At this season of the year, many of us commonly formulate New Year's resolutions. We believe, often despite many failures, that we can start again, that we can make ourselves and our lives better.
This is entirely appropriate. The gospel itself is about new beginnings — repentance and forgiveness, baptism and being born again, our weekly recommitment to the Savior in the sacrament of the Lord's supper. We've just celebrated one of the two greatest Christian holidays, which commemorates a pivotal birth that, among many other things, launched an entirely new era of the calendar. The other great holiday celebrates atonement and resurrection to new life.
For this column, I have in mind another new beginning — the rebirth of divine revelation after very nearly 14 centuries of apparent silence.
For decades, Moroni dodged hostile Lamanites who sought to destroy him and the irreplaceable records that he had under his care. Finally, he hid the plates of the Book of Mormon in a hillside in or near A.D. 421. Thereafter, so far as canonical scripture is concerned, the heavens were closed until the spring of 1820.
But, even then, Joseph Smith's First Vision was principally for the young Joseph himself: His sins were forgiven, as he had asked, and his simple question about which church to join was answered (in truly spectacular fashion). It was only with Moroni's appearance to him as a resurrected being in September 1823 that the flow of modern revelation began for the rest of us. It soon swelled to a flood.
"The morning breaks; the shadows flee," exclaimed a delighted Parley Pratt after encountering the message of the Restoration just a few months following the establishment of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1830. "Lo, Zion's standard is unfurled! The dawning of a brighter day majestic rises on the world."
The principal record of that flood of initial revelations is the Doctrine and Covenants, which, unlike the Bible, the Book of Mormon and most of the Pearl of Great Price, was written not only for our day but in our day. While most of its contents derive from Joseph Smith, other contributions come from Brigham Young, Wilford Woodruff, Joseph F. Smith and Spencer W. Kimball, who all succeeded him in his prophetic office.
It's the privilege of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to study the Doctrine and Covenants and the unfolding history of the Restoration in their formal Sunday School curriculum for this coming year. These revelations weren't given to ancient peoples in now long-dead languages; they were given to us. Through them and the community of faith that they ground, we are admitted into the company of the Saints of former days as if, in a very real sense, we are their contemporaries.
Like those former-day Saints, the church today is led by prophets and apostles. And, while it may strike many as curious, to say the best of it, to think of prophets and apostles clad in business suits, Peter and Paul were no more obviously plausible dressed in their own contemporary garb. The costume of a first-century Palestinian may seem exotic and "biblical" to modern people, but it carried no special authority in its own day, and, to many, seemed distinctly provincial and unfashionable. Ancient Christians, even the sophisticated ones in Rome and Corinth, had to recognize that a former tax collector and a lawyer and several Galilean fishermen represented God and were "special witnesses." And so it is today:
"The measure of your true conversion," President Harold B. Lee declared shortly before his death in 1973, "is whether or not you are so living that you see the power of God resting upon the leaders of this church and that testimony goes down into your heart like fire."
"Expecting the spectacular," President Spencer W. Kimball testified in April 1977, "one may not be fully alerted to the constant flow of revealed communication. I say, in the deepest of humility, but also by the power and force of a burning testimony in my soul, that from the prophet of the Restoration to the prophet of our own year, the communication line is unbroken, the authority is continuous, a light, brilliant and penetrating, continues to shine. The sound of the voice of the Lord is a continuous melody and a thunderous appeal. For nearly a century and a half there has been no interruption."
Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at Brigham Young University, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative. He is the founder of MormonScholarsTestify.org, the general editor of "Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture" online at www.mormoninterpreter.com and he blogs daily at www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson.