Revealing the Joseph Smith Papers

Robin Scott Jensen, Robert J. Woodford, and Steven C. Harper, eds., Revelations and Translations, Volume 1: Manuscript Revelation Books. Vol. 1 of the Revelations and Translations series of The Joseph Smith Papers, edited by Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman. Salt Lake City: The Church Historian’s Press, 2009.

This significant volume of the Joseph Smith Papers Project, the second to be published, reproduces in photographic and textual format two manuscript revelation books that scribes used between 1831 and 1835 to record Smith’s revelations. Known as the “Book of Commandments and Revelations” and the “Book of Revelations” (often referred to as the Kirtland Revelation Book), these books served as the basis for the first publications of the revelations, the Book of Commandments (1833) and the Doctrine and Covenants (1835). The publication of the “Book of Commandments and Revelations,” which has been stored among the papers of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is particularly exciting, as it makes broadly accessible for the first time one of the crucial documents of early Mormonism. While most of the Joseph Smith Papers volumes will contain only transcriptions, the current volume, because of the centrality of Smith’s revelations to Mormonism’s development, contains photographs of each manuscript page facing its transcription. Revisions to the revelations are color-coded in the transcription to distinguish those made by Smith from those made by one of several associates. Scrupulous in its adherence to the scholarly standards of documentary editing, this admirable volume gives unique insight into the revelatory culture of early Mormonism.

The volume editors bring considerable skill and experience to their task. Robin Jensen is an expert in documentary editing and transcription analysis with the Joseph Smith Papers Project. Steven Harper is an associate professor of LDS Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University who specializes in early Mormon and American religious history. Robert Woodford’s massive dissertation, “Historical Development of the Doctrine and Covenants” (BYU, 1974), is still the most comprehensive work on this subject. They dedicate their volume to the recently deceased Larry H. Miller, who, along with his wife, Gail, has been the primary benefactor of the Joseph Smith Papers.

The careful scholarship of the first two volumes of the Joseph Smith Papers Project places it in the upper tier of major documentary editing projects, in company with the papers projects of the American Founding Fathers, for instance. The project, sponsored by the Church History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has earned the endorsement of the National Archives and Records Administration’s National Historical Publications and Records Commission, indicating that it meets the rigorous conventions of the scholarly field of documentary editing. The Joseph Smith Papers will eventually consist of roughly thirty volumes arranged in six series: Administrative Records, Documents, History, Journals, Legal and Business Records, and Revelations and Translations. This book is the first in the Revelations and Translations series, which will also reproduce the 1830 Book of Mormon, the Book of Commandments, and the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants.

The various series of the Joseph Smith Papers overlap with each other. Thus, Smith’s revelations will appear in both the Revelations and Translations series and in the Documents series (with some also in the Journals and History series). In the Revelations and Translations series, they will be published as collections of revelations (either the manuscript books or the published scriptures). By contrast, the Documents series will interweave the “earliest and best extant version of each revelation” with other items such as Smith’s letters (p. xxvi). Only the Documents series will contain contextual footnotes and historical introductions to the individual revelations. In this volume, the editors restrict their annotation to physical descriptions of the document (for instance, “There is a series of pin-holes at this point in the manuscript,” p. 145), alternate readings of the original text (“Possibly ‘Labou{rsrer},” p. 31), and notes about when textual changes first appeared in print. Readers should not expect historical context or interpretations. The Documents series will also feature “a detailed chronology, maps, a biographical directory, and an index.” For these reasons, the editors advise that “users of the present volume should consult the Documents series for information about the setting and significance of individual revelations” (p. xxvi). Unfortunately, readers will have to await the publication of these future volumes to be able to use Manuscript Revelation Books to its full extent.

This book contains both an introduction to the Revelations and Translations series and a volume introduction, both of which emphasize the centrality of Smith’s revelations to the early Saints. The volume introduction asserts that while other contemporary Americans recorded visions, Smith’s “revelations were a class apart.” Other visionaries “wrote in terms that were comparatively more modest, even ambiguous,” but Smith “produced distinctive revelatory documents that explore, in the words of one historian, ‘realms of doctrine unimagined in traditional Christian theology'” (p. xxx). The editors could have framed a more convincing comparison by placing Smith in context with earlier and later prophetic figures who spoke more boldly than Smith’s antebellum American contemporaries.

