The Story Behind the Revelations: Using the Joseph Smith Papers to Better Understand the Doctrine and Covenants
by Matt Grow & Matt Godfrey
(This is from a presentation given at the 2014 FairMormon Conference)
It’s a great privilege to speak to you today about the Joseph Smith Papers and the Doctrine and Covenants. What I want to do is to share some thoughts as to why the Joseph Smith Papers is important to answering questions and to defending the Church, and then to share some recent research which can enlighten Latter-days Saints as they seek to understand Joseph’s revelations.
First, a brief introduction to the Joseph Smith Papers. We sing in the Church that “millions shall know Brother Joseph again.” It is our hope at the Joseph Smith Papers that we have a role in helping millions upon millions to become acquainted with Joseph.
The goal of the Joseph Smith Papers is to publish – either in print or on our website – everything that is a Joseph Smith document – that is, documents that he wrote, that he dictated, that he authorized, documents that were written to him, business records, legal records, and other things. It’s a massive undertaking.
On the day the Church was organized, the Lord declared, “Behold there shall be a record kept among you.” The early Saints took that commission seriously. We’ve now published eight volumes out of a projected two dozen. The Joseph Smith Papers is a documentary editing project that’s sponsored by the Church History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as well as the Larry H. and Gale Miller Family Foundation.
Many of the great men and women of history have these types of documentary editing projects, such as these that you see. What is it? Like these other projects, we aim to find the relevant records, to transcribe them, to verify their text, and to place them in historical context. Our goal is to produce books of the highest scholarly standards and the highest Church standards.
In many ways Joseph has been the target of character assassination since the day the Church began. Never again can a critical author write on Joseph in a credible manner without confronting and grappling with the records that he left behind and our scholarship on them. We thus hope to influence the understanding of Joseph both through our own books and by influencing other books.
So the way documentary editing works is we find the originals, we’ll transcribe them, we’ll publish them in the volumes (this is an example from the papers of George Washington), and then we help others (David McCullough for instance with the papers of George Washington) take that raw material and write books on Joseph and the early saints. Of course, there’s been a lot written on Joseph over time. Each of these books would have been better had the authors [had] access to what we are publishing in the Joseph Smith Papers.
This is what we hope the Joseph Smith Papers will look like on bookshelves when we’re done, about two dozen books. We’re about a third of the way there.
Our books are organized in six series and let me just briefly explain this.
The first we call the Revelations and Translations Series. There you see on my right (your left), the manuscript is of the Vision or D&C 76 in its earliest form and there you have early record-keeping books in which the saints kept their revelations. So we’re publishing the earliest manuscript form of Joseph’s revelations and then the earliest printed form as well.
We have a History Series. Early histories written by Joseph Smith and his clerks, or histories commissioned by Joseph Smith. The Saints had a real understanding that what they were doing was historically important, so they kept records. This is the manuscript history of the Church. What many of you know as the published History of the Church came from this. We call these books A1, B1, C1, and so forth because that’s how the original scribes labeled them. We’re putting all of that online on our website. Half of it’s there now.
The Journal Series. We’ll be using all of Joseph’s journals and diaries. He wrote very little of it in his own hand (only about 31 of about 1600 pages), dictated some of the rest, and then the rest is clerks keeping his journals, sort of observing what he does in a given day. Here are the original records of Joseph’s journals from which we’ll be publishing those books.
Next to last is our Documents Series. This is our largest and most important historical series, where we’re putting the documents, the letters, the minutes of meetings, other records in chronological order and marching through Church history, putting them in their historical context with historical introductions and footnotes.
Finally we have a Legal and Business Series. Joseph was involved in over 200 cases. Imagine what that would have meant for him in that short period of fourteen years to have been involved in that many court cases. In this series we’ll have extensive new information never before available.
And then our final series is our Administrative Series, which will have minute books, record books, letter books, and records of organizations, such as the Council of Fifty, which I’ll talk about in a minute, the Quorum of the Twelve, the Nauvoo Female Relief Society. Here’s an example from our website of the Nauvoo Female Relief Society Minute Book that we published there last year. If you haven’t read it, I’d very much encourage you to do so.
Everything goes on our website. We already have thousands of documents on our website. We have more documents on our website than we’ve published in print by far. After a book has been in print about eighteen months, everything in that book – footnotes, introductions, all of what we call the “back matter” on the geography and the biographical history of the individuals involved – goes on the website. We want to make this as accessible as possible to as many people as possible.
On our website, we have both the original image, or excuse me, an image of the original manuscript as well as its transcription, side-by-side. If you don’t trust our transcription, try one of your own.
One of the most potent arguments that critics of the Church have employed is that the Church hides information. It hides its history. The Joseph Smith Papers is demonstrating with every volume published, every document placed on our website, that this is simply not true. The Church is being transparent about its history in a way that is truly remarkable. The Joseph Smith Papers can be used as a great symbol of this transparency. Let me give you a few examples.
First, the Joseph Smith Papers is committed to a comprehensive edition of Joseph Smith’s papers. Nothing will be excluded. Every document that falls in our criteria as a Joseph Smith document will be included. No document will be edited or changed before publication. We hold ourselves to the highest standards in that regard. Every document as I showed, that is put on the website, is placed side by side: its transcript, and the image of the original. That’s the ultimate in transparency. Here are the originals, here’s what we’ve made of them.
Included in the Joseph Smith Papers will be documents that have never before been published. One great example of this is what we call the Book of Commandments and Revelations, which was the earliest book into which the early Church clerks wrote Joseph’s revelations. The Joseph Smith Papers published this book in full several years ago, again with images of the original manuscript pages, but the company transcripts. Some of these early revelations were edited before publication by Joseph and Oliver Cowdery, Sidney Rigdon, and others, often for stylistic consistency and sometimes to reflect doctrinal and organizational developments. To aid scholars and others in understanding these changes we color-coded who made each of those changes. That’s transparency.
Last year we announced that we would be publishing the Council of Fifty records for the Nauvoo era. Joseph established the Council of Fifty in March 1844, three months before his death. Following his death, the council reconvened in February 1845 and met until the following January. The Council of Fifty minutes have never before been published or even available to scholars. The decision by the First Presidency to publish the Council of Fifty minutes is another indication of the Church’s transparency with its history.
In the Joseph Smith Papers you can find the original manuscripts of some of the most important events in Church history, some of which continued to be used, as you know, by critics to provoke questions among the faithful. By giving Church members and others access to the original documents we not only take away that argument that is so often used that the Church hides its history, but we also allow them to make their own decisions about these crucial events.
If you have a question about the First Vision, its multiple accounts, then come and read all of them in the original handwriting from the original sources on the website or in our published books. If you have a question about the translation of the Book of Mormon, what Joseph Smith said about women and priesthood to the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, the translation of the Book of Mormon or the Kirtland Egyptian papers, or the King Follett Discourse, then come and read the original manuscripts about these topics. We have even tried to make it easy for people aggregating the information about something like the Book of Abraham and Egyptian materials in one place. Here is another finding that we have prominently displayed on our homepage on the primary accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision.
Not only do we make available the original manuscripts, but we try to contextualize them with the best historical scholarship. We try not to rely on secondary scholarship, but we try to get to the primary sources on just about every question. And we tackle the tough issues. For the translation of the Book of Mormon, if you want the best scholarship on that, go read the volume introduction to our Documents One. For plural marriage in Nauvoo, go and look at the volume introduction of Journals Two, and so forth.
So I see the Joseph Smith Papers as a great symbol of the Church’s transparency with its history, and of course the Church is doing much else right now to be transparent. I mentioned particularly the publication of nine essays over the last 10 months or so on LDS.org on the Gospel Topics page. If you haven’t read these essays on the multiple accounts of the First Vision, on DNA and the Book of Mormon, on race and the priesthood, on peace and violence among the nineteenth century Latter-day Saints, and so on, you need to.
The Church also emphasizes commitment to the best historical scholarship and to transparency with the publication of the 2013 edition of the scriptures. Nearly 80 sections of the Doctrine and Covenants contain some changes to their headings, mostly based on the research of the Joseph Smith Papers. Many of these changes are minor – the correction of a date here, the spelling of a name there – but some are major and help us to better understand the context in which a revelation was received.
As I mentioned earlier, the second volume of the Joseph Smith Papers to be published was a large facsimile reproduction of the Manuscript Revelation books that I have already mentioned, which reproduces in photographic and textual format two Manuscript Revelation books the earliest scribes used to record Joseph’s revelations. From these books we learned a wealth of information about the early revelations; to that we added other historical scholarship.
