A Voice of Warning
This section was written in November 1831, 1 1/2 years after the Church was officially organized. It is a proclamation, not just to the members, but to "ye people from afar; and ye that are upon the islands of the sea, listen together."
Imagine, a church of just a few hundred people, with just a few congregations in New York and Pennsylvania, coming forth with a proclamation to people throughout the world. Missionary work was just beginning. The members had yet to gather to Kirtland, or to open the great proselyting mission in England (still several years ahead). For a Church which now has millions of members worldwide, and is living in the "Mormon Moment" (2012-13), this proclamation may not seem so profound. But for the little church in the woods to call the world to repentance was definitely a foreshadow of what was to come.
This section states that the Lord's servants will go forth with the gospel of repentance to all the earth! We can see that this prophecy has come to pass, and now with the recent changes to the missionary age (18 for men, 19 for women), we will soon double the numbers of missionaries out in the world from 55,000 to over 100,000.
The Lord's message is not one of sweetness, but is a voice of warning. Great destruction will come upon the earth, and only the humble who turn to God will ever hope to escape it. When we consider the technological advances in warfare since Joseph Smith's day, we can already see how the last 2 centuries have been filled with carnage and death. The American Civil War had more American casualties than WWI and WWII combined. The technologies developed between 1831 and 1860 included the telegraph, railroad, gatling gun, repeating rifle, etc. Robert E. Lee developed new strategies of war, which allowed an outnumbered South to last years in battle. Sherman and Grant's final strategy of total destruction of any who opposed them, as Sherman marched to the Sea burning Atlanta and many other cities, and Grant laid siege to a starving Vicksburg Mississippi, are strategies still used in genocidal warfare today.
Hitler slew millions, as did Stalin and Mao Tse Tung. With the introduction of technology, even a jet airliner can be a weapon of mass destruction, as we saw on 9/11. Still, the threats increase, as radical nations and groups gain access to more and more potent weaponry. The Lord's warning in D&C 1 is more true today than it ever was.
"Prepare ye, prepare ye for that which is to come, for the Lord is nigh;
And the anger of the Lord is kindled, and his sword is bathed in heaven, and it shall fall upon the inhabitants of the earth" (D&C 1:12-13).
And it seems it falls more than once. When it states "for the Lord is nigh", does this only mean that the 2nd Coming is near? And what does that mean? For Christ to have created the earth 4.5 billion years ago means that the term "nigh" could mean centuries. Or even millennia. Or does it mean that the Lord is near in another way, such as he is watching over the earth and we cannot hide our sins from him? Or does it mean that each of us will die, and will face him at that time? Perhaps it means all of these.
Voice of the Servants
"And the arm of the Lord shall be revealed; and the day cometh that they who will not hear the voice of the Lord, neither the voice of his servants, neither give heed to the words of the prophets and apostles, shall be cut off from among the people" (vs 4).
Here we get some interesting phrases. The term "servants" is in addition or separate from "prophets and apostles." We note that it is the "voice" of the servants and the "words" of the prophets and apostles. This could mean the voice of living servants (whether prophets, apostles, missionaries, etc), or the written words of ancient and perhaps modern prophets and apostles. Note that when this revelation came out, there was no Quorum of 12 apostles. Joseph and Oliver were ordained and called apostles, but in a somewhat different sense than we understand the quorum of apostles we have today.
If the "prophets and apostles" include Joseph and the other leaders of the early Church (or for us, our prophets and apostles today), then who do the "servants" include? Are they only the missionaries? Or could they also include those of other churches who seek to serve Christ and preach the Bible throughout the world, as well?
"For they have strayed from mine ordinances, and have broken mine everlasting covenant;
They seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol, which waxeth old and shall perish in Babylon, even Babylon the great, which shall fall.
Wherefore, I the Lord, knowing the calamity which should come upon the inhabitants of the earth, called upon my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and spake unto him from heaven, and gave him commandments;
And also gave commandments to others, that they should proclaim these things unto the world; and all this that it might be fulfilled, which was written by the prophets" (vv 15-18)
The people of the earth have strayed from God's ordinances and broken the covenant. By Joseph's day, the ordinances of old had been altered or ended. Infants were being baptized. The Protestant world did not recognize priesthood authority as established in the Bible. There was no laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost. No temple existed upon the earth. They had traded Jesus' celestial covenant for something less.
