Historical Context and Background of D&C 90

Video Overview

Brief Synopsis by Steven C. Harper

There is nothing in the historical records to tell us what problem(s) section 90 resolved—nothing but the revelation itself.1 In such cases it is extra important to read it carefully. It is full of financial instructions. It is safe to conclude that Joseph was concerned about the expensive commands the Lord had given to buy land in Missouri, establish a storehouse, print the revelations, and gather Israel to Zion.

The revelation was given, at least in part, to answer Joseph’s prayers for forgiveness, mentioned in verse 1, which also says that prayers of Joseph’s brethren that have reached the Lord’s ears. It seems that those brethren were Sidney Rigdon, who had been serving as Joseph’s counselor, and Frederick Williams, who just a few weeks earlier received a revelation through Joseph that he was “called to be a Councillor & scribe unto my Servent Joseph.”2 The Lord refers “again” to these “brethren” by name in verse 6.

Section 90 blesses those who bear the keys of the kingdom, the authority to exercise the priesthood to govern the church of Jesus Christ. It grants them the oracles—the revelations to govern the Church—and commands the Saints not to take them lightly.

The revelation takes the next step in forming what section 81 called the “Presidency of the High Priesthood,” or what became known by 1835 as the First Presidency.3 The Lord forgives Sidney Rigdon and Frederick Williams and makes them equal with Joseph in holding the keys of the kingdom. Verse 9 nevertheless clarifies that Joseph presides over his counselors, who preside over the earth and are commanded by the Lord to spread the gospel and gather Israel in anticipation of His coming.

Beginning in verse 13, the Lord gives the Presidency their day-to-day duties: to finish revising the Old Testament, to preside over the Church and the School of the Prophets (see section 88), to receive revelations as needed, to study and learn all they can, and to preside over and set the Church in order.

Verses 13 through the end include the kind of revelation needed to set the Church in order. Here the Lord micromanages his affairs with specific instructions about a variety of people, property, and finances. Joseph and his counselors are reproved for their pride and directed to be better. The Church is to provide a home for Frederick Williams, who had consecrated his farm to obey the same revelation that called him to be a counselor to Joseph. Joseph’s parents are to live on Frederick’s farm, Sidney to remain where he lives, and the bishop to find an agent both faithful and wealthy enough to help pay the Church’s debts.

The Lord refers to the United Firm’s covenant (section 82) in verse 24, which is itself a covenant. In verse 25 he counsels Joseph’s father to conserve his financial resources by not assuming responsibility for more people than he can afford in his advancing years. Vienna Jacques, a converted Bostonian who had gathered with the Saints and consecrated her considerable wealth, is promised an inheritance in Zion for her faithfulness.

Not so with William McLellin, whom the Lord rebukes after he forsook two mission calls and circumvented the law of consecration to purchase two lots on Main Street in Independence, Missouri (see sections 66, 75, and 85).4 The Lord also reproved Church leaders in Zion who were badgering Joseph to come to Missouri to live.

Ten days after the revelation, a council of high priests convened. Joseph ordained Sidney Rigdon and Frederick Williams “by the laying on of hands to be equal with him in holding the Keys of the Kingdom and also to the Presidency of the high Priesthood.”5

The pressures of building Zion weighed on Joseph. One can hear subtextually that Joseph did not know how to resolve some pressing problems, but the Lord did. He coached Joseph how to cope, strategize, delegate, prepare, and press forward. The revelation reassured Joseph that the keys were his forever and he would receive revelations as needed. Section 90 treated Joseph’s anxiety, uncertainty, and stress. Zion “shall not be removed out of her place. I, the Lord, have spoken it” (D&C 90:37). If the Lord was so cool and confident in Zion, Joseph could be too. He would need that reassurance. Things in Zion were about to get much worse.

1. “Revelation, 8 March 1833 [D&C 90],” p. [1], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed October 9, 2020.

2. Revelation 5 January 1834 [1833], Frederick G. Williams Papers, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.

3. “Revelation, 15 March 1832 [D&C 81],” p. 18, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed October 9, 2020.

4. William McLellin to relatives, August 4, 1832, typescript, Community of Christ Archives, Independence, Missouri.

5. “Minutes, 18 March 1833,” p. 16, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed October 9, 2020; “License for Frederick G. Williams, 20 March 1833,” p. [1], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed October 9, 2020.

Additional Context by Casey Paul Griffiths

From Doctrine and Covenants Minute

Doctrine and Covenants 90 represents another significant step toward organizing the presiding quorums of the Church, in this case the First Presidency. To understand this revelation, it is helpful to review the unfolding of leadership offices in the Church prior to this time. Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery received the authority necessary to lead the Church through the ministering of angelic beings. “Under the direction of the Father and the Son, heavenly messengers came to instruct Joseph and re-establish the Church of Jesus Christ. The resurrected John the Baptist restored the authority to baptize by immersion for the remission of sins. Three of the original twelve Apostles—Peter, James, and John—restored the apostleship and keys of priesthood authority.”1 From the time these heavenly messengers appeared to Joseph and Oliver, the necessary keys and powers to teach the gospel and perform the saving ordinances of the Church were in place, regardless of how the Church was organized administratively.

When the Church was organized on April 6, 1830, the revelation known as the “Articles and Covenants” affirmed that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were called of God and had been ordained Apostles. Joseph was designated as the first elder of the Church, and Oliver the second (D&C 20:2–3). These callings provided a temporary structure for them to minister through their authority and call additional leaders to assist in the work. On January 25, 1832, Joseph Smith was ordained as “President of the High Priesthood,” following instructions given in November 1831 that “one be appointed” to that office (D&C 107:65).2 Several weeks later, on March 8, 1832, Joseph Smith called and ordained Sidney Rigdon and Jesse Gause to assist him as “counselors of the ministry of the presidency of the high Priesthood.”3 A few days later, on March 15, 1832, Joseph received another revelation in which God gave greater authority to the counselors in the presidency. The revelation also declared that Joseph Smith was “given the keys of the kingdom, which belong always unto the Presidency of the High Priesthood” (D&C 81:2).

In the months that followed, Jesse Gause became estranged from the Church and was excommunicated on December 3, 1832. A month later, on January 5, 1833, Frederick G. Williams was called to replace Gause as a counselor and scribe. Doctrine and Covenants 90 elevated the role of the counselors, making them equal with Joseph Smith in “holding the keys of this last kingdom” (D&C 90:3). Shortly after this revelation was given, official Church correspondence began referring to Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, and Frederick G. Williams as the “Presidents of the High Priesthood.”4 By 1835, the three presidents were being referred to as the “first presidency” of the Church.5

In a later history Joseph Smith wrote:

Elder Rigdon expressed a desire that himself and Bro. F[rederick] G. Williams should be ordained to the office, to which they had been called, viz. that of Presidents of the high priesthood, and to be equal in holding the keys of the kingdom with Bro. Joseph Smith, Jun. according to the revelation given on the 8th of March. 1833. Accordingly I laid my hands on Brothers Sidney and Frederick, and ordained them to take part with me in holding the keys, of this last kingdom, and to assist in the presidency of the high priesthood, as my counselors; after which, I exhorted the brethren to faithfulness, and diligence in keeping the commandments of God, and gave much instruction for the benefit of the saints, with a promise, that the pure in heart should see a heavenly vision; and, after remaining a short time in secret prayer, the promise was verified; for many present had the eyes of their understanding opened by the Spirit of God so as to behold many things.6

See “Historical Introduction,” Revelation, 8 March 1833 [D&C 90]

1. “The Restoration of the Fulness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ: A Bicentennial Proclamation to the World,” ChurchofJesusChrist.org.

2. See “Historical Introduction,” Revelation, 25 January 1832-A [D&C 75:1–22]; Revelation 11 November 1831 B [D&C 107:65], JSP.

3. Note, 8 March 1832, pp. 10–11, JSP.

4. See Minutes, 2 May 1833; Letter to the Church in Thompson, OH, 6 Feb. 1833; and Letter to Church Leaders in Eugene, IN, 2 July 1833, JSP.

5. Revelation, 1 Nov. 1831–A, in “Revelations,” The Evening and the Morning Star, Oct. 1832 (June 1835), 73. See also D&C 68:15.

6. JS History, vol. A-1, p. 281, JSP.