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Interpreting Interpreter
The D&C Decalogue

This post is a summary of the article “Are There Ten Commandments for Latter-day Zion?” by Dennis Newton in Volume 61 of Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship. All of the Interpreting Interpreter articles may be seen at An introduction to the Interpreting Interpreter series is available at


The Takeaway

Newton proposes that D&C 59 represents a version of the ten commandments brought to us via modern revelation, and that, given associated promises of eternal life, Latter-day Saints should strongly consider this section when outlining a path to salvation.


The Summary

In this article, Dennis Newton argues in favor of D&C 59 as a modern rendering of the decalogue, one that integrates familiar commandments with additional imperatives that may have had additional relevance in the modern church. In doing so, he places it in a grounded understanding of the ten commandments of Exodus, which themselves have a complex history that belie their current cultural importance. Some go so far as to argue that the text is a late insertion, with limited references to it in the Old and New Testaments and an inconsistent treatment within early Christianity. Newton makes seven distinct points to establish that context (without pretending to resolve the issues they raise) including:

  1. That ancient writers focused more on the theophany of Sinai and the entire canon of the Mosaic Law than the 10 commandments themselves.
  2. That the prohibitive commandments (e.g., “thou shalt not kill”) are already part of existing legal codes in Mesopotamia.
  3. That the Decalogue may have been written as a summary of the 600+ laws of the Torah.
  4. That the Torah’s only reference to the phrase “Ten Commandments” may instead refer to a different set of biblical commandments (i.e., those in Exodus 34:14-26), which (similar to what we’ll see in D&C 59) combines similar commandments with more ritual-based laws (e.g., observing feasts).
  5. That scholars have proposed a number of potential biblical Decalogues (Newton notes nine such examples, ranging from Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy to Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Job.
  6. That the original Ten Commandments are viewed by some, including many modern Jews, as contextual laws suited to a particular people and period, rather than ones that were fully generalizable to all humanity.
  7. That the original commandments differed to some extent from what was recorded in the Torah, based on a set of literary arguments (e.g., the Decalogue lacking “a balanced structure and consistency”).

Newton also discusses the three forms of the Decalogue included in the Book of Mormon: Abinadi’s recounting of Exodus 20’s commandments in Mosiah 13, Jacob’s woe-based decalogue in 2 Nephi 9, and a set of ten commandments in 2 Nephi 26 that appears to incorporate aspects of the other two. Each of these are targeted to identified audiences, ranging from the specific (the court of King Noah) to the general (“all men”).

This helps set the stage for a Latter-day set of commandments, published within an appropriately titled Book. In the D&C, God’s commands are phrased in a variety of ways, and not all instances of “thou shalt” are phrased as commands. D&C 42 is even framed as “the law” given to the saints in Kirtland, but contains too many commandments to be a true Decalogue. According to Newton, “this leaves section 59 as the only viable candidate in the Doctrine and Covenants for a Latter-day Decalogue.”

Written in the context of Polly Knight’s funeral, and first understood as a “commandment for keeping the sabbath”, the section can be interpreted as containing ten commandments, framed via a proposed inclusio (which Newton helpfully visualizes) that outlines promised eternal and temporal blessings in connection with works of righteousness. Situated in a broader discussion of LDS soteriology (i.e., the doctrine of salvation), Newton argues that the section provides a direct answer to the question of what we can do (or become) obtain eternal life. He outlines this proposed Decalogue as follows:

  • Thou shalt love and serve the Lord thy God. The Decalogue begins with the first great commandment, modified by an injunction to serve God in the name of Christ (an emphasis also implied in Deuteronomy and echoed by Nephi).
  • Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. This second great commandment is discussed in tandem with the first, in connection with the paradox implicit in what it means to be commanded to love.
  • The three commandments that mirror the Exodus 20 decalogue are presented without further interpretation:
    • Thou shalt not steal.
    • Thou shalt not commit adultery.
    • Thou shalt not kill nor do anything like unto it.

  • Thou shalt thank the Lord thy God in all things. Newton discussed gratitude to God as a saving principle, one emphasized often by both our leaders and the realm of positive psychology but that has been somewhat neglected by LDS scholars. Newton suggests that one particular theory of gratitude may be helpful, one that suggests love and gratitude are symbiotically intertwined, with gratitude indicating love and love fostering gratitude.
  • Thou shalt offer a sacrifice unto the Lord they God in righteousness, even that of a broken heart and a contrite spirit. Presented biblically in Psalms 34 and 51, Newton argues that these offerings of humility share a reciprocal relationship with love, with those who lack an open heart risking self-isolation and self-centeredness.
  • Newton discusses the final three Sabbath-related commandments jointly, noting that they don’t actually use the word “Sabbath”, perhaps as a way of distancing these guidelines from rabbinical Sabbath rules. These commandments can be somewhat difficult to parse, with some counting as many as eight injunctions. Basing his reading on the phrase “thou shalt”, Newton suggests that they can be rendered as follows, emphasizing church attendance, repentance and confession of sins, and fasting and praying perfectly:
    • Thou shalt go the house of prayer and offer up sacraments on the Lord’s day.
    • Thou shalt offer thine oblations confessing thy sins on the Lord’s day.
    • Thou shalt do none other thing on the Lord’s day, that thy fasting and prayer are perfect.

Newton concludes by outlining the general points for and against his proposal, being open that there are important counterpoints, including that the passage was never indicated as a Decalogue by Joseph, that the early saints never viewed it as such, and that it’s not clear if there are actually ten commandments listed. But for him, these considerations are outweighed by the passage’s literary connections to Exodus, Deuteronomy, and 2 Nephi, as well as soteriological implications. Rather than a checklist of behaviors, he sees it as a set of virtues and characteristics that can make us more like God. As Noahic and Abrahamic covenants were connected with “signs”, Newton says that D&C 59 implies that ‘Latter-day Saints wear their “sign” whenever they attend worship services with others, attend church, confess their sins, share their testimonies, and enjoy communal fasting. In short, our sign is our participation in our church family and community.’ Just as passages in the Quran became –progressively viewed as a Decalogue that outlined the Islamic faith, Newton suggests that D&C 59 could eventually develop in the same way, becoming something greater than a set of Sabbath injunctions—a Decalogue for the Latter-days.


The Reflection

Newton provides a perspective on the Decalogue that I’d never been exposed to. I’m no stranger to nuanced historical views of scripture, but it’s interesting seeing that approach applied to one of the most memorable passages of the Old Testament. What I would have loved more discussion on are the apparent omissions from the Decalogue—if different versions of the ten commandments are culturally specific, what is it about our culture that would make some of those commandments less-relevant. The answer is obvious in some cases (e.g., idolatry), and less obvious in others (e.g., false witness, coveting). I also find the emphasis on Sabbath observance notable, given the importance attached to church attendance and religious habits both by church leaders and the secular study of religion. Whether or not D&C 59 was intended by God as a modern Decalogue, having those spiritual behaviors emphasized—and attached to a strong “thou shalt”—is of benefit to everyone who reads it.

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