Religions were springing up everywhere, mostly based upon protesting some belief or practice in the church they broke off of. Each of them focused on different concepts and creeds that created God in their own image and belief, rather than seeking the fulness of the gospel through living prophets and apostles. With these new religions came the seed for a modern day Babylon. Many of today's Christian religions ignore the importance of obedience and covenants. They see no harm in people sinning, as long as they profess Christ. There are even some churches today that claim to be Christian, but do not require belief in the Messiah-ship of Christ. For them, he was a good teacher, who preached love, or whatever their version of "love" is supposed to be.
For this reason, Joseph Smith was called to preach the celestial covenant to the world. And "others" were also given commandments to preach from the Bible. Some of these may be LDS, but many may also be good Christian believers who preach the Terrestrial covenant (like the Mosaic law) to the inhabitants of the earth. I think that Mother Theresa is one example of the "others" called of God.
That Faith Also Might Increase
"The weak things of the world shall come forth and break down the mighty and strong ones, that man should not counsel his fellow man, neither trust in the arm of flesh—
But that every man might speak in the name of God the Lord, even the Savior of the world;
That faith also might increase in the earth;
That mine everlasting covenant might be established;
That the fulness of my gospel might be proclaimed by the weak and the simple unto the ends of the world, and before kings and rulers." (vv 19-23)
When this revelation was given, perhaps the weakest church in all the world was the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It teaches a powerful message that each person may have the Holy Ghost to guide them in their spiritual education, so that they do not have to give or receive counsel from man's philosophy (aka "arm of flesh").
Every person speaking in the name of the Lord means they witness of Christ through the Holy Ghost. As Nephi taught, "angels speak by the power of the Holy Ghost" (2 Ne 32:32-33), and we can speak with the tongue of angels as we learn to speak that language through receiving the Holy Ghost.
God wants all people to be prophets. This means we become worthy through receiving the everlasting covenants and ordinances to receive the Holy Ghost, and then learn to listen, live and speak by His power. Today, however, most people (including many LDS) speak with the tongue of Babylon and witnessing of Babylon's form of salvation. It is the relying upon the arm of flesh and counsel of men, who only know what Babylon has to offer, which they preach.
The Weak Things
"Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.
And inasmuch as they erred it might be made known;
And inasmuch as they sought wisdom they might be instructed;
And inasmuch as they sinned they might be chastened, that they might repent;
And inasmuch as they were humble they might be made strong, and blessed from on high, and receive knowledge from time to time. (vv 24-28)
God speaks through our weaknesses. So we should expect mistakes and errors to creep in on occasion. This is even true for Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and Thomas S. Monson. When we find the occasional mistake or mistaken belief by a Church leader, we simply need to know that the Lord will correct it in his own time with continuing revelation. At the same time, we can be comforted in knowing that these mistakes will not prevent us from the greatest blessings of God through his everlasting covenant in Christ, as long as we are humble and willing to repent.
Amazingly, the Church has grown rapidly, even though most of our missionaries are 19 year old kids! Can you think of anyone more prone to errors to send out to preach the gospel? Yet, this error prone group continue yearly to baptize hundreds of thousands of people. Why? Because the fundamentals and the core doctrine are correct. Because the Holy Ghost can teach us greater "knowledge from time to time."
Only True and Living Church
"And also those to whom these commandments were given, might have power to lay the foundation of this church, and to bring it forth out of obscurity and out of darkness, the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased, speaking unto the church collectively and not individually." (v 30)
Recently, at the 2012 IUPUI Mormon Conference in Indianapolis, professor Phillip Barlow noted that the current Mormon Moment is bringing the Church "out of obscurity and out of darkness", but there are many members who would prefer we remain obscure and in the dark... There's a lot for each of us to think about in that statement.
I also wonder if we interpret the phrase "only true and living church....with which I, the Lord, am well pleased" correctly? First, was this true only in Joseph's day, or has it changed since then? Are there other churches today that the Lord is well pleased with? Second, is he still well pleased with us? Finally, are there any churches that are true and/or living that the Lord is "somewhat pleased" with?
For me, the word "true" means it contains truth. Given the previously passages that note weakness and error even in our church, we cannot assume this means a perfect knowledge of truth. The word "living" means to breathe and grow - are there other churches that breathe and grow, as well?
It is important that we do not take the words we read for granted. Perhaps with this very first section of the D&C, we can appreciate more the great and marvelous work the restoration of the gospel was through an imperfect and weak man, like Joseph Smith; and that perhaps there are others called throughout the world to help prepare people along the way, so they will be ready for the everlasting covenant when the missionaries teach them about it.