This year’s Gospel Doctrine course based on the Doctrine and Covenants has sent me to the bookshelves to see how previous generations taught those lessons.
The lesson for the upcoming Sunday covers everything from public reaction to Joseph’s telling of his vision, through Moroni’s visits, the translation of the plates, the history of the lost 116 pages, and the experiences of the Witnesses. The real purpose of the lesson, though, is to inspire class members to read the Book of Mormon and pursue a testimony of its divinity.
Lessons from the past tend to focus almost exclusively on the history, and to spend many class periods, not just one, on the events covered by this week’s lesson. The earlier lessons emphasize the learning of the historical facts; any testimony building is the low-key assumption that once a student learns the miraculous events of the past, he will have a testimony of them. There is no overt attempt in those lessons to encourage the reading of the Book of Mormon or the gaining of a testimony – presumably, although I haven’t looked for them, if those goals were part of the Sunday School curriculum, they appear in the Book of Mormon lessons rather than those on the Doctrine and Covenants.
I thought it might be interesting to post a series of lessons from past Sunday School curricula that relate to each week’s Gospel Doctrine lesson. These will all be straight transcription, with no “value added” by their posting here. Because past lessons don’t often line up neatly with the current ones in their coverage, please let me know if there is some facet in an upcoming lesson that you are particularly interested in seeing how was taught in the past.
I note some details in these transcriptions that are not completely historical, based on more recent research. Be cautious – if you read a detail here that you haven’t heard before or that doesn’t seem quite right, investigate! These posts are intended as historical novelty or springboards for discussion, not necessarily as scholarship.
1940: The Doctrine and Covenants in Its Historical Setting
THE PROPHET’S EARLY HELPERS
Not the least of the remarkable things in connection with the establishment of the Church in this Dispensation is the way in which various avenues, one after another, opened up before the Prophet Joseph Smith. A brief consideration of his first friends and associates will reveal this to be true.
1. His Own Family: Joseph’s very first convert was his mother. After the First Vision he went to her, looking as if something were the matter. “When the light had departed,” Joseph says,  “I had no strength; but soon recovering in some degree, I went home. And as I leaned up to the fireplace, Mother inquired what the matter was. I replied, ‘Never mind, all is well – I am well enough off.’ I then said to her, ‘I have learned for myself that Presbyterianism [the mother’s church] is not true.’”
His next convert seems to have been his father. Says the Prophet, “He [Moroni] then commanded me to go to my father and tell him of the vision and commandments which I had received. I obeyed; I returned to my father in the field, and rehearsed the whole matter to him. He replied that it was of God, and told me to go and do as commanded by the messenger.”
The parents converted to his story of the visions of God, of Jesus Christ, and of Moroni, the sympathy of the rest of the family followed as a matter of course. Alvin and Hyrum, particularly, were much concerned. Alvin, however, did not live to see the fulfillment of his desires.
2. Martin Harris: On obtaining the golden volume from the Angel, Joseph found that he would have to move to some other place, if he was to have the necessary peace to do the translating. Harmony, the home of his wife’s folks, offered what he was seeking. But to move there required some money – which he did not have. Ready money was not easy to get in that locality. At this juncture a wealthy farmer, Martin Harris, came forward and offered to give (Mother Smith says “lend”)  him the sum of fifty dollars. Martin, of course, was not a stranger, but a friend of the Smiths. Joseph took the money and made his home in Harmony, Pennsylvania. As we know, he did not immediately proceed to the translation of the ancient Record. Martin comes into the picture again, to supply the money for the publication of the Book of Mormon This, however, was a loan, to be returned from the sale of the book.
3. Oliver Cowdery: One reason why Joseph did not set to work at once on the translation was that he needed someone to write for him. The Prophet, as is generally known, had had little schooling. He was particularly lacking in the use of correct English, and so he waited for someone who was able to give him the necessary assistance. It would have to be someone with a reasonable amount of education and a facility of pen. Oliver Cowdery, one day, came to Harmony and offered himself as scribe.
Oliver had gone originally to Manchester, New York, from Wells, Rutland County, Vermont, the home State of the Smiths. A school teacher by profession, he had boarded in the Smith home, where he had heard of the visions and revelations of the son. Moreover, he had prayed to know whether there was any truth in Joseph’s claim to being a prophet, and been so convinced that he now called on him. Oliver Cowdery, as we know, became one of the Three Witnesses to the divine origin of the Book of Mormon and a participant with Joseph in other heavenly manifestations. Cowdery was a young man of unusual intelligence and independence of character.
