This spring term BYU will do something that it has never done before. In selected Doctrine & Covenants courses students will be required to use a new software program entitled Virtual Historian: Doctrine & Covenants.
Doctrine or History?
So why would BYU be interested in requiring a piece of software for their Doctrine & Covenants courses? Dr. Dennis Wright, Professor of Church History and Doctrine said, “We have always had that struggle – do we teach the history or the doctrine of the Doctrine & Covenants?” The D&C forces us to pose this question because of its unique format. Unlike other books of scripture, there is no narrative. The revelations are presented as separate entities with limited information about what inspired them. Little if any information is given to connect the various revelations into an overall story.
Why does that matter? Bits of historical trivia will not gain us salvation. It is the proper understanding and application of doctrinal principles that will allow us to gain eternal life. So why not just study the doctrine?
The answer lies in the fact that not all of the lessons to be learned from the D&C are taught in the actual verses themselves. If we “fill in the gaps” between the sections we can begin to piece together a story that illustrates among other things:
- The development of Joseph Smith as a prophet
- The refining of the early Latter-day Saints
- The manner in which the Lord will interact with His covenant people
- The process through which revelation is received
So while the primary purpose of the D&C is to document restored gospel truths, the careful study of the story of the Doctrine & Covenants can help us to understand how the Lord will interact with us in our daily lives.
Sections 3 and 10 are excellent examples of this fact. These revelations describe the reprimand that Joseph Smith received for following “after the dictates of his own will and carnal desires” (D&C 3:4) and allowing Martin Harris to take the 116 pages of manuscript of the translated Book of Mormon. The basics of the story are as follows:
- Martin asks to take the manuscript to show his wife so that she will be convinced of the veracity of the Book of Mormon.
- Joseph asks the Lord for permission to do this. He is forbidden to do so.
- Martin implores Joseph to ask the Lord again.
- Joseph complies with Martin’s requests and is denied again. The process repeats and after the third time Joseph is given permission to deliver the 116 pages to Martin Harris.
- The 116 pages are lost. Joseph Smith is forbidden from retranslating them because the Lord knows of the evil intentions of those who have taken them and has prepared a way the thwart their designs.
- Joseph is reprimanded and prohibited from translating for a time as punishment for him having “feared man more than God” (D&C 3:7).
This short rendition of the facts behind these revelations teaches us much about how we must interact with the Lord in our daily lives. Without this information sections 3 and 10 would not have their full impact. But through this information is very useful, there are more lessons to be learned if we will dig a little deeper.
On September 22, 1823 Joseph saw the Gold Plates for the first time. This was three-and-half-years after the first vision. At the direction of the angel Moroni, Joseph went to the Hill Cumorah. There he was shown the gold plates but was prohibited from taking them because he had not “kept the commandments of the Lord.”
Four long years later the plates were finally entrusted to him. Soon after, he began the work of translation.
For years, Joseph Smith had been marginalized and ridiculed for claiming to have beheld a vision, but Martin Harris, a respected farmer in Palmyra, had taken an interest in him. He had been fascinated by Joseph’s accounts and believed that the work Joseph was doing was true. He provided some financial support to assist Joseph in moving to Harmony, Pennsylvania where the translation process began.
Verification from a third party was important to Martin Harris. So important that in February of 1828 (the middle of winter), Martin carried hand-transcribed characters taken from the plates, along with their translation, to New York City. There he hoped to receive the professional opinion of Charles Anthon, a linguist expert. Anthon affirmed that the translation was correct but destroyed his written verification when he learned of the fantastic story about how the ancient record was found.
Martin returned to Harmony and began functioning as scribe for Joseph. Harmony was quite a distance from Martin’s home in Palmyra, and his wife, Lucy, a jealous and mean-spirited woman, began to wonder why her husband was investing so much time and money into Joseph Smith and his work.
Martin began to act as scribe during Joseph’s translations in April of 1828. He must have felt constant pressure from his wife to return home and abandon his foolish endeavors. In his mind he believed that if he could just show her and some others tangible evidence of their work, then she would be more supportive. It is certain that Joseph felt greatly indebted to Martin for his assistance. He most certainly did not want to lose one of his key supporters. Martin’s insistent request to borrow the manuscript must have been a weight for Joseph.
On June 14, 1828 Martin left Harmony with the 116 pages. The trials began immediately for Joseph. On June 15th Joseph’s first son was born and died on the same day.
For the next few weeks as Joseph dealt with the loss of his son he began to wonder why Martin was delayed in returning. Finally, in July he went up to Palmyra to seek Martin out. Martin reluctantly visited Joseph at his parents’ frame home and informed him that the manuscript had been lost. It was now over 8 years from the date of the first vision. The only tangible evidence of the work Joseph had done as a prophet was gone.
The realization of what he had done devastated Joseph. His mother said, “He continued walking backwards and forwards, weeping and grieving like a tender infant until about sunset, when we persuaded him to take a little nourishment.” Joseph was not mildly contrite. This was true Godly sorrow.
The plates and the urim and thummim were taken from him for a period of three months. Think of what he was going through. In one month’s time, he had not only lost his first child but had incurred the displeasure of his Father in Heaven. In one of the most trying times of his life up to that point, when he most needed the comfort of his Father in Heaven and most needed to provide comfort to his grieving wife, he had succumbed to a weakness that prevented him from fulfilling his prophetic duty.
It is interesting to note that the Doctrine & Covenants places the date of section 10 as the summer of 1828. In verse 3 it states, “Nevertheless, it (the gift of translation) is now restored unto you again; therefore see that you are faithful and continue on unto the finishing of the remainder of the work of translation as you have begun.
” This could lead us to believe that Joseph only lost the ability to translate for a few weeks or maybe a month. But Joseph Smith himself stated that he did not receive the urim and thummim and begin translating again until September 22 of that year. Apparently this verse was added to the revelation at a later date. It is also interesting to note that September 22, 1828 would have marked the one-year anniversary of Joseph receiving the plates. One year after being entrusted with the translation of the Book of Mormon, Joseph had to start from scratch.
This has only been one example, but it shows how much more we can understand about the revelations of the D&C if we understand the history behind them. With an understanding of the full story can we not empathize with Joseph and Martin’s desire to show their work to those who doubted them? In addition we gain a further appreciation for the seriousness with which Joseph took his prophetic calling. The resounding lesson is that in our lives we must trust the counsel of our Heavenly Father even when we do not understand it or when the actions we wish to take seem harmless.
An Integrated Approach
From this example we can see the value of an integrated approach to the study of the Doctrine & Covenants. In short, an understanding of the history, people, and places surrounding the D&C will enhance our understanding of the doctrines taught therein. Virtual Historian: Doctrine & Covenants offers students a unique tool for studying the Doctrine & Covenants in this way. It combines:
- Historical Commentary
- Virtual Reality Photographs
Some of you might not know what a Virtual Reality (VR) photograph is. A VR photo is a picture that you can “turn around in” while viewing it on a computer. Over 100 VR photographs of Church Historical sites have been included in Virtual Historian: Doctrine & Covenants. This allows the user to “stand” on the banks of the Susquehanna River, in the Revelation Room at the John Johnson Farm, or in the Valley of Adam-ondi-Ahman to just name a few. (Click here to see sample VR photographs of the Nauvoo Temple and Translation Room in the Newel K. Whitney Store.)
The VR photographs will allow students to at least experience in part the power of these locations. But the real advantage to the student will be the integrated format of the information contained in Virtual Historian: Doctrine & Covenants. A student of the D&C can:
- Read historical commentary right alongside the actual revelations
- View maps of the areas where the revelations were received
- Click on names of people in the text and read biographies on those people
- Click on the names of locations in the text and see Virtual Reality photographs of those locations
- View timeline information detailing the events surrounding the revelation being studied
In short it offers a tool that has been tailored specifically for the study of the Doctrine & Covenants.
As students at BYU begin using Virtual Historian: Doctrine & Covenants in their study, they will have a greater understanding and appreciation for the revelations contained within the Doctrine & Covenants. For the last three years as my brother Trevor DeVore and I have worked on this project, our understanding of the Doctrine & Covenants and our appreciation for the Prophet Joseph Smith has deepened. It is inspiring to learn of the development of Joseph Smith from his early mistakes in Harmony, to the outpouring of restored truths in Ohio, to the despair of Liberty Jail, and finally to his martyrdom at Carthage, Illinois. Preparing this program has allowed us to “fill in the gaps” in the story between the revelations and understand them in a whole new light. We hope that students at BYU and others who use Virtual Historian: Doctrine & Covenants will have the same experience.
Editor’s Note: More information on this program can be found at www.virtual-historian.com