I was just cleaning out my papers and found a review I had written of the captioned book and submitted to one of the print journals (I forget whether it was Sunstone or Dialogue). I never heard back, so the review was never published. Rather than just stick it back in the closet, I thought I would go ahead and publish it here. Your thoughts and attitudes on the Lectures on Faith in general are on topic for this post. Please note that this review predated the excellent work of Noel Reynolds on the authorship of the Lectures, attributing them primarily to Sidney Rigdon. I agree with Reynolds and highly recommend his articles on this subject.
Larry E. Dahl and Charles D. Tate, Jr., eds., The Lectures on Faith in Historical Perspective. Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1990. 310 pp., appendices, indices.
This book constitutes volume 15 in the Religious Studies Center Monograph Series. Following an introductory essay on the authorship and history of the Lectures on Faith by Larry Dahl, the first half of the book is devoted to the presentation of a newly edited version of the Lectures (the “1990 Edited Version”), together with charts comparing the textual variations among the 1990 Edited Version and the earlier editions. The second half of the book is devoted to commentary on the seven Lectures, with different authors contributing chapters on each Lecture in order. There is Dennis Rasmussen on Lecture 1 (“What Faith Is”), Joseph Fielding McConkie on Lecture 2 (“Chosen Vessels and the Order of the Priesthood”), Rodney Turner on Lectures 3 and 4 (“The Imperative and Unchanging Nature of God”), Robert Millet on Lecture 5 (“The Supreme Power over All Things: The Doctrine of the Godhead in the Lectures on Faith”), Robert J. Matthews on Lecture 6 (“Great Faith Obtained Only Through Personal Sacrifice”), and Ardeth Kapp on Lecture 7 (“Fruits of Faith”). The book concludes with a selected bibliography and subject and scripture indices.
The Lectures were first delivered at the School for the Elders in Kirtland, Ohio, in November and December of 1834. The principal lecturers were probably Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon, although others may have been involved in the teaching as well. The Lectures were first printed together as a collection in 1835 as part of the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lectures representing the “Doctrine” and the revelations retained in our current edition of the Doctrine and Covenants representing the “Covenants” referred to in the title (as anyone who examines a first edition Doctrine and Covenants may readily discern). Between 1835 and 1921, virtually all English language editions of the Doctrine and Covenants contained the Lectures, but upon the recommendation of a committee of apostles (including James E. Talmage, John A. Widtsoe and Joseph Fielding Smith) they were removed from the 1921 and susequent editions. Arugiably, there were two reasons for this deletion: (i) the Lectures were never canonized as scripture (or they were canonized and then “decanonized” in 1921 [see Richard S. Van Wagoner, Steven C. Walker and Allen D. Roberts, “The ‘Lectures on Faith’: A Case Study in Decanonization,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 20 (Fall 1987): 71-77, an argument Dahl spars with), and (ii) the teachings on the Godhead in Lecture 5 are “incomplete” (read erroneous).
This volume seems to be an attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of the Lectures on Faith and encourage their study by modern Mormons (most of whom have virtually no knowledge of the Lectures). The book is formatted well for this purpose, with necessary historical background followed by a new text and textual apparatuses and concluding with commentary. Although uneven, for the most part the commentary is adequate for its purpose. Unquestionably (if predictably) the most problematic chapter in the commentary section is Robert L. Millet’s discussion of Lecture 5 and the Godhead. Millet follows Bruce R. McConkie in arguing that Lecture 5 “is without question the most excellent summmary of revealed and eternal truth relative to the Godhead that is now extant in mortal language” (p. 221). Such unadulterated poppycock displays the Mormon harmonist tradition in its worst light; if such a statement were true, then Elders Talmage, Widtsoe and Smith should never have recommended the deletion of the Lectures from the Doctrine and Covenants. I believe this is a case where Joseph Fidlding Smith, who freely acknolwledged the doctrinal inadequacy of Lecture 5, was on much firmer ground than his son-in-law. Millet tries hard to harmonize with traditional Mormon doctrine statements to the effect that (i) there are two personages in the Godhead, (ii) the Father is a personage of spirit, and (iii) the Holy Spirit is the mind of the Father and the Son, but ultimately fails.
There is much of value in the Lectures on Faith; they certainly deserve wider study, and this volume will be a useful tool in encouraging such study. They cannot, however, seriously compete with the scriptures. Portions of the Lectures are ponderously pedantic, and some of the material is simply wrong. Call me old fashioned, but I whole-heartedly concur with the decision to remove the Lectures from the Doctrine and Covenants, and I view attempts to elevate the authority of the Lectures to a par with the scriptures themselves as misguided.