Sunday, October 25, 2009

Review: "The Joseph Smith Papers: Revelations and Translations" part 1/2 - by Joe Geisner


Title: The Joseph Smith Papers: Revelations and Translations,
Manuscript Revelation Books , Facsimile Edition
Editors: Robin Scott Jensen, Robert J. Woodford, Steven C. Harper
Publisher: Church Historian's Press and Deseret Book
Genre: Non-fiction
Year Published: 2009
Number of Pages: 726
Binding: Hardcover
ISBN10: 1570088500
ISBN13: 978-1570088506
Price: $99.95

Reviewed by Joe Geisner, with additional comments by Jeffrey Needle
(see part 2/2)

The latest volume from the Joseph Smith Papers project, "Revelations
and Translations," has created quite a buzz in the Mormon historical
community. Numerous articles in the Church News, Deseret News, Mormon
Times, Salt Lake Tribune and The Ensign have covered the publication
of the volume. The next issue of BYU Studies will publish the papers
presented at the Mormon History Association conference this last May
about this volume. Many blogs have posted interviews with editors or
presented reviews of the volume. The reason for all the excitement is
manifold. The book is a beautiful example of printing. It provides
Mormons with some of the earliest records of the church, and the
contents of pages 8-405 are being made available for the first time
with this publication.
This volume consists of two revelation books recorded by scribes
employed by the Prophet Joseph Smith. The manuscript books cover the
years 1828 to 1834, which is a large percentage of Smith's

This new volume may be the crown jewel of the thirty plus projected
volumes. In this volume of "Revelations and Translations" the reader
will find the raw manuscripts of one hundred and nine items in
Revelation Book 1 and fifty three items in Revelation Book 2. The
volume has two parts: the Book of Commandments and Revelations is
designated Revelation Book 1, and the Kirtland Revelations Book is
designated Revelation Book 2. The volume has a series introduction, a
volume introduction and each Revelation Book has an introduction. Each
page of the two revelation books is reproduced in a color photograph
on glossy paper. The facing page has a printed line-for-line, matching
typescript. Changes found in the manuscript are color coded to the
name of the person making the changes for easy identification.

The importance of these manuscript books can be illustrated with a
letter written by Joseph Smith and the revelations themselves. On July
31, 1832 Joseph Smith wrote a letter to W. W. Phelps warning and
instructing Phelps: "I will exhort you to be careful not to alter the
sense of any of them for he that adds or diminishes to the
prop[h]ecies must come under the condemnation writen therein." The
manuscripts themselves declare these are the words of Jesus Christ and
they are not to be tampered with: "Behold, and lo, these are the words
of Alpha and Omega, even Jesus Christ. Amen" (D&C 81:7), "listen to
the words of Jesus Christ, your Lord and your Redeemer" (D&C 15:1) and
"These sayings are true and faithful: wherefore transgress them not,
neither take therefrom" (D&C 68:34). The preface to the Book of
Commandments, itself a revelation, on page 223 in Revelation book 1,
declares the published volume of these manuscripts is the Lord's and
his servants' authority and those "who go forth bearing these tidings
unto the Inhabitants of the Earth to them is power given to seal both
on Earth & in Heaven." This new volume contains these sacred writings.

Exploring the manuscripts makes us feel like we have become an ancient
manuscript hunter or leaped into a Dan Brown novel. The volume
provides us with all kinds of avenues to take; research, critical text
evaluation, theological development, historical context and
understanding the revelatory process.

Some revelations are recorded in both Revelation Book 1 and Revelation
Book 2 like sections 76 and 78. This allows us to compare changes and
theological developments. Section 78 is found in manuscript in both
revelation books, and can also be found in manuscript in the Newel K.
Whitney collection. This last manuscript could be the earliest
manuscript of the three. Quite a number of changes occurred in section
78 when it was published in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants. The text
about "Michael your prince" and "Adam ondi-Ahman" were additions to
the revelation after these manuscripts were made. Section 76 is one of
the most popular theological teachings for Mormons and is commonly
called "The Vision." Though neither manuscript is the original
recording of the vision, they allow us to get as close to the original
as is possible. There is debate as to which of these two manuscripts
is the earliest.

With the publication of this volume we have the earliest wording for
the "Testimony of Witnesses" for the revelations of Joseph Smith, much
like the testimonies for the Book of Mormon. The testimony is found on
page 215 and titled "73 Revelation," with the editors suggesting it
was given about November 1, 1831. The testimony is signed by thirteen
priesthood holders, most signing after November 1831. John Whitmer
copied five additional names on to the testimony manuscript. It is
interesting to note that none of the eleven witnesses of the Book of
Mormon sign this testimony document. Some of the witnesses —Joseph
Smith Sr., Hyrum Smith, Martin Harris, Hiram Page and Samuel Smith —
were not in attendance for the meetings in November 1831 when this
revelation was recorded. Other Book of Mormon witnesses — Peter
Whitmer Jr, Christian Whitmer, David Whitmer, John Whitmer and Oliver
Cowdery — were in attendance for these November meetings, but did not
sign the testimony. Why these Book of Mormon witness names are
missing from this testimony is an area that needs further study. The
1835 Doctrine and Covenants page 255 also contains this revelation but
it is called "the written Testimony of the Twelve" for the Doctrine
and Covenants. The revelation can also be found in Dean Jessee's "The
Papers of Joseph Smith," volume 1, page 367-368. This manuscript
version has some ten words missing from the manuscript found in
Revelation Book 1. Having this testimony manuscript available allows
us to see its original intent and how it was later used by Smith and
the church.

The volume gives us an appreciation for the accuracy of Ezra Booth's
letters that Ira Eddy published in the Ohio Star. Booth wrote these
letters from September 12, 1831 to December 6, 1831. Booth gives a
brief history and some details about the early church not usually
found in other works. In one of Booth's letters he writes, "I have in
my possession the '27th commandment to Emma my daughter in Zion;'" and
in Revelation Book 1 page 38-39 John Whitmer has written "27th
Commandment A Revelation to Emma." People had always wondered what
Booth meant by "27th commandment" and now we know the reason he used
this phrase. Another more substantial comparison can be found with
Doctrine and Covenants section 28. This section is Book of
Commandments Ch. 30 and in Revelation Book 1 page 51-53. If you
compare this document with the Book of Commandments and the "Ezra
Booth letter," Ohio Star December 8, 1831, you discover some very
important differences. The manuscript in Revelation Book 1 provides us
with the source for these changes found in the Book of Commandments.
Sidney Rigdon is the person who went through the manuscript and made
changes for its publication in the Book of Commandments. One of the
important changes Rigdon makes is identifying the place for the city
of Zion. The original revelation has "among the Lamanites"; the Rigdon
change found in the Book of Commandments has it "on the borders by the
Lamanites." Booth's letter has the original wording found in the
manuscript. This does not mean Booth copied the revelation from
Revelation Book 1. Revelation Book 1 has an error John Whitmer made in
copying the revelation; Booth's copy found in his letter does not
contain this error.

I think it is important to put this new volume in perspective. One of
the manuscript books, Revelation Book 1, has been housed in the First
Presidency vault or collection since Joseph Fielding Smith became
church president in 1970. According to the introduction, Smith may
have known about the manuscript book as early as 1907. Church
authorities like B.H. Roberts who worked in the historian's office and
wrote extensively on church history had no knowledge of this
manuscript book. From the beginning of the twentieth century to about
2005 the importance of this manuscript book and the information
contained therein have been unknown to the church leadership, its
historians and scholars studying the texts of Joseph Smith's

For years historians have believed a manuscript collection or
manuscript book existed for the publishing of the Book of
Commandments. This collection was believed to have been written and
organized in November 1831 at Hiram Ohio. When Revelation Book 1 was
first announced last year, many people came to the conclusion this
must be the manuscript collection for the Book of Commandments.
Internal evidence in the manuscript book itself shows it was used for
the publication of the Book of Commandments. The editors of this
volume have concluded the book was not intended as the manuscript book
for the Book of Commandments publication. Revelation Book 1 was
actually created and maintained as part of John Whitmer's church
calling. John Whitmer was called to be Church Historian on March 8,
1831. In response to his calling, Whitmer began copying Smith
revelations into the manuscript book. When Whitmer and Cowdery were
called at the conference of November 1831 to publish Smith's
revelations, it was decided to use the manuscript book Whitmer had
created for his calling as church historian. This is an example of how
the publication of this important volume is providing new historical
evidence that completely changes the way we thought events occurred.

In the last few years we have seen an avalanche of primary source
books published. This volume fits quite well with books like; "Early
Patriarchal Blessings," "Personal Writings of Joseph Smith," "Wilford
Woodruff's Journals," "Far West Record," "Kirtland Council Minute
Book," "The Nauvoo Endowment Companies," and "Words of Joseph Smith."
All of the forgoing publications provide us with the various types of
documents that help us understand our rich history. This new volume
will help us understand those first critical years of the church's
infancy. This book provides documents for a period where the
historical record is quite limited. Many questions will be answered
and many questions will be raised because of this volume.

Church leaders have discussed and written about changes in Mormon
scripture. This volume brings to light many changes in Joseph Smith's
revelations. Only forty five years ago, President Hugh B. Brown as a
member of the First Presidency wrote, "None of the early revelations
of the Church have been revised, and the Doctrine and Covenants stands
as printed…" (Hugh B. Brown letter 5-13-66, copy in my possession)
During this same period Wilford Wood's "Joseph Smith Begins His Work"
was pulled from Deseret Book Stores and individuals were told the
books were out of print, when in fact they were still in print and
available to book stores. In addition, people who inquired after the
books were told that "the Scriptures in their present format are
identical in content." (Wilford Wood letter 3-22-67, Marie Openshaw
letters 10-3-67 & 1-24-73, copies in my possession) The Wood books
reproduced the first edition of the Book of Mormon, the 1833 Book of
Commandments, and the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants. Elder Boyd K.
Packer said in the April 1974 conference, "Now, I add with emphasis
that such changes [in the books of revelation] have been basically
minor refinements in grammar, expression, punctuation, clarification.
Nothing fundamental has been altered. Why are they not spoken of over
the pulpit? Simply because by comparison they are so insignificant and
unimportant as literally to be not worth talking about. After all,
they have absolutely nothing to do with whether the books are true."

Similar ideas about Smith's first revelation, The Book of Mormon, can
also be found. In the Oct 1961 conference President Joseph Fielding
Smith said, "It is true that when the Book of Mormon was printed the
printer was a man who was unfriendly. The publication of the book was
done under adverse circumstances, and there were a few errors, mostly
typographical — conditions that arise in most any book that is being
published — but there was not one thing in the Book of Mormon or in
the second edition or any other edition since that in any way
contradicts the first edition, and such changes as were made, were
made by the Prophet Joseph Smith because under those adverse
conditions the Book of Mormon was published. But there was no change
of doctrine." Recently Royal Skousen has written, "The original [Book
of Mormon] manuscript supports the hypothesis that the text was given
to Joseph Smith word for word" and "Joseph Smith's editing for the
second and third editions (1837 and 1840) represents human editing,
not a revealed revision of the text.".

Other writers have felt differently about changes made to scripture.
Joseph Anderson, secretary to the First Presidency, wrote in the 1970s
attesting to the accuracy of Wood's books. Anderson, in discussing
changes made in the Book of Mormon, writes: "Smith made many
corrections in the 1837 and the 1840 editions of the Book of Mormon."
Anderson then goes on to discuss the changes in the Doctrine and
Covenants, where he writes: "Smith, being the one who received these
revelations and had them recorded, likewise would have a right to add
or to subtract from, or change, the revelations and did so in some
cases." (Joseph Anderson letter 4-29-74, copy in my possession)
Currently, the FAIR wiki site has the following: "Joseph didn't claim
to be hearing a voice, and he didn't claim to be quoting God or
'taking dictation.' Rather, impressions would come to him, which he
would put into words. Joseph clearly did not consider them' direct
quotations' from God, since he was quite happy to revise them, edit
them later, etc."

How one handles the above comments in light of the redactions, changes
in words and phrases, and theological changes will be an individual
endeavor. This new volume will allow each person access to these
revelations and see for themselves the changes that have been made. By
seeing these pages of scripture in their early form the reader can
have an informed understanding of this revelatory process. I highly
recommend this book, it is essential for everyone's library. This
volume makes clear that the manuscript revelations are gifts from God,
this printed volume is a gift from the church, and the editing and
photographs are gifts from the editors and those working on the papers

(see part 2 of 2 for Jeffrey Needle's comments)


Anonymous said...

Thank you Joe! An ice pick in the neck.

Clair Barrus said...

Some of the revelations can be viewed here: