Lecture Notes: Underwood on the Book of Commandments and Revelations (New Manuscript Volume)

By February 12, 2009

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.[1] 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.)[2]

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.


[1] 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.

[2] 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.

Article filed under Announcements and Events Categories of Periodization: Origins


  1. Thanks, Ben. I’ve been hearing bits and pieces about this, but nothing as concrete as this. Robin’s right to say this is an exciting time in D&C studies.

    One question:

    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.?

    So did it say “sprout of nature” or “thing of nature” or another combination? Please clarify.

    Comment by David G. — February 12, 2009 @ 5:07 pm

  2. It would appear that you meant to include the actual link to Elder Jensen’s talk, but did not.

    Comment by kevinf — February 12, 2009 @ 5:42 pm

  3. This is just fascinating. Thank you so much, Ben.

    Comment by Rick — February 12, 2009 @ 5:52 pm

  4. Sorry, I also meant to say thanks, Ben. This is very interesting stuff. I’ve really enjoyed the Journals volume so far, and look forward to this volume as well.

    Comment by kevinf — February 12, 2009 @ 6:11 pm

  5. David: Sorry that was so vague. This is the verse from the 1833 Book of Commandments:

    …Now this is not all, for you have another gift, which is the gift of working with the rod: behold it has told you things: behold there is no other power save God, that can cause this rod of nature, to work in your hands, for it is the work of God…” (BoC 7:3)

    The first mention of the rod was originally “sprout,” and the mention to “rod of nature” was originally “thing of nature.”

    Sorry for the confusion.

    Comment by Ben — February 12, 2009 @ 6:30 pm

  6. Kevin, thanks for catching that. I wrote this post in a word document while I was in class (supposed to be listening to cognitive poetic), and then I hurried to put it up on the blog between classes in a computer lab. However, in my rush, I forgot to add the link.

    So, the short answer to your question: the link is now up. 🙂

    Comment by Ben — February 12, 2009 @ 6:32 pm

  7. Thanks for the summary, Ben. I have nothing to add or clarify.

    Comment by Christopher — February 12, 2009 @ 6:44 pm

  8. Thanks Ben for sharing your notes. I am equally excited to buy the book.

    Did Underwood speak of provenance?

    Comment by Joe Geisner — February 12, 2009 @ 6:51 pm

  9. Ben,

    One other question. Am I understanding correctly, the First Presidency vault was catalogued after the request for Joseph Smith papers?

    Comment by Joe Geisner — February 12, 2009 @ 6:57 pm

  10. Great writeup Ben. Was this for a class at BYU or a larger gathering? (link to Elder Jensen’s article is here).

    This is, in my opinion, one of the greatest developments in Mormon sources for a long time. And taking into consideration the textual studies of Mormon scripture this is earth-shattering.

    A few corrections (I completely understand the process of note taking, so I’m not blaming anyone):

    The purpose of the JSPP is not to gather “all materials pertaining to Joseph Smith” but to publish all JS papers as defined by the guidelines of authorship/ownership. You can see the interview of Mark Ashurst-McGee and myself over at BCC found here and here for more information on this.

    I normally do not call the BCR the Book of Commandments printer’s manuscript due to the difference of meaning it had when it was initially created. With the Book of Mormon Printer’s manuscript, that was its intended purpose. The BCR was not initially intended as a copy text from which to print the revelations, nor did it end with that purpose in mind.

    We really don’t know what happened to the original manuscripts of the revelations. They may have been discarded or they may have been preserved by someone whose papers are no longer extant.

    “A revelation to me Joseph by way of commandment to the Church? is not in the handwriting of JS, but in the handwriting of John Whitmer (a later redaction).

    Regarding the initial creation date of the manuscript volume. Based upon a careful examination of the document, keeping in mind the archival, diplomatic, and historical theories of document analysis, I’m fairly certain the creation date is 1831 (taking into consideration the fact that it’s undated and is all based upon internal and external evidence). The question can and will be discussed by future scholars to be sure, but here is my argument in a nutshell:

    The continuity of the nature of the ink, style, and general makeup of the first half of the volume seems to indicate that it was begun in 1831. Think about the difference in appearance a manuscript would have with these two scenarios: John Whitmer coping the revelations as they are received by JS–sometimes months apart or John Whitmer copying a stack of revelations all at once. In theory–and seen in many, many types of records similar to this document–the transition from when the volume turned from a journal type record (day-to-day compilation) to when it became a ledger type record (registering many different documents all at once) marks generally when the document was started. This transition is found around the revelations dated March-June 1831.

    In addition, as early as page 32, Whitmer makes a somewhat common scribal error which basically gives it away. Writing the date of the revelation he’s about to copy (D&C 24 received July 1830) he mistakenly writes 1831 and then corrects it to 1830. This particular scribal error (I like to compare it to writing a check in January) is common in copying manuscripts in different years from the text. The likelihood of his writing ?1831? while doing his copying in the year 1830?when the date should have indeed been 1830?is much, much smaller than the possibility of his writing ?1831? while doing his copying in the year 1831, when the date should have been 1830.

    I could go on and on, but I’ll stop there (not about correcting the above notes, but in talking about the BCR).

    Comment by Robin Jensen — February 12, 2009 @ 7:03 pm

  11. And I see that Elder Jensen’s article was linked already. Sorry about the duplication.

    Comment by Robin Jensen — February 12, 2009 @ 7:04 pm

  12. Thank you Ben, great stuff.

    Comment by Jared T — February 12, 2009 @ 7:07 pm

  13. Thanks, Robin. Awesome stuff.

    Comment by David G. — February 12, 2009 @ 7:11 pm

  14. Both Fayette and Manchester are in New York. The Joseph Smith scribble as you mentioned merely states that the revelation was addressed to the Church and not where it was received. I fail to see how either points strengthen the Fayette hypothesis. Please clarify.

    Comment by Marcello Jun de Oliveira — February 12, 2009 @ 7:13 pm

  15. Thanks so much for weighing in, Robin; I was really hoping you would stop by. (and thanks for being forgiving with my note-taking errors.) The presentation was put on by the American Studies Program, and it was delivered to a standing-room-only crowd in the Special Collections auditorium.

    Oh, and the “all materials pertaining to JS” was an actual quote from Underwood, which I know was not correct (hence the parantheses), but included it since it was part of his presentation. I should have inserted a correction, though.

    Joe: Great questions, and I wish I could give you answers. The provenance was not explained in details, but it did seem like Underwood was implying that the vault was looked through at the request of the JSP (whether that is correct or not).

    Maybe Robin (or others) could give more information.

    Comment by Ben — February 12, 2009 @ 7:13 pm

  16. Marcello: Again, my scribal errors are becoming readily apparent. The BCR states that the revelations received on April 6, 1830, were in Fayette.

    My mistake. (I have gone back and fixed the post.)

    Comment by Ben — February 12, 2009 @ 7:17 pm

  17. Thanks–I’d been hearing about this document for a while and I’m glad they’re publishing it so soon. We should wait for someone from JSPP to directly confirm how the BCR came to the project, as I’ve heard different stories.

    It’s exciting to feel like we have a generation of scholars who can enjoy these new documents as windows into a vibrant and fascinating world rather than as sources of further controversy.

    I’m delighted to see how JSPP continues to share important documents.

    Comment by smb — February 12, 2009 @ 8:33 pm

  18. Very cool. Thanks for the great report!

    Comment by Kevin Barney — February 12, 2009 @ 9:18 pm

  19. Thanks for the interesting report. Might the “sprout” be a reference to cromniomancy, or something like it? Is such a thing mentioned in Quinn’s Early Mormonism and the Magic World View?

    Comment by Jared* — February 12, 2009 @ 9:21 pm

  20. It’s a good guess, Jared. Personally, I haven’t thought about it much. I spoke with Underwood later today about it, and he thinks that it is related to Aaron’s rod in the bible, which many (probably including Cowdery) believed functioned the same as their rods. (Hence the change to the “gift of Aaron” in later editions when they “cleaned up” the revelations.) Apparently, contemporary lore held that Aaron’s rod had some sort of power to “sprout”–again, he explained it really fast and I couldn’t catch all of it.

