Joseph Smith–Era Publications of Revelations
“The commandments of the Lord are sacred, and above the inventions of men,” declared William W. Phelps in a February 1833 editorial in the Mormon newspaper The Evening and the Morning Star.1 Phelps’s pronouncement referred to more than just the commandments found in the Bible: only a few months earlier, he and others had begun setting type for the Book of Commandments, a compilation of sacred texts dictated by Joseph Smith and believed by Smith’s followers to be communications from God. “When we remember,” Phelps continued, “that the commandments of God, came by the gift and power of God: or, in other words, holy men spoke moved by the Holy Ghost, we ought to rejoice with great joy: for in this manner spake the prophets for the saint’s good, even in these last days.”2 Phelps and other Latter-day Saints found great comfort—even great joy—in the continuation of God’s interaction with man. These commandments, or revelations, as they were also called,3 imparted theological guidance, spiritual comfort, and practical direction to the Saints.
This second volume of the Revelations and Translations series of The Joseph Smith Papers presents Joseph Smith’s revelations in the format that early Latter-day Saints most often experienced them. Reproduced herein are the most significant printed versions of the revelations that were published or in the process of being published during Joseph Smith’s lifetime. The publications containing these revelations are the Book of Commandments (1833); the church newspaper The Evening and the Morning Star (1832–1833) and its later, reprinted version, Evening and Morning Star (1835–1836); and the first and second editions of the Doctrine and Covenants (1835, 1844), the latter of which was begun in 1841 but not completed until late summer 1844—shortly after Joseph Smith’s death on 27 June.4 This volume is a companion to the first volume in this series, which presents the contents of two large manuscript books into which revelation texts were hand copied. Together, these volumes provide the most important primary sources needed to study the revelation texts and their development during Joseph Smith’s lifetime.
The Book of Commandments and the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants are represented herein by photographs of the printed pages of a surviving copy of each original volume. The second edition of the Doctrine and Covenants is also represented by photographs of an original copy, but because the second edition was essentially a reprint of the first, only seven sections added to the later compilation (sections 101–107) are included here. The items that appeared in The Evening and the Morning Star (Independence, Missouri; and Kirtland, Ohio) and its reprint, Evening and Morning Star (Kirtland, Ohio), are printed in a two-column format to facilitate comparison of the texts with one another. Two appendixes provide related materials: The first is a proposed sixth gathering of the Book of Commandments, which is a transcript of the thirteen additional items that would likely have been included in that volume had vigilantes not halted publication by destroying the print shop. The second appendix presents photographs of selected pages from Oliver Cowdery’s copy of the Book of Commandments. These photographs show marks editors made in that volume while compiling and editing revelations for the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants.
Both Joseph Smith–era editions of the Doctrine and Covenants were formally divided into two parts. The first part, “on the doctrine of the church,” comprised seven lectures or essays on the subject of faith that were delivered to the Elders School in Kirtland, Ohio, in the winter of 1834–1835.5 The lectures, though categorically different from revelations and probably authored by persons other than Joseph Smith, are included in their entirety herein to provide a complete presentation of the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants.6 Regardless of authorship, the lectures can be considered Joseph Smith documents in the sense that he and other members of the church presidency introduced them in a signed preface as being among “the leading items of the religion which we have professed to believe.”7 The second, or “covenants and commandments,” part made up the bulk of the volume and included the revelations, a few other similar items, and several statements respecting church polity and practice.
As in the first volume of this series, the document introductions and annotation in this volume focus on textual matters, though the introductions also provide historical context for the documents. A central objective of the footnotes is to identify, wherever possible, the immediate source text or texts for the printed revelations included in this volume. In this regard, the chart on the next page may provide a convenient overview.
Users of the present volume should also consult the Documents series of The Joseph Smith Papers, which will publish the earliest and best extant version of each revelation, arranged in chronological order with other Joseph Smith documents of various genres. Volumes in the Documents series will include a historical introduction for each revelation, as well as rich contextual annotation and supplementary resources.
