Revelations, women, and the early church

By March 30, 2012

In honor of Women?s History month, I bring you something from the archives.

Joseph Smith received revelations for the church. I’ve often pondered upon the reception of these revelations and how they were treated by church members. This “reception history” of the divine commandments is largely an untapped source of lived religion for understanding the early members of the church. The below excerpt is important not only as a way of seeing how different early members received the revelations (and the influence they played upon their faith in the church), but how at least one woman used the revelations received by Joseph Smith to justify her commanding elders in the church.

Some historical context: Levi Hancock (whose narrative is excerpted below) and Zebedee Coltrin had been called as companions to travel to Independence, Missouri, at the June 1831 conference in Ohio. Taking their leave, they baptized many individuals, but Hancock got extremely sick in the middle of Missouri. Coltrin left him at someone?s house who nursed him back to semi-health. Traveling further, he finally met a man who was traveling to Independence, Missouri.[1]

I started the next morning and traveled and rode some of the way till I came to the forks of the road- the man told me the way to Independence and would take nothing of me, I soon traviled the distance of about five miles and came to the Temple lot where some of the Saints lived and I soon found Zebedee [Coltrin] He was glad to see me as I was him We prayed together He took me to Sister [Elizabeth] Gilbert’s[2] She showed me the Revelation given in august and showed me these words. [“]Let the residue of the Elders of this Church which are comeing to this land some of whom are exceedingly blessed even above measure. hold a conference upon this land.[“][3] “There” said she “That means you brother Levi, Zebedee, Simeon [Carter], and Solomon [Hancock]: Joseph gave this when you were seven hundred miles away. Every body says you are Blessed-[“] I also saw other Revelations he had given, She showed me one and said, “There is a piece for you and Zebedee” “And now I speak of those Elders who have not yet come to the Land of Zion [end of p. 40] For the testimony you have borne is recorded in heaven for the Angels to look upon and your sins are forgiven you[“][4] She said some were tried when these words came and their faith almost failed them because they had heard that nothing was done many had appostatized and but four behind. Solomon Hancock, Simeon Carter, Zebedee, and myself’As soon as the news had come that Solomon and Simeon had baptized between twenty and thirty it revived their drooping Spirits and as soon as they heard that Zebedee and Levi had baptized as upwards of a hundred; Sidney Rigdon gave glory toGod of Heaven and said I did not know what those revelations mean before”[5]All this did not make me well. and as for the work I never did doubt it from the first time I saw P[arley] P Pratt and heard him preach; and no man can make me believe that he could make what I saw in him.[6] That caused me to believe and my vision that confirmed me in it also the Transfiguration of some in Kirtland.

There are many things about this excerpt I find interesting, and I think the discussion could go in many different directions in the comments, but the one that stands out to me is Elizabeth’s role as arbiter of the commandments to the elders. I’ve been thinking lately about the historical context of the commandments. The revelations were not received with the historical headings we have in the current Doctrine and Covenants. Those present at the dictation had to later interpret the exact meaning of some of the texts to those who were not. Proximity, therefore, to the creation of the revelations seemed to have provided a certain amount of authority over those who were not. The politics of interpreting the revelations seems to me to be an important area of inquiry. As the church grew and you had fewer and fewer members who knew first hand of their creation, the headings to the commandments needed to either become more and more detailed or the history of the creation of the commandments lost more and more of its power. Because Elizabeth had a closer tie to the reception of the commandments (unfortunately we don’t know if she was present at the dictation of the texts), she felt confident in telling elders in the church the meaning of the commandments. This particular episode has important implications for gender, the place of revelations in the day-to-day actions of early members, and what constituted authority in the early days of the Church of Christ.[7]

What are some of your thoughts?


[1] Hancock’s narrative of his Missouri mission comprises page 28 through 40.

[2] Wife of Algernon Sidney Gilbert.

[3] Revelation, received 1 August 1831 (D&C 58:61)

[4] Revelation, received 13 August 1831 (D&C 62:2?3). Hancock doesn’t quite quote the revelation accurately.

[5] Ezra Booth discussed this difficulty in his “Mormonism no. V” (reprint available here): “We expected to find a large Church, which Smith said, was revealed to him in a vision, Oliver had raised up there. This large Church was found to consist of three or four females.” “Mormonism no. V,” Ohio Star, 10 Nov. 1831.

[6] Hancock, earlier in his narrative, stated that “The first time I saw [Pratt] he looked like an Angel to me.” (p. 29)

[7] Various limitations won?t allow me to analyze the manuscript fully, but some brief thoughts or details: The manuscript, held at the CHL as MS 570 fd. 1, comprises several different kinds of paper: 9 sets of conjugate leaves, when folded measure about 8 ½ x 14 inches, making a total of 18 pages (the scribe only wrote on the recto of the page) and another set of 25 loose leaves measuring 8 x 10 inches of which the scribe also only wrote on the recto. The final two pages is a conjugate leaf folded widthwise measuring 7 ¾ x 12 ½ inches. The manuscript is clearly not a contemporary record, though it appears to be only partly a retrospective account. In other words, I’m not sure how he could reconstruct the amount of information he’s giving without access to some earlier records–perhaps journals or correspondence.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Love this stuff, Robin (esp. that last note, we need more critical examination of sources). But I am especially excited about how well this jibes with my thinking around Mormon liturgy. That is to say that those most proximate to the introduction of a specific ritual or ritual system had real authority to interpret or direct ritual performance.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 30, 2012 @ 2:56 pm

  2. Wow. A great document and a nice close reading. I’ve give some thought to the way that the “commandments” functioned differently as holographs than they did when they came into print, but this helps take that line of inquiry much further. The idea about authority as a measure of proximity to Joseph Smith and revelatory events is intriguing and would have some implications for work like Chris and Steve have done on the ungathered Saints. It essentially turns Steve Harper’s analysis in his JER article about the politics of revelation inside out.

    Comment by Ryan T. — March 30, 2012 @ 3:11 pm

  3. This is absolutely fascinating, and the type of close and new readings Mormon history needs. Thanks for this, Rob.

    Comment by Ben P — March 30, 2012 @ 3:14 pm

  4. Fantastic Robin. I think we usually think of the reading of section 25 at the RS organization and Joseph turning the key to the women then, but I wonder if Elizabeth Gilbert likewise had proximity to Emma’s revelatigive hat gave Emma the authority to expound scripture. Did she feel like many early American women that the spirit authorized her act beyond the general strictures for female behavior or was she specifically applying the counsel from the revelation to Emma to herself and coupling that authority to expound with her proximity and perceived it her duty to expound this revelation to the elders? Much to think about. Thanks.

    Comment by JanieceJ — March 30, 2012 @ 4:19 pm

  5. Love me some ms trees. Lots of informality here. “Every body says you are Blessed.” What an interesting community. Great stuff.

    Comment by WVS — April 1, 2012 @ 12:42 am

  6. Nicely said.

    As important as the story is the way it was transmitted for what that implies as well.

    Comment by Stephen M (Ethesis) — April 1, 2012 @ 8:03 am


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