It seems every once and a while we get a development in Mormon Studies that is really groundbreaking; to me, this is one of those instances.
Word started leaking out in January about a new manuscript revelation book that the Joseph Smith Papers was working with (see Elder Jensen article here). Today at BYU, History Professor Grant Underwood gave a great presentation on what this volume contains and what it means. I tried to take feverish notes to share on the blog, but he gave so many great insights that I either missed or didn’t fully understand that this will be a pretty lame summary; hopefully other people can chime in with what I missed (Chris?). Sadly, what made the presentation so great was that he had many images of the actual book that really made the text come alive, showing the actual words, dates, deletions, and additions that make it such a remarkable volume. No wonder they decided to provide photocopies of the entire volume in the Revelations and Translations that will be coming out this summer—it will be pricey, but in my estimation beyond worth it. My summary follows:
Underwood began his lecture by discussing the overall agenda of the Joseph Smith Papers Project: to gather “all materials pertaining to Joseph Smith.”* As part of this, they sent a request through the Church Archives to hand over any Joseph-related document—a request that also included the First Presidency Vault. As a result, the Vault was catalogued and an interesting document was found: an early manuscript that served as a basis for the 1833 Book of Commandments. This volume contains the earliest manuscripts for literally dozens of the earliest revelations. The rest of the lecture detailed what was in there, what may be new to us, and what it teaches about the early Church.
The prefatory statement to the manuscript explicitly states that it is a collection of the revelations; it is not to be understood as the original copies taken down from Joseph’s lips. Rather, it appears that JS would dictate a revelation, they would write it down, soon afterward copy it into the Book of Commandments and Revelations (this new manuscript volume, written hereafter as BCR), and then discard the original.* Most of the writing is in John Whitmer’s hand. It is obvious that this volume was taken to Missouri by John Whitmer and used as a printer’s copy for the Book of Commandments. For example, there are several markings found throughout that include the writing, like “compared thus far by J&O,” giving a glimpse into the printing process. Further, there is a mark at a certain part in the revelations that denotes how far they had gotten before the press was destroyed.*
Though the discovery of this volume comes as a tremendous shock, we have had hints that such a collection exists. For starters, the Community of Christ has had in their possession several sheets that were torn out of the BCR, and many thought that they were a part of a much larger collection of revelations. Also, Ezra Booth wrote in 1831 about “the 27th commandment to Emma,” hinting to the idea that there was a collection of revelations that he was speaking of. (The BCR titles the revelation that we know as D&C 25 as the “27th Commandment to Emma”—just as Booth claimed, showing that the book was known by at least a few.)
So, what’s new in the volume? First, it contains the revelation to Oliver, Hyrum, and Josiah Stohl to “go to Kingston…I grant unto my servant the privilege that he may sell a copyright through you”—the much sought after Canadian copyright revelation. It also includes the revelation, given after the section we know as D&C 77 and following the question & answer style, that Orson Pratt later referred to when speaking about the Adamic names for God, Christ, and man; it begins: “What is the name of God in pure language? Awman.” (I wasn’t able to write down any more before he changed slides.) It also includes a revelation received in November 1831 that was later included in what we know as D&C 107:57-end.
It also gives a lot of information concerning the dating and chronological order of the revelations. For instance, it places what we know as D&C 10 right after D&C 6, giving more credence to the position that it was received in the spring of 1829 rather than the fall of 1828. It dates D&C 20, known as the Articles and Covenants of the Church, to April 10, 1830—making it appear that they waited until after the Church was organized to write (or at least finish) the Church’s grounding rules and doctrines.
Most significant, at least for me, was what the BCR tells us about the organization of the Church. For the last two decades or so, there has been a historical debate that has arisen concerning whether the Church was organized in Fayette (as traditionally held) or Manchester. Many of the earliest documents, including the Book of Commandments and Evening and the Morning Star, say that the revelations received on April 6, 1830 were in Manchester. However, the BCR, now the earliest source, places it in Fayette. Further, the manuscript copy includes a statement in JS’s own hand*—“A revelation to me Joseph by way of commandment to the Church”—that seems to imply that he approved of the Fayette location. Though it doesn’t solve the placement debate, it definitely gives more authority to the Fayette position.
Another interesting insight in the volume is how it demonstrates the “composition” of several revelations. Many smaller revelations received on the same day would be combined together in the printed edition, and the manuscript would have something like “connected” written between them to show as much. This is especially the case with D&C 42, though Underwood gave many more examples.
According to Underwood, the most significant thing that can be learned from this volume is how the revelations were edited and revised. A great example of this is D&C 6, a revelation given to Oliver Cowdery. This section is known for its reference to Oliver’s “rod,” but it was not originally recorded that way. Instead of “rod,” it was written “sprout.” Instead of “rod of nature,” it was written “this thing of nature.” Another instance includes changing the phrase that Joseph had “right to translate” to Joseph had “sight and power to translate.”
Thus ends my choppy, sporadic notes. If the thoughts feel undeveloped and not supported, blame it on me and not the presenter. Hopefully, we will get more information over the next few months on the volume (maybe at MHA?), and the actual volume will be in our hands for our own interpretation at the end of the summer.
 This has led some to believe that this collection was not started until John Whitmer was called as Church Historian in March ’31, though some (including Underwood) believe it was started in July ’30.
 Underwood also mentioned that Ezra Booth’s historical facts have been proven correct in numerous cases.
*See Robin Jensen’s (someone who actually knows what he’s talking about) comment #10.