Doctrine and Covenants 2; Joseph Smith – History 1:27-65 – The Restoration Begins

A Brief Historical Background

Joseph Smith History is a very brief history narrated by Joseph Smith and included in the scriptural cannon for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons). The beginning of the narrative describes events that led to and include his very first vision of God and Jesus Christ and end at verse 26. Three years elapse unrecorded and Joseph Smith picks up the narrative once more. I think a couple of contextual insights are helpful. First, Joseph Smith was born into a hard-working but poor family. His parents inherited resources but both bad luck and bad investments caused them to lose their farm early in their marriage. Moving west to Palmyra to find better opportunities, they hoped to rent land and raise enough money to eventually obtain security in land ownership once more. And that goal was obtained shortly before the visions described in this history, but only by the skin of their teeth, and always under the constant threat of losing what they had gained, under constant pressure to earn enough money to make their payments for the land they obtained on credit.

Joseph’s Initial Reactions to Moroni

Joseph Smith describes briefly what happened in those intervening three years. He shared his first vision experience with a few notable people, word gets out and he receives persecution as a result. Personally, I can relate to the feelings he describes in verse 28 “persecuted by those who ought to have been my friends and to have treated me kindly, and if they supposed me to be deluded to have endeavored in a proper and affectionate manner to have reclaimed me”… If we want to help someone who has been deluded by bad ideas, probably better to try reclaim them with affection, although, I think often times, perhaps for reasons I don’t totally understand but also relate to, we can be harsh to those on divergent paths.

This narrative was also written by Joseph Smith in retrospect when he was much older, the official version being 1838 (verse 60). I think that’s relevant when he recounts his sins. In verse 29, he describes feeling “condemned for my weakness and imperfections”, driving him to prayer for “forgiveness for all of my sins and follies”. But earlier, in verse 28, he’s careful to caveat this feeling, that he wasn’t guilty of anything too serious. That seems to me to be somewhat of a contradiction. I think often we are much kinder to ourselves in retrospect than in the moment and that could be what’s going on here.

In verse 30, in response to his prayers, Joseph Smith receives a vision from Moroni. I think understandably, he spends some time describing Moroni, even though and also understandably being unable to do so in his earlier vision. When describing God and Jesus Christ, Joseph says “whose brightness and dglory defy all description”, with Moroni he’s much more explicit in verses 31 and 32. A couple of points stand out. Moroni’s robe’s color is of the “most exquisite whiteness”, “beyond anything earthly I had ever seen.” I don’t get the sense Joseph Smith, at that time of his life, had actually seen anything all that white. But I also know how difficult it can be to keep white clothing exquisite over time, giving his robe a transcendent quality. Beyond his robe, Moroni appears to be completely unprepared for the earthly elements – bare feet, no other clothing underneath that could be detected. Moroni was in the world, but not really affected by it. In verse 32, Joseph describes Moroni’s appearance as glorious and his countenance, in particular like lightening. Which, if I was concerned about my state with God (and who among us isn’t), I would find this type of person incredibly intimidating. And indeed he did, his first reaction was fear, but then for reasons unexplained but perhaps intuited, the fear left him. Moroni tells Joseph that God has a work for him (verse 33) and the first step in this work would be to obtain a record that would become the Book of Mormon.

Four Identical Sunday School Lessons Back to Back to Back to Back

Moroni decides to use most of this encounter to dive into a number of scriptures from the King James version of the Bible, mostly but not exclusively from Old Testament authors – Malachi 3 & 4 though with some edits in verse 1, 5 and 6. In verse 1, the edits seem to personalize the warnings a little more directly. In verse 5, Elijah brings the priesthood which is missing in the original. In verse 6, Moroni removes the bi-directionality of the turning hearts. In Moroni’s version, the promises of the fathers are planted in the children. Perhaps, in Moroni’s mind, the parents hearts have already been turned by this point. Isaiah 11 is quoted in full with the promise that the prophecy is about to be fulfilled. Isaiah 11 is a prophecy of gathering, a prophecy of Zion. Acts 3:22-23 describes a prophet like Moses, that prophet being Christ, but the reckoning for unbelief was still to come, Moroni quotes Joel 2:28-32 describing a day when God’s spirit will pour out so extensively that even our sons and daughter will have visions, dream dreams and prophecy. Finally, Moroni shows Joseph the location of the Book of Mormon plates in vision.

Moroni leaves allowing Joseph Smith to catch his breadth when he returns again, shares the exact same lesson with some additional warnings about the hardships about to come upon the earth (the Civil War is looming in the future and of course the horrors of World War 1 and 2). Moroni leaves for a moment and then returns and repeats everything again with a warning that Joseph’s aims in this work needs to remain pure.

