Cover image: Martin Harris Farm, by Al Rounds via Gospel Media Library.
To be honest, when I started this article, it didn’t take long to feel overwhelmed. You almost need a graduate degree in history to fully understand the context behind each section of the Doctrine and Covenants. Don’t get me wrong. Understanding the context in which revelations are received within any portion of the scriptures can help us more fully comprehend how real the people were who received them. This understanding can give us empathy for those who have come before us as well as hope for the kind of relationship we can have with the Lord as we seek revelation from Him today.
But I learned a lesson about this kind of historical background study as I read these sections that I hadn’t ever considered before. Before reading the verses of sections 18 and 19 at all, I started by reading all the background information I could get my hands on. I went through entire chapters of biographical information on Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris (two of the major players in the context of these sections). I went through page after page of the Joseph Smith papers looking to key primary source documents talking about what led up to these revelations.
And when the dust settled, I really had learned quite a bit.
I learned how Martin Harris had sold everything he had to publish the Book of Mormon; how even though Joseph Smith told him he could make some of the money back by selling copies of The Book of Mormon, they simply didn’t sell; and even how Martin Harris’ wife chose to be separated from him, claiming 50 acres of their property for herself and leaving him destitute after funding what she saw as a failed publication investment. I even learned that, after losing his family, friends, property and just about everything else you could think of, Martin Harris was baptized and, after a long journey with a lot of twists and turns, died a faithful member of the Kingdom of God.
What an inspirational story that was! I thought of what I would do if the Lord asked me to give up all I had for the Kingdom. I was inspired by the sacrifice of a man who, though certainly far from perfect, never stopped trying to do what he thought was the right thing. It was lovely.
Then I read the actual scriptures.
What happened next was a little puzzling at first. Instead of reading all about Martin Harris and his personal journey of sacrifice and faith, all I saw were verses that pointed to Christ. Nearly every verse in these two sections were about repentance: invitations to repentance, the joys of repentance and the harrowing price of repentance. And in turn these all pointed back to Christ as the center and source of their sanctity.
“I command all men everywhere,” the Lord says in 18:9-10, “to repent…, for the worth of souls is great in the sight of God.” Cry repentance to all people, He says—not out of anger, or revenge or wrath, but out of love. In these verses, we learn that God doesn’t want us to repent because He hates us or wants to limit us in some way. It isn’t even because He wants to punish us. In order to avoid the pain that He experienced, which caused Him, “even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit,” all He asked is that we repent.
As Elder Renlund explained recently in General Conference, the decision to take part in this kind of repentance is a joyful one. And if we want to experience more joy in our lives (something I think all of us could definitely use right now), he says, all we need to do is begin to repent and that joy can also begin.
But when we choose to repent, how long does it take for God to come into our lives and begin to work with us for that mighty change we long for? How long must we wait in this world of instant clicks and 24-hour news cycles? Surely, this ancient mode of faith must be something for whose effects we must patiently wait. Actually, not so much. While the full effects of repentance do take time, the answer about when it begins to help is simple: immediately, says Alma 34:31. “If ye will repent,” it says, “immediately shall the great plan of redemption be brought about unto you.” If we start now, no matter where that starting point may be, Christ’s power can begin to work within us now, too, just as fast as we’re willing to begin.
Back in Doctrine and Covenants chapter 19, we learn even more about repentance—not just that Christ suffered unimaginable pain to free us from the chains of sin, but that whatever punishment is affixed to sin is not some nameless torment without end. It is His now. Because of the Atonement of Christ, the endless and eternal punishment of which the scriptures speak are so named because they are His punishment.
So, if we will just repent, we can be saved from that punishment. By the love and grace of the Lord, we can be saved. And that saving can begin immediately.
But it isn’t just the immediacy of repentance that can bring us the joy Christ talks about here. Yes, the cleansing power of Christ’s Atonement begins immediately when we choose to accept it through our commitment to confess and forsake. Yet, one of the most comforting doctrines surrounding repentance is about the longevity and absolute thoroughness of Christ’s healing power.
In one of his last General Conference addresses, Boyd K. Packer momentarily departed from the text of his prepared talk to teach us this: “The Atonement,” he said, “leaves no tracks, no traces. What it fixes is fixed…It just heals, and what it heals stays healed. The Atonement, which can reclaim each one of us, bears no scars. That means that no matter what we have done or where we have been or how something happened, if we truly repent, [the Savior] has promised that He would atone. And when He atoned, that settled that…The Atonement…can wash clean every stain no matter how difficult or how long or how many times repeated (The Plan of Happiness, General Conference, April 2015).”
And so at the end of these two chapters about this joyful choice, having spread before us the joyful message of repentance, the Lord asks one simple question: “Behold, canst thou read this without rejoicing and lifting up thy heart for gladness (D&C 19:39)?” Probably not.
So, what does all this have to do with Martin Harris and all that stuff I read?
Apart from learning about the joys of repentance, in these chapters, I learned that sometimes it can be easy to get so caught up in knowing the details of the historical contexts behind the scriptures that we can run the risk of losing our focus on Christ who, as the author and finisher of our faith, is forever and always at the heart of the scriptures. And while the lessons of Martin Harris’ life were indeed inspiring, they are of little worth if removed from or even if they overshadow the message of Christ’s invitation to eternal joy through repentance.
So, while understanding contexts and backgrounds is important, I learned this time around that they must never overshadow that which is most important: faith in Jesus Christ, repentance and the other first principles of the Gospel. As long as we hold to those, each section, each verse we read will draw us closer to Him which, in the end, is what repentance and even the life of Martin Harris were and are all about.