Joseph Smith’s Statement on “The Fundamental Principles of our Religion.” Part I: Authorship, Attribution, Revision, and Publication.

President Nelson will soon give his first general conference address as the President of the Church. When he gave his first address as an apostle, then-Elder Nelson quoted Joseph Smith as saying that “[t]he fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it.” He quoted the same statement in his April 2017 conference address. It’s a familiar statement. Church leaders and members quote it regularly. But where does it come from? What’s the story behind it?

A few years ago I quoted this statement when I gave an Easter talk. As I was preparing that talk, I was curious about its original context and I decided to track down the original primary source. I’m no historian, but that curiosity later led me down a rabbit hole of authorship, attribution, publication, revision, edition, and republication.

I’ve gathered those notes now into a two-part series. This part deals with the authorship, the revision, the publication, and contemporary use of the statement. The next one explores the potential significance of the revisions that later editors made to the statement.

The statement comes from a question and answer originally published in the Elders’ Journal of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, in 1838:

Question 20th. What are the fundamental principles of your religion?

Answer. The fundamental principles of our religion is the testimony of the apostles and prophets concerning Jesus Christ, “that he died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended up into heaven;” and all other things are only appendages to these, which pertain to our religion.

But in connection with these, we believe in the gift of the Holy Ghost, the power of faith, the enjoyment of the spiritual gifts according to the will of God, the restoration of the house of Israel, and the final triumph of truth.

That question was one of a series of 20 questions first published without answers in an editorial in the November 1837 issue of the church periodical, the Elders’ Journal , with the following preface: “We shall close after naming a few questions which are daily and hourly asked by all classes of people whilst we are travelling, and will answer them in our next.” 1 Elders’ Journal of the Church of Latter Day Saints at 28 (November 1837). An editorial in the July 1838 issue then stated “[i]n obedience to our promise, we give the following answers to questions, which were asked in the last number of the Journal,” and provided the answers. 1 Elders’ Journal of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints at 44 (July 1838). (Between the 1837 Kirtland issues and the 1838 Nauvoo issues, the name of the Journal was changed from the Elders Journal of the Church of Latter Day Saints to the Elders’ Journal of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints).

The Elders’ Journal ran only four issues, two in Kirtland, Ohio, in 1837, and two in Far West Missouri in 1838. It listed Joseph Smith as its editor and Thomas B. Marsh, then the President of the Quorum of the Twelve, as its proprietor or publisher. (Elder Marsh would withdraw from the church in 1838 and be excommunicated in 1839, and then be rebaptized in Florence Nebraska in 1857.) Some of the editorial items in the Elders’ Journal are signed “Editor,” and some are not. The questions and answers cited above are unsigned, but appear under a banner identifying the editor, Joseph Smith, Jr.

Was Joseph Smith the Author of the Editorial Answers?

It’s possible, even likely, but not conclusive that Joseph Smith was the actual author of the questions and answers quoted above. The Elders’ Journal publishes them as an editorial under his name, and at least some of the answers are written in first person singular (unlike the rest of the editorial, which is written in first person plural), and the answers to other questions indicate that the speaker found and translated the Book of Mormon. 1 Elder’s Journal at 42-44. The Elders’ Journal thus presents the answers as written by Joseph Smith. But this isn’t conclusive, because it wasn’t uncommon for Joseph Smith to allow materials written by others to be published in his name, even in the first person. The Manuscript History of the Church is one obvious example.

According to the Joseph Smith Papers, “[i]t is unknown how labor was divided [between Joseph Smith and Thomas Marsh] on the newspaper or how much immediate responsibility [Joseph Smith] had for the content.” See Historical Introduction to Selections from Elders’ Journal, July 1838. But given Joseph Smith’s “involvement” as editor, the Joseph Smith Papers has decided to include selections from the Elders’ Journal among the papers that it publishes. Those selections include the questions and answers published in the July 1838 issue.

Church historians and church publications also have a long history of attributing the questions and answers published in the July 1838 Elders’ Journal to Joseph Smith.

Willard Richards first attributed the Elder’s Journal questions and answers to Joseph Smith in late 1843 when he compiled the second volume of Joseph Smith’s history—a project that would later become the official history of the church and would come to be called the Manuscript History of the Church. See B-1 Manuscript History of the Church, 794-96.  Joseph Smith personally dictated much of Volume 1 of that history, and according to Brigham Young, he personally revised and corrected 42 pages of Volume 1 before he was killed in 1844. Richards and his successors continued to write in the first person, speaking in Joseph Smith’s voice, in Volume 2 and later volumes of his history—a literary device that they apparently used at Joseph Smith’s request. But Joseph Smith doesn’t appear to have read or approved any of the project compiled after Volume 1. See generally Introduction to History 1838-1856 (Manuscript History of the Church), Joseph Smith Papers.

