Questions concerning the 1886 "Revelation":
What is the 1886 "Revelation"?
Among "Mormon Fundamentalists" there is a document which is widely circulated. It contains the following text:
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.
Is the 1886 "Revelation" a true revelation?
The answer to this question appears to be both "yes" and "no." It seems that the text of the 1886 "Revelation" is written in John Taylor’s handwriting. If so, it might be considered to be a "true" personal revelation given to him on that date (the date is inscribed on the top of the paper in the same handwriting).
But is the 1886 "Revelation" a revelation in the same sense as the revelations which are contained in the Doctrine and Covenants (like Section 132)? Clearly, the answer is "no." Why? Because it was never presented to the Church or priesthood leaders or approved using the law of common consent (D&C 26:2). This is important because Joseph Smith demonstrated the proper procedure that must be followed when a prophet receives revelations for the Church. This process was followed when the Book of Doctrine and Covenants was accepted in 1834:
A general assembly of the Church of Latter-day Saints was held at Kirtland on the 17th of August, 1835, to take into consideration the labors of a committee appointed by a general assembly of the Church on the 24th of September, 1834, for the purpose of arranging the items of the doctrine of Jesus Christ for the government of the Church. The names of the committee were: Joseph Smith, Jun., Sidney Rigdon, Oliver Cowdery and Frederick G. Williams, who, having finished said book according to the instructions given them, deem it necessary to call a general assembly of the Church to see whether the book be approved or not by the authorities of the Church: that it may, if approved, become a law and a rule of faith and practice to the Church. Wherefore, Oliver Cowdery and Sidney Rigdon, members of the First Presidency, (Presidents Joseph Smith, Jun., and Frederick G. Williams being absent on a visit to the Saints in Michigan,) appointed Thomas Burdick. Warren Parrish, and Sylvester Smith clerks, and proceeded to organize the whole assembly as follows:
President Cowdery arose and introduced the "Book of Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of the Latter-day Saints," in behalf of the committee. He was followed by President Rigdon, who explained the manner by which they intended to obtain the voice of the assembly for or against said book.
According to said arrangement, W. W. Phelps bore record that the book presented to the assembly was true. President John Whitmer, also, rose and testified that it was true...
The venerable assistant president, Thomas Gates, then bore record of the truth of the book, and with his five silver-haired assistants, and whole congregation, accepted and acknowledged it as the doctrine and covenants of their faith, by a unanimous vote. (History of the Church 2:243-244.)
This was not the only time this process was followed. Under the direction of President John Taylor in October, 1880, the Pearl of Great Price underwent a similar sustaining vote.
In contrast, the 1886 "Revelation" never underwent any such process. It was found among President Taylor’s personal papers after his death which occurred on July 25, 1887. His son, John W. Taylor first encountered it. Undoubtedly President Taylor would have presented the revelation for approval utilizing the principle of common consent if it constituted a revelation to the general Church membership just as he had done in 1880 with the Pearl of Great Price. President Taylor understood the proper procedure.
John W. Taylor reported concerning it: "My father received a revelation which, however, was never presented to the Church" (John W. Taylor File, February 22 and March 1, 1911).
Why is the 1886 "Revelation" so significant to "Mormon Fundamentalists"?
The significance of the 1886 "Revelation" for "Mormon Fundamentalists" is two-fold. Its primary importance is not necessarily from what it says. The principal reason the 1886 "Revelation" has become so meaningful to "Mormon Fundamentalists" appears to stem more from the reaction of Church leaders concerning it. The official response was to either deny its existence or to claim it to be a "purported" revelation - implying that it might have been a forgery.
The 1886 "Revelation" was promoted as genuine by polygamists in the 1920's and 1930's. In 1933, President Heber J. Grant issued a statement concerning it which included the following:
It is alleged that on September 26-27, 1886, President 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 [polygamists].
As to this pretended revelation it should be said that the archives of the Church contain no such revelation; nor any evidence justifying a belief that any such revelation was ever given. From the personal knowledge of some of us, from the uniform and common recollection of the presiding quorums of the Church, from the absence in the Church Archives of any evidence whatsoever justifying any belief that such a revelation was given, we are justified in affirming that no such revelation exists. (Official Statement, Deseret News, Church Section, June 18, 1933.)
