Just like most people who grew up in the church, I memorized the Articles of Faith and can still mumble through a few of them. (Although I’m a bit too old to have sung them, thank goodness.) But as I think about them now, I’m not quite sure to make of them.
As most of you know, they were originally part of the Wentworth letter, written in spring 1842. The letter was a detailed introduction to Mormonism for non-members. Neither Wentworth or any other non-Mormon source published the letter; it first appeared in Times and Seasons in March 1842. They were included in the Pearl of Great Price, and were canonized as such in 1880.
What should I think about a letter written as an introduction to the church for non-members becoming canonized scripture?
To me, what the Articles of Faith should be is a list of the beliefs that are essential to being Mormon, the fundamental beliefs. And I think some of the Articles do that. But as a body of thirteen statements, I’m not sure they do.
It strikes me that some of them, specifically 11 and 12, were written to allay the fears associated with Mormons in the Nauvoo period: namely, that they’d live by their own laws and persecute non-Mormons. Should we look at how those Articles are invoked in light of that? (I’m thinking specifically of #12.)
JSJ didn’t include some of the doctrines and practices which were emerging at the time, namely the issue of eternal families. (Polygamy was already being practiced by a small group of men; baptisms for the dead had been announced as a doctrine in 1840.) Did he not yet consider them essential enough to mention in the letter, or was this a PR move? Considering that eternal families and eternal progression are much more central to the subsequent church, and more so to our church lives today, doesn’t it make the Articles of Faith more historical than doctrinal?
Ando we really believe all of the Articles equally, or do we believe some more than others? I’m not saying any of them are wrong, but that some of them are not very useful in defining the essentials of Mormon faith. To help make sense of this, I went to LDS General Conference Scriptural Index and counted the number of times each AoF had been referenced in a conference talk. Here are the results, in a nifty graph:
Clearly the ones mentioned the most often contain doctrines that the authorities of the church think are most essential. What I didn’t have a chance to do, and what might be interesting, is to see how they are used by the speakers.
What role do the Articles of Faith play in church doctrine? They are evoked from time to time as a scriptural authority, as a reminder of what we believe, but inconsistently. Perhaps we need to look at them more in their context, as we do with so much of our other scripture.