Learning to Love
Doctrine and Covenants

A Brief History of the Evolution of Our Present-day Doctrine and Covenants By Michael J. Preece

A Brief History of the Evolution of Our Present-day Doctrine and Covenants

It is not known just when the Prophet began writing down the major revelations he received, but his personal history indicates that early in 1829 he was regularly doing so, and that on April 6, 1830, while in the process of organizing the Church, he received a revelation commanding the Church to keep a record of its activities (D&C 21:1, 4-6). The earliest collections of Joseph Smith’s revelations were made informally by individual members of the Church. Often these were saints to whom copies of the revelations had been given because they concerned those particular individuals. People then began to gather others by making copies and trading back and forth, and more and more saints sought their own collections of these precious messages from the Lord. Joseph kept his own collection, but even that was quite informal. It fell to his scribes to keep Joseph’s collection intact and current.

In 1831 the Church sent William W. Phelps, a newspaper journalist even before joining the Church, to Independence, Jackson County, Missouri, to open a printing shop. His first assignment was to begin printing the Church’s first newspaper, The Evening and Morning Star. Some twenty-seven of Joseph’s revelations were printed in this periodical. This, however, did not satisfy the need of church members to have their own collections of the revelations, especially since Independence was about one thousand miles from Kirtland, and it was difficult to efficiently distribute this publication from Independence to all the church membership.

Between November 1 and 12, 1831, in Hiram, Ohio, a pertinent series of special conferences of the elders of the Church was held. These conferences were held at the home of John Johnson, where Joseph and Emma were living at the time. During these meetings, the elders of the Church resolved that a collection of Joseph’s revelations be printed and distributed to all members of the Church. Joseph agreed to make such a collection, and he selected those to be included out of the many he had received. One note of interest is that the Church has in its possession today several of Joseph’s revelations which have never been published in the Doctrine and Covenants and have never yet been accepted by the Church as canonized scripture. Some have never been published in any book or collection. On the first day of the conference (November 1), in a revelation, the Lord gave his endorsement to the proposed collection and named it the “Book of Commandments.” This revelation is now Section 1 of the Doctrine and Covenants and is referred to as the “Lord’s Preface” to the collection.

After receiving the “Lord’s Preface,” Joseph read it to the elders assembled. One of them, William E. McLellin, who was held by some to be one of the more learned and “intellectual” early members of the Church, challenged the divine authenticity of the revelation, suggesting that perhaps Joseph himself wrote it. He criticized the language and vocabulary as being inferior. He saw too much of Joseph’s vocabulary and manner of expression. Some of the other elders who were present agreed with Brother McLellin. Joseph thus inquired of the Lord as to how to handle these objections. The Lord then gave the present Section 67 in reply, in which he said, paraphrasing, “If any of you doubt that I am the one giving these revelations, then I challenge you to write a revelation yourself equal to even the least of those given through Joseph Smith. If you are able to do so, then you are entitled to your doubts.” Of this experience Joseph Smith wrote in his journal: “William E. McLellin, as the wisest man in his own estimation, having more learning than sense, endeavored to write [a revelation] but failed. . . . The elders and all present, that witnessed this vain attempt of a man to imitate the language of Jesus Christ, renewed their faith in the revelations the Lord had given to the church through my instrumentality” (HC, 1:226).

As William E. McLellin confessed his failure, he wept and bore testimony to the elders assembled as to the authenticity of the revelations. The Spirit also visited the other elders present, and each in the group was blessed with a testimony. They all perceived that even though the words were Joseph Smith’s, the messages were from God. The elders signed a document or statement of testimony which was to be published in the front of the Book of Commandments. Since the printing of the Book of Commandments was never completed, their testimony was not printed.

During the remainder of the conferences, Joseph received four additional revelations, including Section 133 which is the “appendix” of our current Doctrine and Covenants. The conference resolved that Joseph should review and correct any errors in the revelations to be printed in the new Book of Commandments. Oliver Cowdery and John Whitmer were instructed to take the collection of revelations and sufficient moneys to Missouri for printing and distribution to church members. At the end of the conference, it was decided to print 10,000 copies of the revelations, but this number was later reduced to three thousand in April 1832.

Shortly after this conference, the Literary Firm was organized as the publishing arm of the Church. The proceeds from the printing were to compensate Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, Sidney Rigdon, John Whitmer, and Martin Harris all of whom were members of the Literary Firm. The Lord indicated that the appointed stewards over the literary concerns of the Church had claim upon the Church for assistance with their temporal needs so “that the revelations may be published, and go forth unto the ends of the earth; that they also may obtain funds which shall benefit the church in all things” (D&C 72:20-21). The Firm was to publish not only the Book of Commandments but also the New Translation of the Bible, the church hymnal, children’s literature, a church almanac, and newspapers.

Oliver Cowdery and John Whitmer left Kirtland about November 20, 1831 and arrived in Independence around January 5, 1832. On March 1, 1832, the Prophet Joseph received a revelation instructing the saints to organize a branch of the Firm in Independence. Joseph and a party of men journeyed to Missouri in the spring of 1832 to establish the Firm (HC, 1:265). Joseph left Independence on May 6, 1832, to return to Kirtland, leaving the job of printing in the hands of Phelps, Whitmer, and Cowdery. By December 1832, the Book of Commandments was in press.

A copyright for the Book of Commandments was secured by W.W. Phelps on February 13, 1833. The printing of the book proceeded very slowly with many delays. These delays proved quite costly to the saints.

Meanwhile, the saints in Independence were beginning to suffer increasing persecution from the Missourians who regarded the influx of Mormons as a threat to their way of life. In July 1832, W. W. Phelps printed an editorial in The Evening and Morning Star entitled “Free Men of Color,” a pro-abolitionist article. This editorial caused much controversy since Missouri’s economy was built upon the system of slavery. In spite of the newspaper’s later printing a retraction of the editorial, a storm of hatred against the Mormons blew up in Jackson County. By July of 1833, after the Missourians had watched many additional Mormons move into their state and begin to buy up lands, violence erupted. A mob broke into the printing shop of W. W. Phelps, burned the building, and dumped the printing press into the Missouri River. The mob also tarred and feathered Bishop Edward Partridge.

As the mob approached to destroy Brother Phelps’s press, some workers in the shop gathered up some of the unbound and uncollated pages, which had been printed, and carried them out the back door. Some additional pages of the unfinished book were salvaged from the wreckage of the office, and some were collected as they blew about the streets of Independence. These unbound pages were later distributed among the church members who had to make their own covers and bind their own collections. Today, several original copies of the Book of Commandments have been located. The Church has a few in its possession. These copies contain sixty-five revelations, but it is speculated that several more might have been intended to be included.

This printing did not satisfy the hunger of the church members to own their own collection of Joseph’s revelations. The center for printing the Book of Commandments was now changed to Kirtland. On September 11, 1833, a meeting of the Literary Firm in Kirtland decided that the press should be reestablished under the auspices of the F.G. Williams Co. to continue publishing The Evening and the Morning Star as well as starting a new publication to be called The Latter-Day Saint Messenger and Advocate. An overriding purpose of the two newspapers was to make available to the members the revelations being prepared for publication in book form. By December 18, 1833, the printing of The Evening and the Morning Star was resumed in Kirtland.

In September 1834 in Kirtland, the high council decided to form a committee to begin work on a new collection of revelations for publication. This time Joseph took the same sixty-five which had been published in the Book of Commandments and added thirty-eight more, bringing the total to 103 sections. Joseph also included in this edition his “Lectures on Faith” which were seven lectures that had been delivered in the School of the Prophets at Kirtland in 1835. Joseph did not suggest that these lectures were revelation, but rather he included them “in consequence of their embracing the important doctrine of salvation.” The Lectures on Faith were included in every edition of the Doctrine and Covenants until 1921. They were then removed and printed separately because some of the members of the Church were coming to regard them as canonical scripture, and they were never intended to be regarded as such. This new edition was printed in 1835 in Kirtland and was called the “Doctrine and Covenants.” This name for the book derived from the fact that the Lectures on Faith were presented as the “doctrine of the Church of the Latter-day Saints,” and the revelations were referred to as the “covenants and commandments of the Lord.” Thus, this 1835 collection became the first edition of our current Doctrine and Covenants. Bound copies of this book were available from the second week of September and were distributed by the missionaries to some of the branches of the Church at a cost of one dollar per copy. It is interesting to note that most historical texts state that this edition contained 102 revelations. This mis-impression occurred because the last section in that edition was numbered 102. Close scrutiny, however, reveals that two sections in the book are numbered “66.” It may also be noted that in reprinting the sixty-five sections that had been printed in the Book of Commandments, Joseph edited and altered each of the sections to clarify and amplify their meaning. We thus see an example of the ongoing process of revelation. In the two years that had intervened since their first printing, the Prophet had grown in spiritual knowledge and understanding so that he was better able to present the sacred thoughts contained in those original sixty-five revelations.