This portion of the First Presidency's statement seems to deny the existence of an 1886 "Revelation." For many fundamentalists, assertions like these became a rallying cry to prove just the opposite. Since photographs of the original could be found, early fundamentalists have labored extensively to expose this perceived "cover-up." Many seemed to relish their apparent victory over Church leadership.
This conflict has given the 1886 "Revelation" much more attention than it probably deserves, at least from a doctrinal standpoint.
What does the 1886 "Revelation" say about continuing polygamy?
From a doctrinal perspective, the significance of the 1886 "Revelation" to fundamentalists is found in the statement:
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... (Last paragraph, 1886 "Revelation"; italics added)
The question arises as to what "law" is being referred to. If the law is strictly plural marriage, then the 1886 "Revelation" may be interpreted to be a declaration that the practice of polygamy will never be suspended. This is the popular stance of most "Mormon Fundamentalists."
However, on closer examination, it appears clear that the "law" mentioned in the 1886 "Revelation" is the same "law" which is referred to in section 132. This "law" is the New and Everlasting Covenant of Marriage which encompasses all eternal marriages, whether polygamous or monogamous.
To say that the law is strictly plural marriage is unjustified by the revelation itself (section 132). Plural marriage is a part of the law (see verses 32 and 34). But the law is obviously not limited strictly to polygamous marriages. D&C 132:7 tells us the "conditions" of this "law." Polygamy (or plural marriage) is not listed as a condition:
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. (D&C 132:7; italics added.)
The conditions of this law involve proper authority when sealing an eternal marriage. There is no mention of the plurality of wives as a "condition" of that "law." Likewise, we recall that in D&C 132:19, the promise of "a continuation of seed forever and ever" is extended, not to men who practice plural marriage, but whenever a man marries a wife by proper authority in the New and Everlasting Covenant of Marriage:
And again, verily I say unto you, if a man marry a wife by my word, which is my law, and by the new and everlasting covenant, and it is sealed unto them by the Holy Spirit of promise, by him who is anointed, unto whom I have appointed this power and the keys of this priesthood; and it shall be said unto them --Ye shall come forth in the first resurrection; and if it be after the first resurrection, in the next resurrection; and shall inherit thrones, kingdoms, principalities, and powers, dominions, all heights and depths -- then shall it be written in the Lamb's Book of Life, that he shall commit no murder whereby to shed innocent blood, and if ye abide in my covenant, and commit no murder whereby to shed innocent blood, it shall be done unto them in all things whatsoever my servant hath put upon them, in time, and through all eternity; and shall be of full force when they are out of the world; and they shall pass by the angels, and the gods, which are set there, to their exaltation and glory in all things, as hath been sealed upon their heads, which glory shall be a fulness and a continuation of the seeds forever and ever. (D&C 132:19.)
Again the emphasis is on authority, not the plurality of wives.
Would God Ever "Revoke" the New and Everlasting Covenant of Marriage?
The answer is obviously, "no." We know that the New and Everlasting Covenant of Marriage is portion of the New and Everlasting Covenant which has been restored through Joseph Smith. It will never be revoked. However, Heavenly Father can suspend the practice of plural marriage without revoking any eternal law. It has happened in the past: "Wherefore, my brethren, hear me, and hearken to the word of the Lord: For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none" (Jacob 2:27).
Does the 1886 "Revelation" authorize men to perform plural marriages?
Perhaps most significant aspect of the 1886 "Revelation" is what it does not say. It does not discuss sealing authority. Neither does it authorize individuals to ever perform plural marriages outside of the Church. Additionally, it does not mention the five men which Lorin C. Woolley claimed were set-apart with unique sealing authority on that same date (see the 1929 account of Woolley’s recollections).
Matthias Cowley was apparently familiar with the 1886 "Revelation." He was questioned concerning it by Charles W. Penrose at Elder Cowley's membership trial. Cowley clearly acknowledged that the revelation "would not justify" him in continuing to perform plural marriages. (Matthias F. Cowley File, May 10, 1911, Church Archives, Salt lake City.)
John W. Taylor, an apostle and son of President John Taylor, was also aware of the 1886 "Revelation," but he identified no authorization for the perpetuation of concealed polygamist unions in its contents. He stated:
There is no authority as far as I can see, in that  revelation, no authority given to man to exercise such authority in marrying anyone...(John W. Taylor File, February 22 and March 1, 1911, Church Archives. See also Samuel W. Taylor, Family Kingdom, Salt Lake City, Utah: Western Epics, Inc., 1974, pp. 274-279. )
What about Lorin C. Woolley and the 1886 "Revelation"?
Lorin Woolley’s 1912 "Statement of Facts" discusses a meeting which allegedly occurred in 1886. The account begins: "In the latter part of September, 1886, the exact day being not now known to me" (italics added). It fails to give an exact date and makes no mention of the reception of a "revelation."
However 17 years later Lorin Woolley made a more elaborate account of the same purported events. In his 1929 account, Woolley was able to furnish the precise date: September 26, 1886. He also emphasized the reception of the 1886 "Revelation." One would naturally conclude that if Lorin had a copy of the "revelation" or had know of its existence in 1912, he certainly would have referred to it and utilized it to provide the precise date for the earlier "Statement of Facts."
It seem pretty clear that between 1912 and 1929 Lorin Woolley became aware of the existence of the 1886 "Revelation." He was then able to recruit the date and weave the story of John Taylor receiving it into his already expanding recollections. We recall Woolley’s admission: "Many of the things I forgot, but they are coming to me gradually" (1929 Account).
Lorin Woolley wrote: "After the meeting referred to, President Taylor had L. John Nuttall write five copies of the revelation" (1929 Account). Have any of those copies been located or subsequently mentioned?
No. Not a single one of these five copies has been located or even subsequently mentioned. There appears to be no trace of these alleged copies.
Most individuals would have a high regard for a copy of such a revelation. Hence, we would expect at least one of the copies to be in existence to this day. Even a passing reference to them would be useful, but none exist.
If John W. Woolley (who allegedly received one of those five copies) had known about the revelation in 1914 when he was excommunicated from the Church, we might have expected him to have referred to it, but he made no such reference.
What was the First Presidency’s statement regarding the 1886 "Revelation"?
The following is the entire statement issued by the First Presidency regarding the alleged 1886 revelation and the practice of modern polygamy, June 17, 1933:
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.
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. From the personal knowledge of some of us, from the uniform and common recollection of the presiding quorums of the Church, from the absence in the Church archives of any evidence whatsoever justifying any belief that such a revelation was given, we are justified in affirming that no such revelation exists.
Furthermore, so far as the authorities of the Church are concerned and so far as the members of the Church are concerned, since this pretended revelation, if ever given, was never presented to and adopted by the Church or by any council of the Church, and since to the contrary, an inspired rule of action, the Manifesto, was (subsequently to the pretended revelation) presented to and adopted by the Church, which inspired rule in its terms, purport, and effect was directly opposite to the interpretation given to the pretended revelation, the said pretended revelation could have no validity and no binding effect and force upon Church members, and action under it would be unauthorized, illegal, and void.
The second allegation made by the organization and its members (as reported) is to the effect that President John Taylor ordained and set apart several men to perform marriage ceremonies (inferentially polygamous or plural marriage ceremonies), and gave to those so allegedly authorized the further power to set others apart to do the same thing.
There is nothing in the records of the Church to show that any such ordination or setting apart was ever performed. There is no recollection or report among the officers of the Church to whom such an incident would of necessity be known, that any such action was ever taken.
Furthermore, any such action would have been illegal and void because the Lord has laid down without qualification the principle that "there is never but one on the earth at a time on whom this power and the keys of this priesthood are conferred." The Lord has never changed this rule.
Moreover, four years after the date when it is alleged this pretended revelation was given to President John Taylor, and four years after the date of the alleged ordaining and setting apart of these men by President Taylor, to perform marriage ceremonies (presumably polygamous or plural), the Church in General Conference formally approved the solemn Declaration offered to the Conference by Lorenzo Snow, then President of the Council of the Twelve, that President Wilford Woodruff was "the only man on the earth at the present time (1890) who holds the keys of the sealing ordinances." This statement would have been an unmitigated falsehood if the allegation of the organization were true. President Lorenzo Snow did not falsify.
