Section 85 is an extract from a letter to William Phelps. Section 86 was viewed by Joseph to have important information about the priesthood. And Section 87 in the prophecy on war.
2 Nephi 3:24
1 Chronicles 13
3 Nephi 21:12-29
The thing that first caught my attention about section 85 was that it had not been included in any version of the scriptures until 1876, which is the same time D&C 129-132 were included. The Joseph Smith papers has an explanation which includes the following:
“The original letter JS sent to Missouri has not been located. JS and Williams copied it as the first letter in JS’s first letterbook, likely before sending it to Phelps. The letter appears in the letterbook immediately after JS’s 1832 history, which is the first item in the book. After Phelps received the letter, he published a portion of it in the January 1833 issue of The Evening and the Morning Star, prefacing it by saying, “In relation to consecrating, and continuing worthy, and faithful to the end, we make the following extract of a letter.” The extract commenced with the words, “It is the duty of the Lord’s clerk” and ended after quoting from Ezra 2:61–62.”
The footnote for verse 4 references Ezra 2:62-63, but I don’t notice a direct quote in the section. It is likely that anything after verse 4, or maybe 5 was not shared with the church at large at the time, and may have been embellishment. It reads like a warning, but if it was not shared with the general public, who was the intended audience for the warning? To me, even though the section was written during the “inspired” time, I think we need to use discernment about whether or not it is a revelation, considering the original author did not seem to consider it to be so. Otherwise it would have been included in scripture, or its time had already passed.
The impression I was left with while reading is that Brigham Young may have added this section because he was trying to implement something and liked the heavy threat of punishment for those who disagreed (similar to the chastisement of Emma in D&C 132). A little investigation led me to the 1870s as a time when Brigham was trying to implement the United Order. In some cases he used his own “revelation” as justification for the shift https://mi.byu.edu/blythe-by-revelation/ but when it came to canonizing scripture, I think he preferred to rely on Joseph Smith’s authority. Thus, the personal letter sent to Phelps became revelation to the saints living in the West.
An additional point of interest is the connection between part of the letter referring to genealogy and the names of the fathers and children written in the book of the law of God (v. 4-5). We read this and think about the connection between temple work for the dead, however, that was not on Joseph’s radar when writing the letter. Looking at the 1876 timeline of publication with current events, it was only one year later that Wilford Woodruff had his experience in the St. George temple with the founding fathers, signalling a shift in church practices. This section seems to add weight to the importance of a practice (temple work for ancestors) that we take for granted that had not even been introduced in 1832. Again, I think that this portion of Joseph’s previous writing was included, not because it came from God as a revelation to Joseph Smith and the church, but because it conveniently fit a narrative that suited the agenda of Brigham Young in the 1870s.
Chris and Taylor have been very consistent to remind their audience about the need to check the dates when quoting Joseph as a prophet or not. The reading this week reminded me not to assume that everything published as scripture during the “sweet spot” of revelation is necessarily a revelation either.
Section 87 is another one that makes me wonder why revelations are left out or added at certain times. If section 87 was a “thus saith the Lord” revelation that had not yet come to pass in 1835 or 1844, why was it not included as a prophecy to look forward to? Why was it included in 1876? Is it because people were doubting the sacrifices they had made or were being asked to make? By this point, Brigham could point to the Civil War and proclaim that Joseph was a true prophet because he had predicted that war 30 years ahead.
I guess my point this week is not so much to criticize editorial decisions, but to think how it wasn’t necessarily easier 200 years ago to determine truth and revelation than it is today. “Thus saith the Lord” doesn’t necessarily mean God has a message, if the person is just saying it to get attention and add weight to his own message. The absence of official revelation language doesn’t necessarily mean something is not God’s message. Being able to tune into the Spirit is crucial no matter when we live to discern true and false messages.