Joseph Spencer on reading the Doctrine and Covenants

08.31.2020 | The Maxwell Institute

Joseph M. Spencer is a philosopher and an assistant professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University. He co-directed the Latter-day Saint Theology Seminar with Rosalynde Frandsen Welch in 2019. This post is part 1 in a series of reflections from the 2019 Latter-day Saint Theology Seminar. See the rest here

The Restoration has provided us with three new volumes of scripture—the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. Each  functions as scripture in a unique way. Scholars who study how scripture operates in different world religious traditions point to various ways that books become scripture for believing communities.

Most often, there’s a process we call “canonization.” This means certain writings deemed sacred circulate for a longer or shorter time as treasured texts that receive interpretive and often editorial attention, only taking a definitive shape over time. At some point, the process of canonization comes to relatively stable conclusion when the writings in question are received by the body of believers as a canonical or standard scripture. The New Testament, for instance, began as scattered gospels, letters, and other documents that were circulating independently. Ultimately they began to circulate in collections of various shapes until finally taking form as the definitive collection of texts we know today.

The Book of Mormon is a peculiar volume of scripture in part because it never went through a process like this. It was the product of a thousand years of prophetic work, but was gathered and given shape by just two men—Mormon and Moroni—without the collective work of a believing community (there was none at the time!). It was then transferred to the modern world by Joseph Smith and his scribes in one astonishing summer, again without the collective work of a believing community (the Church wouldn’t be organized until after the publication of the book!). In some ways, the Book of Mormon became canon more or less without a community’s canonization process at all.

By contrast, the Pearl of Great Price took shape in much the way that most world scripture has done. It was first put together some twenty years after the organization of the Church, guided by the interests and convictions of the Saints in England. Its shape changed from time to time over the course of its history. It became officially canonical only in the 1880s, some fifty years after the Church’s organization. Even then, it has continued to change in shape in response to the needs and interests of believers. The Pearl of Great Price is thus in some sense classically canonical, following a relatively standard canonical process.

The Doctrine and Covenants is an interesting case because it stands somewhere between these extremes. It’s made up of a variety of cherished documents, documents that were in many cases circulating in various forms before they were gathered together into a volumes received by the Church by a sacred vote. And they were shaped and edited as they made their way from original delivery to their first canonical form in the 1835 first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. The number of years from original documents to canonization was strikingly short—just five years after the Church’s organization, the volume was canonized and circulated.

Although the volume would be added to over the years, and at least once reorganized so that the revelations appeared in a different order, the text of the various revelations has remained essentially fixed since 1835. The Doctrine and Covenants has thus enjoyed something of a half-canonical process—neither without process like the Book of Mormon nor with a long and drawn-out process like the Pearl of Great Price. When we read the Doctrine and Covenants, we’re reading something of a particularly peculiar nature.

During the most recent Latter-day Saint Theology Seminar project, held in June 2019 at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, we wrestled with this quasi-canonical process that gave the Doctrine and Covenants its shape. The revelation given to Emma Smith—now Section 25 of the Doctrine and Covenants—was our selected text. We learned a great deal as we looked at the text’s history between 1830 and 1835: sometimes slight and sometimes more significant alterations to the text as it moved from the earliest extant manuscripts (in various sources) through different early printings (the Book of Commandments and Eber D. Howe’s Mormonism Unvailed) to the canonical text in the 1835 first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants.

We also found ourselves wrestling with questions of how interpreters give shape to the meaning of the text—a history that’s closely related to that of canonical processes: Does the text’s meaning change depending on whether Emma Smith was in the room or perhaps served as scribe when the revelation was given? Does the revelation’s relevance to the place of women in the early years of the Restoration change in light of the alterations made to the text? Does the text’s canonizationmean something in particular for Emma Smith’s place in Restoration history? Does the organization of the Relief Society in Nauvoo in 1842, with all that entailed for Emma Smith’s role in Church leadership, give the words of the revelation new meaning? Does the order in which the revelations appear give a certain significance to the text, especially in light of major changes in that order in 1876? How does the revelation come to mean new things in our contemporary era of major changes for women?

We discussed all these things and more as we worked together on the text for two weeks. All of our previous live seminars (beginning in 2014) have focused on the Book of Mormon, and we’ve begun to see just how different these two kinds of scripture are as we’ve given our attention to the minutest details of the text. The Doctrine and Covenants deserves the kind of close reading we’ve learned how to give the Book of Mormon over the past several years.

What more will come as we learn to read this unique volume of scripture? The Doctrine and Covenants is largely untouched—a ready resource for serious and devoted study. I hope what we’ve done in this seminar—the results of which will appear over the next year or so—will help to spur much further work on the Doctrine and Covenants. We’re responsible, collectively, for reading it well.