“By mine own voice or by the voice of my servants”

Doctrine and Covenants section 1 is a fascinating document.  Written in late 1831, it would chronologically fall in place right around section 67, but was intended as a preface for the compilation of Joseph Smith’s revelations known as the Book of Commandments.  By extension, it later served as the preface for the Doctrine and Covenants.

Section 1 is intended to get people’s attention and make it clear that modern revelations from the Lord are important to pay attention to.  It declares that the text is written in “the voice of him who dwells on high … the voice of the Lord,”[1] and that “the voice of warning shall be unto all people, by the mouth of my disciples whom I have chosen in these last days …, for I the Lord have commanded them.”[2]  Right off the bat, we have a document presented as the voice of the Lord and that voice declaring that He has authorized disciples to give voice to His warnings.  It specifically names Joseph Smith as “my servant” and states that the Lord “spake unto him from heaven and gave him commandments” and that “these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.”[3]  As indicated by the title that was given to the first attempt at publishing a collection of revelations or sections (the Book of Commandments—the title was actually capitalized to emphasize the name in what is now D&C 1:6 in the early drafts of the document), commandments is a term being used here to refer to the revelations.  The point about the weight of authority given to the revelations (commandments) Joseph Smith recorded is driven home again in the closing section, which states: “Search these commandments, for they are true and faithful, and the prophecies and promises which are in them shall all be fulfilled.  What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.”[4]  The text of this revelation is intent on convincing us that the Lord’s authority stands behind the revelations compiled in the Doctrine and Covenants.

This last phrase that I’ve quoted (“whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same”) has been used extensively to make the point that we should listen to and obey the words of modern leaders of the Church.  One example of how it has been used recently is Elder David A. Bednar’s statement in a 2015 general conference that: “The Savior declared, ‘whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.’  May we hear and heed the eternal truths taught by the Lord’s authorized representatives.”[5]  In this case, the verse is used to add weight to the teachings of Church leaders as they were voiced in general conference.  When I was younger, the way this verse was used at Church led me to believe that general authorities essentially had a permanent mind-melding with God and that, as a result, everything they said was what God would say (and therefore the gospel truth).  I recognize that this was, perhaps, an extreme interpretation, but I have met plenty of other Latter-day Saints who have held similar beliefs about prophetic infallibility and constant inspiration.  Of course, one of the core paradoxes of our religion is created by holding the belief that authorized individuals speak for God in tension with the reality that all humans are imperfect and therefore do not always speak or act in the ways God would have them do, even if they are given high callings in our Church.

This tension is demonstrated by an incident that occurred during the Reed Smoot hearings of the early 20th century.  During the proceedings of the trials, President Francis M. Lyman (the president of the Quorum of the Twelve) had to take back an earlier statement while under questioning.  A senator named George Frisbie Hoar then asked President Lyman whether he was “answering [questions] under the direction of the Lord, according to your belief, or merely in your human and uninspired capacity?”  The apostle responded that: “I believe I shall answer the questions that are asked me here as the spirit of the Lord directs me, and truthfully.”  Senator Hoar pressed the point and Elder Lyman affirmed that he believed that the spirit of the Lord directed him in his answers during the trial.  So, the senator then asked: “Then, in your belief, did the spirit of the Lord direct you to make the answer which you just took back and said was a mistake?”  President Lyman chose to not respond to the question.[6]

While the incident might seem a little silly in retrospect, it caused a big enough stir in the Church at the time that Elder B. H. Roberts felt the need to address some concerns that it raised.   A portion of his response is as follows:

I think it a reasonable conclusion to say that constant, never-varying inspiration is not a factor in the administration of the affairs of the Church; not even good men, no, not even though they be prophets or other high officials of the Church, are at all times and in all things inspired of God. It is only occasionally, and at need, that God comes to their aid.

That there have been unwise things done in the Church by good men, men susceptible at times to the inspiration of the Spirit of God, we may not question. Many instances in the history of the Church, through three quarters of a century, prove it, and it would be a solecism to say that God was the author of those unwise, not to say positively foolish, things that have been done. For these things men must stand responsible, not God.

