Over and over again the consistent message from LDS apostles and prophets is that Mormon doctrine comes from the scriptures (the four standard works) as interpreted by prophets and apostles. The way new doctrine or modification of present doctrine comes is by revelation to the President of the Church (such as section 138 and the two Official Declarations in the Doctrine and Covenants). As fundamental as this principle is, many still seek to change, reinterpret, alter, or reject church doctrine. The reason is usually because some of it does not mesh with modern social issues and the philosophies of men.
Along with this and future blog posts in this series, readers are encouraged to review the following essays on the subject: the Mormon Newsroom article on Approaching Mormon Doctrine, Robert L. Millett’s fine longer examination What is Our Doctrine, and FairMormon’s piece on What is “Official” LDS Doctrine.
Other authors and bloggers have also posted various opinions on the subject but often (though not always) these are so academically oriented or misinformed (or even hostile) as to be either worthless or worse than worthless.
The below quotations should help with providing a more rounded perspective of how to determine genuine, authentic, gospel doctrine. Later blog posts will continue with this important matter as it relates to prophets, scripture, teaching, and revelation:
From the Doctrine and Covenants:
And gave him power from on high, by the means which were before prepared, to translate the Book of Mormon;
Which contains a record of a fallen people, and the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles and to the Jews also;
Which was given by inspiration, and is confirmed to others by the ministering of angels, and is declared unto the world by them—
Proving to the world that the holy scriptures are true, and that God does inspire men and call them to his holy work in this age and generation, as well as in generations of old;
Thereby showing that he is the same God yesterday, today, and forever. Amen.
Therefore, having so great witnesses, by them shall the world be judged, even as many as shall hereafter come to a knowledge of this work.
And those who receive it in faith, and work righteousness, shall receive a crown of eternal life;
But those who harden their hearts in unbelief, and reject it, it shall turn to their own condemnation. (D&C 20:8-15.)
Hyrum M. Smith:
“Doctrine” means “teaching,” “instruction.” It denotes more especially what is taught as truth, for us to believe, as distinct from precepts, by which rules, to be obeyed, are given. “Doctrine” refers to belief; precept to conduct. (Hyrum M. Smith and Janne M. Sjodahl, Doctrine and Covenants Commentary, rev. ed. [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1951], xiv.)
B. H. Roberts:
Here is a statement to which I call your attention. You will find it published in a little work called, “The Compendium of the Doctrines of the Gospel,” issued by Messrs. Little and Richards, the authors. I quote from the third edition, 1898:
“We consider the Bible, Book of Mormon, Book of Doctrine and Covenants, Pearl of Great Price, and sayings of Joseph the Seer, our guides in faith and doctrine. The first four have been adopted as such by a vote of the saints in general conference. References to other writings are only for illustration of the subjects.”
As to the “Sayings of Joseph Smith,” they must be well attested sayings of his, not the mere repetition of rumor as to what he said, before they can be of much influence in doctrine. Indeed, I feel that the Church has confined the sources of doctrine by which it is willing to be bound before the world to the things that God has revealed, and which the Church has officially accepted, and those alone. These would include the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price; these have been repeatedly accepted and endorsed by the Church in general conference assembled, and are the only sources of absolute appeal for our doctrine. So that when our Church is charged with believing this or that or the other thing we shall ask, Do you quote in support of your charges these sources of revelation which we accept as setting forth our doctrine? And is it a doctrine of ours or a deduction of your own?
If it is a doctrine of ours established as here proposed, we must stand for it. If you bring up the sayings and teachings of individual men who have not had their doctrines officially accepted by the Church, decidedly by the spirit of inspiration in the membership of the Church, as evidenced by their official acceptance of them, then we are not bound by them, and it is not accurate to say that the Church teaches those doctrines which do not come from the above-noted sources of revelation to the Church….
This, then, represents the position of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints upon the authoritative sources of their doctrine. It is not sufficient to quote sayings purported to come from Joseph Smith or Brigham Young upon matters of doctrine. Our own people also need instruction and correction in respect of this. It is common to hear some of our older brethren say, “But I heard Brother Joseph myself say so,” or “Brother Brigham preached it; I heard him.’ But that is not the question. The question is has God said it? Was the prophet speaking officially, what the Catholics would call excathedra?
