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Matthew Godfrey: Understanding wording changes in the Doctrine and Covenants

Published: Saturday, Aug. 16 2014 5:00 a.m. MDT

Matthew C. Godfrey of the Church History Department speaks to FairMormon Conference audience on how the Joseph Smith Papers can help in understanding the background behind the Doctrine and Covenants.

R. Scott Lloyd

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PROVO, Utah — An episode in early church history became somewhat of a lost story after the original wording in revelations was changed before they were published in the Doctrine and Covenants.

Matthew C. Godfrey, managing historian of the Joseph Smith Papers Project, spoke of that Aug. 8 at the FairMormon Conference where he and Matthew J. Grow gave a joint presentation on “The Story Behind the Revelations: Using the Joseph Smith Papers to Better Understand the Doctrine and Covenants.”

“As you know,” Godfrey told the audience, “some of the criticism Joseph Smith and the church sometimes get today is that the revelations were changed, and if these revelations were truly from God, then why does Joseph have to change some of the wording?”

He first cited Section 70 of the Doctrine and Covenants, given on Nov. 12, 1831. Godfrey said it is important because it is the genesis for an administrative body in the church that became known as the United Firm, formed in the spring of 1832.

The purpose of the United Firm was to coordinate the church’s publishing and mercantile endeavors, Godfrey said, as specified in another revelation, now Doctrine and Covenants 78, which was given on March 1, 1832.

“The interesting thing is that if you look in your current edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, specifically at verse 3 of Section 78, you will not find in there any language talking about the literary and mercantile factors of the church,” Godfrey pointed out. Instead, it talks about “an organization of my people, in establishing the affairs of the storehouse for the poor of my people." Also, the word “order” replaced the word "firm" (see heading to the latest edition of Doctrine and Covenants 78).

“On the 26th of April, after they had discussed the need to form this firm, the revelation was given to Joseph Smith, which provides more detail about what the firm would be, and this is the current Section 82 of the Doctrine and Covenants,” Godfrey said. Its wording, too, was changed to eliminate reference to the literary and mercantile concerns.

By 1834, having not functioned according to plan, the United Firm was dissolved in accordance with what is today Doctrine and Covenants 104. "And it's kind of been a lost story to the church," Godrey commented. "Part of that is because of the changes that were made in the language of these four revelations that I was speaking about."

He asked, “Why were these changes made? Why not just publish the revelations as they were written? Much of it stems from the indebtedness of the firm in 1834. We know that Sections 70, 78 and 82 were not designated to be published in the Book of Commandments ….

“When these revelations were finally published in the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, at that time the firm had been dissolved, so church leaders apparently felt like they could publish the revelations talking about it, but because there were still these outstanding debts of the firm, the church wanted to protect the members of the firm. So any mention of the members was replaced with pseudonyms. The real names were reintegrated back into the Doctrine and Covenants in the 1980s.”

Godfrey explained, “Now this isn’t some nefarious plot, and it’s not to say the revelations as originally given were not the mind and will of the Lord. It was more a means for the church to protect itself and its financial institutions from creditors at that time.”

He added, “So what does all this tell us? I think understanding the story of the United Firm helps us understand how the church governed its assets from 1832 to 1834. It helps us understand one of the key administrative bodies of the church during this time period, and it certainly helps us better understand the context behind these four sections of the Doctrine and Covenants.”

rscott@deseretnews.com

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