It is well nigh as dangerous to claim too much for the inspiration of God, in the affairs of men, as it is to claim too little. By the first, men are led into superstition, and into blasphemously accrediting their own imperfect actions, their blunders, and possibly even their sins, to God; and by the second, they are apt to altogether eliminate the influence of God from human affairs; I pause in doubt as to which conclusion would be the worse.[7]

Thus, Elder Roberts—both in his role as a high-ranking general authority and as a prominent historian of the Church—felt that it was unwise to claim that everything Church leaders say is the word of God, given under His inspiration, while still indicating that it is equally unwise to go to the total opposite view and say that Church leaders are never inspired by God.

Perhaps, considering the above, an important question to ask is whether D&C 1:38 was intended to be used in the ways it is often used today to add weight to the words of current Church leaders.  In its original context, the statement seems to be addressing concerns about the revelations that Joseph Smith had been recording and whether it was appropriate to publish a collection of those revelations.  A conference was held on 1-2 November 1831 to discuss a proposal to publish a compilation of revelations.  According to David Whitmer, “a few of the brethren” objected to the decision to publish the revelations, believing “that it was not the will of the Lord that the revelations should be published.”[8]  One of the reasons seems to be that there were concerns about whether the revelations were truly the words of God and, if so, why the language in them was imperfect.  Joseph Smith dictated Section 1 and then afterwards, “some conversation was had concerning Revelations and language” and Joseph Smith recorded another revelation in response to that conversation.[9]

This second revelation (now D&C 67) addressed these concerns directly. It noted that “there were fears in you hearts” and observed that their “eyes have been upon my Servent Joseph & his language you have known & his imperfections you have known & you have sought in your hearts knowlege that you might express beyond his language.”[10]  Then it offered a challenge to give them “a testimony of the truth of those commandments” (the revelations)—to choose a revelation from the collection and then “appoint him that is the most wise among you or if there be any among you that shall make one like unto it then ye are Justified in saying that ye do not know that is true.”[11]  According to one account: “After the above was received, Wm. E. McLellin, as the wisest man in his own estimation, having more learning than sense, endeavored to write a commandment like unto one of the least of the Lord’s, but failed; it was an awful responsibility to write in the name of the Lord.”  Although this is likely a mischaracterization of McLellin rooted in his later disaffiliation from the Church, it does continue to put the focus of the incident on Joseph Smith’s wording in the revelations.  In any case, the elders who were present were convinced and were willing “to bear testimony of their [the revelations’] truth to all the world.”[12]

Given that the people who were present when Section 1 of the Doctrine and Covenants was dictated had concerns about revelations and language, I believe that the statement “whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same” is responding to a different concern than we usually assume.  The way it’s frequently used today, the phrase is answering the question: Should the words of Church leaders be treated like they are the Lord’s own words?  In the context in which it was dictated, however, it seems to be responding to a question about the revelations that were being compiled in the Book of Commandments:  Are the revelations word-for-word dictations of what the Lord said (only using Joseph Smith to state the words as he received them) or are they Joseph Smith’s words?  (From a perspective where the revelations are considered authentic, the latter option would involve President Smith capturing the concepts that the Holy Spirit was revealing to him using his own words.)  The text of D&C 1 acknowledges that the revelations “were given unto my servants … after the manner of their language,” even though they “are of [the Lord],”[13] but ultimately sidesteps answering the question by stating that it doesn’t matter whether they are Joseph Smith’s words or the Lord’s words because, either way, they are approved by the Lord: “Whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.”

Thus, I don’t believe that a close reading of the verse in its original context leads to it being an adequate proof-text for the idea that the words of Church leaders should be automatically treated as though they are the words of God or for the concept of prophetic infallibility.  Instead, the text is primarily geared towards stating that the revelations published in the Doctrine and Covenants (or, originally, the Book of Commandments) are to be viewed as the will of God, whether they are word-for-word dictations from the Lord or whether they are the words of the Lord’s servants capturing what they were commanded through the Holy Spirit.  Now, that’s not to say that we should ignore the teachings of our current Church leaders—elsewhere in Section 1 we told that the Lord’s disciples give “the voice of warning” with “mine authority” and that “they who will not hear the voice of the Lord, neither the voice of his servants, neither give heed to the words of the prophets and apostles, shall be cut off from among the people.”[14]  The point I’m ultimately getting at is more along the lines of what Elder B. H. Roberts wrote—that “it is well nigh as dangerous to claim too much for the inspiration of God, in the affairs of men, as it is to claim too little.”  There must be balance in all things.

 

Further Reading:

Julie M. Smith: “A Closer Look at D & C 1:38”

  • Julie Smith takes a look at the phrase and Section 1 in a different way, focusing on how the term “servants” is used.  I highly recommend taking a look at her thoughts as well.

 

Footnotes:

[1] D&C 1:1-2.

[2] D&C 1:4-5.

[3] D&C 1:17, 24.

[4] D&C 1:37-38.

[5] David A. Bednar, “Chosen to Bear Testimony of My Name,” CR, October 2015, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2015/10/chosen-to-bear-testimony-of-my-name?lang=eng&media=video#watch=video.

[6] “Proceedings before the Committee on Privileges and Election of the United States Senate: in the matter of the protests against the right of Hon. Reed Smoot, a senator from the state of Utah, to hold his seat [Jan. 16, 1904-April 13, 1906],” 456-457. https://archive.org/details/proceedingsbefor01unitrich/page/456/mode/2up

[7] B. H. Roberts, “Relation of Inspiration and Revelation to Church Government,” Improvement Era 8 (March 1905): 367, https://archive.org/details/improvementera0805unse/page/366/mode/2up.

[8] Whitmer, David. An Address to All Believers in Christ. Richmond, MO: By the author, 1887.

[9] “History, 1838–1856, volume A-1 [23 December 1805–30 August 1834],” p. 161, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed December 26, 2020, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-1838-1856-volume-a-1-23-december-1805-30-august-1834/167

[10] “Revelation, circa 2 November 1831 [D&C 67],” p. 115, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed December 26, 2020, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-circa-2-november-1831-dc-67/2. Compare D&C 67:3, 5.

[11] “Revelation, circa 2 November 1831 [D&C 67],” p. 115, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed December 26, 2020, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-circa-2-november-1831-dc-67/2. Compare D&C 67:6-7.

[12] “History, 1838–1856, volume A-1 [23 December 1805–30 August 1834],” p. 162, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed December 26, 2020, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-1838-1856-volume-a-1-23-december-1805-30-august-1834/168.

[13] D&C 1:24.

[14] D&C 1:4, 6, 14.

12 comments for ““By mine own voice or by the voice of my servants”

  1. Excellent thoughts.. I would also point out that we often overlook several verses also in Section 1 (v. 25-28) which discuss that the Lord’s servants make mistakes, struggle for knowledge and wisdom, and even sin from time to time & need to be chastened. We need to balance these ideas against each other. I appreciate the insight that in context the Lord is speaking about the commandments he’s given in this book itself. Also love the quote from B.H. Roberts!

  2. I was surprised to find the Quran has the same challenge that you briefly mention, i.e., God challenges the audience (through the revelator) to write a better revelation; if they can’t, then shut up about the supposed faults in the revelation and accept that it’s from God.

    After several years of thinking about this striking similarity, I’m still not sure what to make of it.

  3. What a lovely and thoughtful set of reflections about that passage.

    About D&C 67: I’ve often been curious about the text, if any, that McLellin produced, and by what/whose standards it was considered a failure. It’s not clear to me this is an objective judgment. Though there are some passages in the D&C that do seem to glow for me, there are plenty (maybe more) that don’t particularly speak to me or stand out as inspired.

  4. What a lovely and thoughtful reflection on the possibilities and limits of D&C 1.

    About D&C 67: I’ve sometimes been curious about the text, if any, that McLellin produced, and by what/whose standards it was considered a failure. It’s not clear to me that’s an objective judgment. There are some passages in the D&C we have that seem to glow for me, but there are plenty that seem as dry as a dictionary and with no particular inspiration.

  5. I know this is not a very intelligent comment, but…BH Roberts was the bomb. I would love to take him to lunch and just listen.

  6. Thanks for your thoughts and the reminder of Julie’s. I wonder if our ward Zoom gospel doctrine discussion will include any of those understandings or just the standard follow-the-prophet infallibility discussion. While I might have raised these issues in an in-person discussion, I don’t think I’ll do it on Zoom.

  7. Thanks Tom!

    That is interesting, Dr Cocoa. In general, the Quran is one of the more analogous sacred texts to the Doctrine and Covenants in the world, so it is interesting that it has a similar challenge and story there.

    W, yeah, it’s an interesting challenge to think about, and I would be like to know more of what happened there. I’m personally curious about how the elders were so strongly convinced by their experience there. To a certain degree, whoever decided to take up the challenge was largely set up for failure because of biases in play–they were believers who already regarded Joseph Smith as a seer and prophet and knew that Mcclellan was only writing the document to respond to the challenge (and thus, most likely viewed as acting on his own rather than as a prophet).

    I totally agree, thor. B. H. Roberts was the bomb.

    Wondering, it is interesting how having Sunday School meetings held remotely really affects the dynamics of discussion. It’s much less rich for the loss of those types of discussions, but I also think that I probably won’t be comfortable sharing my thoughts on the subject during our lesson either.

  8. I think this is great historical context, but I think even a textual reading of the verse suggests it doesn’t mean what many folks deploy it to mean. It says what the Lord has spoken will come to be fulfilled whether it is spoken by Him or His servants. That’s it. It never ever suggests that any time a prophet speaks the prophet is speaking the word of God. It doesn’t even say that most or even some of the time when a prophet speaks the prophet is speaking for the Lord. All it says is that if a servant *does* speak the word of the Lord, it will be fulfilled.

    I also tend to take with a grain of salt when the people telling you that prophets speak for God are … the prophets claiming to speak for God. Seems like a bit of a conflict of interest.

  9. May I offer a word of defense of William McLellin? The Book of Commandments was published in 1831. Wm. McLellin did not leave the church until 1838. I can no longer find the article where historical evidence indicates that the account in the History of the Church is not entirely accurate. If I remember correctly, he was chosen by those critical of the revelations. He was to do his best to write a revelation. Since he could not, all those who chose him including himself could then testify that the revelations were from God and not Joseph Smith. I do not believe that those involved at the time thought that he lacked sense. It appears that was the interpretation given years later after he left the Church.

  10. Elisa, thank you for sharing. Those are some great points and important things to consider.

    Thank you as well, AM. In quickly looking around, I’m guessing the article you were mentioning was: https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&url=http://67.20.122.117/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V26N04_41.pdf&ved=2ahUKEwi9jZnl3f7tAhXCGDQIHWiKDCAQFjAAegQIARAB&usg=AOvVaw0-IEqo3Hvx0TIf8a8-2o06. I’ve updated the post to add a link to the article and mention that McLellin is probably mischaracterized in the quote from the history of the Church.

  11. In speaking of perfection, I wonder how much we imperfect mortals would recognize perfection. I get that Joseph Smith wasn’t dictating words that he heard a lot of the time, but it even if he was, would others have rejected them for not being “perfect”? It’s something that I ponder over.

  12. Several times a year for decades now, in discussion of D&C 1 when the issue of “mine authority and the authority of my servants” (D&C 1:6) comes up, I cite D&C 1:24-28.

    24 Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.

    25 And inasmuch as they erred it might be made known;

    26 And inasmuch as they sought wisdom they might be instructed;

    27 And inasmuch as they sinned they might be chastened, that they might brepent;

    28 And inasmuch as they were humble they might be made strong, and blessed from on high, and receive knowledge from time to time.

    It seems to me that these verses are part of the essential context for understanding verse 38, encouraging us to realize that while the Lord takes responsibility for everything he says through whatever medium, that not everything that even his authorized servants say has that same authority. When what they say is inspired, yes, that is the same. But being inspired from time to time is not the same thing as being a mere sock puppet with no other thoughts, opinions, limitations, and experiences. That is the whole point, I think, of the Lord bluntly setting out expectations in D&C 1. And even if verses 24-28 never get quoted in conferences, or, as was traditional for a while with that one sentence from verse 38, placed on the back of the conference reports, their placement in D&C 1 as part of the Lord’s formal declaration of “the authority of my servants” should set our expectations properly. And it might remind us to reflect on our own limitations, the beams in our own eye, before deciding that we can infallibly decide what is, and is not inspired. It wasn’t that long ago when the notion of us having doing church services and teaching in our homes seemed a remote possibility. With the pandemic upon us, President Nelson has demonstrated that his inspiration was real, which is not the same as insisting that is must be perfect, constant, and complete and completely understood in every moment and situation. The word that shows up frequently in the D&C is “expedient”, which is good enough to accomplish his will.

    FWIW,

    Kevin Christensen
    Canonsburg, PA

Charitable Comments Welcome. Please follow our comment policy

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.