In his journal, under date of January the 8th, 1843, the prophet writes: “This morning I read German, and visited with a brother and sister from Michigan, who thought that a prophet is always a prophet,” but I told them that a prophet was a prophet only when he was acting as such.” That is to say, when acting officially and delivering the word and will of God—speaking excathedra.
As to the printed discourses of even leading brethren, the same principle holds. They do not constitute the court of ultimate appeal on doctrine. They may be very useful in the way of elucidation and are very generally good and sound in doctrine, but they are not the ultimate sources of the doctrines of the Church, and are not binding upon the Church. The rule in that respect is: what God has spoken, and what has been accepted by the Church as the word of God, by that, and that only, are we bound in doctrine. When in the revelations it is said concerning the Prophet, Seer and Revelator that the Church shall “give heed unto all his words and commandments which he shall give unto you as he receiveth them—for his word ye shall receive as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith:—(Doctrine and Covenants, Section 21)—it is understood, of course, that this has reference to the word of God received through revelation, and officially announced to the Church, and not to every chance word spoken. And when it is further said, as it is in one of the revelations, that whatsoever the elders of the Church “shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost, shall be the mind of the Lord and shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord and the power of God unto Salvation:--it is to be precisely noted that this is “when” the elders “speak as moved upon by the Holy Ghost,” and not otherwise; and as the elders do not always speak as moved upon by the Holy Ghost, the Church does not admit their utterances as on the same level for deciding upon Church doctrine as the four books that have been mentioned. (“Answer [response] given to [anti-Mormon article] ‘Ten Reasons Why “Christians” Cannot Fellowship with Latter-day Saints,’” in Millennial Star, August 18, 1921, 516-19.)
Stephen E. Robinson:
So what constitutes genuine Mormon doctrine? What is the LDS equivalent of “nihil obstat” and “imprimature”? What do the Latter-day Saints believe? Can something be said to be “Mormon” doctrine if any Latter-day Saint anywhere believes it? If my LDS grandmother believed that frogs cause warts, or that the earth is flat, does that make those ideas LDS doctrine? If some LDS missionary somewhere believes that the earth is hollow and that the lost ten tribes are hiding inside, is his or her belief therefore LDS doctrine? Of course not.
Virtually every religion has procedures for distinguishing the individual beliefs of its members from the official doctrines of the church, and so do the Latter-day Saints. In fact among the Mormons the procedure is remarkably similar to that of many protestant denominations….[Canonization procedure from 1880 general conference quoted.]
Subsequent changes of content in the standard works of the Church have been presented similarly to the membership in general conference to receive a sustaining vote. It is that sustaining vote, by the individual members or by their representatives, that make the changes officially binding upon the membership as the doctrine of the Church.
When Wilford Woodruff, as President of the Church, committed the Latter-day Saints to discontinue the practice of plural marriage, his official declaration was submitted to the sixtieth Semiannual General Conference of the Church on 6 October 1890, which by unanimous vote accepted it “as authoritative and binding.” It was that vote which made the document official (it is now printed as Official Declaration—1 in the Doctrine an Covenants). Similarly, when President Spencer W. Kimball declared in 1978, by revelation from the Lord, that the priesthood was henceforward to be given to all worthy male members, this pronouncement became Official Declaration—2 by the sustaining vote of a general conference on 30 September 1978.
B. H. Roberts, a General Authority of the LDS church, summarized the issue perhaps as well as anyone has:
The Church has confined the sources of doctrine by which it is willing to be bound before the world to the things that God has revealed, and which the Church has officially accepted, and those alone. These would include the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price; these have been repeatedly accepted and endorsed by the Church in general conference assembled, and are the only sources of absolute appeal for our doctrine.
Of course it is true that many Latter-day Saints, from the Presidents of the Church and member of the Quorum of the Twelve down to individual members who may write books or articles, have expressed their own opinions on doctrinal matters. Nevertheless, until such opinions are presented to the Church in general conference and sustained by vote of the conference, they are neither binding nor the official doctrine of the Church. The critics of LDS doctrine seldom recognize this vital distinction. Rather, if any Latter-day Saint, especially one of the leading Brethren, ever said a thing, these critics take it to represent “Mormonism,” regardless of the context of the particular statement and regardless of whether any other Latter-day Saint ever said it or believed it. Often the Latter-day Saints themselves are guilty of this same error and search through the Journal of Discourses as if it were some sort of Mormon Talmud, looking for “new” doctrines not found in the standard works and not taught in the Church today.
Usually the critics insist that the Latter-day Saints must defend as doctrine everything that Joseph Smith or Brigham Young or any other General Authority ever said. But the LDS concept of doctrine simply cannot be stretched this far. The Latter-day Saints allow that sometimes the living prophet speaks in his role as prophet and sometimes he simply states his own opinions. This distinction is not different than that made in some other Christian denominations. For example, even though Roman Catholics believe in “papal infallibility,” they insist that the pope is infallible only in certain clearly defined circumstances—when he speaks ex cathedra on matters of faith and morals. Cannot the Latter-day Saints be allowed a similar distinction? The LDS view was expressed succinctly by Joseph Smith himself: “I told them that a prophet was a prophet only when he was acting as such.”
Non-Mormon critics, on the other hand, often insist that the Brethren must speak and write prophetically at all times. This absolutist expectation usually flows out of an extreme inerrantist view of prophecy and of scripture that is held by the critics, but not by the Latter-day Saints. The critics’ belief in the Bible as absolutely perfect, without error and inspired in every word, leads them to make the same demands of anyone claiming to be a prophet. They would impose their inerrantist view on the Latter-day Saints and their prophets. But the Latter-day Saints have no such inerrantist views, neither of the scriptures nor of the prophets. The scriptures are the word of God, but only as far as they are translated correctly; and prophets sometimes speak for the Lord, and sometimes they express their own opinions. Certainly, if the Latter-day Saints were radical inerrantists, such a view as the foregoing would be a contradiction and a scandal, but since we are not inerrantists, the view scandalizes only our inerrantist critics….
In their encounters with anti-Mormon critics, quite often the Saints seem to feel constrained to defend too much. For example, the fact that Orson Pratt may have said such and such on this or that occasion does not make it a proposition that needs defending. Elder Pratt was very outspoken in his opinions, which sometimes disagreed with the opinions of other General Authorities. He was frequently instructed to make clear to his hearers or readers that his views were his own and not the doctrine of the Church; and on at least one occasion he was instructed by the President of the Church to recant publicly opinions he had represented as doctrine.
Yet time and again the private opinions or even the half-serious speculations of Orson Pratt and others are presented in the literature of the anti-Mormons as mainstream LDS doctrine. The problem is compounded by some enthusiastic Latter-day Saints who themselves will not observe that distinction and insist on teaching the personal opinions and speculations of past leaders as though they were the official doctrines of the Church.
Now, none of this should be taken to mean that in matters of administration within the LDS church the General Authorities are not inspired or that they must submit every policy decision to the members for a sustaining vote. The revelations recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants, already accepted as binding by the Church, along with the ordination to their callings give the Brethren the keys and authority to administer the affairs of the Church as the Lord may direct without their needing a sustaining vote for each individual decision. Thus the Church in conference sustains only the individuals who hold the keys, but does not need to sustain separately every detail of their administration. Consequently, the policies and procedures of the Church are “official” and “inspired’ whenever those holding the keys of that ministry unitedly declare them to be so. Similarly the revelations already accepted by the Church give to the General Authorities and to many others the right to “preach, teach, expound, exhort,”—that is, to interpret and apply existing doctrines within the context of their individual stewardships. The Brethren need no further license or sustaining vote to interpret, define, and apply the doctrines of the Church, or to administer the affairs of the Church and dictate its policies and procedures, than to be sustained in conference as prophets, seers, and revelators and as duly ordained members of their respective quorums.
Latter-day Saints believe that the General Authorities receive inspiration and revelation from God constantly in the administration of the affairs of the Church. They also believe that individuals within the church may receive personal revelation, even on doctrinal matters, for their private benefit. When doctrinal revelation is given to such individuals, however, the Lord commands them to keep it to themselves (see Alma 12:9). Such revelation is not for the Church generally, but for that individual alone. No new doctrine is binding as the official doctrine of the Church unless it has been received by the President of the Church and until it has been sustained by the Church in general conference.
Finally, from an LDS point of view some things may be correct without being official Church doctrine. For example, it is probably true that the sum of the squares of the sides of a right triangle is equal to the square of its hypotenuse, but the Pythagorean theorem has never been sustained in a general conference of the Church. Similarly the doctrinal opinions of individual Latter-day Saints could very well turn out to be correct—and some such opinions are believed by many of the saints—but that does not make them the official doctrine of the church. This category of things that may be true and that are believed by some in the Church is confusing to member and nonmembers alike. Hence the Brethren have insisted again and again that the members avoid such speculative matters and teach only from the standard works, for only they contain the official doctrines of the Church. (Are Mormon’s Christians? [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1991],13-18.)
