About two weeks ago I went to the University of Richmond to do some research on Mormon history. Thanks to Terryl Givens, Richmond has acquired a set of the Selected Collections DVDs that were released a while ago by the Church Archives. Hence, I found myself in a library carrel in Virginia reading Orson Hydeâ€™s handwritten 1834 minutes for the Kirtland High Council.
Reading through the minutes, I came to what would later become section 102 of the Doctrine & Covenants. If you read the version published in the D&C it is not much to look at. It is a set of instructions that lay out the procedures by which cases are to be tried before the high council. The procedures themselves are interesting but there is not much else in the section. It is a formal, institutional document, complete with the signatures of the two clerks: Orson Hyde and Oliver Cowdery.
The original minutes are much more interesting. A series of cases had been tried before the Kirtland High Council. Some had worked well, and some had gone spectacularly wrong. Most notably, a man named Hurlburt had been tried for some sort of sexual transgression and avoided any action by insisting upon his regret and godly sorrow to Joseph and the council. He then went about Kirtland bragging that he had fooled Joe Smithâ€™s god. The High Council reopened the case and excommunicated him. He went on to become the first apostate Mormon to publish an anti-Mormon tell-all: a genre that has survived to the present day in such classics as Leaving the Saints.
Reading through the minutes, you can sense Josephâ€™s growing frustration with the High Councilâ€™s activities. Joseph finally responded with a very long sermon to the council on their role and responsibilities. Section 102 comes from that meeting. The original minutes, however, begin with Josephâ€™s sermon not the text of the later section. To be sure, the sermon includes an explanation of the procedures set forth in section 102, but rather than the neutral institutional voice one sees there, Josephâ€™s sermon is an impassioned invocation of the ancient prophets. For him the High Council is a continuation of the ancient order of things restored in the last days. He talks of how mighty elders of the past sat in solemn assembly and handed down inspired wisdom to the people. He noted that in those glorious days gone by no one slept in meetings! Rather, in the council the ancient prophets communed with God himself.
Immediately after this sermon, the minutes note that the decision was made to make a formal record of the councilâ€™s actions, which consisted of accepting Josephâ€™s teaching. The next page then contains the text that became section 102. Josephâ€™s soaring mytho-poetic vision of councils of ancient prophets communing with God is transformed before you on the page into stolid institutional procedures. The Weberian progress from charisma to bureaucracy is accomplished in just a few lines.
For many a historically minded Mormon intellectual, the shift is seen as a kind of fall from grace. The original audacity of the Restoration, so the well-worn complaint goes, has been crushed under the demands institutionalization. Yet the shift from visions of the ancients to institutional procedures was at the very heart of what Joseph Smith did. It is not a bastardization of his vision, but rather a central part of it. There is a real sense in which there are Mormons today because after the soaring sermon on the ancients, Joseph and his brethren produced the plodding text of section 102.