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 An 1886 Revelation to John Taylor

           In the decades after the Church was organized, Church Presidents Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, John Taylor, and Wilford Woodruff all received revelations that were never canonized.  That is, they recorded revelations were never presented to Church leaders or to a Church conference for a sustaining vote, which could have given them the respect and stature of scriptures found within the Doctrine and Covenants.[1] 

          One such revelation was written on Monday, 27 September 1886.  While some observers have questioned its authenticity, it appears the document is genuine.[2]  It reads:[3] 

September 27, 1886

 

          My son John: You have asked me concerning the New and Everlasting Covenant and how far it is binding upon my people.

          Thus saith the Lord All commandments that I give must be obeyed by those calling themselves by my name unless they are revoked by me or by my authority and how can I revoke an everlasting covenant.

          For I the Lord am everlasting and my covenants cannot be abrogated nor done away with; but they stand forever.

          Have I not given my word in great plainness on this subject?

          Yet have not great numbers of my people been negligent in the observance of my law and the keeping of my commandment, and yet have I borne with them these many years and this because of their weakness because of the perilous times. And furthermore it is more pleasing to me that men should use their free agency in regard to these matters.

          Nevertheless I the Lord do not change and my word and my covenants and my law do not.

          And as I have heretofore said by my servant Joseph all those who would enter into my glory must and shall obey my law.

          And have I not commanded men that if they were Abraham's seed and would enter into my glory they must do the works of Abraham.

          I have not revoked this law nor will I for it is everlasting and those who will enter into my glory must obey the conditions thereof, even so Amen.[4] 

          We do not know the precise question that prompted this revelation to President Taylor, though it apparently involved the New and Everlasting Covenant.[5]  Nor do we understand how he personally responded to it.  It does not appear that President Taylor ever discussed its existence or significance with other Church members prior to his passing on 25 July 1887.[6]  The paper upon which this revelation was written was found among John Taylor’s personal effects by his son, John W. Taylor, sometime after his father’s death.  John W. Taylor reported that he subsequently shared it with a few friends.[7]   

A Mormon Fundamentalist Interpretation 

          Of all the uncanonized revelations received by John Taylor and other Church Presidents, none would become more controversial than this one received in 1886.  Post-1904 polygamists would become convinced that somewhere within its paragraphs, God was stating that plural marriage could never be suspended.[8]   One Mormon fundamentalist writer would sum up the general interpretation held even by polygamists today: “Here the Lord very clearly and definitely says, that in order to enter into His glory, men MUST live the law of plural marriage.  He makes no exceptions.  There are no ‘ifs’ nor ‘ands’ about it.  ‘All those who would enter into my glory MUST and SHALL obey my law.’  And ‘my law,’ as the Lord was treating it, is the law of plural marriage” (emphasis in original).[9]

          Another fundamentalist author penned: “In the revelation to John Taylor, dated September 27, 1886, the Lord said that he had not, could not and would not revoke the Law of Abraham which is Plural Marriage...  The Lord has commanded in no uncertain terms that we must obey this law of Celestial Marriage, that is plural marriage, in order to obtain exaltation.”[10]

          Similarly, as early as the 1920s, polygamists would teach that the commandments referred to in this 1886 revelation, as well as the conditions of the law (which must be obeyed), all point to plural marriage.[11]  Some Mormon fundamentalists would also suggest that the New and Everlasting Covenant mentioned here is singly plural marriage.[12]  In addition, they would affirm that Abraham was a polygamist and so to “do the works of Abraham” would require the practice of plural marriage.[13]  

An LDS Church Interpretation 

          In contrast, Church historians believe that the Mormon fundamentalist interpretation is unjustified, noting that the words employed do not naturally convey the interpretation promoted by polygamist writers.  LDS scholars generally conclude that the law, covenants, conditions, commandments and the works of Abraham allude to much broader gospel principles than simply plural marriage. 

          The 1886 revelation speaks of a “law” that cannot be “revoked.”  LDS scriptures contain no reference to a “law of plural marriage,” nor does it appear that Joseph Smith, Brigham Young or John Taylor ever mentioned it.[14]  However, the “Law of Celestial Marriage is discussed.  Three years prior to receiving this revelation, President Taylor distinguished between the Law of Celestial Marriage and the Principle of Plural Marriage saying: “[God] has told us about our wives and our children being sealed to us, that we might have a claim on them in eternity.  He has revealed unto us the Law of Celestial Marriage, associated with which is the principle of plural marriage.”[15]  Church teachings support that plural marriage itself is most accurately described as a “principle”[16] rather than a law.[17]

          It also appears that the law mentioned in the 1886 revelation is the same law discussed in section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants.  Church members maintain that verses nineteen and twenty of that section describe how the law is fulfilled as “a man marries a wife” by proper authority, with promises of godhood extended to monogamist couples who are properly sealed and live worthily. 

          The 1886 revelation mentions “conditions” of the law that “must be obeyed.”  Verse seven of section 132 discusses the conditions of the law

And verily I say unto you, that the conditions of this law are these: All covenants, contracts, bonds, obligations, oaths, vows, performances, connections, associations, or expectations, that are not made and entered into and sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise, of him who is anointed, both as well for time and for all eternity, and that too most holy, by revelation and commandment through the medium of mine anointed, whom I have appointed on the earth to hold this power (and I have appointed unto my servant Joseph to hold this power in the last days, and there is never but one on the earth at a time on whom this power and the keys of this priesthood are conferred), are of no efficacy, virtue, or force in and after the resurrection from the dead; for all contracts that are not made unto this end have an end when men are dead.  (Italics added.) 

Latter-day Saints observe that plural marriage is not listed as a “condition” of the law, but that the need for proper authority through the “one” man is emphasized.[18]

          The 1886 revelation refers to the New and Everlasting Covenant, which “cannot be abrogated.”  Brigham Young taught that people enter the New and Everlasting Covenant as they are baptized into the Church: “All Latter-day Saints enter the New and Everlasting Covenant when they enter this Church. They covenant to cease sustaining, upholding and cherishing the kingdom of the Devil and the kingdoms of this world.  They enter the New and Everlasting Covenant to sustain the Kingdom of God and no other kingdom.”[19]  LDS theology teaches: 

The New and Everlasting Covenant includes

The New and Everlasting Covenant of Marriage which includes

The Principle of Plural Marriage[20]  

          The 1886 revelation mentions that the Saints should “do the works of Abraham.  Church members observe that Abraham did many good “works.”  He sought for the priesthood (Abr. 1:2-3), he presided righteously over his family,  he paid his tithing (Alma 13:15),[21] he kept his covenants, he received revelation, he was married by proper authority (D&C 132:37), he practiced polygamy and significantly, he offered up burnt offerings (Gen. 22:13).[22]  Latter-day Saints recognize that God has commanded them today to “do the works of Abraham” (D&C 132:32), but acknowledge that He has not authorized or commanded them to do all of his works.  Specifically, Church members are not expected or permitted to offer up burnt offerings as Abraham did.  Equally, they believe that God has also withdrawn His authorization and command to practice plural marriage.  However, these limitations do not remove the divine directive for believers to emulate Abraham’s other good works.

          The 1886 revelation discusses commandments that “must be obeyed” unless “revoked.”  The Book of Mormon teaches that God will “command His people” regarding their marriage arrangements (Jacob 2:27, 30).  Accordingly, Church members believe that monogamy could be commanded at times, revoking the practice of polygamy, just as polygamy could be commanded at other times, revoking monogamy as the divinely expected marital standard.  Latter-day Saints embrace continuous revelation as the key in revealing these commandments:  “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God” (Articles of Faith 9).  Church members trust that through the process of continuous revelation, God commanded the practice of plural marriage in 1852, though no written revelation to that effect was ever circulated.  

                              The 1886 Revelation to John Taylor

 

Fundamentalist Interpretation

Church Interpretation

The Law

“Law” of Plural Marriage

Law of Celestial Marriage

Conditions of the Law

Always Requires Plural Marriage

Always Requires Proper Authority

New and Everlasting Covenant

Always Requires Plural Marriage

Includes all covenants entered into through baptism and other ordinances

Doing the Works of Abraham

Must include Plural Marriage

Some of Abraham’s Works are not authorized or commanded today including sacrificing burnt offerings and plural marriage

Commandments

Plural Marriage is a commandment that cannot be suspended or revoked

Plural Marriage is a commandment that may be suspended or revoked

          The divine process that produced the 1886 revelation to John Taylor was continuous revelation.  Church members might argue that that revelation did not, and could not, signal an end to additional continuous revelation being received by the “one” man regarding plural marriage.  Nor should it be considered to be the “final word” regarding the topics it discusses.  The process of continuous revelation would always be active allowing additional divine communication to be received by prophets after John Taylor, like Wilford Woodruff, who would serve as the “one” man in 1889, 1890, and beyond.

