This document is one of several known handwritten copies1 of the Articles and Covenants of the Church, which would later become section 20 of the Doctrine and Covenants. It was not uncommon for men to transcribe a copy of the document to take with them on missions or other Church assignments; this copy is in the handwriting of Symonds Rider. The original, unfortunately, no longer exists, but the earliest known version was printed in the Painesville Telegraph, an Ohio newspaper, as the “Mormon Creed.”2
Like the creeds and confessions of other faiths, the Articles and Covenants of the Church outlined Church history, doctrine, and procedures and served as a handbook for early Church members. Its importance is demonstrated by the fact that it was presented for approval at the first conference of the newly organized Church in June 1830. Priesthood holders at that conference received licenses certifying that they had been “baptized and received into the Church according to the Articles & Covenants of the Church.”3 This document laid the foundation for the Church of Jesus Christ.
Like many of Joseph Smith’s revelations, the Articles and Covenants were received gradually, beginning as early as the summer of 1829 and continuing until after the Church’s organizational meeting on April 6, 1830. This process of learning what Christ’s Church should look like began as Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery translated the Book of Mormon. While working, they learned about the priesthood, baptism, the Holy Ghost, the Atonement of Jesus Christ, and other vital principles and doctrines.
Then, in June 1829, as the translation neared completion, Joseph and Oliver, along with David Whitmer, prayed for “instructions relative to building up the Church of Christ, according to the fulness of the gospel.”4 Part of the response they received instructed Oliver Cowdery to “rely upon the things which are written; for in them are all things written concerning the foundation of my church, my gospel, and my rock.”5 In this case, the “things which are written” refers to the Book of Mormon.
With the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, Oliver wrote the Articles of the Church of Christ,6 a short document that compiled the instructions in the Book of Mormon on baptism, the sacrament, and the ordination of priests and teachers. Oliver’s document was likely used to guide believers before the Church was officially organized. For example, the document does not include instructions on conferring the Holy Ghost or ordaining members to the office of elder, two ordinances that Joseph and Oliver had been commanded not to perform until the Church was organized.7
Joseph Smith likely began working on the Articles and Covenants at about the same time Oliver was working on the Articles of the Church of Christ. Because no original drafts of the document have been found, it is impossible to specify how much of the revelation was received before the Church was organized in April 1830. However, the revelation was not presented to the Church until June 1830, suggesting that additional revelation could have been received between April and June 1830.
While both the Articles of the Church of Christ and the Articles and Covenants of the Church rely on the same passages from the Book of Mormon, the Articles and Covenants has a broader scope, including a review of Church history, the divinity and doctrines of the Book of Mormon, a more in-depth treatment of the Atonement, and instructions on the duties of priesthood holders.
The Articles and Covenants of the Church “emphasizes the eternal covenants and commitments required by the Lord” both in Book of Mormon times and in our day.8 It stands as an outline of the faith, history, and practices of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from its organization until today.