Last year the Joseph Smith Papers published two books, the first in our document series, Documents One and Documents Two. They contain the revelations that form about the first 90 sections of the Doctrine and Covenants as well as some uncanonized revelations and other letters, minutes of meetings, and so forth. The intense research needed to properly place each revelation in its historical and cultural context has yielded many new insights. I’ve only played a peripheral role in that research. I want to acknowledge those scholars: Mike McKay, Gerrit Dirkmaat, Matt Godfrey (whom you’ll be hearing from him in a few minutes), Mark Ashurst-McGee, Grant Underwood, Robert Woodford, and Bill Hartley who have labored with these documents for many years. I want to give you two examples of how getting back to the original primary sources helps us understand two significant sections of the Doctrine and Covenants, and then Matt’s going to give some other examples.
Doctrine and Covenants Section 19. It’s a marvelous doctrinal section talking about the atonement. On a practical level, its immediate significance was to command Martin Harris “to not covet thine own property but impart it freely to the printing of the Book of Mormon.” Section 19 has traditionally been dated to March 1830. It appears with that date in the two earliest print publications: The Book of Commandments and the Doctrine and Covenants, in 1833 and 1835. However, the editors of those books seem to have had doubts about its date. They placed the date in parentheses, which they did with other dates in which they had doubts. The Manuscript Revelation books, however, help us to correctly date it earlier, most likely to the summer of 1829.
Now why would that matter? Well the Lord strongly chastises Martin Harris in the revelation. Martin is told repeatedly to use his property to pay for the publication of the Book of Mormon. He’s told to “impart a portion of thy property, yea even part of thy lands, and all save the support of thy family.” He should pay the printer’s debt. In June 1829 Martin Harris had negotiated along with Joseph Smith with several printers to pay for the publication of the book. They finally came to an agreement with E.B. Grandin of Palmyra, New York. John H. Gilbert, who was the typesetter who worked for Grandin, recalled that Harris had promised to pay for the cost of the printing: $3000 for 5000 copies. Grandin’s brother-in-law recalled that Harris became for a time, to some degree, staggered in his confidence. Nothing could be done in the way of printing without his aid. Grandin refused to purchase the needed type unless Harris paid for the Book of Mormon up front. Grandin did not want to have any of his own money paying for the publication the Book of Mormon and hoping for future sales. It was apparently during this time of hesitation that Joseph received the revelation that became Section 19 urging Harris to fulfill the bargain he had made with the printer. Martin did so. On August 25, 1829, he mortgaged all of his property to pay for the printing of the Book of Mormon. Mortgages could be used in transactions and Grandin sold the mortgage for cash. The moment the mortgage was given, the Book of Mormon was paid for. Grandin had no stake in how well the Book of Mormon sold; he’d already received his payment. So it would make no sense for Martin Harris to be told in March 1830 to pay for the Book of Mormon when it had already been paid for and the books were rolling off the press, but it made a lot of sense in the summer of 1829, when Harris was hesitating on the promise to pay for the cost of the publication. After receiving the chastisement from the Lord, Martin went forward with that very difficult decision to mortgage all of his property to pay for the book. Understanding the correct date, I think, makes the revelation even more applicable to us as Latter-day Saints. Have you ever hesitated before moving forward with something you felt the Lord wanted you to do? If so, I think then we can identify with Martin and understand both the Lord’s encouragement and chastisement to him and to us, to go forward in sacrificing for his work.
One more example: Section 49 is another revelation with a dating problem. In this revelation the Lord directs Parley P. Pratt, Sidney Rigdon, and Leman Copley to take a revelation to the Shakers of North Union Village near Cleveland and call them to repentance. The three men chosen for this mission all had knowledge of and ties to the Shakers. Copley had been a Shaker, Rigdon had admired their communalism, and Pratt had grown up in the shadow of their main community in New Lebanon, New York and had some family members who were Shakers. Pratt had also visited along with Cowdery and a few others the Shakers at North Union Village and left several copies of the Book of Mormon with them months earlier as part of his Lamanite mission. Unknown to him, one of the Shakers had read the Book of Mormon. Richard McNemar, one of the leaders, said it reminded him of the “Persian tales which I used to the read when a boy. Its endless genealogies & Chronologies afford no light to a Believer,” he thought, one of the very earliest commentaries we have on the Book of Mormon that was received.
