Both the term “standard works” and its meaning have evolved and solidified over many years of Church history. It began in the latter half of the 1800s as a loose term that implied that the fundamental doctrines of the Church were to be found in and measured by the books written for the information, edification, and direction of the Church, especially containing the revelations of its leaders, but also accounts of their lives and sermons. By around 1900, because of the influence of Elder James E. Talmage and President Joseph F. Smith, the different parts of the term began to solidify into one definite meaning. Early variations included “doctrinal standards,” “church works,” “standards of the Church,” “standard church books,” and “standard church works,” but today is almost exclusively given as “standard works.” This term has now come to signify the source of near absolute doctrinal measurement and authority in the Church and is only applied to four books of written and canonized revelations (or scripture): The Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price.
In fact, today the word “scriptures” is often to be heard or used more than the term “standard works.” While this is not overly concerning, it does tend to blur the line between spoken/verbal/oral scripture, which is given forth every time a righteous person speaks by the power of the Holy Ghost, and the canonized and binding scriptures, which constitute the four books of Latter-day Saints scripture.
Even though the Bible and the Book of Mormon have not been formally sustained in General Conference by the membership assembled, they are formally stated to be the word of God in the Articles of Faith (which have been sustained by the Church) and are so fundamental as to be beyond question books of the scriptural canon. Further, because a book was referred to or designated as a “standard work” in the 1800s, does not make it so now. Certainly no one should regard the Journal of Discourses as canonized scripture.
From Determining Doctrine:
Encyclopedia of Mormonism:
Standard works are the books accepted by Latter-day Saints as scripture: the Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price. In early Latter-day Saint usage, the term apparently included more writings than the scriptures. In 1874 George A. Smith described “standard works” as the scriptures and other works published by the Church that illustrate “the principles of life and salvation made known in the gospel of Jesus Christ” (JD 17:161; cf. 11:364). By 1900, however, the phrase “standard works” came to refer only to the scriptures (Smith, pp. 363-65; A of F, p. 7). (
Clyde J. Williams, “Standard Works,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 5 vols. [New
York and Toronto: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992], 3:1415.)
A few more examples of the early usage and broader meaning of the term “standard works” are given below.
George Q. Cannon (1861):
The Journal of Discourses deservedly ranks as one of the standard works of the Church, and every right minded Saint will certainly welcome with joy every Number as it comes forth from the press as an additional reflector of “the light that shines from
The Publisher (George Q. Cannon, editor and publisher, Journal of Discourses 26 vols. [Liverpool and London: Latter-day Saints Book Depot, 1861], 8; preface.)
George Q. Cannon:
We see no reason why the volumes of the FAITH-PROMOTING SERIES already published, as well as those which may follow, should not be regarded as standard works for the Church and used for home reading or Sunday School class books when the authors and those whose history they treat shall have passed to another sphere of action.
Daniel H. Wells (1867; consider with BY quotation following):
Upon this latter point, especially, let me say a word. Let us provide schools, competent teachers, and good books for our children, and let us pay our teachers. I would have no objection to seeing the standard works of the Church introduced into our schools, that our children may be taught more pertaining to the principles of the gospel in the future than they are at present….
There are other works that are good, against which I do not wish to say anything; but let us first sustain our own works, which are exclusively devoted to the spread of the principles of truth. The Lord has undertaken to raise the standard of truth in the earth through the instrumentality of His servants, and it is the duty of the Saints to sustain those works which have the dissemination of truth for their only object. (Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. [London: Latter-day Saints' Book Depot, 1854-86], 12:376, 377.)
Brigham Young (1867):
I do hope, and pray you, my brethren and sisters, to be careful to observe what Br. Wells has said in regard to introducing into our schools the Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and the standard works of the Church, and all the works pertaining to our faith, that our children may become acquainted with its principles, and that our young men, when they go out to preach, may not be so ignorant as they have been hitherto. (Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. [London: Latter-day Saints' Book Depot, 1854-86], 12: 406.)
George A. Smith (1874):
I want to express my admiration of brother Goddard and a number of other school superintendents and teachers, with whom I am acquainted, because of their efforts to spread among the young throughout the Territory a knowledge of the principles of the Gospel, as taught in the Bible, Book of Mormon, Book of Doctrine and Covenants, and in the standard works of the Church. (Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. [London: Latter-day Saints' Book Depot, 1854-86], 17: 257-258.)
