The July 2009 issue of the official Mormon Ensign magazine carries an article by Elder Marlin K Jensen, Mormon Church Historian, writes about The Joseph Smith Papers, a collection of “all journals, diaries, correspondence, discourses, revelations, written histories, notices, and legal papers…generated or directed to be created [by Joseph Smith]” He writes:
“The manuscript revelation books contain many of the earliest known copies of the revelations received by Joseph Smith and provide insights into the revelatory process”
Hmmm! “The revelatory process?” What do you think that means? Jensen explains:
“The editing and updating of revelation texts in the early years of the Church demonstrate the process of continuing revelation to Joseph Smith. The revelation manuscripts reveal how men grappled in trying to make certain that the ideas and doctrines Joseph received were transcribed and printed accurately—a process that for the publication of any work risks the introduction of error. In some instances, when a new revelation changed or updated what had previously been received, the Prophet edited the earlier written revelation to reflect the new understanding. Thus, as his doctrinal knowledge clarified and expanded, so did the recorded revelations. They were characterized by the changing nature of his understanding of the sacred subject matter. The Prophet did not believe that revelations, once recorded, could not be changed by further revelation.”
Lets see if we can get from this paragraph an understanding of the “revelation process” and why God should need to change his mind about changing his mind:
- “men grappled in trying to make certain that the ideas and doctrines Joseph received were transcribed and printed accurately—a process that for the publication of any work risks the introduction of error.”
In other words errors in transmission were a real possibility and it was already a struggle to pass on faithfully what Joseph Smith said. Mormons bring to the Bible the charge that it has been transmitted carelessly and that “many plain and precious parts” were taken from it (1 Nephi 13:29). Notwithstanding this claim the Bible we have today is unquestionably accurate and reliable, having been transmitted faithfully. Even in the lifetime of Joseph Smith, however, errors were already creeping into documents that were solely in the possession of and entrusted only to Mormons.
- “when a new revelation changed or updated what had previously been received, the Prophet edited the earlier written revelation to reflect the new understanding.”
I wonder what they have in mind here? Perhaps they have in mind the 1833 revelation in which the Mormon god says of Joseph Smith:
“And he has a gift to translate the book [of Mormon], and I have commanded him that he shall pretend to no other gift, for I will grant him no other gift” (Book of Commandments 4:2)
In the revised 1835 version it reads:
“And you have a gift to translate the plates and this is the first gift that I bestowed upon you; and I commanded that you should pretend to no other gift until my purpose is fulfilled in this; for I will grant unto you no other gift until it is finished” (D&C 5:4)
Didn’t I read somewhere that, “God is not a man that he should lie, nor a son of man that he should change his mind” (Nu.23:19) Mormonism introduces itself to the world as a restoration of those teachings and principles lost because of changes to Scripture and tampering with doctrine. Now we have a prophet who cannot control his own revelation in his own lifetime and a god who cannot make up his mind.
- “as his [Joseph’s] knowledge clarified and expanded, so did the recorded revelations. They were characterized by the changing nature of his understanding of the sacred subject matter.”
So when Joseph heard his god say that he should only have one gift he misunderstood because his god actually intended that this should be the first gift in many. That lets his god off the hook but leaves Joseph’s hearing with much to be desired. If we approached the Bible in this way every Mormon would see it as clear evidence of apostasy.
- “The Prophet did not believe that revelations, once recorded, could not be changed by further revelation.”
Clearly! I mean I can just see God saying, “Oh, I had a bad day and I wasn’t thinking right. Look I meant to say…”
Mormons are traditionally a record keeping people but this has often come back to haunt them as faithful saints have kept meticulous records that have subsequently embarrassed the church. Mormons today, when confronted by such historical evidence, will offer the lame defence, “That was just his opinion”. Even on a more “official” level, records of early church proceedings have been kept, the best known example of which is the 26 volume Journal of Discourses, containing “the words of the Apostles and Prophets, as they were spoken in the assemblies of the Saints of Zion”.
The first volume is presented as something, “the value of which cannot be estimated by man…for the purity of doctrine, simplicity of style, and extensive amount of theological truth which they develop…a source of light, information, and joy…these sermons will be most valuable, as a gauge of doctrine, a rule of rectitude, and a square to life, furnishing at the same time an extensive repository of historical information.” (JOD, vol.1, Intro.)
What place does this invaluable source of doctrine and history have in the modern Mormon Church? It is regarded with suspicion and although Mormon apostle George Q Cannon called the Journal a “Standard Work of the Church” (an epithet reserved for Mormon scripture) in the introduction to volume eight, it carries no more authority than the personal journals of the day that continue to embarrass the church.
It will be interesting to see how the Mormon Church handles the Joseph Smith Papers, how Mormon scholars interpret their founding prophet and how officially involved Mormon leaders will become in endorsing and quoting them. Experience has shown that “official” Mormonism is confined to the four “Standard Works” and all other writings become historical curios as they are published and then left on the shelves of the few Mormons who will buy them, never reading them but simply happy that they are there as proof of the restoration. I doubt they will carry any more authority than other writings of the day although certainly Mormon watchers may find plenty of food for thought.