Commentary on Doctrine & Covenants 20

/ Doctrine & Covenants 20 / Commentary

Find helpful commentary on the verses below to better understand the message of this revelation.

Verses 1-4

Casey Paul Griffiths (LDS Scholar)

The original leadership of the Church consisted simply of a first elder, Joseph Smith, and a second elder, Oliver Cowdery. Joseph and Oliver served as two unique witnesses of the Restoration, being present at the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood by John the Baptist (D&C 13); being ordained and confirmed as apostles by Peter, James, and John (D&C 27:12); and receiving priesthood keys in the Kirtland temple from Moses, Elijah, and Elias (D&C 110). On December 5, 1834 Oliver was ordained “an assistant President of the High and Holy Priesthood” by Joseph Smith (JS Journal, 1832-1834, 93, JSP). After Oliver’s excommunication in 1838, the Lord gave the role of second elder to Hyrum Smith. In a revelation given in 1841, the Lord directed that Hyrum “be crowned with the same blessing, and glory, and honor, and priesthood, and gifts of the priesthood, that once were put upon him that was my servant Oliver Cowdery” (D&C 124:95).


As directed by revelation, Joseph and Oliver formally organized the Church on April 6, 1830, with six original members. Though no list was produced the day the Church was organized, several later recollections help us know who was among the founding six members. Those who gave these later accounts were David Whitmer and Joseph Knight Sr. (both firsthand witnesses of the organization of the Church) and Brigham Young. All of their lists include Joseph Smith Jr., Oliver Cowdery, and Hyrum Smith. Brigham Young’s list, given around 1843, also includes Samuel H. Smith, Joseph Smith Sr., and Orrin Porter Rockwell as founding members. Joseph Knight Sr. included Samuel H. Smith, Peter Whitmer Jr., and David Whitmer. David Whitmer gave several lists, some including his brothers John Whitmer and Christian Whitmer. After analyzing all of the evidence, historian Richard Lloyd Anderson concluded that the most likely list of the six founders includes Joseph Smith Jr., Oliver Cowdery, Hyrum Smith, David Whitmer, Peter Whitmer Jr., and Samuel H. Smith (“Who Were the Six Who Organized the Church on 6 April 1830?” Ensign, June 1980). (Doctrine and Covenants Minute)

Verses 5-16

Casey Paul Griffiths (LDS Scholar)

Doctrine and Covenants 20:5–15 constitute the earliest official written history of the Church, giving a brief history of the beginning of the Restoration, including the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. The statement that the first elder (Joseph Smith) had a manifestation that he had received a remission of his sins alludes to the First Vision, and it may be the earliest written acknowledgement of the visitation of the Father and the Son (verse 5). In addition, the text acknowledges the faults and foibles of the Prophet, avoiding a claim of infallibility, instead claiming that the Restoration is a work carried out by flawed men and women but overseen by divine power and direction.


The short history also reiterates the purposes of the Book of Mormon. First, the Book of Mormon proves to the world that the holy scriptures are true. It is common in our day to dismiss the Old and New Testaments as the writings of a tribal God to an Iron Age people. However, the Book of Mormon globalizes the saga of the house of Israel and shows that the Lord manifests himself to all nations and carries out His miracles and works among different people.


Second, the Book of Mormon is intended to show that “God does inspire men and call them to his holy work in this age and generation, as well as in generations of old” (D&C 20:11). Moroni prophesied that the record of the Nephites would come forward “in a day when the power of God shall be denied, and churches become defiled and be lifted up in the pride of their hearts; yea, even in a day when leaders of churches and teachers shall rise in the pride of their hearts, even to the envying of them who belong to their churches” (Mormon 8:28). In contrast to this, the Book of Mormon and its charge for men to seek revelation from God with “sincere heart and with real intent” (Moroni 10:5) represent a way for all sincere seekers to find their own inspired call to the work.


