Hearken, O ye people of my church, saith the voice of him who dwells on high, and whose eyes are upon all men; yea, verily I say: Hearken ye people from afar; and ye that are upon the islands of the sea, listen together. For verily the voice of the Lord is unto all men, and there is none to escape; and there is no eye that shall not see, neither ear that shall not hear, neither heart that shall not be penetrated.Doctrine and Covenants 1:1-2
As a missionary in Australia, I was very hesitant to share the Doctrine and Covenants with people. My preference was to start with the Book of Mormon. I mean, why would I share with them a book full of divine revelations for today when I could share the translation of an ancient record written on golden plates Joseph Smith found buried in the woods? Sometimes I want to slap my 20 year-old-self on the head.
Setting aside origins, there is at least one good reason the Book of Mormon is easier to latch onto than the Doctrine and Covenants – narrative. The Book of Mormon has it. It can be fun to read about Nephi building a boat. Alma struggling with a son who has left the faith is relatable. Meanwhile, the Doctrine and Covenants is piecemeal, without context (except for brief paragraphs introducing each section). Why do I care about Oliver Cowdery or David Patten? Who are they and what were they doing? The book provides little to no context. Let’s compare another book of scripture: the Old Testament. Which book do you know more about? Micah or Exodus? My bet is on the latter. Micah is way shorter, but Exodus is a story, and a pretty interesting one at that. Narrative works.
So why does the Doctrine and Covenants lack narrative? My guess is that when it was first published as the Book of Commandments, there wasn’t much need. The missionaries carrying the book with them (the main source of demand for the book), knew the context. They knew, personally, the people named in the book. They had met and spoken to Joseph Smith. They had participated in the events giving rise to the individual sections.
In the generations that have passed since the Book of Commandments was published in 1831, that personal connection has dissipated. We are multiple generations removed from the people who recorded the majority of the revelations. With the growth in the Church outside the United States, the descendants of those involved in the revealing, recording, and publishing of the book make up a smaller and smaller portion of church membership.
As a result, context is more important. Fortunately, the Church has delivered. Four and a half years ago, the church published Revelations in Context, a book telling the stories behind each section. The Church has also been publishing an official history called Saints. The first two volumes have covered the time period during which most of the revelations were published. There are Church history essays published on the Church website. And in this year’s Come Follow Me manual, there are links to even more resources.
I wonder if, at some point, more context is added to the Doctrine and Covenants itself. Perhaps portions of Revelations in Context or Saints get placed between sections. This would make the book more enjoyable to read and easier to understand. Of course, there should be some caution in editorial additions to scripture. Some of the problematic passages in the Bible are possibly the result of these editorial additions that later scribes thought were part of the original text. But since we believe in an open canon – that we are saints receiving revelation alongside the saints of previous generations – it’s certainly a possibility.