It was easy for Joseph to make himself indispensable. It was tempting to do so. But he and the saints would have been better off had he refused to shoulder responsibilities that belonged to others. There are incidents along the way that can be identified as moments when Joseph could have seen a pattern emerging. One example was in November 1831 when a conference was convened to approve publication of the Book of Commandments. The book would need a preface. A committee was assigned to draft the preface.
'[William] McLellin said that he, Sidney Rigdon, and Oliver Cowdery had been given the assignment to write the preface to the Book of Commandments, but when they presented their draft to the conference, the ‘Conference picked it all to pieces’ and requested that J[oseph] S[mith] petition the Lord for a preface. After J[oseph] S[mith] and the elders bowed in prayer, JS, who was ‘sitting by a window,’ dictated the preface ‘by the Spirit,’ while Rigdon served as scribe.”(Joseph Smith Papers, Documents Vol. 2: July 1831-January 1833, p. 104.) He then dictated what has become D&C Section 1.
What if Joseph had refused? What if he told them God had a revelation, but the committee should receive it? What if Joseph insisted others perform their duties, rather than relieving them of their responsibility? Had he declined in November 1831, would the talk given in May 1842 have been necessary?
... Joseph handicapped the saints by taking too much of their responsibility on himself. The saints refused to let him alone and required him to be their answer-man. The best thing Joseph could have done would have been to keep riding when he crossed the Mississippi River with Hyrum. He should have headed to the Rocky Mountains. He didn’t. The saints continued to depend on him. When he died, they were unable to call down a revelation for themselves. No one proposed to solve succession by revelation.
So here, the assignment had been given to a committee--legitimately. And the saints "picked [their result] all to pieces." We apparently don't have that draft any more.
Suppose for a moment, however, that they had, in their labors, sought revelation from heaven, and suppose in response to their earnest labors, Heaven had then given one or more revelations. (i.e., quotable words from the Lord) Would the saints have valued those words? Would they have even recognized and believed them as having come from the Lord? (They were clearly very critical of whatever was produced, even though Oliver had actually received revelation from the Lord for His church before.) Or, would the saints have even asked the Lord in the first place if they were His words before assuming they had been faked? Might they have set it aside because some were unable to perceive their origin? Or because some believed them not of God? Then perhaps reverting to only being willing to consider words already given through Joseph, because they couldn't agree that a purported revelation was from heaven or that it included the literal words of the Lord?
Well, whatever the case in this situation, we know that they ultimately demanded a replacement through Joseph, and he obliged.
A Bible, A Bible
But what if Joseph had instead refused to produce it, would they have reverted to limiting themselves to only previously accepted words of the Lord, not anything newly received through the labors of another, because no one could agree that the Lord had spoken or could speak through another? (LE Alma 32:23) Is this something we Gentiles have ever been prone to do? (LE 2 Nephi 29:3)
Public Review & Comment
It's also an interesting thought exercise to consider what might have happened had the situation been different for a separate committee tasked with authoring a document for inclusion in the scriptures. A document which repentant Gentiles now universally accept as scripture. What if the initial draft version of the "Doctrine" half of the D&C (i.e., "the Lectures on Faith") produced by the committee of Sydney Rigdon, Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and Frederick Williams had been made available to the saints for six months prior to adoption by vote in 1835? Would the saints have balked at its wordiness? Or questioned the new ideas included which didn't seem to be apparent in their reading of existing scripture? Or which were not readily ascribable to Joseph? Or would they have deemed it inadmissible as scripture when they asked and found out Joseph wasn't the sole author of it even though he was fully involved? (LDS scholars almost universally now agree Sydney was the main author and used this excuse to partially justify the LDS Church's removal of it from their scriptures without any vote of the Church) Or might others have come forward claiming they instead had been given the assignment by God and therefore the appointed committee should yield to them? Or required that it should all be summarized to a single page? Or only four pages?
All hypothetical, of course, since it was never put forward for review by all the saints in advance of the vote.
Labor to Obtain
From What's Wrong:
As I reflected further on this email and my response I thought of Oliver Cowdery’s effort to translate the Book of Mormon. The Holy Ghost does not relieve us of great effort, but instead equips us to obtain truth as the yield from our effort.
Joseph Smith proved the pattern true. He investigated all the religions. He attended their meetings, spoke with the ministers, and paid attention to their claims. He could not determine the truth. Then he “labored” over the scriptures. “At length” he finally decided to do as James asks and prayed. His prayer was answered because he did the preliminary work, the required study, and put in the necessary labor.
For three decades I studied and taught the scriptures. Each week between 10 and 40 hours were invested as I prepared to teach a 50 minute class. I labored, the scriptures yielded to study, and I learned more and more about God. The Vision of the Redemption of the Dead found in Section 138 was likewise obtained by study and prayer.
The scriptures are a Urim and Thummim designed to provoke revelation. You cannot divorce the process of getting revelation from necessary scripture study. God made no such thing known to Laman, Lemuel or us when we do not search the scriptures and invest our heart and mind in learning His ways.
It is apparent that significant labor should be expected to be involved before the Lord might grant His words by revelation. How much labor might be expected? A few hours of discussion in a committee meeting? A few hours of individual preparation? Perhaps a fast, too? Or what if it really did require days, weeks, months, or even years of careful study, review, and re-review of what the Lord had given them, both very recently through Joseph and over the millennia via scripture? Can someone seeking the Lord's guidance demonstrate the sincerity of their seeking and asking in any other way? Can a small group assembled, even if by lot, expect to obtain a revelation without having first labored?
