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Date: Recorded in April or June 1830 (see Difficulty of Dating D&C 20)
Place: At or Near Fayette, New York
In March 1829 the Lord told Joseph Smith that the "beginning of the rising up and the coming forth of my church" was soon to occur (D&C 5:14). Around April of 1829 (or perhaps as early as the summer of 1828) the Lord said, "If this generation harden not their hearts, I will establish my church among them. Now ... I say this to build up my church; therefore, whosoever belongeth to my church need not fear, for such shall inherit the kingdom of heaven" (D&C 10:53-55). Thus, the idea of the imminent establishment of the Lord's Church again upon the earth was clearly known to Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and perhaps a few other close associates of the Prophet.
In early June 1829, Joseph and Oliver moved to Fayette, New York at the home of Peter Whitmer Sr. in order to complete the translation of the Book of Mormon without persecution. Sometime soon after their arrival, Joseph and Oliver received a revelation in the chamber of Father Whitmer containing some details concerning the impending organization of the Church. Here the Lord instructed them relative to the use of the Melchizedek priesthood, to their ordaining each other to the office of Elder in the Church of Jesus Christ, to the administration of the sacrament, and to the conferral of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands to those who had been previously baptized. In all of this, however, they were told to wait and "defer ... until such times as it should be practicable to have our brethren, who had been and who should be baptized, assembled together" (History of the Church, 1:61; see Account). Sometime in the latter part of May 1829, shortly before receiving this revelation in Father Whitmer's chamber, Peter, James, and John had ordained Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery apostles and given them the keys of this dispensation (see the Reasoning for this Timeline).
Also around this time, in anticipation of the formal establishment of the Lord's Church again upon the earth, the Prophet directed Oliver Cowdery to prepare a kind of founding document for the Church which would outline the basic beliefs and practices of the Church, similar to formal documents of other religious institutions of that time period. Finding this to be a very difficult and even discouraging task, Oliver asked Joseph to inquire of the Lord on the matter. D&C 18:1-4 was the result of this inquiry, in which the Lord gave Oliver very specific counsel regarding the writing of his founding document for the Church. He was told to “rely upon the things which are written,” meaning the writings of the Book of Mormon (see vs.2). “For in them are all things written concerning the foundation of my church, my gospel, and my rock” (D&C 18:3-4).
Oliver took the Lord's counsel to heart and “produced a document he called 'Articles of the Church of Christ' in preparation for the organization of the Church [see Oliver's 'Articles of the Church of Christ']. More than half of this document was either a direct quotation or a close paraphrase from the Book of Mormon manuscript. Like the Nephite church, this new church would have priests and teachers. It would also have disciples, or elders” (“Build Up My Church,” Revelations in Context, history.lds.org).
It seems clear that Oliver's “Articles of the Church of Christ” document was somehow a forerunner to D&C 20. What precise role Oliver’s document played in the formation of D&C 20 is unclear. “Sometime after Oliver had completed the Articles, Joseph told him there was more. Joseph’s superseding revelation, now part of Doctrine and Covenants 20, seems to have been completed after the organizational meeting in April but before the Church’s first conference, held in June. At the June conference, this revealed document was accepted as a statement of polity for the new church. Its importance was highlighted by the fact that it was the first revelatory text published in the Church’s newspaper, and it was printed as the second section of the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, after the “preface” [now D&C 1] dictated as a revelation in 1833” (“Build Up My Church,” Revelations in Context, history.lds.org).
Aftermath and Outcomes of D&C 20
The “articles and covenants of the Church of Christ” [now D&C 20] set forth the offices, ordinances, and procedures that were to be part of the newly formed church. On 9 June 1830, at the first conference of the church following its organization, this document was presented to the membership for approval. The minutes of that meeting recorded, “Articles and Covenants read by Joseph Smith jr. and recieved by unanimous voice of the whole congregation, which consisted of most of the male members of the Church.” The importance of Articles and Covenants to the church is suggested by the fact that it was the first revelatory document selected for printing in the church’s earliest periodical, The Evening and the Morning Star, and the only one published there twice. In the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, the compilers placed Articles and Covenants as the second section, preceded only by the revelatory “preface” [now D&C 1].
In many ways, Articles and Covenants [D&C 20] is unique. No other early revelatory text produced by Joseph Smith was presented to a conference of the church for the approbation of the membership. The format and style of Articles and Covenants [D&C 20] also differed from other revelations. Rather than the first-person voice of God declaring his will to a specific recipient, as in most of Joseph Smith’s early revelations, Articles and Covenants [D&C 20] instead begins with a third-person historical account of the founding of the church and a brief history of Joseph Smith. In subsequent paragraphs, the document makes several declarations of belief using the first-person plural statement “we know.” As with some of Joseph Smith’s other revelatory texts, Articles and Covenants [D&C 20] was amended from time to time; the most substantive revisions appear to have been made in preparation for its publication in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants. (Historical Note, “Articles and Covenants, circa April 1830 [D&C 20],” at JosephSmithPapers.org)
For more on Joseph's editing and amending of D&C 20 see: