“The Word and Will of the Lord”

There is a story about President David O. McKay where a youth who wasn’t active in the Church flippantly asked him, “When was the last time you talked to God, President McKay?”  President McKay answered in all seriousness that: “It was last week.”  The person who shared the story noted that: “He left everyone wondering what he really meant by that, whether he was praying, talking to God, or whether it was another kind of experience.  But the way it was said, it really left this kid shaken up.”[1]

One of the ongoing tensions in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is reconciling the belief in ongoing revelations with both the number of written revelations produced by Joseph Smith and the lack of similar documents in our canon from later Church leaders.  As noted in the document about the “Martyrdom of Joseph Smith and his Brother Hyrum” that was added to the Doctrine and Covenants in 1844 (now D&C 135), Smith “has brought forth the Book of Mormon … has brought forth the revelations and commandments which compose this book of Doctrine and Covenants, and many other wise documents and instructions for the benefit of the children of men.”[2]  On the other hand, out of the 140 main documents presented in the Doctrine and Covenants, only 2 are revelations or visions from later Church presidents, and 2 are press releases about changes resulting from other Church presidents having revelations.  Even counting the last two, that means that less than 3% of all documents in the Doctrine and Covenants are from prophets after Joseph Smith.  It is worth taking some of the time to discuss why that may be.

A possible explanation rooted in Joseph Smith’s time has to do with the growing importance of Church councils.  As mentioned in a previous post, Richard Lyman Bushman has argued that:

After the organization of the Twelve Apostles, the frequency of canonical revelations dropped precipitously. … Instead, Joseph’s history was filled with the minutes of the Twelve Apostles’ meetings, as if they had become the source of inspiration. … At a moment when Joseph’s own revelatory powers were at their peak, he divested himself of sole responsibility for revealing the will of God and invested that gift in the councils of the Church, making it a charismatic bureaucracy.[3]

Almost ¾ of the documents presented in the current edition of the Doctrine and Covenants were recorded before the Quorum of the Twelve was organized in 1835.  Among the documents that come from after that period, there are also several that are sermons or epistles from Joseph Smith rather than revelations presented in the voice of God.  This is an indication that even Joseph Smith was largely (though not completely) moving away from presenting the will of God in the format of the “covenants” or “commandments” that we think of as his revelations today.

After Joseph Smith’s death, the Quorum of the Twelve assumed leadership of the Church as a quorum.  In effect, this means that not only did the councils of the church have shared responsibility to reveal the will of God, but that one of those councils had taken the place of Joseph Smith in revealing the will of God.  That council still leads the Church today, with the First Presidency existing as an extension of the Quorum of the Twelve rather than as an entity independent of that quorum.  It makes sense, then, that decisions are generally made as a council through discussion and seeking inspiration as a group rather than an individual (even if that person is the President of the Church) unilaterally producing the will of God.  For example, historian Thomas G. Alexander found when researching the developing importance of the Word of Wisdom at the turn of the Twentieth Century that Church leaders were concerned about the moral tone of their community and they “sought guidance from scriptures, from statements of earlier leaders, and from the Lord as they carried on their deliberations.”  He added that this is representative of many developments in Church doctrine and praxis in the 20th century, and that: “The evidence seems to suggest that change has ordinarily come about through the prayerful consideration over time of contemporary problems in the context of tradition (including previous scriptures and statement), immediate conditions (including political, social, and economic problems), and alternative courses of action.”[4]  While this approach is a solid route to inspiration learning the will of the Lord through a council and then acting on it, it doesn’t lend itself to presenting revelation in the same way that Joseph Smith did.

