Section 21: The Prophet Is the Mouthpiece of God
Section 21 consists of various instructions given to the nascent Church on the day the Church was organized at the Peter Whitmer farm in Fayette, New York.
The Church of Jesus Christ had been “in the wilderness” (Revelation 2:14) for over seventeen hundred years. On Tuesday, April 6, 1830, in Fayette, New York, a small group of people convened in the home of Peter Whitmer, Sr. No heads of state or prominent religious leaders attended. No newspapers reported what happened there. But in heaven the angels rejoiced.
The meeting was opened by solemn prayer. Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were sustained as leaders in the kingdom of God and were given unanimous approval to organize the Church of Christ. The prophet Joseph Smith recorded the events that followed:
I then laid my hands upon Oliver Cowdery, and ordained him an elder of the Church Christ; after which he ordained me to the office of elder of said Church. [Although they had been ordained to the Melchizedek priesthood earlier, they were told to defer ordaining each other to the office of elder until the Church was organized (see HC, 1:61.] We then took bread, blessed it, and brake it with them; also wine, blessed it, and drank it with them. We then laid our hands on each individual member of the Church present, that they might receive the gift of the Holy Ghost, and be confirmed members of the Church of Christ. The Holy Ghost was poured out upon us to a very great degree—some prophesied, whilst we all praised the Lord, and rejoiced exceedingly. Whilst yet together, I received the following commandment [section 21]. (HC, 1:77-78.)
Joseph Knight Sr. also described this same meeting:
Now in the spring of 1830, I went with my team and took Joseph out to Manchester to his father. When we were on our way he told me that there must be a Church formed, but did not tell when. . . .
On the Sixth day of April 1830, he began the Church with six members and received the following revelation [section 21]. They all kneeled down and prayed, and Joseph gave them instructions how to build up the Church and exhorted them to be faithful in all things, for this is the work of God (Jessee, “Joseph Knight’s Recollection,” 36-39; spelling, punctuation, and capitalization standardized.)
It should be noted that there were more than six individuals present at this meeting. On April 6, 1830, there were believers in New York State—some of them already baptized but not confirmed—in Manchester/Palmyra, mainly Smiths; Fayette, mainly Whitmers; and Colesville, mainly Knights. Six of these signed the certificate of incorporation as responsible parties on April 6 to satisfy New York state law. More than twenty individuals were actually present at the organization meeting, however, with some of these others also receiving confirmation into the Church. Thus, the number six does not represent the actual number of members confirmed on that day, but rather the number of members who signed the document as legal representatives of the Church to the state of New York.
1 Behold, there shall be a record kept among you; and in it thou shalt be called a seer, a translator, a prophet, an apostle of Jesus Christ, an elder of the church through the will of God the Father, and the grace of your Lord Jesus Christ,
verse 1 “there shall be a record kept among you” Joseph was commanded on the day the Church was organized to keep a record. This commandment likely provided the impetus to keep a record of his revelations and to regularly record the events which would later comprise Joseph Smith’s History of the Church.
“thou shalt be called a seer, a translator, a prophet, an apostle of Jesus Christ, an elder of the church” Joseph is named by the Lord: Seer, Translator, Prophet, Apostle, and Elder. These are the titles for what was then the First Elder of the Church. They are now applied to the President of the Church.
Let us define these terms:
Seer. Elder John A. Widtsoe defined a seer as “one who sees with spiritual eyes. He perceives the meaning of that which seems obscure to others; therefore he is an interpreter and clarifier of eternal truth. He foresees the future from the past and the present. This he does by the power of the Lord operating through him directly, or indirectly with the aid of divine instruments such as the Urim and Thummim. In short, he is one who sees, who walks in the Lord’s light with open eyes (Mosiah 8:15-17)” (Evidences and Reconciliations, 1:205-6; see also Moses 6:36). If reality were compared by analogy to visible light, then a seer perceives the visible spectrum like the rest of us, but he also sees the infra-red and the ultra-violet bands, those spiritual wavelengths the rest of us cannot see.
Translator. The title “translator” may refer to one who has received two blessings through the Spirit of God:
- The power to convert the written or spoken word from one language into another (see D&C 20:8).
- The power to give a clearer meaning to any given language
Through the gift of translation a translator does not merely convey, in the language of the reader, the words that were recorded by the writer but by revelation preserves for the reader the thoughts or intentions of the original writer. The translator does not translate intellectually, as scholars do, but by the gift and power of God. Thus, Joseph Smith not only “translated” the Book of Mormon record from reformed Egyptian to English, but he also “translated” the King James English into clearer, more understandable English—the Joseph Smith Translation.
