Historical Context and Background of D&C 85

Video Overview

Brief Synopsis by Steven C. Harper

The leaders of the Church in Missouri grew troubled. Saints were gathering there by the hundreds. Relatively few of them were obeying the law of consecration when they arrived. “Have you all fulfilled the law of the church,” William Phelps wrote to them in the Church’s newspaper, “which saith: Behold thou shalt consecrate all thy properties, that which thou hast, unto me, with a covenant and a deed which cannot be broken?”1 (See section 42.)

In Ohio, Joseph learned by “the still small voice” that leaders in Missouri were wondering what to do. He sought and received a revealed answer, section 85, which he sent to them.2 It clarifies the duty of the Lord’s clerk to keep a history of righteousness and unrighteousness in Zion, including accurate records “of all those who consecrate properties, and receive inheritances legally from the bishop.” Those that do not receive their inheritance by living the law of consecration are to be excluded from the Church record referred to as the “book of the law of God.”

Verse 7 prophesies that the Lord will send someone to arrange inheritances for those whose names are recorded in the book, but those who are not in the book will receive no inheritance in Zion. Verse 8 prophesies that those who steady the ark (go beyond their assigned role in building Zion) will be smitten.

Joseph purchased his first journal on the very day this revelation was given “for the purpose,” he wrote, “to keep a minute account of all things that come under my observation.”3 At about this same time, Joseph began writing his history, recording his letters, and minutes of Church council meetings. He knew, as John the Revelator had prophesied, that mankind would be judged by records of their works kept on earth (Revelation 20:12; D&C 128:6–8), and Joseph tried to document his own “manner of life” (D&C 85:2).

Later, in 1841, Joseph began another journal, the “Book of the Law of the Lord,” a title he derived from D&C 85. Joseph appointed Willard Richards as “Recorder for the Temple, and the Scribe for the private office of the President.” Willard became what section 82 calls the “Lord’s clerk,” filling the duties described in the revelation. He recorded historical entries and donations in the Book of the Law of the Lord.4 In 1842, while preparing to leave for the East, Richards gave the book to William Clayton, whom Joseph appointed as Temple Recorder, with a commission to fulfill the duties named in section 82.5

These recorders carefully kept track of consecration. They recorded the deeds and donations of those who freely offered their whole souls to the Lord’s work. Joseph recorded a tribute to his wife Emma, to Bishop Newel Whitney, to his brother Hyrum and many others. “The names of the faithful are what I wish to record in this place.” He recorded “the virtues and the good qualifications and characteristics of the faithful few,” as he called them, but also noted that “there are a numerous host of faithful souls, whose names I could wish to record in the Book of the Law of the Lord.”6

I’m sometimes asked when the Lord will require us to live the law of consecration. The answer is never. It never has been coercive and never will be. Section 85 clarifies that Church leaders should simply keep track of who consecrates but not encroach on individual agency to obey or disobey. The Lord will judge as he deems best. The law is quietly kept by many people, and their names are recorded in appropriate places. The faithful whose names and deeds are documented will receive inheritances in Zion. Those “whose names are not found written in the book of the law . . . shall not find an inheritance among the saints of the Most High” (D&C 82:7, 11).

1. “To the Saints,” The Evening and the Morning Star, Nov. 1832, [6].

2. “Letter to William W. Phelps, 27 November 1832,” p. 1, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed July 7, 2020.

3. Joseph Smith, Book for Record, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, published in Dean C. Jessee, editor, The Papers of Joseph Smith: Journal, 1832–1842 (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1992), 2.

4. Book of the Law of the Lord, 26, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.

5. William Clayton, “History of the Nauvoo Temple,” manuscript, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.

6. Book of the Law of the Lord, 164, 179.

Additional Context by Casey Paul Griffiths

From Doctrine and Covenants Minute

Doctrine and Covenants 85 is an excerpt from a letter Joseph Smith wrote to William W. Phelps on November 27, 1832. The letter highlights the continuing difficulty between Church leaders in Kirtland, Ohio, and the Church leadership in Independence, Missouri. At the time it was a requirement for all Church members who wished to emigrate to Missouri to commit to live the law of consecration (see D&C 72:15, 24–26). However, during this time some members of the Church were relocating to Missouri without entering into the law of consecration. William McLellin, for example, did not meet with Edward Partridge, the bishop in Zion, to consecrate his property to the Church. Instead, McLellin purchased two lots on Main Street in his own name.1 Incidents such as this caused distress to the leaders of the Church in Missouri, who were earnestly striving to live the law of consecration.

Joseph anticipated these concerns over how the law would be administered among the Saints in Missouri. He wrote, “I fancy to myself that you are saying or thinking something similar to these words: My God, great and mighty art thou, therefore shew unto thy servant what shall become of all these who are assaying to come up unto Zion in order to keep the commandments of God, and yet receive not their inheritance by consecration, by order or deed from the bishop, the man that God has appointed in a legal way agreeable to the law given to organize and regulate the church and all the affairs of the same.”2

Despite some trouble the previous summer during which Joseph had reprimanded Phelps for his “cold and indifferent manner,”3 the Prophet offered warm words of encouragement and support in the following letter: “Brother William, in the love of God[,] having the most implicit confidence in you as a man of God[,] having obtained this confidence by a vision of heaven.

Therefore I will proceed to unfold to you some of the feelings of my heart and proceed to answer the question.” The letter contains instructions from Joseph and a revelation given by inspiration providing instruction to the Saints in Zion. After receiving this letter, Phelps promptly published portions of it in the January 1833 issue of The Evening and Morning Star. The full letter, except a brief postscript, was published in Nauvoo in Times and Seasons on October 15, 1844. In 1876, Elder Orson Pratt, acting under the direction of President Brigham Young, placed the portions of the 1833 letter into the Doctrine and Covenants as section 85.

See “Historical Introduction,” Letter to William W. Phelps, 27 November 1832

1. Steven C. Harper, Making Sense of the Doctrine and Covenants, 2008, 304.

2. Letter to William W. Phelps, 27 November 1832, p. 1, JSP, spelling and punctuation modernized.

3. Letter to William W. Phelps, 31 July 1832, p. 1, JSP, punctuation modernized.