Even as President Brigham Young stepped into his role at the head of the Church, he chose not to follow the same pattern as Joseph Smith.  The only published document in the form of a dialogic revelation from Brigham Young is “the Word and Will of the Lord concerning the Camp of Israel in their journeyings to the West” that he wrote in Winter Quarters on 14 January 1847.  The document is important for providing the ideal organization and structure for companies of Latter-day Saint settlers moving west, for pushing the Latter-day Saints to refocus on the spiritual aspects of how to conduct themselves on the journey (commanding them to “be organized … with a covenant and promise to keep all the Commandments & Statutes of the Lord our God”), affirming in the voice of the Lord that they needed to proceed “under the directions of the Twelve Apostles,” and providing an explanation for why Joseph Smith died by stating that “it was needful that he should seal his testimony with his blood, that he might be honored, and the wicked might be condemned.”[5]  The revelation was important because it affirming the authority of the Quorum of the Twelve (and Brigham Young in particular, as the revelator behind the document) and, as Chad Orton wrote, “the revelation helped transform the westward migration from an unfortunate necessity into an important shared spiritual experience.”[6]  Beyond this important revelation, however, there are no canonized revelations from President Brigham Young in the 33 years he led the Church.

There are two unpublished revelations of which I know that do give some insights into Brigham Young’s approach to revelations.  Brigham Young’s lack of dialogic revelations as a successor to Joseph Smith did not go unnoticed and opened the door to challengers who did offer more charismatic displays of prophetic ability.  James Strang was the strongest contender in that regard—though he was a relatively obscure convert in Wisconsin, he was able to gather a significant group of the Latter Day Saints by bolstering his claims with revelations, visions, and translations in the same style as Joseph Smith.  Among those questioning Brigham Young was Reuben Miller, who was deeply impressed by James Strang and approached Brigham Young directly about his feelings.  He told Young that: “the word of the Lord would be decidedly satisfactory to him.”  Brigham Young, appropriately (if a bit sarcastically) responded with a revelation:

Thus Saith the Lord unto Reuben Miller through Brigham Young—that Strang is a wicked & corrupt man & that his revelations are as false as he is—therefore turn away from his folly—& never let it be Said of Reuben Miller—that he ever was led away & entangled by Such nonsense.[7]

While somewhat snappish in the nature of its delivery, it does demonstrate that Brigham Young was capable of capturing what he believed to be the will of the Lord in words when he chose, just that he generally did not choose to do so.

The other revelation of Brigham Young does allow us to glean some of how he did choose to capture and convey what had been revealed unto him.  Recently rediscovered by Christopher Blythe, Brigham Young shared the revelation at the beginning of discourse given in St. George, Utah in February 1874.  He stated:

The word of the Lord that was reveal[e]d to his People, by his servant the Prophet sear and Reverlator, President Brigham Young, Feb[r]uary 1874[.] He speak unto the people saying, Thus saith the Lord it is my will that this people should enter into A Holy united order, by concentrating their labour, there time, and their means together for the interest of my Kingdom, and for their own mutual benefit, And I the Lord will bless them abundantly, they shall get along with less labour, and less means, And become a great deal richer, and happyer, and be enabled to do a great deal more good, And if not the curse of the Lord will be upon them, for we are got as far as we can get in our present position, for the time is fully come that we should enter into this Holy Order, the Lord is saying come, and Holy angles are saying come, and all good men are saying come, and I say come let us enter into this Holy Order, that the Kingdom of Heaven may continue to advance, till it fill the whole earth with the knowledge and love of God, Hear this oh Israil, I tell you the Kingdom of God cannot advance one step further until we enter into this Holy Order.[8]

While this revelation was shared in this form at that time to encourage the Latter-day Saints to join the United Order of Enoch and follow the Law of Consecration, Young chose to soften the presentation the next time he shared it by framing it as follows: “Thus saith the Lord unto my servant Brigham, Call ye, call ye, upon the inhabitants of Zion, to organize themselves in the Order of Enoch.”[9]

Blythe noted the change and provided some reasoning for why Brigham Young changed the wording to something other than a direct command from God to the Saints and eschewed written revelations in general.  He wrote that: “First, he argued that the Saints had not lived up to the revelations that Joseph Smith had already revealed,” quoting President Young as saying: “But before we desire more written revelation, let us fulfil the revelations that are already written, and which we have scarcely begun to fulfil.”  He then added: “Second, Young believed that the Saints were more accountable when a revelation was framed in the voice of deity,” quoting Young again as stating that if the will of the Lord is framed more softly, “the consequences of disobedience are not so dreadful, as they would be if the word of the Lord were to be written under the declaration, ‘Thus saith the Lord.’”[10]  It seems like, based on this example, that Brigham Young avoided written revelations because he believed the Saints still needed to embrace the ones they had in that format and that to add more would make them more accountable than they were ready for.

Brigham Young’s successor, John Taylor, did not share the same reservations about revelation.  Over the course of John Taylor’s tenure as head of the Church, he recorded at least eight written revelations (not counting the controversial document attributed to Taylor by the fundamentalist Mormon groups).  The revelations responded to a variety of circumstances, including settling Brigham Young’s estate, plural marriage, the Council of Fifty, calls to the Quorum of the Twelve, approval of a proposed reorganization of the Seventies quorums, acceptance of the Logan Temple dedication, a call to restart the school of the prophets, and a warning of a time of trouble that was coming.  Two of these were published in John Taylor’s lifetime (the calls to the Quorum of the Twelve and the reorganization of the Seventy), and were even sometimes published in European editions of the Doctrine and Covenants.[11]  B. H. Roberts idolized President John Taylor and stated his opinion about Taylor’s revelations: “His counsels, his warnings, his doctrines and promises received the most direct approval by the voice of God Himself, demonstrating that his teaching had all along been inspired.”[12]

Oddly, none of President Taylor’s written revelations were ever added to the English versions of the Doctrine and Covenants.  Perhaps it is due to concerns about the claims of fundamentalist Mormon groups about a 27 September 1886 revelation that states that: “My everlasting covenants cannot be abrogated nor done away with; but they stand forever,” in reference to plural marriage.  Or it may be the fact that many of them are now dated in content.  The revelations are, however, on par with the ones we have in the Doctrine and Covenants.  Some of them, such as the May 1884 revelation about the Logan Temple, would be very fitting additions to the Doctrine and Covenants, even now.  Over 13 years ago, Richard Holzapfel, Christopher Jones, and Jared Tamez indicated that they were working on publishing a complete annotated transcription of the eight revelations they considered legitimate, though I can’t find out if anything ever came of that project.[13]  In any case, John Taylor embraced the approach of sharing his revelations in a written format, presenting them as the words of the Lord.

Subsequent presidents of the Church have not generally followed the same approach, favoring that of Brigham Young.  Joseph F. Smith recorded his vision, which is now Section 138, and Wilford Woodruff shared some of his revelations (though some of them didn’t really work out as planned).[14]  More often than not, Church leaders have shared the results of concepts of the revelations in other formats—policy changes announced through official declarations or through the Church Handbook of Instructions, ideas shared in general conference addresses or First Presidency messages, and so forth.

While it makes it feel harder to discern what is the actual mind and will of the Lord verses the thoughts of the men leading the Church, it seems likely that there are several reasons for this change.  First, with the Church being led by a “charismatic bureaucracy,” the nature of the leading councils lends itself more easily to these types of documents than to unilateral revelatory texts.  Second, Brigham Young expressed concerns about the Saints failing to live up to previous written revelations and adding increased accountability through new written revelations.  Third, circumstances and policies change over time, and when revelations encourage Saints to embrace a particular policy (such as the Brigham Young one about the United Order of Enoch), it’s easier to move on from the past policy or doctrine if it’s not canonized as scripture.  These seem to be some of the main reasons that Church leaders since Joseph Smith (with the major exception of John Taylor) have generally eschewed writing out revelations in the voice of the Lord.

 

Further Reading:

Christopher Blythe, “Brigham Young’s Newly Located February 1874 Revelation”

Richard Holzapfel and Christopher Jones, “‘John the Revelator’: The Written Revelations of John Taylor”

The Mormon Eagle: John Taylor’s Revelations

 

Footnotes:

[1] David Timmins interview.  Cited in Gregory A. Prince and Wm. Robert Wright, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2005), 26.

[2] “Doctrine and Covenants, 1844,” p. 444, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed November 23, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/doctrine-and-covenants-1844/446

[3] Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, 257-258.

[4] Thomas G. Alexander, Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930, 3rd ed. (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2012), 283-284.

[5] Hosea Stout Journal, 17 January 1847, in On the Mormon Frontier: The Diary of Hosea Stout, 1844-1861, ed. Juanita Brooks (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1964, reprint edition 1982), 1:227-229.

[6] Chad M. Orton, “This Shall Be Our Covenant,” in Revelations in Context, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/revelations-in-context/this-shall-be-our-covenant?lang=eng.

[7] Brigham Young office files, 1832-1878 (bulk 1844-1877); Journals, 1832-1877; Brigham Young Journals, 1832- 1846; Journal, 1844 September 28- 1846 February 3 entry of Jan. 30, 1846; Church History Library, https://catalog.churchofjesuschrist.org/assets/de233849-df29-4851-b79d-ba78721d1476/0/123 (accessed: November 23, 2021).

[8] Thomas C. Haddon, writings, circa 1882, MS 3216, Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City.

[9] Brigham Young, in Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (Liverpool: F. D. Richards, 1855–86), 17:154 (August 1874).

[10] Christopher James Blythe, “Brigham Young’s Newly Located February 1874 Revelation,” BYU Studies Quarterly 58:2, https://byustudies.byu.edu/article/brigham-youngs-newly-located-february-1874-revelation/#footnote-000.  Brigham Young quotes are Journal of Discourses, 6:319 (April 1852) and 12:127–28 (December 29, 1867).

[11] Richard Neitzel Holzapfel and Christopher C. Jones, “’John the Revelator’: The Written Revelations of John Taylor,” in Champion of Liberty: John Taylor, ed. Mary Jane Woodger (Provo: BYU Press, 2009), https://rsc.byu.edu/champion-liberty-john-taylor/john-revelator-written-revelations-john-taylor.

[12] B. H. Roberts, The Life of John Taylor, Third President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: George Q. Cannon & Sons, 1892), 349.

[13] See Richard Neitzel Holzapfel and Christopher C. Jones, “’John the Revelator’: The Written Revelations of John Taylor,” in Champion of Liberty: John Taylor, ed. Mary Jane Woodger (Provo: BYU Press, 2009), https://rsc.byu.edu/champion-liberty-john-taylor/john-revelator-written-revelations-john-taylor.  For a glance at the revelations, The Mormon Eagle blog has published them, along with other revelations, online: http://themormoneagle.blogspot.com/2012/12/november-19-1877.html.

[14] Messages of the First Presidency 3:175.

2 comments for ““The Word and Will of the Lord”

  1. I think the restoration follows the exodus pattern–in that at the outset there are lots of “fireworks” (miracles, revelations, heavenly manifestations, and so forth) and then as we move into the wilderness things tend to quite down, so to speak. And it’s during that quite period that we are being purified by degrees until will are able to finally enter the promised land.

    That said, one of the things that seems apparent (to me) is that the church–as group–is being prepared through a process of incremental purification to become a kingdom of priests (and priestesses). If we were in a constant state of receiving all revelation from the top then we’d never have the experience necessary to govern in the Kingdom.

    So while it’s vital that the boundaries of the Kingdom be established and maintained by the highest quorums it is also vital that the saints have enough wiggle room to receive direct revelation for their respective stewardships–that all the Lord’s people might be prophets and prophetesses.

  2. It does make sense to front load the Restoration with revelations. That way there’s a good foundation for the rest of the time.
    Still, I don’t think that I would mind hearing the President of the church occasionally say “The Lord has revealed a message to me to share with you…”

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