The latest BYU Studies is a phenomenal a “special feature” issue with a series of articles discussing the latest Joseph Smith Papers volume. In September, the first volume of the “Revelations and Translations” series of the Joseph Smith Papers was published. This landmark volume contains the Book of Commandments and Revelations (BCR) which includes the earliest surviving manuscript versions of many of Joseph Smith’s revelations and the only prepublication manuscript copies of some of them. Seven of these revelations were never canonized.
John W. Welch, the issue’s editor, can hardly contain his enthusiasm:
Imagine!…having the BCR is something akin to uncovering a discarded draft of the Declaration of Independence or some of the missing records used by Luke in preparing his gospel (p. 5).
This issue of BYU Studies includes four enjoyable papers on BCR that were presented in a plenary session of the 2009 Mormon History Association meeting in May 2009. These articles, written by members of the Joseph Smith Papers editorial team, provide details not included in the Revelations and Translations volume itself.
Robert J. Woodford, “Introducing A Book of Commandments and Revelations, A Major New Documentary ‘Discovery,'” (pp. 7-17).
Woodford gives a brief overview BCR and its provenance, and identifies those (including himself) who worked on its publication preparation. He describes how researchers identified the way BCR was referenced for publishing the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. He concludes with some suggestions for future research based on BCR. For example, analyzing alterations in the revelations raises historical and theological implications. The so-called Book of Mormon copyright revelation and a piece on the “pure language” are of interest. The dates revelations were received and the historical setting can be reevaluated. “Each researcher will find his own area of particular interest” now that the BCR has been published and made available (p. 16).
Robin Scott Jensen, “From Manuscript to Printed Page: An Analysis of the History of the Book of Commandments and Revelations,” (pp. 19-52).
In this highly technical article Jensen more fully traces the provenance, context, and content of the BCR. He meticulously describes the physical makeup of the book as well as its significance to scholars. “When scholars approach newly discovered documents, several important questions arise. When and why was it created? Who created it? What was it used for?” (p. 21). For Jensen, reading the words on the page alone only yields half an answer to these questions. Only by studying the internal and external evidence, the manuscript words as well as the history of Mormonism and the nature of archival record keeping, can we fully appreciate the document in question. Jensen explains how “forensic paleography” helps researchers find out when a document was created, how it was used, and what it might have meant to the people involved in its creation. In other words, Jensen is asking questions about what the BCR can teach us about the very process of revelation itself.
Steven C. Harper, “Historical Headnotes and the Index of Contents in the Book of Commandments and Revelations,” (pp. 53- 66).
John Whitmer, the principle scribe for the BCR, included interesting date and header information for many of the revelations, allowing researchers to reassess the date and context of many early revelations. Clues will help reassess timing of aspects of the Book of Mormon translation, the location of the organization of the Church, the date when section 20 was revealed (calling into question speculation about Christ’s birthday being the 6th of April), the timing of the “parchment of John” revelation, the identity of James Covill, the circumstances surrounding a meeting where men were asked to testify to the truthfulness of Joseph Smith’s revelations, and how early members understood the imperfect revelations from a 24-year-old ploughboy prophet. Harper notes his essay does not finish much historical reassessment, but is meant to encourage it by describing how the BCR’s index of contents and historical headnotes can be examined by scholars.
Grant Underwood, “Revelation, Text, and Revision: Insight From the Book of Commandments and Revelations,” (pp. 67-84).
Underwood explores how textual revisions shed “important light on the process by which Joseph Smith received, recorded, and published his revelations” (p. 67). What is revelation? A direct word-for-word message from God, or the human articulation of the message? Something in between? Tracking some changes between the BCR and later published versions of the revelations allows us to see how Joseph Smith and his contemporaries understood the process. For the most part Underwood says pre-July 1833 revisions were mostly grammatical and stylistic, or clarified meaning. After that point in preparation for publishing the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants changes were made to update, amplify, and incorporate newly revealed polity or doctrine (p. 68). He tracks who made most of the corrections, surprisingly few in the hand of Joseph Smith himself, who was the one called to make such changes. Underwood explains a “latitudinarian” view of the revelations, where Joseph trusted associates to make changes so long as the general sense was not adjusted. Thus, divine communication has a human component which needs to be taken into account, or as Jeffrey R. Holland stated: “The scriptures are not the ultimate source of knowledge for Latter-day Saints. They are manifestations of the ultimate source. The ultimate source of knowledge and authority for a Latter-day Saint is the living God” (p. 81). Underwood deftly utilizes scholarship on revelation from several different faith traditions and non-LDS scholars to help readers better understand revelation and the written word.
Ronald E. Romig provides a brief response to these papers and a short historical overview from the perspective of the Community of Christ (pp. 85-91). In the Book Review section Thomas Coens, an associate editor of the Papers of Andrew Jackson series gives a non-Mormon scholar’s perspective on the landmark inaugural installment of the Joseph Smith Papers. He tips his cap to the rigorous scholarship involved in the Journals volume and provides a few personal thoughts on the volume. James B. Allen also reviews the Journals volume.
In addition to these special articles, the issue includes a piece on Eliza R. Snow’s poetry, LDS athletic tournaments from 1950-1971, and book reviews of the Twighlight series, Bushman’s Very Short Introduction to Mormonism and a few other selections. A paperback copy of this issue is available for $9.95, or a digital copy can be downloaded for $7.00. See byustudies.byu.edu for more. This is a highly recommended issue.