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The Joseph Smith Papers: Revelations and Translation, Vol. 1: Manuscript Revelation Books
by Joseph Smith, Jr., Dean Jessee (Editor)
Reviewed by Jeff Needle
27/10/2009 9:06:36 AM
Reviewed by Joe Geisner, with additional comments by Jeffrey Needle

The latest volume from the Joseph Smith Papers project, “Revelations and Translations,” has created quite a buzz in the Mormon historical community. Numerous articles in the Church News, Deseret News, Mormon Times, Salt Lake Tribune and The Ensign have covered the publication of the volume. The next issue of BYU Studies will publish the papers presented at the Mormon History Association conference this last May about this volume. Many blogs have posted interviews with editors or presented reviews of the volume. The reason for all the excitement is manifold. The book is a beautiful example of printing. It provides Mormons with some of the earliest records of the church, and the contents of pages 8-405 are being made available for the first time with this publication.
This volume consists of two revelation books recorded by scribes employed by the Prophet Joseph Smith. The manuscript books cover the years 1828 to 1834, which is a large percentage of Smith’s revelations.

This new volume may be the crown jewel of the thirty plus projected volumes. In this volume of “Revelations and Translations” the reader will find the raw manuscripts of one hundred and nine items in Revelation Book 1 and fifty three items in Revelation Book 2. The volume has two parts: the Book of Commandments and Revelations is designated Revelation Book 1, and the Kirtland Revelations Book is designated Revelation Book 2. The volume has a series introduction, a volume introduction and each Revelation Book has an introduction. Each page of the two revelation books is reproduced in a color photograph on glossy paper. The facing page has a printed line-for-line, matching typescript. Changes found in the manuscript are color coded to the name of the person making the changes for easy identification.

The importance of these manuscript books can be illustrated with a letter written by Joseph Smith and the revelations themselves. On July 31, 1832 Joseph Smith wrote a letter to W. W. Phelps warning and instructing Phelps: “I will exhort you to be careful not to alter the sense of any of them for he that adds or diminishes to the prop[h]ecies must come under the condemnation writen therein.” The manuscripts themselves declare these are the words of Jesus Christ and they are not to be tampered with: “Behold, and lo, these are the words of Alpha and Omega, even Jesus Christ. Amen” (D&C 81:7), “listen to the words of Jesus Christ, your Lord and your Redeemer” (D&C 15:1) and “These sayings are true and faithful: wherefore transgress them not, neither take therefrom” (D&C 68:34). The preface to the Book of Commandments, itself a revelation, on page 223 in Revelation book 1, declares the published volume of these manuscripts is the Lord’s and his servants’ authority and those “who go forth bearing these tidings unto the Inhabitants of the Earth to them is power given to seal both on Earth & in Heaven.” This new volume contains these sacred writings.

Exploring the manuscripts makes us feel like we have become an ancient manuscript hunter or leaped into a Dan Brown novel. The volume provides us with all kinds of avenues to take; research, critical text evaluation, theological development, historical context and understanding the revelatory process.

Some revelations are recorded in both Revelation Book 1 and Revelation Book 2 like sections 76 and 78. This allows us to compare changes and theological developments. Section 78 is found in manuscript in both revelation books, and can also be found in manuscript in the Newel K. Whitney collection. This last manuscript could be the earliest manuscript of the three. Quite a number of changes occurred in section 78 when it was published in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants. The text about “Michael your prince” and “Adam ondi-Ahman” were additions to the revelation after these manuscripts were made. Section 76 is one of the most popular theological teachings for Mormons and is commonly called “The Vision.” Though neither manuscript is the original recording of the vision, they allow us to get as close to the original as is possible. There is debate as to which of these two manuscripts is the earliest.

With the publication of this volume we have the earliest wording for the “Testimony of Witnesses” for the revelations of Joseph Smith, much like the testimonies for the Book of Mormon. The testimony is found on page 215 and titled “73 Revelation,” with the editors suggesting it was given about November 1, 1831. The testimony is signed by thirteen priesthood holders, most signing after November 1831. John Whitmer copied five additional names on to the testimony manuscript. It is interesting to note that none of the eleven witnesses of the Book of Mormon sign this testimony document. Some of the witnesses —Joseph Smith Sr., Hyrum Smith, Martin Harris, Hiram Page and Samuel Smith — were not in attendance for the meetings in November 1831 when this revelation was recorded. Other Book of Mormon witnesses — Peter Whitmer Jr, Christian Whitmer, David Whitmer, John Whitmer and Oliver Cowdery — were in attendance for these November meetings, but did not sign the testimony. Why these Book of Mormon witness names are missing from this testimony is an area that needs further study. The 1835 Doctrine and Covenants page 255 also contains this revelation but it is called “the written Testimony of the Twelve” for the Doctrine and Covenants. The revelation can also be found in Dean Jessee’s “The Papers of Joseph Smith,” volume 1, page 367-368. This manuscript version has some ten words missing from the manuscript found in Revelation Book 1. Having this testimony manuscript available allows us to see its original intent and how it was later used by Smith and the church.

The volume gives us an appreciation for the accuracy of Ezra Booth’s letters that Ira Eddy published in the Ohio Star. Booth wrote these letters from September 12, 1831 to December 6, 1831. Booth gives a brief history and some details about the early church not usually found in other works. In one of Booth’s letters he writes, ”I have in my possession the ‘27th commandment to Emma my daughter in Zion;’” and in Revelation Book 1 page 38-39 John Whitmer has written “27th Commandment A Revelation to Emma.” People had always wondered what Booth meant by “27th commandment” and now we know the reason he used this phrase. Another more substantial comparison can be found with Doctrine and Covenants section 28. This section is Book of Commandments Ch. 30 and in Revelation Book 1 page 51-53. If you compare this document with the Book of Commandments and the "Ezra Booth letter," Ohio Star December 8, 1831, you discover some very important differences. The manuscript in Revelation Book 1 provides us with the source for these changes found in the Book of Commandments. Sidney Rigdon is the person who went through the manuscript and made changes for its publication in the Book of Commandments. One of the important changes Rigdon makes is identifying the place for the city of Zion. The original revelation has "among the Lamanites"; the Rigdon change found in the Book of Commandments has it "on the borders by the Lamanites." Booth’s letter has the original wording found in the manuscript. This does not mean Booth copied the revelation from Revelation Book 1. Revelation Book 1 has an error John Whitmer made in copying the revelation; Booth’s copy found in his letter does not contain this error.

I think it is important to put this new volume in perspective. One of the manuscript books, Revelation Book 1, has been housed in the First Presidency vault or collection since Joseph Fielding Smith became church president in 1970. According to the introduction, Smith may have known about the manuscript book as early as 1907. Church authorities like B.H. Roberts who worked in the historian’s office and wrote extensively on church history had no knowledge of this manuscript book. From the beginning of the twentieth century to about 2005 the importance of this manuscript book and the information contained therein have been unknown to the church leadership, its historians and scholars studying the texts of Joseph Smith’s revelations.

For years historians have believed a manuscript collection or manuscript book existed for the publishing of the Book of Commandments. This collection was believed to have been written and organized in November 1831 at Hiram Ohio. When Revelation Book 1 was first announced last year, many people came to the conclusion this must be the manuscript collection for the Book of Commandments. Internal evidence in the manuscript book itself shows it was used for the publication of the Book of Commandments. The editors of this volume have concluded the book was not intended as the manuscript book for the Book of Commandments publication. Revelation Book 1 was actually created and maintained as part of John Whitmer’s church calling. John Whitmer was called to be Church Historian on March 8, 1831. In response to his calling, Whitmer began copying Smith revelations into the manuscript book. When Whitmer and Cowdery were called at the conference of November 1831 to publish Smith’s revelations, it was decided to use the manuscript book Whitmer had created for his calling as church historian. This is an example of how the publication of this important volume is providing new historical evidence that completely changes the way we thought events occurred.

In the last few years we have seen an avalanche of primary source books published. This volume fits quite well with books like; “Early Patriarchal Blessings,” “Personal Writings of Joseph Smith,” “Wilford Woodruff’s Journals,” “Far West Record,” “Kirtland Council Minute Book,” “The Nauvoo Endowment Companies,” and “Words of Joseph Smith.” All of the forgoing publications provide us with the various types of documents that help us understand our rich history. This new volume will help us understand those first critical years of the church’s infancy. This book provides documents for a period where the historical record is quite limited. Many questions will be answered and many questions will be raised because of this volume.

