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.
- 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.
- 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).
- This is particularly refreshing considering one BYUTV roundtable discussion of the Book of Moses aired within recent memory.