Historical Context and Background of D&C 52

Early Copy of D&C 52
Early Copy of D&C 52
Source: JosephSmithPapers.org

Video Overview

Brief Synopsis by Steven C. Harper

Acting on section 44’s commandment to convene a conference, Joseph promised the priesthood leaders a blessing if they would come humbly and faithfully. “Therefore,” John Whitmer wrote, “the elders assembled from the East, and the West, from the North and the South.”1 Joseph presided over the series of priesthood meetings from June 3–5, 1831. He and others prophesied at the conference, rebuked the devil, and ordained the first high priests in the Church. The next day he received section 52, which he described as “Directions to the Elders of the Church of Christ.”2

Section 52 gives the Saints knowledge—and therefore power—to discern devilish counterfeits from the Lord’s power. Satan tried mightily to deceive the Saints from the time missionaries first arrived in Ohio through the priesthood meetings just prior to section 52. He mimicked spiritual gifts and convinced many people they were under the influence of the Holy Ghost. Joseph taught that “some, by a long face and sanctimonious prayers, and very pious sermons, had power to lead the minds of the ignorant and unwary.”3

The fact that someone speaks well or is overwhelmed with emotion is not evidence that their actions are acceptable to God. Section 52 adds important criteria for discerning: Do those overcome with emotion regain their composure and teach wise, restored truth? Do those who pray, whose attitude seems Christian, obey the ordinances Jesus has established in his Church and kingdom? Do they follow the revealed order of the Savior’s Church? Do excellent speakers obey Christ’s ordinances? Christ does not accept the sanctimonious prayers or pious sermons of those who are unwilling to obey his ordinances and neither should the Saints. The knowledge in section 52 empowers the Saints to separate satanic imitations from the Lord’s power.

Section 52 is exciting. This is the first revelation to identify Missouri as the location of Zion, the Saints’ inheritance. It calls twenty-eight men to travel to Missouri for a conference at which the Lord will reveal more specifically the location for New Jerusalem. The Saints received section 52 with great anticipation, and many went to great lengths to obey its commands.

Joseph and others the Lord called to travel with him left Kirtland, Ohio, in mid-June and arrived in Independence, Missouri, about a month later. Most of the others who were called followed, taking different routes and making converts along the way, as section 52 commanded. The Lord fulfilled his section 52 promise to reveal more about Zion (see section 57).

Section 52 draws the battle lines for a culture war. Missouri, it says, is the place the Lord chose for the Saints’ inheritance. In 1831, however, Missouri was inhabited by people the Lord called “enemies” (verse 42). The Lord’s straightforwardness makes some readers squeamish. It doesn’t sound to them like their idea of Jesus Christ. If so, just keep reading the scriptures until the sentimental image of Jesus is replaced by the actual Christ whose voice dominates the Doctrine and Covenants. He sees things as they are and will be and speaks the truth. He knows who are his friends and who are his enemies. He demonstrates this knowledge in section 52 and elsewhere in the Doctrine and Covenants. We come to know him by hearing his voice.

1. “John Whitmer, History, 1831–circa 1847,” p. 27, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed September 30, 2020.

2. “Revelation, 6 June 1831 [D&C 52],” p. 87, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed July 30, 2020.

3. “History, 1838–1856, volume C-1 [2 November 1838–31 July 1842],” p. 872, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed September 30, 2020.

Additional Context by Casey Paul Griffiths

From Doctrine and Covenants Minute

In a revelation given in February 1831, Joseph Smith was commanded “that the elders of my church should be called together, from the east and from the west, and from the north and from the south” (D&C 44:1–2). In obedience to this commandment, a conference was held in early June 1831 in Kirtland, Ohio, with all the elders of the Church who could attend. The conference lasted several days, from around June 3–6 (sources are unclear on the precise dates). The conference minutes identify sixty-two participants, including forty-three elders, nine priests, and ten teachers. They assembled in a schoolhouse near the home of Isaac Morley (Minutes, circa 3–4 June 1831, 3–4, JSP).

The Lord promised to “pour out my Spirit upon them in the day that they assemble themselves together” (D&C 44:2). In fulfillment of this promise, several unusual spiritual experiences took place at the conference. John Whitmer recorded, “The Spirit of the Lord fell upon Joseph in an unusual manner. And prophesied that John the Revelator was then among the ten tribes of Israel who had been led away . . . to prepare them for their return, from their long dispersion, to again possess the land of their fathers. He prophesied many more things.” The Spirit fell upon Lyman Wight, and he prophesied “concerning the coming of Christ. . . . He will appear in his brightness, and consume all before him.” He also foretold that “some of my brethren shall suffer martyrdom, for the sake of the religion of Jesus Christ, and seal the testimony of Jesus with their blood. . . . He said that God would work a work in these Last days that tongue cannot express, and the mind is not capable to conceive” (John Whitmer, History, 28–29, JSP). John Whitmer also wrote that Joseph prophesied “that the man of sin should be revealed” (2 Thessalonians 2:3).

The outpouring of the Spirit was also accompanied by opposition from the adversary. Whitmer’s history recorded, “While the Lord poured out his spirit, upon his servants, the Devil took occasion, to make known his power, he bound Harvey Whitlock and John Murdock so that he could not speak, and others were affected, but the Lord showed to Joseph the Seer, the design of this thing, he commanded the devil in the name of Christ and he departed to our Joy and comfort” (Whitmer, History, 29, JSP). In an 1839 history, John Corrill remembered, “Some curious things took place. The same visionary and marvelous spirits, spoken of before, got hold of some of the elders; it threw one from his seat to the floor; it bound another, so that for some time he could not use his limbs nor speak; and some other curious effects were experienced, but, by a mighty exertion, in the name of the Lord, it was exposed and shown to be from an evil source” (A Brief History of the Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints, 18, JSP).

In his own history, Joseph Smith wrote about the conference, “I conferred, the high priesthood for the first time, upon several of the elders. It was clearly evident that the Lord gave us power in proportion to the work to be done and strength according to the race set before us; and grace and help as our needs required” (Joseph Smith—History, vol. A-1, 118, JSP). What this ordination refers to is not exactly clear. Later in the Church the term high priesthood became synonymous with Melchizedek priesthood, but it seems unlikely that the June 1831 conference was the first time the Melchizedek priesthood was given to officers of the Church. The Book of Mormon uses the phrase high priesthood in several places and ties it to Melchizedek but does not connect the two names directly (See Alma 13:1–19).

The ordinations at the conference appear to have bestowed a higher authority on those already ordained to the office of elder; these were the first distinctive ordinations to the office of high priest. This may have been a partial fulfillment of the Lord’s promise that Church members would be “endowed with power from on high” after they gathered to Ohio (D&C 37:32). Parley P. Pratt, who was present at the meeting, explained, “Several were then selected by revelation, through President Smith, and ordained to the High Priesthood after the order of the Son of God; which is after the order of Melchizedek. This was the first occasion in which this priesthood had been revealed and conferred upon the Elders in this dispensation, although the office of an Elder is the same in a certain degree, but not in the fulness. On this occasion I was ordained to this holy ordinance and calling by President Smith” (Autobiography, 2000, 82). John Corrill likewise recorded, “The Melchizedek priesthood was then for the first time introduced and conferred on several of the elders. In this chiefly consisted the endowment—it being a new order—and bestowed authority” (A Brief History, 18, JSP).

At a conference held a few months later in October 1831, the minutes recorded the “names of those ordained to the High priesthood” separately from the elders, teachers, and deacons, implying that the high priesthood was recognized as a distinct office in the Church. Other sources seem to indicate this as well. Jared Carter, for instance, believed that those ordained to the high priesthood gained the ability to perform miraculous healings (Journal, 1831–33). Joseph Smith taught in October 1831 that “the order of the High priesthood is that they have power given to them to seal up the Saints unto eternal life” (Minute Book 2, pp. 25–26, Oct. 1831).

Doctrine and Covenants 52 was received on the last day of the conference. Joseph Smith said that the revelation was given “by an heavenly vision” (Letter to the Elders of the Church, 2 October 1835, 179, JSP). The revelation commanded fourteen pairs of elders, including Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon, to travel to Independence, Missouri. The elders were commanded to preach the gospel along their journey and to hold a conference upon their arrival in Missouri. The Lord promised that, upon their arrival, “it shall also, inasmuch as they are faithful, be made known unto them the land of your inheritance” (D&C 52:5).

See “Historical Introduction,” Revelation, 6 June 1831 [D&C 52].

See also, “Historical Introduction” Minutes, circa 3–4 June 1831.