In Volume 2, in his entry for May 8, 1838, Richards says, speaking in Joseph Smith’s voice: “Tuesday the 8th. I spent with Elder Rigdon in visiting Elder Cahoon and the place he had selected for his residence, and in attending to some of our private personal affairs. Also in the afternoon I answered the questions which were frequently asked me while on my last Journey but one from Kirtland to Missouri, as printed in the Elders Journal, Vol 1st, No 2d., Pages 28th and 29th.” Then, after listing the questions and answers, he says “I published the foregoing answers to save myself the trouble of repeating the same a thousand times over, and over again.” See B-1 Manuscript History of the Church at 794-96.

Richards’ attribution was accepted by every later church historian and does not appear to have ever been seriously questioned.

    Publication and Revision

But as you’ve probably noticed, the format of the statement on the fundamental principles of our religion as it was quoted by President Nelson in 1974, and as it is normally quote these days, is not the same as the format in which it was published in the Elder’s Journal in July 1838. So how did it get from the way it was in the Elder’s Journal to the way it is now? This is where it gets interesting (well, to me, anyway).

Elder Richards made no significant editorial changes to the Elders’ Journal text when he recorded it in the Manuscript History. The only changes he made were to move the semicolon outside of the quotation marks and to insert a comma, as indicated below in red (deletions indicated in lined text, and additions in brackets):

The fundamental principles of our religion is the testimony of the apostles and prophets concerning Jesus Christ, “that he died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended up into heaven;[;] and all other things[,] are only appendages to these, which pertain to our religion.

The Manuscript History of the Church was published serially in the Times and Seasons newspaper in Nauvoo, Illinois until February 1846. But at that point, the narrative had only reached August 1834, and did not reach to 1838. About five years later, in November 1851, the church began to publish the Manuscript History again in the Deseret News (of which Elder Richards was “Editor and Proprietor”), beginning where the Times and Seasons serial had left off. See generally Introduction to History 1838-1856 (Manuscript History of the Church). The entry for May 8, 1838, containing the questions and answers printed in the July 1838 Elders’ Journal editorial, was published in the April 2, 1853 issue of the Deseret News. See History of Joseph Smith,” Deseret News, April 2, 1853, at 1.

The Deseret News publication made a few editorial changes to the answer concerning the “fundamental principles of our religion” as recorded in Richard’s Manuscript History. It capitalized the words “apostles” and “prophets,” (perhaps part of a trend in the wake of the succession crisis to solidify the Apostleship as an ecclesiastical office with authority to preside over the church?) and it removed the quotation marks. The Deseret News revisions to the Manuscript History version are indicated below in blue text, with Richards’ initial revisions in red:

The fundamental principles of our religion is the testimony of the a[A]postles and p[P]rophets concerning Jesus Christ, that he died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended up into heaven;[;] and all other things[,] are only appendages to these, which pertain to our religion.

About 50 years later, Elder B. H. Roberts retained Elder Richards’ attribution and first person narrative when he edited and published the Manuscript History as the multi-volume History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, between 1902 and 1912. He also retained the editorial changes made in the version published in the Deseret News. But he made further revisions for clarity and grammar. In particular, Elder Roberts’

  • changed “is” to “are,” so that the verb would agree with the plural subject (“principles”),
  • capitalized “he,” referring to “Jesus Christ,” in accordance with the convention to capitalize references to deity,
  • removed “up,” likely because he thought it implied by “ascended,” and thus redundant,
  • moved the phrase “which pertain to our religion” up from the end of the sentence to immediately follow the phrase “all other things” the end of the sentence, and deleted the comma initially inserted by Richards, likely for clarity, and
  • changed “appendages to these” to “appendages to it,” likely to correspond to the singular “our religion” (or possibly, the singular “testimony”).

Roberts’ revisions to the Deseret News version are indicated below in green, with Richards’ initial revisions in red, and the Deseret News revisions in blue:

The fundamental principles of our religion is [are] the testimony of the a[A]postles and p[P]rophets concerning Jesus Christ, that h[H]e died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended up into heaven;[;] and all other things [,] [which pertain to our religion] are only appendages to these [it], which pertain to our religion.

Thus, the final text, as revised by Roberts, reads as follows:

The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it.