Alexander B. Morrison:
These four books make up the “standard works” of the Church, a term first used a century ago by Elder James E. Talmage. (“The Latter-day Saint Concept of Canon,” in Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures [
Utah , Religious Studies
Center , 2001], 3.) Brigham Young
James E. Talmage (1899):
The Standard Works of the Church form our written authority in doctrine; but they are by no means our only sources of information and instruction on the theology of the Church. We believe that God is as willing today as He ever has been to reveal His mind and will to man, and that He does so through chosen and appointed channels. We rely therefore on the teachings of the living oracles of God as of equal validity with the doctrines of the written word, the men in chief authority being acknowledged and accepted by the Church as prophets and revelators, and as being in possession of the power of the holy Priesthood. The written works adopted by the vote of the Church as authoritative guides in faith and doctrine are four,—the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. Other works have been and are being issued by officers and members of the Church, and many such books are unreservedly sanctioned by the people and their ecclesiastical authorities; but the four publications named are the only regularly constituted standard works of the Church. Of the doctrine treated in the authorized standards, the Articles of Faith may be regarded as a fair, though necessarily but an incomplete epitome. (The Articles of Faith, 5th edition [
Salt Lake City:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Deseret News, 1909], 5.
According to the preface the 5th edition is unchanged from the 1st.)
Joseph F. Smith (1903):
We would recommend to conference presidents and other presiding officers in the various branches of the Church, that where possible, they have the elders in their charge follow regularly and systematically a study of the standard works and other approved publications of the Church, thus more fully equipping themselves as teachers to the world….
Brethren…keep closely to the teachings of the revealed word, as made plain in the standard works of the Church and through the utterances of the living prophets; and let not a difference of views on abstruse matters of doctrine absorb your attention, lest thereby you become estranged from one another and separated from the Spirit of the Lord.
The standard works of the Church and other approved writings should be carefully studied and commented on by the brethren; every Latter-day Saint, and particularly every elder in the field, should seek to become learned in the gospel; but let it not be forgotten that to understand the inspired writings aright the reader must himself have the spirit of inspiration; and this spirit will never impel one to hostile discussion or wordy contests…. (Juvenile Instructor, vol. 38, October 15, 1903, 624; cited in Gospel Doctrine, comp. John A. Widtsoe [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1939], 362-65.)
The following excerpt from a 1905 First Presidency message indicates that by that time they were well aware of the distinction between general uncanonized “church works” and the purely scriptural and canonized “standard works.”
The First Presidency (Joseph F. Smith, John R. Winder, Anthon H. Lund, 1905):
Of Church works at present in active preparation are the third volume of the History of the Church; a Church history, adapted in style and conciseness for the use of our youth, and a concordance of the book of Doctrine and Covenants. A number of excellent publications explanatory of the doctrine and discipline of the Church have been issued by their respective authors, who are personally responsible for their contents and whose efforts to extend information are to be highly commended. The standard works of the Church, however, recognized and adopted as such by the Latter-day Saints, remain, as formerly, the Bible, (King James' translation), the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. (Greeting from the First Presidency; cited in Improvement Era, vol. 8. January, 1905, no. 3; see also James R. Clark, comp., Messages of the First Presidency, 6 vols. [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965-75], 4:97.)
James E. Talmage (1924):
The Standard Works of the Church constitute the written authority of the Church in doctrine. Nevertheless, the Church holds itself in readiness to receive additional light and knowledge “pertaining to the
through divine revelation. We believe that God is as willing today as He ever
has been to reveal His mind and will to man, and that He des so through His
appointed servants—prophets, seers, and revelators—invested through ordination
with the authority of the Holy Priesthood. We rely therefore in the teachings
of the living oracles of God as of equal validity with the doctrines of the
written word. The works adopted by the vote of the Church as authoritative
guides in faith and doctrine are four: the Bible,
the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. Many books have
been and are being published by officers and members of the Church, and such
may be sanctioned by the people and the ecclesiastical authorities; but the
four publications named are the regularly adopted “Standard Works of the
Church.”… Kingdom of God
These books have been adopted by the members of the Church, in conference officially assembled, as their Standard Works. (The Articles of Faith [Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1924], 7 and 457.)