as a false prophet contrasts with what happened to Jeremiah when a scroll containing his prophecies was burned. Jeremiah confidently dictated the entire contents of the lost scroll to his scribe (see Jeremiah 36:22-32). Of course, the claim that a set of plates with an alternative account of the same events as the lost manuscript pages seems awfully convenient.

19

(1830)

Joseph revealed that “endless” or “eternal” punishment does not mean punishment that never ends, because “Endless” and “Eternal” are names for God; thus, these terms mean “God’s punishment.”

In the Bible, “eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46) means punishment in the “eternal fire” (verse 41) where the devil, his angels, and unrepentant people will go and never come out, also called “outer darkness” (verse 30). This is “the lake of fire” where the wicked will suffer torment “day and night forever and ever” (Revelation 20:10).

49

(1831)

Joseph rejected the claims of the Shakers, to which some Mormons were attracted, and stated that a man “should have one wife, and the twain shall be one flesh.”

Joseph’s affirmation of monogamy (a man having “one wife”) contrasts with his own practice, which began soon after this revelation, of plural marriage (polygamy).

76

(1832)

Joseph revealed that everyone will be raised from the dead and go to one of four destinations: everlasting punishment with the devil for the “sons of perdition”; faithful believers to “celestial” glory; the “terrestrial world” for those who were honorable people but not faithful believers; and the “telestial” glory where vast numbers will live forever separated from God and Christ.

The Bible consistently teaches two destinations for all people: either eternal punishment in the “outer darkness” or “lake of fire” for all the unrepentant wicked, or the “new heavens and new earth” for those who are right with God through the redemption provided by Jesus Christ (Matt. 25:30-46; John 5:28-29; Acts 24:15; 2 Thessalonians 1:7-10; Revelation 20:10-21:9).

84

(1832)

Joseph predicted that a temple would be built in Jackson County, MO, “in this generation,” before that generation would “all pass away.”

Nearly 170 years later, there is still no temple in Jackson County, MO. Mormons have come up with several explanations for this failed prophecy, none of them adequate.

87

(1832)

Joseph predicted that there would be a war between the Northern and Southern U.S. states, “beginning at the rebellion of South Carolina.” Mormons often cite this section as a fulfilled prophecy (the Civil War began in 1861 from South Carolina).

Newspaper editorials in 1832 were also speculating that such a war would come. In his prophecy, Joseph predicted three times that this war would involve “all nations”—which did not happen.

93

(1833)

Joseph offered a revelation that paraphrases what John 1:1-18 says about Jesus, including this statement: “Man was also in the beginning with God.”

God is the only being who existed in the beginning of creation (Genesis 1:1; Isaiah 44:24) and the only human being who existed before his human life was Jesus Christ (John 3:31).

107

(1835)

Joseph revealed that the LDS Church is to have two restored priesthood orders: the higher Melchizedek Priesthood authorized to serve in higher offices, and the lesser Aaronic Priesthood authorized for various ministry functions.

The Aaronic priesthood was a function of the Mosaic covenant with Israel, a covenant superseded by the new covenant in which Christ alone serves as our priest “after the order of Melchizedek,” that is, in a way that Melchizedek had typified or foreshadowed (Hebrews 6:20-8:13).

124

(1841)

Joseph revealed that the LDS were to perform baptisms for the dead in the temple, as well as other rituals (see also D&C 127, 128).

The only reference in the Bible to baptism for the dead (1 Corinthians 15:29) refers to it as a practice of heretics who denied the resurrection of the dead. It is not a biblically authorized practice.

129

(1843)

Angels are “resurrected personages” with “bodies of flesh and bone.” You can tell whether an angel is from God by shaking his hand (if you feel it, he’s an angel; if you don’t feel it, he’s the devil).

Angels are spirit beings that God created separately from humans; they do not have physical bodies (see Hebrews 1:7, 14). The idea of shaking hands with a supernatural messenger to determine if he is angel or devil is as foreign to the Bible as it is silly.

130

(1843)

The Father and the Son cannot dwell in our hearts, because they both have bodies of flesh and bones; the Holy Ghost can dwell in our hearts because he is a personage of Spirit.

The Father does not have a physical body, but is spirit (John 4:24); the Son became human as an act of humility for our salvation (Philippians 2:6-8), yet as God he can still dwell in our hearts (Ephesians 3:17).

132

(1843)

Joseph claimed that the Lord revealed to him that plural marriage (polygamy) was “a new and everlasting covenant” essential to exaltation to the highest glory in which men may become gods.

Polygamy was at best tolerated under the Mosaic covenant and was certainly never part of a path to becoming gods! Under the new covenant, Christian men are expected to be monogamous (1 Timothy 3:2, 12).

For Further Reflection

  • If continuing revelation is essential to LDS faith, why were new scriptural revelations produced so frequently by Joseph Smith while almost none has been produced since his death?
  • Are Joseph Smith’s revelations in Doctrine and Covenants consistent with the Bible?

 For Further Study

Joseph Smith’s Missouri Temple Prophecy. This detailed study examines all of the many explanations that LDS apologists have offered for Joseph’s failed prediction about a temple being built in Jackson County in his generation.