Review: Statements of the LDS First Presidency

In the game of Doctrinal Poker, First Presidency messages are aces.

Back in the Sixties and early Seventies James Clark compiled a six volume set (1) that reprinted many First Presidency messages chronologically with some commentary and historical context. While his analyses are sometimes mistaken, the volumes are a wonderful resource. When I heard Bergera was compiling Statements of the LDS First Presidency: A Topical Compendium I was a bit confused as to what to expect. Bergera has worked on award winning documentary histories of Nauvoo Temple worship and is known as a guy with access to cool source material. Was he going to update Clark’s compilation and bring it into the 21st century? No.

March_2007_statememtsGary James Bergera, Statements of the LDS First Presidency: A Topical Compendium, (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2007), 519 pages. $34.95

Statements is a one volume work intended to be a doctrinal reference. The introduction reads like Bergera’s other documentary histories but the body has a layout very similar to the Church’s own True to the Faith. Topics are arranged alphabetically and, within topics, excerpts from messages are presented in reverse chronological order. Bergera states in the introduction that this book is intended to be educational and that it “is not a history of the development of LDS Doctrine.”

Bergera selected statements from the Clark compendium, copies of the First Presidency Letter Press, First Presidency correspondence, various materials prepared under the imprimatur of the First Presidency, Church Handbooks of Instructions, and most recently the anonymous fruits of uber-correlation (e.g., True to the Faith and Preach my Gospel).

Consistent with his introductory statement, there is no entry for Adam-God or other major historical doctrinal anomalies. Still, there are instances where the historical pull was too great a force for the editor to resist. You will consequently find anachronisms in several of the topics (e.g., letters about relative merits of decaf and hot chocolate in the Word of Wisdom section or almost the entire entries on Birth Control and Capital Punishment). In the case of Labor Unions, the last statement included was 1918 — I think things have probably changed since then.

It is also interesting to look at the longest topics. Topics which have a rich and consistent focus like Family, Jesus Christ, Temple Work, Suffering and Priesthood reflect their importance to the Church, or in at least one case betray an area of interest of the editor (Intellectualism). Bergera split several topics that if unified would have been quite long. For example, he separates Evolution from Adam and Eve. The consequence is that the Church comes off a lot more agnostic on evolution than may be otherwise apparent.

Many will celebrate this book because it does put a lot of information from the Church Handbook of Instruction into the hands of the reader (albeit the 1998 version). For example, it has the concise and official definitions for disfellowshipment, excommunication and probation and has the CHI excerpts on sensitive topics like Sterilization and Divorce.

Overall, I find this a handy little volume. Reading the entries on War, Weapons, and Militarism is a moving testament to the Church’s commitment to peace. Entries like Politics and Stem Cell Research are timely and relevant. In many ways, this is a strong conservative work that in the majority of entries promotes the modern LDS doctrinal positions and provides either explicit or implicit First Presidency support. It is, however and obviously, not correlated. The only significant problem I see with the work is that when you don’t have the context of a historical treatment, but use historical materials, there is a large opportunity for readers to misinterpret the past and the present.

Statememts lists for $35, which for a paperback seems a little stiff.

______________________

  1. James R. Clark, comp., Messages of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965-75). These volumes are available in the major digital libraries of Mormon books.

Comments

  1. Costanza says:

    I hate when publishers issue documentary collections in paperback. I know, I know, it keep costs low ($35!) How is the binding? Can it be set flat on a desk without cracking? Pedestrian questions, I know, but very useful information for someone not likely to see one “in the flesh” before ordering.”

  2. Costanza, I have to admit to being a bit disappointed in the binding. The beautiful dark green is fairly easily scuffed to reveal the white paper underneath. The strength of the actual spine is good, though if you crack it all the way flat you wrinkle the spine (creating more opportunity for white to show).

  3. Costanza, I should also say that this isn’t a documentary history in the traditional sense. For example, an excerpted letter’s location isn’t explicitly given.

  4. J., as it’s intended to be a doctrinal compendium, but can not, due to copyright restrictions, publish the current positions of the church, do you feel it is out of date on any points, and what do you mean you don’t have context of historical statements? Does he not site his sources? Or are you just required to look them up?

