DC 39 Historical Background
Not long after this conference of the 2nd of January closed, there was a man came to me by the name of James Covill, who had been a Baptist minister for about forty years, and covenanted with the Lord that he would obey any command that the Lord would give to him through me, as His servant, and I received the following: (History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1: 143.)
DC 39 Biographical Sketch: James Covill
"All that is known of James Covill is that on 5 January 1831, three days after the third conference of the Church at Fayette, New York, the Prophet Joseph Smith received a revelation directed to him. He had been a Baptist minister for about forty years and had made a covenant with the Lord that he would obey any command that the Lord gave to him... James received the word of the Lord through his prophet with 'gladness' (D&C 40:2). One biographer indicates, 'He may have united with the Church at Fayette in January 1831 as Reverand James Civill.' However, LDS Church records do not indicate that he was baptized." (Susan Easton Black, Who's Who in the Doctrine and Covenants [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1997], 72 - 73.)
DC 39:2 a light which shineth in darkness and the darkness comprehendeth it not
When a bright light is brought into a dark room, the change is immediately obvious. When the bright Light of the world ministered in the gloomy darkness of Galilee and Judea, the change was obvious only to a very few. The rest were spiritually blind to the great light that was before them.
So many of the spiritually blind were very religious and extensively trained. How could they reject him? What about a seasoned Christian minister like James Covill? How would he receive that Light? Could he comprehend it? Could he hear the voice of the Lord if it came to him through a humble, twenty-five-year-old prophet named Joseph Smith? Do the Christians of today recognize the voice of the Lord through the message of our missionaries? Indeed, the light still shines in darkness and the darkness comprehendeth it not!
DC 39:4 to as many as received me, gave I power to become my sons
If we are all spirit children of our Heavenly Father, why does the scripture say that some were given power to become God's sons? Weren't they already God's sons? We might want to stop singing "I am a child of God" long enough to consider this idea-that the fall of Adam separates us from God as the prodigal was separated from his father. Like the prodigal, we have spent our inheritance through sin and are no longer worthy to be called sons and daughters. Properly understood, the Fall brings upon us terrible consequences. Without an atonement, we would be "angels to a devil, to be cast out from the presence of our God" (2 Ne. 9:9).
In the language of the scriptures, becoming a son or daughter of Christ is to reestablish that familial relationship which was destroyed by sin. This occurs through the power of the atonement and the perfect plan of mercy. The implications are that the children are to inherit the blessings of the Father and that they have the potential to become like Him. To become a son or daughter of Christ can only occur by being born again according to the scripture, "because of the covenant which ye have made ye shall be called the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters; for behold, this day he hath spiritually begotten you...ye are born of him and have become his sons and his daughters" (Mosiah 5:7).
"This statement indicates that man must be a recipient of divine power-the power of the Holy Spirit-which is given to him from Christ if he is to become a son of the great Redeemer. Jesus gives divine power of truth and light to those who truly receive Him, that they may become His sons. Man cannot enter into that new stage of life that leads ultimately to celestial glory unless he is regenerated and transformed by the power of Jesus Christ." (Hyrum L. Andrus, God, Man, and the Universe [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1968], 237.)
DC 39:6 this is my gospel
We speak of the gospel as if it includes all revealed truth-all the principles, ideas, ordinances, and practices of our religion. Scriptural definitions of the gospel are more focused; they are the core doctrines, the central ideas, the fundamental principles, the essential ordinances. Jesus said, "this is the gospel which I have given unto you-that I came into the world to do the will of my Father, because my Father sent me. And my Father sent me that I might be lifted up upon the cross; and after that I had been lifted up upon the cross, that I might draw all men unto me, that as I have been lifted up by men even so should men be lifted up by the Father, to stand before me, to be judged of their works, whether they be good or whether they be evil" (3 Ne. 27:13-14).
"Some things simply matter more than others. Some topics of discussion, even intellectually stimulating ones, must take a back seat to more fundamental verities. It is so in regard to what the scriptures call the gospel or the doctrine of Christ, those foundational truths associated with the person and powers of Jesus the Messiah. Who he is and what he has done are paramount and central issues; all else, however supplementary, is secondary. The Prophet Joseph Smith was once asked about the basic tenets of Mormonism. 'The fundamental principles of our religion,' he answered, 'are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it' (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith 121; hereafter TPJS). This statement by the Prophet highlights our duty as to what we ought to teach and what ought to receive the greatest stress in the Church. (Robert L. Millet, Third Nephi 9-30: This Is My Gospel, ed. by Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate, Jr., [Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1993], 12.)
DC 39:6 the Holy Ghost...teacheth the peaceable things of the kingdom
Harold B. Lee
In modern revelation the true Church has been defined as the Church having the authority to confer the Holy Ghost, even the gift of the Holy Ghost which gives to those who make themselves worthy, the right to have all peaceable things of the kingdom revealed to them. This makes clear the meaning of the explanation made by the Prophet Joseph when asked by a President of the United States, "How is your church different from all the other churches?" The Prophet Joseph Smith answered in one significant statement, "We are different from all other churches because we have the Holy Ghost" (see DHC 4, 42); in other words, meaning that the principle of continuous revelation by the power of the Holy Ghost is a prime requisite for the true Church. (Conference Report, October 1963, Third Day-Morning Meeting 105.)
L. Lionel Kendrick
President Brigham Young quoted these words of the Prophet Joseph Smith: "They can tell the Spirit of the Lord from all other spirits-it will whisper peace and joy to their souls."
