More Than an Index: The First Reference Guide to the Doctrine and Covenants as a Window into Early Mormonism

When the Doctrine and Covenants came off the press in Kirtland, Ohio, in September 1835, readers found two reference tools in the back of the book. The first, a three-page section titled “Index,” is really more of a table of contents. It lists sequentially the seven lectures “of faith” and the 102 sections of “Part Second” found in that original edition, citing the page number where each begins. Then follows “Contents,” also somewhat mislabeled. As seen in the appendix below, “Contents” looks like an index in that it is organized alphabetically. However, entries within each letter grouping are not alphabetized; they are arranged sequentially in the order in which they appear in the book. And there is only one reference for each entry. In this way, “Contents” resembles a table of contents, although alphabetized. Significantly, “Contents” is the only reference guide or finding aid to the Doctrine and Covenants known to have been prepared in the 1830s. Its authorship is uncertain, but its sponsorship is clear and important. “Contents” was prepared under the direction of the Doctrine and Covenants compilation committee, which consisted of Joseph Smith Jr., Oliver Cowdery, Sidney Rigdon, and Frederick G. Williams.

Preparing such a guide is a selective, interpretive act. Studying it today offers a window into the mental world of the people involved in its preparation and publication. Which passages of the Doctrine and Covenants stand out as most noteworthy in “Contents”? Where the wording of an entry summarizes or restates textual content rather than merely excerpts it, what does that tell us about how the Doctrine and Covenants was being interpreted? What general observations can be made about Latter-day Saint interests and emphases in the 1830s from an analysis of these entries? How does a close examination of “Contents” confirm or counter the findings of other studies of early Mormonism? The great value of “Contents” lies in the fact that it provides more than seven hundred authentic First Presidency–approved (if not authored) glimpses of what seemed noteworthy and significant to them about these revelations in the mid-1830s. The sheer quantity of these entries probably matches the combined total of Doctrine and Covenants interpretations from all other surviving 1830s sources. Accordingly, this article encourages historians to use “Contents” as an important interpretive source that offers an illuminating glimpse into these early understandings.

The exhaustive appendix to this article is a reproduction of the entries in “Contents,” as printed in the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. The corresponding 1981 edition sections and verses are added on the right.

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