4. Joseph Knight: Once the translation was under way, another difficulty presented itself. how were the two young men to live while they worked? If they worked to live, they could not translate very much at a time, and so the labor would lag; but if they devoted all their time to their sacred task, they would have nothing to eat. Joseph Knight, for whom the Prophet had worked, came to the rescue. Knight lived in Colesville, Broom County, New York, across the line between Pennsylvania and that State. he was a farmer and owned a mill. Just how he came to supply the young men with food, the Prophet does not tell us. But that he did we are certain. Joseph Knight had doubtless become interested in the New Movement while the Prophet worked for him, before the plates had been received for translation.
5. The Whitmers: As the work of tranlsation progressed,neighbors of the Hales began to get curious about the two strangers. What were they doing? it was rumored that they had a book of golden plates. If so, these neighbors would like to see them. This fact of gold plates cut a much larger figure in the early troubles of Joseph Smith than we have been thinking. After a while, when the neighbors could get little or no satisfaction from the two, they began to make trouble for them. it became evident, therefore, that Joseph and Oliver would have to move from harmony. But where to? the answer came in the generous actions of the Whitmers.
“Shortly after commending to translate,”Joseph says,  “I became acquainted with Mr. Peter Whitmer, of Fayette, Seneca County, New York. In the beginning of the month of June , his son, David Whitmer, came to the place where we were residing [Harmony], and brought with him a two-horse wagon, for the purpose of having us accompany him to his father’s place, and there remain until we should finish the work. It was arranged that we should have our board free of charge, and the assistance of one of his brothers to write for me, and also his [David’s] own assistance when convenient. Having much need of such timely aid in an undertaking so arduous, and being informed that the people in the neighborhood of the Whitmers were anxiously awaiting the opportunity to inquire into these things, we accepted the invitation, and accompanied Mr. Whitmer to his father’s house, and there resided until the translation was finished and the copyright secured. Upon our arrival, we found Mr. Whitmer’s family very anxious concerning the work, and very friendly toward ourselves [Joseph, Oliver, and Emma]. They continued so, boarded and lodged us according to arrangements; and John whitmer, in particular, assisted us very much in writing during the remainder of the work.”
The Whitmer family at this time consisted of the father and mother, Peter and Mary (Musselman) Whitmer, and seven children, whose ages ranged from Christian, who was, in 1829, thirty-one years old, to Elizabeth, whose age was fourteen. John was twenty-seven, David twenty-four, and Peter, Jr., twenty. Catherine married Hiram Page and Elizabeth, Oliver Cowdery. The addition, therefore, of Joseph, Oliver, and Emma to the Whitmer family made twelve persons to wait upon and to board and lodge. David tells us, in his Address to all Believers, that his mother, although she did not complain at the work she was under the necessity of doing on account of this addition, sometimes felt that her burden was more than she could well bear. And then he adds that, one morning, the Angel showed her the plates – which greatly lightened her spirit and made her feel better able to carry the weight of her load. If this story is true – and there is no good reason to doubt it – then Mother Whitmer is the only woman to have been a witness to the existence of the golden plates and of the heavenly messenger.
6. Man and the Cause: It was to the men in this group that some of the individual revelations contained in the Doctrine and Covenants were given through Joseph. To some, also, special manifestations were granted.
Sections 3, 5, 10, 17, and 19 are concerned mostly with Martin Harris, in connection with matters that arose out of the relations between him and the Prophet; sections 6, 7, 8, 9, 13, 17, and 18 were given to Oliver Cowdery, to him and Joseph, or to the potential Three Witnesses; section 12, to Joseph Knight; sections 14, 17, and 18 to David Whitmer or to him and others jointly; section 15, to John Whitmer; section 4, to Father Smith; section 11, to Hyrum Smith; and section 16, to Peter Whitmer, Jr. In addition, Oliver, David, and Martin were given the supreme privilege of becoming the Three Witnesses to the divine origin of the Book of Mormon, and Christian Whitmer, Peter Whitmer, Jr., John Whitmer, Joseph Smith, Sr., and Hyrum Smith were privileged to see the plates of the Book of Mormon. If we may say so, they deserved these honors for their faithfulness and support of the work of the Prophet.
What Tennyson wrote of men and the Brook, ever running on its course, is true of man and the Cause, which is eternal. Men may come and men may go, but the Cause goes on forever.
Some of the men we have considered here, after playing each his little part, went off the stage, and not gloriously. Others remained faithful to the end of their days on earth. Two of them (Joseph Smith, Sr., and Hyrum Smith) lost their lives in the Cause. And two of those who made a fade-out reappeared before the footlights, but with signs of their long rest. But the Cause did not seem to miss any of them, but went on, ever-growing, ever-moving, sometimes with difficulty, but always triumphantly.
The Cause is greater than the man!
Something to Think About
1. How do you account for the men and women who became the first helpers of the Prophet? What justification was there for these receiving special revelations and honors from the Lord?
2. When men abandon a cause in which they have served, what happens to the men? To the Cause? What purpose, if any, has been served by the defection of the Three Witnesses? Is there any significance to the fact that two of them returned?
 History of the Church (Documentary), Vol. I, p. 6.
 History of the Church (Documentary), Vol. 1, p. 15.
 History of the Church (Documentary), Vol. I, p. 19; History of the Prophet Joseph, Lucy Smith, p. 112 9Edition of 1902).
 History of the Church (Documentary), Vol. I, p. 49.
THE LOST MANUSCRIPT
(Read Sections 3, 5, 10, and Isaiah, chapter 39)
1. Martin Harris: Reference has already been made to a friend of the Smith family, named Martin Harris. It was he, as the reader may recall, who gave the young Prophet fifty dollars, to enable him to move to Harmony, Pennsylvania, where the work of translation might go on in peace.
Harris was born in May, 1783. He was, therefore, a man of forty-four years of age at the time Joseph received the Nephite Record from Moroni. He was twenty-two years older than the Prophet. In all the accounts of Martin Harris, non-Mormon as well as Mormon, he is represented as a man of good character, a careful business man, and a well-to-do farmer in Palmyra. It was only when he began to believe in the New Movement that things were said against him. Not only was he careful in his management of his business affairs, but religiously he was inclined to be skeptical. At least he showed himself to be so in his relations with Joseph Smith.
2. Harris and the Scholars: It was out of this natural skepticism that arose a situation in which Harris sought to remove any doubt as to whether or not Joseph really had some gold plates with writing on them. Immediately after Joseph’s arrival in Harmony he copied some of the characters on the plates and translated some of them. Says the Prophet: 
“Some time in this month of February , the aforementioned Mr. Martin Harris came to our place, got the characters which I had drawn off the plates, and started with them to the city of New York. For what took place relative to him and the characters, I refer to his own account of the circumstances, as he related them to me after his return.”
In his account Martin said that he visited Professor Charles Anthon, that he showed both the characters and the translation to the Professor, and that Anthon “gave me a certificate certifying to the people of Palmyra that they were true characters and the translation of such of them as had been translated, correct.” But “as I was leaving the house, Mr. Anthon called me back and asked me how the young man found out that there were gold plates in the place where he had found them. I answered that an angel of God had revealed it unto him. He then said to me, ‘Let me see that certificate.’ I gave it to him.” The Professor then tore it up, explaining that there was no such thing now as the ministering of angels. He said, however, “that if I would bring the plates to him, he would translate them. I informed him that part of the plates were sealed and that I was forbidden to bring them. He replied, ‘I cannot read a sealed book.’ I left him and went to Dr. Mitchell, who sanctioned what Professor Anthon had said respecting both the characters and the translation.”
It is only fair here to say that, six years later, Professor Anthon, in answer to a question, denied having given Harris a certificate to the effect that the characters were genuine and the translation correct. He admitted, however, that “a plain, apparently simple-hearted farmer” had visited him, with a note from Dr. Mitchell. Very naturally the Professor would hesitate to give confirmation to the story going the rounds about him, since, by 1834, the “hoax” of the new religion was creating no small stir in Western Ohio. 
3. Harris and the Manuscript: “Mr. Harris, having returned from this tour, left me and went home to Palmyra, arranged his affairs, and returned again to my house about the 12th of April, 1828, and commenced writing for me while I translated from the plates, which we continued until the 14th of June following, by which time he had written one hundred and sixteen pages of manuscript, on foolscap paper. [Obviously the two scholars had said something to Harris that convinced him of the genuineness of Joseph’s claims concerning the golden book.]
