How to write a revelation

July 1, 2010 | 31 comments
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Documents_LargeI have been working on a paper looking at the Doctrine and Covenants, and my research has me thinking about how the texts of modern revelation were produced.  I think that there are a lot of Mormons who assume that the words of the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants were dictated word for word to Joseph.  On this model, the Doctrine and Covenants is rather like the Qua’ran, which also consists of a series of revelations given to a prophet over a period of years in response to concrete historial circumstances.  Pious Muslims affirm that the Qua’ran was dictated word for word in classical Arabic to the Prophet Muhammed and transmitted without error to the present.  Some Islamic theologians have gone farther, declaring that the Qua’ran is uncreated in time.  Rather, it is an eternal emanation of the Divine mind, the Word that was in the beginning with God incarnate in the world.  (There are problems with this story of the Qua’ran’s text of course.  The verses inscribed in the Dome of the Rock, for example, which represent one of the earliest extant Islamic texts vary slightly from the current version of the Qua’ran.)  Despite flirting with it in a couple of places in our scriptures, Mormon metaphysics isn’t especially congenial to such a super-charged version of textual inerrancy, but I don’t think that it is a stretch for many Mormons to see the texts of the Doctrine and Covenants as being inspired word for word.  I don’t think, however, that this is going to work.

According to Orson Pratt, who presumably talked with Joseph about it, the Prophet did not receive revelations word for word.  Rather, he received impressions and ideas which he then clothed with words.  Even this model, I think, is too simple.  It still assumes a simple linear process where God implants an idea in Joseph’s mind and Joseph then writes it down.  I think that the process of composition was quite a bit messier and heterogenous than that.  Consider a couple of revealing incidents.  In 1829, for example, as Joseph and Oliver made their plans for the founding of a new church Oliver produced a text that was to serve as a kind of constitution for the church.  In the end, the text was not used, the forerunner of section 20 taking its place.  The text is written in the first person with the Lord speaking.  On the other hand, large portions of the text are copied from the ecclesialogical materials in Moroni in the Book of Mormon.  I think that the best way of seeing this revelation is as a text that Oliver composed in the first person in the Lord’s voice using previous scriptural texts.  The text was never used, but there isn’t evidence that Joseph objected to the way it was produced or regarded Oliver as doing something different than what he was doing.

Another revealing incident involves the compiling of the revelations for the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants.  A committee was formed to review the revelations and decide which were to be included and which were not.  Although I can’t cite particulars because my books are in my office, the committee seems to have been passing on whether or not the revelation texts produced by Joseph Smith were in fact inspired.  Interestingly, this was not seen as an all or nothing proposition.  Some were, some less so.  During this process one of the Twelve — William McLellin, if memory serves — insisted that he could write better revelations.  Joseph challenged him to do so, and everyone agreed that he failed.  What is interesting about the event is that the competition between McLellin and Joseph seems to have been in part a literary pissing match, McLellin objecting to some of the awkwardness of the language.  Joseph’s reaction suggests, I think, that he felt his literary acumen as much as his prophetic gifts were being challenged.  In other words, he saw himself as in some way the author of the revelations and saw McLellin’s challenge a s personal sleight.  The presence of the committee, sifting and judging the texts that Joseph produced, suggests that they also understood the revelations as in some sense being authored by Joseph, with their purpose being to judge by the spirit which of these texts was sufficiently inspired to acquire authoritative status.

In terms of genre the Doctrine and Covenants is extremely heterogenous.  Sometimes we have texts where God speaks in the first person.  Sometimes we have texts in which Joseph speaks in the first person describing some theophany or other event.  Sometimes we have snippets of Joseph’s sermons.  Sometimes we have press releases.  There is even variation in how the texts where God speaks in the first person were produced.

For example, section 121, 122, and 123 are all taken from a much longer letter written by Joseph in Liberty Jail to the saints scatter across Missouri and Illinois.  Section 122 is entirely in the first person with the Lord speaking.  Section 123 is entirely in the first person with Joseph and his associates speaking to the church.  Section 121 consists of a dialogue between Joseph and the Lord, with verses 1-6 being Joseph’s question to the Lord and the remainder of the section being Joseph’s answer.  When the original letter is read in its entirety, it is far from clear that Joseph is presenting its contents as a revelation — a “commandment” in the terminology of early Mormonism.  That is, he is not saying, “Here is the text of a new revelation.”  Rather it is a public letter.  The dialogue between Joseph and the Lord in section 121 (and continued in section 122) can be read, I think, as a literary conceit.  That is, Joseph is apostrophizing the Lord in his letter and then recording what he thinks would be the Lord’s answer.  After the fact, this literary aria is then recast as revelation and scripture.

I don’t think that there is anything wrong with any of this.  I don’t think that it undermines the Doctrine and Covenants’ claim to be scripture.  It does, I think, raise a couple of issues.  First, I think that it narrows the gap between both personal revelation and prophetic revelation as well as between inspired literary composition and revelatory composition.  Mind you, I don’t think that it collapses these distinctions.  It just narrows them.  As a historical matter, the it seems that at best only some of the texts in the Doctrine and Covenants acquired their scriptural status based on some unique “revelatory” means of production.  Others seem to have been judged after the fact as sufficiently inspired or inspiring to be included in the canon.

Second, it potentially raises questions about how to read the texts.  I am partial to extremely close reading of scriptural texts.  I like to puzzle through the significance of word order, phrases, sentence structure, and the like.  I think, however, that a dictation model of revelation cannot ultimately be defended.  This means that the justification for such close readings must rest on something other than a kind of Qua’ranic awe before the unmediated word of God.

Finally, it raises questions of authority.  This cuts in two directions.  On one hand, this may be troubling for some, as the strong presence of a Joseph as author within the texts seems to make them less divine and less trustworthy.  On the other hand, for those who are genuinely troubled by certain passages of the Doctrine and Covenants, being able to distance God from the troubling texts may be a relief.  Trying to figure out how to negotiate the authority of the text without falling into disappointed fundamentalism on one hand, and on the other a kind of facile religious liberalism that re-interprets the texts into nothing more than a recapitulation of contemporary mores is tricky to say the least.

31 Responses to How to write a revelation

  1. Shani Grové on July 1, 2010 at 10:24 am

    What you say rings so true. I am not a Mormon, but I respect it as I respect all religions, which to me seem ways in which we in our helpless floundering existence try to make sense of life and create a system that works for us. And as TS Eliot says (more or less) when we come to the end of all our searching we come back to where we started and see the place for the first time.

  2. Nate Oman on July 1, 2010 at 10:30 am

    Shani: Thanks for your comment. I should make clear, however, that I while I think that Joseph was in some sense the author of the revelations, I don’t think that they should be reduced to his authorship. I don’t ultimately see Mormonism as simply an attempt to make sense of life or create a system that works for me. I see it as something that is given, external to my process of creation, authoritative, and ultimately divine. Religion is not simply, I think, an idiosyncratic idiom for talking about life. It is a bit of the divine that erupts into my world.

  3. Ben S on July 1, 2010 at 10:38 am

    Nice post. I’ve been mulling over this process as well, as a bootstrap into a discussion of Old Testament authorship/editing issues. Though many LDS are unaware of them, the Ensign ran some useful articles on the editing process of the revelations, and is where I first encountered Orson Pratt stating that Joseph didn’t get these word-for-word in divine dictation.

    “During this process one of the Twelve — William McLellin, if memory serves — insisted that he could write better revelations. Joseph challenged him to do so, and everyone agreed that he failed.”

    This also has an Islamic parallel, as the inimitability of the Qur’an is seen as one of its proofs. Surah 2:23-24 says, in essence, if you doubt it, write one yourself and try holding it up as revelatory language.

    http://www.khilafah.com/index.php/concepts/islamic-culture/5361-understanding-the-qurans-challenge

    I think the D&C challenge has more to do with content than the Qur’an, which has more to do with its Arabic style.

  4. Paul on July 1, 2010 at 10:47 am

    I’m fascinated by what you’ve written and would like to read more about this subject. Can you suggest anything for further reading?

    You draw some conclusions that are to me comforting: The Lord seems to have spoken to Joseph in more than one way, and the revelations seem to have come to him in more than one way. That’s consistent with my own personal experience in receiving personal inspiration.