Finally, the Book of Mormon is designed to show that God is the same “yesterday, today, and forever” (verse 12). The Book of Mormon demonstrates not only the works and miracles of God in the in the time of the Nephites and Lamanites, but also in the circumstances we live in today. If God spoke to prophets anciently, He can speak to them today. If God performed wonders and miracles in biblical times, He can do so in our time. The world changes at a rapid pace, but the Lord is consistent in His love, His compassion, and His desire to see us gain happiness in this life and eternal life in the next. Moroni directly states that one of the purposes of the Book of Mormon is to “show unto you a God of miracles, even the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob; and it is that same God who created the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them are” (Mormon 9:11). (Doctrine and Covenants Minute)

Verses 17-28

Casey Paul Griffiths (LDS Scholar)

This section of the Articles and Covenants speaks of the basic beliefs of the Church, paralleling the later Articles of Faith as a brief explanation of the core doctrines of the Church. It emphasizes the fundamental doctrines of the creation of the earth by Jesus Christ under the direction of the Father, the Fall of Adam and Eve, and the redeeming work of Jesus Christ. It is one of the most effective descriptions of the importance of Jesus Christ in our religion.


Throughout his ministry, Joseph Smith often pointed toward the centrality of the Savior and His work in our doctrines and practices. In 1838, when Joseph Smith was asked, “What are the fundamental principles of your religion?” he replied by writing, “The fundamental principles of our religion is the testimony of the apostles and prophets concerning Jesus Christ, ‘that he died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended up into heaven;’ and all other things are only appendages to these, which pertain to our religion” (Elders’ Journal, July 1838, 44, JSP). While the Church is a living organization, constantly receiving new direction to accommodate the needs and circumstances of its members, the fundamental core of our faith is always our testimony of Jesus Christ and His atoning sacrifice. (Doctrine and Covenants Minute)

Verses 29-36

Casey Paul Griffiths (LDS Scholar)

Latter-day Saints are sometimes criticized for their emphasis on good works, but this passage highlights both the role of the Savior’s grace in our salvation and the purpose of doing good works. The Book of Mormon is clear on the role of grace. King Benjamin taught that the best of us are unprofitable servants (Mosiah 2:21) and Nephi teaches that “it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23). Latter-day Saints unequivocally believe in salvation by the “merits, mercy, and grace of the Messiah” (2 Nephi 2:8).


To understand how the Saints perceived the relationship between grace and works, we must understand the terms here in the Articles and Covenants. One of the terms we need to understand is the word justified, which is defined as the following in Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary (a close approximation of how Joseph and Oliver would have used these words): “In theology, remission of sin and absolution from guilt and punishment; or an act of free grace by which God pardons the sinner and accepts him as righteous, on account of the atonement of Christ.” Justification comes through the grace of the Savior, which overcomes our personal sins and allows us to be pardoned. But pardoning a person, or making a sinner righteous, simply removes the punishment. Through the grace of Christ, the demands of justice are satisfied, and we become justified.


The word sanctification teaches something higher and holier than simple justification under the law. Sanctification is defined in Webster’s 1828 dictionary as “the act of making holy. In an evangelical sense, the act of God’s grace by which the affections of men are purified or alienated from sin and the world, and exalted to a supreme love to God.” Both justification and sanctification come through the grace of Jesus Christ, but where justification means the removal of punishment for sin, sanctification means the overcoming of sin. As Elder D. Todd Christofferson explained, “To be sanctified through the blood of Christ is to become clean, pure, and holy. If justification removes the punishment for past sin, then sanctification removes the stain or effects of sin” (“Justification and Sanctification,” Ensign, June 2001).


Latter-day Saints do not believe we earn our salvation through good works because salvation in its many forms is a gift given to us through the grace of Jesus Christ. But we do believe that righteous behavior helps to sanctify us and remove the effects of sin. The Savior taught, “Now this is the commandment: Repent, all ye ends of the earth, and come unto me and be baptized in my name, that ye may be sanctified by the reception of the Holy Ghost, that ye may stand spotless before me at the last day” (3 Nephi 27:19–20; emphasis added). Sanctification through Jesus Christ makes us into the kind of people who can arrive in the Celestial Kingdom and live there for eternity. (Doctrine and Covenants Minute)

Verse 37

Casey Paul Griffiths (LDS Scholar)

The final section, verses 37–84, outlines the basic practices and offices of the Church. The instruction begins with the first essential ordinance—baptism by immersion for the remission of sins. The Book of Mormon is emphatic in teaching the essential nature of baptism. Jacob teaches, And he commandeth all men that they must repent, and be baptized in his name, having perfect faith in the Holy One of Israel, or they cannot be saved in the kingdom of God. And if they will not repent and believe in his name, and be baptized in his name, and endure to the end, they must be damned; for the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, has spoken it” (2 Nephi 9:23–24). Further instructions, including the words of the baptismal ordinances, are found in Doctrine and Covenants 20:68–74. (Doctrine and Covenants Minute)