          Latter-day Saints also reason that the fundamentalist interpretation of John Taylor’s 1886 revelation would still require proper priesthood authority to implement.  No one has suggested that the revelation alone could authorize any priesthood holder to seal marriages (either monogamist or polygamist) without the authority of the “one” man.[23]  Elder Melvin J. Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles explained in 1934:  “If the Lord had wanted plural marriage to continue according to the interpretations some give of President Taylor’s [1886] revelation, he would have allowed President Taylor to have lived and enforced it but He took him and raised up President Wilford Woodruff who was inspired to give the Manifesto...”[24]

          Possibly the greatest significance of the 1886 revelation stems not from what it says, but from the reaction of some Church leaders to its existence.  In the 1920s and 1930s, it would be referred to as a “scrap of paper”[25] and  “a pretended revelation,” with suggestions that it didn’t even exist.[26]  In response, Mormon fundamentalists would rally in opposition to the perceived cover-up.


[1]  The text of several of John Taylor uncanonized revelations are found in Collier, Unpublished Revelations, vol. one, parts 80-88; Black, New and Everlasting Covenant, 234-50; Revelations in Addition to Those Found in the LDS Edition of the D&C, CDROM.  Two of these have been published by the Church in My Kingdom Shall Roll Forth, 50-52; see also MFP 2:347-49, 354.

[2]  Max Anderson considers the revelation to be genuine in Polygamy Story, 63-76.  D. Michael Quinn acknowledged its authenticity and noted that Apostle Mark E. Petersen stated in 1974:  “To justify their own rebellion, certain recalcitrant brethren [Mormon fundamentalists]. . . concocted a false revelation, allegedly given to President John Taylor in 1886.”  (“New Plural Marriages,” 29 fn 90.)  See also Truth 5:84.

[3]  This revelation appears to be in John Taylor’s own handwriting, though it is unsigned.

[4]  Unpublished Revelations, 1:88.  Musser, Four Hidden Revelations, 15.

[5]  See the first paragraph of the revelation.

[6]  In the 1920s, Lorin Woolley taught that at least 13 people personally witnessed President Taylor writing the revelation on 27 September 1886.  He also remembered that five copies were made and given to him, his father (John W. Woolley), George Q. Cannon, Samuel Batemen and Charles Wilcken.   (See 1929 account - Appendix A.)  However, no contemporary evidence has been identified to substantiate these claims.  Neither has any of the five described copies been found or mentioned by the men who were reported as having received them.  It is interesting that even though the revelation is dated and Lorin reportedly had a copy, in 1912 he wrote concerning the events of that day saying: “In the latter part of September, 1886, the exact day being not now known to me...”  Neither did Lorin make reference to the revelation in that 1912 account.  Rulon C. Allred taught in 1970: “Every member of the Twelve who was available was taken to President Taylor’s hiding place, and the revelation was read to them and accepted by them” (Treasures of Knowledge, 1:14).  No evidence has yet been identified to support this assertion.

[7]  At his trial in 1911, John W. Taylor explained: “Brother Joseph Robinson came to me and asked for a copy of it upon the suggestion of Brother Cowley and he got it from Brother Badger. Brother Joseph F. Smith Jr., also got a copy, but I don't know how many have got copies from these.”  (Collier and Knutson,  Trials of John W. Taylor and Matthias F. Cowley.)  See also Abraham H. Cannon Journal 29 March 1892.

[8]   “The content of this [1886] revelation... was of most significance, because the information revealed has served as a guide ever since” (Ogden Kraut, Holy Priesthood, 6:255).  “The Lord said He would not revoke the law of celestial plural marriage in 1886” (Fulton, Most Holy Principle, 4:145).  The authors of Voices in Harmony quote part of the revelation and then add their own brackets: “I have not revoked this law [plural marriage], nor will I...”  (Batchelor, et al., Voices in Harmony, 27.)  Historian D. Michael Quinn concurred saying: “God told [John Taylor] in a revelation, a fairly brief revelation, that... God could not revoke the practice or principle of plural marriage...  The 1886 revelation, however, in my view really added nothing to any of the revelations that had been given on plural marriage.”  (Quinn, “Plural Marriages After Manifesto,” typescript 26.)

[9]  Joseph Musser in Truth 6:158.  See also 5:65, 84; 6:42, 139; Fulton, Most Holy Principle 4:23, 66; B. Harvey Allred, A Leaf in Review, 190.

[10]  Bishop, 1886 Visitations of Jesus Christ, 63.  See discussion in Messenger Volume 1, 31-33.

[11]  See Ogden Kraut, Holy Priesthood, 6:255-58.  Rulon C. Allred, Treasures of Knowledge, 1:89.

[12]  LSJ Sermons 1:211; Short, Questions on Plural Marriage, 6; Bishop, 1886 Visitations of Jesus Christ, 32.  Rulon C. Allred, Treasures of Knowledge, 2:5.  Ogden Kraut wrote: “Plural marriage is a ‘new and everlasting covenant’. Therefore, no mortal man will ever receive any keys to lock up the practice of that principle or do away with it” (Holy Priesthood, 6:258).