  5. J., I was pleasantly surprised by the sources used in the book. I was expecting a retread of Messages of the FP, but this volume includes such sources as excerpts from the CHI; excerpts from “Dear Brethren” letters we hear once over the pulpit (if you’re punctual) but never see again; and excerpts from correspondence authored by members of the FP in response to private inquiries.

  6. Matt, if you don’t start reading my posts before you comment, I’m going to start taking it personally. Bergera uses excerpts of all current Church sources. I imagine that fair-use is being applied liberally.

    I agree Dave, I understand why they don’t footnote the heck out of it, but it would be nice.

  7. Is this available electronically?

  8. Dan, it was just released a couple of weeks ago in its first printing. No clue if it will ever be available electronically.

  9. J. I humbly apologize, I misread 1998 version of CHI as 1988 version. How embarrassing…

  10. Randy B. says:

    For those not happy with the binding, I understand that a limited hardcover edition is supposed to be out in about six months. (So says Tom Kimball.)

  11. Am wondering if Bergera includes this 1st Presidency Statement:

    http://www.bycommonconsent.com/2004/04/a-statement-from-the-first-presidency/

    Thanks.

    Aaron B

  12. Aaron, no it doesn’t, but it does include a 1912 letter from the FP that calls the doctrine in that link bunk.

  13. Aaron

    Gary felt that any statements that the LDS First Presidency had rescinded wouldn’t be appropriate for the book. Since the issue of the Priesthood ban for Blacks was rescinded, all statements about the Priesthood ban issue fell into that category. But there is a small section on race. The following is an interesting statement from that category:

    So far as we know, there is no revelation, ancient or modern, neither is there any authoritative statement by any of the authorities of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in support of that which many of our elders have advanced as doctrine, in effect that the negroes are those who were neutral in heaven at the time of the great conflict or war, which resulted in the casting out of Lucifer and those who were led by him, said to number about one-third of the hosts of heaven. (First Presidency to Milton H. Knudson, Jan. 13, 1912)

    As far as the binding is concerned. The book is made from very high quality paper with new, cutting edge technology for paperbacks. The book can lay almost flat with no creases. The pages are not going to fall out anytime soon. Yes, if you work on your transmission, then read the book, you will get grease on it, but it comes with a smudge proof cover. Yes $35 bucks is expensive. If you haven’t bought a Sig title lately or like me, purchased four copies and to gave one to the Elder’s Quorum prez, my brother, and a fellow Elder’s Quorum teacher, then your part of the reason the book is so expensive. It’s just the realities of book publishing these days. It costs lots of money.

    For the financially impaired, copies can be ordered from Amazon for just over $23. I spoke with Ingram and books should ship to Amazon this week. For the rest of you. Curt Bench has signed copies for sale at his book shop. 801-486-3111. I’m sure he could use the business to keep his doors open.

    Sure there could be many incarnations of this book. Gary felt this incarnation was the most helpful to his research and would be for others. I have to agree, I’ve had friends use it for home teaching, Relief Society lessons, press releases, and other such diverse applications. I think you will also.

    My best

    Tom Kimball
    publicist
    Statements of the LDS First Presidency

  14. What year does it go up to?

  15. There is a statment from March 2007. This month!

    Tom

  16. Tom (and J.), I guess this sounds like a handy book for everyday use (Tom mentions home teaching & RS lessons). But is it any good as an anthology or a credible historical resource? If all the past contradicting or (in Bergera’s view) irrelevant pronouncements have been struck, isn’t what we really have here just a mainstream view or highlights? Isn’t the global title a bit misleading?

  17. Global Title? Hummm, Credible historical resource? Contradicting pronoucements struck? I’m not sure where any of this is comming from. The book we have all beeen commenting on is a topical compendium of statements of the first presidency. I think the first presidency is perfectly credible in declairing doctrine for the LDS Church. I also would guess that most people would feel that the first pesidency is “mainstream” in an LDS sort of way. “Orthodox” might be another word. And yes, there are some contradictions by the first presidency. But mostly I see them as an evolution of thought. I guess I’m not sure where your going with this.

    Tom

  18. I think it is what it is, Steve. You are correct that if you find a letter or something and want to locate an original, it may prove difficult (unless you are already very familiar with the collections involved). That said, I don’t think that is the purpose of this book at all. This book is all about the average Saint wondering what the FP says about a given topic. And it does a great job at this.

  19. Costanza says:

    Steve,

    I read Tom to say that only “rescinded” statements were left out. My guess is that very few statements would fall into that category, and that a lot of the stuff included could be irrelevant, or largely ignored, or even superceded, in current church practice without necessarily having been rescinded. For example, I can imagine that many of the statements included in the book regarding temple procedure, garments, etc., are no longer current, but were never “rescinded.” Maybe Tom’s definition of what “rescinded” means is broader than mine, in which case your questions about its use as a historical source would be apropos.

  20. Costanza, I think you’re getting at what I’m talking about — lots of doctrine gets abandoned or rewritten without formal declarations of something being rescinded.

    Tom, don’t act so confused! When I see a book that is entitled “Statements of the LDS First Presidency,” and then I swiftly learn that it is not, in fact, a compendium of all of the Church’s First Presidency statements, then I get curious as to what’s been left out and why, and I no longer view the text as an authoritative source in any historical sense, but rather as a tool for approaching contemporary doctrine. That’s a perfectly viable purpose for the book, but it puts the book on the shelf next to the average “Teachings of the Presidents” books instead of as a definitive reference.

  21. Kevin Barney says:

    J., loved your first sentence!

    I don’t suppose it has the letter dictating that only men can offer the opening prayer in sacrament meeting, does it? Presumably it wouldn’t, because that letter was rescinded, and it’s not even clear to me that it was a 1P letter to begin with. But I’ve long wanted to find both the original letter and the rescission letter, and have never been able to put my hands on them.

  22. Costanza says:

    I know that in my wife’s parents’ stake the ban on women and opening prayers is still, regrettably and astonishingly, in place. I guess they never got the second letter.

  23. Thanks, Kev. That prayer rule actually appeared in the 1968 version of the CHI (no. 20). It wasn’t there in the 1963 (no. 19) edition. I understand that it actually started with the Priesthood Bulletin (July/August 1967). I don’t have the CHI no. 21 and am unaware if there was a letter that obviated the policy. So, I am not sure when it was officially rescinded.

    What a crapy policy though. Costanza, I’m sorry that no one has remedied the situation in your parents ward.

  24. …just checked the recent Kimball bio. President Kimball formally rescinded the policy in 1978 as not being doctrinal/scriptural.

  25. Kevin Barney says:

    A lot of stakes/wards still follow the old policy as part of the so-called “unwritten order of things.”

  26. Unwritten order.

    I have been told by a leader in our stake that, whenever a general authority has visited, the letter of instruction to our stake has included a request that the opening prayer of each conference session be by a Melchizedek Priesthood holder. On this basis, our stake (or at least some of its leaders) has determined, informally, and at this time, that the “unwritten order” is that opening prayers in Sacrament meeting usually be offered by brothers holding the MelchizedeK priesthood.

    I have not seen any of the general authority stake conference letters, and do not know whether it is true that such an instruction is always included. Moreover, it is not evident to me that a practice many or all visiting authorities follow when visiting stake conferences is one that local wards should follow for their sacrament meetings. (Another example: As I understand it, it has long been the practice that the council of 12 pass through doors in order of seniority (or something like that). I do not think this “unwritten order” of things among that quorum is meant to apply to, say, members of high councils–although there may be some stakes that follow it.)

  27. Well, since Kevin asked, can I ask if there is a letter about women NOT breastfeeding around priesthood holders, or in Sacrament meeting, or any letter regarding breastfeeding at all? The rumor of this letter has come up on several recent threads. Thanks.

  28. I can honestly say I have never been in a ward that has followed this “unwritten order” in my 9 years as a member. I consider that a good sign…

  29. claire, there is no such thing.