“Some time after Mr. Harris had begun to write for me, he began to importune me to give him liberty to carry the writings home and show them; and desired of me that I would inquire of the Lord, through the urim and thummim, if he might not do so.
“I did inquire, and the answer was that he must not. However, he was not satisfied with this answer, and desired that I should inquire again. I did so, and the answer was as before. Still he could not be contented, but insisted that I should inquire once more. After much solicitation, I again inquired of the Lord, and permission was granted him to have the writings on certain conditions; which were that he show them only to his brother, Preserved Harris, his own wife, his father and mother, and a Mrs. Cobb, a sister to his wife. In accordance with this last answer I required of him that he should bind himself in a covenant to me in the most solemn manner that he would not do otherwise than had been directed. He did so. He bound himself as I required of him, took the writings, and went his way.
“Notwithstanding, however, the great restrictions which he had been laid under and the solemnity of the covenant which he had made with me, he did show them to others, and by stratagem they got them away from him, and they have never been recovered to this day.”
Both the Prophet and Harris were punished severely for this incident. Martin was never again allowed to write for Joseph, and Joseph’s sorrow was beyond expression. The urim and thummim was taken from him by the angel, though it was returned to him, after he had made a visit to Manchester, to see what had become of Harris and the document. “I was walking out a little distance [from Harmony] when the former heavenly messenger appeared and handed to me the urim and thummim again. I inquired of the Lord through it, and obtained the following revelation.” Then is given section 3, as we have it in our present edition.
4. A Dilemma: Then the question arose in Joseph’s mind: should he, when he took up the translation again, retranslate the part which had been lost? If he did, he probably could not use the exact words, and then it might be compared with that which had been made already. In that event, there would be trouble. What should he do?
“The works, and the designs, and the purposes of God cannot be frustrated,” declared the revelation, “neither can they come to naught. For God doth not walk in crooked paths, neither doth he turn to the right hand nor to the left. His paths are straight, and his course is one eternal round. Remember, remember that it is not the work of God that is frustrated, but the work of men. …
“Thou deliveredst up that which was sacred into the hands of a wicked man, who set at naught the counsels of God, and has broken the most sacred promises which were made before God, and has depended upon his own judgment, and boasted in his own wisdom. And this is the reason that thou hast lost thy privilege for a season.”
Then the Prophet says, “After I had obtained this revelation, both the plates and the urim and thummim were taken from me again; but in a few days they were returned to me.”
After receiving them this time, Joseph “inquired of the Lord” and obtained what is now section 10 of the Doctrine and Covenants.
“Satan hath put it into their hearts,” the Lord said in this revelation, speaking of the men into whose hands the manuscript had fallen, “to alter the words which you have caused to be written, or which you have translated; they read contrary from that which you translated … I say unto you that you shall not translate again those words which have gone forth. Behold here is wisdom. … An account of those things that you have written is engraven upon the plates of Nephi. …”
Therefore, when Joseph and Oliver, in April, 1829, began the work of translation, they started with the “small plates of Nephi, which had been put with Mormon’s abridgment “for a wise purpose.” These cover about the same period as the lost manuscript; the main difference is that the former gives more of the religious history than the latter. It is important to know this when one is reading the Book of Mormon.
This incident is one of the two great crises in the life of Joseph Smith. He had been granted a “gift,” through which the Restoration of the gospel was to be made. He had disobeyed a law. His “gift” was taken away from him “for a season.” If he did not conduct himself more circumspectly thereafter, he would lose it permanently. The revelations and his own account give us no adequate statement of the anguish he suffered in the situation. For there was a period during which he did not know whether or not he would be permitted to continue his sacred work. It was a lesson he was never to forget.
Something to Think About
1. What lessons may be learned from this incident? In what respect was Martin Harris a “wicked man”? Why were the divine articles taken from Joseph? What inference do you draw from the incident about the character of Joseph and of Martin?
2. What was the “wise purpose” in the inclusion of the plates of Nephi with Mormon’s abridgment? Did God know what Harris would do? If so, why did He not prevent him from doing what he did? What sin had Joseph committed?
 History of the church, Vol. I, pp. 19-27.
 Anthon’s letter was to Howe, “author” of Mormonism Unveiled, the first anti-Mormon book, published in 1834.