Oral and Print Cultures of Early Mormonism
On 1 November 1831, a conference at Hiram, Ohio, of leading elders of the Church of Christ voted to publish ten thousand copies of a compilation of Joseph Smith’s revelations.8 The preceding year, Joseph Smith had published the Book of Mormon, which his followers viewed as an inspired translation of an ancient narrative. But church leaders at the 1831 conference were authorizing, for the first time, publication of Smith’s revelations—messages expressed in the first-person voice of Deity that Smith dictated to his scribes.
Publishing the revelations would not only expand their availability but also represent a change in practice because access to the revelations had, to that point, been limited. Early revelations cautioned leaders against sharing the texts widely. A circa Summer 1829 revelation, for example, gave the explicit command to “shew not these things neither speak these things unto the World.”9 A 3 November 1831 revelation, dictated immediately following the aforementioned conference, reminded listeners that Smith’s revelations had been “commanded to be kept from the world in the day that they were given.” With the newly authorized publication, however, the revelations were now “to go forth unto all flesh & this according to the mind & the will of the Lord.”10
Practical and cultural considerations also played important roles in limiting access to the revelations. Joseph Smith’s earliest visions and other communications with the divine, which began in 1820, were likely not recorded when they occurred. In part, Smith was personally reluctant to publicize his sacred experiences. He was also reared in a family and a society that were emerging from a predominantly oral culture to one increasingly reliant on written texts.11 Initially, the young Joseph Smith seemed to view the divine communications he received as oral and private texts, to be shared with others only by word of mouth, if at all. Though many of Smith’s earliest spiritual experiences would eventually be seen by followers as the genesis of a new religion and as worthy of recording and retelling widely, they were at first largely personal experiences that answered private questions.12
By the late 1820s, after attracting a few followers, Joseph Smith began recording revelation texts in writing, both to preserve them and to transmit them more widely.13 As he recorded more revelations, interest in them grew, and early converts made copies by hand either for personal reference or for use in proselytizing. The limitations of hand copying ensured that, even without an official policy, only Smith’s closest associates had regular and unrestricted access to the revelations.
As the early recorded revelations were disseminated, written texts were accompanied by oral contexts. When possible, traveling missionaries made handwritten copies of revelations for themselves and then showed or read these texts to others while verbally conveying information about the origins or meaning of the texts. Early church leader Orson Hyde referenced the interplay between oral and written texts in his journal. Shortly after ordaining Simeon Waymouth an elder, Hyde wrote, “[I] instructed him[,] wrote the articles Laws and commands for him and gave him all the information [I] could.”14 Orson Pratt, another early convert, described the same interplay in a reminiscent account: “We often had access to the manuscripts [of the revelations] when boarding with the Prophet; and it was our delight to read them over and over again, before they were printed . . . and a few we copied for the purpose of reference in our absence on missions; and also to read them to the saints for their edification.”15
Many revelation texts were recorded in such a way that their message could not have been fully understood without additional information. For example, the earliest extant text of an October 1830 revelation commands Parley P. Pratt to “go with my servant Oliver and Peter into the wilderness among the Lamanites and Ziba also shall go with them.”16 Including surnames was unnecessary because those within the small community of believers were personally acquainted with the individuals being referenced. Members of that community would also have understood what was meant by “wilderness” and “Lamanites.” Later, if Pratt and others shared the written text outside the community, they would have verbally communicated the missing or implied information.17 Before print publication and while the Mormon community remained intimate, oral subtext or context conveyed more information than was actually written on paper.
Printing the revelations put greater distance between the reader of the text and the persons who originally dictated and recorded it. Before publication, hearers or readers likely would have learned about a text’s creation or accepted interpretation from Joseph Smith or from his close associates. Once the text was printed, however, it generally had to stand on its own. Those who prepared the revelations for publication, therefore, sometimes provided additional contextual information. For example, they often inserted surnames18 and brief introductions. Nevertheless, because no oral and little written introduction accompanied the individual printed revelation texts, the revelations became more autonomous, meaning that members could increasingly interpret the texts outside of their original context and intended meaning.
