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“To Read Them Over and Over”: Revelations and Translations, vol. 2

By: Ardis E. Parshall - March 24, 2011

The sister who was my visiting teaching partner (she decided this month to retire) was born in 1917 to a French-speaking LDS family in Switzerland. Although a partial edition of the Doctrine and Covenants had been published in French translation years before, it was out of print and unavailable during the childhood of my friend. Her mother, so hungry for the words of revelation, borrowed the book from a missionary who had a French translation and laboriously, by hand, copied out every revelation with pen and ink. She then sewed the pages between covers, and her homemade Doctrine et Alliances served as the family’s copy of the scriptures until a new edition was published in 1958.

Without knowing it, Sister Louise Puenzieux (1887-1955) was re-enacting a practice of the Saints in the earliest days of the Restoration. Those lucky enough to work closely with Joseph Smith could read the manuscript revelations recorded by his scribes. Orson Pratt, for instance, recalled in later years that “We often had access to the manuscripts when boarding with the Prophet; and it was our delight to read them over and over again.” The elders made handwritten copies of some of the most important revelations to share with their families or to take on missionary trips. There is a copy of one section (I don’t recall which one) in the Brigham Young papers.

Not everyone, of course, had access to those manuscripts – and Joseph Smith had even been cautioned by the Lord in 1830 to “shew not these things neither speak these things unto the World” (current D&C 19:21, but with the punctuation and spelling of the early text). But all the Saints were interested in the revelations, and at a conference in November 1831, Joseph Smith announced that they were now “to go forth unto all flesh & this according to the mind & the will of the Lord” (current D&C 133:61). Joseph proposed publishing the revelations on a press to be purchased by the church and set up in Independence, Missouri. The publication would take two forms: the revelations would be compiled into a small book, to be called the Book of Commandments, and while that book was in preparation the revelations would be published in the monthly issues of a new church newspaper to be called The Evening and the Morning Star.

And the plan was carried out … at least in the beginning. The Evening and the Morning Star began publication in June 1832, and William W. Phelps began setting the type for the Book of Commandments. Orson Hyde, traveling as a missionary in the east, began taking orders for the forthcoming volume.

But in July, 1833, conflict between the Mormons and other settlers in Missouri resulted in the destruction of the printshop and the attempted destruction of the Book of Commandments, then 5/6ths printed. You no doubt have heard the story of two teenage sisters, Mary Elizabeth and Caroline Rollins, bravely gathering up as many of the printed sheets as they could and disappearing into a cornfield. (That story is briefly told by James E. Faust here ; more detailed versions are easily found by Googling the sisters’ names). Those rescued sheets – with the last page ending abruptly in the middle of a sentence – were carried to Kirtland, Ohio, then bound. The few copies of the original Book of Commandments are among the rarest and most valuable of Mormon documents.

Over the next years the revelations were twice printed in an expanded book retitled as the Doctrine and Covenants. The Evening and the Morning Star, containing so much valuable material in addition to the revelations, was also reprinted during Joseph Smith’s lifetime.

All of these works containing the earliest printed versions of what we now know as the Doctrine and Covenants have now been examined and collated and annotated and compared and compiled and made available to the world again in the newest volume of the Joseph Smith Papers Project, issued by the Church Historian’s Press. One of Wednesday’s events formally launching this volume was a gathering of bloggers, some in person in the Church History Library, and others by video conference. You can read about that conference in several other places – WVS at BoAP liveblogged it, and BHodges at Life on Gold Plates posted pictures while the meeting was still in progress (he was kind enough to keep me out of the pictures, although I see my laptop and hands in a few!), and there will no doubt be other reports on other blogs by the time this post goes up on Thursday morning.

Those other reports will outline the contents of this volume and talk about its importance to modern scholars, especially those studying the development of the church in its earliest years (the various publications of the revelations trace, for instance, the addition of priesthood offices and responsibilities as the early revelations were revised to incorporate those additional responsibilities). Someone will, I hope, report in great detail about the editors’ proposed list of materials that the Prophet intended to include in that first, interrupted Book of Commandments, and about the production values of this volume.

Me, though, I’m moved by the images of these early scriptures, page after page after page. These pages are how my great-great-grandparents experienced modern revelation. These are the pages that the apostles carried with them on the first missionary visit to England. These are the scriptures as our ancestors (whether in blood or spirit) knew them – revelations addressed to “Joseph” and to “Sidney” and to “Peter” and to “Edward” and to “Ziba.” There was no need in those early days to use full names – there was only one Emma, and only one Hyrum. There was no need then of footnotes and cross-references and topical lists and maps. These pages are pure scripture, pure revelation, from the Lord to Joseph to the printer to the Saints, and for now, in my first few hours of exploring this beautiful new volume, that’s all I really want to think of.

It will be “[my] delight to read them over and over again.”



12 Comments »

  1. Wonderful post, Ardis.

    Comment by BHodges — March 24, 2011 @ 7:55 am

  2. This is really great, Ardis. Thank you. The vignette of the manuscript french compilation is quite extraordinary as well. I wonder if that volume is extant (I sure hope so; what a treasure). I also like to think about what it was like to read or hear these revelation without needing to to learn the context, because the context was evident in the life of the hearer.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 24, 2011 @ 9:35 am

  3. Yes, great tie-in with the homemade scriptures.

    Comment by BHodges — March 24, 2011 @ 9:46 am

  4. Thanks, BHodges.

    J., the handwritten French D&A is extant. My VT partner tried to donate it to the CHL a few years ago, but it was during a period when volunteers in the acquisitions department were accepting very few items, and the missionary declined this one saying that they already had the scriptures in French. I was so shocked that they didn’t recognize the significance of this book in lived Mormonism in a time and place where we have little record that I got up the nerve to write a letter to Elder Jensen in protest. I’m certain the Library would accept that book today, if the family were willing to offer it again.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 24, 2011 @ 9:47 am

  5. Be sure to read Clair’s post at Mormon-Chronicles — he writes a truly engaging report on the identification by the JSPP team on what would have been in that last 1/6th of the 1833 Book of Commandments had the work not been interrupted.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 24, 2011 @ 10:04 am

  6. Holy cow, Ardis. That is mind boggling!

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 24, 2011 @ 10:15 am

  7. Wonderful write-up Ardis. Quite an exclusive event!

    Thanks for the link to Claire’s interesting post.

    Comment by Researcher — March 24, 2011 @ 10:17 am

  8. J., I know I’ve been a little mentally unhinged ever since …

    But do let me stress that things are different now. Brad Westwood, the head of the acquisitions department, has done a good job training his volunteer/missionary staff to recognize the significance of donated material, and of course his professional staff, like just about everybody else at the CHL, is first-rate.

    I don’t want to discourage anybody from offering treasures like this to the library. If an item does not really fit into their collection, or if it duplicates routine material that they already have, they might decline it or ask your permission to place it in another library that needs it, but they eagerly accept and care for materials that might have been unfortunately turned away in the past.

    I’m sure my hat size grew a couple of notches when the invitation came, Researcher. It was a fun and informative event, and I hope the JSPP teams are satisfied with the coverage to the point where they might do something similar another time. One of the perks of being there in person was sitting at the table where original examples of these rare and precious volumes were displayed. It was an instant link through time to the early days of the Restoration.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 24, 2011 @ 10:27 am

  9. Love the story. Thanks Ardis, a great report.

    Comment by mmiles — March 24, 2011 @ 10:29 am

  10. I’m glad that you were able to be to the meeting and pass on this information to us.

    Comment by Maurine Ward — March 24, 2011 @ 8:07 pm

  11. Ardis,

    I must agree — very nice writeup — with a nice personal story.

    And it was nice to meet you finally!

    -Clair

    Comment by Clair — March 24, 2011 @ 11:11 pm

  12. Nice to meet you, too, Clair — and I apologize for sticking an extra letter on your name up there, which I’ve just removed. You’re probably used to that but it isn’t pleasant and there’s really no excuse.

    Sez one whose name is regularly misspelled and mispronounced as “Ardith.”

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 25, 2011 @ 12:24 am

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