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Latest Joseph Smith Papers volume presents facsimiles of early revelation manuscripts

When the latest volume in the Joseph Smith Papers Project is published next week, readers will gaze back in time and glimpse the process for preserving many of the revelations in what is now the Doctrine and Covenants.

Original Book of Commandments and Revelations is shown against backdrop of first two published Joseph Smith Papers volumes and a triple combination.
Original Book of Commandments and Revelations is shown against backdrop of first two published Joseph Smith Papers volumes and a triple combination. Photo: Jason Olson, Deseret News

The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations, Volume 1: Manuscript Revelation Books will be in bookstores on Sept. 22. It is the second book to be released in the anticipated 30-volume comprehensive scholarly set that will cover more than 2,000 documents in the Prophet's personal papers. The volumes are divided into six series: documents, history, journals, administrative papers, legal and business affairs, and revelations and translations. The first book, published last fall, was the first volume in the journals series.

Of necessity, the latest volume is larger and more expensive than the others. This is because it contains a full-color photo image of each page of two important manuscript collections produced by the Prophet and his scribes: the Book of Commandments and Revelations and the Kirtland Revelation Book. Together, these collections comprise the earliest known manuscripts of most of the revelations in today's Doctrine and Covenants.

"Coupling them together, we're presenting one of the most important collections of revelation manuscripts that the Church owns," said Robin S. Jensen, a member of the Church History Department staff and, with Robert Woodford and Steven C. Harper, one of the volume editors.

Latest published Joseph Smith Papers volume has photo reproduction of each manuscript page with transcription, color-coded emendations.
Latest published Joseph Smith Papers volume has photo reproduction of each manuscript page with transcription, color-coded emendations. Photo: Jason Olson, Deseret News

Brother Jensen feels that of all the series in the project, this should be one of the more compelling for Church members.

"As painful as it is for me to say as a historian, not all members are interested in the history of the Church," he said. "But all active members have scriptures that Joseph Smith produced under the guidance of the Lord."

While readers can feel the Spirit of the Lord through the scriptures, seeing the actual manuscripts from which the scriptures were prepared can bring them a powerful sense of realism, Brother Jensen said.

Paper slip pinned to manuscript page of Kirtland Revelation Book illustrates 19th century method of inserting additions into text.
Paper slip pinned to manuscript page of Kirtland Revelation Book illustrates 19th century method of inserting additions into text. Photo: Jason Olson, Deseret News

Early Church members were impacted by the revelations as they were dictated by the Prophet and recorded by scribes.

"They required the saints to build a temple in Kirtland, and they did it," Brother Jensen said. "They were required to build a temple in Nauvoo, and they did it. These revelations helped make the members who they were. They can have the same influence in the members' lives today, where a true understanding of them helps us appreciate what the early Church went through."

Comparing the manuscripts to the published revelations, one soon notices numerous changes.

"I don't think there should be a concern about that," Brother Jensen said. "One of the tenets of Mormonism, then and now, is continual revelation." He added, concerning the written revelations, "These were living, breathing documents to Joseph Smith and to others."

He contrasted present-day mentality with attitudes in the early days of the Church, when revelations were often updated to conform to newly understood doctrine and changes in Church administrative structure. For example, a revelation that referred to the "leading elder" might be updated to refer to the presiding high priest.

Other changes, he said, might involve corrections in grammar, spelling, punctuation or capitalization. "I don't have a problem with that," he said. "I view it as Joseph Smith receiving concepts or ideas, or, in some cases, words that are literally from God's mind." Those ideas were then expressed in spoken and written form that sometimes required later refinement.

Brother Jensen said he finds it comforting to know God would work through prophets according to their own understanding and language, because that is so often the way God works through people today.

Generating much of the pre-publication excitement for the new volume has been the inclusion of the Book of Commandments and Revelations, which John Whitmer compiled as part of his duties as Church Historian and Recorder (see Doctrine and Covenants 47). It was only recently found in an inventory of documents in the possession of the First Presidency, having come there by way of President Joseph Fielding Smith, who was the grandson of Hyrum Smith and was Church Historian for decades prior to becoming president of the Church.

It is now the earliest known manuscript for almost all of the revelations in the 1833 Book of Commandments and for much of what became the earliest edition of the Doctrine and Covenants in 1835.

"If you compare it to biblical scholarship, where an earlier text means everything, this is kind of like the Dead Sea Scrolls of Mormon scripture," Brother Jensen remarked. "It is an important step in our textual scholarship, and I hope this release of it will spark an interest in scholars so they can do even more with it."

John Whitmer
John Whitmer Photo: Courtesy Church History Library
William W. Phelps
William W. Phelps Photo: Courtesy Church History Library

At the same time, he hopes it does not unduly overshadow the other manuscript compilation featured in the new volume, the Kirtland Revelation Book, which he said is important in its own right and, prior to the discovery of the Book of Commandments and Revelations, was "the crown jewel of the Church archives."

