Hey guys, so, Latter-day Saints believe that the Bible and the Book of Mormon are inspired scripture largely written by ancient prophets. But we also believe that prophets today receive revelations from God as well. Some of the prophet Joseph Smith’s revelations are compiled into a book of scripture we call The Doctrine and Covenants. But across the various editions of The Doctrine and Covenants, a whole lot of changes have been made to the text. Most changes are small things — spelling, grammar, copyist errors, etc. — but in some early cases, entire paragraphs were added or deleted by Joseph Smith or under his direction. Some people see these changes and wonder if these are the inspired words of God, why have changes been made? Shouldn’t it come out right the first time? It’s a good question, so let’s talk about it.
Alright, so before we dig into this, I want to just point out that these changes to the Doctrine and Covenants have not been made in a dark corner. These changes are not new information. Joseph didn’t try to hide them. Quite the contrary—he published them.
But the question still stands, if Joseph, as the prophet, was the mouthpiece of God, why have there been changes to some of those revelations? Well, the short answer can be found in the introduction to our current edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, which says, “Joseph and the early Saints viewed the revelations as they did the Church: living, dynamic, and subject to refinement with additional revelation.”
In 1857 Orson Pratt taught that “… at the time of compilation, the Prophet was inspired in several instances to write additional sentences and paragraphs to the earlier revelations. In this manner, the Lord did truly give ‘line upon line, here a little and there a little….” Elder Pratt then brings up Jeremiah chapter 36 — after one of Jeremiah’s revelations is burned, Jeremiah reproduces it and adds additional content to it. Similarly, Joseph wasn’t afraid to go back and edit, expand, or contract revelations inasmuch as he felt inspired to do so.
Frankly, this approach to revelation really resonates with me, personally. For example, as you know, these Faith and Beliefs videos represent the “scripted” segment of Saints Unscripted. I’m not claiming by any means that these scripts are pure revelations from God, but as I write them, I will occasionally have a thought that I do feel is inspired of God. I’ll write it down and try to express it as best I can, but I will almost always revisit it later and feel prompted to make adjustments or flesh out ideas in a different way, or more fully. Here’s the way Orson Pratt put it in 1872:
“Joseph the Prophet, in writing the Doctrine & Covenants, received the ideas from God, but clothed those ideas with such words as came to his mind[.]” And here’s how John Widtsoe put it in 1937. Ultimately, Joseph was more concerned with the general idea or sense of the revelation than the particular wording of it. When some people criticized the spelling and grammar in a particular revelation, Joseph responded, “…we did not think so much of the orthography, or the manner, as we did the subject matter.”
Now, there are many revelations that are written as if God Himself is directly speaking. BYU Professor Grant Underwood said that “Some Latter-day Saints may assume that the Prophet was not involved in any way whatsoever with the wording of the revelation texts, that he simply repeated word-for-word to his scribe what he heard God say to him, but our investigation has suggested otherwise. Examination … [of the revelations] leads us to a richer, more nuanced view, one that see[s] Joseph as more than a mere human fax machine through whom God communicated finished revelation texts composed in heaven. Joseph had a role to play in the revelatory process.” Underwood called the revelations “…the ‘word of God’ … rather than the very words of God, or, … the Word of God in Words of Men.”
Steven Harper wrote that “…as a mortal decoder imprisoned by a broken language, Joseph originally received the revelations imperfectly. ‘He never considered the wording infallible’ and he continued to revise and amend his revelation texts throughout his life to reflect his latest understanding and to increase their ability to communicate the mind of God.”
Brigham Young echoed that sentiment in 1855: “I do not even believe that there is a single revelation, among the many God has given to the Church, that is perfect in its fulness… He has to speak to us in a manner to meet the extent of our capacities…. The laws that the Lord has given are not fully perfect, because the people could not receive them in their perfect fulness; but they can receive a little here and a little there, a little to-day and a little to-morrow, a little more next week, and a little more in advance of that next year, if they make a wise improvement upon every little they receive….”
As the Church received more, “…the editors of the Doctrine and Covenants also made a focused effort to update the revelations to reflect changes in church government, structure, and doctrine that had occurred since the revelations were first dictated.”
For example, here’s a block of text from a revelation as printed in 1833 versus 1835. As you can see, this entire chunk has been added. Why? Because after receiving the initial revelation, Joseph received additional revelation regarding priesthood offices. So he incorporated that later revelation into the earlier revelation. He was not trying to make it look like he’d received this additional revelation earlier; he was just keeping things up to date and relevant.
Now, most changes have been rather inconsequential, but of course, a minority have been more controversial, and we’ll hopefully be talking more about some of those in future videos. In the meantime, if you want to dive deeper, check out the resources and notes in the YouTube description. There were also several quotes I wanted to show but didn’t have space for, so feel free to pause and read those now. And have a great day!
- The introduction to our current version of the Doctrine and Covenants: https://bit.ly/3ps141H
- “Relishing the Revisions: Joseph Smith and the Revelatory Process,” by Grant Underwood, BYUH: https://bit.ly/3TjStfs
- “That They Might Come to Understanding”: Revelation as Process,” by Steven Harper, BYU Studies: https://bit.ly/3PFPsTG
- Historical Introduction to the 1835 D&C, via Joseph Smith Papers: https://bit.ly/3CnbZRZ
- “Preparing Early Revelations for Publication,” by Melvin J. Peterson (Feb. 1985 Ensign): https://bit.ly/3CkVYvR
- “Why and how revelations were modified in the Doctrine and Covenants,” via FAIR: https://bit.ly/3QxzM66
- “Changes in the Doctrine and Covenants: What the Mormon Church is Hiding from You!” via Stephen Smoot’s blog, Ploni Almoni: https://bit.ly/3ADz4yR
- Far West Record meeting minutes in which Joseph is asked to correct errors in revelations: https://bit.ly/3QGETkA
- “The Story of the Doctrine and Covenants,” Robert J. Winford (1984 Ensign): https://bit.ly/3T1n94O