Though published texts could potentially lead to misinterpretation or heresy, they also provided Latter-day Saints and potential converts with a banner to rally around. Believing they were guided by commandments issued directly from God to Joseph Smith endowed early Mormons with a sense of exceptionalism that helped bind converts to the community of Saints. Early in his ministry, before the revelations had been published widely, Joseph Smith was fairly accessible to his followers. As the church grew, however, he necessarily became less so, and a smaller proportion of the church membership had regular contact with him and therefore with the community-building, faith-affirming power of his revelations. Publication allowed more people to access and interpret the revelations—the element of the new religion that drove every aspect of its doctrine and practice.
The Book of Commandments
Following the November 1831 conference, a revelation established a group of men, later called the Literary Firm, to oversee publication of the revelations.19 Members of the Literary Firm were to benefit from the profits of its printing endeavors, with any surplus going into church coffers.20 The United Firm, an economic arm of the church, was to provide monetary support for the Literary Firm.21 While the Literary Firm originally had plans to publish a number of works, including a hymnal and an almanac, its primary focus was the Book of Commandments.22
In the winter of 1831–1832, two Literary Firm members, Oliver Cowdery and John Whitmer, carried a manuscript book titled “Book of Commandments and Revelations” (known in this edition as Revelation Book 1) to Independence, Jackson County, Missouri. Using Revelation Book 1 as their primary source, Cowdery, Whitmer, and fellow Literary Firm member William W. Phelps, who had been appointed church printer, began printing what came to be called the Book of Commandments.23 Church leaders expected the Book of Commandments to aid members in living their religion. “We hope,” began one notice announcing the forthcoming book, “that while they [the Saints] are thus blessed with the precious word of their Lord from heaven, in these last days, . . . they will hearken to his counsels and lend an ear to all his precepts.”24 Anticipation for the Book of Commandments spread beyond church headquarters, in part through the ministry of missionaries, who saw the revelations as central to the gospel message they were sent to preach. In 1832, Orson Hyde, then preaching in Massachusetts, took advance orders for copies of the Book of Commandments.25 The members who ordered books from Hyde were recent converts who purchased the book sight unseen, evidencing both the members’ excitement about the book and their conviction that the revelations contained therein were crucial to improving their understanding of the doctrines of their newfound faith.
Printing was halted in July 1833 when tensions between Missouri Mormons and their neighbors came to a head over religious, economic, cultural, and political issues. That month Missouri vigilantes destroyed Phelps’s printing office and demanded that the Mormons leave the county. A small number of sheets from the unfinished printing of the Book of Commandments were salvaged and later bound, but few copies of the volume survived the violence. Besides being scarce, the surviving volumes were also incomplete, since the vigilante activity prevented the printing of several additional revelations that appear to have been slated for inclusion.26 Nevertheless, some early Latter-day Saints did obtain and use the volume. Orson Pratt, for example, read from it at an 1834 baptism meeting, and in 1835, William W. Phelps counseled his wife based on a revelation found in the Book of Commandments.27
The Evening and the Morning Star
Though the Book of Commandments did not succeed in making the revelations widely available, printed versions of some revelations had become publicly available as early as 1832. In June of that year, before the Missouri printers began editing the revelations for the Book of Commandments, they launched the first official church newspaper, The Evening and the Morning Star. The Star’s prospectus announced it would “be devoted to the revelations of God as made known to his servants by the Holy Ghost.”28 The first three items published in the first issue of the newspaper, under the heading “Revelations,” were the church’s founding articles, an April 1830 revelation regarding baptism, and a March 1831 revelation on the Second Coming of Christ.29 Ultimately, twenty-six full or partial revelation texts appeared in the Star between June 1832 and June 1833, reaching perhaps a few hundred subscribers. Textual studies and other evidence indicate that the versions of some revelations published in the Star were used as source texts when those same revelations were typeset for the Book of Commandments. The reverse was also true: printers used the typeset versions of some Book of Commandments texts as sources when typesetting revelations for the newspaper. In short, each publishing initiative in the small print shop leveraged the work being done on the other.
