Commentary on Doctrine & Covenants 50

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

Verses 1-5

Casey Paul Griffiths (LDS Scholar)


The events in Kirtland in the spring of 1831 show that during times of great spiritual progress, the adversary often takes advantage of the overzealous and leads them into wayward paths. While Satan uses different tactics during different times, his will to deceive remains constant.


More than a decade after Doctrine and Covenants 50 was received, an editorial entitled “Try the Spirits” was published in the Times and Seasons newspaper. The editorial was written under Joseph Smith’s direction and was later published in Joseph Smith’s official history. It reads in part, “Recent occurrences that have transpired amongst us render it an imperative duty devolving upon me to say something in relation to the spirits by which men are actuated. It is evident from the apostle’s writings that many false spirits existed in their day, and had ‘gone forth into the world,’ and that it needed intelligence which God alone could impart to detect false spirits, and to prove what spirits were of God.”


The editorial cites several scriptural examples in which evil spirits deceived men and women:


The Egyptians were not able to discover the difference between the miracles of Moses and those of the magicians until they came to be tested together; and if Moses had not appeared in their midst they would unquestionably have thought that the miracles of the magicians were performed through the mighty power of God; for they were great miracles that were performed by them: a supernatural agency was developed; and great power manifested.


“Try the spirits,” says John, but who is to do it? The learned, the eloquent, the philosopher, the sage, the divine, all are ignorant . . . but no one can try his own, and what is the reason? because they have not a key to unlock, no rule wherewith to measure, and no criterion whereby they can test it; could anyone tell the length, breadth, or height of a building without a rule? test the quality of metals without a criterion, or point out the movements of the planetary system without a knowledge of astronomy? certainly not: and if such ignorance as this is manifested about a spirit of this kind who can describe an angel of light, if Satan should appear as one in glory? . . . We answer that no man can do this without the Priesthood, and having a knowledge of the laws by which spirits are governed; for as, ‘no man knows the things of God but by the spirit of God,’ so no man knows the spirit of the devil and his power and influence but by possessing intelligence which is more than human, and having unfolded through the medium of the Priesthood the mysterious operations of his devices (Times and Seasons, 743–744).

Satan and his servants are well practiced in carrying out deception. However, the Prophet teaches that through the priesthood, the influence of the Holy Ghost, and a knowledge of the laws of God, we can identify and counter the deceptions of the adversary. The editorial adds, “It requires the spirit of God, to know the things of God, and the spirit of the devil can only be unmasked through that medium” (Times and Seasons, 744).


(Doctrine and Covenants Minute)

Verses 6-9

Casey Paul Griffiths (LDS Scholar)


During His ministry on earth, the Savior frequently condemned the sin of hypocrisy. He called out the scribes and Pharisees in His time for their hypocrisy (Matthew 23:23; Luke 11:44). On one occasion, the Savior said, “Now do ye Pharisees make clean the outside of the cup and the platter; but your inward part is full of ravening and wickedness” (Luke 11:39). Similarly, the Savior is quick to condemn hypocrisy in the latter days. When the Savior spoke to Joseph Smith during the First Vision, He remarked that the religious leaders of the time “draw near to me with their lips while their hearts are far from me” (History, circa Summer 1832, 3, JSP).


Undoubtedly, there are still hypocrites within the Church today, just as there were in Kirtland. Each of us should take a hard look at our own hypocrisies and shortcomings and see how to best overcome them. In an 1843 discourse, Joseph Smith taught, “I do not think there have been many good men on the Earth since the days of Adam, but there was one good man, and his name was Jesus. Many persons think a Prophet must be a great deal better than anybody else. suppose I would condescend, yes I will call it condescend, to be a great deal better than any of you. I would be raised up to the highest heaven, and who should I have to accompany me?” He added, “I love that man better who swears a stream as long as my arm, yet deals justice to his neighbors and mercifully deals his substance to the poor, than the long smooth faced hypocrite. I don’t want you to think I am very righteous, for I am not. God judges men according to the use they make of the light which he gives them” (Joseph Smith—History, vol. D-1, 1555, JSP).


(Doctrine and Covenants Minute)

Verses 10-14

Casey Paul Griffiths (LDS Scholar)


Though the Savior is an omniscient being and could simply offer corrections by decree, He often employs the technique of reasoning. Gently but firmly, He leads His disciples to correct conclusions by asking questions that allow them to use their own intellect and knowledge. There is wisdom in asking inspired questions to a seeker of truth rather than just providing the answer. As the most inspired of teachers, the Savior models good teaching by asking the disciples to consider what they were ordained to in the first place and what it means to preach the gospel by the power of the Holy Ghost.