Manuscript Revelation Books

Revelation Book 1

The manuscript revelation books are particularly important since Smith’s revelations comprise much of the surviving documentary basis for Mormonism’s earliest years, especially from 1828 to 1831, and since they cover the period when Smith received most of his revelations. Smith’s efforts to preserve his revelations predated his other forms of record keeping. John Whitmer likely began copying revelations in the “Book of Commandments and Revelations” (designated by the editors as Revelation Book 1) about March 1831, after his appointment as Church historian. Revelation Book 1 contains revelations dating from 1828 to 1834, including “the earliest known copies of many revelations and, in some cases, the only surviving early manuscript copy” (p. 5).

In November 1831, desiring to make Smith’s revelations available to the expanding Church membership, a Church conference in Hiram, Ohio, authorized the publication of a book of revelations and excitedly voted to publish an impressive 10,000 copies. Oliver Cowdery and Whitmer then took Revelation Book 1 to Independence, Missouri, where William W. Phelps, earlier appointed as Church printer, had established a press. Though distant from Church headquarters in Kirtland, Whitmer continued to copy revelations as he received them “delivered by mail or in person” (p. 5). In 1832, Phelps founded the first Church newspaper, The Evening and the Morning Star, in which he published twenty-four revelations, all but one drawn from this manuscript book.

Revelation Book 1 also served as the basis for the Book of Commandments, which Phelps prepared for publication in Missouri in 1833 (with a more modest, planned publication run of 3,000). However, a mob destroyed Phelps’s office and home in July 1833, leaving only “a few dozen incomplete copies of the Book of Commandments” (p. xxix). This transferred the center of Church publishing to Kirtland, where Whitmer returned in April 1835, likely bringing with him Revelation Book 1, which was then used as a “supplemental source for the publication” of the Doctrine and Covenants (p. 6). In all, Revelation Book 1 contains 64 of the 65 items in the Book of Commandments and 95 of the 103 sections of the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants. (It also includes eleven items that do not appear in either book.) Whitmer’s brief historical introductions provide dates and other details for many of the early revelations. He recorded, for instance, that the revelation given the day of the Church’s organization on 6 April 1830 (D&C 21) was received in Fayette, New York. The Book of Commandments, however, identified Manchester, New York, as the site of the revelation, helping fuel later confusion and controversy over the location of the Church’s organization. The manuscript version clearly supports the traditional notion that Smith and his associates convened in Fayette to organize the Church of Christ.1

Carried by the Saints to Utah during the trek west, Revelation Book 1 was housed in the Church Historian’s Office. At some point, it became part of the papers of Joseph Fielding Smith, Church historian from 1921 to 1970. When he became Church president in 1970, Revelation Book 1 became “part of the First Presidency’s papers” (p. 4). As such, it has been inaccessible to scholars and, therefore, its publication marks a milestone in the textual study of Joseph Smith’s revelations.

Revelation Book 2

Because Whitmer and Cowdery took the first revelation book to Missouri, a second book was purchased in Ohio to continue recording revelations. This was known as the Kirtland Revelation Book and was designated by the editors as Revelation Book 2. Significantly shorter than Revelation Book 1, it contains about fifty revelations, many of which also appear in the first book, copied between early 1832 and late 1834. Frederick G. Williams served as the primary scribe, though Orson Hyde, Cowdery, and Smith also recorded some of the revelations.

In September 1834, a high council appointed Smith, Cowdery, Rigdon, and Williams to prepare the revelations for publication. Before the return of Revelation Book 1 to Kirtland, the committee used Revelation Book 2, along with the Book of Commandments and The Evening and the Morning Star, to prepare the Doctrine and Covenants. The 1835 Doctrine and Covenants published all but eight revelations copied in Revelation Book 2, and an additional two were included in the 1844 edition. Following the publication of the Doctrine and Covenants, Revelation Books 1 and 2 were no longer used to record revelations; additional revelations were written in various locations, such as Smith’s journals. Images of Revelation Book 2 were first made widely available as part of Selected Collections from the Archives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (a DVD set produced in 2002).2

Editing the Revelations

The manuscript revelation books clearly indicate that Smith and other Latter-day Saints viewed revision of the revelations’ text as a natural and necessary part of the publication process. During the November 1831 conference that authorized the publication of the revelations, Smith received a revelation designed to serve as preface to the proposed volume (D&C 1), which acknowledged that the revelations “were given unto my Servents in their weakness after the manner of their Language” (p. xxvii). The conference charged Smith to “correct those errors or mistakes which he may discover by the holy Spirit” (p. xxix). The participants also discussed “Smith’s imperfect language” (p. xxvii), resulting in another revelation (D&C 67), which challenged the “wisest man present to produce a text on par with the ‘least’ of the manuscript revelations” (p. xxviii). William McLellin’s failed attempt to replicate a revelation inspired further confidence in Smith’s revelations.

