Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Changes in the Doctrine & Covenants (Book of Commandments)

I was recently asked if there had been hundreds of changes to the Book of Commandments. My quick answer:

Yes, of course. Editing documents to prepare them for publication is perfectly acceptable. The many documented changes in the Book of Commandments (now the Doctrine and Covenants) may come as a surprise to some Latter-day Saints, but it's not anything shocking or deceptive. Joseph made substantial edits in some passages to prepare the text for publication. This included many changes involving grammar and punctuation, making some sections more complete, adding material or making changes to add information from subsequent revelations for clarity, or removing material that was no longer needed or appropriate. The anti-Mormons make a great deal out of this, but they grossly misunderstand the reality of publishing and of editing.

Jeremiah, for example, made editorial additions in a second version of his writings. See Jeremiah 36, where we learn that Baruch wrote all the words from Jeremiah that were recorded in a book (vss. 4, 17, 18) Unfortunately, King Jehoiakim of Judah burned the book that contained the words of Jeremiah (vss. 21-25). The Lord commanded Jeremiah to prepare his document again, writing "all the former words that were in the first roll" (vs. 28). In verse 32, Jeremiah then commanded his scribe, Baruch, to write on another roll the words of Jeremiah, "and there were added besides unto them many like words." Many like words added? This doesn't sound like original dictation straight from the mouth of God, perfectly preserved and unchangeable. Prophets speak or dictate by inspiration, but there can be later changes and additions. I have no problem with Joseph Smith doing the same. The fact that there has been significant editing of the Bible is no reason to throw it out. Same for the Book of Commandments.

For excellent information on the nature of the changes in the Book of Commandments, see "Editing to Prepare Revelations for Publication," an essay by Melvin J. Petersen that deals with the kinds of changes made to prepare the Book of Commandments (now the Doctrine and Covenants) for publication. Yes, of course there were changes. This is nothing to cause anger or loss of faith.

10 comments:

Kurt said...

Jeff, there have been a lot of changes to the text from the BofC to the D&C that are not simple editorial changes that do not significantly alter the meaning of the text. There are plenty of substantive changes where names have been substituted from one person to another (cf. Jesse Gauss to Frederick Williams in D&C 81:1), obtuse passages emended (cf. the gift of Aaron in D&C 8), substantive additions (cf. D&C 68:15-21 addition in the 1835 edition over that appearing the Evening & Morning Star) and a host of marginally significant redactions and emendations that do not qualify as simple editorial changes.

One of the better sites to index these changes in a clean and unbiased fashion, with an eye towards history is this one.

Mormanity said...

Yes, the process did involve some significant changes - I did not mean to imply that the changes were limited to minor grammatical changes. The steps of clarifying, updating, removing outdated material, etc., as well as correcting errors, can involve major changes. The site you reference does look like a helpful tool for examining the kind of changes that were made.

Mike Parker said...

This is only a problem for those who believe that prophets are there to simply take dictation from God. Unfortunately, this is the accepted view among Christians in general, and it has bled over into LDS thinking.

Joseph Smith didn't have any of the hang-ups we have about changing the wording of his previous revelations as he received additional light and knowledge. He wanted to maximize the understanding he received "line upon line" from the Lord, and he would add and tweak and revise as he saw fit. As Grant Underwood once explained it to me, "He was not a fax machine, he was an agent."

But many Latter-day Saints have have grabbed onto the false notion that every revelation is a Mount Sinai experience -- the words come down from the mountain etched in stone. And when they run into anti-Mormon criticism of Joseph's redactions, they fly to pieces. (Our Church-issued class manuals don't help dispel this myth, IMHO.)

I wish there was more apologetic material online to deal with this issue. The most accessible reading I can recommend is Melvin Petersen's BYU masters thesis.

Anonymous said...

I think there's a quote from Joseph Smith that goes something like "I believe the Bible as it was written by the pens of the original authors ... [cunning?] priests/scribes have added to and taken away from many passages as they saw fit..."

Not to say there was any "cunning" as to why the revelations were updated, but it provides a different perspective about how it feels not to have the full story.

What would satisfy me is if in an updated edition of the D&C, the section headings would make conciliatory mention of dates of revision, etc. The current edition has done this in sorts with explaining why some exotic names have been replaced with the actual names of the individuals referred to in the revelations. There are several resources online where revisions highlighted in this post are documented, but it would be nice to have it available for anyone making a cursory review of the volume.

nshumate said...

Just for irony's sake, it may interest you that the comments about priests without a shred of authority altering the text weren't uttered by Joseph; they were added later.

Mike Parker said...

Anonymous wrote: There are several resources online where revisions highlighted in this post are documented, but it would be nice to have it available for anyone making a cursory review of the volume.

What you really want is a copy of Robert J. Woodford's 1974 BYU doctoral dissertation (3 volumes, ~1200 pages). He examines every variant in every source in the (then slightly smaller) D&C. It's not online, but you can order a photocopy it from UMI Dissertation Express for about $45. Order number 8027231.

The Joseph Smith Papers Project will be even more comprehensive, but that publication is still several years away.

Justin said...

Bruce R. McConkie stated: "As now constituted the Doctrine and Covenants contains 136 sections.... Most of these sections came to Joseph Smith by direct revelation, the recorded words being those of the Lord Jesus Christ himself" (Mormon Doctrine, 1966, p.206).

I know that this blog is old and probably not a lot of people are reading it anymore. But I could not resist adding this piece. Notice two things about it, please.

"The recorded words" - obviously this refers to the words actually recorded by Joseph Smith, as opposed to any revelation he could have been given by God that had to be interpreted but could still be referred to as "words" because it would be God's word.

"those of the Lord Jesus Christ himself" - These words are from Jesus Christ himself.

Clearly this does not leave room for anyone to say that Joseph Smith was just changing an intepretation of his that he was not satisfied with or that was not expressed clearly enough. These were the words of God.

Erin said...

I believe the words of Bruce R. McConkie are correct; however, I believe that the idea that some of the words are subject to editorial revision.

The argument by Justin over-simplifies the matter of revelation. God is perfect, and his understanding is perfect; however, when His perfect understanding is passed on to a person that understanding may not always be received perfectly all at once. (Think analog radio reception here).

While the understanding of some ideas are fully clear on first reception, just as some things come in crystal clear at first reception with an analog radio, others, due to people's imperfect tendancies require more time and double-checking to understand fully due to what might have been slightly garbled in reception.

If this weren't the case God could have "published" everything people would need to know without need for additional insight at first. There would be no no need for a "line-upon-line" "precept-upon-precept" method here and all communication by God would be done with full digital clarity. However, that is clearly not how God appears to operate.

The words of McConkie do not contradict the idea the Joseph Smith still needed to edit some words in the revelations for clarity.

Chris Johnson said...

Jeff: "Editing documents to prepare them for publication is perfectly acceptable..."

Kurt: "...there have been a lot of changes to the text from the BofC to the D&C that are not simple editorial changes ... (cites examples)"

Jeff: "Yes, the process did involve some significant changes - I did not mean to imply that the changes were limited to minor grammatical changes..."

Mike: "...This is only a problem for those who believe that prophets are there to simply take dictation from God..."

Bruce R. McConkie stated: "... the Doctrine and Covenants ... came to Joseph Smith by direct revelation, the recorded words being those of the Lord Jesus Christ himself..."

Erin: "God is perfect, and his understanding is perfect; however, when His perfect understanding is passed on to a person that understanding may not always be received perfectly all at once."

Perhaps this explains why Brigham Young taught the Adam God doctrine, while later prophets denounced it as false?

Perhaps this explains why blacks were given the priesthood, denied the priesthood, and then given the priesthood again through-out LDS history.

Perhaps this explains why anachronisms and KJV errors show up in the Book of Mormon.

Perhaps this explains why Moroni's promise fails to deliver positive results for so many investigators and faithful members.

Perhaps this explains why 19th century patriarchal blessings predicted those alive would not die until "Christ's return in the clouds of glory".

Perhaps this explains why Joseph's prophecy failed when he predicted that funding for the Book of Mormon's copyright would be obtained from Toronto.

All these problems go away when we consider that the Holy Ghost's signal is very fuzzy, difficult to detect, and often impossible to separate from imagination.

But when a Radio Communications Engineer designs a system to send and receive signals, he takes into consideration the imperfections in the medium, and builds into it fault tolerance protocols to account for packet loss, and radio noise. So really you must believe God is a complete idiot if you believe he didn't consider the fundamental principles of fault tolerance, redundancy and packet loss when designing the spiritual reception mechanism in the human brain.

There is another possibility, but it is forbidden that you even consider it. Don't doubt, just have faith.

I cry every day when I see religion cause such destruction to the human intelligence.

Jeff Lindsay: said...

Chris, you offer a list of complaints against the Church and assume that only a moron could accept a faith in light of a list of "simple" issues you raise. Life is complex and understanding truth, whether it's scientific, historical, or religious truth, requires a willingness to dig and face complexities. You won't make much intellectual or spiritual progress relying on sound bytes and drive-by cheap shots.

Case in point: Your list of cheap shots includes "Joseph's prophecy failed when he predicted that funding for the Book of Mormon's copyright would be obtained from Toronto." For you, it's a simple matter and no further thinking is needed. But as with much in history, religion, and science, understanding the reality and its implications involves more effort. What really happened here is different than what you imply and those who were involved in that event did not experience a failed prophecy, but perhaps even a fulfilled one. It was David Whitmer, a non-participant, writing about what the event decades later from the perspective of a bitter former Mormon who gave it the spin the anti-Mormons rely on today. See "That Failed Expedition to Canada to Sell the Book of Mormon Copyright: Evidence that Joseph Smith Was a Fraud?"