Historical Context and Background of D&C 39-40

Early D&C 39 Copy
Early Copy of D&C 39
Source: JosephSmithPapers.org

Video Overview

Brief Synopsis by Steven C. Harper

James Covel was a Methodist minister and president, in fact, of a Methodist conference in western New York. Early in 1831 James came to Joseph and said he had covenanted with the Lord to obey any command the Lord gave him through Joseph. The Lord gave Joseph section 39 for James.[1]

The Lord reveals how well he knows James and that his heart is now right. The great sorrow of James’s past stems from his pride and worldly cares, which have led him to reject Christ many times, but the day of his deliverance has come. The Lord commanded James to “arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins” and receive the Holy Spirit.

If James will obey the law of the gospel, the Lord has greater work for him to do: preaching the fulness of the gospel, which Christ has sent forth as a covenant to recover the house of Israel. James will have power, great faith, and the Lord to go before him. The Lord has called him to build the Church so that Zion may rejoice and flourish. James is called to go to west to Ohio.

James Covel broke his covenant. Almost immediately he “rejected the word of the Lord” in Section 39 “and returned to his former principles and people.” Joseph and Sidney wondered why, and the Lord explained in section 40.[2]

The order of events in section 40 is important. First, James Covel made a covenant with an honest heart. He sincerely received the gospel. Then Satan tempted him to fear the persecution that would result, to worry about giving up his paid ministry for a lay one. James chose to follow those fears and cares, resulting in a broken covenant.

This sequence highlights how revelation facilitates agency. A person has agency, or power to act independently, only when they know what God wants, Satan poses an alternative, and they are free to choose between the two (see section 29). Given section 39, James knew just what the Lord wanted him to do. Then Satan countered the commandments. James was free to choose between the two. He chose to break his covenant, making it null and void.

Some have cited sections 39 and 40 as evidence that Joseph Smith was a fraud. They contend that these sections prove that Joseph’s God did not even know that James Covel would not obey. That conclusion depends on a particular conception of God that is not evident in Joseph’s revelations. The Lord who spoke through Joseph Smith does not function in that agency-robbing way. Joseph’s revelations distinguished between the sovereignty of God and the agency of individuals (see section 93). Joseph truly taught that “God sees the secret springs of human action, and knows the hearts of all living,” but it did not follow for Joseph that God caused bad behavior.[3] “I believe that God foreknew everything, but did not foreordain everything,” Joseph taught profoundly. “I deny that foreordain and foreknow is the same thing.”[4]

In other words, God did not make James Covel break his covenant. Rather, the Lord gave James power to make and keep his covenant and the agency to decide whether to make and keep it for himself. Revelation gives us knowledge of God’s will. It makes us free to choose. Section 40 explains that James Covel made and broke his covenant of his own free will. It is a more significant revelation than one might assume based on its brevity.

[1]History, 1838–1856, volume A-1 [23 December 1805–30 August 1834],” p. 91, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed July 25, 2020.

[2]History, 1838–1856, volume A-1 [23 December 1805–30 August 1834],” p. 92, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed September 25, 2020.

[3]Letter to William W. Phelps, 11 January 1833,” p. 19, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed July 25, 2020.

[4]History, 1838–1856, volume C-1 [2 November 1838–31 July 1842],” p. 1014, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed September 25, 2020.

Additional Context, by Casey Paul Griffiths

From Doctrine and Covenants Minute

Three days after the third conference of the Church, Joseph Smith dictated the revelation in section 39 on behalf of James Covel, a Protestant minister. We do not know for certain the identity of the person for whom this revelation was received. In the earliest version of the revelation, the recipient is identified only as “James,” and in the Book of Commandments he is listed as “James (C.)” (Book of Commandments, 1833, 85, JSP). In the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants he is named as “James Covill” (Doctrine and Covenants, 1835, 187). He was identified by this name in every version of the Doctrine and Covenants until the 2013 edition, in which the name was changed to “James Covel.”

James Covill was a Baptist minister who lived in Ellery, New York, a town on the far western edge of the state, more than one hundred fifty miles away from Fayette where Church headquarters were at the time. Joseph Smith’s later history describes the recipient of the revelation as someone who “had been a Baptist minister for forty years” (JS History, vol. A-1, p. 91, JSP). Covill was in his seventies when the revelation was given and might be the right age to fit Joseph’s description. It is also possible that Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon met James Covill on their way to the Ohio, though Church Historian John Whitmer wrote that the revelation was “given at Fayette,” which makes it unlikely that James Covill was the recipient of the revelation (Revelation, 5 January 1831, JSP).

The most likely recipient of the revelation is James Covel, an elder in the Methodist Church from Canadice, New York. Covel lived about twenty miles away from Canandaigua, New York, where Joseph Smith and several other Church leaders preached at a meeting in Ezra Thayer’s barn in October 1830 (see commentary for D&C 33). Shortly after this meeting, Church leaders were invited to preach in Canandaigua. Ezra Thayer remembered that “they had promised that we should meet in the Methodist meetinghouse, but the trustees could not agree” (“Testimony of Brother E. Thayre,” True Latter Day Saints’ Herald, Oct. 1862, 83). Covel was president of the regional Methodist conference and would likely have been notified of the request. In December 1830 another missionary from the Church, possibly Joseph Smith or Sidney Rigdon, preached a discourse in Canandaigua to “an assembly of three hundred people,” and it is possible that Covel attended during that time. It is possible that Covel attended that meeting and then traveled to Fayette, where this revelation was received on his behalf. In the index to Revelation Book 1, the recipient of this revelation is described as a “Methodist priest,” so it is possible that Joseph Smith’s 1838 history was mistaken about Covel’s denomination (Revelation Book 1, 208, JSP).

What is known about the recipient of this revelation is that he began the process of conversion and demonstrated faith in the calling of the Prophet Joseph Smith. In Revelation Book 1, John Whitmer recorded that James “covenanted with the Lord that he would obey any commandment that the Lord would give through his servant Joseph, and ​accordingly​ he enquired of the Lord, and he received these words as follows” (Revelation, 5 January 1831, JSP).

“Historical Introduction,” Revelation, 5 January 1831 [D&C 39]

Less than a day after James Covel was given the revelation found in Doctrine and Covenants 39, he departed from Fayette, New York, and never returned. Joseph Smith later wrote, “As James [Covel] rejected the word of the Lord, and returned to his former principles and people, the Lord gave me and Sidney Rigdon the following revelation, explaining why he obeyed not the word” (JS History, 1838, p. 92, JSP). It appears that James Covel was never baptized into the Church. Disobeying the Lord’s commandment to gather with the Saints to the Ohio, he remained behind and died in February 1850 in New York City (“James Covel,” JSP).

“Historical Introduction,” Revelation, 6 January 1831 [D&C 40]