Gospel Doctrine Lesson #7: “The First Principles and Ordinances of the Gospel”

Notes, commentary, and questions for LDS Sunday School teachers using the ‘Doctrine & Covenants and Church History’ manual. Feel free to share your thoughts or ideas regarding the lesson in the comments.


The intent of lesson seven is to discuss the “first principles and ordinances of the gospel,” a reference to the fourth Article of Faith (AoF) in which they are presented:

We believe that the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are: first, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; second, Repentance; third, Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; fourth, Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.

My take on this lesson will be to compare the doctrine of Article 4 with the related confessions in the Anglican formulation known as the Thirty-Nine Articles (39A). As a Mormon living in England, it seems worthwhile to consider what these ideas mean in the common religious tongue before considering whether there is a distinctly Mormon reading. (It would also be interesting, but beyond my ken, to understand these ideas in their Second Great Awakening context. Please add literature in the comments.)

The 39A blend a new Anglican-Protestant tradition with the ancient creedal faith. As such, they are keen to define faith in theological terms deemed acceptable by their sponsors. Where the AoF speak simply about “faith in the Lord Jesus Christ”, the 39A are concerned with who exactly Jesus is believed to be: He is the Trinitarian Son (1), the incarnate Word who suffered for the sins of men (2), who went down into Hell (3), and was resurrected from the dead (4). These are theological statements. Joseph Smith was no theologian (and less so than Orson Pratt upon whose work the AoF seem to have been based) and so we are left with no theology of Christ beyond the fact that he is the “Lord” and that we are to have “faith” in Him. This is jello-to-the-wall stuff — confining God to legalistic formulae does not seem to be the Mormon way, at least historically.

Repentance” comes under the rubric “penance” in the 39A (25) and is explicitly declared not to be a sacrament, at least not in the same way as baptism and the eucharist. Much hangs on the Greek word metanoia (Latin paenitentia). Does it mean repentance, the recognition of one’s sinfulness and a submission to God’s redemption, or is it penance, the performance of an act that is made in partial payment for sin? The Reformation largely rejected the latter; Latter-day Saints have blended both ideas, I think, but have called the result “repentance.” Again, what Joseph Smith meant by repentance is left unsaid, allowing modern Mormons their “steps of repentance” and other flourishes.

Baptism” (27) is regarded as a “sign of profession” and “mark of difference” as well as a “sign of new birth.” Baptism ensures that the “promises of the forgiveness of sin . . . are visibly signed and sealed.” It is not therefore a remission of sins as such but a promise that this is now available, which is why children are baptised in the Anglican tradition — they are grafted into the church at an early age, thus making more likely their later appropriation of forgiveness.

The 39A espouse belief in original sin (9), which will of course be rejected by Mormons. In the light of the stated purpose of baptism in Anglicanism, however, this rejection does seem to miss the point. Certainly, humans have a natural, in-built propensity to sin, children also. Baptism does not so much as remit that sin but sanctify us despite of it (a basic Protestant idea) and then ready us for our own faith-led repentance. The difference in Mormonism is that baptism remits sins committed as acts of human will, of which little children are innocent. Strangely, this seems to endow baptism with much greater sacramental power than we often give it. However, Mormon baptism is also now spoken of as the gate to repentance, through covenant, not its final act. If we are honest, the question “what is the purpose of baptism?” does not have a clear answer in Mormonism. And let us ignore baptisms for health for now.

Whilst baptism is a sacrament with scriptural warrant (25), according to 39A, confirmation is not. That is not to say that it has no value but it is somewhat a sacrament in search of a theology. It seems to exist mainly as an opportunity for the person baptised as an infant to make a mature commitment to the faith. For this reason, there is some disagreement as to whether someone baptised as an adult needs to be confirmed. Without infant baptism, the ritual of confirmation currently practiced by Mormons — meaning confirmation as a member of the Church — seems to make little sense, especially if the baptism itself is seen as the vehicle for covenant making. In other words, what makes you a member of the kingdom, the baptism or the confirmation (or both)? I do not know whether the member-making purpose of confirmation was present in the earliest days of Mormonism.

We are of course conflating confirmation-as-a-member-of-the-Mormon-Church with the bestowal of the New Testament-mandated gift of the Holy Ghost, which it obviously is not, or not exactly. AoF 4 makes no such explicit link between the two and is much more traditional: confirmation here means the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost. It is the same as the Anglican rite wherein the bishop prays, “Confirm, O Lord, your servant with your Holy Spirit.” In the Mormon tradition, great stock is placed in the gift of the holy Ghost belonging uniquely to those properly baptised and confirmed (i.e. Mormons). As Brad Kramer writes, in the laying on of hands “an existing relationship is ritually transformed into something more constant, enduring, deeper, more meaningful, and more fruitful.” That this ritual is bound up in membership of the kingdom is perhaps intended.

Lots of questions this week in what otherwise looks like a simple lesson. I am struck at the chiastic mirror of approaches between Anglicans and Mormons: the Church of England has a very detailed set of beliefs, articulated with some sophistication but in no way leading to uniformity of belief; the Mormon Church has a very simple set of beliefs which would seem to allow a great deal of theological latitude but which in fact do not — Mormon belief is far more uniform than is Anglican.

Who would be happier about that, Thomas Cranmer or Joseph Smith?


  1. J. Stapley says:

    This is really great stuff, Ronan. Thank you. Anglican confirmation still needed (needs?) to be performed by a bishop, like Catholic confirtmation, right? Those last two paragraphs, well, paragraph and a sentence, are really interesting. JS’s anti-creedalism (he called the methodist handbook a black deformity) might suggest that your question might yield some fascinating answers.

    I think the idea of a “remission of sins” not only is a developing idea throughout Mormonism, but is still in process. It is easier to point to certain points and say baptism here was doing such and such, than it is for me to say anything about the present.

  2. The answer to my question, I suspect, is that neither of them would be happy.

  3. RJH, a few thoughts here:
    1. Wonderful post.
    2. The contrast between the two is quite stark. There is a great deal of Christological latitude here and much I suppose depends on how we frame issues like ‘Lord’. This is exactly the type of contrast that would be a fruitful discussion in our Sunday schools.
    3. Drawing the distinction between repentance and penance is hugely illuminating and not something I had considered all that much before. My Mormon upbringing has clearly blended these ideas in my own mind. Repentance-as-recognition fits quite nicely fit the discussion of faith and humility in Al 32 and Adam Miller provides an interesting reading of these passages in this vein in the Alma 32 Mormon Theology seminar.

  4. Really enjoyed this Ronan. Thank you. Lots to contemplate here.

%d bloggers like this: