Review: LDS Beliefs

More than sixty years ago a 46 year old member of the First Council of Seventy published Mormon Doctrine (MoDoc), a volume which overcame initial resistance from the governing church quorums to become a beacon of orthodoxy in the latter third of the century. The volume was popular for the same reason that it is today polarizing: an authoritative voice; an aggressive stance; and a willingness to treat obscure doctrines as well as those considered by the author to be false. The author, Bruce R. McConkie, was the gifted son-in-law of Joseph Fielding Smith, pedigreed apostle and scholar, though he had never served in a bishopric or stake presidency and had yet to have been ordained a high priest.

Many are the books that have been published with an eye to be the Mormon Doctrine-slayer. In the last decades perhaps the most notable attempts at encyclopedic dominance where the Encyclopedia of Mormonism and the Church Correlation Department’s own True to the Faith. The former is handy but at four volumes, was perhaps a bit too spendy and unwieldy for widespread use. The latter benefits from being widely distributed, but its slick correlation and anemic entry list discount its use for anything more than “seminary answers.” With Deseret Book’s decision to let MoDoc fall out of print in 2010 and with Correlation stripping all references to the book from church publications, the time is perhaps ripe for the ascendancy of a new single-volume doctrinal compendium.

Enter the Deseret Book veterans of Brigham Young University Religious Education. Robert Millet, Camille Fronk Olson, Andrew Skinner and Brent Top: these are the people that sit around the table on BYUTV and performatively discuss scripture. They each have their niches, but they have come together to craft an attempt at killing the twentieth-century doctrinal equivalent to the iphone. Did they do it?

Robert L. Millet, Camille Fronk Olson, Andrew C. Skinner, and Brent L. Top, LDS Beliefs: A Doctrinal Reference (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2011). 688 pp. Index. Hardbound, $39.99, ISBN: 978-1-60908-059-4

Of course, antagonists and cynics as well as apologists and those simply with long memories might ask, what precise beliefs are the authors chronicling? Well, those of the contemporary church [n1]:

To determine whether something is a part of the doctrine of the Church, we have asked ourselves and one another: Is it in the four standard works? Is it in official declarations or proclamations? Is it taught in general conference or other official gatherings by general authorities or general officers of the Church today? Is it in the current general handbooks or approved curriculum of the Church? If it meets one or more of these criteria, we have felt safe in drawing upon it. (xi)

You won’t find any academic references in the entries, and only rare reference to the Journal of Discourses (see, e.g., “Plural Marriage,” 493-496). On occasion the authors can’t resist sources like Doctrines of Salvation, because let’s face it, a lot of common belief just isn’t otherwise available. The authors destroy their own doctrinal standards when they cite The Way to Perfection; there really is no good excuse for that. There is also some inconsistency in sourcing material. For example, sometimes Joseph Smith sermons are cited in the History of the Church, at other times the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church manual, and rarely The Words of Joseph Smith. Normally, you will find the same type of references that you might find in a current church publication, which is entirely consistent with the stated goals. In a few cases, there are some eyebrow-raising choices, like an extensive quotation of the poetic paraphrase of the Vision mistakenly attributed to Joseph Smith in “Atonement, Infinite” (61). I am generally sympathetic to the author’s approach for the particular audience; however, when tackling some topics, the authors can get into a bit of trouble. Take for example the entry on “Urim and Thummim” (647-50), which conflates the Nephite spectacles with all of Joseph Smith’s various seer stones. Thus it appears from the entry that Smith wielded the two stones in silver bows to translate the entire Book of Mormon as well as the Book of Abraham, and used it well into the Nauvoo period. A quick check of the academic literature would have saved a considerable amount of false perception. [n2]

The authors generally avoid calling out false doctrine; instead, they generally ignore discussions of beliefs now deemed to be false. For example, the entry on “Cain” (87-88) discusses Cain in the scriptures, but makes no mention of the once popular (and patently absurd) beliefs associating the lineage or curse of Cain with people of black African heritage. [n3] The entry on the 1978 priesthood revelation (505-509) takes a more head-on approach, though without mentioning specific beliefs. While it does try to defend priesthood exclusion based on Israelite precedent, it relies on Bruce R. McConkie’s wonderful sermon delivered just months after the revelation to repudiate all previous statements (including his own) regarding the reasons for the ban. In describing the actual revelation the authors favor McConkie’s pentacostal descriptions over the more staid statements of other church leaders. Other examples where the modern position is exclusively outlined are discussions birth control in “Procreation” and the entry on “Homosexuality.”

As far as esoterica go, the volume contains surprisingly detailed (though obviously circumspect) entries for “Calling and Election” (88-90) and “Cherubim” (who apparently [gulp] have wings, 105-106. It is a good things Alvin Dyer isn’t here or we would be in trouble.). For those hoping for a smack-down or vindication, there is no entry for “Evolution” (perhaps because the church has no doctrine for it?) and there are none of the prurient or outrageous entries common to MoDoc that I read as a kid, like “sex immorality” or “necromancy.”

A few entries indicate that there is no single consistent church doctrine on a particular topic. For example, the entry on “Intelligence(s)” (324-326) describes how there are two major schools of thought in the church: one being that spirits are created from primal spirit matter, and the second being B. H. Roberts’ recently popular tripartite model. Though they miss the option that spirits were, as Joseph Smith taught “never created or made,” they are to be commended on at least not trying to impose a particular view on the Saints, where so many have in the past.

Each individual entry is marked with the initials of the principle author who wrote it. It is at least therefore possible to associate a particular entry with a specific author. But generally, it would be great if LDS Beliefs were reflective of BYU Religious education more broadly. I do think that it is worth noting that though Olson is the sole female author, every one of the twelve assistants and editors acknowledged to have worked on the project are women. Perhaps BYU Religious Education faculty will grow to more reflect the demographics of these contributors.

Though I have called out specific entries for criticism, in general the topics are judicious and consistent with the goal of presenting the beliefs and doctrines taught by the modern church. Creating such a literally encyclopedic work is challenging, and the authors have generally done well in their stated goals. Despite the significant errors and occasional flawed sourcing, I would be delighted if Gospel Doctrine teachers around the world referred to the LDS Beliefs over other popular works. I suspect, however, that without a strong authoritarian persona backing the volume up, it will never fully replace MoDoc in the hands of some readers. Some people just want to say, “And as Elder McConkie said…” It is much more difficult to do that with LDS Beliefs. Instead, people need to be content to use the entries as a compilation of various authoritative sources and not an authority itself. This is of course a much more healthy usage pattern for the Church and its members; but that doesn’t mean everyone will like it.

________________

  1. Nate Oman has tackled the difficulty of such a simple statement and has proposed a framework in which to work. I still think the handbook trumps everything, though, and I have yet to see a coherent distinction between doctrine and policy.
  2. E.g., Joseph Smith Papers editor Mark Ashurst-McGee has a nice thesis on the topic. “A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith Junior as Rodsman, Village Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet” (M.A. thesis, Utah State University, 2000).
  3. This is particularly refreshing considering one BYUTV roundtable discussion of the Book of Moses aired within recent memory.

Comments

  1. Julie M. Smith says:

    Thanks for this review.

    A literal reading of their definition of doctrine would mean that a statement made by a counselor in the general Primary presidency would be considered doctrine, even without any other support. I doubt that definition of doctrine will gain wide acceptance.

  2. Thanks for the review.

    I agree that MoDoc is hard to replace in the minds of those who want an authoritative declaration of Truth, but that approach is problematic, imo, when viewed against the big picture of Mormon thought and theology over the years.

    The simplest definition of “doctrine” is nothing more than “something that is taught; teachings collectively: religious doctrine”. In that light, if “doctrine” is understood to be “belief articulated by someone in authority” and divorced from the idea of “Eternal Doctrine” (which is more consistent with “creed” or “dogma”), I actually like the definition with which they work. I think it’s easy to say that Mormonism is a collection of fluid doctrine and not a composite of calcified creeds and determined dogma.

    For that reason, I don’t want a McConkie-esque recitation of “Mormon Doctrine”; I much prefer the title of this work, “LDS Beliefs”. I think it fits Mormonism in its purest form much better.

  3. Ray, how does your definition of doctrine square with doctrines of the priesthood which shall distill upon our soul as the dews from heaven (resulting from keeping the commandments of chari
    Ironic that you refer to fluid doctrine when Elder McConkie one likened doctrine to a river we could swim upstream and downstream in.

  4. Thanks for this. Based on what I’ve seen of this book, I think your review is much kinder and gracious than one I would have given.

    In the end, I think what is most annoying is that it is frustratingly accurate in expressing (and by its nature, bound to thus ‘define’) the general and current views and understandings in the Church. And frustrating that a book by scholars pretty much completely rejects scholarship (I find it very frustrating that Joseph’s view of eternal spirits/adoption by God is completely rejected without mention, only giving time to explanations that have God creating/forming spirits in some material hands-on way).

    Oh well. At least we have the Joseph Smith Papers to be excited about and enjoy now, with it’s acknowledgement (for the first time I think in official publications) of some significant iconoclastic things. (Rigdon Authorship of Lectures on Faith, Joseph’s poly/gamy(andry), Revelations-not-as-transcripts-from-Voice-Of-God, etc).

    Something about steps forward and steps back.

  5. Thanks for the comments, folks. Julie, I think that you are right that the definition is a bit naive. And regarding doctrine/eternal truth, I think there are some places like where Christ defines his doctrine (short but to the point) that we are willing to accept the eternal veracity of it. Generally, however, that Mormon beliefs and doctrines are mutable is an historical fact.

    David, it is what it is.

  6. Some thoughts on what constitutes “doctrine.”

    The go-to definition in my mind has usually been “a teaching that has been formally presented to and accepted by the body of the church.”

    So, this would mostly mean the standard works. It hasn’t been expanded much, if at all, beyond official declarations.

    This would not include the Proclamation on the family, the handbook, the Ensign, or General Conference speeches.

  7. While sometimes fun, debates about what constitutes doctrine is a bit misplaced here, I think, unless it relates to the book.

  8. Thanks for this review, J; I’m glad to hear of the improvement.

  9. Thanks for the interesting, insightful review, Jonathan. As understandably tempting as it is to try to identify specific doctrines, beliefs, teachings, etc., as “official,” I wonder if we will ever be able to come up with a definition that is completely satisfying. Is such the nature of a theology based on the concept of continuing revelation?

  10. These things are probably done better by non-Mormon presses where the desire to find “official” doctrine is not so compelling. That way you could have a dictionary entry for “evolution” that says, “some Mormons believe this, some Mormons believe that, here’s why, and here’s a bibliography.” That’s what I want to see. Still, I hope this replaces MD.

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    I’m with RJH. A descriptive approach going over the various schools of thought on each issue and their development would be much more useful to me.

  12. Gary, I think that you are correct that in very many cases the Mormon tradition resists formal codification. And Ronan and Kev. hit on a viable solution. Such a project wouldn’t satiate every appetite, though, particularly the audience for this volume.

  13. Stapers,
    Right. The people who are reading this want definitive, near-authoritative statements. But, of course, anyone compiling such a book is going to be very worried about providing definitive, near-authoritative statements.

  14. “how does your definition of doctrine square with doctrines of the priesthood which shall distill upon our soul as the dews from heaven”

    Very well.

    I really like the idea of something that delves into the multiple ideas within Mormonism, but, but definition, such a work, in order to be comprehensive, would he nearly, if not, limitless. If we are going to have to settle for less than the ideal, I like the model of the Joseph Smith Papers:

    Lay out everything someone said and let the individual readers figure out what works for them.

  15. So then, no alternate voices here, right? But doesn’t the very act of creating this kind of thing constitute an alternate voice? It does justify its auto-authoritative position. But as others have pointed out, the editors are anything but authoritative. I predict this will be in Christmas stockings this year, but not next. The folks who want a volume like this, in the end won’t want this one.

  16. I think this will sell ok, but mainly to people like me who just want to look at the differences from MoDoc and then to have it on the shelf.

  17. Aaron Brown says:

    Nate Oman has provided the best framework for thinking about “doctrinal” questions, but it’s no surprise that this volume doesn’t follow his lead. The Church as a whole simply isn’t ready to deal with the perpetual ambiguity that such a perspective provides, which is often terribly frustrating (to me), but this is unlikely to change anytime soon.

    Kevin, I speak for everyone when I demand that you write a similar volume, but one which improves upon this one’s limitations!

  18. Aaron Brown says:

    J., neither of your links in the OP take readers anywhere useful.

  19. Thanks Aaron, they are both now fixed.

  20. I have the solution! We can have two editions, by two different sets of editors. This one, in blue (you know, for ‘safe’), can be called ‘Conservative LDS Beliefs’. Another one, in red (you know, for ‘danger’), can be called ‘Liberal LDS Beliefs’, and be edited by the Permas at BCC.

    And then we’ll sit back and see which set sells better. And then we can judge the cool factor of our Sunday School teachers by the edition of the book they bring to Church (although some may try to be sneaky and place a ‘blue’ jacket on a ‘red’ edition. Sneaky!)

    Come on Sheri Dew. You know you wanna do it.

  21. So J., out of curiosity, is the Lectures on Faith taken as a reliable reference? Or does it make any sort of appearance in this volume? I only ask because Millet is on record as saying it’s authoritative – I think.

  22. The permas at BCC were not produced by the liberal cookie cutter. Believe me, there is a pretty wide range there.

  23. Aaron Brown says:

    Indeed. We are united only in our deep, inexplicable hatred of flowery cover fonts.

  24. WVS,

    I was being a bit tongue in cheek with my language choice in much of that last comment – believe me, there were no attempts to pigeonhole or infer any sort of cookie cutter. Apologies for the lack of clarity. I would think a stark polarization of such vague terms as CONSERVATIVE and LIBERAL would have made that clear ( Especially with all the great labeling conversations that go on here), but perhaps not. My bad.

    Although I will say I do like the concept of having dueling editions of such a book for variety – although maybe Givens’ new encyclopedic work on the development of the theology/doctrinal concepts may serve an equally valid and helpful resource of that variety.

  25. Thanks for the review.

  26. WVS, I am going from memory here, but I do remember at least one Lecture reference…in “Atonement.” I’ll have to look up whether that was a Millett entry.

  27. J, there are a variety of citations to the Lectures. It is one of the things that surprised me about the book.

  28. .

    So . . . should I buy it?

  29. Steve Evans says:

    You can afford it, Theric. Pick me up a copy while you’re at it.

  30. That is right, Dave. I just checked my notes and saw that there was a reference to Lectures for the entry on “Godhood.” And for those familiar with the Lectures take on the trinity, it seems sort of incongruous. There are also several references to things like JFSII’s The Way to Perfection and BRM’s Messiah series, that would have been better suited to a volume produced several decades ago.

  31. Ok J. Anybody who pulls out TWtP writes the word BOGUS all over their book. Only slightly hyperbolic here.

  32. Yeah, that was particularly disappointing; but I was trying to limit my negative comments in the review.

  33. …you know, it is eating on me. The use of TWtP really is terrible. The chapters on race are astoundingly miserable. Makes me want to revise my review.

  34. It is a truly awful book in so many ways.

  35. #33 – then please do.

  36. C’est fait.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 9,463 other followers