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.
Gary 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.
- 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.