The editors explain, “Joseph Smith and his followers considered his revelations to be true in the sense that they communicated the mind and will of God, not infallible in an idealized sense of literary flawlessness.” Thus Smith and a handful of associates—including Cowdery, Rigdon, Whitmer, and Phelps—edited the revelations, believing “that although Smith represented the voice of God condescending to speak to him, he was limited by a ‘crooked broken scattered and imperfect language’ ” (p. xxix). Rigdon, for instance, replaced biblical language with more modern words (substituting you, your, and yours for thee, thy, and thine). Whitmer reversed many of Rigdon’s changes, as well as making some modifications of his own. Cowdery altered the revelations less frequently, but his changes “were often more substantive in nature, clarifying and expanding the meaning of several items” (pp. 6–7). For instance, a revelation received on 2 January 1831 stated, “Ye are blessed not because of your iniquity, neither your hearts of unbelief, for verily some of you are guilty before me” (D&C 38:14). At this point, Cowdery inserted a clause, “but I will be merciful unto your weakness” (p. 71).3 In other revelations, Cowdery indicated that divine promises were conditional on the recipient’s faithfulness (p. 133). Phelps generally provided copyediting, such as adding punctuation and versification. Smith also clarified passages and “likely reviewed some of his associates’ editorial changes,” although the extent of his supervision is unknown (p. 7).

Uncanonized Revelations

The manuscript revelation books also contain revelations that were never canonized. While some are fairly mundane, others give fascinating glimpses into the world of early Mormonism. For instance, this volume publishes for the first time a revelation that Smith received in early 1830 directing Cowdery, Hiram Page, Josiah Stowell, and Joseph Knight to travel to Kingston, Ontario, and sell the Canadian copyright to the Book of Mormon. In 1848, Hiram Page wrote to William E. McLellin that Smith had “herd [heard] that there was a chance to sell a copyright in canada for any useful book that was used in the states.” Hoping to “get a handsom[e] sum of money” for his family, Smith sent the four men to Canada, but they failed to find a purchaser.4 Decades later, David Whitmer claimed that when the disappointed group returned, Smith “enquired of the Lord” and received a revelation through his seer stone that explained, “Some revelations are of God: some revelations are of man: and some revelations are of the devil.”5 Critics of Joseph Smith have described the Canada venture as evidence of Smith’s greed and manipulation.

In keeping with their approach, the editors do not provide historical commentary on this revelation. In a recent Ensign article, LDS Church Historian Marlin K. Jensen argues that “calling the divine communication a ‘failed revelation’ is not warranted,” as it “clearly conditions the successful sale of the copyright on the worthiness of those seeking to make the sale as well as on the spiritual receptivity of the potential purchasers.”6 The revelation states that the sellers “shall do my work . . . with an eye single to my Glory that it may be the means of bringing souls unto Salvation” and that they will have success “if the People harden not their hearts against the enticeings of my spirit” (p. 33).

Another heretofore unpublished item in Revelation Book 1 is “A Sample of pure Language given by Joseph the Seer.” This revelation, which consists of a series of prophetic questions and divine answers and which was referred to by Orson Pratt in an 1855 sermon, identifies the “name of God in pure Language” as “Awman,” the “being which made all things in all its parts.”7 Christ is called the “Son Awman” and “the greatest of all the parts of Awman,” while members of “the human family” are “the greatest parts of Awman Sons” (p. 265). While ambiguous in its meaning, the revelation hints at the radical break that Mormonism would make, as more fully articulated in Smith’s King Follett sermon, with traditional Protestant conceptions of God and man (“the greatest parts of Awman Sons”). It potentially represents in embryo the collapse of the ontological distinction between God and man that would result in Parley P. Pratt’s succinct declaration that “God, angels and men, are all of one species.”8