While the manifestations among the Saints in Kirtland appear strange to us today, there is still a tendency among the members of the Church to look outward to less nourishing sources in our gospel learning. At times, we eschew the simple truths of the gospel in favor of flashier material that is less nourishing. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland warned, “When crises come in our lives—and they will—the philosophies of men interlaced with a few scriptures and poems just won’t do. Are we really nurturing our youth and our new members in a way that will sustain them when the stresses of life appear? Or are we giving them a kind of theological Twinkie—spiritually empty calories? President John Taylor once called such teaching ‘fried froth,’ the kind of thing you could eat all day and yet finish feeling totally unsatisfied” (“A Teacher Come From God,” April 1998 General Conference).


It is worthwhile for all of us to ask from time to time, unto what was I ordained? What is the Lord asking me to do, and am I doing it in the right way?


(Doctrine and Covenants Minute)

Verses 15-22

Casey Paul Griffiths (LDS Scholar)


The powers of persuasion, rhetoric, and learning can all play an important role in preaching the gospel. Any person asked to share the message of Jesus Christ should strive to be intellectually prepared and to use all of his or her gifts to be a persuasive teacher. As important as these tools are, the Savior gives a firm reminder that they pale in comparison to the importance of the Spirit in our teaching. The Spirit, brought into our teaching through righteous living and sincere testimony, is how people are converted to the gospel of Jesus Christ. In this way, the weak things of the world, assisted by a member of the Godhead, can open doors and soften hearts.


Around the time section 50 was received, Brigham Young began to have his first encounters with missionaries from the Church. In an 1852 discourse, he recounted how important the influence of the Spirit was in helping him gain his testimony:


If all the talent, tact, wisdom, and refinement of the world had been sent to me with the Book of Mormon, and had declared, in the most exalted of earthly eloquence, the truth of it, undertaking to prove it by learning and worldly wisdom, they would have been to me like the smoke which arises only to vanish away. But when I saw a man without eloquence, or talents for public speaking, who could only say, “I know, by the power of the Holy Ghost, that the Book of Mormon is true, that Joseph Smith is a Prophet of the Lord,” the Holy Ghost proceeding from that individual illuminated my understanding, and light, glory, and immortality were before me. I was encircled by them, filled with them, and I knew for myself that the testimony of the man was true.


Brigham paused in the middle of the discourse to recognize the missionary who taught him by the Spirit: “My own judgment, natural endowments, and education bowed to this simple, but mighty testimony. There sits the man who baptized me, (brother Eleazer Miller.) It filled my system with light, and my soul with joy. The world, with all its wisdom and power, and with all the glory and gilded show of its kings or potentates, sinks into perfect insignificance, compared with the simple, unadorned testimony of the servant of God.”


Brigham added, “Sermonizing, dividing, and subdividing subjects, building up a fine superstructure, a fanciful and aerial building, calculated to fascinate the mind, coupled with the choicest eloquence in the world, will do no good to them. The sentiments of my mind, and the manner of my life, are to obtain knowledge by the power of the Holy Ghost” (Complete Discourses of Brigham Young, 528).


(Doctrine and Covenants Minute)

Verses 23-25

Casey Paul Griffiths (LDS Scholar)


The Savior provides the simplest test to determine whether a communication came from God: Simply ask, was it edifying? The word edify is defined by an 1828 dictionary as “to build, in a literal sense,” or “to instruct and improve the mind in knowledge generally, and particularly in moral and religious knowledge, in faith and holiness” (American Dictionary of the English Language, 1828). Edify is also the root word in edifice, as in a sacred structure, such as a temple. True communications from God are edifying; they will communicate light and build a person up.


Joseph Smith commented on this aspect of true spiritual communication with God. Referring to the dramatic spiritual displays found in some Christian denominations of his time, Joseph said, “Others frequently possess a spirit that will cause them to lay down, and during its operation, animation is frequently entirely suspended; they consider it to be the power of God, and a glorious manifestation from God—a manifestation of what?—Is there any intelligence communicated? are the curtains of heaven withdrawn, or the purposes of God developed? have they seen and conversed with an angel; or have the glories of futurity burst upon their view?” (Joseph Smith—History, vol. C-1, 1304–5, JSP; emphasis added).


The dual tests of edification and intelligence do not mean that a spiritual communication must be entirely understood. Speaking in an unknown tongue, for instance, is still one of the gifts of the Spirit. In September 1832, Brigham Young traveled with his friend Heber C. Kimball to meet the Prophet. According to Brigham’s account, “We visited many friends on the way, and some branches of the Church. We exhorted them and prayed with them, and I spoke in tongues. Some pronounced it genuine and from the Lord, and others pronounced it of the devil.” When Brigham and Heber arrived in Kirtland, they found Joseph Smith chopping and hauling wood. Brigham later commented, “Here my joy was full at the privilege of shaking the hand of the Prophet of God, and received the sure testimony, by the spirit of prophecy, that he was all that any man could.”


That evening Brigham attended a meeting with several Church members from the area. He was asked to pray, and during the prayer, he spoke in tongues. As soon as the prayer ended, those present at the meeting looked to Joseph Smith to see his reaction. Brigham later recalled, “He told them it was the pure Adamic language. Some said to him they expected he would condemn the gift Brother Brigham had, but he said, ‘No, it is of God, and the time will come when Brother Brigham Young will preside over this Church.’ The latter part of this conversation was in my absence” (Millennial Star, vol. xxv, 439).


