Joseph Smith received a revelation during the organizational meetings of the Church of Christ in Fayette, New York, on April 6, 1830, as depicted in William Whitaker’s painting The Prophet Joseph Smith Receives a Revelation. In this revelation, the Lord told Joseph Smith, “Behold, there shall be a record kept” (Doctrine and Covenants 21:1). The Prophet would spend the rest of his life attempting to fulfill the command, including providing historical narratives that recorded events associated with the rise of the Church of Jesus Christ in the last days.
Doctrine and Covenants section 20 offers one of the earliest attempts to record these events. Although much of the material in this inspired document was gathered over a twelve-month period, “the current version found in Doctrine and Covenants 20 was written April 10, 1830” (Robert J. Woodford, “Discoveries from the Joseph Smith Papers,” in The Doctrine and Covenants: Revelations in Context [Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2008], 29).
Section 20 briefly mentions the First Vision in the spring of 1820: “It was truly manifested unto this first elder [Joseph Smith, see verse 2] that he had received a remission of his sins” (Doctrine and Covenants 20:5). Most are familiar with the 1838 account of the First Vision, one of ten accounts recorded during Joseph Smith’s lifetime, which emphasizes Joseph Smith’s search for the true Church. However, an earlier version is found in Joseph Smith’s 1832 autobiographical narrative, which highlights the young boy’s search for mercy and forgiveness. He recorded in his own hand, “I cried unto the Lord for mercy for there was none else to whom I could go and to obtain mercy and the Lord heard my cry in the wilderness and while in <the> attitude of calling upon the Lord <in the 16th year of my age> a piller of fire light above the brightness of the sun at noon day come down from above and rested upon me and I was filled with the spirit of god and the <Lord> opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord and he spake unto me saying Joseph <my son> thy sins are forgiven thee” (The Papers of Joseph Smith, Vol. 1, Autobiographical and Historical Writings, ed. Dean C. Jessee (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989), 6.
Next, section 20 mentions the period between 1820 and 1823: “He was entangled again in the vanities of the world” (Doctrine and Covenants 20:5). Joseph Smith’s published history provides more details: “I was left to all kinds of temptations; and, mingling with all kinds of society, I frequently fell into many foolish errors, and displayed the weakness of youth, and the foibles of human nature; which, I am sorry to say, led me into divers temptations, offensive in the sight of God. In making this confession, no one need suppose me guilty of any great or malignant sins. . . . I was guilty of levity, and sometimes associated with jovial company, etc., not consistent with that character which ought to be maintained by one who was called of God as I had been” (Joseph Smith—History 1:28).
The record then moves on to Joseph’s prayer for forgiveness in September 1823: “But after repenting, and humbling himself sincerely, through faith, God ministered unto him by an holy angel, whose countenance was as lighting, and whose garments were pure and white above all whiteness; and gave unto him commandments which inspired him” (Doctrine and Covenants 20:6). The angel was Moroni, who opened a new chapter in Joseph’s life.
The next historical allusion is to September 22, 1827, when Moroni delivered to Joseph the plates and the Nephite interpreters “and gave him power from on high, by the means which were before prepared to translate the Book of Mormon” (Doctrine and Covenants 20:8).
Next is the June 1829 experience when the Three Witnesses (Martin Harris, David Whitmer, and Oliver Cowdery) were shown the plates by a heavenly messenger and commanded to prepare a testimony which is now printed in the Book of Mormon, “which was given by inspiration and is confirmed to others by the ministering of angels, and is declared unto the world by them” (Doctrine and Covenants 20:10).
The most recent event mentioned in section 20 had occurred on April 6, 1830, with “the rise of the Church of Christ in these last days” (v. 1). Thus, section 20 offered those early members and missionaries a basic outline of major events leading up to the organization of the Church of Jesus Christ in the latter days.