An angry mob destroyed the press on which it was being printed in 1833, so the Book of Commandments — intended to be the second volume of scripture published in this gospel dispensation — was never completed.
Not until now, that is.
Mormon scholars' best estimation of what would have been included in the Book of Commandments is contained in the latest release of the massive Joseph Smith Papers project undertaken by the Church History Department.
The release of "Revelations and Translations, Volume Two: Published Revelations" was announced March 23 at the Church History Library in Salt Lake City.
(Please see "New volume of Joseph Smith Papers published" for coverage of the announcement.)
Along with the photo reproductions of each page of the first edition (1835) of the Doctrine and Covenants and related documents, the new volume presents an original copy of the incomplete Book of Commandments. But it doesn't stop there.
"We have, in our best judgment, finished the Book of Commandments," said Robin Scott Jensen, one of three editors of the new volume along with Richard E. Turley Jr. and Riley M. Lorimer.
To understand how that is possible requires some historical background.
Festering anti-Mormon sentiment in Independence, Mo., in 1833 culminated with events in July, when a mob surrounded the printing press of William W. Phelps, where he, Oliver Cowdery and Edward Partridge were at work on the Book of Commandments. The book was a compilation of revelations received up to that time by the Prophet Joseph Smith "for the government of the Church of Christ."
Vigilantes threw furniture into the street and scattered the type. They pushed the press from a second-story window. They would later give the press to publishers of the Upper Missouri Enquirer, a newspaper in Liberty, Mo.
Many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are familiar with a painting depicting the heroic actions of two sisters, Mary Elizabeth and Caroline Rollins, ages 14 and 12, at the time of the destruction of the press. Evading the mobbers, they gathered up as many as they could of the unbound sheets from the Book of Commandments, then ran to a nearby cornfield to hide.
Other church members salvaged some of the sheets. Those people included a 20-year-old John Taylor, who reached between the logs of the print shop to gather some.
From these preserved sheets, a few incomplete copies of the Book of Commandments would be bound and distributed to church leaders and missionaries to use in their ministry.
Eventual completion of the Book of Commandments was rendered unnecessary by the publication in 1835 of the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants.
For about 178 years, then, the mystery has remained to tantalize historians and book collectors: What would the Book of Commandments have contained had its publication been unhindered?
As it stands, the incomplete book reproduced in the new Joseph Smith Papers volume ends abruptly in the midst of what is today Doctrine and Covenants 64:36: "For verily I say that the rebellions are not of the blood of Ephraim." The continuation of the verse, "wherefore they shall be plucked out," is not present.
But, working from proofreader marks and other clues, editors working on the new Joseph Smith Papers volume have been able to come up with a reasonably reliable conception of what the remaining content would be. Their conjecture amounts to Appendix 1 in the new book, "Proposed Sixth Gathering of the Book of Commandments."
The word "gathering" is a printer's term. A number of pages are printed onto a single broadsheet, then cut and sewn into a "gathering" or "signature," with a number of gatherings comprising a book. This can be seen if one closely examines the binding of a book near its spine.
For the Book of Commandments, only enough pages for five gatherings were ever printed. Lorimer, one of the editors of the new volume, said a "take mark" can be observed on page 160 of the unfinished Book of Commandments at the word "Ephraim," signifying the end of a signature.
Examining the "Book of Commandments and Revelations," the source manuscript for the Book of Commandments, scholars determined that nine additional verses in that revelation did not make it into the printing of the Book of Commandments. Editing marks on the manuscript indicated the intent to publish the entire revelation.
That would have necessitated the inclusion of a sixth gathering, but it would not have been enough to fill up the entire 32 pages of the gathering.
However, nine additional revelations in the manuscript were marked up for printing. They date from October 1831 to January 1832, thus fitting the chronology of the revelations that did make it into print. Moreover, three other revelations were created about that same time, suggesting that they too might have been included in the Book of Commandments.
Included in the editors' proposed completion of the Book of Commandments is a revelation published in the May 1833 issue of the church's newspaper, The Evening and the Morning Star, that was labeled as an appendix to the Book of Commandments.
Later printed as part of the Doctrine and Covenants, it can be read today as Section 133. It has something of a benedictory tone, with verses 59-60 reading, "And by the weak things of the earth the Lord shall thresh the nations by the power of his Spirit. And for this cause these commandments were given; they were commanded to be kept from the world in the day that they were given, but now are to go forth unto all flesh."
Topping off the proposed sixth gathering is a testimony of witnesses eventually included with the Doctrine and Covenants but originally intended for the Book of Commandments (see "Lost Book of Commandments' witnesses found," Oct. 27, 2009).
Is it possible that the sixth gathering was not the end, that there could have been a seventh or beyond? Yes, but not likely, say the editors of the Joseph Smith Papers volume. No editing marks appear on any of the manuscript revelations after Jan. 25, 1832. And the "appendix" revelation, almost certainly intended to be the final revelation in the book, was marked up with the nine revelations in the manuscript.
That "suggests that the editors had concluded the process of preparing the text and did not plan to include any more revelations," reads the introduction on page 176 of the new volume. "Sources also indicate that printing was drawing to a close."
So which sections of today's Doctrine and Covenants make up this proposed completion of the Book of Commandments? It is all or portions of Sections 64-73, 75, 107 and 133.
"Revelations and Translations, Volume Two: Published Revelations," is the third Joseph Smith Papers volume to appear in print. It is now in bookstores selling for a suggested retail price of $69.95.
Eventually, 20 volumes from the project will be published in book form, scaled back from an earlier expectation of 30, said Richard Turley, who is assistant historian and recorder of the church. However, the entire 30-volume set will one day be available on the Internet.