Doctrine and Covenants: Overview
Roy W. Doxey, “Doctrine and Covenants: Overview,” in Latter-day Saint Essentials: Readings from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. John W. Welch and Devan Jensen (Provo, UT: BYU Studies and the Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2002), 66–70.
The Doctrine and Covenants is a compilation of revelations, most of which were received by the Prophet Joseph Smith for the establishment and governance of the kingdom of God in the latter days. It is a standard work of the Church and functions as its open, ever-expanding, ecclesiastical Constitution. Its main focus is to build up the Church of Jesus Christ and to bring people into harmony with Christ’s kingdom. It is viewed as the capstone of the Church; its companion volume, the Book of Mormon, is seen as the keystone (Benson, pp. 83–85). The Book of Mormon was written to convince all individuals that Jesus is the Christ; the Doctrine and Covenants was given to organize and orient them according to God’s mind and kingdom.
Of the 138 sections and 2 declarations presently in this collection, 133 were received principally through Joseph Smith, the first prophet and President of the Church. The seven remaining sections were received or written by or under the direction of Oliver Cowdery (sections 102 and 134), John Taylor (section 135), Brigham Young (section 136), Joseph F. Smith (section 138), Wilford Woodruff (Official Declaration 1), and Spencer W. Kimball (Official Declaration 2).
While most passages in the Doctrine and Covenants have a specific historical setting, virtually every verse is one of wisdom, general instruction, religious principle, or doctrine. Most of the revelations were received in answer to specific prayerful requests. Although many were given for the benefit of particular individuals, by and large their guidance has universal application, making these revelations as relevant today as when first received. They were given to the servants of the Lord “in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding” (1:24). They are recognized by Latter-day Saints as “the will of the Lord, . . . the mind of the Lord, . . . the word of the Lord, . . . the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation” (68:4).
The revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants were received by various methods. Some were received by inspiration, the mind being enlightened by the Holy Spirit (e.g., sections 20–22); others came from an angel (sections 2, 13, 27, 110); in visions, or sight—knowledge, usually through the spiritual eyes of the prophet (sections 76, 137–38); by the still small voice, a voice that comes into the mind (section 85); or by an audible voice (section 130:12–13). At times, other people were present and shared the spiritual manifestations.
The sections are of many types, containing various kinds of materials and historical documents. For example, section 102 contains the minutes of a high council meeting; section 113 answers questions on the writings of Isaiah; sections 121–23 are part of a letter written by Joseph Smith in relation to persecution; sections 127–28 are epistles on baptisms for the dead; section 134 is an article on government and laws; and section 135 reports the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. Section 7 is a translation of a record written and hidden up by the apostle John; sections 65 and 109 are prayers; other sections are items of instruction (sections 130–31) and prophecies (sections 87 and 121). Section 1 is the Lord’s Preface to the other revelations. Section 133 is known as the Appendix; it was given two days after the Preface and contains eschatological information. Both sections 1 and 133 were provided in preparation for the publication of the revelations.
The first compilation of the revelations given to Joseph Smith was printed in 1833 and was known as A Book of Commandments, for the Government of the Church of Christ. It contained sixty-five chapters. This collection was submitted to a priesthood conference of the Church on November 1, 1831, for approval prior to publication. Because of the unpolished language of the revelations, one member doubted their authenticity. A revelation, section 67 in modern editions, challenged any person to write a revelation; when the doubter confessed that he was unable to do so, the compilation was approved by those assembled. Because the printing office of the Church in Independence, Missouri, was destroyed by a mob in July 1833 while the book was in production, only a few copies of this first compilation have survived.
Over the years after the first printing, other revelations were received and some earlier materials were deleted. An 1835 edition, published in Kirtland, Ohio, was entitled Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of the Latter Day Saints and contained 103 sections. In subsequent editions, more sections were added. The most recent additions were sections 137 (1836) and 138 (1918) on salvation of the dead, and the Official Declaration 2 announcing the priesthood available to every worthy male member of the Church (1978). An article on marriage written by Oliver Cowdery in 1835 was deleted from the 1876 edition. Beginning with the 1921 edition, a set of lessons called the Lectures on Faith have not been included.
One hundred of the revelations were received before 1834, during the early, formative years of the Church. Many of them were addressed to specific individuals who sought wisdom from the Prophet. Gospel doctrines were often not revealed in their fulness at first, but were received progressively from time to time. As the Church grew and relocated, questions regarding Church administration, duties of officers, guidance for the members of the Church, and events of the future became the subjects of further revelations.
Not all the revelations received by Joseph Smith are included in the Doctrine and Covenants. Some are contained in the History of the Church (HC), giving counsel and instruction to individuals (HC, 1:229), concerning the Saints being driven to the Rocky Mountains (HC, 5:85), and a prophecy about Stephen A. Douglas (HC, 5:393–94).
Deciding which revelations to include in the Doctrine and Covenants is a prerogative of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. The selection is then affirmed by the common consent of Church members.
The Doctrine and Covenants is directed to the people of this generation. To the Latter-day Saints it is the voice of the Lord Jesus Christ confirming and revealing the way of salvation and instruction for the government of his Church. It warns individuals and nations of impending destruction if they do not repent. It witnesses to the reality of life beyond the grave.
Prominent among its teachings are the specific principles, covenants, and ordinances that lead to eternal life. It prescribes priesthood ordinances from baptism to marriage sealed for eternity. Salvation of the dead also is made known by revelations concerning baptism for the dead and visions of preaching to the spirits who are awaiting resurrection.
Its emphasis upon the spiritual nature of temporal matters heightens one’s appreciation of and respect for this life. For example, its code of health, known as the Word of Wisdom, promises both spiritual and physical health to those who obey it (section 89).
The Doctrine and Covenants contains numerous teachings and pithy sayings that powerfully influence the daily lives and feelings of Latter-day Saints, which set the tone of Church service and instill vitality into the work. Among its frequently quoted lines are the following maxims and words of counsel and divine assurance: “If ye are prepared ye shall not fear” (D&C 38:30); “Seek not for riches but for wisdom” (11:7); “He who doeth the works of righteousness shall receive his reward, even peace in this world, and eternal life in the world to come” (59:23); “Seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (88:118); “Without faith you can do nothing” (8:10); “Of you it is required to forgive all men” (64:10); “Men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will” (58:27); “All these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good” (122:7); “For I will raise up unto myself a pure people, that will serve me in righteousness” (100:16); “Be not weary in well-doing” (64:32); “Search diligently, pray always, and be believing, and all things shall work together for your good” (90:24); and “Now what do we hear in the gospel which we have received? A voice of gladness! A voice of mercy from heaven; and a voice of truth out of the earth; glad tidings for the dead; a voice of gladness for the living and the dead; glad tidings of great joy” (128:19).
Benson, Ezra Taft. “The Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants.” Ensign 17 (May 1987): 83–85.
Doxey, Roy W. The Latter-day Prophets and the Doctrine and Covenants, 4 vols. Salt Lake City, 1963–1970.
Doxey, Roy W. The Doctrine and Covenants Speaks, 2 vols. Salt Lake City, 1969–70.
Ludlow, Daniel H. A Companion to Your Study of the Doctrine and Covenants, 2 vols. Salt Lake City, 1978.
Millet, Robert L., and Larry E. Dahl, eds. The Capstone of Our Religion. Salt Lake City, 1989.
Smith, Joseph. History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 2d ed., rev. Salt Lake City, 1957.
ROY W. DOXEY