Section 20 is the founding document of the restored Church of Jesus Christ.
It is a constitution of sorts and quite unique. It is not in the voice of the Lord or an angel, as most of the sections are. Rather, it is in the voice of the Latter-day Saints, a sort of “we the people” or, at least, “we the elders of the church” (D&C 20:16).
Section 20 does three things. Its first 16 verses justify the Church’s existence by highlighting the backstory of how it came to be established on April 6, 1830: the calling and commissioning of apostles to lead it, the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, and the collective witness of the elders.
The passage in verses 17–36 declares what we know. These are articles of faith: “There is a God in heaven,” this part begins, and then summarizes the plan of redemption. God created. Mankind fell. “The Almighty God gave his Only Begotten Son…He was crucified, died, and rose again” so that everyone who ever lived or lives can have eternal life on conditions of enduring in faith and repentance. This section briefly situates the restored gospel relative to other theologies. Saints share with many Christians, for example, the truth that sanctification comes through the grace of Jesus Christ, but not the agency-compromising idea that a sanctified person can never fall from grace. Anyone can opt out of God’s grace, and the revelation warns the Church about that.
The third and longest passage begins in verse 37. It sets the qualifications for baptism, instructs how to administer the sacrament, relates the duties of priesthood holders and other members, and tells of the need for membership records.
Oliver Cowdery did not initially like verse 37’s detailed qualifications for baptism. He had prepared an earlier draft that specified only “whosoever repenteth & humbleth himself before me & desireth to be baptized in my name shall ye baptize them.”3 By comparison, verse 37 adds the requirements of a broken heart and contrite spirit, evidence of true repentance and willingness to assume the name of Jesus Christ with determination to serve him to the end, and a godly life (compare Moroni 6:1–4).
Oliver demanded “in the name of God” that Joseph delete the requirement that baptismal candidates should “manifest by their works that they have received the Spirit of Christ unto the remission of their sins.” Joseph asked Oliver “by what authority he took upon him to command me to add or diminish to or from a revelation or commandment from the Almighty God.”4 Joseph finally convinced Oliver, who read section 20 to the Church’s second conference in September 1830.5
There are two things section 20 does not do. Verse 1 does not establish once and for all the date of the Savior’s birth. Verse 1 is best understood as a headnote saying that the Church was organized on April 6 in 1830. It should not be understood to establish that date as precisely 1,830 years since Jesus was born. Joseph’s history says that the Lord “pointed out to us the precise day” to organize his Church.6 It does not specify that it was Jesus’s birthday, nor does verse 1 say it was. Rather, it has been interpreted to mean that it was.
Section 20 does not do all the work of establishing the Church’s authority, core doctrines, and practical organization and procedures. This revelation was amended frequently, as more became known. It is a beginning, not the sum total, of the restored Church of Jesus Christ.
1. “History, 1838–1856, volume A-1 [23 December 1805–30 August 1834],” p. 29, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed July 23, 2020.
3. Oliver Cowdery, “Articles of the Church of Christ,” Church History Library, Salt Lake City.
6. “History, 1838–1856, volume A-1 [23 December 1805–30 August 1834],” p. 29, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed July 23, 2020.
From Doctrine and Covenants Minute
Known as the Articles and Covenants of the Church of Christ, Doctrine and Covenants 20 contains the foundational history, beliefs, and ordinances of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Articles and Covenants were presented and accepted on June 9, 1830, at the first conference of the Church following its organization on April 6, 1830. The minutes of the conference note, “Articles and Covenants read by Joseph Smith Jr. and received by unanimous voice of the whole congregation” (Minutes, 9 June 1830, 1, JSP). The Articles and Covenants contain the basic instructions necessary to operate a branch of the Church, including basic history, beliefs, and essential ordinances, all of which still apply today.
Parts of Doctrine and Covenants 20 were given by revelation, and other parts came from close study of the scriptures, particularly the Book of Mormon. In his history, Joseph Smith explained how the revelation was composed: “In this manner did the Lord continue to give us instructions from time to time, concerning the duties which now devolved upon us, and among many other things of the kind, we obtained of him the following [that is, the Articles and Covenants], by the Spirit of Prophecy and revelation; which not only gave us much information, but also pointed out to us the precise day upon which, according to his will and commandment, we should proceed to organize his Church once again, here upon the earth” (JS History, vol. A-1, p. 29, JSP). Here, the Prophet indicates that parts of the Articles and Covenants, including the day the Church should be organized, were given by revelation. Several parts of the revelation begin with the statement “we know,” indicating a declaration of belief on the part of Church members. Other parts of the revelation, including the sacrament prayers, were taken from the text of the Book of Mormon. In his history, Joseph Smith places the revelations providing these instructions in the summer of 1829, and in the months following, the final version of the revelation was completed in collaboration with Oliver Cowdery.
Despite the unusual composition of the Articles and Covenants, early Church members clearly viewed it as a revelation from God, similar to previous revelations. When Church historian John Whitmer copied the revelation into Revelation Book 1, he prefaced it by writing, “Given to Joseph the seer by the gift and power of God” (Revelation Book 1, 52, JSP). Joseph Smith also wrote about the Articles and Covenants as a revelation from God in the summer of 1830. At that time, a dispute had arisen between Joseph and Oliver over some of the revelation’s wording concerning baptism. Joseph wrote to Oliver, asking “by what authority he [Oliver] took upon him to command me to alter, or erase, to add or diminish to or from a revelation or commandment from Almighty God” (JS History, vol. A-1, 51, JSP). At the same time, the Articles and Covenants was considered a living revelation and amended from time to time, with some revisions appearing when it was published in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants (D&C, 1835, 77, JSP).
The Articles and Covenants was selected as the first revelation to be printed in an official Church periodical, The Evening and Morning Star, and was published there twice, further indicating its importance. The Church published it in the 1833 Book of Commandments as chapter 24 (Book of Commandments, 1833, 47, JSP). When the revelation appeared in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants, it was preceded only by the revelation preface given by the Lord. Because of its teachings and its importance, Doctrine and Covenants 20 can rightly be referred to as the constitution of the Church and as the foundational document of Church government that subsequent revelations built upon (D&C 84, 107, 121).
See Historical Introduction, “Articles and Covenants, circa April 1830 [D&C 20],” p. , The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed October 27, 2020, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/articles-and-covenants-circa-april-1830-dc-20/1