DC 40 Historical Background
Many sections of the Doctrine and Covenants were given not just to Joseph Smith but to his associates as well. Although section 39 was given just to Joseph Smith, section 40 was given to Joseph and Sidney Rigdon. Both Sidney and James Covill had been Christian ministers, and it would seem that the Lord gave the revelation to Sidney as well as a way of reminding him of the consequences of rejecting the word.
Perhaps we can see some symbolism in the way Sidney Rigdon and James Covill responded to the gospel message. Both had dedicated their lives to the Lord. Both had been Christian ministers for some time. Both were exposed to new light and knowledge through the Restoration. Both would receive direct revelation through the Prophet Joseph Smith. But only one was willing to make the sacrifice necessary to receive the "blessing such as is not known among the children of men" (D&C 39:15).
DC 40:2 he received the word with gladness
Joseph Fielding Smith
We are led to believe that in this promised blessing, this foolish man was convinced of the truth, for it is clear that the Lord revealed to him things which he and the Lord alone knew to be the truth. However, when he withdrew from the influence of the Spirit of the Lord and had time to consider the fact that he would lose the fellowship of the world, and his place and position among his associates, he failed and rejected the promises and blessings which the Lord offered him. In a revelation explaining why he failed, the Lord said: [quotes D&C 40:1-3]
How many others there have been, and now are, who have rejected the word of the Lord because of the love of the world and the fear of men, to mortals may never be made known. Evidently they are legions, some have frankly admitted, others have turned away and have developed a spirit of extreme bitterness towards the Church. (Church History and Modern Revelation, 1:159-60.)
DC 40:2 fear of persecution and the cares of the world caused him to reject the word
Orson F. Witney
There are still others who love the truth and who recognize it, but they dare not espouse it; they are afraid of the social consequences. This whole broad land, this whole broad world, is sprinkled with such people. When the principles of the Gospel are presented to them they say, in surprise and astonishment. "Is that Mormonism? I never dreamed it. Why, that is true-I believe it with all my heart." And the tears spring to their eyes as they acknowledge it. But they don't come out in the open and fight for it. (Conference Report, April 1915, p. 102.)
DC 40:3 he broke my covenant , and it remaineth with me to do with him as seemeth me good
"James Covill was a covenant breaker. It is apparent that his former weaknesses gained ascendancy over the gladness which came into his heart, and he succumbed to fear. It was a fear of persecution and the cares of the world. Unmindful of the beatitude of promised blessings to those who are persecuted for righteousnes sake (for their reward was to be an inheritance in the kingdom of heaven), Covill's actions were not motivated to this extent. (Matt. 5:10-12.) The fear that he might not be able to provide for himself temporally, also was a factor in his rejection of the gospel.
"Judgment of all such individuals is in the hands of the Lord. There have been many in the world who have come to the threshold of the kingdom of God but who have succumbed to similar fears. Concerning such an one who was in the same profession as James Covill, we have the comment of President Joseph F. Smith. An ordained minister in the 'English Church' for fifty-five years wrote to his Latter-day Saint relatives that:
I preach three sermons every week and execute other ministerial duties, but I never preach anything contrary to the doctrines of "Mormonism," not designedly but necessarily, because I see the fundamentals of Holy Scripture are the same as those restored by what people call "Mormonism."
He then posed this question:
What is to become of such as me, who believes this about you, and yet are tied and bound by circumstances such as mine?
The President of the Church wrote:
In answer to the question, "What is to become of such as me?" let it be said that every person will receive his just reward for the good he may do and for his every act. But let it be remembered that all blessings which we shall receive, either here or hereafter, must come to us as a result of our obedience to the laws of God upon which these blessings are predicated. Our friend will not be forgotten for the kindness he has extended to the work and the servants of the Lord, but will be remembered of Him and rewarded for his faith and for every good deed and word. But there are many blessings that result from obeying the ordinances of the gospel, and acknowledging the priesthood authorized by the Father and restored to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that cannot be obtained, until the person is willing to comply with the ordinances and keep the commandments revealed in our day for the salvation of mankind. The true searcher will see and understand this truth and act upon it, either in this world or in the world to come, and not until then, of course, may he claim all the blessings. The earlier he accepts, the earlier will he obtain the blessings, and if he neglects to accept the laws, in this world, knowing them to be true, it is reasonable to suppose that disadvantages will result that will cause him deep regret. (Improvement Era, November 1912, 71-72.)
(Roy W. Doxey, The Doctrine and Covenants Speaks [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1964], 1: 210-212)