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Interpreting Interpreter
A D&C 21 Deep Dive

This post is a summary of the article “Doctrine and Covenants 21: Metanarrative of the Restoration” by Steven L. Olsen in Volume 57 of Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship. An introduction to the Interpreting Interpreter series is available at


The Takeaway

Olsen presents a nearly word-by-word analysis of D&C 21, with an emphasis on what it can teach us about Joseph’s (and our) role in the restoration, and on the blessings attached to heeding commandments delivered through modern prophets.


The Summary

In this article, Steven L. Olsen walks readers step-by-step through D&C 21, the revelation given in the inaugural meeting of the church, using a variety of literary perspectives. He ties this long string of individual insights into a metanarrative that provides a series of principles that guide the efforts of both prophets and church members in the work of the restoration.

The article is organized according to three-verse chunks of the revelation. The full text is included here with links to each of Olsen’s insights:

  • Verses 1-3 discuss the various roles of the prophet, which appears to reflect a meaningful and even chronological sequence for Joseph personally, as he progressed from a seer (I.e., the First Vision) through an elder within the newly organized church. They also establish the authority of God and the nature of the covenant relationship between Christ and his church, as well as, for Olsen, the qualities of that church as a heaven-directed, servant-led institution fulfilling structural, spiritual and documentary purposes.

Behold, there shall be a record kept among you; and in it thou shalt be called a seer, a translator, a prophet, an apostle of Jesus Christ, an elder of the church through the will of God the Father, and the grace of your Lord Jesus Christ,

Being inspired of the Holy Ghost to lay the foundation thereof, and to build it up unto the most holy faith.

Which church was organized and established in the year of your Lord eighteen hundred and thirty, in the fourth month, and on the sixth day of the month which is called April.

  • Verses 4-6 discuss the importance of the church receiving Christ’s commandments and exercising faith through sustaining the prophet, in preparation of receiving a variety of important blessings.

Wherefore, meaning the church, thou shalt give heed unto all his words and commandments which he shall give unto you as he receiveth them, walking in all holiness before me;

For his word ye shall receive, as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith.

For by doing these things the gates of hell shall not prevail against you; yea, and the Lord God will disperse the powers of darkness from before you, and cause the heavens to shake for your good, and for his name’s glory.

  • Verses 7-9 discuss Joseph’s capacities and qualities as a prophet, in spite of his faults. It also outlines how the church can assist the prophet in the work of gathering Zion.

For thus saith the Lord God: Him have I inspired to move the cause of Zion in mighty power for good, and his diligence I know, and his prayers I have heard.

Yea, his weeping for Zion I have seen, and I will cause that he shall mourn for her no longer; for his days of rejoicing are come unto the remission of his sins, and the manifestations of my blessings upon his works.

For, behold, I will bless all those who labor in my vineyard with a mighty blessing, and they shall believe on his words, which are given him through me by the Comforter, which manifesteth that Jesus was crucified by sinful men for the sins of the world, yea, for the remission of sins unto the contrite heart.

  • Verses 10-12 discuss the ordination of Joseph by Oliver Cowdery as the next step in the church’s organization and suggest that both Gentiles and Jews will benefit from his missionary efforts.

Wherefore, it behooveth me that he should be ordained by you, Oliver Cowdery mine apostle;

This being an ordinance unto you, that you are an elder under his hand, he being the first unto you, that you might be an elder unto this church, bearing my name —

And the first preacher of this church unto the church, and before the world, yea, before the Gentiles; yea, and thus saith the Lord God, lo, lo! to the Jews also. Amen.

For Olsen, these passages contain layers of significance that outline Joseph’s role as a commandment-receiving prophet, and the church’s role (as an institution) to accept those commandments and “extend the blessings of eternal life to all mankind.” The injunction to keep a record serves as a preface to that outline, with much of the remainder of the revelation showing what will happen if those roles are fulfilled (e.g., dispersing the powers of darkness). Though Joseph may not have understood these implications at the time, it likely helped to guide his efforts as he proceeded to organize the church and conduct the work of the kingdom.


The Reflection

The most interesting bit here for me was the meaningful order of Joseph’s roles (e.g., seer, translator, prophet). It makes me wonder if the titles we apply to prophets and apostles today—as prophets, seers, and revelators—are set in a similarly meaningful sequence. Whereas Joseph was prepared early on through powerful revelatory experiences, that pattern may be a bit different in the modern structure of the church. The calling to act in the role of a prophet, to receive and communicate God’s commandments, may come before the confirmatory experiences of seership, or before opportunities to deliver specific revelation from on-high. If so, this pattern may give a bit of comfort to those of us who receive callings we may not feel fully ready for—that we’re not alone in having to act in a role even when we’re still in the process of being qualified for it.

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