Prophet. According to Elder Widtsoe:
A prophet is a teacher. That is the essential meaning of the word. He teaches the body of truth, the gospel, revealed by the Lord to man; and under inspiration explains it to the understanding of the people. He is an expounder of truth. Moreover, he shows that the way to human happiness is through obedience to God’s law. He calls to repentance those who wander away from the truth. He becomes a warrior for the consummation of the Lord’s purposes with respect to the human family. The purpose of his life is to uphold the Lord’s plan of salvation. All this he does by close communion with the Lord, until he is “full of power by the Spirit of the Lord.”
In the course of time the word “prophet” has come to mean, perhaps chiefly, a man who receives revelations and directions from the Lord. The principal business of a prophet has mistakenly been thought to foretell coming events, to utter prophecies, which is only one of the several prophetic functions” (Evidences and Reconciliations, 1:204-5).
A prophet is a teacher of known truth. A seer is a perceiver of hidden truth. A revelator is a bearer of new truth. In the widest sense, the one most commonly used, the title prophet includes the other titles and makes of the prophet a teacher, a seer, and a revelator.
Apostle. An apostle is a special witness of Jesus Christ to all the world (see D&C 107:23). The prophet Joseph Smith explained the important calling of an apostle by asking a question and then giving the answer:
What importance is there attached to the calling of these twelve apostles, different from the other callings or officers of the Church? . . .
They are the twelve apostles, who are called to the office of the Traveling High Council, who are to preside over the churches of the saints, among the Gentiles, where there is a presidency established; and they are to travel and preach among the Gentiles, until the Lord shall command them to go to the Jews. They are to hold the keys of this ministry, to unlock the door of the kingdom of heaven unto all nations, and to preach the gospel to every creature. This is the power, authority, and virtue of their apostleship (HC, 2:200).
Elder. The name of an office in the Melchizedek priesthood, elder is also the general title used to address one who bears this higher priesthood. Elder Bruce R. McConkie added that an elder is a representative of the Lord: “What is an elder? An elder is a minister of the Lord Jesus Christ. He holds the holy Melchizedek priesthood. He is commissioned to stand in the place and stead of his Master—who is the Chief Elder—in ministering to his fellow men. He is the Lord’s agent. His appointment is to preach the gospel and perfect the saints” (“Only an Elder,” Ensign, June 1975, 66).
2 Being inspired of the Holy Ghost to lay the foundation thereof, and to build it up unto the most holy faith.
verse 2 “to lay the foundation thereof” To lay the foundation of the Church. Most all of the small group gathered on April 6, 1830 could not really have understood the great movement that was beginning on that date. The true Church of Jesus Christ, the stone “cut out of the mountain without hands” (D&C 65:2), which was ultimately to fill the whole earth, was beginning to roll forth (see Daniel 2:44-45).
“to build it up unto the most holy faith” The word “faith” here refers to the doctrines and ordinances that characterize and are available in the Lord’s Church. “The most holy faith” refers to the unprecedented fulness of this final dispensation restoration of the gospel.
3 Which church was organized and established in the year of your Lord eighteen hundred and thirty, in the fourth month, and on the sixth day of the month which is called April.
verse 3 Just as they have with D&C 20:1, some have interpreted this verse to mean that the Savior was born on April 6, and that the Church was also organized on the 1830th anniversary of his birth (see the commentary for D&C 20:1).
4 Wherefore, meaning the church, thou shalt give heed unto all his words and commandments which he shall give unto you as he receiveth them, walking in all holiness before me;
verse 4 “meaning the church” The Lord makes it clear that “thou” in this verse refers to the members of this nascent Church.
The antecedent of the phrase “walking in all holiness before me” is you (the members of the Church) and not he (Joseph). This verse does not mean to say that the Church is to obey Joseph only when, in their opinion, Joseph is walking in holiness.
5 For his word ye shall receive, as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith.
verse 5 This is perhaps the most radical verse in this revelation, because it lays out what it truly means to be founded on the principle of living revelation. It is especially radical since the mind set of the Christian churches of Joseph’s day was that the heavens were silent—the day of revelation and prophets was past. This verse makes it clear that when the Prophet speaks, it is as though the Lord had said it himself. The Prophet is literally the Lord’s mouthpiece.
The Prophet, as the Lord’s mouthpiece, will never be permitted to lead the Church astray. This important principle has been taught by more than one prophet in this dispensation. For example:
I say to Israel, the Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the program. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so he will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty. God bless you. Amen (Wilford Woodruff, Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, 212-13).
The ultimate safety and security that we have available to us on this earth is to do exactly what the prophet says to do. We may not always like what he says, and his counsel may interfere with our social life or contradict our political views. However, if we obey in patience and faith, we will emerge victorious from this mortal phase of our existence and inherit eternal life.
6 For by doing these things the gates of hell shall not prevail against you; yea, and the Lord God will disperse the powers of darkness from before you, and cause the heavens to shake for your good, and his name’s glory.
verse 6 “the gates of hell shall not prevail against you” Hell is the part of the spirit world we call prison. To “prevail” is to win a contest or struggle. The metaphor here is of the righteous wrestling with the power of hell and trying not to be pulled in through its gates (or “jaws” in D&C 122:7). Through the atonement of Christ, the faithful will “win” their struggle with hell and not be pulled in to suffer inside its gates under Satan’s power. Elder Bruce R. McConkie gave the following explanation of the concept of the gates of hell: “The gates of hell are the entrances to the benighted realms of the damned [in the spirit world] where the wicked go to await the day when they shall come forth in the resurrection of damnation. Those beckoning gates prevail against all who pass through them. But those who obey the laws and ordinances of the gospel have the promise that the gates of hell shall not prevail against them” (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 1:388-89).
On the other hand, if hell here is to be understood as a larger term for the entire spirit world, then the promise is that we will not be captives there permanently. Ultimately, the atonement of Christ will prevail over the gates of the spirit world, and all who are held captive there will be released through redemption in Christ and the power of the resurrection.
7 For thus saith the Lord God: Him have I inspired to move the cause of Zion in mighty power for good, and his diligence I know, and his prayers I have heard.
verse 7 “to move the cause of Zion in mighty power for good” This means to work to establish a Zion place and a Zion people. Joseph Smith attempted to establish both a Zion place and a Zion people during his lifetime.
8 Yea, his weeping for Zion I have seen, and I will cause that he shall mourn for her no longer; for his days of rejoicing are come unto the remission of his sins, and the manifestations of my blessings upon his works.
verse 8 Joseph Smith, even at this early stage in the history of the Church, had plead for the Lord’s help in establishing Zion. Joseph’s sins had been remitted by the Lord, and the Lord stood ready to bless him in this work as first Elder and prophet.
9 For, behold, I will bless all those who labor in my vineyard with a mighty blessing, and they shall believe on his words, which are given him through me by the Comforter, which manifesteth that Jesus was crucified by sinful men for the sins of the world, yea, for the remission of sins unto the contrite heart.
verse 9 “by the Comforter” The Comforter is the Holy Ghost functioning in his role to bring peace, comfort, and security to those who are keeping their gospel covenants. He assures the righteous that they are right with God, that they are worthy of a celestial reward.
10 Wherefore it behooveth me that he should be ordained by you, Oliver Cowdery mine apostle;
verse 10 Both Joseph and Oliver already held the Melchizedek Priesthood and the keys of apostleship. These were bestowed upon them by ordination under the hands of Peter, James, and John. In this verse, the Lord refers to a specific office, first elder, in the Church which did not even exist before April 6, 1830. Joseph and Oliver already had the authority to ordain anyone to any office in the Church, but only on this occasion did the Church actually come into existence. Everyone who holds a priesthood office in the Church must be ordained to that office. Joseph Smith was no exception, and so he was ordained to his church office by Oliver Cowdery.
11 This being an ordinance unto you, that you are an elder under his hand, he being the first unto you, that you might be an elder unto this church of Christ, bearing my name–
verse 11 “This being an ordinance unto you” This phrase refers to the instructions that follow. The term “ordinance” here is used to mean a rule or commandment, as in a city or county ordinance.
“he being the first unto you” The Lord explains the priesthood line of authority and relative stewardships of Joseph and Oliver in clear and unmistakable terms: Joseph had the priority, and Oliver was his subordinate. This is something Oliver later had trouble accepting (see D&C 28:3, 5-7).
12 And the first preacher of this church unto the church, and before the world, yea, before the Gentiles; yea, and thus saith the Lord God, lo, lo! to the Jews also. Amen.
verse 12 In this verse, “first” refers to Oliver Cowdery. As stated previously, Oliver Cowdery will deliver the Church’s first sermon on Sunday, April 11, 1830.
Several times in the Doctrine and Covenants the Lamanites are termed “Jews.” In D&C 19:27 the Lamanites are called a “remnant of the Jews.” In D&C 57:4 the Indian frontier was called the line running directly between “Jew” and Gentile. Since Oliver Cowdery is called in this verse to be the first preacher to the Jews, and since he will be called in section 28 to be the first missionary to the Indians (“Lamanites”), it is likely that “Jew” in this verse really means American Indian.
- Michael J. Preece