Joseph Smith needed someone to step up and testify of his revelations. Eleven men had testified earlier of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. All 11 had seen the plates. Three had seen an angel and heard the voice
But in November of 1831 there was a new need for boldness. Who would put their names and reputations on the line? Who would stand up and let the world know that they knew that a collection of Joseph's revelations, the Book of Commandments, was true?
For 178 years the names of these testifiers were unknown. Their names were erased from memory. Now, with the publication of the latest volume of the Joseph Smith Papers: "Revelations and Translations: Manuscript
Revelation Books," their names are made known to the world.
It began on Tuesday, Nov. 1, 1831 in Hiram, Ohio when Joseph called a special conference of elders. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was small then, about the size of a large ward. Ten elders, including Joseph, attended the conference to discuss the publication of Joseph Smith's revelations. They voted to print 10,000 copies and adjourned for the afternoon.
During the break, Joseph received a revelation, God's own preface to the Book of Commandments: "For verily the voice of the Lord is unto all men, and there is none to escape; and there is no eye that shall not see, neither ear that shall not hear, neither heart that shall not be penetrated" (Doctrine and Covenants 1:2).
When the conference reconvened, Joseph said that since the Lord had given the great blessing of so many revelations, the elders should decide what testimony they were willing to attach to the book. After several present arose and said they were willing to testify to the world, Joseph prepared a statement for the witnesses to sign. The contemporaneous minutes described it as a revelation.
The conference adjourned for the day. And then the trouble began.
"I think they hope for an experience similar to one that the three witnesses experienced: 'We'll bear testimony if we can see an angel or see the presence of God,'" said Steven C. Harper, one of the three
volume editors for this Joseph Smith Papers volume. "'Maybe we can have a marvelous experience where God would confirm to us the truthfulness of the Book of Commandments.'"
Joseph remembered later that "some conversation was had concerning revelation and language." The potential witnesses to the Book were hoping for a special blessing from God to match the testimony statement. They expressed doubts or perhaps even embarrassment about some of the language in the revelations. The
conference was deadlocked.
Then, another revelation came to Joseph: " And now I, the Lord, give unto you a testimony of the truth of these commandments which are lying before you. Your eyes have been upon my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and his language you have known, and his imperfections you have known" (Doctrine and Covenants 67:4-5).
The Lord gave a challenge for the elders to choose the "least" of Joseph's revelations and then choose the "most wise among you" to see if he can write a similar one. If he could, then their reticence over the
language was justified. If not, "ye are under condemnation if ye do not bear record that they are true" (67:6-8).
Harper said the Lord's test was "absolutely awesome."
__IMAGE2__Joseph's later recollection was that "William E. McLellin ... endeavored to write
a commandment like unto one of the least of the Lord's, but failed."
"And then (Joseph) gives a very revealing comment," Harper said.
"It was an awful responsibility to write in the name of the Lord," Joseph said in his 1839 history. "The elders, and all present, that witnessed this vain attempt of a man to imitate the language of Jesus Christ, renewed their faith in the fulness of the gospel and in the truth of the commandments and revelations which the Lord had given to the church through my instrumentality."
The conference minutes record that all those present arose in turn and bore "witness to the truth of the Book of Commandments." Joseph expressed gratitude.
Five of the ten elders stepped up and put their names to the document. Joseph's testimony was
already implicit in the revelations. The other four, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, John Whitmer and Peter Whitmer Jr., apparently did not sign because they already had given their names as witnesses of the
Book of Mormon.
The testimony and the five signatures were copied into the manuscript book for the Book of Commandments and brought to Missouri for printing. Thirteen other men signed their names to the
testimony. A few probably signed it in Ohio, others in Missouri. Like the first edition of the Book of Mormon, the testimony was to be included at the end of the Book of Commandments, but a mob destroyed the press before it was completed.
One of those men who signed in Missouri was a relative of John Hancock.
"You've got John Hancock so conspicuously stamping his mark on the Declaration
of Independence. And this is really a similar move," said Harper. "You
put your name on this book as a testimony to the Book of the Lord's
Commandments. You are also saying to the world, 'This is my witness.
This is what I believe. This is my testimony.' And it's audacious, just
like the Declaration of Independence was. It's bold."__IMAGE1__Levi Hancock
used a pencil when he wrote his name as a witness. Then, no doubt,
realizing that the others had written their names in ink, he added a
statement: "Never to be erased."
"It is just so lovely to look at. I am deeply moved by it," Harper said.
For 178 years, only part of the text of the testimony was available. Now, at last, all 18 of those that signed the statement can give that bold testimony to the world, never to be erased:
The testimony of the witnesses to the Book of the Lord's Commandments, which he gave to his church through Joseph Smith, Jr., who was appointed by the voice of the church for this purpose.
We, the undersigners, feel willing to bear testimony to all the world of mankind, to every creature upon the face of all the Earth and upon the islands of the sea, that God hath borne record to our souls, through the Holy Ghost shed forth upon us, that these commandments are given by inspiration of God and are profitable
for all men and are verily true.
We give this testimony unto the world, the Lord being our helper;
And it is through the grace of God, the Father, and his son, Jesus Christ, that we are permitted to have this privilege of bearing this testimony unto the world, in the which we rejoice exceedingly, praying the Lord always, that the children of men may be profited thereby. Amen.
Wm. E. McLellin
Levi Hancock; never to be erased
Thomas B. Marsh
Pages 214-215. See also "History of the Church," Vol. 1:221-226.