    Matt, your experience and mine are similar. I’ve lived in six stakes outside of Utah within the US and have never seen anything like this.

  30. Good greif! Have we become unwritten order Pharisees?

  31. Costanza, Gary addressed the ban on women praying in church on the Van Hale radio show last week. Since that policy was recinded it was also not included in the book. But I did find this little gem:

    Men and women may offer prayers in Church meetings. Prayers should be brief and simple and should be spoken as directed by the Spirit. Members should use the pronouns Thee, Thy, Thine, and Thou when addressing Heavenly Father. All members should say an audible amen at the end of the prayer. (Church Handbook, 1998)

    Claire, With a quick scan, I could not find a statment on breastfeeding, I’ll ask Gary if he saw anything later today. There are sections on women’s issues including birth control, abortion and priesthood. See the excerpt page for the book on our website for a full list of topics in the book.

    Tom

  32. Our Stake President has advised Bishoprics in our Stake as recently as three years ago that he has received instructions from somebody in authority over him (I don’t know remember it was an Area Authority or General Authority) that women were not to offer opening prayers in Sacrament Meeting.

  33. Ah, the ‘unwritten order.’ I serve in a Bishopric and was referred by my Bishop to an article by one of the apostles on this very topic. However, I have searched lds.org from one end to the other using every search term I could think of and couldn’t find such an article. (If anyone knows where it’s at, please let me know. I’m guessing it doesn’t really exist–much like the archaic ‘rules’ suggested by it.)

    According to my Bishop this article discussed other things like walking behind the presiding authority, etc., etc.

    I was very embarrased when I conducted my first Sacrament meeting and was chastised for asking a sister to give the opening prayer. This had been no problem in my previous ward/stake, so I was pretty confused.

  34. Gary, I think your Stake President probably confused counsel about open prayers (still a goofy policy, that some leaders seem to think is valid) with a proscription against all prayers.

  35. ajay42:

    here.

  36. Men offer all the opening prayers in my ward. In order to confirm my suspicions of a unwritten and unannounced policy, I began to keep a record of the prayers last year. After nine straight weeks of men offering the invocation, I stopped keeping formal count.

  37. We were asked to give the prayers in sacrament meeting on a day when my wife had to leave early. We told the counselor that my wife would have to give the opening, and I would give the closing prayer.

    They found someone else.

    In nearly four years, I’m confident that a woman has not said the opening prayer in sacrament meeting.

    I always figured that since the closing prayer is more important (you should try to remember the speakers’ names and the general subject of the talks), that’s why they had the women go last. Since it is well established that all women are spiritual queens who keep dragging their bumbling husbands up to a level that marginally qualifies them for church service.

  38. As a Bishop there are many times when I have purposly asked women to pray at both ends of the meeting just to alay such misconceptions.

  39. Tom, any idea when this book will be available on amazon.ca?

  40. Opening and closing prayers in my ward seem pretty random. In fact just a few weeks ago both prayers were given by single women. It also seems to me that women have given the opening prayer in Stake Conference. In any case it is always a man and a woman praying in Stake Conference.

  41. J. (#12),

    Your answer, “No,” is technically correct (referring to the 1949 statement linked in #11).  However, Bergera does include a 1952 statement that uses identical wording under the topic “premortal existence” on page 342:

    “[T]he conduct of spirits in the pre-mortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality, and … while the details of the principle have not been made known, the principle itself indicates that the coming to this earth and the taking on mortality is a privilege so great that is given to those who kept their first estate;… the worth of the privilege is so great that spirits are willing to come to Earth and take on bodies no matter what the handicaps may be as to the kind of bodies they are to secure, or as to the inhabitations that may follow because of the bodies they may secure; and that among the handicaps may be the failure of the right to enjoy, during mortality, the blessings of the priesthood.  This is a handicap which spirits are willing to assume in order that they may come to Earth.”

    Notice that the statement says nothing about premortal neutrality and therefore that neither of the 1912 letters quoted under the topic “race” on page 369 “calls the doctrine in that link bunk.”

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