A Note on Revelation

I have always loved the Doctrine & Covenants and am excited for this year’s focus on that book of scripture in Sunday School.

In anticipation of this new course of study, I have been reflecting on the revelations, doctrines, and covenants recorded in the LDS Doctrine and Covenants and their genesis in the tumultuous early years of the Church. Many of the revelations originated in the first few years after the Church was established in 1830 while the institutions of the Church including the various offices of the priesthood were still developing through the ongoing guidance that Joseph Smith was receiving throughout the process. The result was an organization that developed very organically, step by step.

Along the way, Joseph Smith was receiving revelations that coupled the divine with the mundane — a natural fit for a religion that was so wholly focused on establishing Zion. Historian Richard Bushman aptly describes how the text of many of the revelations reflects this eclectic ensemble:

In December 1832, three months after the priesthood revelation [D&C 84], Joseph received a lengthy, conglomerate revelation that took two days to complete [D&C 88]. Begun during a meeting in the “translation room” above the Whitney store in one of the three rooms where the Smiths were living, it broke off about nine o’clock. The minutes report that “the revelation not being finished the conference adjourned till tomorrow morning 9 oclock AM.” The next day, Joseph “proceeded to receive the residue of the above revelation.” When he mailed it to William Phelps in Missouri, Joseph called it “the Olieve leaf which we have plucked from the tree of Paradise.”

Like other revelations, the “Olive Leaf” [D&C 88] moves from subject to subject. Nothing in nineteenth-century literature resembles it. The writings of Swedenborg come closest, but they were much less concerned with millenarian events. The “Olive Leaf” runs from the cosmological to the practical, from a description of angels blowing their trumpets to instructions for starting a school. Yet the pieces blend together into a cohesive compound of cosmology and eschatology united by the attempt to link the quotidian world of the now to the world beyond. The revelation offers sketches of the order of heaven, reprises the three degrees of glory, delivers a discourse on divine law, offers a summary of the metahistory of the end times, and then brings it all to bear on what the Saints should do now

[. . . .]

A revelation in May 1833 [D&C 93] put Christ, rather than nature, at the center of salvation. The incarnate Christ, the revelation said, received “not of the fulness at the first, but received grace for grace.” Eventually, “he received all power, both in heaven and on earth; and the glory of the Father was with him, for he dwelt in him.” The Saints were to follow the same course. “If you keep my commandments you shall receive of his fulness and be glorified in me as I am in the Father: therefore, I say unto you, you shall receive grace for grace.” The fulness promised to humans, in other words, was the same as the fulness bestowed on Christ: “all power, both in heaven and on earth.” The Saints were to follow the path of Christ toward this fulness, not to search nature for signs of divinity.

[. . . .]

Exaltation also meant intelligence, equated by the revelations with light and truth. In a sense, the central purpose of life was to absorb light and truth, the basis of judgment. Rejecting light was the great error. Living in darkness meant living on the side of evil. “Light and truth forsaketh that evil one.” Since the glory of God was intelligence, growing in intelligence was progress in godliness. Later in Nauvoo, Joseph would use the word “intelligence” as a name for the primal essence of the human spirit, and would elaborate the history of God and the free intelligences.

In a characteristic transition, the concluding verses of the May revelation [D&C 93] descend from the heavens into the everyday concerns of Joseph and his friends. The Lord scolds them for not keeping order in their families. Joseph is told, “You have not kept the commandments, and must needs stand rebuked before the Lord.” Sidney Rigdon and Newel Whitney are admonished for not keeping better track of their children. Ordinary daily concerns mingle with the grand structure of the universe. While taking care of their children, it was implied, the Saints could be growing in glory and intelligence. (Richard Lyman Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling (2005), 205-210.)

Bushman’s description of the nature of these revelations is so effective because it is also descriptive of the larger project of Mormonism. Reading the revelations contained in the Doctrine and Covenants, we begin to realize that our daily lives are indeed part of the very structure of the universe — the experiences that we have and the intelligences unto which we aspire are building blocks of something that stretches into eternity, with an unlimited potential reflecting God’s desire to endow all of his children with the greatest blessings he has to offer.

2 Responses to A Note on Revelation

  1. annegb says:

    I used to study the scriptures on a daily basis but have been a slacker for the last few years. The other day I was looking for a scripture in D & C in my old and heavily marked scriptures and I got caught up in reading and I thought “damn, there is some good stuff in here.”.

    But what I think about what you said is sometimes Joseph threw in his own stuff. Like he gives this wonderful revelation then throws in “you saints better straighten up” just on his own for good measure. Because the “voice” changes. One isn’t congruent with the other. That’s how I see it. It bugs me but it’s incredibly human of him. I might do it myself if I were the prophet.

  2. Aaron Reeves says:

    There is an article by Steven Walker in BYU Studies that discusses rhetorical changes in the revelations. He argues that when Joseph is moved upon by the Spirit his style becomes more poetic, whereas at other times when he is recording a revelation it is more prosaic. So maybe there is some accuracy to your insight annegb.

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