    Also, concerning the “thing of nature,” Underwood told me that he thinks this shows that JS wasn’t fully comfortable with the rod himself–he was more experienced in the seer stones–so he didn’t know how to refer to it much better than just a “thing of nature.”

    But, these are all almost instantaneous reflections, so they still need to be thought out.

    Comment by Ben — February 12, 2009 @ 10:02 pm

  21. I notice the following in Wikipedia, under “Aaron’s Rod”:

    In Numbers 17, Korah’s rebellion against Moses’ proclamation of the tribe of Levi as the priesthood has been quashed and the entire congregation’s ensuing rebellion has resulted in a plague, ended only by the intercession of Moses and Aaron. In order to “stop the complaints” of the Israelites, God commands that each of the Twelve Tribes provide a rod; and only that of the tribe chosen to become priests will miraculously sprout overnight. Aaron provides his rod to represent the tribe of Levi, and “it put forth buds, produced blossoms, and bore ripe almonds” (Numbers 17:8), as an evidence of the exclusive right to the priesthood of the tribe of Levi. In commemoration of this decision it was commanded that the rod be put again “before the testimony” (Numbers 17:10). According to tradition, the rod of Aaron bore sweet almonds on one side and bitter on the other; if the Israelites followed the Lord, the sweet almonds would be ripe and edible, but if they were to forsake the path of the Lord, the bitter almonds would predominate. A later tradition asserts (Hebrews 9:4) that the rod was kept in the Ark of the Covenant. The main fact, however, is thus confirmed, that a rod was preserved in the Tabernacle as a relic of the institution of the Aaronic priesthood.

    Comment by Rick Grunder — February 12, 2009 @ 10:10 pm

  22. …and there you have it.

    Thanks, as always, Rick.

    Comment by Ben — February 12, 2009 @ 10:29 pm

  23. Here?s the lowdown on the Fayette/Manchester issue:
    The revelations which now make up D&C 23 were published in the Book of Commandments as chapters 17 through 21 (it was combined in the 1835 D&C into one revelation [section 45] and has remained so since). The heading for each of the five chapters contains the heading ?given in Manchester, New-York, April 6, 1830.? The same revelations found in the BCR (predating the BoC versions by about 2 years) contain the date of ?AD 1830??Oliver Cowdery later added an ?April? to the revelation dictated for him?with the heading of ?given to Hyrum [or other recipients] at Manchester Ontario County state of New York.? Thus the earlier versions in the BCR does not revise the place of reception, but throws doubt onto the date 6 April 1830 (if the earlier manuscript simply has AD 1830, or AD April 1830, someone later must have added the 6–throwing doubt onto the later addition). In saying all this, I wouldn?t say this is 100% solved?but pretty close, in my opinion. John Whitmer copied the revelations into the BCR; he presumably knew whether these revelations were received on the 6th of April or not. William W. Phelps?the printer of the BoC?was not there at the founding of the church and may have inserted the dates into the published versions not knowing any better. (I find it telling that when they revised and combined the revelations together in the 1835 D&C, they did not maintain the 6 April 1830 date, but took a step back to a more general April 1830 date.) However, Oliver Cowdery was also helping with the printing of the Book of Commandments and should have known better. The more I compare the BCR with the BoC, the more I see that there are still a lot of questions regarding the exact relationship between the two and just as many questions raised about the printing process in Missouri.

    Comment by Robin Jensen — February 12, 2009 @ 11:02 pm

  24. Quinn doesn’t talk of onion prophecy. (Can I just say how hilarious it is that it has a name? And why can I only think of Shrek where he talks about being like an onion with many layers?)

    I think most tying the prophecy to the 19th century see it as an allusion to diving rods especially as used for water finding or treasure finding. However the sprouting reference is also a clear Biblical tie.

    Many see this as Oliver having a prior divining rod which was now supposed to just be used for religious purposes. Thus the changes to the revelation which pushed the more Biblical references over the folk magic references. I suspect one could see the same with seer stones which became Urim and Thummims. I should note that I’m not aware of any evidence he searched with treasure with any rod.

    Interestingly rodsmen were used by Joseph’s enemies to try to find the Book of Mormon plates while Joseph had them in his possession. From a FARMS review by Larry Morris

    According to Joseph Knight, Samuel Lawrence and “a [great] Rodsman” came to the Smith home and tried to bargain with Joseph Smith for a share of the plates. When Joseph refused, the rodsman took out his rods and held them up. When they pointed down to the hearth?where the plates were indeed hidden?the rodsman cried out, “There . . . it is under that [hearth].”

    There is some interesting crossover between glowing stones, urim and thummim-like things (in LDS terms), and glowing rods in the Jewish pseudopigrapha. John Tvedtnes mentions in passing a theory that this might explain Cowdery’s rod as an urim and thummim. I find that pretty weak though.

    Comment by Clark — February 12, 2009 @ 11:41 pm

  25. Thanks for the comments Ben #15. The reason I asked about this is because the re-discovery of the McLellin collection in the First Presidency vault in 1986-7 caused such an embarrassing situation. Most of us figured the First Presidency must have catalogued the contents so no one could ever try and sell the church a collection it already owned.

    As for the provenance. I think most historians and readers will be interested in knowing how the church acquired the manuscript book. If the book was primarily in John Whitmer’s writing one would think he was in possession of the book like the early history he wrote. I will be interested to learn how this book came to Utah and did not stay in Missouri like most of the other Whitmer papers and artifacts. It will also be interesting if we learn how the eight pages now housed in the Community of Christ archives were separated from the volume.

    I think Robin continues to show us we are very lucky to have someone like him working on this volume. His answers are very informative and his knowledge is quite impressive. Thanks for sharing all this information Robin.

    Ben, in Underwood’s slides, was the Canadian Revelation one of them? If so, that is really cool. I will be even more jealous.

    Comment by Joe Geisner — February 12, 2009 @ 11:44 pm

  26. Joe: Yes, the Canadian Revelation was one of the slides he shared. But, you only have to be jealous till the end of summer, when you can look at a high quality photo of it all you’d like. 😉

    Comment by Ben — February 13, 2009 @ 12:51 am

  27. No one knows the BCR like Robin. He is one of the editors of the first volume of the Revelations and Translations series, which will feature the BCR as a document.

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — February 13, 2009 @ 12:28 pm

  28. Mark, does the change from “rod” to “sprout” have implications on your work?

    Comment by David G. — February 13, 2009 @ 12:30 pm

  29. David (28), not that I know of. In addition to the possible connection between Cowdery’s SPROUT and Aaron’s rod that BUDDED, there is a possible connection with the culture of waterwitching. Some dowsers insisted on a newly sprouted branch (as opposed to a dead branch) because it was a sign of continuous and new growth, which meant it had water in it, which indicated that it could find water. This is the sympathetic principle so common in folk magic. And early American rod diviners commonly associated their rods with the rods wielded by Moses and Aaron. I cover all of this in chapters 2-3 of my thesis.

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — February 13, 2009 @ 1:06 pm

  30. Thanks for all the great comments and for the original write-up. Very exciting stuff.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 13, 2009 @ 1:07 pm

  31. I’d be interested in Is 4:2-6 as well. I don’t know enough about what commentaries were available to Joseph, but the underlying text for branch is often translated sprout. So a lot of commentaries talk about the “sprout of the Lord.”

    An other interesting question is Alma 32 related to this.

    Anyway, ignoring the question of contemporary commentaries speaking of “sprout of the lord” for “branch of the lord” it seems from the Book of Mormon alone the imagery is quite pronounced. Not just in the Isaiah allusions and quotes but in many other passages. The most compelling passage would be Is 11/2Ne 21. “And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord.”

    Which seems an appropriate allusion to the persons here even if it doesn’t fit the eschatological reading.

    Comment by Clark — February 14, 2009 @ 10:25 pm

  32. […] (from which the section heading to D&C 39 was adapted).[1] But the recently-discovered Book of Commandments and Revelations—an earlier source than the JS history—suggests that Covill was not a Baptist minister, […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Making Sense of James Covill, Baptist Methodist Minister — August 25, 2009 @ 11:11 pm


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