    (Perhaps I’ve drawn a false conclusion; I’m not completely clear if you believe the dictation model was ever used, or if you believe all the revelations are Joseph’s more or less inpired writings in whatever form — letter, sermon, etc.)

    Your story of McClellin attempt at writing a revelation (told without your sources) suggests Joseph felt his literary chops were under fire. I guess I’ve never considered that story that way and would be interested in more information that leads you to that conclusion, since your summary simply presents the conclusion as the incident itself.

    Your “other hand” in the last paragraph raises more issues than it resolves, I think. How will a reader who is already troubled by the content of revelations be comforted knowing that some (but who is to say which) could be considered more Joseph and less God? It seems an arbitrary approach at best.

    I agree with you that a study of the development of the revelations does not need to diminish their divine source, nor their importance for the reader.

  5. Bfabbi on July 1, 2010 at 10:56 am

    Very nice post. I especially love the reference to the Qur’an and the various theories about its origin. In current Islamic thought, the latter theory is much more prevalent. I have studied the Qur’an and Islam for years, as my MA is in Middle Eastern Studies. I have seen, in many paces, a lot of Latter-day Saints do look at the D&C as being word for word revelation. My own studies in Church History, and with the Joseph Smith Papers Project, have lead me more to your view. I view the revelations in the D&C as scripture, there is no doubt on that, but I view some of it more as how we say that General Conference talks are scripture. There is gospel truth and doctrine in the revelations, but many of them allow us to see the character and mind of the Prophet. Some of them are word for word, section 2 springs to mind, as well as parts of section 76, and others.
    I think that part of the maturation process for the Church, and for us as members of the Church, is to study, accept, and understand our own history, and the texts of our history. I look at the scriptures, and the words of the prophets and apostles from two lenses. The scholar and historian studies and looks at the context, and tries to understand the texts that way. The believer in me looks for the Divine in them. I don’t have any problem reconciling the two perspectives.

  6. Dave on July 1, 2010 at 11:07 am

    Nice thoughts, Nate. One extension of your argument is that we should decouple canonization and revelation. So some revelations get canonized, but others don’t; some canonized texts result from revelation, others don’t. Which means we need independent criteria to evaluate the status of any given canonical text. That is not news to religious scholars who specialize in texts and spend a great deal of time pondering that issue for various texts, but it seems like most LDS scholars are loathe to tread on that terrain (at least vis-a-vis LDS texts).

  7. Dane Laverty on July 1, 2010 at 11:16 am

    Dave, I agree that canon and revelation are distinct circles with some (a lot?) of overlap.

    we need independent criteria to evaluate the status of any given canonical text.

    I think “criteria” might be too hopeful, since it implies an objective standard. My guess is that the best we can hope for are subjective heuristics. This has the advantage of making each individual responsible for her or his own interpretations, but works poorly for structuring a unified institution of religion.

  8. Bfabbi on July 1, 2010 at 11:17 am

    @Dave:
    I agree with you. We do need to look at our texts and see what the distinction between canonical and not is. I think that part of the purpose of the Joseph Smith Papers Project is to help us do that. The first volume of the “Revelations” series does include revelations that were never canonized. I believe that even in our own day, we have revelations that have not been canonized. The revelation concerning the Blacks and the Priesthood, yes OD 2, but that is just the press release. Also, the direction for smaller temples, the PEF, and others that we don’t know about.

  9. Aaron R. on July 1, 2010 at 11:26 am

    Nate, regarding the collapsing distance between personal revelation and scripture, I think the ‘Prophetic subject’ and time are also important factors. Though there has been revelation canonised since JS the majority of those texts that have been canonised are from him. Scripture becomes attached to his enacting the Prophetic subject, a form of subjectivity which many of our leaders have seemed less comfortable with. For example, I suspect that part of the reason that there is no canonised revelation concerning 1978 is in part due to this dis-ease. Yet at the same time we see Kimball adding to the canon texts from leaders he regards as Prophets. Consequently, believing you can write a revelation is not something which is all that common for our leaders, but believing your predecessors did seems an easier step.

    The second factor I think is time. It is possible, I think, that the next text to be canonised would be the Family Proclamation. Time has allowed this text to work in the Church as scripture at which point the body of the Church are more prepared to accept it as the ‘Word of the Lord’.

    As an aside I am curious regarding who certain texts (i.e. D&C 137) became ‘nominated’ for canonisation. I wonder whether Pres. Kimball or some otehr influence leader had a personal revelatory experience with that text which then provides the context for its nomination or is there some other process at work.

  10. Kevin Barney on July 1, 2010 at 12:09 pm

    Nice post. I think our people need to understand this better. Too many people absolutely freak out when they see for the first time just how the revelations have been edited.

  11. Christopher on July 1, 2010 at 12:28 pm

    Nice post, Nate. Have you read Rob Jensen’s MA thesis? It’d be worth your time (and anyone else interested in the subject).

  12. Robert C. on July 1, 2010 at 1:08 pm

    Great post, Nate. Here is a conference paper/draft by Jim F. on Ricoeur’s notion of canon that you might find interesting, if you haven’t seen it….

  13. Robert C. on July 1, 2010 at 1:12 pm

    Christopher #11, any hints on trackind down Rob Jensen’s thesis? Where can it be found? What’s the title? (Would it be possible to post it somewhere online—maybe scribd?–if there aren’t copyright issues?)

  14. Nate Oman on July 1, 2010 at 1:22 pm

    @Paul: I am afraid that I can’t give you anything else on sources as my books are in my office and I am at home with my daughter. As for sources, the Joseph Smith Papers: Revelations Book is a good place to start. There is an old BYU Ph.D. that has been republished by BYU Studies, which provides a textual history of every section, although it is difficult to use and thin on interpretation. I suspect that with the publication of the Revelations series of the JSP we’ll see more on this topic in the next couple of years.

  15. Ben S on July 1, 2010 at 1:41 pm

    Paul, the Ensign sources are

    Woodford, Robert J. “How the Revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants Were Received and Compiled.” Ensign (January 1985).

    Woodford, Robert J. “The Story of the Doctrine and Covenants.” Ensign (December 1984).

    Peterson, Melvin. “Preparing Early Revelations for Publication.” Ensign (February 1985)

    Woodford is the author of the dissertation referred to. I can’t find the link to the nice searchable pdf version at BYU studies, but if you want a copy of the unwieldy pdf version, drop me an email. It’s 170Mb. moc.liamg@namkcapsneb (reverse that whole thing)

  16. Adam Greenwood on July 1, 2010 at 2:48 pm

    I kept waiting to see the reference to Mormon Doctrine.

    Anyway, the appealing thing about this model of revelation is that it is incarnational. The word of God becomes actual with mortal DNA in it.

  17. Stephanie on July 1, 2010 at 3:05 pm

    According to Orson Pratt, who presumably talked with Joseph about it, the Prophet did not receive revelations word for word. Rather, he received impressions and ideas which he then clothed with words.

    This process is how I think we got the temple ceremony. It explains to me how sexist language could be written into the temple ceremony when I don’t believe God is sexist. And why the temple ceremony is still “true” even after it has been revised (and hopefully will be revised a bit more). Understanding this has made attending the temple much easier for me.

  18. Paul on July 1, 2010 at 4:45 pm

    Nate & Ben, thanks!

  19. Jared on July 1, 2010 at 8:34 pm

    In my opinion, it borders on the impossible to say with any accuracy how the prophet Joseph Smith processed “revelation”. There have only been a few men on the earth who had the spiritual capacity of Joseph Smith. I think when we try to explore this subject we should be quick to acknowledge our limitations.

    Having said that, I always enjoy a good read like this.

  20. Velikiye Kniaz on July 1, 2010 at 10:06 pm

    This is an incredibly fascinating topic, especially when you consider the times when others were actually present when Joseph was receiving a revelation. Several of those who personally witnessed this occurance spoke of how Joseph’s countenance seemed to shine with an inner light.
    One brother actually compared the Prophet’s face to an illumined lantern. Once the revelation had closed his face would regain it’s normal appearance. One curious instance of this was when both Joseph and Sidney Rigdon were caught up in vision, again in the presence of others. When the vision closed, Joseph shared the details of his experience with those in the room, while Sidney Rigdon was so exhausted from the experience he had to lie down to rest. Joseph explained by saying simply, “Sidney, isn’t as used to it, (the relevatory process), as I am.” Several accounts of these incidents and others of a similar nature can be found in “Remembering Joseph; Personal Recollections of those who knew the Prophet Joseph Smith” by Mark L. McConkie, Deseret Book, copyright 2003. I realize that from a legal standpoint these personal accounts would be considered “hearsay” or “anecdotal” but it is all that we have since Joseph’s contemporaries have all passed away. (However, some who witnessed Lorenzo Snow receiving the revelation on tithing in the St. George Tabernacle recorded a similar manifestation in their personal journal histories.)
    Stepanie brought up an interesting point about the endowment ceremony. If I remember correctly, Joseph actually performed the ceremony a few times in the upper room of his red brick store in Nauvoo before the martyrdom. He later instructed Brigham to refine and systemize (my words, not Joseph’s) it. This wasn’t done until the Saints had come west and then Brigham followed through on his assignment as the St. George Temple neared completion. Thus some of the sexist language might well be Brother Brigham’s ‘refinements’ and not Joseph’s. I’m with Stephanie, though; the Almighty is not sexist, and probably shakes His head in patient frustration at these manifestations of mortal human foibles. But their presence does not diminish one iota the validity of the endowment of that era as a whole for those who were privileged enough to receive it.

  21. American Yak on July 1, 2010 at 11:03 pm

    The Old Testament is sexist. God is sexist, if you think he’s hiding Heavenly Mother from us. He. Him. Thou. It’s an interesting proposition/observation, and I don’t mean to wander off the mark here, but it does seem that part of the key in understanding revelation is understanding its humanity *and* divinity. The two seem inseparable, and I often marvel at Joseph’s lucidity in doctrine and revelation, and how it was all new, and yet it was so based on old religion as well, old english, archaic medieval ways. On continuas restoration or renaissance, insufferable language, wondrous light.

    Knocking up against its edges, we are cut down and grow into our own understanding…

    Heavenly Mother *IS* important…

    The Temple is *NOT* itself sexist…perhaps just our understanding…

    God had a beard, so why can’t I? Because correlating forces make mistakes, and blacks didn’t receive priesthood based on…what revelation again? It’s bizarre and difficult to make sense of…

    …and miraculously wonderful.

    Etc. etc.

  22. WraithOfBlake on July 2, 2010 at 4:16 am

    Despite the Qur’an’s being spoken by the Angel Gabriel in the form of verse and thereafter memorized, it historically existed in variant, memorized forms that had eventually to become selectively standardized and then authorized as authentic.

    http://www.amazon.com/review/RPN4NRKAD616A/ref=cm_cr_pr_viewpnt#RPN4NRKAD616A

    Zayd Ibn Thabit, the personal secretary of Muhammad[…]Qu’ran from the variant versions of the Qu’rans from the Qurras for Caliph Bakr when he was commissioned to make one representative copy. Zayd[…]had[…]memorized the Quran[,…so] why did he go out and[…]assemble a Quran from other Qurra? […Yet] the Cairo Edition of the Qu’ran contains 6,236 verses and the Traditional Ibn Abbas Edition of the Qu’ran contains 6,616 verses[,…]a difference of 380 verses missing or added[…].

  23. Bfabbi on July 2, 2010 at 10:20 am

    @Wraith
    Yes, that is a concrete historical fact. Several years after Muhammad’s (pbuh) death, an official Qu’ran was organized under the aegis of the Caliph Uthman, and all other variants were burned.
    So, yes, there were different versions, but since when have textual variations stopped the theology from being what it is?

  24. Wm Morris on July 2, 2010 at 10:54 am

    As Adam alludes to, perhaps we should also take this narrowing to suggest that we might want to take conference talks more seriously as a form of scripture (although probably not dogmatically so).

  25. Nate Oman on July 2, 2010 at 11:54 am

    Adam and Wm Morris re conference talks: I think that this is right. Oddly enough for all his dogmatism and apparent scriptural fundamentalism, I think that Bruce R. McConkie “got” this point. His final sermon is, I think, an attempt to write scripture, revelation.

  26. Busracer on July 2, 2010 at 1:21 pm

    If memory serves, the first experience described in #20 was recorded by Orson’s brother Parley, and it strikes me that this experience is in some contrast to Orson’s account Nate describes at the beginning. My recollection of Parley’s account includes the idea that Joseph would pick up from where the scribe stopped recording without having the scribe reading back. This account seems to support the linear dictation view of revelation. That was the story I was most familiar with, and I appreciate hearing these other accounts as well. I have wondered if revelation wasn’t some mix of all of the above.

    While Nate’s comments have focused on Joseph’s published revelations, I think there’s another source to help us develop a Mormon understanding of this prophetic process: the Book of Mormon. The part that comes particularly to mind is the writings of Moroni in Mormon and Ether. In Mormon 9 he tells us not to condemn his and his father’s work because of their “imperfections.” Assuming that he is not lamenting imperfections in the content, my sense is that he is lamenting perceived imperfections in the style. Later, in Ether 12, we see this same concern with style–unlike the Brother of Jared, whose style was powerful, Moroni suggests that he struggled to turn his powerful spiritual revelations, which could be expressed powerfully in speaking, into powerful writing. Interestingly, the passages that follow describe a conversation with him and the Lord. Nate’s account of how Joseph’s conversation in D&C 121 may have played out suggests and interesting lens for the conversation in Ether.

  27. Keith on July 2, 2010 at 4:16 pm

    You might be interested in this by Grant Underwood. It confirms and perhaps complicates (only slightly) what you’re arguing. http://devotional.byuh.edu/node/327

  28. Jamal on July 2, 2010 at 5:14 pm

    Nate: Minor transliteration issue, it should be “Qur’an” and not “Qua’ran”. The Arabic is ?????? with the damma (short “u” vowel) over the qaaf and nothing else before the raa. Sorry, just being a stickler. But you did get the theology pretty much right. Most Mormons try to bend it to be more like their own experience I find, so I appreciate that. Bfabbi’s point is well taken too. It’s a known fact of Islamic history that Uthman standardized the text, and there hasn’t been serious dispute about the text for over a millenium. So that’s a non-issue in Muslim eyes.

  29. BHodges on July 5, 2010 at 11:43 pm

    Fun discussion, thanks. You might like this bit I wrote about canon and revelation:
    http://www.lifeongoldplates.com/2009/10/in-their-weakness-after-manner-of-their.html

  30. Raymond Takashi Swenson on July 6, 2010 at 10:33 pm

    My understanding of D&C 76 is that Joseph and Sydney alternated describing things they saw in vision, which was taken down by a scribe, so what we have is a joint description of a shared view into a spiritual realm, in the future. I am not sure how the identify of various persons was transmitted to them–Did they see signs or cartoonist balloons pointing to the different denizens of the distinctive kingdoms? But in general they seem to be like people standing at a window that only they can see through, describing what the rest of us cannot see. Translating from a visual to a verbal medium necessarily requires drawing from one’s own vocabulary.

    Certainly this process of description is explicit in D&C 110, where each of the heavenly personages is described, and some of their words are transcribed, with the implication that there were other things that were heard or seen but not included in the transcription.

    It seems like there is also reason to believe that part of the experience of having visions included hearing words spoken by the angelic messengers. There is an explicit disagreement between Joseph and Oliver’s accounts of what was said by John the Baptist when he ordained them and ordered them to baptize each other, both of them appearing in JS-History. Joseph said that the Aaronic priesthood would not be taken from the earth “until” the Sons of Levi offer an offering. However, Oliver wrote that John used the words “THAT the Sons of Levi may offer an offering in righteousness.” The first meaning seems merely a time demarcation, but the second implies that the restoration of priesthood will be directly a cause of the new offering by the Levites. Evidently they could not remember specifically all of the words uttered by John, so we can imagine that similar omissions and ambiguities exist in other passages of the transcribed record of revelations.

    This kind of imperfect recording of things seen and heard is clearly what the Gospels claim to be making. There is no reason that should be a problem. We similarly have variations in the records of remarks by Joseph and other early leaders in sermons.

  31. Raymond Takashi Swenson on July 6, 2010 at 10:37 pm

    Another example of the ambiguity of experienced visions as revelation are the several accounts of the First Vision. I don’t see them as contradictory, but the amount of detail in each account varies with such things as the audience. Joseph is searching back into the memory of his experience, and coming back with various recollections. The differences are cumulative in their picture of the event, just as the gospels are.