This and the post following it (part 2) are pieces I wrote a few years ago as a guest blogger at another Mormon-themed blog. I’ve reworked them a bit, but I’ve largely left them as I originally wrote them. I think they’re worth a revisit now for a host of (largely obvious) reasons I won’t go into. I’ll say that my having written them in the first place and my posting them now shouldn’t be construed as either supportive or critical of any positions being taken on relevant issues. My aim in these posts—when I wrote them and now—is just to understand a text that seems to me crucial for getting anywhere on the kinds of questions being raised.
At any rate, the text I’ll deal with here is section 25 of the Doctrine and Covenants, that unique revelation to Emma Smith. I offer nothing more than a preliminary study of the revelation. As is my wont, I take as my first task—in this first post, that is—to say a bit by way of exegesis, addressing the historical setting of the original revelation, changes made to the document between 1830 and 1835 (the text has remained stable since 1835), and, very briefly, the basic structure of the revelation. I’ll take each of these in turn in this post. And then I’ll turn to theological questions in my next post.
Monday, June 28, 1830, Emma Smith was baptized, with Oliver Cowdery officiating. The ceremony took place in the morning, early enough not to give the fledgling church’s enemies a chance to break down the makeshift dam that was needed to provide the appropriate depth of water, but not early enough to enjoy the ceremony without a crowd of about fifty of those enemies jeering throughout it. What began as a heckling mob at the baptismal service that morning, however, became a serious obstacle that night. The confirmation meeting, during which Emma was to receive the Holy Ghost, was canceled when Joseph Smith was arrested on trumped-up charges and hauled away to face trial in two different counties before being released to flee a mob through the night. Emma wouldn’t be confirmed for nearly two months.
It was during the weeks following Joseph’s arrest that section 25 came as a divine word of comfort to Emma, whose “very heartstrings [had been] broken with grief,” according to John Reid (Joseph’s lawyer who, during the trials, made a brief visit to Emma and subsequently commented on her state). (See Newell and Avery, Mormon Enigma, p. 33.) It’s difficult to know exactly what Emma was feeling at the time. The fact that she put off confirmation for so long, even though Joseph was released from custody within days, may suggest that Fawn Brodie was right that Emma was “racked anew with doubt,” in addition to being “frightened by the rancor that greeted her husband’s preaching.” (See Brodie, No Man Knows My History, p. 89.)
Other concerns also seem to have been bothering Emma. Just before the revelation to her came, Joseph received a revelation (the first of these two “domestic revelations,” as Richard Bushman calls them) that he should “go speedily” to the other gatherings of the Saints (in Collesville, Fayette, and Manchester), who would “support” him, since he would “not have strength” in “temporal labors” (see D&C 24:3, 9; Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, p. 163). Brodie suggests that “the prospect of living off the dubious and intermittent charity of Joseph’s followers was more than this proud girl could stomach. The Lord’s command to leave their farm, the only security their marriage offered, to return to Colesville, where Joseph was in constant danger of being mobbed, or to Manchester, where her father-in-law lay in jail, or to Fayette to live by the generosity of Mrs. Whitmer, filled her with fury.” (See Brodie, No Man Knows My History, p. 89.) As Donna Hill says, “it would have been understandable if [Emma] had begun to question the value of what [Joseph] was doing.” (See Hill, Joseph Smith, p. 114.)
The revelation Emma received would thus address both her delayed confirmation (see D&C 25:7-8) and her concern about support (see D&C 25:9-10), in addition to giving her some specific assignments in the young Church (see D&C 25:5-6, 11-14).
It would, moreover, mention—before any other concerns and startlingly directly—another point of concern for Emma: the fact that there were “things” which she had “not seen,” presumably a reference to the gold plates (D&C 25:4). Because this appears so early in the revelation, and because it’s addressed so directly, (male) commentators have made of it the only motivation for the revelation, even using it as a reason to criticize Emma’s supposedly consistent pattern of faithlessness. (See, for instance, Smith, Church History and Modern Revelation, p. 1:117). Obviously, I think there’s something very wrong about that too-influential approach. Nonetheless, there’s also something—a little something—that’s quite right about it. Verse 4 does structurally privilege the real temptation Emma must have faced to “murmur.” I’ll come back to this point in my structural comments, as well as subsequently in my theological reflections. It seems to me to be of real interpretive importance.
We know very little concerning how Emma felt about the revelation once it came. She was indeed confirmed some time after it was given, but it’s difficult to know what role the revelation played in that. She wouldn’t immediately take up the responsibilities outlined for her in the revelation. Within a few months, once Sidney Rigdon arrived in New York, Emma would more or less lose any opportunity to be Joseph’s scribe, and she didn’t begin any serious work on a collection of hymns for a couple of years. And the most provocative responsibility given her in the revelation—“to expound scriptures, and to exhort the church,” etc.—wouldn’t really be hers until the organization of the Relief Society in Nauvoo a decade later. At that point, however, what is now section 25 would, as it were, finally come out of its shell, serving almost as the foundational document for the organization. (Some preliminary work has been done on the role D&C 25 played in the organization of the Relief Society—see Madsen, “The ‘Elect Lady’ Revelation”—but much more can and should be done in this regard, it seems to me.)
Such were the circumstances when the revelation was received. Times would change, of course—in some ways getting better, in other ways much worse. But with the changing times, curiously, the actual content of the revelation would change too—not just its significance, but the actual words of the revelation. I want to catalog these briefly.
It is better and better known that the revelations making up the canonical Doctrine and Covenants often differ from the historical originals. Very little editing—indeed, almost none—has been done on the text of the revelations since 1835, but they were edited rather heavily for inclusion in the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants that year. D&C 25 has thus remained textually unaltered from 1835 to the present, but it underwent a handful of changes—some of them very significant—between its original reception in 1830 and its canonization in 1835. (It is significant, I think, that it was the canonized—and not the original—version of the revelation that was read at the organization of the Relief Society. See here.) The changes that were made, most of them specifically for the 1835 publication of the Doctrine and Covenants, deserve close attention. I won’t deal with every change—some of them are too minor to bother with here—but I’ll catalog the most important ones.
The earliest manuscript of the revelation is to be found in the Book of Commandments and Revelations, published for the first time a few years ago in the Revelations series of the Joseph Smith Papers project. (See Jensen, Woodford, and Harper, The Joseph Smith Papers, pp. 38-41. It appears also, now, in the first Documents volume of the same project; see MacKay et al, The Joseph Smith Papers, pp. 161-164.) It is likely more or less identical to the original actually dictated for Emma. A few changes were made to the revelation before it was printed for the first time in the never exactly completed Book of Commandments, which was “issued” in 1833. (See Smith, A Book of Commandments, pp. 58-59.) Finally, the vast majority of the changes were made to the revelation before it appeared in the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants in 1835. (Smith, The Book of Doctrine and Covenants, pp. 178-179.) In referring to these three versions of the revelation, I’ll thus speak of the 1830, the 1833, and the 1835 versions.
The first two verses of what is now D&C 25 have changed most drastically. They read as follows in the 1830 version of the revelation:
A revelation I give unto you concerning my will.
Inserted before this in that earliest manuscript, but as what appears to be an editorial addition, is the following phrase: “Emma my daughter in Zion.” This and the above were put into the 1833 version when it was printed, thus yielding the following:
Emma, my daughter in Zion, a revelation I give unto you, concerning my will.
This was in turn changed in the 1835 version, and quite drastically:
Hearken unto the voice of the Lord your God, while I speak unto you, Emma Smith, my daughter, for verily I say unto you, all those who receive my gospel are sons and daughters in my kingdom. A revelation I give unto you concerning my will, and if thou art faithful and walk in the paths of virtue before me, I will preserve thy life, and thou shalt receive an inheritance in Zion.
I’ll be leaving interpretive work principally to my second post, but I think it’s worth saying here already that the 1835 version doesn’t so much replace as midrashically expand on the 1833 version that preceded it in print. The clause, “a revelation I give unto you concerning my will” is unaltered from the 1830 version right through to the 1835 version, while the prefatory “Emma, my daughter in Zion” clause, added to the 1830 version and integral to the 1833 version, was inventively reworked. “Emma, my daughter” is retained, though it is appended to the phrase, “Hearken unto the voice of the Lord your god, while I speak unto you.” The prepositional phrase “in Zion” is displaced to a position after the clause, “a revelation I give unto you concerning my will,” where it now qualifies not “daughter” but “inheritance”: “and if thou art faithful and walk in the paths of virtue before me, I will preserve thy life, and thou shalt receive an inheritance in Zion.”
The next passage to receive major—but not nearly so drastic—editorial work is what is now verse 6. In the 1830 and 1833 versions, it read as follows (with a few bracketed clarifications of the content inserted):
And thou shalt go with him [Joseph] at the time of his going [to the churches], and be unto him for a scribe, that I may send Oliver whithersoever I will.
In 1835, in the Doctrine and Covenants, however, important changes have been introduced:
And thou shalt go with him at the time of his going, and be unto him for a scribe, while there is no one to be a scribe for him, that I may send my servant Oliver Cowdery, whithersoever I will.
Note the changes. First, “while there is no on to be a scribe for him” has been introduced, apparently to foreclose the possibility of Emma’s appointment as scribe being understood as permanent rather than temporary. (I’ll have more to say about this in my next post.) Second, “my servant” has been inserted before “Oliver,” perhaps confirming that Oliver is the permanent scribe, Emma the substitute scribe. Emma would seem, with these two changes, to be in the process of being displaced from what had been her divinely granted appointment in 1830. I’ll have a word to say about this below, and then I’ll be returning to it in my next post.
The last change worth considering is, despite its being the alteration of only a single word, the most commented-on change in this revelation. It comes in what is now verse 9. The phrase “thy husband shall support thee in the church,” as it has appeared in the revelation since the 1835 printing, appears both in the 1830 and 1833 versions as “thy husband shall support thee from the church.” A slight change, but one that makes an enormous difference
What’s at stake in this tiniest of changes? To say that Joseph would support Emma in the church—particularly in a passage immediately following her appointment as a teacher in the church—would seem to indicate that Emma’s “fear” mentioned in the same verse (“thou needest not fear”) is a kind of nervousness on her part about her ability to perform in the duties assigned to her, a nervousness she can overcome because she will have the support of her husband. That’s the revelation as we know it today in the Doctrine and Covenants. To say, however, as in the 1830 and 1833 versions, that Joseph would support Emma from the church clearly indicates that Emma’s “fear” is a question of finances and living conditions, fear she can overcome because the Church would provide the necessary means for her family to survive.
Thus the change, insignificant as it might seem, radically alters the sense of the passage—and indeed, as I’ll show in a moment, the basic structure of the revelation. The revelation was aimed originally at addressing Emma’s (more than legitimate) worries about her husband’s inability to provide substantially for the family. Verses 9-10 were thus a kind of aside appended to the words through which Emma received her first appointments in the church. She was, like her husband, to forget temporal matters to take up the work of the kingdom, both as her husband’s scribe and as a teacher in the church (the two offices that had been Oliver’s before that point). With the change of a single word, however, the revelation comes to appear as if it had been aimed at addressing Emma’s self-doubts concerning the responsibilities she was being given—self-doubts Emma was quite unlikely ever to have had!
The Spirit of the Changes
I want to add a brief interpretive word here, although—as I’ve said—I’ll leave most interpretive work until my next post. I think it’s worth addressing, at least in passing, what seems to have driven the bulk of these changes. At any rate, I think it’s worth calling for a bit of clemency with regard to these changes when they can all appear to have been part of a systematic attempt to displace Emma from every position of authority originally granted to her in 1830: she goes from being God’s “daughter in Zion” to being God’s daughter with a promise of the possibility of receiving an inheritance in Zion; she goes from being Joseph’s scribe in Oliver’s place to being a substitute scribe only if necessary; and she goes from being a rightly worried woman with concerns about securing the means of subsistence to being a vacillating woman with doubts about her own inadequacies. All of this too easily appears to be the work of displacement.
I think, though, that it’s important to pay attention to details that might be overlooked.
Among the most important is the fact that the revisions made not only to this but to all the revelations for the 1835 publication of the Doctrine and Covenants had a strong de-historicizing bent. The first edition of the D&C was more a handbook for a finally institutionalized Church than a gathering of historical documents (the revelations were not chronologically arranged then as they are now). The revelations were edited to serve an institutional purpose. And one of the consequences of that institutionally-oriented revision was an attempt to universalize many revelations that had been too particular in their original shape to serve general purposes. It seems to me that most of the changes to D&C 25 can be seen as drawing on the theological force of verse 16’s “this is my voice unto all.” They mark an attempt to universalize. This is clear in the changes to verses 1-2. It also seems to be in part what motivated the change to verse 9: it would be difficult to find general application in Emma’s concerns about poverty, but most everyone can learn from a word of comfort concerning self-doubt.
Another important aspect of the revisions for the 1835 D&C was the attempt to bring the revelations into line with what had actually taken place historically. Thus, revelations that had been clarified or even altered by later revelations were edited to fit together. Other revelations were adjusted to reflect major changes in the Church that had taken place with the loss of Jackson County in 1833. Others were altered to anticipate historical events that had taken place. It seems to me that the changes to verse 6 can in part be explained as an example of this last category. Oliver Cowdery was indeed displaced from his position as scribe and expositor of scripture—from the position that verses 5-8 in D&C 25 seem to have then granted to Emma—but Sidney Rigdon suddenly burst onto the scene late in 1830, and Sidney seems to have been the one who actually took Oliver’s place. I suspect that the adjustments to verse 6 are meant to make the revelation anticipate Sidney’s eventual centrality, not specifically to marginalize Emma (or women more generally).
Now, I should be clear. I don’t mean with these comments to say that there’s nothing to be concerned about in these changes, nor do I mean that there is nothing of misogyny traceable here. I just mean that whatever one finds along such lines in the revelation’s history, one must find along with other factors that are of real importance as well.
But let me come, at last, to structure. I’ll be brief.
It isn’t difficult to break D&C 25 up into a few different parts. Overall, the revelation seems to break down as follows (and I’m following the structure implicit in the original, not in the edited version of 1835):
(1) Introductory Address to Emma (verses 1-3)
(2) Identification of Temptation to be Avoided (verse 4)
(3) First Appointment: Scribe (verses 5-6)
(4) Second Appointment: Teacher (verses 7-8)
(5) Aside Addressing a Concern (verses 9-10)
(6) Third Appointment: Collector of Hymns (verses 11-12)
(7) Conclusion (verses 13-16)
It’s worth noting that the three appointments (numbers 3, 4, and 6) make up the heart of the revelation, all presented as what is meant to replace every temptation to murmur (number 2). That’s significant, and I mentioned it before. This revelation is presented as a triple appointment for Emma that is meant to involve her in something from which she can only have felt excluded before this point. Though the warning about murmuring in verse 4 has been used by some (many) interpreters to suggest that Emma was a kind of Doubting Thomas, it seems to me much more clearly to indicate what the Lord should be seen as trying to overcome by bestowing a series of responsibilities on Emma. She’s no longer to be an outsider to the work, but Joseph’s partner and spokeswoman in the strongest sense. Verse 4 is indeed the key to the revelation, not because it tells us about Emma’s private infidelity (it doesn’t do that), but because it attributes to God himself explicit recognition that Emma has been marginalized, as well as desire to do away with that situation.
With the revelation sorted out in terms of structure, it’s all the more interesting to note where the most significant changes to the revelation are to be found. The changes to verses 1-2 serve principally to make the introduction of the revelation agree in spirit with the conclusion. That’s simple enough. The remaining changes are all to be found in the first and second appointments (or rather, in the first appointment and the aside connected to the second appointment). These are what called for change in 1835. The third appointment, interestingly, received no editorial attention. But then, Emma had more or less finished her work on the hymn book by that point.
That’s enough by way of structure, I think—as well as by way of exegesis more generally. All of this gives us something to think about theologically. But I’ll take up that task in my next post.
Fawn M. Brodie. No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, the Prophet. New York: Vintage, 1971.
Richard L. Bushman. Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1984.
Donna Hill. Joseph Smith: The First Mormon. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1977.
Robin Scott Jensen, Robert J. Woodford, and Steven C. Harpers, eds. The Joseph Smith Papers: Revelations and Translations, Manuscript Revelation Books. Salt Lake City: The Church Historian’s Press, 2009.
MacKay, Michael Hubbard, Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, Grant Underwood, Robert J. Woodford, and William G. Hartley, eds. The Joseph Smith Papers: Documents Volume 1: July 1828-June 1831. Salt Lake City: The Church Historian’s Press, 2013.
The Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book. Retrieved from the Joseph Smith Papers site.
Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery. Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith. New York: Doubleday, 1984.
Carol Corwall Madsen. “The ‘Elect Lady’ Revelation (D&C 25): Its Historical and Doctrinal Context.” In Craig K. Manscill, ed., Sperry Symposium Classics: The Doctrine and Covenants (Salt Lake City and Provo: Deseret Book and Brigham Young University Religious Studies Center, 2004), 117-133.
Joseph Smith. A Book of Commandments for the Government of the Church of Christ. Zion: W. W. Phelps & Co., 1833.
Joseph Smith. Doctrine and Covenants of The Church of the Latter Day Saints. Kirtland, Ohio: F. G. Williams & Co., 1835.
Joseph Fielding Smith. Church History and Modern Revelation. 4 vols. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1946-1949.