Traditionally this revelation has been dated March 1831. It appears with that date in the earliest published sources, but two sources tell us its true date of May 7, 1831. First of all, that very earliest Manuscript Revelation book says it was May 7, 1831; that’s pretty good evidence. Second of all, when Rigdon, Copley, and Pratt went to that Shaker village one of the Shaker elders copied the revelation into his journal and what did he date it? May 7, 1831.
Now why in the world would it matter if this revelation was received in March or in May? Well, I think it matters because we know that the Mormon delegation arrived at the Shaker village on May 7, 1831. In other words, Joseph Smith received the revelation that morning and the men immediately left for the half day journey to the Shaker village where they received that night. They didn’t wait around for two to three months wondering how in the world they could possibly go to the Shakers, whom had been their associates and friends and whom they admired, and deliver unto them a revelation that denounced Shaker doctrines and called them to repentance – rather, they left immediately. I think that tells us something about how the early Saints viewed and thought about Joseph’s revelations. The Shaker Elder Ashbel Kitchell recorded a lengthy account of the Mormons’ visit. At a service on Sunday morning the day after the arrival, the Mormons were given permission to read the revelation. The Shakers, however, were unimpressed. Kitchell arose and said that he “would release them … from any further burden about us, and take all the responsibility on myself” for the Shaker’s spiritual welfare. Parley P. Pratt, whom I’ve spent some time studying, was an impetuous 25 year old. He arose and commenced, according to the Shaker elder, “shakeing [sic] his coattail; he said he shook the dust from his garments as a testimony against us, that we had rejected the word of the Lord.” “You filthy beast!” Kitchell shouted, before Pratt was done, further railing at him and sending the missionaries away. They left and the next day Joseph Smith received another revelation assigning Parley P. Pratt on another missionary expedition and sending him on a different mission.
I hope these examples demonstrate somewhat the importance of understanding the historical context around the Doctrine and Covenants. As Latter-day Saints we can better comprehend the revelations if we know as much as possible about what questions prompted them, about what specific situations they addressed about the individuals involved. Understanding the particulars in the revelations can help us understand what is general, what is universal, in the revelations, and what was intended for a specific individual at a specific time and place. The other conclusion I’ve drawn from studying the insights drawn by the numerous scholars on the Joseph Smith Papers is how much the early Saints valued Joseph’s revelations. This is shown in the painstaking way in which the early clerks copied those revelations into the Manuscript Revelation books, and by which other Saints recorded copies in their own journals before the scriptures were published. It’s shown in the decision of a Church conference in 1831 to publish the revelations and to print 10,000 copies at a time when the number of members was in the hundreds. They declared that the revelations were worth to the Church the riches of the whole earth. And I think especially it’s shown in the way the individuals responded to the revelations when the Lord spoke through the man they called “Joseph the Seer.” Martin Harris mortgaged his property to pay for the Book of Mormon and Sidney Rigdon, Leman Copley, and Parley P. Pratt left immediately to take the revelation to the Shakers.
My colleague Matt Godfrey will now share some insights into the revelation drawn from the Documents Two volume.
Well, thank you very much for allowing Matt and myself to be here with you today. It’s good to be here. I’m grateful for what Matt has already talked to us about, about the context behind some of the revelations and some of the work that we’re doing on the Joseph Smith Papers.
And I want to talk for just a few moments today about a few other revelations where understanding the context behind them gives us a richer understanding of what the revelations were talking about and these are also revelations where some of the wording was changed from the earliest manuscript copies to the published copies of the revelations. And I want to talk a bit as well about why some of those changes may have taken place. As you know some of the criticism that Joseph Smith and the Church sometimes get today is that the revelations were changed and if these revelations were truly from God then why does Joseph have to change some of the wording? So I want to talk a bit about that towards the end.
The first revelation that I want to talk about is Doctrine and Covenants Section 70, a revelation that was given on November 12, 1831. And this revelation is important because it’s the genesis for an administrative body that was created in the Church in 1832 that became known as the United Firm. Now what was going on is that, in November of 1831, Church leaders were planning on publishing Joseph Smith’s revelations in a compilation that they were calling the Book of Commandments, and so there’s a series of meetings that are held in Hiram, Ohio, in November of 1831 discussing the publication of this volume.
One of these meetings was held on November 12, 1831, and in that meeting Joseph Smith specifically talked about how those working on publishing the revelations would be compensated for their work. In that same meeting Joseph talked about how there should be four, what he called, “managers of the revelations,” meaning four people who would supervise the publication of the Book of Commandments. He designated those four in the meeting as himself, Oliver Cowdery, John Whitmer, and Sidney Rigdon. The meeting also calls the revelations “the riches of eternity to the Church.” You can see that they placed a high value on these and so that was important. Now on that same day November 12, 1831, a revelation was also given to Joseph Smith and this revelation solidified what the conference had decided. It named six stewards over the revelations – is how the revelation phrases it. Those six were the four that were designated as managers of the revelations together with William W. Phelps and Martin Harris; so these six were given the charge to supervise the publication of the Book of Commandments according to this revelation. Now this is the beginning of what later became called the Literary Firm which was a part of United Firm which I’ll be talking about in a second.
The United Firm itself was formed in 1832 – the spring of 1832. Now the reason why the United Firm was formed comes in another revelation, Doctrine and Covenants Section 78, which is a revelation given on March 1, 1832, probably in a council of high priests that was held in Kirtland, Ohio, that day. This revelation directed Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, and Newell K. Whitney to travel to Missouri where they would organize a firm that would coordinate the Church’s publishing and mercantile endeavors. So, with the publishing we already have the Book of Commandments that’s being published. We have William W. Phelps who set up the printing office in Independence, Missouri, where the Book of Commandments would be published and where The Evening and the Morning Star would also be published. There were also various storehouses – two, to be precise – that the Church had at this time. The first was the Gilbert and Whitney store that was operating in Independence, Missouri. Sydney Gilbert, who was designated as an agent to Bishop Edward Partridge in Missouri, was the one who was running this store in Independence. The second store was Newell K. Whitney’s store in Kirtland, Ohio. Now Whitney had formed this store as a private venture around 1826, but when he is called as the bishop in Kirtland in December of 1831, Whitney’s store becomes a second storehouse of the Church. And these storehouses were to supply goods to the poor of the Church, were also supposed to be kind of the centers where consecration would take place as well.
So, you have the stores, you have the publishing operations. Doctrine and Covenants Section 78 tells Joseph, Sidney, and Newell K. Whitney to form an organization that would coordinate the management of these two entities. Now the interesting thing is that if you look in your current edition of the Doctrine and Covenants and you look specifically at verse 3 of Section 78, you will not find in there any language talking about the literary and mercantile factors of the Church. Instead what it says in there, if you go to the current Doctrine and Covenants in verse 3, you have instead, it says that there “must needs be that there be an organization of my people, in regulating and establishing the affairs of the storehouse for the poor of my people, both in this place and in the land of Zion.” That’s not what the original revelation says. In Newell K. Whitney’s copy of the revelation as well as in the two revelation books that Matt talked about earlier, what it says in there is that there “must be an organization to regulate and establish the literary and mercantile establishments of the Church.” It also says in there that the organization should come by an everlasting covenant that is made and that the organization would occur in Missouri.
Well Joseph, Sidney, and Newell listen to the instructions given in this revelation and they proceed in April of 1832 to Missouri, and when they get there, one of the first things that they do is they call a council of high priests that convenes in Independence on April 26, 1832. And in that council they form what becomes known as the United Firm. On the 26th of April after they have discussed the need to form this firm, a revelation given to Joseph Smith which provides more detail about what the firm would be, and this is our current section 82 of the Doctrine and Covenants. It says in there, and again this is where you find a difference between what’s in our current edition of the Doctrine and Covenants and what was in the original manuscript, the original manuscript in there said that there would be nine members of the firm and it lists them by name, which we have in our current Doctrine and Covenants. And it says those members were to be bound together by a bond and covenant that cannot be broken “in your several stewardships to manage the literary and mercantile concerns and the bishoprics both in the Land of Zion and in the Land of Kirtland.” Now again, most of this is the same, but in our current edition of the Scriptures it says that these individuals would “be bound together by a bond and covenant that cannot be broken by transgression, except judgment shall immediately follow in your several stewardships to manage the affairs of the poor, and all things pertaining to the bishopric.” So again this literary and mercantile concern that’s in the original was changed when the revelation was published to “the affairs of the poor.”