It begins with the recording of what is now Doctrine and Covenants 76, Joseph Smith's vision of the degrees of glory, and includes subsequent revelations received by the Prophet. Together with revelations already printed in the Book of Commandments and in the Church periodical The Evening and Morning Star, the Kirtland Revelation Book was the basis for the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, published in 1835.

Oliver Cowdery
Oliver Cowdery Photo: Courtesy Church History Library
Sidney Rigdon
Sidney Rigdon Photo: Courtesy Church History Library

In the upcoming Joseph Smith Papers volume, each photo image of a manuscript page will be accompanied on a facing page with a transcript. Changes made to the manuscript by each of four scribes — John Whitmer, Sidney Rigdon, Oliver Cowdery and William W. Phelps — are indicated in the transcription, color-coded as to which man made the emendation, thus forming a visible editing trail.

"The identification of the handwriting was extremely time-consuming, very detailed," Brother Jensen said. "We had three individuals go over it with a fine-tooth comb." The result for the reader, he said, will be like having a scholar "standing behind you saying whose handwriting it is."

Footnotes will give additional information, "anywhere from noting pinholes, to scratch marks to write-overs," said Brother Jensen.

Latest release, on the right, in Joseph Smith Papers Project, is substantially larger than the one published last year.
Latest release, on the right, in Joseph Smith Papers Project, is substantially larger than the one published last year. Photo: Jason Olson, Deseret News

He was not being facetious about the pinholes. In days before word processors, Post-it notes or even staplers, a common way of inserting additional text into a manuscript was to pin to the page a slip of paper containing the addition, and that was the case with these manuscripts. In some instances, a slip is still pinned to the page.

As for the scratches, Brother Jensen said he noticed them as he was going through the Book of Commandments and Revelations for about the fifth time. They were a mystery to him until he compared the manuscript to the published text in the Evening and Morning Star. He found that in each instance, a scratch mark correlated with the end of a column in the newspaper. Obviously, the scratch marks were where the typesetter marked his place as he took a break or finished his work for the day, so he could quickly find where to resume.

"So you can see through this text, not only the content of what was published, but how it was done," Brother Jensen commented. "We will be able to know so much more about the publication process."

He added, "This is only the beginning of scholarship. Scholars can take this, run with it and do their own research. But, at the same time, members can use this as well, and learn from and appreciate the revelations that are found in their Doctrine and Covenants."

2 manuscript compilations

Two important early manuscripts of collected revelations will comprise Volume 1 of the Revelations and Translations series of the Joseph Smith Papers that is being released Sept. 22:

The Book of Commandments and Revelations. Found recently in an inventory of items in the possession of the First Presidency, this is the earliest-known manuscript of many of Joseph Smith's revelations and, for some of them, the only surviving manuscript copy. It was found recently during an inventory of historical items in the possession of the First Presidency. It was begun in 1831 by John Whitmer in response to a revelation (Doctrine and Covenants 47) in which he was called as Church Historian and Recorder. It served as the printer's manuscript for the Book of Commandments, published in 1833, and was used to some extent to prepare the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, published in 1835. Writing in the July Ensign, Elder Marlin K. Jensen of the Seventy, Church Historian and recorder, noted that it is "a near comprehensive collection of early revelations," and contains 64 of the 65 items in the Book of Commandments and 95 of the 103 sections in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants.

The Kirtland Revelation Book. Begun in early 1832 with the revelation on the degrees of glory (Doctrine and Covenants 76), this was a compilation of Joseph Smith's revelations from that point to 1832. In preparing the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants, this manuscript was used as a printer's copy for revelations that had not already appeared in print either in the Book of Commandments or the Church periodical The Evening and Morning Star.

Facts and figures

Because of its content, Volume 1 in the Revelations and Translations Series of the Joseph Smith Papers will be considerably larger than others in the anticipated 30-volume set.

 The book's dimensions are 9 by 12 inches. By comparison, the first volume in the Journals Series, published last year, was 7 by 10 inches. Both are considerably larger than today's standard size of published books, which is 6 by 9 inches.

 The book comprises 752 pages, printed in full color on custom-milled, acid-free, archival paper.

 Of the two manuscript collections covered in the book, a full-size photo image of every page — comprising more than 350 pages — is reproduced. On facing pages, a typescript is provided for each of the pages. Identifiable insertions, deletions, emendations, etc., made by Joseph Smith's scribes — John Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery, Sidney Rigdon or William W. Phelps — will be indicated with a different color of ink for each man who made changes.

 The suggested retail price of the book is $99.95, available from Deseret Book Co. and other outlets. (The volume published last year, smaller in size, is $49.95.)

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