[13]  Truth 2:8, 118.  See the discussion in Tayson, “Common Recollection,” 131-138.

[14]    .Throughout Church history there are a few scattered references to the “law of plural marriage” made by men such as Benjamin F. Johnson and Franklin D. Richards and more recently Bruce R. McConkie and in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism.   Francis F. Lyman spoke of the “law of plural marriage” saying, “The law will stand forever, but the practice was discontinued”  (Collier and Knutson,  Trials of John W. Taylor and Matthias F. Cowley.)

[15]  JD 24:229; italics added.  President Taylor went on to say: “[The law of Celestial marriage] is one of the greatest blessings that ever was conferred upon the human family.  It is an eternal law which has always existed in other worlds as well as in this world.”

[16]  Orson Pratt originally used the terms “principle” and “doctrine” to describe the practice of plural marriage when he publicly announced it on 29 August 1852, identical to the words used in D&C 132:1-2.  See also JD 1:53-54.

[17]  It appears that when polygamy is commanded, it is considered to be a “law” to that people in that place at that time.  Church members believe this occurred to the Latter-day Saints between 1852 and 1890, prompting some leaders in that period to us terms like “law of celestial marriage” and “law of patriarchal marriage” and “law of plural marriage” interchangeably.  For example, Joseph F. Smith taught in 1878: “no wicked unjust or impure person can enter into the law of celestial or plural marriage without incurring the displeasure of the Almighty” (JD 20:27).

[18]  John Taylor, On Marriage, 5; John Taylor, Gospel Kingdom, 279-80.  President Taylor observed that “with regard to the law of Celestial Marriage, there are certain safeguards thrown around it, as there always were, and those safeguards are and always were, in the hands of the proper authorities and Priesthood delegated by God to man for the protection and preservation and right use of this most important, sacred, exalting and eternal ceremony or covenant” (ibid.).

[19]  Discourses of Brigham Young, 160; italics added.  Joseph Smith was teaching about “a new and an everlasting covenant” as early as 1830 (see D&C 22:1).

[20]   Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith wrote: “The new and everlasting covenant is the fulness of the gospel. It is composed of ‘All covenants, contracts, bonds, obligations, oaths, vows, performances, connections, associations, or expectations’ that are sealed upon members of the Church by the Holy Spirit of promise, or the Holy Ghost, by the authority of the President of the Church who holds the keys. The President of the Church holds the keys of the Melchizedek Priesthood. He delegates authority to others and authorizes them to perform the sacred ordinances of the priesthood.  Marriage for eternity is a new and everlasting covenant. Baptism is also a new and everlasting covenant, and likewise ordination to the priesthood, and every other covenant is everlasting and a part of the new and everlasting covenant which embraces all things.”  (Answers to Gospel Questions, 1:65; italics added.)

[21]   See also HC 7:320.

[22]  “Throughout the whole of the Book of Genesis (see 15:9, 17; 22:2, 7, 8, 13) [burnt offerings] appear to be the only sacrifice referred to; afterwards it became distinguished as one of the regular classes of sacrifice under the Mosaic law” (William Smith, Bible Dictionary, 92).  The Old Testament contains 247 references to “burnt offerings,” which were offered by Noah (Genesis 8:20), Abraham, Moses (Exodus 10:25), Jethro (Exodus 18:12), and other prophets and leaders.

[23]  At the trial for his Church membership in 1911 John W. Taylor admitted that, “There is no authority as far as I can see, in that [1886] revelation, no authority given to man to exercise such authority in marrying anyone...”  (Collier and Knutson,  Trials of John W. Taylor and Matthias F. Cowley.)

[24]  Letter dated 31 December 1934.  Musser, Ballard-Jenson Correspondence, 27.

[25]  Douglas M. Todd, Sr., recorded on 1 September 1934: “... reading some expressions in a letter ascribed to Anthony W. Ivins in which the [1886] revelation is referred to as an unsigned scrap of paper – a so-called revelation – the words of a man which were never submitted to the people of the Church and are not binding, etc.  (Todd, Journal of Douglas M. Todd, Sr., 10-11.)

[26]  In an effort to suppress the document, the First Presidency issued a statement regarding it 17 June 1933.  It began: “It is alleged that on September 26-27, 1886, President John Taylor received a revelation from the Lord, the purported text of which is given in publications circulated apparently by or at the instance of this same organization [Mormon fundamentalists].  As to this pretended revelation it should be said that the archives of the Church contain no such revelation; the archives contain no record of any such revelation, nor any evidence justifying a belief that any such revelation was ever given...”  (Messages of the First Presidency 5:327; italics added.)