Verses 38-60

Casey Paul Griffiths (LDS Scholar)

The operations of the basic offices listed here have undergone significant changes during the history of the Church. In Joseph Smith’s time, nearly everyone who occupied the offices of elder, priest, teacher, and deacon were adult men. During the period when Brigham Young served as president of the Church, men holding the Melchizedek Priesthood served as “acting” deacons, teachers, and priests. Beginning in 1877, every young man between the ages of twelve and twenty was expected to hold at least one office in the Aaronic Priesthood, usually that of a deacon, while Melchizedek Priesthood holders continued to act as home teachers and administer the sacrament. Beginning in 1908, the work of the Aaronic Priesthood was realigned with offices linked to age along with new duties and expectations for youth, including handling the sacrament and participating in ward teaching. Throughout the remainder of the twentieth century and into our own time, the ages associated with the offices of the Aaronic Priesthood have continued to change, with more and more emphasis placed on personal growth and preparation (William G. Hartley, My Fellow Servants, 2010, 39–40).


Though Aaronic Priesthood roles were filled by adult men in Joseph Smith’s time, young men still participated in Aaronic Priesthood responsibilities. For example, in Kirtland, Ohio, William F. Cahoon was assigned to be a ward (home) teacher to visit the Smiths when he was just seventeen years old. When Cahoon knocked, the Prophet came to the door, inviting Cahoon in. Cahoon relates the following about his experience:


They soon came in and took their seats. He [Joseph Smith] then said, “Brother William, I submit myself and family into your hands,” and took his seat. “Now, Brother William,” said he, “ask all the questions you feel like.” By this time all my fears and trembling had ceased, and I said, “Brother Joseph, are you trying to live your religion?” He answered, “Yes.” I then said, “Do you pray in your family?” He said, “Yes.” “Do you teach your family the principles of the gospel?” He replied, “Yes, I am trying to do it.” “Do you ask a blessing on your food?” He answered, “Yes.” “Are you trying to live in peace and harmony with all your family?” He said that he was . . . I then turned to Joseph and said, “I am through with my questions as a teacher; and now if you have any instructions to give, I shall be happy to receive them.” (“William Cahoon Autobiography,” in Stella Shurtleff and Brent Farrington Cahoon, eds., Reynolds Cahoon and His Stalwart Sons [Salt Lake City: Paragon Press, 1960], 80) (Doctrine and Covenants Minute)

Verses 61-67

Casey Paul Griffiths (LDS Scholar)

The law of common consent referenced here is further explained in Doctrine and Covenants 26. The vote mentioned here is a sustaining vote which we see regularly conducted in ward, stake, and general conferences. The “president of the high priesthood” (verse 67) spoken of here can refer to any Melchizedek Priesthood holder who serves in a presiding capacity, but in its fullest sense, it refers to the President of the Church. This title is used for the President of the Church in Doctrine and Covenants 107, which says, “The duty of the President of the office of the High Priesthood is to preside over the whole church, and to be like unto Moses—Behold, here is wisdom; yea, to be a seer, a revelator, a translator, and a prophet, having all the gifts of God which he bestows upon the head of the church” (D&C 107:91–92). (Doctrine and Covenants Minute)

Verses 68-70

Casey Paul Griffiths (LDS Scholar)

Though the ordinance of naming and blessing children is not considered essential for salvation, it is listed here alongside the essential ordinances of baptism and the sacrament. Ideally this ordinance is performed by the child’s father and before the body of the Church. Unlike most priesthood blessings, the blessing begins by addressing Heavenly Father (because the child has no name with which to invoke the blessing), and then the priesthood holder uses his authority to bless the child.