B. H. Roberts:
I find in this review ten lengthy quotations from the Seer which was published by Orson Pratt, yet the Seer by formal action of the first presidency and twelve apostles of the Church was repudiated, and Elder Orson Pratt himself sanctioned the repudiation. There was a long article published in the Deseret News on the 23rd of August, 1865, over the signatures of the first presidency and twelve setting forth that this work—the Seer—together with some other writings of Elder Pratt, were inaccurate. In the course of that document, after praising, as well they might, the great bulk of the work of this noted apostle, they say:
But the Seer, the Great First Cause, the article in the Millennial Star of Oct. 15, and Nov. 1, 1850…contain doctrine which we cannot sanction and which we have felt to disown, so that the Saints who now live, and who may live hereafter, may not be misled by our silence, or be left to misinterpret it. Where these objectionable works or parts of works are bound in volumes, or otherwise, they should be cut out and destroyed.
And yet these gentlemen, our reviewers, who, of course, we must believe, since they are ministers of the gospel, and hence they are ministers of the truth and believe in fair dealing, make ten long quotations only from a work that is accepted as standard in the Church, viz., the Doctrine and Covenants! for a long time the Church has announced over and over again that her standard works in which the word of God is to be found, and for which alone she stands, are the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price. All else is commentary, and of a secondary character as to its authority, containing much that is good, much that illustrates the doctrines of the Church, and yet liable to have error in them for which the Church does not stand.
"Well," says one, "do you propose to repudiate the works of men holding your priesthood, and who are supposed to speak and act under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit? Do you not destroy the effectiveness of your Church ministry when you take this attitude?" Not at all. We merely make what is a proper distinction. It would be a glorious thing for a man to so live that his life would touch the very life and Spirit of God, so that his spirit would blend with God's Spirit, under which circumstances there would be no error to his life or utterances at all. That is a splendid thing to contemplate, but when you take into account human weakness, imperfection, prejudice, passion, bias, it is too much to hope for human nature that man will constantly thus walk linked with God. And so we make this distinction between a man speaking sometimes under the influence of prejudice and pre-conceived notions, and the utterances of a man who, in behalf of the Church of God, and having the requisite authority, and holding the requisite position, may, upon occasion, lay aside all prejudice, all pre-conception, and stand ready and anxious to receive the divine impression of God's Spirit that shall plead, "Father, thy will and thy word be made known now to thy people through the channel thou hast appointed." There is a wide difference between men coming with the word of God thus obtained, and their ordinary speech every day and on all kinds of occasions.
In thus insisting that only the word of God, spoken by inspiration, shall live and be binding upon the Church, we are but following the illustrious example of the ancient Church of Christ. You do not have today all the Christian documents of the first Christian centuries. These books that you have bound up, and that you call the word of God, Holy Bible, were sifted out by a consensus of opinion in the churches running through several hundred years. They endured the test of time. But the great bulk of that which was uttered and written, even by apostles and prominent servants of God in the primitive Christian Church, the Church rejected, and out of the mass of chaff preserved these Scriptures—the New Testament. The Christian world up to this time is not quite decided as to all that should be accepted and all that should be rejected. You Protestant gentlemen repudiate several books called Apocrypha which the Catholic church accepts as of equal authority with the rest of the books of the New Testament. And so I say in this procedure of ours, in refusing to accept only that which time and the inspiration of God shall demonstrate to be absolutely true, we are but following the example of the ancient Church of Christ. (“Answer to Ministerial Association Review,” Improvement Era, vol. 10, July 1907, no. 9, 691-92.)
