Section 49

Ann Lee and her family were early Shakers, or members of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, as they called themselves. At age 22, Ann believed she had a revelation that she was to be God’s messenger. She became the leader of the group in 1772 and led her few followers from England to America two years later, settling near Albany, New York. The Believers struggled during the Revolution but gradually gained momentum from the same series of spiritual awakenings that gave rise to the restoration. Having lost all four of her children to death as infants before being abandoned by her adulterous husband, Lee died in 1784. The Believers continued to thrive in America, however, leading to the establishment of several communities including North Union, Ohio, just a few miles from Joseph Smith in Kirtland.[1] The Saints and the Believers were neighborly and traded with each other.[2]

The Believers believed that Christ instituted God’s first church, which subsequently apostatized. They believed, therefore, that God would restore his church. Believers acknowledged the goodness of “real reformers,” but, asserting that both Catholic and Protestant Christianity were apostate from Christ’s church, they held that “a true Church could have originated only by a new revelation from God to some one person.” They believed that George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, prepared the world for God to establish his church again. Then “arose Ann Lee and her little company, to whom Christ appeared the second time.” They held that Ann Lee, “by strictly obeying the light revealed within her, became righteous even as Jesus was righteous. She acknowledged Jesus Christ as her Head and Lord, and formed the same character as a spiritual woman that he formed as a spiritual man.” She was, in a sense, “the second appearing of Christ.”

Believers held that marriage is a worldly, not divine, institution (citing Matthew 22:30) and that sexual relations were ungodly. The choice to leave the world and live celibately was, in Shaker terms, to “take up the cross.” They rejected resurrection and looked forward to shedding their flesh at death to live a wholly spiritual afterlife.  They believed in individual moral agency, noting that only those who chose to obey the Lord will be saved, and that coercion is wrong. They believed in confessing sin but not in the need for redeeming ordinances such as baptism. Believers advocated temperance, including eating meat sparingly if at all. Shaker explanations for worshipping God by singing and dancing sound like D&C 136:28, where the Lord acknowledges that repentant, forgiven souls long to sing and dance as forms of prayer and thanksgiving. Believers taught consecration and stewardship of property. They rejected all forms of exploitation—especially men of women, capital owners of laborers, and mankind of the environment. They envisioned God as both Father and Mother. They spoke of “our Eternal Heavenly Mother,” citing Genesis 1:27—”Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. So God created man in his own image, male and female.[3]

Oliver Cowdery spent a few days among the North Union Believers and left several copies of the Book of Mormon with them in 1830, promising to return. Ashbel Kitchell, their large, impressive leader, kept thinking about Oliver’s teachings. He decided that “if God had any hand in that work, he would inform me by some means, that I might know what to do, either by letting me have an interview with an angel, or by some other means give me knowledge of my duty.”[4]

A Believer named Leman Copley embraced the restored gospel. In May 1831, he came to Joseph “apparently honest hearted, but still retaining ideas that the Believers were right in some particulars of their faith; and, in order to have a more perfect understanding on the subject,” Joseph’s history says, “I inquired of the Lord and received the following revelation.”[5] The Lord revealed Section 49 because Joseph did not know exactly where Shaker beliefs and the restored gospel overlapped or diverged. Copley “was anxious that some of the elders should go to his former brethren and preach the gospel.”[6] Section 49 assigned Sidney Rigdon and Parley Pratt to go with Copley to deliver section 49 to the Believers.

Section 49 clarifies the truth and error in Shaker doctrine. Perhaps that is why we hear Heavenly Father’s first person voice in this revelation, a rare treat. Is he speaking to clarify the nature of the Godhead? Often in the Doctrine and Covenants we hear Christ speaking of himself as the Son of God. Section 49 ends that way, but most of the revelation is in Heavenly Father’s voice. This is one of only two places in the Doctrine and Covenants where we hear the Father speak of Christ as his Only Begotten Son.[7]

The revelation clarifies that Ann Lee was not Christ, nor is any man that comes along saying he is. Christ will come with power from heaven, having sent his angels in advance to sanctify the earth with fire. Section 49 clarifies that the Believers’ err in thinking marriage is a temporary, human institution. Because the Believers do not understand premortal life and God’s plan to embody his children on earth and make them immortal by resurrection and fully divine by exaltation, their opposition to marriage and procreation is counter to his plan. They are thwarting it and section 49 tells them so. Similarly, Believers erred in rejecting the ordinance of baptism and the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.  

