Review of The Lectures on Faith in Historical Perspective

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.


  1. I find it hard to argue that the lectures were never canonized; they were included in the volume of the Doctrine and Covenants that was canonized; if they weren’t canonized, then any arbitrary subset of the sections from the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants may be equally well argued not to have been canonized.

    But I agree that the Lectures are sometimes simply wrong. Lecture 5 is an important primary source in the history of Mormon doctrines of the Godhead, but the message it teaches is simply not what Mormons since Nauvoo have believed.

  2. Do the RLDS still have them?

  3. Ronan, I remember seeing an RLDS D&C years ago and looking for the differences between our own version. I don’t think the Lectures were there. If the RLDS (pre-CoC) dropped the Lectures, I wonder what their reasoning was.

  4. Kevin: Excellent review. However, I don’t believe that lecture 5 is wrong so much as it has simply been surpassed by further revelation and clarification. We don’t accept that the Holy Ghost is merely the shared mind of the Father and the Son. We also believe that the Father is a personage of flesh like the Son rather than a personage merely of spirit.

    However, I agree with McConkie and Millett that Lecture 5 is a faithful expression of Latter-day Saint revelation recieved to that time. It is a very good summary of Mosiah 15-16 and D&C 93 — often times transparently quoting them at length.

    Moroever, the Lectures or no more nor no less wrong than earlier revelations like D&C 93 (which is one of my favorites). They teach us the value of continuing revelation and how Joseph transcended the less complete revelations. Isn’t this a valuable message in the context of the Restoration? Why we would try to hide it? I suspect because way too many have bought into an assumption of scriptural uniformitarianism where all scriptures must teach the same message or jive logically in a way that merely spells out what has already been revealed. But that is a conservative evangelical hermeneutic that we are well advised to throw in the rubbish heap. After all, if Christ’s message that the Law had been fulfilled in him and Paul’s message that the commands of the Law are no longer binding on Christians doesn’t show that later revelation may entirely supercede in a way that does not simply logically follow, what could possibly do the trick?

  5., a Mormon schismatic website has the Lectures if you don’t have a copy. In their history of the Lectures John Tandy states:

    The RLDS Doctrine and Covenants contained the Lectures until 1897, when they were deleted by the Board of Publication of the church without any particular reason given as far as this writer knows. F. Henry Edwards commented in 1977 that the Lectures “were not held to be on the same level as the revelations…their major value today is historical” (A New Commentary on the Doctrine and Covenants, 1977, p. 43). The LDS Church History contains a statement regarding the Lectures: “They are not to be regarded as of equal authority in matters of doctrine with the revelations of God in the Doctrine and Covenants…”

    I agree with your analysis, Kevin. The harmonization of them is simply futile.

    I think that the catechism sections are fascinating. This is a method of instruction that was fairly prevalent in the the 19th century, but is completely foreign to our time. The Lectures represent the earliest introduction of the format.

    I know that Blake likes to use them for their tying of Faith to the attributes of God. I buy into that. I’m actually fairly surprised that they made them all the way to 1921, though. While Brigham didn’t hesitate to contradict scripture and teachings, I would have thought that he would have had Orson Pratt remove them in the 1876 edition when it was overhauled.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    I’m with you, Blake. My problem is that Millet doesn’t see Lecture 5 as developmental in nature, but he is trying to read it as consistent with and expressive of later understandings, and is thereby committing the uniformitarian fallacy you speak of.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks, J., that’s fascinating that the RLDS tradition independently removed them from their D&C. I never even thought to ask the question whether they were still there or not.

  8. …and more from the note by B. H. Roberts in the HC:

    They are not to be regarded as of equal authority in matters of doctrine with the revelations of God in the Doctrine and Covenants, but as stated by Elder John Smith, who, when the book of Doctrine and Covenants was submitted to the several quorums of the Priesthood for acceptance, (August 17, 1835,) speaking in behalf of the Kirtland High Council, “bore record that the revelations in said book were true, and that the lectures judicially were written and compiled, and were profitable for doctrine.” The distinction which Elder John Smith here makes should be observed as a marking the difference between the Lectures on Faith and the revelations of God in the Doctrine and Covenants.

  9. I don’t know. I think that the Holy Ghost as the mind of the Father and the Son is less confusing than the Book of Mormon’s statement that Christ is the Father and the Son.

  10. Interesting review. How do they handle the patently ridiculous portions of the Lectures, like the recital of ages?

    In my experience, people use this notion that Sydney was the principle author of the Lectures as a kind of justification for their de-canonization — as though, if he wrote them, then it’s OK to scuttle them. My reaction to this is threefold:

    First, attributing authorship to Sydney of the de-canonized text is merely another step in our tradition of making him a scape-goat for aspects of Mormon history that make us uncomfortable.

    Second, the knee-jerk denigration of Sydney is part of a larger, more troubling Mormon tendency to de-value everything done by anyone who apostatizes.

    And Third, it’s a terrible justification for de-canonization.

    That said, I’d like to see the Lectures on Faith read more widely.

  11. Mark L. Robinson says:

    The Lectures on Faith probably are read more widely than we realize, although sadly, by diminished numbers as time goes by. We are taught to look sideways at anything decanonized, or ignore it altogether. But at what point do we ignore what Sydney preached?
    For current or “new” revelation to be credible, it should clarify and enhance former revelation, certainly not contradict our cancel it out. Otherwise, what can we count on?
    Consider the prophet Joseph himself now occupying an “office” of testator to God the Father, and God the Son.
    As to Christ being referred to as both the Father and the Son, He by appointment and mission came to do nothing other than that which His Father before Him had done. Is it logical that any one would occupy only one office forever in the eternities?

  12. glad to read the skeletons in your closet, kevin, keep it up.
    1. you may want to fix the freudianism in describing the Prophet’s grandnephew, no matter how you feel about the conservative revisionists (his middle name was Fielding), though its brief presence brought me great pleasure.
    2. agreed re: millet
    3. agree w blake that the independent existence of the holy ghost became crucial to Smith’s ideas about the holy hierarchy and the nature of the vast human family. everyone, even the great ruakh/pneuma, needed to be integrated into a clear genealogy.
    4. this raises once again the issue of Smithian authorship that you and I wonder about periodically. Judging from the Phelps cases that I keep discovering more about, I think that many if not most of Smith’s writings other than his on-the-fly revelations and visions involved his use of amanuenses that more often than not were creative collaborators. Positing that Rigdon actually inscribed the letters that would be printed does not rule out Smith’s explicit approval of the material written by his lieutenant and his willingness to have his name attached to them. In general, what do we do with items attributed to Joseph Smith which he expressly reviewed, edited (at least in some cursory sense) and approved that demonstrate the imprint of another mind at work? The Wentworth letter? His presidential platform? The appeal to the Green Mountain boys? The letters from Liberty Jail?

    We are one of the faiths that has the luxury of rejecting uniformitarianism, though many from both sides of the liberal and conservative divide tend to bristle at the actual application of living (ie changing) revelation. Perhaps a reasonable approach (though not one I find unproblematic) is the one the Brethren quietly try to undertake (Brother McConkie, for all his apostolic mantle, was not quiet), which is to assess writings on the basis of current understandings and reject those that are no longer consistent.

    Contra DKL, I’m not sure that the rejection of the LoF on the basis of Rigdonian authorship indicates the apostate-hatred that activated DKL’s Geiger counter. In my experience, few LDS actually know what happened to Rigdon, and he has not gained the opprobrium that afflicted poor Emma Hale for so long. I think it’s an entirely logically consistent argument, independent of Rigdon’s ultimate difficulties with Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, to maintain that a well-schooled and popular Baptist minister’s contributions to a theological document might differ from the ultimate beliefs of a populist post-Protestant mystic who at that early stage likely continued to revere, almost against his better nature, theological scholarship.

  13. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for pointing out that typo, Sam. I totally missed it. I think I’ll just leave it up so that those reading the thread will be able to see it.

  14. The Lectures on Faith probably are read more widely than we realize, although sadly, by diminished numbers as time goes by.

    True. Bruce R. wanted them put back into the 1981 edition of the PGP.

  15. Rob Osborn says:

    Just as a side note about the Holy Ghost. He is one mysterious guy. Interesting that when talking of future heirship to the Kingdom of God, the Holy Ghost is never mentioned as sitting on the throne with Christ and the Father. I have heard it said that the Holy Ghost is not an actual being but is an explaination of the “type” of godliness sent as messengers from the Fathers throne such as holy spirits sent forth to minister to us and that there are many holy ghosts that dwell with each of us. I could very well be wrong, but in the endowment ceremony it never shows the holy ghost but it does show holy spirits such as Peter, James & John sent as messengers to Adam and his posterity. Could these personages actually be the “Holy Ghost”? Also interesting is that no one is ever recorded as seeing “just the Holy Ghost” as a separate and distinct individual.

    Even the first vision shows no account of the Holy Ghost. He seems to be this 3rd member of the Godhead and yet he also seems to be without individual identity and never has place on the throne of the Future Celestial Kingdom.

  16. Rob, I believe the first several verses of 1 Nephi 11 (particularly verse 11) are typically held to be a case of someone recording seeing just the Holy Ghost as a separate and distinct individual, as you put it. Though I suppose it could be argued either way that it might refer to a vision of the pre-mortal Christ, or it might be the Holy Ghost, since the messenger is described only as “the Spirit of the Lord”.

