Making Sense of Doctrine and Covenants 39-40; or why it matters that James Covill was a Methodist and not a Baptist

By August 25, 2009

If you read the current heading to Section 39 of the Doctrine & Covenants, you will learn of one James Covill, a prospective convert to Joseph Smith’s nascent Church of Christ “who had been a Baptist minister for about forty years” at the time the revelation was given in 1831. Covill’s Baptist credentials have been repeated by historians for years, who drew upon Joseph Smith’s history for the information (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, but rather “a Methodist priest.”[2]

Steven Harper’s own research* found corroborating evidence for James Covill’s Methodist affiliation:

Covill had been a minister for forty years and then covenanted to obey the Lord’s will as revealed to Joseph Smith[,] but he had been a Methodist, not a Baptist minister. There is not sign of Covill in Baptist records, but a James Covel appears in Methodist records beginning in 1791, forty years before section 39 was received, when he was appointed as a traveling preacher on the Litchfield, Connecticut, circuit. He rode various Methodist circuits for four years as an itinerant preacher. In 1796 James married Sarah Gould, the daughter of a Methodist preacher, on October 28. James rode the Lynn, Massachusetts, circuit for a year before he “located.” That is, he settled, raised a family, apparently practiced medicine, and largely dropped out of the Methodist records. Sarah and James had a son, James Jr., who followed his father into the ministry. The Covels moved to Maine and then to Poughskeepsie, New York, around 1808. It is not clear where they were when they heard of Joseph Smith and the restored gospel about 1830, but most likely they were still somewhere in New York.[3]

The point of this post is not to simply heap more praise on Harper’s fine book, Making Sense of the Doctrine and Covenants, though such praise is indeed deserved (see J. Stapley’s review here). Nor is it to point out how the BCR corrected our understanding of some particulars of early LDS history. Rather, I want to explore how such an understanding of Covill as a Methodist (and specifically not as a Baptist) further contextualizes this revelation (and the one following, which also addresses Covill), and illuminates key aspects of the text.

“And now, behold, I say unto you, my servant James, I have looked upon thy works and know thee,” reads the text. “And verily, I say unto thee, thine heart is now right before me at this time; and, behold, I have bestowed great blessings upon thy head” (D&C 39:7-8). This rather generic introduction follows the general pattern of other early revelations directed to specific individuals, but then shifts direction and notes details particular to Covill’s situation.

“Nevertheless, thou hast seen great sorrow, for thou hast rejected me many times because of pride and the cares of the world” (D&C 39:9). While we don’t know the details of how Covill succumbed to “pride and the cares of the world,” we do learn that the Lord had forgiven him those transgressions and called him to return to the itinerancy (only this time as a Mormon), on certain conditions:

But, behold, the days of thy deliverance have come, if thou wilt hearken unto my voice, which saith unto thee: Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on my name, and you shall receive my Spirit, and a blessing so great as you never have known. And if thou do this, I have prepared thee for a greater work. Thou shalt preach the fulness of my gospel, which I have sent forth in these last days, the covenant which I have sent forth to recover my people, which are of the house of Israel. And it shall come to pass that power shall rest upon thee; thou shalt have great faith, and I will be with thee and go before thy face. Thou art called to labor in my vineyard, and to build up my church, and to bring forth Zion, that it may rejoice upon the hills and flourish. Behold, verily, verily, I say unto thee, thou art not called to go into the eastern countries, but thou art called to go to the Ohio (D&C 39:10-14).

In the next revelation, we learn that James Covill apparently agreed to the terms of the covenant and “received the word with gladness,” but then “straightway Satan tempted him; and the fear of persecution and the cares of the world caused him to reject the word. Wherefore, he broke my covenant, and it remaineth with me to do with him as seemeth me good” (D&C 40:1-3). The section heading further notes that he “returned to his former principles and people.”

So what does the fact that those “former principles and people” were Methodists and not Baptists reveal about this particular passage? For one, the call to the ministry may not have been as appealing to Covill as it was to others. Because he had rode an itinerant circuit as a Methodist years earlier (as opposed to the less physically demanding and more localized assignments of Baptist preachers), he probably understood the rigors that traveling “to the Ohio” to preach the Mormon gospel would include. It is possible, then, that Covill balked at the agreement spelled out in section 39 because as a now older, more mature, and “located” gentleman with a wife and children, the prospects of itinerant missionary work all the way in Ohio did not hold the same appeal they may have when he was a young single Methodist preacher, even if his “heart [was] right” before the Lord and he believed the basics of the Mormon gospel. But there is another possibility as well, which is easy to overlook because of its seemingly generic language:

“Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins” (D&C 39:10).

To Christians in early America, baptism meant different things (depending on the denomination), and various modes of baptism were adhered to by different groups. Baptists, of course, insisted upon baptism by immersion, and Mormons followed them on this point, drawing upon both Joseph Smith’s revelations and the preference of a number of early converts. Methodists were more flexible regarding proper mode of baptism, at least officially. The Doctrines and Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America put forth in plain language this accomodating stance. “Let every adult person, and the parents of every child, to be baptized, have the choice either of immersion, sprinkling, or pouring.”[4] Early Methodist preachers generally adhered to these instructions, offering choices to converted souls based on personal preference.

Baptists ridiculed the Methodist stance, maintaining that only adult baptism by immersion was valid in God’s eyes. Their constant badgering of Methodists who not only regularly baptized by sprinkling or pouring, but also baptized infants, provoked intense debates between to the two prominent evangelical groups and were often the source of great contention.[5] The resulting rhetorical battles in the competition for converts eventually caused many Methodists to prefer alternate forms of baptism to immersion, captured humorously in the following hymn:

You say: “Go read the scriptures / And in them we shall find / The ordinance immersion / Upon us all enjoined.” / How can you be immersed? / The word we cannot find. / And if it’s in your bible / I’m sure it’s not in mine. … But when you do immerse them / Which we do think is wrong, / It makes my heart to tremble / They think the work is done. / You say my Lord’s a Baptist. / How do you realize / For there never was a Baptist / But one who did baptize? … Your charity is scanty / And that the world can see. / If you do not quit immersion / We cannot all agree.[6]

Perhaps Covill ultimately rejected the covenant outlined in D&C 39 because, having been conditioned to reject baptism by immersion, he could not agree to the conditions of that covenant—to “[a]rise and be baptized” by immersion, the only mode acceptable to Mormons.

These, of course, are only my own reflections on how this small correction to the historical record further illuminates the above discussed revelations, but such an analysis points to, I think, the possibilities of a closer contextual reading of the Doctrine & Covenants—one that benefits not only historians of Mormonism seeking to make sense of disparate sources but also lay Mormons seeking to get more out of their scripture study.


* Professor Harper has informed me that credit for discovering James Covel in Methodist sources belongs to Sherilyn Farnes, who assisted Harper in his research for the book.

[1] See The Papers of Joseph Smith, ed. Dean C. Jessee (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989), 1:346.

[2] The BCR heading to D&C 39 does not actually identify Covill’s religious affiliation at all, but the index found at the back of the BCR identifies the section as “A Revelation to James a Methodist Priest.” This information is taken from my own notes of Robin Jensen’s 2009 MHA presentation on the Book of Commandments and Revelations (brief summary here). Robin confirmed the basic details of my notes from his presentation regarding James Covill in a private email on July 9, 2009.

[3] Steven C. Harper, Making Sense of the Doctrine and Covenants: A Guided Tour Through the Revelations (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2008), 132-33. See also Harper’s notes on pp. 534-44 for a list of sources documenting Covill/Covel’s Methodist activities.

[4] The Doctrines and Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America, with Explanatory Notes by Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury (Philadelphia: Methodist Episcopal Church, 1798), 118.

[5] See Christine Leigh Heyrman, Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1997), 153-54; and Lester Ruth, Early Methodist Life and Spirituality: A Reader (Nashville: Kingswood Books, 2005), 223-23.

[6] Collection of Spiritual Songs (Winchester, KY), 15-16; as cited in Ruth, Early Methodist Life, 223-24.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Fascinating, Chris. I’m interested to see how the BCR continues to influence the conventional historical narrative. Also, I agree that a degree of historicism can really enrich devotional study.

    Comment by Ryan T — August 25, 2009 @ 11:29 pm

  2. Fantastic, Chris. I have nothing to add, but that I really enjoyed your insights here.

    Comment by Ben — August 25, 2009 @ 11:32 pm

  3. Thanks, guys. I’ve had this post in mind for awhile now, and finally sat down and cranked it out this evening. This is the sort of thing, I think, that could really strengthen a gospel doctrine lesson and help people get more out of their personal study.

    Comment by Christopher — August 25, 2009 @ 11:38 pm

  4. Very cool, Chris! Thanks a lot for the insights.

    Comment by Jared T — August 25, 2009 @ 11:46 pm

  5. Very nice.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — August 25, 2009 @ 11:52 pm

  6. Chris,

    Nice post. This is the type of thinking, research, and scholarship I’m excited to see come out with the release of both the BCR and the KRB.


    Comment by Robin Jensen — August 25, 2009 @ 11:56 pm

  7. Thanks, Jared and Robin. Here’s to hoping more substantial scholarship and more insightful research than what I’ve done here comes out with the release of both the BCR and the KRB.

    Comment by Christopher — August 26, 2009 @ 12:01 am

  8. Thanks, Chris.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 26, 2009 @ 2:14 am

  9. Fantastic Chris, no other comment to make other than it is nice to learn something new from the very fundamentals of church history and shows how fragile historical narrative is, you find new evidence, it can change the whole narrative. Thanks again!

    Comment by David M. Morris — August 26, 2009 @ 3:04 am

  10. Very nice. Looking forward to the new JSP volume too.

    Comment by WVS — August 26, 2009 @ 5:50 am

  11. Chris,
    You’re a man after my own heart–blending solid archival research with close reading and creative interpretations of the text’s implications is the kind of work that is sorely needed in this field. Very nicely done.

    Comment by SC Taysom — August 26, 2009 @ 7:33 am

  12. Thanks, Ardis, David, WVS, and Taysom.

    Comment by Christopher — August 26, 2009 @ 7:59 am

  13. I just received word that the next issue of BYU Studies will include all of the presentations from the MHA panel on the BCR, as well as some images, and that the first Revelations volume of the JSP is on schedule to hit shelves around September 22.

    Comment by Christopher — August 26, 2009 @ 10:00 am

  14. Nice work Chris. I’ve been reading a lot on the debates regarding rebaptism during the second great awakening (potentially for a paper or something). The baptists were perpetually the whipping boy of others for their claim that people not baptized by immersion needed to be rebaptized. Other Christian groups found this not only offensive but ridiculous. As a Methodist, I imagine that this revelation would have invoked not just the debate surrounding immersion, but the entire anabaptist controversy.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 26, 2009 @ 10:38 am

  15. Sorry if this has been mentioned already. Not a lot of time, but it seems D&C 22 is relevant here.

    Comment by David G. — August 26, 2009 @ 11:56 am

  16. Staples, one thing I wish I had done some work on in my book is the potential resonance that the rebaptisms during the Mormon Reformation would have had for those who had lived through the debates of the 2GA. Chris’s post and your comment make me wish I had more time to make revisions!

    Comment by SC Taysom — August 26, 2009 @ 12:52 pm

  17. Thanks J., and good point about the anabaptist controversy. Taysom, that would have been insightful and interesting, I’m sure.

    Good call on D&C 22, David.

    Comment by Christopher — August 26, 2009 @ 12:58 pm

  18. Taysom, do you have a publisher?

    Rereading section 22, it seems to me that the revelation is categorizing non-Mormon christian baptism in the same group as the Law of Moses. That is something that was valid at one point but was obviated by the Restoration. Am I reading that correctly?

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 26, 2009 @ 2:27 pm

  19. Taysom’s book will be published by Indiana University Press, and I think it is scheduled to appear in 2010 (correct me if I’m wrong, SC).

    J, that’s how I read it, yes, which seems somewhat surprising to me in light of how modern Mormons view Christian baptism generally. The more I think about it, the more I’m interested in a detailed historical analysis of baptism in the Mormon tradition.

    Comment by Christopher — August 26, 2009 @ 2:51 pm

  20. Well, congrats to Taysom!

    With such a reading, D&C 22 becomes a really fascinating response to anabaptist critiques. Quite unique among anything I have read, really. I’ve been debating how to carve everything up, but have been toying with doing a paper on the context of baptism during this period as a prelude to a larger treatment of baptism in a book on rituals. If anyone wants to co-author, let me know. It could just as easily be a series of papers on Mormon baptism.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 26, 2009 @ 3:14 pm

  21. is mb doing baptism for his work on Mormon liturgy?
    congrats to taysom.

    Comment by smb — August 26, 2009 @ 7:21 pm

  22. Indeed, congrats Taysom.

    Comment by David G. — August 26, 2009 @ 10:11 pm

  23. Congratulations, SC.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — August 26, 2009 @ 10:46 pm

  24. Awesomeness!

    Comment by Jared T — August 26, 2009 @ 10:55 pm

  25. Very interesting post.

    I was very interested to find out recently that some of my ancestors lived in the area of Cane Ridge, Kentucky, which was one of the sites associated with the beginning of the Second Great Awakening. I wish I knew more about their involvement in the movement and what, if any, influence it had on their grandson joining the church years later.

    Comment by Researcher — August 27, 2009 @ 12:43 pm

  26. Is it possible that the “arise” part of “arise and be baptized” has a connotation of adult or believer baptism (an infant cannot really “arise”) or that it has a connotation of immersion baptism (arising to enter the waters of baptism rather than the passive reception of sprinkling)?

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — August 28, 2009 @ 12:09 pm

  27. Interesting question Mark. The allusion of the text to Paul and his account of conversion at least hints at that. Ananias, after healing Paul, tells him (Acts 22:16): “And now why tarriest thou? arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord.”

    I did a quick google books search and that verbiage is ubiquitous; but it does appear to be used by baptists in conjunction with their particular beliefs. E.g.The Millennial Harbinger: “Then we would say, ‘Arise and be baptized;’ and in the liquid, emblematic grave of Jesus, ‘wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord.'”

    It would take more work to see if it grew to have a particularly Baptist flavor.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 28, 2009 @ 1:06 pm

  28. […] degree sought): University of Chicago (MA, Religious Studies) Favorite JI post: Christopher’s Making Sense of Doctrine and Covenants 39-40; or why it matters that James Covill was a Methodist … Research Interests: 18th/19th Century Transatlantic Religion/Culture; New England intellectual […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » The Juvenile Instructor Turns 2 — October 26, 2009 @ 12:31 pm

  29. Does anyone know what happened to James Covill after this?

    Comment by Matt W. — November 12, 2010 @ 10:09 pm

  30. Matt, he remained a Methodist–his son, James Covel, Jr., became a well-known Methodist preacher. I’m currently working on teasing out all of the details of their life story–it’s really quite fascinating.

    Comment by Christopher — November 13, 2010 @ 12:19 pm

  31. Dear Christopher,
    I am excited, but still skeptical.

    John Whitmer may have never met Covill and sources don’t call “James”, James Covill until 1839 in A1.

    James Covel, I think, was deacon not a priest.

    If it was a Covill (BC says “C.”) are we sure it was not James Covel from Galen, NY near Fayette?

    Comment by Mike MacKay — March 1, 2011 @ 7:21 pm

  32. Hi Mike,

    I’m not sure how I missed your comment when you left it in March. To answer, yes, I’m sure that this is James Covel the Methodist. He was not a Deacon, no—he was an ordained Elder. And Methodists didn’t/don’t actually have “priests” (most Protestants of the era rejected the title because of its connotations with Catholicism). Among early LDS, of course, “priest” was a term applied indiscriminately in describing both Catholic and Protestant clergy, and my guess is that’s exactly what’s going on here.

    Comment by Christopher — June 18, 2011 @ 4:05 pm


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