Section 20 of the Doctrine and Covenants was one of the most important revelations for the early church. It was the first revelation selected for printing in the Evening & Morning Star, and the only revelation to be printed twice in that publication. In the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, section 20 was given prime placement, sequentially second only to the revealed preface. It was one of only two revelations deemed important enough to be carried around by individual elders and missionaries (the other: D&C 42), and announced its significance with its informal title: “the Articles and Covenants of the Church of Christ.”
D&C 20 is closely tied to the organization of the church. The understanding that the Lord wanted Joseph to organize a church came only gradually (apparently midway through the translation of the Book of Mormon) and seized Oliver Cowdery with particular interest. In June 1829 Joseph, Oliver, and David Whitmer prayed for instruction about how to organize the church, but the revelation–now D&C 18–addresses itself to Oliver in particular:
“Now, behold, because of the thing which you, my servant Oliver Cowdery, have desired to know of me, I give unto you these words.” (D&C 18:1)
He is then commanded to do the following:
“Rely upon the things which are written; for in them are all things written concerning the foundation of my church.” (D&C 18:3-4)
The “things which are written” was apparently a reference to the Book of Mormon; during the rest of 1829, Oliver combed through the Book of Mormon for clues to the Lord’s preferred organization and procedure for his church. The resulting document was called the “Articles of the Church of Christ” and contained reflections on baptism, ordaining priests and teachers, and church meetings, drawn primarily from 3 Nephi 11, 18 and Moroni 3-6, in addition to a few lines from the 1829 revelations and some of his own commentary. Oliver’s document bears some relation to what eventually became D&C 20, but the particulars of that relationship aren’t clear. Although it’s tempting to see the “Articles” as an early draft for D&C 20, they are perhaps better described as a forerunner, something like an anticipatory thought experiment (see here and here).
The precise date of D&C 20 is unknown, but although the section heading ties it to the organization of the church on April 6, 1830, it was almost certainly not ready by then. Its earliest possible date is April 10. Our only certainty is that it was completed by June 9, 1830, when it was presented and ratified at the first conference of the church.
The text itself is unique among the revelations. Rather than addressing a particular individual or group in the first-person voice of the Lord, D&C 20 speaks in the third person and seems most similar to contemporary Christian creeds or confessions of faith. It lays out the church’s position on several theological issues, including the fall, the nature of man, atonement, infant baptism, predestination, and redemption. In the section on priesthood duties that we’ll be looking at in detail (D&C 20:38-67) the Book of Mormon’s influence is obvious; the offices of elder, priest, and teacher, in addition to some of their duties, come straight from Moroni 3-4, but also would have been familiar to the early saints from other Christian churches of their day. It’s also important to remember that at the time, the priesthood had not yet been organized along “Aaronic” and “Melchizedek” lines, and that the term “apostle” (v. 38) probably referred to a more generic “witness” or “messenger” of Jesus, something akin to a missionary, but nothing like our specialized understanding of the office.
D&C 20 was revised over time–especially the section on priesthood offices–as clarification became necessary and understanding grew. I’ve spent some time looking over the changes, and while there are several, I don’t find them substantial enough for us to worry about. I plan on focusing on our current D&C text, and I’m confident that we aren’t doing a disservice to the “original text” in the process.
The next post will focus on v. 38-67 specifically and give us an idea of how priesthood was understood by the early church.