  17. Rob, you’re mistaken. The D&C (130:22 in particular) makes it clear that the Holy Ghost is an actual, distinct personage of spirit. Peter, James and John are decidedly not the Holy Ghost, but messengers from God who speak with the power of the Holy Ghost.

  18. JSJ writes a fair bit about the necessary corporeal nature of the Holy Ghost, and his hierarchical governance over the telestial kingdom implies a distinct existence. I agree that #15 is factually inaccurate.

  19. Rob Osborn says:

    But do you not find it strange that this “Holy Ghost” as a distinctive member of the Godhead manifests himself as such. We have many many testimonies of visions where prophets see the Father or Son, sometimes even together as is told in the first vision account, but we have no actual record of a single distinctive entity called the “Holy Ghost” going from place to place doing work.

    Sure, we have many manifestations of the holy ghost dwelling with each of us at different places at the same time, but why is it hard to believe that this “Holy Ghost” is a single and separate entity when all the clues point to him being many beings (ministering spirits) but all with the same purpose! Is not a spirit messenger sent from God a “holy ghost”? And surely, if there is the gift of the holy ghost which enables the holy ghost to dwell with each one of us at different places but the same time tell us that there is more than one holy ghost?

    This may be one of those peculiar mysteries of Mormonism that is just not settled yet. Also when speaking of the Holy ghost ministering to the Telestial world we are told that they receive the holy ghost and that this holy ghost is/are ministering spirits assigned to them as they are heirs of salvation. This essentially states that the holy ghost (ministering angels/ spirits) ministers to those on this earth right now that have not forfeited their right to salvation meaning that the ministering spirits (the holy ghost) do not minister to those on the Telestial world who are or will be sons of perdition.

  20. Rob Osborn says:

    Just a little teaser for the brain- “the baptism of fire” is the baptism of the Holy Ghost and this is given to us by ministering spirts (plural)

    7 And of the angels he saith, Who maketh his angels spirits, and his ministers a flame of fire.

    (New Testament | Hebrews 1:7)

    Are not these sprits spoken of as having the purifying and sanctifying power which is the power of being a holy ghost or the power therof?

  21. Rob Osborn says:

    Second teaser- The above verse can be broken down further with this definition of the JST and a further verse-

    b JST Heb. 1:6–7 … And let all the angels of God worship him, who maketh his ministers as a flame of fire. And of the angels he saith, Angels are ministering spirits.

    (New Testament:Hebrews 1:6)

    31 ¶ When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory:

    (New Testament | Matthew 25:31)

    The intersting point I draw your attention to in these two verses is that the angels Christ brings with him when he returns as is stated in Mathew are called “holy angels”. This from the previous JST of Hebrews shows us that “Holy angels” can be interpreted to mean “Holy spirts” or as a “flame of fire”. These are all plural forms that we call the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit.

  22. Steve Evans says:

    Rob, you’re preaching false doctrine. Please give it a rest.

  23. a random John says:

    A few points…

    First, my 2000 printing of the RLDS D&C contains no mention of the Lectures. This is even more interesting given that the table of contents is actually a pretty complex table of all previous RLDS editions of the book, including 1835, and even lists sections that have been removed. The preface follows and is two pages long and also makes no mention of the Lectures but does talk about several other changes.

    MDB, as far as the 1 Nephi 11 thing goes, I have to say that I don’t understand how we reach that conclusion so easily. I’ve never seen anybody consider the question in conjunction with the fact that the end of 1 Nephi 10 mentions the Holy Ghost as the Holy Ghost, making it very strange that the next sentence in the book (note that the chapters are artificial) would keep talking about the same entity but use a completely different name without making any explicit linkage.

    I’m convinced that the authors of the Book of Mormon did not have the Talmage Godhead in mind when they sat down to write. Their understanding was different from ours, and I think both are somewhat limited and simplistic.

  24. Myself, I feel 1 Nephi 11 is rather ambiguous on that point, but the typical explanation or commentary I’ve always heard is that it is the Holy Ghost. At least that’s probably the easiest reading, not necessarily the correct one. But if the Spirit is an angel of the Lord, why make the distinction between this “Spirit”, as it’s called, and the “angel” that takes up the vision beginning in verse 14? And if this is Christ appearing, he doesn’t identify Himself as such, and refers to himself in third-person (though given these are OT times, I suppose that approach wouldn’t be atypical of Him). So I think one can make a case for this being the HG. But if so, it is an unusual instance.

  25. a random John says:

    The Book of Mormon Reference Companion entry on Spirit of the Lord quotes Talmage as saying that the Holy Ghost is speaking with Nephi in 1 Nephi 11. Of course since Talmage is the father of our current theology one might think that he is interested in simplifying things and supporting his own viewpoint. In any case, I haven’t found anything that deals with the incongruity of 1 Nephi 10 and 1 Nephi 11 on the subject.

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