Section 49 affirms Believers beliefs that are aligned with restored truths. They and the Lord see eye to eye on the evils of inequality and on exploiting the environment needlessly (D&C 49:20-21).  

Sidney and Leman left the day the revelation was given, a Saturday, and were in North Union in time to witness the Believers’ evening meeting. They visited with Ashabel Kitchell that evening, discussing whether sex, even in marriage, was Christian. The elders spent the night among the Believers. Parley arrived in North Union early on the Sabbath and asked his companions how things were going. Sidney told him of the last evening’s discussion, and that Ashabel had invited them not to debate doctrines but join the Believers for worship. Parley refused to sit by silently. “They had come with the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ,” he contended, “and the people must hear it.” The missionaries sat through the service respectfully. Afterwards Sidney rose and told them he had a message from the Lord Jesus Christ specifically for them. “Could he have the privilege of delivering it?  He was told he might.”  Sidney read Section 49 and asked the Believers to receive it.  

Here was the answer to Ashabel Kitchell’s prayer that God would tell him whether the gospel Oliver Cowdery taught was true. Ashabel rejected it, saying: “The Christ that dictated that I was well acquainted with, and had been from a boy, that I had been much troubled to get rid of his influence, and I wished to have nothing more to do with him; and as for any gift he had authorized them to exercise among us, I would release them & their Christ from any further burden about us, and take all the responsibility on myself.”

“You cannot,” Sidney Rigdon protested.  “I wish to hear the people speak.”  Ashabel advised the Believers to make their feelings known. They echoed their leader and Sidney relented to their will. Parley Pratt rose, took off his coat, and shook it in front of them “as a testimony against us,” Ashabel said, “that we had rejected the word of the Lord Jesus.”
“You filthy beast,” he responded to Parley. “Dare you presume to come in here, and try to imitate a man of God by shaking your filthy tail; confess your sins and purge your soul from your lusts, and your other abominations before you ever presume to do the like again.”[8]

What a scene that must have been. By Ashabel’s account he cowed the missionaries with his forceful rebuke, but Parley Pratt was not easily intimidated. He got back on his horse and went straight home to Kirtland. Sidney stayed for supper with the Believers. Leman stayed overnight and decided to reunite with the Believers. Years later, Parley summed up the drama with a single line. “We fulfilled this mission, as we were commanded, in a settlement of strange people, near Cleveland, Ohio; but they utterly refused to hear or obey the gospel.”[9]

Section 50

What happens when young missionaries convert well over a hundred people in a short time, and then the missionaries and the most mature spiritual leaders among the converts leave town? According to John Whitmer, “the enemy of all righteous [gets] hold of some of those who profesed to be his followers, because they had not sufficent knowledge to detect him in all his devices.”[1] According to a local newspaper in northeastern Ohio, “Immediately after Mr. R[igdon] and the four pretended prophets left Kirtland, a scene of the wildest enthusiasm was exhibited, chiefly, however, among the young people; they would fall, as without strength, roll upon the floor, and, so mad were they that even the females were seen in a cold winter day, lying under the bare canopy of heaven, with no couch or pillow but the fleecy snow.”[2]

When one of the missionaries, Parley Pratt, returned from Missouri, he noticed that “some very strange spiritual operations were manifested, which were disgusting, rather than edifying. Some persons would seem to swoon away, and make unseemly gestures, and be drawn or disfigured in their countenances. Others would fall into ecstacies, and be drawn into contortions, cramp, fits, etc. Others would seem to have visions and revelations, which were not edifying, and which were not congenial to the doctrine and spirit of the gospel. In short, a false and lying spirit seemed to be creeping into the Church.”[3]

 John Whitmer reported that after Joseph arrived on the scene, “these things grieved the servants of the Lord.” They counseled together at Joseph’s home. They did not know what to do, so Joseph sought and received section 50 “in consequence of their not being perfectly acquainted with the different operations of the Spirits which are abroad in the earth.”[4]

In section 50, Christ condescends to the elders’ intellectual level in order to be understood. He reaches them where they are and enlightens them. This kind of teaching has results beyond mastery of facts. As a result of it, the weak become strong, the deceived become discerning. Though Satan had power over the deceived elders, those who “attend to the words” of this revelation are promised power over him. “The spirits shall be subject unto you,” Christ assures them on the condition that they act out his instructions precisely. Does it work?  

Before the revelation, Jared Carter had been confused by and powerless to act in the face of the strange things he witnessed. After the revelation he was neither confused or powerless. He was conducting a sacrament meeting in Amherst, Ohio with his companion when a young woman fell to the floor. Jared, doubting that the Holy Spirit would interrupt the sacrament, thought a false spirit was at work. He suggested to his companion that they “try that Spirit according to the revelation that God had given.” He explained how they followed verses 31-34 precisely: “We kneeled down and asked our Heavenly Father in the name of Christ, that if that spirit which the sister possessed was of him, he would give it to us. We prayed in faith, but we did not receive the Spirit.” 

Jared’s companion made a weak statement “which was not proclaiming against the spirit” as verse 32 commands.  “I arose and proclaimed against it with a loud voice,” Jared wrote, reflecting his intimate knowledge of the revelation.  Most of the congregation objected, sure that the young woman was full of the Holy Ghost like the queen in Alma 19. But this was a counterfeit Jared discerned by the Holy Ghost and rebuked by the power of the priesthood. He lost much of his influence among that group of saints but, as he wrote, “I received assurance that I had the approbation of my Heavenly Father, which was better than the good will of many deceived brethren.”[5]

Section 50 puzzles some modern students, who sometimes jump too hastily to the conclusion that anyone who sees a vision or falls to the floor unconscious or speaks in an unknown tongue is clearly not experiencing the Holy Ghost.  If those were the criteria for discerning, we would have to reject large parts of the Book of Mormon and several sections of the Doctrine and Covenants along with much of our history. It is not that simple. Satan is abroad deceiving. As Section 50 says, a knee-jerk reaction against false spirits can actually lead a person to be “seized” with a false spirit themselves. Ironically, a smug certainty that one would not be fool enough to fall for the kinds of things some early converts did may be an indication that one has already been deceived. Joseph taught, “it is that smooth, sophisticated influence of the Devil, by which he deceives the whole world.”[6]

Discerning spirits takes a sound mind, but it is a spiritual, not primarily an intellectual, process.  To gain power over false spirits, one must obey the voice of Jesus Christ, have him cleanse and purify them, and learn the difference between light and darkness. For Joseph Smith, Jared Carter and many others, that lesson has been learned by experiencing both and learning to recognize the difference.       

Like Jared Carter, several elders acted out the revelation and got the church back in order.  Parley Pratt told how he obeyed the Lord’s command in verse 37. “Joseph Wakefield and myself visited several branches of the Church, rebuking the wrong spirits which had crept in among them, setting in order things that were wanting.”[7]

Section 49 notes

[1] F.W. Evans, Believers Compendium (1859), chapter XI.

[2] Lawrence R. Flake, “A Shaker View of a Mormon Mission,” BYU Studies 20:1 (1979), 94-99.

[3] F.W. Evans, Believers Compendium (1859), chapters III-X.

[4] Lawrence R. Flake, “A Shaker View of a Mormon Mission,” BYU Studiies 20:1 (1979), 94-99.

[5] “History, 1838–1856, volume A-1 [23 December 1805–30 August 1834],” p. 112, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed July 30, 2020,

[6] “John Whitmer, History, 1831–circa 1847,” p. 26, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed September 30, 2020,

[7] “Revelation, 7 May 1831 [D&C 49],” p. 80, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed September 30, 2020,

[8] Lawrence R. Flake, “A Shaker View of a Mormon Mission,” BYU Studiies 20:1 (1979), 94-99.

[9] Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, revised and enhanced edition, edited by Scot Facer Proctor and Maurine Jensen Proctor (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 2000), 69-70.

Section 50 notes

[1] “John Whitmer, History, 1831–circa 1847,” p. 10, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed July 30, 2020,

[2] [Matthew S. Clapp], “Mormonism,” Painesville (OH) Telegraph, 15 Feb. 1831, [1] –[2], italics in original.

[3] Parley P. Pratt, The Autobiography of Parley Parker Pratt, Edited by Parley P. Pratt Jr. New York: Russell Brothers, 1874), 65.

[4] “Revelation, 9 May 1831 [D&C 50],” p. 82, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed July 30, 2020,

[5] Autobiography of Jared Carter, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.

[6] Joseph Smith, Journal, 2 January 1843, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.

[7] The Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, revised and enhanced edition, edited by Scot Facer Proctor and Maurine Jensen Proctor (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 2000), 79.

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