Humility in the documentary record

09.09.2020 | The Maxwell Institute

Katherine Payne is a PhD student in comparative literature at the CUNY Graduate Center. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction writing and literary translation from Columbia University and teaches literature and creative writing in New York City. This post is part of a series of reflections about the 2019 Latter-day Saint Theology Seminar. See the rest here

One of the things that has always fascinated me about Joseph Smith’s First Vision is that there were multiple written accounts of it. These include the same basic narrative of the theophany, but each has its own variations. I take comfort in this testimony of papers—how spiritual writing is an attempt to capture or re-capture what is often very much beyond words; how storytelling and testimony of spiritual experiences can and do evolve over an individual’s and a church’s lifetime.

In the theology seminar, we addressed the slight textual variations of the different early  versions of D&C 25. Like other revelations in the Doctrine & Covenants, D&C 25 is a sacred communication given to an individual and later extrapolated for a wider audience. This was one of the salient features of the text we discussed in the seminar. In a sense, D&C 25 is a copy without an original. We don’t have the original version of the revelation because it was a sacred experience between God and Emma Smith that is beyond words, even the beautiful and complex words of D&C 25. All this became part of our discussions. We compared word choices from one version of the text to another. We examined the theological ideas contained in individual words and phrases. We found beautiful possibilities.

This is the beauty and the challenge of Doctrine and Covenants section 25 and, by extension, all scripture. We might seek something definitive within it to ground us: a defining moment of now, here, behold! Can we find this within a copy?

A copy is seemingly always accompanied by questions: how accurate, or how close to the original, is this copy? Can the copy be trusted? If there are multiple copies, which is most trustworthy and why?

This attitude is not unlike Joseph Smith’s own belief in the Bible which he avowed to be true “as far as it is translated correctly.” We might mistrust a copy. Or, a copy might invigorate our trust in the original, whatever form that original might have taken. Ideally, from a Latter-day Saint theology perspective, a copy will inspire us to ask questions and seek our own original sacred experiences.

But, even if we had access to the original—like Emma Smith having the original revelatory experience—would it live up to our hopes and expectations? Perhaps the copy without the original reminds us of our ever-remote and ever-desiring humanity, of our relationship to God. In the sense that the original experience and writing of D&C 25 is absent, the copy or copies end up replacing the original.

The copy  in turn becomes a source of original insight to us as readers. There is humility in the document. There is desire within the copyist, as Emma well knew as Joseph’s scribe. Perhaps a desire to be accurate, or to revise, or to escape, or to understand, or even to be the creator of a new or different original. Of Emma’s revelation through Joseph we have only the copies. Did she clutch the original as her true inheritance in Zion when other inheritances seemed more distant?

I have come to find beauty in the inheritance of the copy. Beauty in acknowledging that canonized texts are the more polished versions of sometimes strange, messy, or even contradictory and confusing originals. Passed down and adapted, perhaps even modified to fit the needs of a particular generation of followers, of saints.

The Latter-day Saint Theology Seminar is part of this ongoing discussion—preserving, questioning, seeking to understand. Acknowledging ambiguity and finding humble beauty and limitless possibilities in the text. Examining evidence and drawing conclusions when definitive original “beholds!” are seemingly out of reach. Such a process is inherently human. And inherently of God who is not only the “author” but also the “finisher of our faith.”

We should celebrate the humanity and godliness of this tradition.