Making Sense of Doctrine and Covenants 39-40; or why it matters that James Covill was a Methodist and not a Baptist
If you read the current heading to Section 39 of the Doctrine & Covenants, you will learn of one James Covill, a prospective convert to Joseph Smith’s nascent Church of Christ “who had been a Baptist minister for about forty years” at the time the revelation was given in 1831. Covill’s Baptist credentials have been repeated by historians for years, who drew upon Joseph Smith’s history for the information (from which the section heading to D&C 39 was adapted). But the recently-discovered Book of Commandments and Revelations—an earlier source than the JS history—suggests that Covill was not a Baptist minister, but rather “a Methodist priest.”
Steven Harper’s own research* found corroborating evidence for James Covill’s Methodist affiliation:
Covill had been a minister for forty years and then covenanted to obey the Lord’s will as revealed to Joseph Smith[,] but he had been a Methodist, not a Baptist minister. There is not sign of Covill in Baptist records, but a James Covel appears in Methodist records beginning in 1791, forty years before section 39 was received, when he was appointed as a traveling preacher on the Litchfield, Connecticut, circuit. He rode various Methodist circuits for four years as an itinerant preacher. In 1796 James married Sarah Gould, the daughter of a Methodist preacher, on October 28. James rode the Lynn, Massachusetts, circuit for a year before he “located.” That is, he settled, raised a family, apparently practiced medicine, and largely dropped out of the Methodist records. Sarah and James had a son, James Jr., who followed his father into the ministry. The Covels moved to Maine and then to Poughskeepsie, New York, around 1808. It is not clear where they were when they heard of Joseph Smith and the restored gospel about 1830, but most likely they were still somewhere in New York.
The point of this post is not to simply heap more praise on Harper’s fine book, Making Sense of the Doctrine and Covenants, though such praise is indeed deserved (see J. Stapley’s review here). Nor is it to point out how the BCR corrected our understanding of some particulars of early LDS history. Rather, I want to explore how such an understanding of Covill as a Methodist (and specifically not as a Baptist) further contextualizes this revelation (and the one following, which also addresses Covill), and illuminates key aspects of the text.
“And now, behold, I say unto you, my servant James, I have looked upon thy works and know thee,” reads the text. “And verily, I say unto thee, thine heart is now right before me at this time; and, behold, I have bestowed great blessings upon thy head” (D&C 39:7-8). This rather generic introduction follows the general pattern of other early revelations directed to specific individuals, but then shifts direction and notes details particular to Covill’s situation.
“Nevertheless, thou hast seen great sorrow, for thou hast rejected me many times because of pride and the cares of the world” (D&C 39:9). While we don’t know the details of how Covill succumbed to “pride and the cares of the world,” we do learn that the Lord had forgiven him those transgressions and called him to return to the itinerancy (only this time as a Mormon), on certain conditions:
But, behold, the days of thy deliverance have come, if thou wilt hearken unto my voice, which saith unto thee: Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on my name, and you shall receive my Spirit, and a blessing so great as you never have known. And if thou do this, I have prepared thee for a greater work. Thou shalt preach the fulness of my gospel, which I have sent forth in these last days, the covenant which I have sent forth to recover my people, which are of the house of Israel. And it shall come to pass that power shall rest upon thee; thou shalt have great faith, and I will be with thee and go before thy face. Thou art called to labor in my vineyard, and to build up my church, and to bring forth Zion, that it may rejoice upon the hills and flourish. Behold, verily, verily, I say unto thee, thou art not called to go into the eastern countries, but thou art called to go to the Ohio (D&C 39:10-14).
In the next revelation, we learn that James Covill apparently agreed to the terms of the covenant and “received the word with gladness,” but then “straightway Satan tempted him; and the fear of persecution and the cares of the world caused him to reject the word. Wherefore, he broke my covenant, and it remaineth with me to do with him as seemeth me good” (D&C 40:1-3). The section heading further notes that he “returned to his former principles and people.”
So what does the fact that those “former principles and people” were Methodists and not Baptists reveal about this particular passage? For one, the call to the ministry may not have been as appealing to Covill as it was to others. Because he had rode an itinerant circuit as a Methodist years earlier (as opposed to the less physically demanding and more localized assignments of Baptist preachers), he probably understood the rigors that traveling “to the Ohio” to preach the Mormon gospel would include. It is possible, then, that Covill balked at the agreement spelled out in section 39 because as a now older, more mature, and “located” gentleman with a wife and children, the prospects of itinerant missionary work all the way in Ohio did not hold the same appeal they may have when he was a young single Methodist preacher, even if his “heart [was] right” before the Lord and he believed the basics of the Mormon gospel. But there is another possibility as well, which is easy to overlook because of its seemingly generic language:
“Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins” (D&C 39:10).
To Christians in early America, baptism meant different things (depending on the denomination), and various modes of baptism were adhered to by different groups. Baptists, of course, insisted upon baptism by immersion, and Mormons followed them on this point, drawing upon both Joseph Smith’s revelations and the preference of a number of early converts. Methodists were more flexible regarding proper mode of baptism, at least officially. The Doctrines and Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America put forth in plain language this accomodating stance. “Let every adult person, and the parents of every child, to be baptized, have the choice either of immersion, sprinkling, or pouring.” Early Methodist preachers generally adhered to these instructions, offering choices to converted souls based on personal preference.
Baptists ridiculed the Methodist stance, maintaining that only adult baptism by immersion was valid in God’s eyes. Their constant badgering of Methodists who not only regularly baptized by sprinkling or pouring, but also baptized infants, provoked intense debates between to the two prominent evangelical groups and were often the source of great contention. The resulting rhetorical battles in the competition for converts eventually caused many Methodists to prefer alternate forms of baptism to immersion, captured humorously in the following hymn:
You say: “Go read the scriptures / And in them we shall find / The ordinance immersion / Upon us all enjoined.” / How can you be immersed? / The word we cannot find. / And if it’s in your bible / I’m sure it’s not in mine. … But when you do immerse them / Which we do think is wrong, / It makes my heart to tremble / They think the work is done. / You say my Lord’s a Baptist. / How do you realize / For there never was a Baptist / But one who did baptize? … Your charity is scanty / And that the world can see. / If you do not quit immersion / We cannot all agree.
Perhaps Covill ultimately rejected the covenant outlined in D&C 39 because, having been conditioned to reject baptism by immersion, he could not agree to the conditions of that covenant—to “[a]rise and be baptized” by immersion, the only mode acceptable to Mormons.
These, of course, are only my own reflections on how this small correction to the historical record further illuminates the above discussed revelations, but such an analysis points to, I think, the possibilities of a closer contextual reading of the Doctrine & Covenants—one that benefits not only historians of Mormonism seeking to make sense of disparate sources but also lay Mormons seeking to get more out of their scripture study.
* Professor Harper has informed me that credit for discovering James Covel in Methodist sources belongs to Sherilyn Farnes, who assisted Harper in his research for the book.
 See The Papers of Joseph Smith, ed. Dean C. Jessee (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989), 1:346.
 The BCR heading to D&C 39 does not actually identify Covill’s religious affiliation at all, but the index found at the back of the BCR identifies the section as “A Revelation to James a Methodist Priest.” This information is taken from my own notes of Robin Jensen’s 2009 MHA presentation on the Book of Commandments and Revelations (brief summary here). Robin confirmed the basic details of my notes from his presentation regarding James Covill in a private email on July 9, 2009.
 Steven C. Harper, Making Sense of the Doctrine and Covenants: A Guided Tour Through the Revelations (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2008), 132-33. See also Harper’s notes on pp. 534-44 for a list of sources documenting Covill/Covel’s Methodist activities.
 The Doctrines and Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America, with Explanatory Notes by Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury (Philadelphia: Methodist Episcopal Church, 1798), 118.
 See Christine Leigh Heyrman, Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1997), 153-54; and Lester Ruth, Early Methodist Life and Spirituality: A Reader (Nashville: Kingswood Books, 2005), 223-23.
 Collection of Spiritual Songs (Winchester, KY), 15-16; as cited in Ruth, Early Methodist Life, 223-24.