Learning from or Repeating Earlier Mistakes in Our Day
And how could these principles be any different in our day, were this same sort of situation to repeat? What if such a committee were to be formed and similarly tasked (even if just initially one person) and then that committee were to proceed prayerfully, earnestly, and with great labor over long days, weeks, and months, carefully reviewing all that the Lord has recently given, in particular, not missing direction given that is specific to this new dispensing of truth but not otherwise in our scriptures or the Lord's recent revelation? What if the not-insignificant labors of such a committee were to then actually be deemed by heaven worthy of granting some further light and knowledge through the Lord's words? And what if that committee were to then faithfully complete the assignment, both correctly transmitting the key direction from the Lord for this new dispensation previously given, while also valuing the additional revelation just given as a result of those labors? Would the rest of the saints today (the body or assembly) recognize the results? Would they be able to recognize the word of the Lord newly given by heaven in recognition of those labors? Or might they be prone to repeat the same "pick[ing] all to pieces" that the saints did in Joseph's day? Not recognizing His voice? Would they even find it within themselves to ask Heaven if the proposed draft were pleasing to the Lord? Or ask if the words claimed from the Lord were actually His?
Treasuring the Lord's Words
Over the past almost two years, those who have had "desires to serve" were called to the work of recovering the Lord's words as precisely and accurately as possible in the JST Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the original, unaltered revelations given through Joseph, attempting to undo the neglect and damage of the LDS Church over the last 173 years. This "scriptures committee" has demonstrated to the Lord their great love for His words and their determination to treasure them up by recovering them and not abandoning them. And He has deemed the results of that labor to be pleasing to Him.
So again, what if such a modern committee tasked with writing a replacement for D&C 20 were to actually succeed in obtaining the word of the Lord? How would we value those words given to the committee? Would we treasure them in the same way the "scriptures committee" has valued what they have worked with?
What if, instead, we were to deem those words given as unacceptable, require rewrites, and then also to determine those words given by the Lord were inadmissible for inclusion into those re-write attempts? What would that demonstrate about how we value a gift from the Lord obtained only through our labors? Would it be reasonable to expect that, in the economy of heaven, the Lord would reveal His same words a second time? Would setting it aside and deeming it unworthy of our careful preservation and heed say anything about our hearts? Or about what we treasure? Why would we treasure one set of gifts from the Lord (the RE scriptures) and deem another (what was initially given the committee of one from the Lord) to be dross?
Similarly, if the body were to make a seventh attempt to fulfill the original assignment, having once again "pick[ed] to pieces" the previous five progressively more creative re-write attempts, why would one start with the assumption that nothing but the actual words of the Lord to His people from the only direct revelation to His people given since Joseph be permitted as part of that statement? (i.e., from the "Answer") Why not any of the other critical light and truth unique to and specific to this new dispensation given through, for example, a year-long series of talks, whose content was directly given by the Lord and which content would be critical to make available to new-comers, which would be available in no straightforward way otherwise? If this one new revelation (the "Answer") is that paramount and singular in summarizing everything given before (which it does not), why not simply refer believers to read it rather than trying to summarize it and exclude other key direction given by Heaven? And why would the Lord require a "guide" to be agreed to and added?
The Document or the Hearts?
But setting aside the question of whether we could be throwing away a gift from the Giver of gifts in our zeal for re-writing:
In the "Answer", why would the Lord indicate that the assignment given could have been accomplished long before the covenant was offered if it required the work to be done only after the covenant was accepted? Why would He avoid discussing the correctness or error of the contents of the one draft voted and overwhelmingly accepted by His people but rather focus numerous times on our hearts not being right? Would it suggest that yet another (a sixth at the time) attempt to draft something was required? Or could His intent and concern been more on our hearts being softened toward His words already given and toward one another? What if the initial attempt were to have been acceptable to Him all along and it was merely our own proud hearts that needed changing? To learn something? What if the exercise were not to successively produce seven or more drafts in various old and new ways but rather to become as He is, slow to anger, unwilling to falsely accuse, patient to understand, willing to assume the best in others, kind in words, and kind in disagreement, rather than our LDS cultural training in the barely-veiled unkindness of passive aggression?
If that were the case, how successful could we expect yet another committee--selected this time by lot--to be in writing yet another document? Without a change of heart, are we any more likely to universally and unanimously be willing to accept whatever is produced? Without it, is there any less likelihood that some will protest wording or ideas they find unacceptable, even if received through a servant only willing to proclaim precisely what the Lord has directed, when effectively the same document re-authoring process has already been traversed five times? (i.e., open invitation to all to participate and help, prayerful, thoughtful work by those "who have [had] desires" and were therefore called to the work, and never having been limited to starting with a previous draft)
And if we continue to exclude the possibility of using words that may have already been given by the Lord in the first draft, are we demonstrating any better our willingness to both accept additional gifts from the Lord and value them? Will this be necessary for future citizens of a New Jerusalem? (Heb. 8:11) Or should they expect the Lord to only ever speak to them words through a single person, leaving the body susceptible to the same single point of failure the saints happily adopted in Joseph Smith's day? How better could the Lord test our willingness and readiness to receive more from Him than by giving and then observing the response to the gift? (LE Alma 12:10)
"For what doth it profit a man if a gift is bestowed upon him, and he receive not the gift? Behold, he rejoices not in that which is given unto him, neither rejoices in Him who is the Giver of the gift." (LE D&C 88:33)