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'Major discovery' discussed at Mormon History Association Conference

Published: Friday, May 22, 2009

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SPRINGFIELD, ILL.

A manuscript found in the First Presidency's vault — characterized by Assistant Church Historian Richard E. Turley Jr. as "a major documentary discovery" — was discussed May 22 by four scholars from the Church History Department before a gathering of some 400 Church history enthusiasts here.

Photo by R. Scott Lloyd
Robert Woodford of the LDS Church History Department Joseph Smith Papers Project speaks May 22 to plenary session of the Mormon History Association meeting in Springfield, Ill.

"The Book of Commandments and Revelations" was the topic of the opening plenary session of the 44th Annual Mormon History Association Conference meeting through May 24 at the President Abraham Lincoln Hotel and Conference Center.

Each of the four speakers are editors working on the Joseph Smith Papers Project. Brother Turley, who chaired the session, noted that the manuscript will be featured in the next volume of the project, to be published this fall. Readers will be able in that volume to examine full-size photo images of each of the manuscript's pages, with typescripts on facing pages.

The four speakers at the session are all editors in the Joseph Smith Papers project.

Robert J. Woodford said President Gordon B. Hinckley authorized the research of historical documents in possession of the First Presidency, including the Book of Commandments and Revelations (BCR). He said it proved to be "the manuscript collection of revelations that Oliver Cowdery and John Whitmer took to Missouri in November 1831, from which to publish the Book of Commandments," forerunner to the Doctrine and Covenants."

"Additional revelations were entered into the volume as they were received, and the BCR was also used as one of the sources for the revelations printed in the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants," Brother Woodford noted. "Hence, the BCR contains the earliest surviving manuscript versions of many of Joseph Smith's revelations, and the only pre-publication manuscript copies of some of them."

He said the manuscript also has seven revelations never published as part of the scriptural canon of the Church.

"Except for a few pages in the handwriting of Oliver Cowdery, the rest of the BCR was written by John Whitmer," he explained. "Similar to the manuscript of the Book of Mormon, revelations as copied into the BCR lack punctuation, thus indicating the revelations were dictations to the scribes, not written compositions."

Brother Woodford said President Joseph Fielding Smith, who was Church historian from 1921 to 1970, kept the manuscript among his papers, and when he became Church president in 1970, it became part of the papers of the First Presidency.

"Unfortunately, 26 pages of the BCR's 208 pages are missing," he said. "Fortunately, eight of these pages are at the Community of Christ [formerly the RLDS Church] Archives at Independence, Mo. Those pages were purchased from the Whitmer family at the beginning of the last century and have been commented on by several researchers." A partial index at the end of the manuscript gives clues as to the content of those missing pages.

Robin Scott Jensen, another co-editor in the Joseph Smith Papers Project, explored the origin, or provenance, of the manuscript. He discussed both internal and external evidence, which, he said, suggests to him and others that the manuscript was begun in early 1831, rather than 1830.

He believes this, he said, because the first portion of the manuscript has the "feel" of an accumulation of past revelations being copied.

Once the scribe "caught up in copying the older revelations, he would have to wait for Joseph Smith to receive a new revelation to copy that text in the BCR," he explained, and the manuscript at a certain point takes on the appearance of a "journal" record.

That transition appears to have taken place sometime between March and June 1831, he said.

"The upcoming publication of the BCR will provide scholars with unprecedented access to earlier and unknown revelation texts, a better understanding of the revelatory process, more insight into the revelatory record-keeping practices, and a richer understanding of the changes of the revelation texts," Brother Jensen said.

A clearer understanding of the manuscript, he pointed out, "comes through a proper study of its provenance, history and use, and brings scholars face to face with the seriousness with which Mormons approached their religious texts."

Steven C. Harper, another editor in the Joseph Smith papers, gave specific cases in which, in light of the discovery of the manuscript, the setting and context for several known revelations may need to be revised.

The manuscript "will reaffirm many conclusions and undermine others," he said. "It will answer some heretofore unanswered questions and invite some questions that we have not yet thought to ask."

The manuscript's index of contents and historical head notes "reveal heretofore unknown places, dates, chronologies, intentions, causes and effects, and meanings," he said. "Often they simply reaffirm later sources but in doing so they give us increased confidence in those sources and, in some cases, they inform our interpretations of them. Occasionally the head notes challenge later sources. Always, the head notes help us understand how the earliest Mormons and others related to these revelations."

The manuscript may have the effect, he said, of resolving a controversy that has arisen over whether the Church was organized at Fayette, N.Y., as has traditionally been understood, or at Manchester, N.Y. It does so by affirming that a revelation given on April 6, 1830, was given at Fayette, not at Manchester.

"The 1833 Book of Commandments, heretofore the earliest source available, located this revelation in Manchester," he explained. Some authors thus argued that the traditional story of the Church's founding in Fayette lacked foundation in the historical record, "but we can now see that in this case, tradition and the historical record match up," he said.

Grant Underwood discussed how the textual revisions preserved in the manuscript shed important light on the process by which Joseph Smith received, recorded and published his revelations.

"Literally hundreds of redactions, usually involving only a word or two but sometimes comprising an entire phrase or more, were inscribed in the BCR between 1831 and 1833," he said. "Seeing its many revisions also allows us to see the wording behind those revisions, thus providing for dozens of revelation texts the earliest wording now extant."

He said it is important to point out that the manuscript "allows us to see that the bulk of all wording in the revelation texts remained unchanged from initial dictation to publication in the Doctrine and Covenants. Thus, while my presentation focuses on the revisions, perhaps the real story is that only a small part of most revelation texts were ever revised."