Church leaders have discussed and written about changes in Mormon scripture. This volume brings to light many changes in Joseph Smith’s revelations. Only forty five years ago, President Hugh B. Brown as a member of the First Presidency wrote, “None of the early revelations of the Church have been revised, and the Doctrine and Covenants stands as printed…” (Hugh B. Brown letter 5-13-66, copy in my possession) During this same period Wilford Wood’s “Joseph Smith Begins His Work” was pulled from Deseret Book Stores and individuals were told the books were out of print, when in fact they were still in print and available to book stores. In addition, people who inquired after the books were told that “the Scriptures in their present format are identical in content.” (Wilford Wood letter 3-22-67, Marie Openshaw letters 10-3-67 & 1-24-73, copies in my possession) The Wood books reproduced the first edition of the Book of Mormon, the 1833 Book of Commandments, and the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants. Elder Boyd K. Packer said in the April 1974 conference, “Now, I add with emphasis that such changes [in the books of revelation] have been basically minor refinements in grammar, expression, punctuation, clarification. Nothing fundamental has been altered. Why are they not spoken of over the pulpit? Simply because by comparison they are so insignificant and unimportant as literally to be not worth talking about. After all, they have absolutely nothing to do with whether the books are true.”

Similar ideas about Smith’s first revelation, The Book of Mormon, can also be found. In the Oct 1961 conference President Joseph Fielding Smith said, “It is true that when the Book of Mormon was printed the printer was a man who was unfriendly. The publication of the book was done under adverse circumstances, and there were a few errors, mostly typographical — conditions that arise in most any book that is being published — but there was not one thing in the Book of Mormon or in the second edition or any other edition since that in any way contradicts the first edition, and such changes as were made, were made by the Prophet Joseph Smith because under those adverse conditions the Book of Mormon was published. But there was no change of doctrine.” Recently Royal Skousen has written, “The original [Book of Mormon] manuscript supports the hypothesis that the text was given to Joseph Smith word for word” and “Joseph Smith’s editing for the second and third editions (1837 and 1840) represents human editing, not a revealed revision of the text.”. (http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2009/10/royal-skousens-12-questions-the-critical-text-version/)

Other writers have felt differently about changes made to scripture. Joseph Anderson, secretary to the First Presidency, wrote in the 1970s attesting to the accuracy of Wood’s books. Anderson, in discussing changes made in the Book of Mormon, writes: “Smith made many corrections in the 1837 and the 1840 editions of the Book of Mormon.” Anderson then goes on to discuss the changes in the Doctrine and Covenants, where he writes: “Smith, being the one who received these revelations and had them recorded, likewise would have a right to add or to subtract from, or change, the revelations and did so in some cases.” (Joseph Anderson letter 4-29-74, copy in my possession) Currently, the FAIR wiki site has the following: “Joseph didn't claim to be hearing a voice, and he didn't claim to be quoting God or ‘taking dictation.’ Rather, impressions would come to him, which he would put into words. Joseph clearly did not consider them’ direct quotations’ from God, since he was quite happy to revise them, edit them later, etc.” (http://en.fairmormon.org/Lamanites_in_the_Doctrine_and_Covenants)

How one handles the above comments in light of the redactions, changes in words and phrases, and theological changes will be an individual endeavor. This new volume will allow each person access to these revelations and see for themselves the changes that have been made. By seeing these pages of scripture in their early form the reader can have an informed understanding of this revelatory process. I highly recommend this book, it is essential for everyone’s library. This volume makes clear that the manuscript revelations are gifts from God, this printed volume is a gift from the church, and the editing and photographs are gifts from the editors and those working on the papers project.

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Comments by Jeffrey Needle

As you can see, Joe Geisner’s comments easily stand on their own; he certainly needs no help from me, or anyone, in expressing his views about this massive volume. Rather than write a separate review, Joe has kindly allowed me to piggyback my few thoughts on to his review, to offer a non-member’s perspective. I trust I don’t repeat too much of what Joe has to say in his very fine and very complete review.

Since hearing about the content of this volume at a talk given by Elder Marlin K. Jensen, the current Church Historian, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. It sounded a bit like just the thing for Mormonphiles like myself, who have an enormous interest in all things LDS but who have no emotional attachment to the claims of the religion. And as Joe points out in his review, leaders have been reluctant over the years to admit that substantive, important changes were made to the revelations. This volume could signal a new era in Mormon history-telling, surely good news!

