Section 37

By the end of 1830, an astonishing amount had happened since the spring, when a handful of members organized the Savior’s Church. There were now dozens of members in New York, and missionaries had converted many more than that in Ohio before trekking to the western frontier to convert others and scout a location for New Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, Joseph and Sidney Rigdon were reading the Bible closely and seeking and receiving revelation that clarified and amplified it. Joseph received the Book of Moses by revelation, including the prophecy of Enoch, now Moses chapters 6-8 in the Pearl of Great Price. Church historian John Whitmer noted that “after they had written this prophecy, the Lord spoke to them again and gave further directions,” section 37.[1]

The Lord explained to Joseph that under these circumstances it was not useful for Joseph to continue revising the Bible until he goes to Ohio for the church’s sake, because of some unspecified enemy. The Lord commands Joseph to strengthen the saints in both western and eastern New York first. All saints in New York, the Lord says, are to move to Ohio quickly, before Oliver Cowdery returns from his mission to the west. This is the wise thing to do, but as free agents each of the saints must choose whether to do it. Soon the Lord will come and hold them accountable for their choice.   

Joseph and Sidney did exactly what the Lord told them to do.

John Whitmer’s history says that “after the above directions were received, Joseph and Sidney went to the several churches preaching and prophesying wherever they went, and greatly strengthened the churches.” Specifically, as the revelation directed, “Joseph and Sidney went to Colesville to do the will of the Lord in that part of the land and to strengthen the disciples in that part of the vineyard.” Joseph sent John Whitmer to Ohio to preside and to take a copy of the revelations to teach the saints there. John reported what he found: “The enemy of all righteousness had got hold of some of those who professed to be his followers, because they had not sufficient knowledge to detect him in all of his devices.”  

Back in New York the generally prosperous and long-settled saints struggled to come to terms with section 37. John blamed worldliness and false traditions for the saints’ hesitance to “believe the commandments that came forth in these last days for the upbuilding of the kingdom of God, and the salvation of those who believe.” They dragged their feet and waited for Section 38 to be revealed before doing what Section 37 commanded them to do, namely to choose to obey or disobey.[2]

Section 38

Early in 1831 Joseph Smith gathered the fledgling Church of Jesus Christ, not yet a year old, for general conference in Fayette, New York. Newel Knight remembered that “it was at this conference that we were instructed as a people, to begin the gathering of Israel, and a revelation was given to the prophet on this subject.”[1]

Joseph announced section 37’s command for them to move to Ohio right away. The saints wanted “somewhat more” explanation. Joseph asked the Lord during the meeting and received section 38.[2]

Unlike the terse command to move to Ohio in section 37, this time the Lord gives a detailed rationale for the commandment. The situation is bleak. All flesh is corrupted, the powers of darkness prevail, eternity is pained (D&C 38:11-12). The enemy, presumably Satan, plots the saints’ destruction. The Lord paints a vivid, apocalyptic picture of the different destinies awaiting those who believe and obey the revelation compared to those “who will not hear my voice but harden their hearts, and wo, wo, wo is their doom” (D&C 38:1-6).  

The January 1831 revelation compelled the saints to decide whether to serve themselves or the Lord.

It provided them a way out of the world. It envisioned an alternative society. It came in the voice of the Lord who took “the Zion of Enoch into mine own bosom . . . by the virtue of the blood which I have spilt” (D&C 38:4).  It foretold evil designs to destroy the saints “in process of time” (D&C 38:4, 13). 

Those were the exact same words recently revealed to Joseph to describe how Enoch’s Zion made it safely out of this world (Moses 7:21). Their eerie similarity to the New York saints living in “Babylon” suggests that a creeping, cultural evil posed a great threat to the spiritual welfare of the New York saints, though, like the proverbially slow-boiled frog, they could hardly discern it themselves.  

The revelation brought the crisis to the saints’ attention, compelling them to choose, for it described an either/or proposition, to begin the “process” of becoming like Enoch’s Zion or continue the “process” toward “destruction” (D&C 38:13).  To be saved, the New York saints must move to Ohio (D&C 38:10-13).  

The choice to escape was also a choice to acknowledge the Lord as the source of authority, the maker of worlds as well as laws, and Joseph Smith as his spokesman (D&C 21:1-8).  “Hear my voice and follow me,” the Lord commanded unequivocally  (D&C 38:22).  The revelation required the saints to relieve poverty, esteem everyone equally, and to “be one” (D&C 38:27). To those at the conference, the revelation shouted objections to the cultural messages they received every day to be partisan, to be covetous, and to “possess that which is above another,” “like the Nephites of old” (D&C 49:20, 38:39).  It seemed calculated to test the integrity of covenant-makers by compelling them to choose either the “the things of this world” or “the things of a better” (D&C 25:10, 38:17-20, 25-26, 39). The revelation was starkly indifferent to the saints’ carnal security. “They that have farms that cannot be sold, let them be left or rented as seemeth them good” (D&C 38:37). The irrelevance of property contrasts sharply with the revelation’s emphasis on the welfare of souls. There is a sense of urgency that the saints might make it safely out of a fallen world.  “That you might escape the power of the enemy, and be gathered unto me a righteous people, without spot and blameless: wherefore for this cause I gave unto you the commandment that ye should go to the Ohio” (D&C 38:31-32).  

The revelation caused an initial shock and division among the saints.

