Commentary on Doctrine & Covenants 3

/ Doctrine & Covenants 3 / Commentary

Find helpful commentary on the verses below to better understand the message of this revelation.

Verses 1-3

Casey Paul Griffiths (LDS Scholar)

The Lord begins the revelation recorded in section 3 by answering what must have been the most pressing question on Joseph’s mind: Have I seriously set back the work of the Restoration? The Lord gives an assurance that the progress of His plan is never deterred. In the Book of Mormon, Jacob teaches, “O how great the holiness of our God! For he knoweth all things, and there is not anything save he knows it” (2 Nephi 9:20). Mormon held this principle in his mind when he prepared the record used to replace the lost manuscript. He wrote that “the Lord knoweth all things which are to come; wherefore he worketh in me to do according to his will” (Words of Mormon 1:7). When we understand that the Lord was aware beforehand of the perils of giving the manuscript to Martin and of the manuscript’s eventual loss, the question then becomes, why did the Lord reject the first two requests and then grant the request for Martin to take the manuscript?


Accepting that the Lord knew the eventual outcome and prepared a backup plan, the answer must be that the Lord took the opportunity to teach Joseph a hard, but necessary, lesson. While Joseph and Martin must have felt immense pressure to produce proof of the validity of their work, the care of the plates and the interpreters required absolute obedience to the Lord’s instructions, no matter how great the pressure from others. Allowing the loss of the manuscript may have been a careful way of teaching this lesson without damaging the still fragile work of restoration. It was a lesson Joseph took to heart, later writing, “I made this my rule, when the Lord commands, do it” (History, 1838–1856, vol. B-1, 558). (Doctrine and Covenants Minute)

Verses 4-9

Casey Paul Griffiths (LDS Scholar)

It is remarkable that what is essentially the earliest revelation printed in the Doctrine and Covenants is a stern rebuke to the prophet who received it. Joseph is taken to task for fearing man more than God. Reminded that he was chosen of God to do the work, he is also told in a direct fashion that he will be subject to a number of different forms of temptation and that “if thou art not aware thou wilt fall” (D&C 3:9). This reproof of the Prophet is also a firm reminder that Latter-day Saints do not believe in prophetic infallibility. Prophets are flawed and mortal people who make mistakes, even when acting in the role of the prophet. Joseph is in good company here, joining such lofty figures as Moses (Exodus 4:24–26), Peter (Mark 8:33), and the brother of Jared (Ether 2:14), who received chastisement at the hand of the Lord for their mistakes.


The most well-known statement of prophetic fallibility comes from Wilford Woodruff when he taught, “The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God” (Official Declaration 1). President Woodruff’s words do leave room for the Lord’s chosen servants to make mistakes, sometimes very significant ones, as in the case of Joseph’s loss of the original manuscript produced during the first phase of translation.


At the same time the Lord prevents his servants from doing anything which would seriously impede the work. He also recognizes the difference between a deliberate act of rebellion against his will and an error in judgment. President Brigham Young taught, “Can a prophet or an apostle be mistaken? Do not ask me any such question for I will acknowledge that all the time. But I do not acknowledge that I designedly lead this people astray one hair’s breadth from the truth, and I do not knowingly do a wrong, though I may commit many wrongs” (A Series of Instructions and Remarks by President Brigham Young at a Special Council, Tabernacle, March 22, 1858). (Doctrine and Covenants Minute)

Verses 10-11

Casey Paul Griffiths (LDS Scholar)

In verses 10–11, the tone of the revelation shifts from condemnation to reconciliation. The Lord always extends forgiveness, even after the most egregious folly. In Joseph’s defense, the pressure to allow Martin to take the manuscript must have been immense. At the time, Joseph was only twenty-two years old, while Martin was forty-three. Martin was a successful farmer and was well respected in the community where Joseph grew up. Martin had also provided financial support when Joseph moved to Harmony and continued to generously support the work of translation. It is also likely that Joseph wanted the people of his hometown, Palmyra, to see proof of his prophetic calling, even if the manuscript was only supposed to be shown to a small number of people. (Doctrine and Covenants Minute)

Verses 12-15

Casey Paul Griffiths (LDS Scholar)

The Lord calls Martin a “wicked man” in these verses, and certainly it appears that Martin disobeyed the Lord’s words and violated the covenant he made to safeguard the manuscript and show it only to the designated people. According to Lucy Mack Smith, Martin initially abided the conditions of the covenant but cast it aside when an additional friend arrived and asked to see the manuscript. After showing it to one friend, Martin showed little regard for the covenant and began showing the manuscript to others. This caused contention between Martin and his wife, Lucy Harris, who was enraged when Martin broke the lock on the cabinet in which he had been storing the manuscript. Lucy Mack Smith wrote, “Her irascible temper knew no bounds and an intolerable storm ensued throughout the house when descended with greatest force upon the head of the devoted husband” (History, 1844–1845, bk 7, 8, JSP).


One of the most ardent defenders of Martin Harris has been Dallin Harris Oaks, a descendant of Harris’s brother, Emer. In a general conference address, President Oaks stated, “Having a special interest in Martin Harris, I have been saddened at how he is remembered by most Church members. He deserves better than to be remembered solely as the man who unrighteously obtained and then lost the initial manuscript pages of the Book of Mormon” (“The Witness: Martin Harris,” April 1999 General Conference). While Martin committed a serious transgression in his actions with the manuscript, we should note that the Lord continued to tenderly help Martin through the repentance process (see D&C 19). Though he was restricted from further service as a scribe, he continued to provide funding and support, even selling his farm to pay for the publication of the book. Martin was called to serve as one of three special witnesses of the Book of Mormon (see D&C 17). He also assisted in the call of the original Quorum of the Twelve in this dispensation. Most important, though Martin was still subject to many other shortcomings, he stood by his testimony of the Book of Mormon for the remainder of his life. (Doctrine and Covenants Minute)

Verses 16-20

Casey Paul Griffiths (LDS Scholar)

In the final part of this revelation, the Lord acknowledges the historicity of the Book of Mormon and hints at the greater ethnic complexity of the Israelite civilization than perhaps was possible in the abridged record prepared by Mormon. Mormon himself notes that the book in our possession is a summary, explaining that he could not “write the hundredth part of the things of my people” (Words of Mormon 1:5). While the narrative in our possession presents a streamlined story of the Nephites and Lamanites, the Lord speaks of Jacobites, Josephites, and Lemuelites as distinct people and hints at a more complex and rich tradition in the ancient American civilization. At the same time, Mormon was directed specifically to choose the parts of the records that would be most likely to assist the lost members of the House of Israel to “come to the knowledge of God, yea the redemption of Christ; that they may once again be a delightsome people” (Words of Mormon 1:8).


This revelation ends with the Lord’s statement of purpose for the preservation of the Nephite records. The purposes given here in verses 16 to 20 are remarkably similar to the purposes of the Book of Mormon given on its title page, which would not be translated for nearly a full year after this revelation was received. The revelation states that the purpose of the plates is to preserve the “promises of the Lord” in order “that the Lamanites might come to the knowledge of their fathers.” The title page proclaims that the purpose of the book is “to show unto the remnant of the house of Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers; and that they may know the covenants of the Lord.” The revelation states that the purpose of the record is “that they may believe the gospel and rely upon the merits of Jesus Christ, and be glorified through faith on his name, and that through their repentance might be saved.” The title page urges the remnant to know “that they are not cast off forever” and that the book is designed “to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations.” (Doctrine and Covenants Minute)