by Doris White
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (frequently nicknamed the “Mormon Church”) has recently released a new study manual for teenagers who study the Doctrine and Covenants, a book of modern scripture that records the organization of the Church and its early history.
While the study of the Doctrine and Covenants for teenagers is certainly not new, the significance of this new manual is substantial. Several controversial events of Mormon history are covered in this manual. Whereas before, the focus was mainly the doctrine that is contained in the book and the history that brought about the revelation of those doctrines, the new manual also teaches the background about some potentially divisive episodes. Church leaders have obviously recognized that it is important to be very clear about these episodes and doctrines so that from a younger age members of the Church will know the truth and will not be so easily misled by enemies of The Church of Jesus Christ who present half truths or only portions of past events that, by themselves and out of context, could lead to a loss of faith.
Having an accurate understanding of circumstances, as well as an accurate portrayal of all the facts, gives the reader a fuller understanding of doctrines and events. There are some people who are very antagonistic towards The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Some of them willingly distort the truth to damage others’ faith. Some have honest misconceptions about the history of the Church and feel they are doing Church members a favor by telling them how it “really” is. By taking a new approach with the youth of today, church leaders are giving them the truth early so they can judge for themselves what is truth and what is not.
Seven of the topics addressed specifically in the new manual are:
- The existence of multiple (and sometimes seemingly contradictory) accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision of God, the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ.
- The Mountain Meadows Massacre and the tragic role played by members of the Church.
- The origins of the papyri used by Joseph Smith when he translated the Book of Abraham found in the Pearl of Great Price.
- The origins of plural marriage as well as the ceasing of the practice and the issuing of the Manifesto.
- The Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible and what it entails.
- The history of the practice of not conferring the priesthood on persons of African descent as well as the time when the priesthood was made available to all worthy male members of the Church.
- The age of the earth versus the timeline set forward in the Doctrine and Covenants as the age of man.
While the manual obviously deals with each of these concepts in depth, this article will touch very briefly on each.
1. Of the nine existing accounts of the First Vision, Joseph Smith is known to have written or dictated four of them. The other five are second-hand accounts written by people to whom Joseph related his experience. None of these accounts is contradictory to the others. Each contains specific details which Joseph chose to share in different situations. All of them record Joseph’s interaction with divine beings and knowledge they imparted to him.
2. The Mountain Meadows Massacre is a tragic event in church history. While some critics accuse the Church of hiding the truth, in reality, the Church has been quite open about this history as well as the sadness they feel at the actions of those church members who were involved. After being driven from their homes multiple times, some of the Saints were fed up and took it upon themselves to exact revenge and “protect” their own families. This culminated in a group of men attacking a wagon train of emigrants on their way to California. Their brutal and inexcusable behavior resulted in all but 17 young children of the group of 140 emigrants being killed. These actions were in no way planned nor condoned by Church leaders. As the full extent of these men’s actions gradually came to light, they were punished by both church councils (those involved were excommunicated) and government trials (nine were indicted and one was executed).
Far from excusing or trying to hide these actions, President Henry B. Eyring of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said on the anniversary of the tragedy:
The gospel of Jesus Christ that we espouse, abhors the cold-blooded killing of men, women, and children. Indeed, it advocates peace and forgiveness. What was done [at the Mountain Meadows] long ago by members of our Church represents a terrible and inexcusable departure from Christian teaching and conduct. . . The responsibility for the massacre lies with local leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the regions near Mountain Meadows who also held civic and military positions and with members of the Church acting under their direction. . . . No doubt Divine Justice will impose appropriate punishment upon those responsible for the massacre (“150th Anniversary of Mountain Meadows Massacre,” September 11, 2007, www.mormonnewsroom.org)
3. The Book of Abraham now contained in the Pearl of Great Price was translated by Joseph Smith from a collection of Egyptian papyri that came into the Church’s possession. These were lost for some time, but a portion turned up in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Whether Joseph translated those exact records, or whether they simply served as an impetus for him to enquire and receive more inspiration is not exactly clear, but it is clear that the Book of Moses (also in the Pearl of Great Price) was given to Joseph through divine revelation, and the Book of Abraham partially by revelation and perhaps partially from the Egyptian papyri.
4. The practice of plural marriage was one all of the church leaders objected to personally, but which they ultimately obeyed because they knew it was a commandment from God. The manual deals with the earliest implementations of the practice by Joseph Smith and deals with the practice of plural marriage through to its end, when God commanded the members of the Church to cease the practice. The issuing of the Manifesto by Prophet Wilford Woodruff in 1890 told Church members to cease entering into plural marriages, though a few plural marriages were solemnized after the Manifesto. Not long after, the practice was made an excommunicable offense, which continues today. However, when it was being lived as a commandment from God, it was condoned and commanded by God, and members of the Church should feel no shame about this part of the Church’s history.
5. The Joseph Smith Translation (JST) of the Bible was not made from an original source. Rather, Joseph read through the Bible and made inspired revisions through the promptings of the Holy Ghost. Some things were added to clarify confusing doctrines, other things were deleted because they were not part of the original text. All in all, Joseph Smith made revisions to 3,400 verses of the King James Version of the Bible. His translation of Matthew 24 appears now in the Pearl of Great Price, while his inspired additions to Genesis appear as the Book of Moses in the Pearl of Great Price. Other corrected verses appear as footnotes in the King James Bible printed by the Church.
6. In the earliest days of the Church, there were a few men of African descent who were given the priesthood. At some point, this practice ceased, though records do not show when or why. Eventually, through inspiration given to a prophet of God, the practice of conferring the priesthood on all worthy male members of the Church was instituted.
7. In the age of science today, many skeptics point out the earth is much older than the creation story of the seven “days” it took God to create the earth. In Section 77 of the Doctrine and Covenants, it mentions the figure of 7,000 years from the time of Adam. The manual clarifies that the earth is much older, but Adam came much later in the earth’s timeline. Mormons define “days” of creation as periods (perhaps lasting millions of years) called days by God.
These are just a few of the clarifications offered by the new student manual for the study of the Doctrine and Covenants. It is a wonderful idea to teach teenagers (and adults) in a safe setting where they can learn about things and ask questions or share concerns. I believe that the Church does not focus a great deal on any of these things because they are not essential to our salvation. Knowing the doctrines of the gospel of Jesus Christ and living those doctrines is what is truly important. That being said, I recognize that some of these issues, if presented only in part or out of context, could really shake some people’s faith. Therefore, it is helpful to be upfront and open about these things.
At a two-day conference in March 2014, sponsored jointly by Brigham Young University and the LDS Church’s history department, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf encouraged all members of the Church to embrace their history. “Truth and transparency complement each other,” he said. “We always need to remember that transparency and openness keep us clear of the negative side effects of secrecy or the cliché of faith-promoting rumors.”
The Church is focusing on embracing the truth that we have and that we can share with others. We need to be careful that we don’t let our own truth blind us to the truth that others have, however. Nor should we allow ourselves to think we have all the truth there is. President Uchtdorf continued:
Isn’t it a remarkable feeling to belong to a Church that not only embraces truth—no matter the source—but that teaches there is much more to come! That God “will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.
As a result, we are humble about the truth we have. We understand our knowledge is a work in progress, that the leaf we have before us is simply one microscopic snapshot—part of an infinitely vast forest of fascinating knowledge.
Our little world—our small section of experience—may be an accurate and true reflection of our reality. But, it is only an infinitesimal atom in the vast universe of what we eventually will know.
Read the new Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual
Read the original article on FairMormon
Read article on President Uchtdorf’s speech from Religious News Service
Doris White is a native of Oregon and graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in English and a minor in Editing. She loves to talk with others about the gospel of Jesus Christ.