Finally, without direct revelation from the Lord changing the principle that there is never but one man on the earth at one time who holds the keys of the sealing power and we solemnly affirm that there is not now and there has not been given any revelation making any change in that principle any such act of ordination by President Taylor as that seemingly alleged by the members of this organization would be completely null and void. No one better knew this principle regarding authority for this sealing power than President John Taylor and he would not have attempted to violate it. It is a sacrilege to his memory the memory of a great and true Latter-day Saint, a prophet of the Lord that these falsehoods should be broadcast by those who professed to be his friends while he lived.
The Master said that in the last days, many should come in his name saying, "I am Christ," and that these would deceive many; that many false prophets would come who would deceive many; that false Christs and false prophets would arise, would show forth great signs and wonders, and would, if possible, deceive the very elect. The Lord warned us that in these days "if any man shall say unto you, Lo here is Christ, or there; believe it not."
We do not wish to pass judgment upon or evaluate the motives of our fellow men that is for the Lord to do but we unqualifiedly say, as it is our right and duty to say, that the doctrines these persons preach and the practices they follow, are born of the Evil One and are contrary to the revealed will and word of the Lord. We call upon them to repent and to forsake their false doctrines and evil practices. Unless they do so the Lord will not hold them guiltless.
It is a significant fact that these claims are put forward in their detail after all persons who were in presiding authority at the time of these alleged occurrences and who might check the stories told, are dead.
Celestial marriage that is, marriage for time and eternity and polygamous or plural marriage are not synonymous terms. Monogamous marriages for time and eternity, solemnized in our temples in accordance with the word of the Lord and the laws of the Church, are Celestial marriages.
At President John Taylor's death, the keys of the sealing ordinances, with their powers and limitations, passed by regular devolution, in the way and manner prescribed by the Lord and in accordance with the custom of the Church, to President Wilford Woodruff. At the latter's death they similarly passed to President Lorenzo Snow; and upon his death, they similarly passed to President Joseph F. Smith; and at his death the same keys passed in the same way to President Heber J. Grant. There has been no change in the law of succession of the Priesthood and of the keys appertaining thereto, nor in the regular order of its descent.
The keys of the sealing ordinances rest today solely in President Heber J. Grant, having so passed to him by the ordination prescribed by the Lord, at the hands of those having the authority to pass them, and whose authority has never been taken away by the Lord, nor suspended, nor interfered with by the Church. President Grant is the only man on the earth at this time who possesses these keys. He has never authorized any one to perform polygamous or plural marriages; he is not performing such marriages himself; he has not on his part violated nor is he violating the pledge he made to the Church, to the world, and to our government at the time of the Manifesto.
Any one making statements contrary to the foregoing is innocently or maliciously telling that which is not true. Any one representing himself as authorized to perform such marriages is making a false representation. Any such ceremony performed by any person so making such representation is a false and mock ceremony. Those living as husband and wife under and pursuant to the ceremonies proscribed by President Smith or the ceremonies performed by any person whatsoever since that proscription, are living in adultery and are subject to the attaching penalties.
We reaffirm as true today and as being true ever since it was made in 1904, the statement of President Smith which was endorsed by a General Conference of the Church "that no such marriages have been solemnized with the sanction, consent, or knowledge of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."
Finally, we are in honor bound to the government and people of the United States, upon a consideration we have fully received Statehood to discontinue the practice of polygamous or plural marriage, and Latter-day Saints will not violate their plighted faith.
The Church reaffirms its adherence to the declarations of Wilford Woodruff, Lorenzo Snow and Joseph F. Smith.
It adheres to the pledges made to the government of the United States, and to the Constitutional law of the State of Utah.
We confirm and renew the instructions given to Church officers by President Joseph F. Smith in 1904, in 1910, and in 1914, and direct the officers who administer the affairs of the Church diligently to investigate reported violations of the adopted rule, and if persons are found who have violated President Smith's ruling (adopted by the Church) or who are entering into or teaching, encouraging, or conspiring with others to enter into so-called polygamous or plural marriages, we instruct such officers to take action against such persons, and, finding them guilty, to excommunicate them from the Church in accord with the directions given by President Smith. We shall hold Church officers responsible for the proper performance of this duty.
HEBER J. GRANT, ANTHONY W. IVINS, J. REUBEN CLARK, JR., First Presidency.