Joseph F. Smith:
Your letter of the 27th… making certain inquiries upon points of doctrine, faith and practice of our Church, concerning which you say some of our elders differ, was received by me on the 8th… and I answer at the earliest opportunity. In all such matters as this there is one thing that should be kept constantly in mind, and that is, that the theories, speculations and opinions of men, however intelligent, ingenious and plausible, are not necessarily doctrines of the Church or principles that God has commanded his servants to preach. No doctrine is a doctrine of this Church until it has been accepted as such by the Church, and not even a revelation from God should be taught to his people until it has first been approved by the presiding authority—the one through whom the Lord makes known His will for the guidance of the saints as a religious body. The spirit of revelation may rest upon any one, and teach him or her many things for personal comfort and instruction. But these are not doctrines of the Church, and, however true, they must not be inculcated until proper permission is given.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recognizes, outside the direct and heaven-inspired utterances of its prophet, seer and revelator, four standards of doctrine, namely, the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price, containing the revelations of God given in times past and present for the guidance, salvation and exaltation of his people. These books have been accepted by the Church, in general conference assembled, as its doctrinal standards, and nothing outside of them, whether true or false, has any practical bearing or significance, so far as the conduct of the Church is concerned. If our elders would always remember these things, and preach and practice accordingly, the differences you speak of would speedily disappear. We should avoid disputations, whatever our differences of opinion may be, and following the advice of Paul, all learn to speak the same things. (Joseph F. Smith Correspondence, Personal Letterbooks, p. 93-94, Film Reel 9, Ms. f 271; in LDS Church Historical Archives.)
Joseph Fielding McConkie:
It is not uncommon in gospel discussions for someone to challenge what is being said with the question, “Is that official Church doctrine?” This question often means the one asking it does not like what is being said and is seeking a reason not to be bound by it. The question is generally successful in putting the one being challenged in the defensive because of the difficulties associated with defining “official Church doctrine.” … If the body of “official doctrine” is to be limited to formal declarations by the First Presidency, the Church has precious little doctrine. From the time of its organization in the spring of 1830 to the present, there have been very few instances in which the First Presidency has issued “official” doctrinal declarations. These have included the statement on the origin of man, a doctrinal exposition on the Father and the Son, and most recently the proclamation on the family. Each of these declarations is marvelous in its own right, but if our definition of “official doctrines” is defined so narrowly that it is limited to these declarations and the few others we have received, we could not even declare faith, repentance, and baptism as doctrines of the Church. Indeed, most of what we understand to be the doctrine of the Church finds no mention in such documents. Certainly the standard works, the temple ceremony, and much instruction that has come to us by those whom we sustain as prophets, seers, and revelators is also “official doctrine.”
The difficulties in defining doctrine too narrowly are matched by those that are too broad and sweeping. For instance, it is not uncommon to hear someone say that anything taught in general conference is “official doctrine.” Such a standard makes the place where something is said rather than what is said the standard of truth. Nor is something doctrine simply because it was said by someone who holds a particular office or position. Truth is not an office or a position to which one is ordained. (Answers: Straightforward Answers to Tough Gospel Questions [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1998], 212-14.)
Joseph F. Smith:
How to decide Doctrinal Questions: Where two writers, in as many Church works, hold to different opinions on a question, as is sometimes the case, how am I to know which is correct, or which is the view held by the Church?
The revelations of God are the standards of correctness. When a difference appears in writers, the enquirer must reach the truth by examination from that standpoint. If it can not be reached by the word of the Lord in the standard Church works: the Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price, the enquirer must wait until it shall please the Father to give more light on the subject by revelation. (“Editor’s Table,” Improvement Era [Jan. 1903], 6:233.)
J. Reuben Clark:
When any man except the President of the Church undertakes to proclaim one unsettled doctrine, as among two or more doctrines in dispute, as the settled doctrine of the Church, we may know that he is not "moved upon by the Holy Ghost," unless he is acting under the direction and by the authority of the President. ("When Are the Writings or Sermons of Church Leaders Entitled to the Claim of Scripture?" second part of an address delivered 7 July 1954 at Brigham Young University; cited in David H. Yarn, ed., J. Reuben Clark: Selected Papers, vol. 3 [Provo, Utah: BYU Press, 1984], 112.)
Bruce R. McConkie:
Every truth in every field, in all the earth, and in all eternity, is in complete and total harmony with every other truth. Truth is always in harmony with itself. The word of the Lord is truth, and no scripture ever contradicts another, nor is any inspired statement of any person out of harmony with an inspired statement of any other person….
The Lord expects us to seek for harmony and agreement in the scriptures and among the Brethren rather than for seeming divergences of views. Those who have faith and understanding always seek to harmonize into one perfect whole all the statements of the scriptures and all the pronouncements of the Brethren. The unfortunate complex in some quarters to pounce upon this bit of information or that and conclude that it is at variance with what someone else has said is not of God. (Mark L. McConkie, ed., Doctrines of the Restoration: Sermons & Writings of Bruce R. McConkie [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1989], 230-31.)
Bruce R. McConkie: