The Lord revealed section 18 because Joseph, Oliver Cowdery, and David Whitmer desired to know how to build the Church of Jesus Christ, something they knew was coming but had never done before. The Lord tells Oliver specifically to rely on what he has learned from the Book of Mormon manuscript he has penned as Joseph translated. Since he knows by the Spirit that it’s true, he can use it to compose a foundational document for the church that is soon to be restored. If they build the church on this foundation, hell cannot stop them.
This revelation is the first in the Doctrine and Covenants to refer to apostles, saying that Oliver and David “are called” to that calling (D&C 18:9). What should apostles do? “Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God” (v. 10). Based on that premise—the value to God of each individual soul—the revelation gives a rationale for repentance that is centered in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. This part of the revelation sounds like a sacred equation: the value of each soul is directly proportionate to the infinite atonement of Jesus Christ. He conquered death to bring the repentant to him. He feels great joy in repentant souls. Truman Madsen had this revelation in mind when he taught, “If souls are of value in direct proportion to the concern and sacrifice of our Redeemer, then we know that in the eyes of the Father and the Son, your soul—even yours—and mine—even mine—is of infinite worth.”
That is the revealed reason for Oliver and David to cry repentance. If they spend their whole lives at it and only a single soul repents, the effort will be worthwhile. Their joy with that soul will be great in God’s kingdom. How much greater joy, then, to help many repent? So they are to follow the Book of Mormon in preaching the law of the gospel with faith, hope, and charity by inviting all mankind to come to Christ and assume his name, becoming his.
After nearly two millennia, section 18 commissions new apostles. The Lord prophesies their calling. Then, beginning at verse 31, he speaks directly to them, promising grace sufficient to save them if they choose to meet his covenant conditions. Oliver and David are charged to “search out the Twelve” by discerning their godly desires, manifest in their behavior (D&C 18:37–38). The Twelve, in turn, are to act on their revealed instructions. A quorum of twelve would not be called for nearly six more years, but this revelation sets apostles Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer to the task of selecting the members of that quorum and then speaks to them directly.
What does the Lord emphasize when he commissions apostles, when he gives them their job description, their marching orders? He teaches them that Christ’s Atonement, the price paid, makes each soul of infinite worth in God’s sight. Based on that truth, he commissions the apostles to tell every soul to repent, to obey the law of the gospel, to become one with Christ by assuming his name.
Based on their commission in Section 18, modern apostles emphasize how the Savior’s Atonement gives infinite value to each soul. “If we could truly understand the Atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ,” said Elder M. Russell Ballard, “we would realize how precious is one son or daughter of God. . . . . We would strive to emulate the Savior and would never be unkind, indifferent, disrespectful, or insensitive to others.” Elder Ballard concluded, “It was Jesus who said, ‘If . . . you should labor all your days in crying repentance unto this people, and bring, save it be one soul unto me, how great shall be your joy with him in the kingdom of my Father!’ (D&C 18:15). Not only that, but great shall be the Lord’s joy in the soul that repenteth! For precious unto Him is the one.”
From Doctrine and Covenants Minute
Joseph Smith received section 18 in early June 1829 while living at the Whitmer farm in Fayette, New York. We know the revelation came in early June because Oliver Cowdery wrote a letter dated June 14, 1829, to Hyrum Smith that contained a number of quotations from this revelation, indicating that it was received before that date (Cook, Revelations of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 29). In his 1838 history, Joseph Smith ties this revelation closely to hearing “the voice of God in the chamber of Father Whitmer” (D&C 128:21). In the history, Joseph records that he and Oliver “had not long been engaged in solemn and fervent prayer, when the word of the Lord, came unto us in the Chamber, commanding us; that I should ordain Oliver Cowdery to be an Elder in the Church of Jesus Christ, and that he also should ordain me to the same office, and then to ordain others as it should be made known unto us, from time to time” (Joseph Smith—History, 1838–1856, vol. A-1, 27).
At the same time, Joseph and Oliver were “commanded to defer this our ordination until, such times, as it should be practicable to have our brethren, who had been and who should be baptized, assembled together, when we must have their sanction to our thus proceeding to ordain each other, and have them decide by vote whether they were willing to accept us as spiritual teachers, or not” (Joseph Smith—History, 1838–1856, vol. A-1, 27). This instruction set the pattern in the Church of seeking a sustaining vote before ordaining or setting apart an individual as an officer of the Church.
Joseph Smith’s introduction to his history declares that this revelation made known “the calling of twelve apostles in these last days, and also instructions relative to building up the Church of Christ, according to the fulness of the gospel” (Joseph Smith—History, 1838–1856, vol. A-1, 27). It is likely that Joseph and Oliver became curious about this subject because of the numerous mentions of the importance of the twelve apostles in the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 1:10–11; 11:29, 34–36; 12:9; 13:24, 26; 19–41). The Book of Mormon also mentions the calling of twelve disciples among the Nephites (3 Nephi 12:1; 19:4; 28:1). The Book of Mormon carefully distinguishes between calling the twelve in America “disciples” and the twelve in Jerusalem “apostles,” but it appears that the groups served a similar function. At the same time, the record presents the Nephite twelve as serving under the direction of the Jerusalem twelve, noting that the Jerusalem twelve will judge the twelve tribes of Israel, including the Nephite twelve. The twelve disciples among the Nephites will in turn judge their own people (1 Nephi 12:9; Mormon 3:18–19).
Around this time, in anticipation of the formal establishment of the Lord’s Church again upon the earth, the Prophet directed Oliver Cowdery to prepare a of founding document for the Church which would outline the basic beliefs and practices of the Church, similar to formal documents of other religious institutions of that time period. Finding this to be a very difficult and even discouraging task, Oliver asked Joseph to inquire of the Lord on the matter. Sometime before June 14, Joseph, in the presence of Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer, approached the Lord about this matter specifically and also sought further “instructions relative to building up the Church of Christ” generally (JS History, 1838, vol. A-1, 27, JSP). Doctrine and Covenants 18 was the result of this inquiry.
Doctrine and Covenants 18 is an important part of establishing the Church in the latter days, as this section is deeply tied to the role of Apostles called by revelation, and their calling to recognize the worth of souls and to desire to save them as fundamental to the Restoration.