The publication of the Doctrine and Covenants affected the doctrinal understanding of members of the Church. A review of the history and the journals of that time shows that the Doctrine and Covenants became the standard by which the teachings and beliefs of the people were measured. Generally the Doctrine and Covenants took its place beside the Bible and the Book of Mormon as the doctrinal standard for the Church.

In 1844, shortly after the death of the Prophet Joseph (on June 27, 1844), the second American edition of the Doctrine and Covenants was published. Eight additional sections were incorporated into this edition, including one written by John Taylor regarding the martyrdom of the Prophet (Section 135 in our current edition). This brought the total of sections up to 111.

In 1845 the third American edition was published, which was a duplicate of the 1844 edition.

In 1846 the fourth American edition was printed and again was identical to the 1844 edition. All subsequent editions were published in England until the greatly expanded and revised edition of 1876.

In 1845 enemies of the Church, led by the then-apostate Sidney Rigdon, planned to obtain a copyright for the Doctrine and Covenants in England to prevent the Church from publishing it in that country. Fortunately, Wilford Woodruff uncovered the plot and quickly obtained the copyright in his name. In 1845 three thousand copies were printed in England, making this the first European edition.

The second through sixth European editions were all published in England in 1849, 1852, 1854, 1866, and 1869. Remember that between 1846 and 1876 no editions were published in America, thus some of those printed in England were shipped to America to fill the needs for the book there.

In 1876 in Salt Lake City, Orson Pratt was asked by Brigham Young to prepare a new edition. He omitted Section 101, a statement on marriage written by Oliver Cowdery, and added twenty-six additional sections, bringing the total to 136. The statement on marriage was replaced by Section 132, a revelation on celestial marriage. He also divided the sections into verses. This was the first edition published in the United States since the 1846 Nauvoo edition.

In 1879 Orson Pratt added the footnotes and cross-references. These were included in a new edition published in England in 1879 and in Utah in 1880.

Between 1882 and 1920 no less than twenty-eight printings of the Doctrine and Covenants were made. Some were made into double or triple combinations with other standard works. A “vest pocket” size was printed, and some of the later editions printed in Salt Lake City had a concordance added. In 1908 the Official Declaration or “Manifesto,” written by Wilford Woodruff in 1890, which ended the Church’s practice of polygamy, was added. Also added was a motion by Lorenzo Snow, made in October 1890 conference, that the Church support the declaration.

In 1921 an important new edition was printed under the direction of the First Presidency. A committee headed by George F. Richards was given the responsibility. James E. Talmage, Joseph Fielding Smith, and others worked on the project. This edition became known as the “primary edition” and included double-column pages, brief headings for each section, and the Lectures on Faith were omitted. Elder Talmage also revised the footnote references. Thus, both Orson Pratt and James E. Talmage are responsible for the footnote references. This edition was used by the Church until 1981.

As the missionary work of the Church expanded, the need arose for copies of the Doctrine and Covenants in languages other than English. The early non-English editions of the Doctrine and Covenants are as follows: 1851–Welsh, 1852–Danish, 1876–German, 1888–Swedish, 1908–Dutch, 1914–Hawaiian, 1919–Maori, and 1933– Spanish.

At the time of this writing, the Doctrine and Covenants is published in some twenty-three languages. Studies by the translation department of the Church show that if the Church would print the scriptures in 193 languages, then ninety percent of the world’s population could read them in their own tongue. There are plans to publish the Book of Mormon in all these languages and to publish the Doctrine and Covenants in at least some of them.

The 1981 edition included two new sections. Section 137 is a vision of the celestial kingdom given to the prophet Joseph Smith in 1836, and section 138 is a revelation on the redemption of the dead received by Joseph F. Smith in 1918. The Wilford Woodruff Manifesto was given the title “Official Declaration – 1” and was followed by some statements by Wilford Woodruff about the Manifesto. The 1981 edition also included the “Official Declaration – 2” announcing that all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard to race or color. There were also improved footnotes, cross-references, section headings, and maps.

The following summarizes the revelations and the prophets by which each was written or received:

President Section(s)
Joseph Smith Sections 1 through 133 and 137
Oliver Cowdery Section 134
John Taylor Section 135
Brigham Young Section 136
Joseph F. Smith Section 138
Wilford Woodruff Official Declaration 1
Spencer W. Kimball Official Declaration 2

- Michael J. Preece