Joseph Smith began his ministry with a wealth of visions and revelations. Many among these were what have been called dialogic revelations–answers given by God to Joseph Smith in response to questions or specific situations. Written documents phrased as God speaking through Joseph Smith have been treated with particular weight, both by early Latter Day Saints and their spiritual heirs today. For those of us in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, however, most of his successors to the presidency of the Church have not used the same method of giving voice to the will of God. With John Taylor being the major exception, most Church leaders since the death of Joseph Smith have expressed what they believed that God wants to be done through sermons, instructions and policy making, or through group decisions made in the Quorum of the Twelve and First Presidency. As the second president of the Church, Brigham Young set this trend: he very rarely dictated revelations, with what is now Section 136 in the Doctrine and Covenants being the main exception.
In a recent BYU Studies publication, Christopher Blythe (a Research Associate at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship and a former historian/documentary editor for the Joseph Smith Papers project) shared a document that records a revelation given by Brigham Young much later in his ministry (see here). Brigham Young shared this revelation during a discourse given in St. George during February of 1874, encouraging the saints to prepare to join the United Order (a system of communal living and property sharing based on the Law of Consecration). It was then recorded by Thomas Christmas Haddon (1815-99).
Christopher Blythe recently was featured in a 10 questions interview with Kurt Manwaring, discussing how he made this discovery and some of the context of Brigham Young’s revelation. What follows here is a summary of their discussion with commentary, while the full interview can be found by clicking here.
In the interview, Blythe discussed some of the documents he has had the opportunity to handle at the Church History Library archive. One in particular that stood out was a record book from Wilford Woodruff:
I have a special place in my heart for a little booklet from 1840 that Wilford Woodruff used to record Joseph Smith’s teachings. He included revelations that weren’t yet canonized in the Doctrine and Covenants and in a few instances, notes about more private interactions with the prophet.
The document was re-discovered in the past several years in the Church’s holdings and was made available digitally about two years ago. It includes esoteric beliefs—speculative ideas—that Joseph would never discuss publicly, but which he felt comfortable discussing with his closest friends.
He went on to say that “There really are hundreds of incredible documents included in the Joseph Smith Papers” that have been (or soon will be) made available online and in print. It is really quite an exciting time to be involved in Mormon studies, with a wealth of documents available at our fingertips and exciting discoveries like the Wilford Woodruff book mentioned above.
Blythe went on to discuss how documents are discovered in the Church History Library, such as the Brigham Young revelation. When asked “How did you stumble across this revelation?”, he responded:
The issue of “discovering” a document in the archives is complicated. Documents come to the Church History Library (CHL) through a donation, often through a descendant. One of the CHL’s archivists then catalogue the collection and provide key words that would help researchers find pertinent material.
So, I actually came across Thomas C. Haddon’s writings while I was researching nineteenth century dreams and visions. Haddon recorded two of his own dreams in addition to Young’s sermon and other materials on the United Order.
When I read this discourse, I was blown away.
After looking into the records of the sermon, he found that it hadn’t been noted elsewhere in detail, and quipped that “Richard Van Wagoner’s Complete Discourses of Brigham Young … was not exactly complete.”
The fact that something interesting and important like this was lost and forgotten might seem surprising. Blythe noted, however, that many of the discourses that Brigham Young gave outside of Salt Lake City have not received as much press as the ones he gave in Salt Lake City. Many of these less-known discourses were recorded by local record keepers, but the local record books or personal notes they wrote have sometimes escaped the notice of scholars. As someone who has spent some time at the Church History Library, I should note that it is all too easy for information to get lost in the wealth of documents there. Finding all of the sermons given by a specific general authority in the 1800s is like finding a specific set of hay pieces in a mountain of hay. This is particularly true when they weren’t recorded by people working at Church headquarters, so it’s not surprising that some of Brigham Young’s sermons have escaped attention.
In both the interview and the BYU Studies article, Christopher Blythe gave two main reasons for why Brigham Young rarely recorded revelations in the voice of God. As stated in the interview:
Young responded to his lack of dialogic revelations on numerous occasions. He explained that when a revelation was placed into the words of deity and the Saints were not abiding its precepts, they risked greater condemnation than if it was just given as encouragement from a church leader. He argued that the Saints should not expect new revelations when they hadn’t lived up to the “thus saith the Lord” revelations that Joseph Smith had received—including the law United Order which the revelation I published addresses.
These two reasons may have been why President Young seems to have backed off in expressing his desire for Latter-day Saints to join United Orders as a revelation from God to them. When presenting it six months later, “he addressed the revelation to himself rather than the Saints—the Lord commands Brigham to call on the Saints to live the United Order.” Ultimately, what Haddon recorded as a revelation was not published and was forgotten until now.
A discovery like this often opens up new questions and possibilities. Blythe spoke of how this particular discovery may impact future research into Brigham Young:
To me, the document shows that there is more to learn about Young and his prophetic ministry, despite the fact that he is one of the most-studied figures in Mormon studies. Scholars should delve into his revelatory experiences, even if they differ from those of Joseph Smith or were rarely canonized in the church’s scriptures.
By finding a written revelation ascribed to Brigham Young, it helped me to ask why we don’t find more such documents.
While Church leaders like Brigham Young have rarely recorded revelations in the voice of God, they still expressed things that they believed were the will of God. President Russell M. Nelson, for example, has frequently referenced receiving revelations that guide and undergird policies that he has implemented. Yet, we have not had documents published on the Church website or shared in general conference that start out with something like: “Thus saith the Lord unto my servant Russell M. Nelson… .” It would be interesting to delve more deeply into how the presidents of the Church receive, record, share, and implement revelations that they receive.
For more insights into the Church’s archive and holdings, Brigham Young’s sermons and revelations, and Mormon studies more generally, read Kurt Manwaring’s 10 questions with Christopher Blythe here.