Doctrine and Covenants 46 contains some of my favorite verses, quoted often in talks and lessons: “To every man is given a gift by the Spirit of God. To some is given one, and to some is given another, that all may be profited thereby.” Then follows a list of spiritual gifts and their purposes. How many of us have looked over that list, thinking about our own gifts?
But look at how that revelation opens: It seems to be talking about meetings (v. 2), public meetings (v. 3), and specifically sacrament meetings (v. 4). And before we get to the list of gifts the spirit, the Lord warns us against being “seduced by evil spirits, or doctrines of devils, or the commandments of men” (v. 7). The section seems to be a potpourri of unrelated ideas.
No wonder the Doctrine and Covenants can be hard to read! There is no overall narrative, and even within sections there seems to be little organization. What are you supposed to do as a Gospel Doctrine teacher? No wonder we pick out verses here and there and do proof-texting! How else can we teach from this scripture? What a muddle!
Most of us understand that the revelations contained in the Doctrine and Covenants were given over time, often in response to questions asked and problems needing resolution. In some cases we probably have some understanding of the questions that prompted Joseph Smith or others to seek the Lord’s guidance. But it’s beyond the knowledge and experience of most of us – me included – to know the background of each of the revelations.
Today – I mean right now – just as this post is published – a new resource for understanding the Doctrine and Covenants is going online. “Revelations in Context,” a series of articles addressing the background of each section of the Doctrine and Covenants, is being published by the Church here: Revelations in Context.
Written by historians – real live actual working professional historians who are also faithful members of the Church – drawing on the formidable resources of the Joseph Smith Papers project – illustrated by photographs from the Church History Library – linked to images of the original (or earliest extant) written revelations – footnoted to suit even the giddiest lover of footnotes – Revelations in Context explains what was going on at the time and and in the place when a revelation was given.
These essays identify the people involved, and tell of religious and civil history, about social customs, and the state of science and technology, and the geography related to the revelations, and whatever else is helpful to our understanding. They are long enough to be thorough, yet brief enough to be practical. The writing is authoritative yet accessible to all.
And, wonder of wonders, they are, or very shortly will be, linked to the Gospel Doctrine lesson manuals online, so that teachers and class members alike can be easily directed to these resources we have so long wished for.
What do I find when I am puzzling over Section 46 and the seemingly disconnected subjects covered there?
I turn to the article Religious Enthusiasm among Early Ohio Converts, which addresses the related sections 46 and 50. I read about Levi Hancock, the man who took certain questions to Joseph Smith. This immediately personalizes the history by making it in part the story of a person. I see his photograph and read his words. This section is about the length of a blog post – a bite-sized piece of history.
There is a section on the Second Great Awakening – something I know a little about, but I’m glad to have my memory jogged. I read about how that religious revival affected worship and behavior in the part of the world where new Saints were coming together, why that behavior was of concern to Levi Hancock, why he and others took their questions to Joseph Smith, and how Section 46 fits into the story – and now I understand the fascinating lithographed scene that appears at the top of that essay, which helps to bring the whole story to life.
Suddenly I realize that meetings, and warnings against being seduced by evil spirits, and the long list of gifts of the true Spirit are not scattered, unrelated topics. They are intimately connected, and the connection has a history and an engaging story. The doctrinal assurance that I have a gift now also has a history, a reality. I am one with the early Saints, and the Lord is speaking to me through the pages of this scripture.
With links embedded in the essay, I can jump to images of the handwritten revelations. Because those images are on the Joseph Smith Papers site, I have the benefit of their highly accurate transcriptions, with links to explanatory notes and all else that is rapidly enriching that site.
Since this is a favorite section of mine, my study might expand to take advantage of the footnotes (some of which are linked to online copies of the sources). Even if I don’t pursue that additional study, a glance at the footnotes tells me the level of research that lies behind this Revelations in Context essay.
The essays for the next several months’ Gospel Doctrine lessons are posted, and I understand the remaining essays are in progress and will be posted well in advance of their appearance in the Sunday School year.
If you’re still reading this – if you haven’t raced off to explore Revelations in Context already – please join me in appreciation for those who have produced this wonderful resource – and acknowledge how far we have come as a Church in the past few years in understanding, trusting, and disseminating our history for the benefit of all the Saints.