In this instance, Brigham spoke in an unknown tongue, but the experience was edifying and intelligence was communicated. Though Brigham did not understand the words he uttered, the meaning was given to the presiding officer at the meeting, Joseph Smith. Though it was years later when Brigham became aware of meaning of his utterance, the episode was a meaningful communication from God through the power of the Holy Ghost.


(Doctrine and Covenants Minute)

Verses 26-28

Casey Paul Griffiths (LDS Scholar)


Here the Savior accounts for another important factor in spiritual communication: personal purity. Of course, God can speak to all of His children regardless of their spiritual condition. Some of His children in the deepest throes of sin have received strong and compelling communications from God. Among these individuals are Laman and Lemuel, Alma the Younger, King Lamoni, and Saul (who became the apostle Paul). At the same time, these individuals received their messages through direct and forceful means, being rebuked by an angel or, in Paul’s case, by the Lord himself. This forceful communication was necessary because those deeply involved in sin have difficulty feeling the gentle promptings of the Holy Ghost. For instance, Nephi once chastised his brothers for not receiving the full power of the message an angel gave to them because they were “past feeling” (1 Nephi 17:45).


Communication through the Spirit of God is constant, but we need to be in tune to receive it. While serving as a mission president in Australia, Bruce R. McConkie illustrated this principle in an object lesson to two of his sons. The family toured a television broadcast facility on a mountain above a nearby city. That night when the family returned to the valley below, Elder McConkie and his sons tuned their television set to the frequency being broadcast from the mountain. He explained the following to his sons:


The same thing applies in radio. If we had a radio here today and tuned it to the proper wave band, we would hear the symphonies that are being broadcast into this building. Or if we looked on television we would see in effect the visions that are coming forth in a similar way. Now in the same sense, if at any time we manage to tune our souls to the eternal wave band upon which the Holy Ghost is broadcasting, since he is a Revelator, we could receive the revelations of the Spirit. If we could attune our souls to the band on which he is sending forth the visions of eternity, we could see what the Prophet saw in Section 76, or anything else that it was expedient for us to see (Joseph Fielding McConkie, Reflections of a Son, 2003, 225–226).


(Doctrine and Covenants Minute)

Verses 29-36

Casey Paul Griffiths (LDS Scholar)


The Lord warns his servants against resorting to the methods of the adversary in seeking to overcome evil influences. Specifically, he speaks against “railing accusation” and “boasting or rejoicing” in a way that impedes the influence of the Spirit. While these methods can be tempting to use in our teaching, the Savior counsels that “he that hath the spirit of contention is not of men, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another” (3 Nephi 11:29).


Apostle Parley P. Pratt wrote about those deceived by wicked spirits through unusual manifestations. He counseled, “We must, however, pity rather than ridicule or despise the subjects or advocates of these deceptions. Many of them are honest, but they have no Apostles nor other officers nor gifts to detect evil, or to keep them from being led to every delusive spirit” (Key to the Science of Theology, 1943, 117–118).


(Doctrine and Covenants Minute)

Verses 37-46

Casey Paul Griffiths (LDS Scholar)


At the end of the revelation, the Lord provides direction and counsel to several of the people who were present when the revelation was given. Rather than giving strict guidelines to determine the difference between authentic and counterfeit communications of the Spirit, the Lord provided his servants with general principles to assist them in carrying out their duties. When a spiritual experience comes, particularly a dramatic spiritual experience, we must ask, was it edifying? Was there intelligence communicated? Did it follow the patterns of operation set forth in the scriptures?


Parley P. Pratt took to the words he heard in the revelation. After the revelation was received, he followed the counsel given and traveled in the company of Joseph Wakefield, visiting several branches of the Church and “rebuking the wrong spirits which had crept in among them, setting in order things that were wanting; ordaining elders and officers; baptizing such as believed and repented of their sins; and administering the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands” (Autobiography, 2000, 79).


Unusual and dramatic spiritual experiences can come from God and are still experienced in the Church today. In section 50, the Lord does not discount supernatural events; He only asks that we look carefully and “test the spirits” to know which of them come from God. Only a few weeks after the revelation was given, Parley P. Pratt and Joseph Smith visited a young woman named Chloe Smith who “seemed at the point of death.” When Joseph and Parley arrived to visit her, she was “lying very low with a lingering fever.” According to Parley, “We kneeled down and prayed vocally all around, each in turn; after which President Smith went to the bedside, took her by the hand, and said unto her with a low voice, ‘in the name of Jesus Christ arise and walk!’ She immediately arose and was dressed by a woman in attendance, when she walked to a chair before the fire, and was seated and joined in singing a hymn. . . . From that minute she was perfectly restored to health” (Autobiography, 79–80).


(Doctrine and Covenants Minute)