Discussion of editing the Doctrine and Covenants

“Prominent leaders have at times denied or attempted to minimize the awkward truth that alterations have been made to virtually every LDS doctrine.”

“Doctrinal Changes,” Mormon Stories Truth Claims essays (accessed 8 February 2019).

Despite Mormon Stories’ claim that there has been a cover-up of edits made to the Doctrine and Covenants, the subject has long been mentioned in various Church publications. The Tanners even mention some, which Mormon Stories’ plagiarist does not bother to appropriate:

And, finally, Mormon Stories does not explain how the Church’s conspiracy is furthered by their publication of all the original revelation texts in critical editions and providing them free on-line…..they even place each hand which produces a change in a different color. Presumably, this is to hide them from their readers?

Note how well the Joseph Smith Papers Project disguises the fact that there were changes. (We have bold-faced important parts so they cannot hide.)

This volume presents Revelation Books 1 and 2 in their entirety. Revelations and other documents copied into them are presented as they appear in each book, and the books are published as a complete record with textual annotation only. In addition to contemporaneous emendations, later redactions made to the revelations are represented, allowing readers to analyze the process of their preparation for publication as well as their composition. In contrast, the Documents series of The Joseph Smith Papers will present each Joseph Smith revelation separately, placed in chronological order with other documents of various genres (correspondence, sermons, articles in periodicals, and so forth). It will present as precisely as possible the text as originally dictated and recorded, ignoring later redactions….

It is unknown how many of the revelations in Revelation Books 1 and 2 made such an arduous textual journey [as D&C 86], but it appears that few, if any, of the revelations is an original in pristine form. Changes both intentional and inadvertent were made throughout the process….

Smith and others appointed by revelation (including Oliver Cowdery, Sidney Rigdon, John Whitmer, and William W. Phelps) edited the revelations based on the same assumption that informed their original receipt: namely, that although Smith represented the voice of God condescending to speak to him, he was limited by a “crooked broken scattered and imperfect language.” The November 1831 conference resolved that he should “correct those errors or mistakes which he may discover by the holy Spirit.”8

Joseph Smith Papers Project

Prominent Leaders Denying the D&C was edited?

“Prominent leaders have at times denied or attempted to minimize the awkward truth that alterations have been made to virtually every LDS doctrine.”

“Doctrinal Changes,” Mormon Stories Truth Claims essays (accessed 8 February 2019).

Mormon Stories’ unconcern about footnotes to back their claims here serves them well. The reader is less well served.

Which prominent leaders? What specific claims were they making? Which doctrine(s)? The change is significant according to whom?

Instead, we are simply expected to trust Mormon Stories and its list of anti-Mormon works at the end of the article. And no, putting up a picture of Greg Prince making the same claim is not “evidence.”

[The attentive reader will notice many close affinities between this section and Jerald and Sandra Tanner’s well-worn The Case Against Mormonism 1:6, p. 131–191. It is telling, though, that Mormon Stories is even less balanced that the notoriously-unbalanced Tanners. The Tanners at least include citations from BYU scholars, BYU Masters’ and Ph D. theses, and Hugh Nibley discussing the Doctrine and Covenants’ editing.1

This omission is perhaps not surprising—Mormon Stories may at least recognize what the Tanners did not: how great a terrible secret can this be if it is being freely written about and discussed in BYU Master’s theses in 1940 and 1955? Or a PhD thesis in 1974?

The reader may begin to wonder if the supposed damning denials are talking about something somewhat different—or if they simply aren’t aware of the intricacies of the textual history.]

It is no secret that the Church’s understanding of doctrine has grown over time. That of necessity means that some previous ideas will be inadequate or even in error. The Church’s Articles of Faith clearly anticipate that everything is not known, and that important matters await revelation: “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” Given that every member of the Church (including the prophet Joseph) was a convert in the first generation, they can hardly have avoided some mistaken ideas until corrected.

Key doctrines that do not seem to have shifted include:

  1. The reality of God’s existence, his divine fatherhood, and his character.
  2. The utter centrality of the life, atonement, teachings, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
  3. The necessity of the receipt of the Holy Ghost to change and perfect the believer.
  4. The essential nature of the ordinances (such as baptism).
  5. The inspiration of the Holy Bible and Book of Mormon as the word of God.
  6. The importance of divine ordination to the priesthood to officiate in binding ordinances.

By way of evidence (finally!) we are presented with a letter from Hugh B. Brown writing an investigator: “None of the early revelations of the Church have been revised, and the Doctrine and Covenants stands as printed including sections 5 and 7.” 2

President Brown could simply be unaware of the textual history of the early revelations. That would not be surprising—many members have not interested themselves in such matters.3 But, in that case he would merely be honestly mistaken—he would not be trying to dissimulate or spin the uncomfortable truth as Mormon Stories claims.

Here again, to adopt Mormon Stories’ reading, we must make President Brown into both an evil Machiavelli and an idiot.

If we accept Mormon Stories’ reading, then President Brown knows that he is lying, but hopes that he won’t be caught—the hope of an idiot. But, how likely is this? Discussions of the editing is included in the History of the Church, which likely sat in a majority of Latter-day Saint homes of the period. If he knows about the changes, surely he must know about that.

It is also not clear that the letter is claiming what Mormon Stories says. (But, the reader has already concluded that nuanced analysis or textual sophistication is not among this author’s strengths.)

It is difficult to know to what President Brown refers without the original letter asking the question. This investigator seems to have had questions about Adam-God and Blood Atonement. It may be that the investigator wondered if these doctrines had been in scripture and later been suppressed. If so, then President Brown’s denials are speaking of something entirely different. (And the reader might well suspect that the “investigator” was in fact an anti-Mormon looking for material, which he dutifully passed on to the Tanners. Honesty and forthrightness have rarely been hallmarks of the genre.)

One of the difficulties with plagiarizing someone like the Tanners is that one tends to repeat their mistakes uncritically. For example, Mormon Stories repeats the Tanners’ rather tired quote-mine of Joseph Fielding Smith.

Mormon Stories quotes Doctrines of Salvation 1:170. Like the Tanners, they omit the material that contextualizes President Smith’s comment as referring to the line-upon-line method of the priesthood offices and organization of the restoration (the bold text was cited):

In this restoration it is necessary that the Church of Jesus Christ in its simplicity and truth be restored. All the keys and powers of priesthood held by the prophets of former dispensations must be conferred upon God’s chosen representatives on the earth. In this manner all the authority and keys of priesthood of the past are to flow into the most glorious and greatest of dispensations, like clear streams flowing into a mighty river. The everlasting covenant once given to the ancients, and which Isaiah says was broken, must be restored….Since the prophets predicted that in the last days the Lord would gather Israel and once more reveal to them his covenants, reason demands that these covenants and the keys of this restoration must be given to some chosen messenger. Joseph Smith is that messenger….

RESTORATION: LINE UPON LINE. There is a beautiful thread of consistency running through the scheme of gospel restoration. Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery could not foresee the end from the beginning, but the Lord was the Architect, and made known to them little by little, as knowledge and organization were needed, until the perfect structure of the Church was restored.

Inspiration is discovered in the fact that each part, as it was revealed, dovetailed perfectly with what had come before. There was no need for eliminating, changing, or adjusting any part to make it fit; but each new revelation on doctrine and priesthood fitted in its place perfectly to complete the whole structure, as it had been prepared by the Master Builder.

Doctrines of Salvation 1:170.

Thus, President Smith is not talking about editing or changing the text of the Doctrine and Covenants, or even a modification of doctrines. He is denying the need to discard ordinances, covenants, and priesthood government aspects of “the perfect structure of the Church” as “knowledge and organization were needed.” (The material above is followed by a discussion of Elijah and the restoration of priesthood keys—another sign that his intent is to discuss priesthood organization, not every written revelation.)

One could also look at the work of President Smith’s son-in-law, Elder Bruce R. McConkie:

Between the time of the publication of the Book of Commandments in 1833 and the Doctrine and Covenants in 1835, the Prophet, as moved upon by the Spirit of the Lord, inserted some additional revealed truths in the revelations and in an instance or two clarified the existing language. This procedure of course, was in perfect harmony with the two principles: 1. That revelations are necessarily given to men “after the manner of their language” (D&C 1:24); and 2. That the Lord always reveals line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little, adding more light and knowledge as rapidly as that already received is known and practiced. (D&C 98:12; D&C 128:21.)

Mormon Doctrine (1966), 95.

So, in 1966, Bruce R. McConkie both knew and was telling anyone who would listen that the Doctrine and Covenants’ revelations had been amended and edited. And, he regarded such changes of little moment.

Mormon Stories has helpfully avoided any hint of this problem for the Tanner’s well-worn theory, thereby not troubling their readers with uncomfortable facts.

Editing the revelations—much ado about nothing

Joseph Smith himself, and later the Church, altered key revelations, documents and canonized LDS scripture. The timing and nature of the changes often coincided with evolving doctrinal views, bringing Smith’s ability to reliably receive and record God’s will into serious question.

“Doctrinal Changes,” Mormon Stories Truth Claims essays (accessed 8 February 2019).

As usual, what Mormon Stories does not tell us is more important than what it does tell us.

Yes, revelations and scripture have been edited by Joseph Smith and others. And, Joseph Smith and others were not shy about this fact, nor did they attempt to hide it. Many of the early revelations were published in the Church’s periodicals. When revisions became available, the changes were announced by Oliver Cowdery in those same publications. [History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day saints, 1805-1890, Volume 1, p. 580-81.]

Orson Pratt demonstrates how foolish it would be for Joseph to try to hide changes from his followers:

We often had access to the manuscripts when boarding with the Prophet; and it was our delight to read them over and over again, before they were printed. And so highly were they esteemed by us, that we committed some to memory; 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. These copies are still in our possession…..

And by revelation line was added upon line to several of the sections and paragraphs about to be published.

But some may inquire, are not the Almighty’s revelations perfect when they are first given? And if so, where was the propriety of the Lord’s adding any thing to them, when they were already perfect? We reply that every word of God is perfect; but He does not reveal all things at once, but adds ‘line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little, and there a little,’ revealing as the people are able to bear, or as circumstances require…. The Lord, therefore, adds to His own revelations whenever he thinks proper.

Orson Pratt, “Explanation of Substituted Names in the Covenants,” The Seer 2.3 (March 1854): 227-9.

Mormon Stories’ confusion is thus only about 160 years out of date.

If we buy Mormon Stories’ rather unsophisticated model, none of this makes any sense — if Joseph is really altering scripture and other texts to support a different teaching, why is he so frank and open about it? Why does he involve his other associates to help him do so? Why does he publish about it the Church’s official periodicals? And why does he think he can get away with it when many of his followers have read the originals and even memorized them, as Orson Pratt reports? Furthermore, why did Joseph and the Church keep the original manuscripts so carefully? Wouldn’t it be better to destroy the originals and hope that memory of the changes faded over time? Instead, the Church announced the changes and additions broadly:

Joseph, the Prophet, in selecting the revelations from the Manuscripts, and arranging them for publication, did not arrange them according to the order of the date in which they were given, neither did he think it necessary to publish them all in the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, but left them to be published more fully in his History. Hence, paragraphs taken from revelations of a later date, are, in a few instances, incorporated with those of an earlier date. Indeed, at the time of compilation, the Prophet was inspired in several instances to write additional sentences and paragraphs to the earlier revelations. In this manner the Lord did truly give ‘line upon line, here a little and there a little,’ the same as He did to a revelation that Jeremiah received, which, after being burned by the wicked king of Israel, the Lord revealed over again with great numbers of additional words.1

Millennial Star (1857).

To accept Mormon Stories’ reconstruction, we must conclude that Joseph is both a calculated deceiver and a complete bumbling fool when it comes to keeping his machinations a secret.

If Mormon Stories was interested in understanding and fairly representing LDS doctrine, it would realize that the early Saints did not understand the prophetic office or the revelatory process in the way required for this jejune attack. But, the reader is by now beginning to suspect that understanding and fairness are not high among the Mormon Stories essays’ priorities.

A weak—if predictable—beginning

“Modern revelation, via God’s carefully selected mouthpieces, is a fundamental tenet of the LDS faith. Members are regularly reminded that the prophets will not, can not lead them astray.”

“Doctrinal Changes,” Mormon Stories Truth Claims essays (accessed 8 February 2019).

The implication seems to be that prophets cannot learn more or have their understanding expanded. If Mormon Stories were interested in a fair analysis of Latter-day Saint doctrine, it would not begin by assuming that the changes they will discuss ipso facto discredit prophets.

LDS doctrine does not teach that the prophets’ inability to lead the saints astray extends to a guarantee that all teaching will be perfect, nor does it imagine that corrections and enhancements cannot be forthcoming.

At the very least, Mormon Stories ought to be honest enough to describe what the prophets themselves say about this claim–rather than put words in their mouths by implication. (To be sure, this spares Mormon Stories from having to actually engage the argument or even offer an argument–doubtless part of this approach’s appeal.)

What have prophets said about not leading the Saints astray? And how does LDS doctrine understand modern revelation? These would seem to be important points to establish through evidence, rather than presumption.

Brigham Young said bluntly:

Can a Prophet or an Apostle be mistaken? Do not ask me any such question, for I will acknowledge that all the time, but I do not acknowledge that I designedly lead this people astray one hair’s breadth from the truth, and I do not knowingly do a wrong, though I may commit many wrongs, and so may you. But I overlook your weaknesses, and I know by experience that the Saints lift their hearts to God that I may be led right.

A Series of Instructions and Remarks by President Brigham Young at a Special Council, Tabernacle, 22 March 1858 (Salt Lake City, 1858), pamphlet in Frederick Kesler Collection, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah.

Thus, to lead the people astray, the Prophet may designedly do something contrary to God’s will.

BH Roberts explained:

We can and do know the truth with reference to the matters that concern our salvation . . . But with reference to matters involving merely questions of administration and policy in the Church; matters that do not involve the great and central truths of the gospel—these afford a margin wherein all the human imperfections and limitations of man, even of prophets and apostles, may be displayed…. when you take into account human weaknesses, imperfection, prejudice, passion, bias, it is too much to hope for human nature that man will constantly thus walk linked with God. And so we make this distinction between a man speaking sometimes under the influence of prejudice and pre–conceived notions, and the utterances of a man who, in behalf of the Church of God, and having the requisite authority, and holding the requisite position, may, upon occasion, lay aside all prejudice, all pre–conception, and stand ready and anxious to receive the divine impression of God’s Spirit.

Brigham H. Roberts, Defense of Faith and the Saints, 2 vols (Provo: Utah, 2002 edition), 346, 554–555.

Thus, to lead the people astray involves those matters that are “the great and central truths of the gospel.” Put another way, the prophets and apostles will not divert the Saints from their covenant duties or eventual exaltation. But, this means that in matters of “administration and policy” and non-central doctrines, “all the human imperfections and limitations of man, even of prophets and apostles, may be displayed.”

Boyd K. Packer explained:

Even with the best of intentions, [Church government] does not always work the way it should. Human nature may express itself on occasion, but not to the permanent injury of the work.

Boyd K. Packer, “I Say unto You, Be One,” in BYU Devotional and Fireside Speeches, 1990–1991 (Provo, Utah: University Publications, 1991), 84.

Thus, to lead the people astray, the work of salvation would have to be permanently injured.

Why does Mormon Stories not explain this? Could it be that doing so would completely undercut the rest of their complaints about “changes” in scripture or doctrine?

Or are the author(s) simply so ill-informed that they believe they’re actually scoring telling points?