Feelings of peace are promptings and proof that the Spirit is bearing witness to us in response to our petitions. The Lord said to Oliver Cowdery through the Prophet Joseph Smith: "Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter? What greater witness can you have than from God?" (D&C 6:23). ("Personal Revelation," Ensign, Sept. 1999, 13)
Bruce R. McConkie
Because the Holy Spirit speaks peace to the hearts of weary and disconsolate mortals, he is called the Comforter. He brings peace and solace, love and quiet enjoyment, the joy of redemption and the hope of eternal life. (A New Witness for the Articles of Faith [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1985], 268.)
DC 39:9 thou hast rejected me many times because of pride and the cares of the world
"James Covill had been a Baptist minister for forty years. He knew Christ in some degree, but had wavered in the past between faithfulness to what he knew and his pride and care for the things of the world. Here he was given the opportunity to know Christ to the fullest degree possible, but the price was everything he had, including his pride and his temporal concerns. Unfortunately, for Covill the price proved too high. Covill was not an investigator seeking to know the truth; he had already received a spiritual witness that the gospel was true, but it cost too much, and he rejected Christ yet again." (Stephen E. Robinson, H. Dean Garrett, A Commentary on the Doctrine and Covenants, [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 2001] 1:271)
As if speaking directly to James Covill, Spencer W. Kimball made this applicable statement:
"You too are prayerful and religious. But are you also like Nicodemus, burdened down with preconceived and prejudiced notions? Do you think that no good thing can come out of Nazareth, or Palmyra...? Are you too biased to accept new truth? Too wealthy and fettered with the cares of this world to accept the difficult demands of Christ's Church? Are you so influential as to fear to prejudice your position or local influence? Are you too weak to accept and carry a load of service? Are you too busy to study and pray and learn of Christ and his program? Are you too materialistically trained to accept the miracles, visions, prophets, and revelations?" (Conference Report, April 1958, First Day-Morning Meeting 16 - 17.)
DC 39:10 Arise and be baptized
Here the Lord is telling a Baptist minister to be baptized. Well, he should know a thing or two about baptism already! He has already been baptized according to the tradition of his church. Why then should the Lord instruct him to be baptized again? This is the question many investigators ask. The story of one is as follows:
"One day the thought came to me that I could not expect to go on forever taking up the valuable time of these young men, and if I believed the truths that they were teaching, I should be baptized. This was a most disturbing thought to me. I was afraid to discuss my feelings with my husband, for he was not particularly interested in the gospel. I became unhappy and ill at ease. I felt more and more that I could not go on with Mormonism; that meant that I must give it up-and oh, how dreadful it would be to give it up! Soon after, when Elder Brown came, he saw at once that something was wrong. He asked me if I were unhappy and I answered feverishly, 'Yes, I am wretched. I feel I cannot go on any longer with Mormonism. I must give it up or accept it.'
"He stood up before me and in a most decided manner told me that the time had come for me to be baptized. I answered bitterly, 'But I have already been baptized.'
"He said, 'Have you been baptized by one having authority?' I hung my head and could not answer. Then without another word he put out his hand and said, 'Good afternoon, Mrs. Noble,' and was quickly gone.
"How dreadful I felt and how alone. I went immediately to my room and dropped to my knees and cried out, 'Father, I am ignorant and cannot see the way; tell me whether this is the true church or not.'
"Instantly I heard these words, 'This is the way, walk ye in it.' That was all, but it was enough. No words of mine can express the convincing power that came into my whole being, and with it came peace. I stood up and said, 'Now I know beyond a doubt.'" (Annie Emma Dexter Noble in Best-Loved Stories of the LDS People, vol. 2, ed by Jack M. Lyon, Jay A. Parry, and Linda R. Gundry, [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1999], 385.)
DC 39:12 I will be with thee and go before thy face
Joseph B. Wirthlin
What is said here to James Covill in this dispensation, when the Church was only nine months old, applies with equal force to us now-and is a remarkable and powerful reiteration of the promise made by the Savior during his earthly ministry. His pledge that he will be in our midst when two or three are gathered together in his name is a wonderful declaration of his unbounded love for each of us and assures us of his presence in our church services, in our individual lives, and in the intimate circles of our families... On another occasion Jesus said, "I stand at the door, and knock." (Rev. 3:20.) Unless we open the door and permit him to come into our lives, he can't enter into our midst. ("There Am I in the Midst of Them," Ensign, May 1976, 55)
DC 39:14 thou art called to go to the Ohio
We might imagine that James Covill had been living in the state of New York for quite some time. Perhaps he approached the Prophet expecting the Lord to praise him for his years of faithful service or to send him on a special mission to the east. Instead, the Lord asks him to move to Ohio, the frontier of civilization. He would have to start over. He would have to leave friends and family. He would have to leave his congregation, his standing, and his reputation. The Lord was asking him to make a real sacrifice. His response was much like the rich young ruler of a previous dispensation. (Luke 18:18-27)
DC 39:16 the people in Ohio call upon me...thinking I will stay my hand in judgment
Joseph Fielding Smith
It seems that the people in Ohio, like many other people of today, thought the Lord could stay his hand, and revoke the judgments upon mankind even if they would not repent. The Lord declared to the contrary, that his hand could not be stayed, except in the case that the people would repent; otherwise the judgments were bound to follow. They would bring them upon themselves because of their wickedness, and it was a matter of their agency. (Church History and Modern Revelation, 4 vols. [Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1946-1949], 1: 159)