The paper was a crucial resource for Latter-day Saints because it was, at the time, the most accessible source for the revelations. During his ministry as a missionary, Orson Hyde recorded teaching from the account of Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon’s vision of the degrees of heavenly glory, which was printed in the Star: “[I] visited a number of the Sisters and strengthened them by the word of Exhortation[.] [We] came together in the evening and we read and explained the vision to them, as the Second no. of the Star had come and it strengthened them verry much.”30 That the revelations were a prominent feature of the newspaper is evidenced by an October 1834 letter to Oliver Cowdery, editor of the later church newspaper the Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, which published revelations only infrequently. “Some of our neighbors, who read your paper with us,” wrote a church member, “ask why so many revelations in the papers of your predecessor, Mr. Phelps, and none in yours?”31 The revelations were so central to the purpose of the Star that their absence was noted and their presence missed by readers both within the church and without.
In September 1833, two months after the destruction of the Missouri printing office, members of the United Firm met in Kirtland, Ohio, and established a press operated by the firm F. G. Williams & Co.32 An April 1834 revelation transferred the responsibility of printing the revelations and other sacred works to this firm, under the direction of Oliver Cowdery and Frederick G. Williams.33 F. G. Williams & Co. was largely made up of Literary Firm members, but the Literary Firm appears to have slowly faded out of existence after the expulsion of church members from Jackson County, though occasional later references to it do exist.34
F. G. Williams & Co. resumed publication of The Evening and the Morning Star in Kirtland. Although ten new issues of the Star were printed in Kirtland, editors did not publish any additional revelations in the paper. The twenty-fourth and final issue of the Star was published in Kirtland in September 1834. On the final page of that issue, a prospectus announced a forthcoming edited reprint of the newspaper, explaining that The Evening and the Morning Star had been valuable not only in providing access to the revelations but in documenting the growth of the church and recounting the suffering of the Mormons in Missouri. A reprint would make all these materials more widely available. The prospectus for the new publication, which was given the slightly modified title Evening and Morning Star, contemplated that editorial work in the reprint would be limited to the correction of typographical and other errors.35 While editor Oliver Cowdery and others who assisted with printing Evening and Morning Star did take most of the text from the previously published issues, they also made substantive changes to the revelation texts.
First Edition of the Doctrine and Covenants
Just as printers in Missouri had published revelations in the church newspaper at the same time they were preparing a book-length compilation of revelations, the Ohio editors who issued reprints of the Star were simultaneously preparing an updated compilation of revelations to succeed the Book of Commandments. Church leaders may have begun planning a successor volume as early as fall 1833, but work on the book, called the Doctrine and Covenants, did not begin in earnest until a year later. In September 1834, Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Frederick G. Williams, and Oliver Cowdery were appointed as a committee to select and arrange materials for a compilation of “items of the doctrine of Jesus Christ for the government of the church.” These items were “to be taken from the bible, book of mormon, and the revelations which have been given to the church up to this date or shall be, until such arrangement is made.”36
The committee eventually modified its approach: though revelations were printed as planned, doctrinal lectures delivered to the 1834–1835 Elders School were published instead of excerpts from the Bible and the Book of Mormon. In compiling and preparing the revelations for the Doctrine and Covenants, the committee drew primarily on Revelation Books 1 and 2 and on the Book of Commandments. As had been the case in the Missouri printing office, some cross-pollination also occurred between the newspaper and the book-length compilation: the first six issues of the reprinted Star, which were published from January 1835 to September 1835, contained the full or partial texts of thirteen revelations that were revised before or in connection with the publication of the Doctrine and Covenants.37 Some revisions, therefore, appeared in Evening and Morning Star before they appeared in the Doctrine and Covenants, which was bound and on the market by September 1835.38 Similarly, the eleven full or partial revelation texts that appeared in Evening and Morning Star after September 1835 corresponded with the versions previously published in the Doctrine and Covenants.