I’ve pondered the reluctance of Church authorities to lay out the historical record cleanly and completely. It’s almost as if some of the leaders have feared that Mormonism is, in effect, a house of cards that might collapse at any moment if it is discovered that there have been changes, alterations in the revelations. But is Mormonism so frail, so unsteady on its feet, that a whiff of the truth might make it all come down?

As Richard Bushman said some time ago, “We’ve grown up. We can now discuss our past openly and honestly.” Elder Jensen adds, “We have nothing to hide.” Bravo! And with this volume, we can see a glimpse of the richness, and variety, of the revelatory experience in early Mormonism. More importantly, we can now understand revelation as a progressive and flexible phenomenon, rather than a producer of static communication from God to man.

Of course, some realities emerge whenever discussing religious institutions and their telling of their own story. Sociology 101 teaches us that the primary purpose of every institution is self-preservation, that organizations will not do anything that will threaten the stability and existence of that organization. And in Mormonism, the vast number of new members, those who must receive the milk first and then the meat, necessitates a careful telling of history, what Mormonism titles “faith-promoting.”

But, in time, the milk no longer suffices; it’s time for the meat. And finding meat on the Mormon menu has been pretty tough. The Bible itself tells us: “But the path of the just is as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day.” (Proverbs 4:18) Does this apply to prophetic experience as well? Of course it does! Why then do we shy away from the more difficult issues, such as changes to the revelations, when such changes can be understood as the result of that light shining brighter and brighter?

It is to be expected that, as time passes and as that light continues to shine, changes to the early revelations are to be expected. Some may balk: why not just create new revelations? Why alter what previous prophets have written?

The citation from Proverbs, I believe, contains the answer to this question. Not only does the doctrine of continuing revelation *allow* such updating, but it virtually *requires* it. While ultimate truth may be static and unchanging (although some would dispute this), the reality is that our perception of that truth, and our expression of our understanding of that truth, confront us from day to day.

Prophets are fallible; they are, after all, people, just like you and me. With a certain amount of boldness and, perhaps, some private doubts, these inspired men and women have penned their thoughts for all to read. At times they’ve had to go back and amend their writings. As their own vision of Truth became more focused, it is only natural to expect that they would go back and re-interpret their own views to conform to more recent revelation.

I can recall coming across a volume from Bookcraft early on in my explorations of Mormonism. It discussed Joseph’s First Vision. To my surprise, it related several versions of that experience. The version canonized in the Pearl of Great Price is not the earliest, but rather the version, it seems, that is most faith-promoting. I wondered at the time how Mormons could accept the canonized version so readily. Today I understand the rationale and, surprisingly, have little trouble with it.

Was the Church ready for this book on the First Vision back when it was published? I recall it was published in 1980. Disturbingly, since then, the Church has shown little willingness to turn the historical pages and find the exquisite truth that lay behind the faith-promoting teachings. Joe mentions a few of the General Authorities who have tried to perpetuate a stereotype that simply falls to the side when considered closely and with complete honesty. I’m confident they’re aware of what has actually taken place throughout their history. I’m also confident that their mission has not been to lay out the whole story before the world, but rather to present a confidence-building account that would feed the flock and encourage faithfulness.

Maybe this is why I treasure this newest volume so much. Yes, it weighs about 100 pounds (slight exaggeration?). And no, it isn’t as compelling as a Dan Brown novel, nor as titillating as the latest Danielle Steel romance. But after Brown and Steel recede into our collective memory, this volume will stand tall as one of the most important and relevant releases from the Church’s press.

Make no mistake: at nearly a hundred bucks, this is a big investment. But it’s worth grabbing this volume now and spending some quality time re-discovering the roots of your faith. If Karl Barth was correct, that Scripture was, in effect, a “divine-human encounter” that morphs into a personal contact point for each of us individually, this book can come alive as evidence that early LDS revelation was, and still is, this same kind of encounter.

Each reader meets God in the Scriptures in a different way. Early LDS leaders likewise experienced God in their own deeply personal way. And as their minds scanned the theological horizon, and came to understand Joseph’s revelations in new and exciting ways, they journeyed through those revelations and clarified so many points, filled so many holes.

What a treasure this book is! My excitement about owning this book is eclipsed only by my anticipation of what’s coming next. Have we turned a corner in the telling of Mormon history? I hope so. I hope that Mormonism can now emerge from behind the sacred doors of the President’s vault and present itself in all its glory and wonder.