President Russell M. Nelson expressed concern over fathers not understanding the power of the priesthood to bless their loved ones. He remarked, “Not long ago, I attended a sacrament meeting in which a new baby was to be given a name and a father’s blessing. The young father held his precious infant in his arms, gave her a name, and then offered a beautiful prayer. But he did not give that child a blessing. That sweet baby girl got a name but no blessing! That dear elder did not know the difference between a prayer and a priesthood blessing. With his priesthood authority and power, he could have blessed his infant, but he did not. I thought, ‘What a missed opportunity!’“ President Nelson added, “Brethren, we hold the holy priesthood of God! We have His authority to bless His people. Just think of the remarkable assurance the Lord gave us when He said, ‘Whomsoever you bless I will bless.’ It is our privilege to act in the name of Jesus Christ to bless God’s children according to His will for them” (“Ministering with the Power and Authority of God,” April 2018 General Conference). (Doctrine and Covenants Minute)

Verses 71-74

Casey Paul Griffiths (LDS Scholar)

Undoubtedly influenced by teachings found in the eighth chapter of the book of Moroni, the Articles and Covenants establish that no one should be allowed to make covenants and join the Church until they have reached the age of accountability. The Lord later revealed the age of accountability in Doctrine and Covenants 68, which reads, “And their children shall be baptized for the remission of their sins when eight years old, and receive the laying on of the hands” (D&C 68:27).


These scriptural instructions were utilized on the day the Church was organized. Several baptisms were performed, most likely in the nearby Seneca Lake. Among those baptized on the first day of the organization of the Church was the Prophet’s own father, Joseph Smith Sr. In one of the most touching scenes of the early Restoration, Lucy Mack Smith recalled Joseph exclaiming, “Oh, praise to my God! That I have lived to see my own father baptized into the true church of Jesus Christ!” The father of the Prophet had been a religious seeker his entire life, and he had finally entered into a covenant relationship with Jesus Christ through those with the proper authority (Lucy Mack Smith, History, 1845, 169). (Doctrine and Covenants Minute)

Verses 75-79

Casey Paul Griffiths (LDS Scholar)

Though Doctrine and Covenants 20 speaks of using wine as an emblem in the sacrament, a later revelation clarified, “For, behold, I say unto you, that it mattereth not what ye shall eat or what ye shall drink when ye partake of the sacrament, if it so be that ye do it with an eye single to my glory—remembering unto the Father my body which was laid down for you, and my eblood which was shed for the remission of your sins” (D&C 27:2). The presiding officers of the Church, holding priesthood keys, have the right to change the wording of essential ordinances as directed by the Lord, and in Sunday services the word “water” has been substituted for “wine” since the early twentieth century, when President Joseph F. Smith began institutional reforms to bring the Saints into greater alignment with the principles in the Word of Wisdom (D&C 89). The change was first implemented on July 5, 1906, when the First Presidency and the Twelve began using water instead of wine in their meetings in the temple, and local congregations soon began the same practice (Thomas G. Alexander, “The Word of Wisdom: From Principle to Requirement,” Dialogue, 14, no. 3, 79).


The administration of the sacrament holds a unique and central place in worship for Latter-day Saints. President Dallin H. Oaks pointed out the importance of sacrament meeting when he taught, “The ordinance of the sacrament makes the sacrament meeting the most sacred and important meeting in the Church. It is the only Sabbath meeting the entire family can attend together. Its content in addition to the sacrament should always be planned and presented to focus our attention on the Atonement and teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ” (“Sacrament Meeting and the Sacrament,” October 2008 General Conference). (Doctrine and Covenants Minute)

Verses 80-82

Casey Paul Griffiths (LDS Scholar)

These verses show the first step toward Church membership councils, which were formerly known as Church disciplinary councils or Church courts. More information on this practice can be found in Doctrine and Covenants 42:74–93 and 102:13–23. In all its iterations, the driving force behind these meetings is the consideration of how to best assist an individual involved in a serious transgression.


Those involved in transgression, if they are willing, are ministered to by Church members in hopes of helping them through the repentance process. This ministering is done even if the individual’s name has been removed from the records of the Church. President M. Russell Ballard taught,


“Church disciplinary action is not intended to be the end of the process—rather, it is designed to be the beginning of an opportunity to return to full fellowship and to the full blessings of the Church. Priesthood leaders try hard to be sensitive to the disciplined person’s needs for understanding, encouragement, counsel, and assistance. They work to see that he or she has regular visits with his or her bishop; that the person has mature, caring home teachers or other specially assigned individuals; and that his or her family receive the attention, counsel, and fellowship they need during this difficult time” (“A Chance to Start Over: Church Disciplinary Councils and Restoration of Blessings, Ensign, Sept. 1990). (Doctrine and Covenants Minute)