Let me talk just briefly about what United Firm was. It essentially had three components. The first component was N. K. Whitney and Company, which was the entity that ran Whitney’s store in Kirtland, Ohio. The second was Gilbert Whitney and Company, which ran the store in Independence. And the third was the Literary Firm, which essentially consisted of two entities: the first, W.W. Phelps and Company, was the firm that oversaw the publication of The Evening and the Morning Star as well as the 1833 Book of Commandments. Once the printing office in Missouri was destroyed, then another firm, F.G. Williams and Company, was formed in Kirtland in 1833 – the fall of 1833 – and that supervised the publication of the Doctrine and Covenants (the 1835 edition) as well as the publication of the Messenger and Advocate, the Church newspaper that replaced The Evening and Morning Star.
Membership in the United Firm originally consisted of nine members. There were the six stewards over the revelations who constituted the Literary Firm, so Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Oliver Cowdery, John Whitmer, Martin Harris, and William W. Phelps. There were the two bishops in the Church, Edward Partridge and Newell K. Whitney, and then there was Sidney Gilbert, who as I mentioned before was the agent to Bishop Partridge in Missouri. Now, before the United Firm was dissolved in 1834, there were two other members who were added to it. Frederick G. Williams was added in March 1833 and John Johnson was added in June of 1833. The reason for their additions, I believe, is because they were large property holders in Kirtland and so they had assets that the firm could draw on to fund itself.
So how did the firm function? First of all, it was supposed to be funded by the consecration of property and means by those members of the firm. So (and this comes out of Doctrine and Covenants Section 70) any proceeds, this section tells us, from the publication of the revelations were to be used to, first of all, to supply the needs of those responsible for the publication of the revelations, but then anything over those needs were to be consecrated to the storehouse of the Church and be used to help the poor. Funds would also be generated by the sale of goods in Missouri and Ohio – the storehouses there. And then Newell K. Whitney and Company also obtains loans to help fund the United Firm. The firm also had several properties that it drew from and these are properties held by its membership. There is Newell K. Whitney’s store and ashery in Kirtland, Frederick G. Williams farm in Kirtland, the Peter French farm, which the Church purchased in 1833 where they constructed the House of Lord, the Gilbert and Whitney store in Independence, the printing office in Independence. And it’s important to know that even though these were considered assets of the firm all of these properties were still held in the name of the owner. They were not held in the name of the firm itself.
Well, unfortunately as time went on, the firm did not operate as it was expected to. For one thing, because of the persecutions in Missouri, the store in Missouri and the printing office were no longer held by the Church. The printing office is destroyed, the store is ransacked, Church members, of course, can’t go back to Independence so the store can’t operate for the Church. So those two assets are basically lost assets. N.K. Whitney and Company starts going into increasing debt to fund aspects of the firm. It goes into debt to purchase goods for the storehouse in Kirtland; there is debt to purchase the Peter French farm, where as I said the House of the Lord would be constructed. There’s also debt that’s entailed to purchase new printing supplies for the printing office in Kirtland to replace those supplies in the Independence office. And we can tell by 1834 that Joseph Smith and other members of the firm are very concerned about the indebtedness of the firm. On January 11, 1834, Joseph’s journal tells us that he, Frederick G. Williams, Newell K. Whitney, John Johnson, Oliver Cowdery, and Orson Hyde met and they prayed “that the Lord would provide in the order of His Providence the bishop of this Church with means sufficient to discharge every debt that the firm owes in due season.” When Joseph was getting ready to go on what would be known as Zion’s Camp, the expedition to help the saints in Missouri in the spring of 1834, he is again concerned about the indebtedness of the firm. He said on April 7, 1834, in a letter to Orson Hyde who he was hoping would raise funds to help pay off some of these debts, “[T]he fact is, unless we can obtain help, I myself cannot go to Zion, and if I do not go, it will be impossible to get my brethren in Kirtland, any of them, to go.” So because of this, on April 10, 1834, the members of the firm meet and they decide to dissolve the United Firm – that it’s not functioning the way that it should and that it needs to be dissolved.
What follows is Section 104 of the Doctrine and Covenants, a revelation given to Joseph Smith in April of 1834 after this decision to dissolve was made. And this revelation, instead of dissolving the firm, directs kind of a reorganization of it, and it also says it sets off stewardships for the Kirtland members of the firm. So instead of these assets being assets of United Firm, individual properties were given to members of the firm as their stewardships. They were still supposed to operate them as stewardships. So these seven gentlemen here Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, Frederick G. Williams, John Johnson, and Newell K. Whitney are all directed in Section 104 to receive assets of the firm. Most of these assets were either land or property belonging to Newell K. Whitney, Frederick G. Williams, and John Johnson. Some of it had been purchased after the firm had been organized, specifically for the firm, but much of it was also property that these individuals held before the United Firm was formed and this property was all conveyed by deed in – most of it in – May of 1834, right after the revelation was dictated.
So basically, after this point, the United Firm ceases to function in the Church. And it’s kind of been a lost story to the Church. Max Parkin several years ago published an article in BYU Studies that talked more about the United Firm and kind of brought it back into our history, but before that the United Firm had been lost. And part of that is because of the changes that were made in the language of these four revelations that I was speaking about. If you’ll notice, in each of these revelations whenever in the original version it talked about a “firm” it was replaced in the published version with “order.” And so these revelations all talk about the United Order and sometimes we interpret that as the United Order that the Saints implemented when they were in Utah, but that’s not what these revelations are talking about. These revelations are talking specifically about the United Firm, this organization of 11 men that really governed the Church’s assets, its publishing and mercantile endeavors from 1832 to 1834.
Well, why were the changes made? Why not just publish the revelations as they were written? Much of it stems from the indebtedness of the firm in 1834. We know that Section 70, Section 82, and Section 78 were not designated to be published in the Book of Commandments. And that wasn’t unusual. There were other revelations that Joseph gave (Section 57 is one of them) that talk about the building up of Zion building the city of Zion that were not to be published originally when they were given, because the Church wanted to protect some of the things that it was doing.
Well, when these revelations are finally published in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants, at that time the firm has been dissolved and so Church leaders apparently felt like they could publish the revelations talking about them, but because there were still these debts, outstanding debts from the firm, the Church wanted to protect those members of the firm, so any mention of the members were replaced with pseudonyms. The real names were then reintegrated back into the Doctrine and Covenants in the 1980s, but pseudonyms were in use for the names and then any information in there pertaining to what the United Firm was – changes were made to kind of mask what was going on. Now this isn’t some nefarious plot and it’s not to say that the revelations as originally given were not the mind and will of the Lord. It was more a means for the Church to protect itself and its financial institutions from creditors at that time.
So what does this all tell us? I think understanding the story of United Firm helps us understand better how the Church governed its assets from 1832 to 1834. It helps us understand one of the key administrative bodies in the Church during this time period. And it certainly helps us better understand the context behind these four sections of the Doctrine and Covenants.
I hope this has been fruitful for you as well to talk about this and I thank you very much for your time.
More Come, Follow Me resources here.
(The biographies below date to 2014.)
Matthew C. Godfrey is managing historian of The Joseph Smith Papers and coeditor of volumes in the Documents series. He holds a PhD in American and public history from Washington State University. Before joining the project, he worked for eight years at Historical Research Associates, a historical and archeological consulting firm headquartered in Missoula, Montana, serving as president of the company from 2008 to 2010. He is the author of Religion, Politics, and Sugar: The Mormon Church, the Federal Government, and the Utah-Idaho Sugar Company, 1907-1921 (2007), which was a co-winner of the Mormon History Association’s Smith-Petit Award for Best First Book. He has also published articles in Agricultural History and Pacific Northwest Quarterly and has presented papers at conferences of the Mormon History Association, the National Council on Public History, the American Society for Environmental History, and the Western History Association, among other organizations.
Matthew J. Grow is Director of Publications at the Church History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a general editor of the Joseph Smith Papers. He was previously an assistant professor of history and director of the Center for Communal Studies at the University of Southern Indiana. Along with Terryl Givens, Grow is the author of Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism (Oxford University Press, 2011), which received the Best Book Award in 2012 from the Mormon History Association. His earlier book, “Liberty to the Downtrodden”: Thomas L. Kane, Romantic Reformer (Yale University Press, 2009), also received the Best Book Award from the Mormon History Association as well as the Evans Biography Award from the Mountain West Center at Utah State University. Grow has published articles in the Journal of the Early Republic, Church History, American Nineteenth-Century History, Journal of Mormon History, BYU Studies, and Utah Historical Quarterly on topics ranging from the mutual perceptions of Catholics and Mormons to the cultural of honor to the memory of the Civil War. He received his BA from Brigham Young University in 2001 and his PhD in American history from the University of Notre Dame in 2006. He and his wife Alyssa live with their four children in Sandy, Utah.