Some who were comfortable in New York did not want to obey it. Some projected their own selfishness onto the prophet, claiming he had invented the revelation to get gain himself. “This,” John Whitmer noted, “was because, their hearts were not right in the sight of the Lord.”[3]

That is not the most remarkable part. Given the individualistic attitude of the society in which these saints lived, the remarkable fact is not that “one or two” chafed at the “monumental sacrifice” of the command to gather in Ohio, but the stunning degree of obedience and sacrifice in response to section 38.[4] “The Lord had manifested his will to his people,” John noted, “Therefore they made preparations to Journey to the Ohio, with their wives, and children and all that they possessed, to obey the commandment of the Lord.[5]

Newel Knight wrote, “as might be expected, we were obliged to make great sacrifices of our property.”[6] By keeping the command to pull up telestial roots and forsake telestial concerns, the New York saints were yielding up their selves to God.[7] They were making a bold, counter-cultural declaration.[8] By so doing they prepared themselves to receive the law of consecration the Lord promised to give them when they gathered to Ohio. They were self-selecting to be “endowed with power from on high” (D&C 38:32).

Sections 39-40

James Covel was a Methodist minister and president, in fact, of a Methodist Conference in western New York. Early in 1831 James came to Joseph and said he had covenanted with the Lord to obey any command the Lord gave him through Joseph. The Lord gave Joseph section 39 for James.[1]

The Lord reveals how well he knows James, and that his hearts is now right. The great sorrow of James’s past stems from his pride and worldly cares, which have led him to reject Christ many times, but the day of his deliverance has come. The Lord commands James to “arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins,” and receive the Holy Spirit.

If James will obey the law of the gospel, the Lord has greater work for him to do: preaching the fulness of the gospel, which Christ has sent forth as a covenant to recover the house of Israel. James will have power, great faith, and the Lord to go before him.  The Lord has called him to build the church so that Zion may rejoice and flourish. James is called to go to west to Ohio.

James Covill broke his covenant.

Almost immediately he “rejected the word of the Lord” in Section 39 “and returned to his former principles and people.” Joseph and Sidney wondered why, and the Lord explained in section 40.[2]

The order of events in Section 40 is important.  First, James Covill made a covenant with an honest heart. He sincerely received the gospel. Then Satan tempted him to fear the persecution that would result, to worry about giving up his paid ministry for a lay one. James chose to follow those fears and cares, resulting in a broken covenant.

This sequence highlights how revelation facilitates agency. A person has agency, or power to act independently, only when they know what God wants, Satan poses an alternative, and they are free to choose between the two (see section 29). Given section 39, James knew just what the Lord wanted him to do. Then Satan countered the commandments. James was free to choose between the two. He chose to break his covenant, making it null and void.  

Some have cited sections 39 and 40 as evidence that Joseph Smith was a fraud. 

They contend that these sections prove that Joseph’s God did not even know that James Covill would not obey. That conclusion depends on a particular conception of God that is not evident in Joseph’s revelations. The Lord who spoke through Joseph Smith does not function in that agency robbing way. Joseph’s revelations distinguished between the sovereignty of God and the agency of individuals (see Section 93). Joseph taught truly that “God sees the secret springs of human action, and knows the hearts of all living,” but it did not follow for Joseph that God caused bad behavior.[3] “I believe that God foreknew everything, but did not foreordain everything,” Joseph taught profoundly. “I deny that foreordain and foreknow is the same thing.”[4]

In other words, God did not make James Covill break his covenant. Rather, the Lord gave James power to make and keep his covenant and the agency to decide whether to make and keep it for himself. Revelation give us knowledge of God’s will. It makes us free to choose. Section 40 explains that James Covill made and broke his covenant of his own free will. It is a more significant revelation than one might assume based on its brevity.

Section 37 notes

[1] “John Whitmer, History, 1831–circa 1847,” p. 4, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed July 25, 2020,

[2] “John Whitmer, History, 1831–circa 1847,” p. 5, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed July 25, 2020,

Section 38 notes

[1] “Newel Knight Autobiography,” in Dan Vogel, editor, Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City: Signature, 2002): 4:64.

[2] “John Whitmer, History, 1831–circa 1847,” p. 6, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed September 25, 2020,

[3] “John Whitmer, History, 1831–circa 1847,” p. 9, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed September 25, 2020,

[4] William G. Hartley, Stand by My Servant Joseph (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 2003), 103.

[5] Book of John Whitmer, chapter 1, Community of Christ Archives, Independence, Missouri.

[6] “Newel Knight Autobiography,” 4:64.

[7] “We tend to think of consecration only as yielding up, when divinely directed, our material possessions.  But ultimate consecration is the yielding up of oneself to God.”  Neal A. Maxwell, Ensign, November 2002, 36.

[8] Elder Jeffrey R. Holland taught the same principle in our time: “Pay your tithing as a declaration that possession of material goods and the accumulation of worldly wealth are not the uppermost goals of your existence. As one young husband and father, living on a student budget, recently told me, “Perhaps our most pivotal moments as Latter-day Saints come when we have to swim directly against the current of the culture in which we live. Tithing provides just such a moment. Living in a world that emphasizes material acquisition and cultivates distrust for anyone or anything that has designs on our money, we shed that self-absorption to give freely, trustingly, and generously. By this act, we say—indeed—we are different, that we are God’s peculiar people. In a society that tells us money is our most important asset, we declare emphatically it is not.” Jeffrey R. Holland, “Like a Watered Garden,” Ensign, November 2001, 33.

Sections 39-40 notes

[1] “History, 1838–1856, volume A-1 [23 December 1805–30 August 1834],” p. 91, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed July 25, 2020,

[2] “History, 1838–1856, volume A-1 [23 December 1805–30 August 1834],” p. 92, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed September 25, 2020,

[3] “Letter to William W. Phelps, 11 January 1833,” p. 19, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed July 25, 2020,

[4] “History, 1838–1856, volume C-1 [2 November 1838–31 July 1842],” p. 1014, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed September 25, 2020,

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