Could you identify the voice of Jesus Christ the way you can quickly identify the voice of one of his living apostles? What does the Savior sound like? Section 29 begins with a command to listen to Christ, followed by a reason why.
It was given to Joseph at a small gathering of Church members at the Whitmer home in Fayette, New York, where they gathered for their quarterly conference in September 1830. They all wanted to better understand the prophecy of Isaiah, emphasized in the Book of Mormon, about when the Lord would bring again Zion (Isaiah 52:8; 3 Nephi 16:18; 20:32; 21:22–24). They also had different views about the nature of Adam’s fall. Joseph had been reading the Bible closely on that point, and they all hoped the Lord would clarify some things about it.1
Section 29 is the first of Joseph’s revelations to use the word agency, the power with which God endows people to act of their own free will. The revelation shows that agency comes when a set of ingredients combine in a person—a mixture of power to act, commandments that determine good and evil, knowledge of the commandments to act upon, and Satan’s opposition to our acting in obedience.
Joseph’s Calvinist ancestors thought the elect were the relative few God arbitrarily chose to passively receive his grace. In section 29 the Lord defines the elect as those who actively choose to hear his voice (the commandments that comprise part of agency) and harden not their hearts. The chicks he promises to gather like a hen are those who decide to humble themselves. That language is theologically significant and frames the entire revelation. Agency: who has it, how did they get it, and what are the results of using it to obey or disobey?
Several of the revelations are eschatological, meaning they deal with the last days, the end of time as we know it at the Lord’s second coming. None is more vividly eschatological than Section 29. It paints a horrific picture of those who exercise their agency not to repent.
The Lord never specifies the timing of his second coming in the scriptures. He says only that it will be “soon,” but as Elder Neal A. Maxwell suggested, wristwatch-wearing mortals are not well positioned to determine what soon means to “Him who oversees cosmic clocks and calendars.”2 Even if the revelations are purposefully vague about precise dates, eschatological revelations like section 29 are chronological. They tell the order of events that will lead up to and comprise the Savior’s return and reign. They are characterized by words such as “before that great day shall come” (D&C 29:14), “when the thousand years are ended” (v. 22), and “before the earth shall pass away” (v. 26). Section 29 sets forth the logic of gathering the elect because the unrepentant will soon suffer the Lord’s just vengeance at his second coming. “The righteous shall be gathered on my right hand unto eternal life; and the wicked on my left hand will I be ashamed to own before the Father” (v. 27).
The Lord explains that the wicked will be powerless to come where he is and then transitions into a passage on the importance, therefore, of being endowed with power. Section 29 thus prefigures the endowment of power restored later. How does this endowment of power work? Using Adam and Eve as archetypes in section 29, the Lord talks us through the process of their creation, fall, and redemption. (Though, if I understand verses 30–31, this is all one process of creation in God’s image.)
As the earliest-known revelation to Joseph to describe premortal life, section 29 explains Satan’s lust for power and how he led away a third of heaven’s inhabitants “because of their agency” (D&C 29:36). We too easily assume that Satan conspired to undermine agency by coercing his followers. The scriptures don’t say that. They only say that he sought to destroy agency. Couldn’t he have done that by telling them their choices had no consequences, that anything they chose was as good as any other choice?
Section 29 emphasizes Heavenly Father’s more excellent way. When Adam and Eve chose of their own free will to become subject to Satan by obeying him, they were cast out of God’s presence because they transgressed the law. They thus died spiritually. In other words, they were first spiritual, then temporal. Their fall made them carnal, mortal, natural. But that was only “the beginning of my work,” the Lord said (D&C 29:32).
God began the “last” phase of creating Adam and Eve in his image by lengthening their mortal lives to enable them to exercise agency. He sent angels to teach them the law of the gospel, namely “repentance and redemption, through faith on the name of mine Only Begotten Son” (D&C 29:42). This plan safeguarded agency, justice, and mercy. It guaranteed redemption to all who chose to believe and “eternal damnation” to all who choose not to believe or repent (v. 44). Both get just what they want, what they choose.
Section 29 ends as it began, with emphasis on agency. Until His children are capable of acting for themselves, Heavenly Father restricts Satan’s power to tempt them. In other words, we grow into free agents gradually, and we “begin to become accountable” (D&C 29:47) in direct proportion to our ability to act on our knowledge of the Lord’s commands of our own free will.
1. “Revelation, July 1830–A [D&C 29],” p. 36, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed September 24, 2020.
2. Neal A. Maxwell, “Hope through the Atonement of Jesus Christ,” Ensign, Nov 1998, 61.
From Doctrine and Covenants Minute
Joseph Smith received Doctrine and Covenants 29 in September 1829. The only background provided directly for this revelation was given by Church historian John Whitmer, who recorded the revelation along with the introduction. Whitmer said that it was given “to six elders of the Church and three members” and further noted that this small group “understood from Holy Writ that the time had come that the People of God should see eye to eye.” Whitmer also mentions that the six elders were “seeing somewhat different upon the death of Adam (that is his transgression)” and “therefore they made it a subject of prayer and enquired of the Lord and thus came the word of the Lord through Joseph the seer” (Revelation, September 1830-A, JSP).
It is likely that the six elders were influenced by Joseph Smith’s work to translate the Bible, which commenced in June 1830 and continued over the remainder of the summer. Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery purchased a large Cooperstown Bible from E. B. Grandin for $3.75 the year before, on October 8, 1829, while the Book of Mormon was still in production. On the inside cover, they labeled the Bible “The Book of the Jews and the prophecy of” (Bible Used for Bible Revision, 0, JSP). In a July 1830 revelation given to Joseph hinted at a new work of translation when Joseph was exhorted to write “the things which shall be given thee by the Comforter, and expounding all scriptures unto the church” (D&C 24:5). In a revelation given the same month to Emma Smith, she was told to “be unto him for a scribe, while there is no one to be a scribe for him, that I may send my servant Oliver Cowdery, withersoever I will” (D&C 25:6), implying a new work similar to the translation of the Book of Mormon.
During the summer and fall of 1830, Joseph commenced this new translation project. Of the translation project, The Prophet saw his translation as an inspired revision that included restoration by revelation of missing texts. It also included grammatical and linguistic changes, and in other places elaborations or clarifications on doctrine. Joseph made the most extensive changes to the Book of Genesis, but the work was expansive. By the time the first cycle of translation was completed in 1833, he had revised more than three thousand verses, adding phrases, verses, and even new chapters to the Bible (See “Historical Introduction,” Visions of Moses, June 1830 [Moses 1], fn 5, JSP).
Nearly two-thirds of the Doctrine and Covenants was received between June 1831 and July 2, 1833, when Joseph and his scribes completed the first round of translation. Doctrine and Covenants 29 is the earliest section that appears to be directly linked to the biblical translation project. Other doctrinally rich revelations such as sections 37, 45, 73, 76, 77, 86, 91, and 132 are also linked directly to the project (Doctrine and Covenants, Introduction, 2013, vi).
Though we do not possess precise information, it is likely that Joseph Smith had finished Genesis 1–3 by September 1830, resulting in what is now Moses 1–4 in the scriptural canon. John Whitmer’s introduction to the section notes that the elders were “seeing somewhat different upon the death of Adam (that is his transgression) therefore they made it the subject of prayer and enquired of the Lord (Revelation Book 1, 36, JSP). Moses 1–4 and Doctrine and Covenants 29 both discuss the spiritual and temporal creation of the earth, Satan’s rebellion and the war in heaven, and the Fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. These two documents should be considered together for the greatest understanding. As Robert J. Matthews noted, “The Doctrine and Covenants and it its relationship with the Joseph Smith Translation . . . are not two entirely separate books. They are interwoven” (Ray L. Huntington and Brian M. Hauglid, “Robert J. Matthews and His Work with the Joseph Smith Translation,” Religious Educator, 2004, 42, 46).
See Historical Introduction, Revelation, September 1830-A, JSP.