Historical Context and Background of D&C 97

Video Overview

Brief Synopsis by Steven C. Harper

Parley Pratt described Zion during the summer of 1833 as the opposition escalated: “Immigration had poured into the County of Jackson in great numbers; and the Church in that county now numbered upwards of one thousand souls.” He described how they industriously improved their situations by building homes and cultivating farms. He said that they observed the Sabbath according to section 59 but made no mention of building the temple described in section 84. “I devoted almost my entire time in ministering among the churches,” Parley wrote,

holding meetings; visiting the sick; comforting the afflicted, and giving counsel. A school of Elders was also organized, over which I was called to preside. This class, to the number of about sixty, met for instruction once a week. The place of meeting was in the open air, under some tall trees, in a retired place in the wilderness, where we prayed, preached and prophesied, and exercised ourselves in the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Here great blessings were poured out and many great and marvelous things were manifested and taught. . . . To attend this school I had to travel on foot, and sometimes with bare feet at that, about six miles. This I did once a week, besides visiting and preaching in five or six branches a week.

Parley and his brethren wrote to Joseph, seeking the Lord’s will concerning their school. While “thus engaged,” Parley wrote, “and in answer to our correspondence with the Prophet, Joseph Smith, at Kirtland, Ohio, the following revelation was sent to us by him, dated August, 1833.”1

Joseph Smith did not know when he received section 97 that the Saints in Zion had received an ultimatum from their antagonistic neighbors—stop obeying the revelations or we will force you to. In section 97, the Lord issues a counter ultimatum. “The ax is laid at the root of the tree,” he says, “and every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit shall be hewn down and cast into the fire. I, the Lord, have spoken it” (v. 8).2

Section 97 highlights the Lord’s priorities for Zion. “I, the Lord, am well pleased that there should be a school in Zion, and also with my servant Parley P. Pratt, for he abideth in me” (v. 3). Right away, however, the Lord notices that there is no temple in Zion yet. He requires one to “be built speedily, by the tithing of my people,” by obedience to the law of sacrifice set forth in section 97 (vv. 8–12). The temple—or, rather, the keeping of covenants required to build and worship in the temple—will be the salvation of Zion.

Section 97 is conspicuously full of if/then statements. It prophesies conditionally that if the saints obey the commandment to sacrifice to build a temple in Independence, then Zion will prosper and become great and immovable. She will escape her enemies “if she observe to do all things whatsoever I have commanded her” (v. 25). If not, Zion will be visited with sore afflictions. The future of Zion is in the hands of the Latter-day Saints. If the Saints want Zion as their first priority, they will sacrifice to build it and keep it holy. In verse 27, the Lord gives Zion a second chance. If Zion has since been, at least temporarily, “moved out of her place,” it is because too few Latter-day Saints share the Lord’s priorities set forth in section 97 (v. 19).

Parley Pratt testified that the Lord poured forth the promised blessings of section 97 when he did as the revelation commanded regarding the school for the elders. “The Lord gave me great wisdom,” Parley wrote, “and enabled me to teach and edify the Elders, and comfort and encourage them in their preparations for the great work which lay before us. I was also much edified and strengthened.”

Parley also noted that “this revelation was not complied with by the leaders and Church in Missouri, as a whole.” As section 97 shows, the Saints in Zion were not unified, not all committed to keeping their covenants. Thus, “notwithstanding many were humble and faithful,” Parley noted, “the threatened judgment was poured out to the uttermost.”3

1. Scot Facer Proctor and Maurine Jensen Proctor, Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt: Revised and Enhanced Edition (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 2000), 113–14. For the First Presidency’s response, see “Letter to Church Leaders in Jackson County, Missouri, 6 August 1833,” p. [1], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed July 9, 2020.

2. “Revelation, 2 August 1833–A [D&C 97],” p. 61, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed July 9, 2020.

3. Proctor and Proctor, Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, 115–16.

Additional Context by Casey Paul Griffiths

From Doctrine and Covenants Minute

Parley P. Pratt reported that by the summer of 1833, “immigration had poured into [Jackson County, Missouri] in great numbers; and the Church in that county now numbered upwards of one thousand souls.”1 In July 1833 two letters, one from Oliver Cowdery and one from the “brethren composing the school,” arrived in Kirtland. Neither of these letters remains today. From the context of the letters, it appears that the Saints in Missouri desired Joseph Smith to ask the Lord for revelation concerning the school in Zion. In response, Joseph and other Church leaders inquired and received this revelation, which was sent to the members of the Church in Missouri as part of a larger letter that also contained two more revelations, now Doctrine and Covenants 94 and 98.

The revelation in section 97 follows up on earlier plans sent to the members of the Church in Zion instructing them to build a temple and begin laying plans for the city of Zion.2 This revelation contains strong warnings that if the Saints did not heed these commandments and begin work on the temple, they might face severe trials. The Lord warns, “the ax is laid at the root of the trees; and every tree that bringeth forth not good fruit shall be hewn down and cast into the fire” (D&C 97:7).

At the time this revelation was given, the leaders of the Church in Kirtland did not know that violence against the Saints had already broken out in Missouri. On July 20, 1833, an armed mob sanctioned by state Lieutenant Governor Lilburn W. Boggs sent a demand to Church members to leave Jackson County. The mob ransacked the home of William W. Phelps and destroyed the unbound copies of the Book of Commandments, an early version of the Doctrine and Covenants, that were in the Church’s printing office inside the Phelps’s home. The mob also threw the printing press from the upper window of the home. John Whitmer or some other Church employee managed to save the manuscript revelation books, and Phelps, along with a handful of Church members, saved some of the printed copies of the revelations.3 During the confusion, Mary Elizabeth Rollins and her sister Caroline also ran in, snatched a few unbound copies of the revelations, and hid in a nearby cornfield to escape the mob.4

The mob also plundered the store owned by Sidney Gilbert, and then tarred and feathered Bishop Edward Partridge and Charles Allen. The damage only ceased when Church leaders, under threat of more violence from the mob, signed an agreement for all Saints to leave Jackson County by January 1, 1834. Seeking help, the Saints in Missouri dispatched Oliver Cowdery to travel to Ohio to seek assistance.5 It is possible that Joseph Smith may have known of the trouble brewing in Jackson County from a letter, now lost, that Oliver Cowdery wrote to him on July 9. However, given the communications of the time, it is impossible that Joseph could have known that the storm had broken in its full fury upon the Saints in Missouri by August 6, when Joseph sent the letter containing Doctrine and Covenants 94, 97, and 98 to the Saints in Zion. The warnings in this revelation take on a more poignant tone, knowing that the Lord was aware of the danger facing the Saints in Missouri.6

See “Historical Introduction,” Revelation, 2 August 1833–A [D&C 97]

1. The Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt: Revised and Enhanced, 2000, 112–13.

2. See Plan of the House of the Lord, between 1 and 25 June 1833, JSP; and Plat of the City of Zion, circa Early June–25 June 1833, JSP.

3. Bruce Van Orden, We’ll Sing and Shout: The Life and Times of W. W. Phelps, 2018, 100–102.

4. “Autobiography of Mary E. Lightner,” The Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine 17 (July 1926): 193–205.

5. B. H. Roberts, The Missouri Persecutions, 1965, 90.

6. Stephen E. Robinson and H. Dean Garrett, A Commentary on the Doctrine and Covenants, 2005, 3:217–18.