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Mormon Stories’ confusion is thus only about 160 years out of date.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