What might be seen as a purpose statement for the Doctrine and Covenants comes from the minutes of a general assembly of the church that met on 17 August 1835 to examine an advance copy of the Doctrine and Covenants. The minutes read, “It was deemed necessary to call the general assembly of the Church to see whether the book be approved or not by the authoroties of the church, that it may, if approved, become a law unto the church, and a rule of faith and practice unto the same.”39 As evidenced by the full title of the earlier compilation, A Book of Commandments, for the Government of the Church of Christ, the printed revelations were expected to inform church government. The destruction of the Missouri printing office had left that need largely unfulfilled, necessitating another volume that could serve as “a law unto the church” and “a rule of faith and practice.” As the church grew numerically and geographically, as the ranks of leadership expanded, and as previously created leadership bodies began to assume more formal roles, expanding the revelations’ availability became indispensable.
Because the 1835 volume was meant in part as a current guide to how Latter-day Saints should live their religion, some earlier revelations needed updating to reflect the latest developments in organization, doctrine, and practice. These were not the first changes to the revelations; manuscript versions of the revelations had been edited in preparation for publication in The Evening and the Morning Star and the Book of Commandments in 1832 and 1833. The majority of the earlier changes were intended to polish the texts for publication: versification was inserted, punctuation was added or modified, grammar was corrected, and some language was standardized. More significant alterations were also made to the revelations in 1832 and 1833, though most were limited to the addition of an occasional phrase or substitution of a word or two and largely had the effect of clarifying the language.40
The same patterns held true for modifications made in preparation for the 1835 volume, with most of the corrections being in the nature of copyediting. A minor subset of corrections made for the Doctrine and Covenants was more substantive in nature and often reflected changes in church government, structure, and doctrine that had occurred since the time the revelations were first dictated. For instance, the church’s founding articles, first recorded in April 1830, describe the roles of certain church officers.41 New to the 1835 printing of the articles were instructions for ordaining men to the office of “president of the high priesthood, (or presiding elder,) bishop, high counsellor, and high priest.”42 When this document was voted upon by the church in June 1830, none of these offices had yet been established. As a second example, a revelation recorded circa August 1830 was greatly expanded when it was printed in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants. The material added to the 1835 version included updated and expanded doctrine on priesthood keys that was not known at the time the revelation was originally dictated.43 If the printed revelations were truly to be “a law unto the church, and a rule of faith and practice unto the same,” only a book with the latest instruction on church government and practice would be useful.44 The Doctrine and Covenants was intended as a living handbook, containing up-to-date instruction.
Some members of the Latter-day Saint community resisted the publication of the Doctrine and Covenants on the grounds that such a codification of belief too closely resembled a formal creed. These members believed they should rely only on inspiration and existing scripture, or as Almon Babbitt asserted, that “we have no articles of faith except the Bible.”45 The church presidency gave a firm response to these concerns in the preface to the 1835 edition: “There may be an aversion in the minds of some,” they acknowledged, “against receiving any thing purporting to be articles of religious faith, in consequence of there being so many now extant.” But, they wrote, “if men believe a system, and profess that it was given by inspiration, certainly the more intelligibly they can present it, the better. It does not make a principle untrue to print it.”46
Second Edition of the Doctrine and Covenants
A few months after Joseph Smith and many church members migrated to northern Missouri in the first half of 1838, hostilities erupted between Mormons and Missouri vigilante and militia forces. The conflict led to the expulsion of virtually all practicing Mormons from Missouri. Many church members took refuge in Illinois, eventually founding a city they named Nauvoo along the banks of the Mississippi River. These hardships led some to abandon the faith, even as hundreds and then thousands continued to convert in the British Isles and elsewhere. By mid-1844, there were roughly twelve thousand Mormons in Nauvoo and many others elsewhere, including nearly eight thousand in the British Isles.47 These converts too needed access to the revelations.
In the late 1830s and early 1840s, published versions of revelations continued to appear in Latter-day Saint newspapers, pamphlets, and broadsides, though not at the same rate as in The Evening and the Morning Star. By early 1841, Nauvoo-based printer Ebenezer Robinson began stereotyping a second edition of the Doctrine and Covenants in the same office where the church newspaper Times and Seasons was published.48 The decision to stereotype the second edition, especially in light of the struggle to sell the complete run of the first edition, speaks to leaders’ conviction of the importance of the revelations.49 In the mid-nineteenth century, books were not normally stereotyped unless they were expected to sell more than a few thousand copies or require multiple reprints.50 Such optimism regarding the potential sales of the second edition recalls the earliest days of publishing the revelations, when the conference of 1 November 1831 determined to print ten thousand copies of the Book of Commandments. Sources indicate that one thousand copies of the 1844 edition were eventually printed, and the stereotyped plates were used again in 1845 and 1846 to print subsequent runs.51
Editors of the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants were influenced by multiple source texts and in some cases made significant changes to the revelations. The second edition, in contrast, was largely a reprint of the first, with very few changes. Robinson and successors to his role drew on the 1835 edition as their only source text for most of the 1844 edition, except in the case of eight items they added, six of which were not recorded until after 1835. In 1842 Robinson sold the printing concern to Joseph Smith, who placed all aspects of the operation under the direction of the Quorum of the Twelve. Work on the second edition of the Doctrine and Covenants was delayed such that the book was not published and available for purchase until late July or early August 1844, several weeks after Joseph Smith was killed.
A brief review of the question of prophetic succession that arose after Joseph Smith’s death highlights two significant consequences of publishing the revelations. First, publication of the revelations led to their being increasingly subject to a wide variety of interpretations, outside of the guidance of central authorities. Second, upon Smith’s death the Doctrine and Covenants increasingly emerged as a symbol of Smith’s spiritual legacy and of the foundation he had laid for the church.
Several individuals or groups eventually claimed authority to succeed Joseph Smith as head of the church he founded. The primary contenders for that position in the immediate aftermath of Smith’s death were Sidney Rigdon, who had been Smith’s first counselor in the First Presidency, and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, led by quorum president Brigham Young. The formal resolution of the dispute came at an 8 August 1844 conference in Nauvoo at which the vast majority of those in attendance voted to accept the Twelve as leaders of the church. Rigdon nevertheless continued to assert his leadership claims, which led to a public excommunication proceeding held before Bishop Newel K. Whitney and the high council of Nauvoo on 8 September. The primary charges were that Rigdon had claimed to receive revelation for the church and had secretly performed ordinations.
Opening the arguments, Brigham Young explained that the trial was authorized by texts in the Doctrine and Covenants.52 Throughout the proceedings against Rigdon, accusers grounded their remarks in Joseph Smith’s revelations. They consistently argued that a protocol established during Smith’s lifetime required new revelation to be presented to the quorums and approved by the leadership of the church. Rigdon, they argued, had refused to submit his revelations to this process. Apostle Orson Hyde described the protocol succinctly: “There is a way by which all revelations purporting to be from God through any man can be tested. Brother Joseph gave us the plan . . . when all the quorums are assembled and organized in order, let the revelation be presented to the quorums . . . and if it pass the whole without running against a snag, you may know it is of God.”53 Another member of the Twelve, Parley P. Pratt, asserted that any new revelation or church action should be tested against the revelations given through Joseph Smith: “the old revelations require us to build this temple. . . . The new revelation [from Rigdon] is to draw the people to Pittsburg, and scatter them abroad; and do any thing and every thing but that which the old revelations bid us do.”54 The “old revelations,” as Smith’s dictated texts were called at the trial, were to be a gauge for any newly advanced doctrine, teaching, or revelation, and their availability in published form created a churchwide standard by which members could measure their understanding of church doctrine and practice.
In criticizing Rigdon’s approach, the Twelve argued that their present focus was not to obtain new revelations but to implement the revelations already received by Joseph Smith. Pratt stated, “Now the quorum of the Twelve have not offered a new revelation from the time of the massacre of our beloved brethren, Joseph and Hyrum, but we have spent all our time, early and late, to do the things the God of heaven commanded us to do through brother Joseph.”55 But while emphasizing Joseph Smith’s initiatives, the Twelve asserted that they would also be entitled to receive revelation by the means established by the martyred prophet. “Now we dont expect ever to move without revelation and they that have the keys of the kingdom can get revelation,” Brigham Young declared.56
The importance the Twelve placed on Joseph Smith’s revelations was reflected throughout the church. Local church members and congregations who supported the Twelve found justification for their positions in the revelation texts and emphasized the importance of adhering to Smith’s revelations.57 A conference in Michigan representing fourteen church branches resolved “that we who compose the north eastern conference of Michigan, viewing the present situation of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, feel to sustain the present authorities of the church, the quorum of the Twelve, and others in carrying out the commandments of God, that have been given thorugh Joseph Smith, our martyred prophet.”58
It should be noted, however, that for leaders like Brigham Young, interpretation of the printed revelations did not give sufficient authority to lead the church. The revelations, though of undeniable importance, were secondary in authority to the men who had been ordained to the priesthood and called to speak in the name of God. The minutes of Rigdon’s trial record Young as saying, “As to a person not knowing more than the written word, let me tell you that there are keys that the written word never spoke of, nor never will.”59 Young later recounted a meeting in which he, at the urging of Joseph Smith, stated his views on the relative importance of the printed word of God, as revealed in the Bible, Book of Mormon, and Doctrine and Covenants: “I would not give the ashes of a rye straw for these 3 books for the salvation of any man . . . if we hadn’t living oracles in our midst we had nothing [more than the] sectarian world.”60
Nevertheless, the Doctrine and Covenants served as a proof text for several groups who traced their faith back to Smith, not just for those who followed Brigham Young and the Twelve. Sidney Rigdon’s new newspaper, Messenger and Advocate of the Church of Christ, opened with a letter written by a Rigdon supporter that used almost a dozen quotations or citations from the 1844 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants to argue for Rigdon’s authority. Citing passages regarding the role of the Twelve, the letter’s author, John Forgeus, interpreted Smith’s revelations in Rigdon’s favor. Speaking of followers of the Twelve generally, Forgeus asserted they were “honest, industrious and good citizens, but nevertheless, I know they have been duped in regard to following the counsel of men, instead of following the commandments of God, as given through Joseph Smith.”61 Other individuals claiming rightful succession or authority to lead also relied on revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants to justify their positions. James J. Strang presented an “Epistle” to the “Elders of the Church” in which he cited the Doctrine and Covenants over twenty times and quoted a dozen excerpts from the revelations. Strang counseled the elders to remember “the words of the Lord by the mouth of the Prophet Joseph: that you be not deceived, that you receive not the teachings of any that come before you as revelations and commandments, except they come in at the gate and be ordained according to the command of God.”62 Other groups or individuals also relied on their interpretations of revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants to justify following (or not following) various leaders.63
Despite the wide variety of conflicting arguments advanced by or on behalf of would-be successors to Joseph Smith, individuals who wrote or talked about succession matters did agree that church government and practice should follow the revelations. As Mormons chose new leaders and continued their practice of the faith Joseph Smith had founded, they grounded decisions in the revelations he had left behind. In the absence of the founding revelator, they followed the textual witness of Joseph Smith’s calling: the published revelations.