The morning arrives, Joseph tries to go about his daily duties which he finds impossible. His father recognizes something is wrong and sends him home. On his way, Joseph collapses and after some time awakes to yet another visit from Moroni and has the entire message repeated a fourth time, is told to go back and tell his father. His father believes him and encourages Joseph to follow through which Joseph does. Joseph is young, likely lacks some confidence, having the assurances of his father must have been an essential step for his ability to push forward.

The Book of Mormon

Jospeh Smith is unable to retrieve the records immediately. He returns each year on the same day of the year at the location of the records burial in the earth to visit with the angel and receive instruction and preparation. In the meantime, life continues. Shortly after Moroni’s first visit, Alvin dies tragically. The official record is brief but Alvin is an enormous loss to the family – a leader of the family, both temporally and spiritually, a primary supporter and believer in Joseph Smith’s work. In addition, he meets Emma, who would become his wife despite her father’s objections. In verse 58, Joseph explains their disapproval due to his heavenly visits. Numerous biographies attribute it more to his reputation as a money digger, something he explains and defends in verse 56, though I think the true nature much more fully, complicating the official narrative provided here.

Marrying Emma and actually getting the plates (verse 59) are described together here. I don’t think these two events are coincidental. Joseph needed Emma. Joseph wasn’t ready for the responsibilities of translation until he had her in his life.

Martin Harris

The narrative ends when Joseph Smith meets Martin Harris around the time Jospeh and his family are forced to leave Palmyra because of persecution fleeing into Pennsylvania. They receive support and help from Harris. Martin Harris serves an important early role in Joseph Smith’s life. He’s an early believer with some financial means and a skeptical wife. He believes, but has doubts. Martin Harris gets Joseph Smith to copy some of the characters off the plates to have an expert in ancient languages inspect and validate its authenticity. Professor Anthon confirms its authenticity and writes a note to confirm. However when told of the revelatory nature of the book and its translation, revokes his endorsement.

Doctrine and Covenants 2

Moroni gives Joseph Smith a Sunday School lesson four straight times. Jospeh Smith highlights in his history a subset of the scriptures cited, but he places special emphasis on the last two verses of Malachi, including them in D&C 2. Here the highlighted verses describe the Elijah bringing the priesthood to plant the promises of the father’s into the hearts of the children. Among the first instructions Joseph receives is that as part of his work, an outpouring of Elijah will come, as a spiritual gift, motivating us, the children to remember those who came before, eventually sealing us to them and them to us. And that work continues, each generation, more children, additional parents, all connected throughout time and history.

Questions

  1. Consider every verse in this record is scriptural cannon, why would Joseph Smith include his perceptions of the persecutors? What can we learn from it? How would it reflect Joseph Smith’s biases?
  2. Why would the kickoff to the restoration be triggered by Joseph Smith’s proactive decisions? What can we learn from that?
  3. How relevant was concern for his sins in triggering the event the kicked off the restoration?
  4. How connected were his sins and state of his soul to his inability to retrieve the plates for a period of time?
  5. How important was Emma’s role in obtaining the plates?
  6. Why was Martin Harris account included in this very brief record?
  7. What can we learn from Joseph Smith’s reaction and description to Moroni’s initial visit and physical description?
  8. Why were the particular verses sited by Moroni?
  9. Why was it necessary for Moroni to visit Joseph Smith four times relaying the exact same message over and over again?

Doctrine and Covenants Section 1 – The Preface

Introduction

Just like that, in the church’s Sunday School curriculum, we’ve jumped from the Book of Mormon to the Doctrine and Covenants. I feel kind of overwhelmed in my preparation for the Doctrine and Covenants study in comparison to the Book of Mormon because I think it’s really helpful to understand scripture in context. The Book of Mormon kind of makes this easy to an extent. First of all, contextualizing the Book of Mormon is controversial. Faithful believers, place the Book of Mormon within an ancient context, the book containing two narratives, one beginning in Jerusalem at around 600BC and the other beginning during the Genesis story of the Tower of Babel. Either way, both stories quickly leap to the Americas where collaborating historical texts are non-existent. For those who aren’t faithful believers, believe Joseph Smith to be the author, putting its context in 1820’s northeastern America. Either way, the Book of Mormon production is the first step in kicking off the restoration story of the Church of Jesus Christ of Later Day Saints.

While contextualizing the Book of Mormon may yield some useful fruit, I found the Book of Mormon imminently useful simply by reading it on its own terms. And I knew this going in. I’m much more familiar with the Book of Mormon than I am with the Doctrine and Covenants having taking seriously the church’s encouragement to prioritize it over other parts of our scriptural cannon.

Historical Context

The Doctrine and Covenants places greater contextual demands, steeped as it is directly within church history. It’s a set of direct revelations, written directly in God’s spoken voice as responses to questions or as directives to problems in the early days of church organization. These revelations don’t have directly connective bindings other than the historical narratives that are not directly written in its text and must be studied from other sources. While I do believe each section of this book can stand alone, a deeper study of the accompanying history is too tantalizing to pass up.

And as a member of this church, these founding revelations need to be taken seriously. They describe original intentions and motivations of the early church. A lot has transpired over the last two hundred years, but I think it’s important to understand first principles.

Section 1, on this note, is an interesting kick off to this, the first section in the scripture, it’s not the first recorded revelation. It acts as the book’s preface. The Saints Volume 1, provides a couple different reasons why in November 1, 1831, the church organized a conference to discuss the desire to publish these early revelations: 1) as a response to church critics who doubted Smith’s revelations and 2) as a way to offer them as convenient resources for church members. Originally, Sidney Rigdon, Oliver Cowdery and William McLellin were tasked with composing the preface. The results were unsatisfactory. Frustrated, they turned to Joseph Smith to ask God in prayer for insights, and from that prayer Joseph Smith dictated section 1 of the Doctrine Covenants while Sidney Rigdon recorded.

My own Very Crude Paraphrase

I recommend a careful reading of this remarkable revelation. Patrick Mason offers a good example of how to do this offering here his own rephrasing of this section in his own words and it provides useful insights. I think I’ll follow that example.

These revelations are not just for members of the church, though they are for them, but they are written for every person, no matter how remote (verses 1 & 2). Even the rebellious, those who refuse to hear and conform to God’s will, shall be pierced by it. Their secret acts shall be revealed to all. (verse 3). Christ’s disciples will be tools in God’s hands to prepare the world as a voice of warning (verse 4), nobody will be able to stop them (verse 5). Their authority comes from these revelations (verse 6) and what God has decreed will come to pass (verse 7).

Those people who preach God’s word not only do it with God’s authority, but with God’s power (verse 8, 9). The choices we make, the work we perform, will have consequences, for good or for bad (verse 10), so we need to listen (verse 11) and prepare while we still have time (verse 12), for things are likely to get rough (verse 13), and if we don’t give heed to God’s word, we risk isolation and disconnection. (verse 14).

For the most part, the world is in a tough spot (verse 15), too many of us are thinking only about our own needs and concerns (verse 16) and the result will be catastrophic (verse 17), so God called Joseph Smith among many others and provided them revelation and commandments (verse 17 and 18). God performs his work through the weakest of us (verse 19). Really, God wants to speak through all of us (verse 20). God wants faith to increase (verse 21). God wants to establish His covenant with us (verse 22). That we might teach the fulness of the gospel (verse 23).

God speaks to us either directly or through others, but in our language. God comes to us where we are (verse 24). And even God’s most devoted servant is weak (verse 25). But no matter how weak we may be, if we seek, we will be instructed (verse 26). God loves us so much that we’ll be chastened when we error (verse 27). In our humility, we are made strong (verse 28).

Joseph Smith kicked off this work by translating the Book of Mormon (verse 29), but that was only the beginning, the foundation of the church must be laid (verse 30). Christ’s church, which is true, a good and pure gospel meant to bless an imperfect and broken world. And of course, we all sin, we all suffer, both those within and without the church. We’re all in need of repentance. (verse 31-33). Again, this church is meant for everyone, God loves all of us (verse 34-35). God will be with us and is concerned with us and everyone in this world (verse 36).

This record is meant for all of us. Search these things, for they are “true and faithful (verse 37) and shall be fulfilled (verse 38 – 39).

Questions:

  1. How can we live up to the call of this revelation to share these things to all people?
  2. How should these revelations affect us? How should we prepare? How should we hearken?
  3. What does it mean when is says the anger of the Lord is kindled?
  4. What does it mean that those who do not hearken are cut off?
  5. How do we walk in our own way? How can we do better to not do this?
  6. Which calamities have come upon the world since this revelation? How could have we prevented or endured them better if we would have more faithfully hearkened? What future calamities still await us?
  7. What examples beyond Joseph Smith do we have of the weak things breaking down the mighty on strong ones?
  8. What does it mean that every person should speak in the name of God?
  9. How can faith increase in the earth?
  10. God’s love is shown to us by making it known to us when we make mistakes, granting wisdom when we seek it, or being chastened when we sin. Can we think of examples of this?
  11. How did the translation of the Book of Mormon come by the mercy of God?
  12. What does it mean referring to this church as the “only true and living church”?
  13. If this gospel is meant for all, does it only include the LDS institutional church which is relatively tiny?