Lesson 9: The Only True & Living Church #DandC2017

The revelation later designated D&C section 21, as seen in the book of revelations kept by Joseph Smith et al.

On Tuesday, April 6th, 1830, in a small log cabin belonging to Peter Whitmer Sr, Joseph Smith Jr and five other men* organized the Church—a little more than 50 men and women, total, were in attendance.

Joseph later recorded:

“Having opened the meeting by solemn prayer to our Heavenly Father, we proceeded, according to previous commandment, to call on our brethren to know whether they accepted us as their teachers in the things of the Kingdom of God, and whether they were satisfied that we should proceed and be organized as a Church according to said commandment which we had received. To these several propositions they consented by a unanimous vote.”

History of the Church 1:78

It was a momentous occasion. Not only for the Kingdom of God on Earth… but for 24-year-old Joseph Smith. It was both the culmination of the work of his life to-date and the start of a work that would only end in his death, a mere 14 years later. That same day, Joseph would look on as his father—a stubbornly areligious man—was baptized nearby.

During the meeting, Joseph received a revelation that would become D&C Section 21, where the Lord calls Joseph a prophet, seer, translator, and apostle of Jesus Christ, and an Elder of the Church.

Sidney Rigdon remembered the events of that day, saying:

“I met the whole church of Christ in a little old log house about 20 feet square, near Waterloo, N.Y. and we began to talk about the kingdom of God as if we had the world at our command; we talked with great confidence, … although we were not many people; … we saw by vision, the church of God, a thousand times larger; … the world being entirely ignorant of the testimony of the prophets and without knowledge of what God was about to do.”

Times & Seasons,1 May 1844, 522–23

Today, 187 years—and literally millions of baptisms later—that little Church continues… Sometimes thriving, sometimes struggling, sometimes faced with utter destruction.

In the study guide for Lesson 9, students are asked:

How might your life be different if the Church had not been restored or if you were not a member of the Church?

As I think over my life and think of those who influenced me—my mom, a lapsed conservative Lutheran; my classmates, many of whom were deeply religious—I can’t help but think that I would have most likely joined the Catholic church, by way of dalliances with various evangelical movements.

As I came to understand my orientation, but without the spiritual courage afforded me by my Mormon faith, I would have likely drifted from the faith or taken my own life, convinced of my worthlessness in the eyes of God.

It’s a sobering thought.

I am indeed grateful for my Mormon faith—which teaches me to approach God with confidence, to seek answers to my prayers, to trust in the whisperings of the Spirit, and to see myself and others as veritable Children of God and co-heirs with Jesus Christ.

* * *

Lesson 9 is largely concerned with D&C sections 20 & 21, and dwells a great deal on the blessings of Church membership. I could review the lesson in depth, but instead, I’d like to offer supplemental questions for your consideration… feel free to offer your responses, below, in the comments.

1) The lesson states that its purpose is, in part:

…to help [class members] appreciate the blessings of Church membership, and to encourage them to show the Lord their gratitude for membership in His Church.

1a) What are the differences between membership in the Church, membership in the community of faith, and membership in the Kingdom? When do they align? When are they at odds?

1b) How might gratitude for membership in the Church improve our walk before God? Is membership in the Church ever a burden? How so?

2) The lesson makes a great deal of the growth of the Church—as have countless general authorities over the years…

2a) How does the current slowing of Church growth color your testimony of the Restoration?

2b) How are we to understand the story of the Kingdom that Shall Not Fail and the Stone Cut without Hands in Daniel 2? Is it the Church? Is it the Gospel? Are the two synonymous? How does the triumphalism of this story contrast with the circumspection of Christ calling his flock to be “the salt of the earth”—ever the minority?

2c) D&C Section 65 seems to favor a triumphalist vision of the Church filling the whole earth… what might that look like? What dangers does growth pose to the Church? the Gospel? Is all growth good—is there such a thing as bad growth?

3) The lesson asks how the coming forth of the Book of Mormon paved the way for the restoration of the Gospel. Is the restoration of the Gospel synonymous with the organization of the Church? Is a testimony of the Book of Mormon necessarily a testimony of today’s Church—of today’s leadership?

4) In D&C Section 21, the Lord speaks of Joseph’s mission and calls upon those gathered to “receive [his words], as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith”. The lesson makes two bold claims: that “while the statements in D&C 21 were spoken about Joseph Smith, they also apply to the prophets who have succeeded him”; and they directly equate receiving a prophet’s word with obedience.

4a) How does the Lord’s description of Joseph’s ministry—and, specifically, the idea that his words should be received as though from the Lord’s mouth—be squared with Joseph’s actual ministry? Were all his words the Lord’s? Was the Lord granting Joseph a form of infallibility—or was He doing something else?

4b) How might the call to receive Joseph’s words in “patience and faith” inform the interpretation of this verse? Are we to exercise patience and faith—as the lesson implies—because sometimes hearing the word of the Lord is difficult—or is patience and faith required because what we hear often falls short of what we understand about the Lord?

4c) How does the very specific mission described in verse 9 jive with the expansionist reading we give verse 5?

4d) Is it at all appropriate to apply the things said about Joseph, in this section, to all “the prophets who have succeeded him”? To what extent have modern presidents of the Church succeeded Joseph? How have they exceeded him? How have the fallen short?

4e) How does hearing a prophet’s words, heeding his words, and obeying his words differ? How important are the differences? Does the Lord weigh them differently?

4f) What have modern prophets said about obedience? What is the value of talking about obedience? What is the danger? How are we to understand the extra-scriptural maxim that “obedience is the first law of heaven”? What does that even mean?

4g) The lesson conflates serving the Lord with obeying the prophet. How are these different things? How are they the same? How can we tell the difference?

5) The lesson refers students to additional reading materials, including chapter 2 of Our Heritage: A Brief History of Our Faith. In the section on the organization of Church, the authors comment:

The elements present at that meeting in 1830 continue in the Church today: exercise of the law of common consent, singing, praying, partaking of the sacrament, sharing of personal testimonies, bestowal of the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands, ordinations, personal revelation, and revelation through priesthood officers.

5a) What is the law of common consent? How was it manifest in the founding and how do we see it evinced today? Why is common consent important?

5b) Is consent possible when the only acceptable answer is “aye (I consent)”? What is the relationship between consent and sustension‡?

6) The title of the lesson is “The Only True and Living Church” (a reference to D&C 1:30).

6a) What does it mean for a church to be “true”? We throw that word around a lot, but it doesn’t seem to have a clear definition. Is the Church “true” like the Book of Mormon is “true”?

6b) What does it mean for a church to be “living”? How can we distinguish living churches from dead or dying ones?

6c) What role does consent have in the life of a church? Obedience? Revelation? Inspiration?

6d) What does it mean to declare the Church to be the only true and living church, in light of repeated reminders of the light and truth found in other faith communities?

* * *

Paul calls upon us to put away childish things… including the need for pat or simple answers. As we embrace the Church we inhabit, the Gospel we need, and the leaders we love and sustain, we must also embrace the complexity that comes with being awakened to our own frailties in the face of God’s great and marvelous work.

I hope the questions above inspire each of us to wrestle with hard questions—as Jacob wrestled with the angel—that we, too, might win a new name and a rich inheritance.


* Oliver Cowdery (23); Hyrum Smith (30) and Samuel H Smith (22), Joseph’s brothers; and David Whitmer (25), and Peter Whitmer Jr (20)—sons of Peter Whitmer Sr—at whose cabin they met.

‡ Sometimes new words must be coined.


  1. Sidney Rigdon could not have remembered that day, he wasn’t there. He did not journey to New York and meet with the Church until after it was founded. He learned about the Church when Parley Pratt and the other missionaries who were sent “to the Lamanites” passed through Kirtland on their way to Missouri

  2. google books on the quote:

  3. D Christian Harrison says:

    That’s a great catch! It would appear that Sidney was a fibber or that the editor of the T&S erred in ascribing those remarks to Sidney.


  4. D Christian Harrison says:

    … or the minutes taker made a mistake.

  5. Thank you Christian for another great piece. As I was reading it struck me that we have such a limited track record of Presidents of the Church because we are such a young church. If we had almost 2000 years of Presidents like the Catholic Church has Pope’s, certainly we would have a few unorthodox characters and perhaps ineffective Presidents along the way.

    As we approach our 200 years of filling the whole earth, we can look at the Catholic Church who is approaching 2000 years of literally filling the whole earth such as with the expansion through out the New World during the age of exploration. Lots of lessons we can learn as Mormons from such growth on a massive scale.

    A 2000 year track record also allows a good look at cycles of decline, reform and growth. As a young church we do not have the benefit of hindsight yet so it’s easy to think that our rush to fill the whole earth will be nothing but exponential.

    One thing about having 2000 years of organizational experience behind you is that it does seem to give you the confidence to apologize… Something that seems hard to do while in a triumphal mindset.

  6. The salt of the earth. That one is key and Jones with the Zenos allegory that with love. The tension with triumphalism is important.

  7. I would love for someone to explain what it means for a church to be “true” and “living” because I’m a life long member, and I don’t know. That’s why during the very infrequent times I bear testimony that I don’t say “I know the church is true.” And is the LDS Church the only true and living church, or is it the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth with which the Lord is well pleased? If the latter is the case, then there must be other true and living churches.

  8. Aussie Mormon says:

    I’d guess that by true and living they mean that it is not dead (i.e. it’s operating at the moment).
    So for instance the church (as in an organised group of believers) that Christ was operating was true and living, but “died” during the apostasy. So that particular group is a true but dead church.
    I guess if you want to extend the analogy further, it was resurrected and restored to its proper frame with the restoration.

  9. Aussie Mormon says:

    Also, living as in it can adapt as new revelation occurs.

  10. N. W. Clerk says:

    “true: A.III.7.a. Real, genuine, authentic; not false or spurious; that rightly or properly bears the name.” (Oxford English Dictionary)

  11. Circling back to the Sidney Rigdon quote – it seems apparent that Sidney DID go to Waterloo, NY – in December 1830. As I read the conference minutes, he was not saying that he was at the organization on its creation date – only that he was with the church in its first year.

  12. D Christian Harrison says:

    NW Clerk… so now apply that definition.

  13. TinaR
    “true” – loyal, faithful (Oxford English Dictionary)
    “living” – consider connections between spirit: ruach (Heb), pneuma (Gr.), breath of life, born of the spirit, etc.
    There are a variety of meanings to be found in “true and living”. Some are not as inclined as others to put much weight on the comma after “earth” in the current version of D&C 1:30. Some are not as inclined as others to think the “whole earth” refers to more than the lands familiar to JS as the recipient of that revelation. Some are not as inclined as others to think the statement necessarily applies to times other than the time the revelation was received in 1831. Some are not persuaded that JS was acting as a stenographer recording the exact words of the Lord. (That gets into the question how revelation works, the limitations of language, and the cultural and conceptual limitations of the recipient of such revelation.) Some are glad to be able to find multiple meanings without insistence that “only true and living church” can only mean one thing.

  14. Thank you, JR. I’m happy to find multiple meanings in D&C 1:30. And I like Aussie Mormon’s suggestion that the church was resurrected and restored to its proper frame with the restoration.

  15. And thank you, DCH for this post.

  16. Tina,

    It was probably while I was on my mission (now over 30 years ago), or shortly thereafter, that I realized that I did not know what it meant to say “the church is true,” and I stopped saying it. After devoting significant thought to the matter, I do not know what it means for a church to be “true.” With respect to the statement in D&C 1:30, however, I have grown to appreciate D&C 10:67, which reads, “Behold, this is my doctrine—whosoever repenteth and cometh unto me, the same is my church”.

  17. Not a Cougar says:

    My take has always been that people, including me, mean the Church is “true” as to the truth claims the Church makes. That Joseph Smith actually saw Jesus Christ. That the Book of Mormon is an actual historical record of real people. That President Monson and the rest of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve receive divine communication and direction of a kind and quality better and unlike that received by other religious leaders. That all other churches, while more or less well-intentioned, do not possess the authority necessary to perform saving ordinances which are absolutely required to return to live with God. That may not be what Joseph Smith was trying to convey, but, in my view, that is what most people seem to be expressing when they bear testimony that the Church is “true.” Whether I’m competent to actually testify as to any of those truth claims is a different story altogether.

  18. Not a Cougar, it has seemed to me (and some others) that some, especially the less thoughtful, do not mean anything in particular by the the phrase “the Church is true,” but are using those words as a culturally accepted declaration of allegiance. It seems almost certain that the 2-6 year-olds in my ward who bear such testimony are not asserting the truth claims you describe. I don’t think there is any upper age limit on such use of that phrase. Sometimes its use doesn’t seem to be any more thoughtful than blessing the sugar and fat laden refreshments to “nourish and strengthen our bodies.” I think I’ll stick with thinking the phrase has multiple meanings (or none). To my observation, most have not thought about what they mean by that phrase and there is no generally accepted meaning. The most common meaning I have been able to infer is more limited than your list of propositions. It is simply “the Church is truly the church of Christ.” Perhaps those who take D&C 10:67 at face value could only mean “the Church truly includes some of those who are the church of Christ.”

  19. This is a little bit of word play, which you can dismiss as disingenuous if you want to, but as someone who has tried to learn how to build and maintain bikes, I like to think of the church being true in the sense that a properly built bicycle wheel is true–meaning that it runs straight without overmuch wobbling and does what it is designed to do. This sense is independent from truth claims (which, for the sake of full disclosure, I accept). The church is true to the extent that it does what it is designed to do and fulfills its purpose. The church can be “true” in this sense, even if it gets the doctrine wrong from time to time. And it can get doctrine right and still not be “true” if it doesn’t fulfill its purpose. To me, the church is true in this sense because I see its purpose as providing a place where we can learn how to repent and exercise faith in Christ, and where we can participate in the ordinances that ratify, deepen, and maintain that faith and repentance, and I believe that it provides that place.

  20. D Christian Harrison says:

    JKC: I like this.

  21. Thanks, Christian.

%d bloggers like this: