Throughout my studies I feel like there was A LOT of doctrine, thoughts, life stories, and other things written down during the church’s early years. I know there was also a lot not written down. Did everyone back then just write so much? And how were they able to store and travel with so much written down? I feel like Joseph Smith has so many thoughts written down, he must have always had a pen and paper. It’s not like nowadays where we have computers and much easier ways to save information.
I have served on boards, councils, presidencies, and other like organizations inside and outside of the Church. My experience tells me that generally the two most powerful people over such organizations are the president and the secretary. If the president doesn’t care if something is done, it usually doesn’t happen. If the secretary doesn’t record that something was done, it never did. We see this in the earliest articles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Priesthood ordination is an authorized ordinance, meaning it cannot be done without approval from the presiding officer. But even if all the approval and requirements are met, even if the person is ordained, as far as the Church is concerned there was no ordination if the record is missing (see D&C 20:63-64).
With the first members already thinking about bureaucratic record keeping, it comes as no surprise that the Lord bridled this practice and took the reins. The same day that the Church was organized, the Lord instructed that “there shall be a record kept among you” (D&C 21:1), and Joseph’s place in the Church and the Restoration would be duly noted. Initially, Oliver Cowdery took the initiative to record the minutes of meetings and take notes of various sermons but in time his work as Second Elder required that someone be brought on full time. Within a year of the previous revelation, John Whitmer served as the Prophet’s secretary and then was commanded to write the Church’s history even while it was in its infancy. His mandate was to “transcribe all things which shall be given” to Joseph, “keep the church record and history continually”, and “write these things” “by the Comforter” (D&C 47). Whitmer’s scribal work has proved invaluable, as he created what is known as Revelation Book 1, which was an official collection of the revelations Joseph received and served as a primary source for the Book of Commandments (the precursor to the Doctrine and Covenants). Later John left the Church, but Joseph recognized more than ever the importance of record keeping and surrounded himself with multiple recorders.
This record that the Lord commanded to be kept was not just of the Prophet but also included the Saints. “It is the duty of the Lord’s clerk, whom he has appointed, to keep a history, and a general church record of all things that transpire in Zion. … and also their manner of life, their faith, and works”. What’s more, not only is this a general history, but a very specific one of the business of Zion, getting personal and naming names: “and [also] of all those who consecrate properties, and receive inheritances legally from the bishop;… and also of the apostates who apostatize after receiving their inheritances” D&C 85:1-2). These records are being kept today in Zion’s stakes. Stake and ward histories are kept annually and make note of the life, faith, and works of the members. The local units also keep track of a member’s financial contributions and prepare a copy in time for tithing settlement. If you have not served in a leadership role, it might surprise you to see how often your name appears in the records of various organizations. The high priest group has records of whether or not you’ve been home taught. The Relief Society has records of whether or not you’ve been visiting teaching. Your name may appear in the Ward Council minutes if a coordinated Christian effort was needed in reaching out to you and your family. Your service is also sometimes recorded by faithful leaders trying to prevent burnout, or in trying to determine who can best magnify an assignment.
My intention in calling out these records is not to alarm you, but to draw attention to a few principles. First, the general Church leadership governs on the same principles as the local. So if the worldwide church needs a record of the goings-on of the members, that starts locally. Additionally, if the prophet is worthy of record for the faithful discharge of his duties, so is the visiting teacher. Second, I would call your attention to the glorious time you live in. John Whitmer kept a history of the Church in its first year. Depending on your age, you live in a period when the priesthood was extended to all worthy males; over 100 temples circle the earth; women and children pray in General Conference sessions; and the mission of the Church has been updated to reflect Zion themes and the priesthood keys revealed in the Kirtland Temple. The Restoration continues as God “reveal[s] many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God”! Third, these records have an even greater import when we see what else the Lord revealed to the Prophet.
Joseph seemed to take quite literally the Lord’s prayer that His “will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. If God commands, we obey. If God needs a righteous city and government for the Millennium, we better start building. And if we are to be judged out of the books which are written, well we better start writing so the judgment can be just. “The books spoken of” in such references “must be the books which contained the record of their works [including baptism], and refer to the records which are kept on the earth. … It may seem a very bold doctrine that we talk of — a power which records or binds on earth and binds in heaven. Nevertheless … whatsoever those men [with proper priesthood authority] did in authority, … and kept a proper and faithful record of the same, it became a law on earth and in heaven” (D&C 128:7, 9). These earthly records constitute what the Prophet referred to as The Book of the Law of the Lord, including the revelations, contributions, and faithfulness of the members. Elder McConkie describes this “book” (really a library!):
“Those records kept by the Church showing the names, genealogies, and faith and works of those to be remembered by the Lord in the day when eternal inheritances are bestowed upon the obedient are, taken collectively, called the Book of the Law of God. Such records contain both the Law of God and the names of those who keep that law. They are in effect a church book of remembrance. (D&C 85)” (Mormon Doctrine, 100).
So Joseph recognized, through revelation, the importance of keeping records and surrounded himself with scribes who recognized the importance of their callings. Today we have Church leaders and members who also recognize this principle and they strive to live up to the mandate in this historic time.