A frequent question from both member and critic alike asks what exactly is Mormon Doctrine. There are a lot of answers to this question, but the response that best reflects reality is one that reframes the original question. To respond coherently, we must ask what is the authorized doctrine of the Church.
There is no doubt that there are gospel luminaries such as Elder Packer who employ the term “doctrine” in such a manner that means “immutable truth of God.” There are instances when this definition yields significant devotional benefits; however, to always conflate the term “doctrine” with “truth” renders any historical discussion of our people incoherent.
Practically, a doctrine of any church is the sum of their beliefs and praxis. Our Church’s doctrine is similarly manifest. The difficult issue for some, is that our doctrine changes. Now, this would seem to contradict the doctrine as truth position championed by some, but it is demonstrable that Bro. Brigham, Joseph Fielding Smith and Gordon B. Hinckley held/hold beliefs that are contrary to each other. It is also demonstrable that public sermons across our history have contained conflicting “doctrine.”
Some try to explain doctrinal shift by stating that while personal opinion changes with time, Church doctrine has not. Try telling Orson Pratt that Brigham Young’s views of God were not doctrinal.
I like the term “authorized.” Specifically, I like how it is used in the updated temple rituals and in relation to our holy vestments. The twelve governed the church after Joseph’s death not because there was a revelation that said they should (for there is none), but because they were the only ones who had the right to administer all of the temple ordinances — not even the surviving members of the first presidency had that authority. They were the only ones who both had the fullness of the priesthood and had the right to bestow it upon others. Sidney was ultimately excommunicated for preparing fraudulent ordinances.
After the death of the prophets who had lived in Nauvoo there has only been one revelation announced, the full text of which has never been made public (it is not sure that it was even recorded). Despite this, the hierarchy of the church leads, because beyond charismatic authority, they have the right to govern the Church. God gives individuals the priesthood and to some the keys of presidencies. God established an institution and established an order by which the bureaucracy can be managed. In the nineteenth century this was often referred to as a legal right to govern the Church. The choices that every presidency makes are not infallible, but God sustains the church despite the human weakness (1). It is by this right to governance that a teaching becomes “authorized.”
In 1976, the church sent out hard bound copies of eight volumes to be included in meetinghouse libraries: A Marvelous Work and a Wonder; The Miracle of Forgiveness; Gospel Doctrine; Jesus the Christ; Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith; Doctrines of Salvation vol. 1-3. This was also the Missionary Reference Library. The following year, Elder Dean L. Larsen, Managing Director of Curriculum Resources, answered the question, “Should that which is written in Church publications and lesson manuals be taken as official doctrine?”:
Over the years a careful selection of these hardbound, independently published books has been made and approved by the First Presidency and the Twelve for placement in Church meetinghouse libraries. They are to serve as approved resource materials for priesthood leaders, teachers, and the general membership. Any additions to this ‘authorized list’ of hardbound books must be approved by the First Presidency and the Twelve. (2)
If one flips through manuals and leadership handbooks of instruction from the 70’s and early 80’s, one will regularly find quotes from these books. This is no longer the case and those books are no longer to be found in meeting house or missionary library (3). This change in material does not negate the measure of truth found in any of these books; however, it does affect their status as authorized sources for doctrine. Their status has changed from authorized doctrine to “speculative,” “folk,” or “unauthorized” doctrine. What is authorized doctrine today may become folk doctrine tomorrow. This is no different than the shift away from teachings of our greatest heroes (e.g., Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, John Taylor, etc.) and will be no different for our children’ leaders.
Another example of doctrinal shift is women administering to the sick and blessing by the lying on of hands. Early First Presidencies repeatedly affirmed the right of Sisters to anoint and or bless with other sisters or in conjunction with men. The prospect of such actions in the modern church would bring uniform condemnation.
The difficulty lay in distinguishing the boundary between authorized and unauthorized doctrine. A rule of thumb might circumscribe the materials found on lds.org. This is only problematic in that the website contains legacy materials. Personally, I would say anything published within the last five years that hasn’t been subsequently upgraded should be definitively “authorized.” Inasmuch as materials in this window quote legacy materials (like the Journal of Discourses) it is only that quote that is authorized.
The absence of revelation on a topic does not preclude strong belief or tradition. Those that have the right to govern and administer the ordinances of the Church have been historically quite willing to champion certain beliefs and traditions that are not explicit in the revelations. Individuals, the church membership as a whole and church hierarchy have all been proven resilient against the changing tides of time. The mutability of our doctrine, on all levels, doesn’t show weakness and it shouldn’t upset anybody. I’m grateful that we are able to change.
- e.g., Joseph F. Smith recounted President Woodruff’s response to someone critical of his counselors:
Brother Woodruff assured him that if he did not have confidence in his counselors, he at least had, and that was sufficient for him, and in as much as they were united it was for the Lord to deal with them, if they gave wrong counsel… The Lord is doing this work–not Brother Woodruff, nor his counselors, nor the Twelve Apostles. It is true, we hope to be instrumental in His hands of doing some good, especially in fulfilling the object of our mission and calling; but we give God the honor and glory, and we attribute success to Him. When failure comes, God suffers it; it is through the weakness of man, and the Lord permits it because of that weakness. (CD vol. 5 pg. 126-127)
- Ensign, Aug. 1977, pg. 38
- The current Missionary Reference Library dates to the release of Preach My Gospel and includes: Jesus the Christ; Our Heritage; Our Search for Happiness; True to the Faith.