Understanding the Doctrine and Covenants, the Purpose of History in Church, and "Hidden" History One More Time

The sixth paragraph of the “Explanatory Introduction” to the Doctrine and Covenants explains what is one of my favorite things about this particular book of scripture. “These sacred revelations were received in answer to prayer, in times of need, and came out of real-life situations involving real people.” The relative recentness of these real-life situations brings a forceful sense of reality to the revelations that, I must confess, is sometimes lacking for me when studying more ancient scripture. I feel that because these people had their prayers answered, and their needs met by a responsive God, then I too can pray to God and receive answers; when I need God, he will be there. My own life experience has only confirmed this reality.

But this also makes the Doctrine and Covenants one of the harder books of scripture to make sense of. Steven C. Harper points out, “Most [sections of the D&C] are free standing texts, unconnected to those surrounding it.”[1] This lack of context makes some of the revelations fairly perplexing. Since many of the revelations were given under specific circumstances, to specific people, as answers to specific questions, Harper explains the benefit of understanding the history surrounding each revelation: “The better we know the content of those prayers, the real world situations that shaped them, and the personalities that asked them, the better we will understand and therefore be able to apply the revelations.”[2] This speaks to the reason we study the Doctrine and Covenants and Church History together in Sunday School. The history helps us understand the doctrine. I think that it is instructive to notice the stated “central message” of the Our Heritage manual:

The central message of this book is the message declared by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since its beginning. Joseph Smith, the first prophet of this dispensation, taught:
“The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it.”
Every prophet who has succeeded Joseph Smith has added his personal witness of the divine mission of the Savior.[3]
So, the primary purpose of the “brief history of the Church,” as it is called in the subtitle, is not purely historical, but rather to provide testimony of Christ, specifically through the past prophets and apostles. In Church, history isn’t done and talked about merely for history’s sake, as it is with the historian. Rather, it is done for building faith, bearing testimony, and providing understanding for the revelations. This is not to say that the work of a historian is not important and valuable – it most certainly is. If we don’t have historians figuring out what happened, then we wouldn’t have the history to look at and learn from. But it must be made clear that Sunday School is not a history class. There, incidences from Church History are selected and used for a purpose. Call it an “agenda,” if you wish. But understand that that agenda is quite openly acknowledged.
The “Hidden” History…Again

None of this, however, means that the Church is “hiding” its history. Full and open historical discussion rages on about a variety of matters in Church History. Many faithful Latter-day Saints actively participate in this discussion. Most of this, like most historical writing in general (not just history related to the LDS Church) takes place in venues that the average person, including the average Latter-day Saint, generally isn’t aware of, and which most people tend not to be all that interested in reading anyhow.[4] (Even I must confess that a great deal of historical writing is dull and dry…sometimes even those most interested in the subject matter must force themselves to plow through it.) On occasion, however, updates on the on-going work of Historians makes its way into more popular venues, including – in the case of Church History – the Ensign. A number of allegedly “hidden” issues are in the Ensign as recently as the latest issue. Consider these examples from Gerrit Dirkmaat’s article “Greatand Marvelous Are the Revelations of God,” in the January 2013 Ensign.[5]

Changes to the Revelations?

Many critics argue that the Church hides the fact that the sections of the Doctrine and Covenants have, at various times, been edited. Well, it seems that the Church felt that the best place to hide these was in the most recent Ensign. According to Dirkmaat, the early Saints “understood that the process of revelation was not static and that the Lord sometimes commanded Joseph to revise, update, or correct the written revelations.”[6] Dirkmaat goes on:

Over the course of the first five years of the Church, Joseph and others under his direction made changes and correction to some of the early revelation texts in an attempt to more closely portray the intent of the revelation. Other times, especially as the revelations were being prepared for publication, Joseph was inspired to update the contents of the revelations to reflect a growing Church structure and new circumstances. At times this process resulted in substantial additions to the original text.[7]
Dirkmaat goes on for a few paragraphs describing the changes and giving examples of the process. Dirkmaat then makes this observation: “While many members today may look at the revelations as being static and unchanging, the Prophet Joseph Smith saw the revelations as living and subject to change as the Lord revealed more of his will. Members of the Church relied upon Joseph to receive continued revelations for the Church.”[8]

I suppose if that hiding place proves insufficient, then perhaps the notification, found in the “Explanatory Introduction,” that the latest “edition contains corrections of dates and place-names and also a few other minor corrections” ought to keep the cat from getting out of the bag.

Revelation, Translation, and Seer Stones

Dirkmaat also talks about Joseph Smith’s use of seer stones, yet another one of the critics favorite “hidden topics.” Dirkmaat explains, “Some of the Prophet Joseph’s earliest revelations came through the same means by which he translated the Book of Mormon from the gold plates.”[9] Critics may be disappointed to see that he then talks about the “interpreters” or “spectacles,” commonly called the Urim and Thummim. But Dirkmaat makes clear the interpreters/spectacles were seer stones (by quoting Alma 37:23-24), and uses them as a bridge to discuss the other seer stones Joseph Smith used. “He also sometimes applied the term [Urim and Thummim] to other stones he possessed, called seer stones because they aided him in receiving revelations as a seer. The Prophet received some early revelations through the use of these seer stones.”[10] It is evident that the Church is hard at work to keep this knowledge from reaching the general Church readership. (Note the sarcasm.)

I have previously discussed this and other “hidden” details of history elsewhere. The point I am trying to make here is that while discussion of Church History in Sunday School tends to focus on the purpose of teaching the gospel, more in-depth historical coverage (though still not the thorough type of history you would read in more historically oriented venues) has been made accessible to members of the Church through platforms like the Ensign. Even then, however, the focus still tends to be on how those historical details can help us better appreciate the gospel and the restoration.

I, for one, enjoy learning about history, even for history’s sake. But that doesn’t mean that is what I want in Sunday School. Even though I know all sorts of historical tidbits from early Church History, or things pertaining to the historicity of the Book of Mormon, I generally don’t share them in Gospel Doctrine class, or even institute class, unless I feel they are relevant or shed some light on the principles being taught. Otherwise, they tend to merely detract from the lesson and the Spirit; and I much prefer Spiritual nourishment when I’m worshiping.

[1] Steven C. Harper, Making Sense of the Doctrine and Covenants: A Guided Tour through Modern Revelations (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2008), xviii.
[2] Harper, Making Sense, 12.
[3] Our Heritage: A Brief History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1996), v.
[4] Just a couple weeks ago I had an interesting experience with my brother-in-law (or, more correctly, my sister-in-law’s husband). We were at my wife’s parent’s house, and our wives (who are sisters) were having a “girls’ night.” Not sure what to do, I suggested we watch a video of historians talking about the First Vision. He confessed frankly that he doesn’t really like to watch or read Church stuff. This is reflective of the kind of experience I have had with most people in the Church whom I try to interest in these sorts of things. Most people would much rather talk about, read about, or watch a video clip about sports, or music, or something pointlessly funny, etc.
[5] Gerrit Dirkmaat, “Great and Marvelous Are the Revelations of God,” Ensign (January 2013): 44-49.
[6] Dirkmaat, “Great and Marvelous,” 45.
[7] Dirkmaat, “Great and Marvelous,” 46.
[8] Dirkmaat, “Great and Marvelous,” 47.
[9] Dirkmaat, “Great and Marvelous,” 45.
[10] Dirkmaat, “Great and Marvelous,” 46.