2009 Study Helps for the Doctrine and Covenants
Reviewed by Catherine K. Arveseth

Worth More than the Riches of the Whole Earth

2009 brings us once again to a Church-wide study of the Doctrine and Covenants. This “collection of divine revelations and inspired declarations” is the capstone of our religion. According to the book’s Explanatory Introduction, the testimony given of Jesus Christ within these pages “makes [the] book of great value to the human family and of more worth than the riches of the whole earth.”

Current scholars have noted that it provides insights to the restored gospel of Jesus Christ not found in any of the other standard works. Within its revelations we can find detailed information about priesthood offices, Church organization, the Millennium, consecration, and a host of other topics only hinted at elsewhere.

As we read this collection, we hear very plainly the voice of Jesus Christ. He answers specific questions, and offers guidance in times of need to real people as they petitioned the Lord (through Joseph) for inspiration. As the book’s introduction further explains, “These sacred revelations were received in answer to prayer, in times of need, and came out of real-life situations involving real people.”

Steven C. Harper, author of Making Sense of the Doctrine and Covenants, points out that “some versions of the New Testament print the first person voice of the Savior in red ink so readers can more easily discern when they are listening to the Lord himself. If all of the Latter-day Saint standard works were printed that way, the Doctrine and Covenants would be overwhelmingly the reddest” (11).

Elder Neal A. Maxwell emphasized the power of the Doctrine and Covenants when he said, “The New Testament is a marvelous collection of the deeds and many doctrines of the Messiah. But in the Doctrine and Covenants we receive the voice as well as the word of the Lord. We can almost ‘hear’ him talking” (11).

As you launch into a fresh study of this grand book of commandments, I offer two new and very useful study helps published in 2008. I am most enthusiastic about Stephen C. Harper’s book (my review will focus mostly on his work). It is unlike any other commentary on the Doctrine and Covenants I have encountered. It is a must-have for serious students or teachers of these revelations. As Harper writes, it is “for those who love the Doctrine and Covenants and all who seek so to do.”

Making Sense of the Doctrine and Covenants

Harper’s book, Making Sense of the Doctrine and Covenants jolted me into serious excitement about studying the Doctrine and Covenants this year. Until opening it, I was committed to reading for Gospel Doctrine so I could participate each Sunday and learn. But now it seems a flame was lit beneath me. I am thoroughly invested and thanks to Harper, pleasantly reignited about delving into these precious revelations.

Harper is a professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University and is known for his most recent work as one of the editors of The Joseph Smith Papers. For more info about The Joseph Smith Papers, click here.

A Guided Tour

Harper designed his commentary to act as “a guided tour through modern revelations.” He makes a solid case for needing this kind of study help. While having a candid conversation with a scholar of American religious history, his colleague confessed that reading the Doctrine and Covenants was like reading a dictionary. Harper writes,

He was frustrated as many readers seem to be, by the challenges of making sense of isolated sections. Most are free-standing texts, unconnected to those surrounding it. In comparison, the Book of Mormon… [has] narrators [leading] readers through the revelations, seeing them safely from one to the next and explaining their significance in between. With few exceptions, there is little of that kind of narrative in the Doctrine and Covenants.

Each revelation is the heart of a story with no beginning or end in the book of scripture itself but which the Savior deemed important enough to address from heaven. Reading the sections is akin to joining a conversation well underway (xviii).

I hadn’t considered this stark difference before. Knowing Harper had more to share regarding the situations and people involved in each revelation made me even more anxious to start studying, guide alongside. Harper uses the following analogy to illustrate his intent.

Imagine that each revelation is a work of art in a museum gallery. We can appreciate the works of art on their own, to be sure, but walking through the gallery with a guide enriches the experience. The guide can direct our attention to the composition, colors, and design of the art works, note how each piece was influenced by the period in which it was created, and make suggestions for interpretation. If the revelations recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants are masterpieces, this book may be considered a guide to those masterpieces (xix -xx).

Context and Text

Each chapter contains a background or “origin”, as Harper calls it, to the revelation. This section is a description, “drawing on original sources” as to why the Lord gave the revelation. Harper elucidates.

The focus is sharp so as not to burden the reader with context that does not answer the primary question the revelation speaks to (xx).

Harper clarifies that both context and text are important. Context, as we usually refer to it, is often incomplete. To mention the place the revelation was received and who participated presents so many questions. “Why then? Why there? Why that individual?” Harper has spent hours reading and studying the histories and journals that surround each revelation so he can answer some of these questions for us.

The second section of each chapter discusses the “content” of the revelation. Even more important than accurate context, Harper says, is the text of each revelation.

The revelations themselves deserve our deepest attention. What do they say? How do they say it? What doctrines do they declare? What covenants do they make? What do they command, prophesy, and promise? Each revelation is coherent, with an internal logic that teaches us the Lord’s mind and will (xix).

The final part of the chapter assesses the fruits of the revelation – what it does. Harper calls it “outcomes.”

The purpose is to highlight and testify of the moving power of the revelations by discovering what happened because the Lord spoke those words then (xx).

Finally, the aspect I have come to appreciate most in my few weeks of studying the Doctrine and Covenants.

This book avoids likening or applying the revelations to modern readers and situations. That is important work, but it is best done by individuals in the light of the Holy Spirit. A guide can help viewers appreciate a masterpiece, but it is best left to individual viewers to decide finally what significance they will discover in the master’s work (xx).

Listening to the Lord Speak

“We can, if diligent and determined,” Harper writes, “listen to the Lord speak.” I am coming to appreciate how timeless these revelations are – that although they were given to answer another’s specific need – the Lord’s words instruct us clearly in His ways, language, promises, and abilities. Joseph himself marveled at these revelations saying he considered them “so much beyond the narrow mindedness of men” (11).

Readers will love studying the Doctrine and Covenants with Harper’s book close at hand. It is uniquely informative and encouraging of personal application. I am learning through the aid of the Spirit, not just about the past, but about my present state of living and my relationship with the Lord.

Making Sense of the Doctrine and Covenants is perceptive, literate, insightful and wise. After reading the introduction, I went immediately to some of my favorite sections to see what new truths could be found. To be sure, I was not disappointed. Harper’s book is a sound and reliable commentary on the Doctrine and Covenants that will thrill any who want to better understand and love this special book of scripture.

The Doctrine and Covenants: Revelations in Context
(Click book image to purchase your copy)

I can also highly recommend last year’s compilation of Sperry Symposium essays. These essays, written from the combined perspective of faith and scholarship, comment largely upon the context of the Doctrine and Covenants and the recent swirl of research that has surrounded these revelations. Andrew H. Hedges, J. Spencer Fluhman, and Alonzo L. Gaskill are the editors of the 2008 Sperry Symposium essays.

The Doctrine and Covenants: Revelations in Context includes the presentations given during the 37th annual symposium. Work of the contributing scholars is insightful. Their words help readers develop an awareness that enhances appreciation for the revelations and the prophets through whom they came. This leads us to better understand the significance of Joseph’s revelations. The book is not a comprehensive overview of the background and development of each revelation. Rather, as the editors explain,

Our overall approach has been to look in depth at a few sections rather than to provide a broader, less-detailed overview. Each essay, correspondingly, stands largely on its own, and should not be considered a chapter in a larger and developing theme or argument of the entire volume (viii).

The variety of approaches the authors have taken speaks to the richness of the revelations – the diversity of their texts and contexts. One can see in these essays the influence of various Church and BYU-sponsored research projects, such as The Joseph Smith Papers Project and a critical text of Joseph Smith’s New Translation of the Bible. Also evident, is the increasing attention Joseph has received at the hands of non-LDS scholars in recent years.

Some topics addressed include Discoveries from the Joseph Smith Papers Project, Revelations Surrounding the “New Translation”, The Joseph Smith Revelations and the Crisis of Early American Spirituality, “The Law of the Church of Christ” (D&C 42), Universalism and the Revelations of Joseph Smith, and The Law of Consecration.

Here are two of my favorite excerpts.

We really can follow the same path as Joseph Smith. We have learned that true success in mortal life is the obtaining of our God’s approval and to be accepted of Him. All who obtain that status can know it by the peaceful presence of the Holy Spirit. The Lord told Joseph Smith he would know when he was where the Lord wanted him to be by the “peace and power of my Spirit, that shall flow unto you” (D&C 111:8). No one in this Church would question the success Joseph achieved in his life. But what did he do? He found acceptance of the Savior, though for a time it was a conditional relationship. He had to prove himself like everyone else (Elder C. Max Caldwell, 21).

Joseph Smith insisted on a revelation of spiritual power aimed at a religious world that both craved and feared it. Those who heard the call rejoiced – and are still rejoicing – in a new age of miracles and a restoration of the ancient church’s gifts (J. Spencer Fluhman, 85).

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