A friend shared this graph showing the number of visitations and canonized revelations received by Joseph Smith each year, and by Brigham Young in 1847. He asked “What was happening in the years there was no revelation? Why so many from 1829-1833?”

Frequency of revelation and visitation.jpg

I responded as follows:

Joseph Smith (and the God whose words he spoke) had a somewhat different view of revelation than Latter-day Saints do today. One aspect that he saw which we are less conscious of today is the idea of a text as a covenant. For instance, the Book of Mormon is said to be “the new covenant” in D&C 84:57. The Doctrine and Covenants originally consisted of two groups of text: The “Doctrine” of the Church was the Lectures on Faith; the “Covenants” of the Church were the revelations received through Joseph. The “Doctrine” was removed in 1921 by fiat of a committee, who ironically accused them of not being “doctrine,” so what we call the “Doctrine and Covenants” is actually only the “covenants”.

While today (bolstered by the radical ideas encapsulated in Ezra Taft Benson’s “14 Fundamentals…” talk), we view the revelations and commandments received through Joseph as negotiable and subject to revocation and revision by current Church leaders, it appears the opposite was originally intended: the revelations through Joseph are supposed to constitute a binding covenant against which all future policy, doctrine, and teaching are to be measured. See D&C 90:1-5, where God speaks specifically to Joseph:

“Therefore, thou art blessed from henceforth that bear the keys of the kingdom given unto you; which kingdom is coming forth for the last time. Verily I say unto you, the keys of this kingdom shall never be taken from you, while thou art in the world, neither in the world to come; Nevertheless, through you shall the oracles be given to another, yea, even unto the church. And all they who receive the oracles of God, let them beware how they hold them lest they are accounted as a light thing, and are brought under condemnation thereby, and stumble and fall when the storms descend, and the winds blow, and the rains descend, and beat upon their house.”

The “oracles” (meaning revelations) given to Joseph would be given to the church, who would thereafter be judged by how they held them. I think it’s a questions worth asking ourselves how we’ve held them.

There are a number of reasons why canonized revelations slowed, but a significant one is that by the publication of the 1835 D&C there was a body of oracles constituting a covenant against which the Saints were to be judged. The law by which they could rise up as Joseph had and know God for themselves had been revealed, and they could either live by that law and enter God’s presence or not.

Published revelations after that point take primarily two forms: First are efforts to gather the saints into a cohesive body who could, by living the covenant which had been revealed, enter God’s presence and become Zion (Kirtland, Far West, Nauvoo). Second are laments about the failure of the various efforts to gather (D&C 121-122).

Revelation was always intended to continue, but not in the sense of contradicting and superseding the covenant offered through Joseph, nor in the sense of being confined to administrative or policy matters. Rather the most important form of continuing revelation was supposed to be the saints abiding by the covenant offered through Joseph and entering God’s presence as he had, thereby obtaining the knowledge that would save them as it had saved Joseph (http://www.boap.org/LDS/Parallel/1839/27Jun39.html). Even if we had lived up to that hope, the canonized revelations of the Church might still have consisted largely of what Joseph had revealed, because they are sufficient for us to move heaven in that way if we would just live by them (D&C 21:4-6).