Finally, the volume includes a document that was sung “by the gift of Tongues & Translated,” likely by Frederick G. Williams.9 The song’s text envisions “Enoch of Old at a time when he stood upon the mount which was called the mountain of God” and records his song as “he gazed on eternity and sang an Angelic song and mingled his voice with the heavenly throng” (p. 509). Describing Enoch’s vision of man’s history from the time of Adam to the last days, the song declares that the Saints will ultimately “gaze upon Jesus . . . stand at his feet behold they are weeping they strike hands with Enoch of Old they inherit a city as it is writen the City of God, Loud sound the trump, they receive a celestial crown hozana hozana the heaven of heavens” (p. 511). The song not only indicates the acceptance of glossalalia (speaking tongues) among the early Saints, but also gives insight into their views of Enoch and their millennial hopes.


Besides the reproductions of the manuscript books, the editors insert many useful items, including a chronology; biographical sketches of the seven scribes who contributed to the revelation books; and a correspondence of items in Revelations Books 1 and 2 with The Evening and the Morning Star, 1833 Book of Commandments, and the Doctrine and Covenants of 1835, 1844, 1981 (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), and 2004 (Community of Christ). Unfortunately, the volume has no general index, with the explanation that an index of the revelations’ contents will be in the Documents series. For the moment—and for those who will use this volume independently of that series—this decision decreases the volume’s usefulness; in the words of the Joseph Smith Papers Project’s Web site, “a detailed index . . . is an essential tool for using these reference volumes.”

The photographic reproductions make this volume both massive and expensive at $100. In some ways—the photographs, the color-coded revisions, the assiduous attention to every pin-prick—this is documentary editing on steroids. In contrast to the first volume of the Joseph Smith Papers (Smith’s 1832–39 journals), which was priced at $50 and has sold extremely well, this volume will test the commercial popularity of the project. For scholars and serious students of Joseph Smith and the revelatory culture of early Mormonism, this will be an indispensable resource. For Latter-day Saints interested in reading the revelations as they were originally recorded, this is an excellent volume. Those who want the revelations placed in historical context with explanatory footnotes, however, should wait for the Documents series. If I had to choose between purchasing this volume and two volumes of the Documents series (presumably priced, like Journals 1, around $50), I would opt for the latter. Nevertheless, Jensen, Woodford, Harper, and the team of the Joseph Smith Papers Project have produced the necessary starting point for any future scholarship on the textual history of Joseph Smith’s revelations, which have long needed the methodical attention that this volume both exemplifies and makes possible for future researchers.


1. Paul H. Peterson, in his review of Inventing Mormonism: Tradition and the Historical Record, by H. Michael Marquardt and Wesley P. Walters, BYU Studies 35/4 (1995): 216–19, examines the evidence for both locations. See also Steven Harper’s comments in R. Scott Lloyd, ” ‘Major Discovery’ Discussed at Mormon History Association Conference,” Church News, 22 May 2009.

2. Richard E. Turley Jr., ed., Selected Collections from the Archives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 2002). H. Michael Marquardt published many of the revelations from the Kirtland Revelation Book in The Joseph Smith Revelations: Text and Commentary (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1999).

3. When quoting from the text of the revelations, for clarity purposes I will silently delete the “barbed wire” of documentary editing notations.

4. Hiram Page to William McLellin, 2 February 1848, Community of Christ Archives, in H. Michael Marquardt, The Rise of Mormonism, 1816–1844 (Longwood, FL: Xulon, 2005), 153–54.

5. David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, 31, emphasis in original, in Marquardt, Rise of Mormonism, 155–56.

6. Marlin K. Jensen, “The Joseph Smith Papers: The Manuscript Revelation Books,” Ensign, July 2009, 51.

7. See Orson Pratt, “The Holy Spirit and the Godhead,” in Journal of Discourses, 2:342 (18 February 1855).

8. Parley P. Pratt, Key to the Science of Theology (Liverpool: Richards, 1855), 33.

9. Frederick G. Williams (a namesake descendant) makes the case for Williams’s authorship in “Singing the Word of God: Five Hymns by President Frederick G. Williams,” BYU Studies 48/1 (2009): 57–88.