I don’t buy many reference books anymore. Even knowing it’s true, seeing the words before me, typed from my own fingers, is a little shocking. It’s almost like musing out loud that I don’t really want to hold your baby, something else I can’t quite imagine hearing myself say this side of a head injury. But I’m an advocate of the digital age, and I’m less inclined as I age to want more stuff to carry around, so say it I must. Most of the reference books I want to search are available online or in a reader, and copying quotes into my own writing is easier from digital sources.
When I first thumbed through Dennis Largey’s new reference companion for the Doctrine and Covenants, I was, therefore, hard to impress. Reference books on the scriptures abound, and I’ve read a lot of them. It’s sort of like wearing someone else’s shoes; they’re worn to fit their feet, not mine, and their observations don’t fit my thinking or my knowledge base … or my style. Even as a mere amateur historian, I’ve always preferred primary sources anyway.
Despite myself, I was immediately impressed. 127 authors. Articles were peer-reviewed. Every individual mentioned in the Doctrine and Covenants has a biographical entry, and every place discussed in the scripture also has its own entry. More than 850 topics are addressed (including principal doctrines of the Church), using primary research from the Joseph Smith Papers Project and other modern scholarly work. Each section of the Doctrine and Covenants is discussed with a historical context concisely given, many of which were provided by Robert J. Woodford, one of the scholars responsible for the Documents series of the JSPP.
Fascinating pieces not widely available to non-historians are printed in the appendices, including Joseph Smith’s poetic rendering of Doctrine and Covenants 76. A list of prophecies and promises recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants is compiled for a very interesting evening’s study and pondering. Definitions from Webster’s 1828 Dictionary shed further light on uncommon words used in the revelations. And liberally sprinkled throughout are Liz Lemon Swindle’s well-researched artistic representations of the early restoration period, as well as original photographs.
Still certain that a volume like this would either be hopelessly out of date or too careful to be useful, I looked up the historical context for Section 10. The date for this revelation is up for debate, as internal evidence suggests a much later date than the date currently printed in the section introduction of the scriptures. I was pleasantly surprised to find a frank but concise discussion of the three possible dates, of the individuals who assigned those dates, and the method of perpetuation of a likely inaccuracy. As a bonus, the historical context also discusses Moroni taking both the Urim and Thummim and the plates after the loss of the 116 pages.
Curious, I flipped back to the historical context for Section 3. Sure enough, the entry noted that Moroni retrieved the Urim and Thummim while Martin was gone with the 116 pages, and described the less-known experience of the giving of Section 3: that Moroni returned the interpreters just long enough for Joseph to receive the chastising revelation, then took them back again with the plates.
Pleased, and marveling at the brief but informative writing style, I turned to the historical introduction for Section 88. Like many revelations, it was received in parts over a period of days. The context delineates each revelation by verse numbers, with quotes from primary sources included. It does not mention the stimuli for the revelation directly (one stimulus being the accusatory letters written by William W. Phelps and Sidney Gilbert to the Prophet), which would make greater sense of the Prophet’s response to Phelps in his return letter, and the great peace that the early verses confirming his call and election must have given the young prophet. It seems likely those tidbits were sacrificed for space, as the volume would have been 2000 instead of 900 pages had the more we have available been included. To be fair, I checked sources online, and that’s not a common discussion there either.
I wanted to solicit other opinions, so I left the book on the coffee table. My son-in-law picked it up and said, “What’s THIS?” He spent the evening thumbing through pages, exclaiming, “Have you LOOKED through this yet?” and “Did you know THIS is in here?” He was very excited. He now has a copy of the book as well.
Because of the encyclopedic structure, with alphabetical entries in two columns throughout the main section and a concise opening definition of each topic followed by increasing detail, the book is quite accessible to both novice and experienced students of the scriptures. For the study of the Doctrine and Covenants, I do have to admit it is an ideal companion. And if you’re a digital bookster, there’s an ebook version as well. I look forward to using this reference widely in my family and calling-related teaching. Very nice.
Originally published at Real Intent.