This revised text was published in Roberts’ History in 1905. B.H. Roberts, 3 History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints: Period I, History of Joseph Smith the Prophet, by Himself 30 (Deseret News Press 1905). Roberts’ revised text became the standard version for church writers citing the statement on the “fundamental principles of our religion” for at least the next century.

A little over 30 years later, In his 1938 compilation, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Joseph Fielding Smith, published the questions and answers from the July 1838 Elders’ Journal under the heading “The Prophet’s Answer to Sundry Questions”—a heading taken from Roberts’ table of contents. Elder Smith attributed the text to Joseph Smith, using Roberts’ History as his source, and did not make further revisions to Roberts’ revision. See Joseph Fielding Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith 119-21 (Deseret News Press 1938)

Nearly 80 years later, in 2007, the Church published the Joseph Smith entry in the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church series, used for lessons in Relief Society and priesthood quorum meetings. That manual quotes the statement on the fundamental principles of our religion as a statement made by Joseph Smith, using Roberts’ revised text with no further revisions, and it cites Roberts’ History of the Church as its source. But also notes that the statement came “from an editorial published in Elders’ Journal, July 1838, p. 44” and that “Joseph Smith was the editor of the periodical.”

The church’s latest published version thus follows the tradition that has emerged of using Roberts’ revised text, but unlike previous versions, it cites the original primary source and it nods (albeit a bit obliquely) to the possibility that Joseph Smith’s authorship is not conclusive.

Contemporary Use and Citation

While we can’t conclusively identify the original author of the “fundamental principles of our religion” statement as Joseph Smith, it appears likely that the statement was written by him or at least that it was written by someone close to him, working at his direction, and it was published under his name, apparently with his approval. Early historians who knew Joseph Smith and worked closely with him, attributed it to Joseph Smith, and that attribution has never been challenged or seriously questioned. So the Church accepts this statement on the “fundamental principles of our religion” as a teaching of Joseph Smith. Church leaders and other church publications continue to quote it as such. They usually use B.H. Roberts’ editorial revision of Richard’s revisions in the Manuscript History and the Deseret News.

Sermons by church leaders and other church publications in the 20th century have quoted the statement on “the fundamental principles of our religion” as a statement made by Joseph Smith, almost always using Roberts’ revised text, and citing either B.H. Roberts or Joseph Fielding Smith as their source for that statement. [1] In the 21st century, sermons and church publications that have quoted this statement continue to use Roberts’ revised text, but after 2007, they have cited to the 2007 Teachings of the Presidents of the Church manual (which in turn cites Roberts’ History and acknowledges the Elder’s Journal as the original source), rather than to Roberts’ History or Smith’s Teachings. [2] Because Roberts’ revised text became the traditional text in the 20th Century, in devotional materials, it’s easier for church leaders to retain Robert’s revisions but such publications will probably continue to cite to the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church manual, given the historiographical issues, by contemporary standards, of Roberts’ History and Smith’s Teachings.

Elder Ballard, though, is a notable exception. In his October 2014 Conference Address, he quoted the original Elders’ Journal text, changing only “is” to “are” for grammar. Citing to the original primary source is, of course, the better practice by contemporary standards. And for many reasons, it would not be a bad thing to give church members more access and exposure to original sources, even in devotional materials, as Elder Ballard did. And it is easier than ever to do so with the work of the Joseph Smith Papers continuing to provide wider access to such sources.

Next time: Are Richards and Roberts’ editorial revisions purely revisions to form, or do the revisions have any substantive significance?


[1] See, e.g., Dennis B. Neuenschwander, Conference Address (October 2000) (citing Smith); Dallin H. Oaks, Conference Address (April 2000) (citing Smith); Letter from First Presidency, dated December 10, 1999 (using Robert’s revision without citation); Dallin H. Oaks, Conference Address (October 1990) (citing Smith) Howard W. Hunter, Conference Address (April 1986) (citing Roberts) Russel M. Nelson, Conference Address (April 1984) (citing Roberts); Howard W. Hunter, Conference Address (October 1978) (citing Roberts); Hartman Rector, Jr., Conference Address (April 1974) (citing Smith); Bruce R. McConkie, Conference Address (April 9, 1950) (citing Roberts); see also Robert L. Millet, “What do Mormons Believe about Jesus Christ?” (2001 address at Harvard Divinity School) excerpts available at http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/what-mormons-believe-about-jesus-christ (citing Smith); Robert L. Millet, “Jesus Christ: Overview,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism 724 (MacMillan 1992) (citing Smith).

[2] Contrast Russell M. Nelson, Conference Address (April 2017) (citing Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith); D. Todd Christofferson, Conference Address (April 2014) (same); Edward Dube, Conference Address (October 2013) (same); D. Todd Christofferson, Conference Address (April 2012) (same); Quentin L. Cook, Conference Address (April 2010) (same) with Keith B. McMullin, Conference Address (April 2004) (citing Roberts).

Comments

  1. J. Stapley says:

    This is great work, JKC. And I’m probably skipping ahead to your next post, but I can’t help it. The DNews revisions are entirely consistent with the concerns of BY and others to elevate the primacy of the apostleship. It also shifts the weight of the fundamental principles away from the historic (and biblical) profession of faith, to the existence of the Apostles and Prophets (in my opinion). Fun stuff.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    This is great fun, thanks for sharing.

  3. Yeah, I agree, J., as will be clear in the next post.

  4. tons of fun — thanks for this!

  5. I’m sure you’ll cover this but I suspect removing the quotation marks makes a counterintuitively big difference — what was being quoted? Looks to me like an almost-quote of a portion of the Nicene Creed: “He suffered, died, and was buried. On the third day He rose again, in fulfillment of the Scriptures. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”

    Or the Apostles Creed: “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
    He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven
    and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”

    Such a paraphrase of the Nicene Creed would be completely consistent with earliest Mormonism’s undeniably orthodox Trinitarian doctrine, as repeatedly expressed in the Book of Mormon. See, for example, 3 Nephi 1:12-14 —

    “12 And it came to pass that he cried mightily unto the Lord all that day; and behold, the voice of the Lord came unto him, saying:

    13 Lift up your head and be of good cheer; for behold, the time is at hand, and on this night shall the sign be given, and on the morrow come I into the world, to show unto the world that I will fulfil all that which I have caused to be spoken by the mouth of my holy prophets.

    14 Behold, I come unto my own, to fulfil all things which I have made known unto the children of men from the foundation of the world, and to do the will, both of the Father and of the Son—of the Father because of me, and of the Son because of my flesh. And behold, the time is at hand, and this night shall the sign be given.”

    Very Trinitarian language there quoted straight from the premortal Jesus Christ himself. And, of course, there’s the doctrine of the Trinity taught by Abinadi in Mosiah 15:1-7 —

    “1 And now Abinadi said unto them: I would that ye should understand that God himself shall come down among the children of men, and shall redeem his people.

    2 And because he dwelleth in flesh he shall be called the Son of God, and having subjected the flesh to the will of the Father, being the Father and the Son—

    3 The Father, because he was conceived by the power of God; and the Son, because of the flesh; thus becoming the Father and Son—

    4 And they are one God, yea, the very Eternal Father of heaven and of earth.

    5 And thus the flesh becoming subject to the Spirit, or the Son to the Father, being one God, suffereth temptation, and yieldeth not to the temptation, but suffereth himself to be mocked, and scourged, and cast out, and disowned by his people.

    6 And after all this, after working many mighty miracles among the children of men, he shall be led, yea, even as Isaiah said, as a sheep before the shearer is dumb, so he opened not his mouth.

    7 Yea, even so he shall be led, crucified, and slain, the flesh becoming subject even unto death, the will of the Son being swallowed up in the will of the Father.”

    In case some don’t recognize it because of growing up in correlated Mormonism — that’s the Trinity! We’ve examined this in some detail in past posts at BCC, debating whether a more orthodox Trinitarianism, as expressed in the Book of Mormon but from which later Church leaders have tried to distance Mormonism (especially in the mid twentieth century), is consistent with the First Vision, etc. See this post, for example, in which I lay out reasons why Mormons could be considered Trinitarian Christians in a broad sense based on such doctrine and despite other doctrinal idiosyncrasies (which we believe represent the Truth of the matter) that still differentiate us from most other Trinitarian Christians.

  6. I love these sorts of detective stories, beginning with the fact that you even realized the need for an investigation, and continuing on through all the steps. I’m learning a lot from looking at what you!re doing and how, especially because this is a period outside my usual focus.

  7. Fun stuff, JKC. Like John F., I was immediately struck by the quotation of the creed.

  8. Terrific work for a “non-historian”.

  9. Samuel J. says:

    Most of the 8 May 1838 entry in the manuscript history originally comes from Joseph Smith’s 1838 journal (http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/journal-march-september-1838/25)

    George W. Robinson, Smith’s recorder/clerk at the time, kept a journal on Smith’s behalf and wrote an entry for 8 May 1838 which says, “Tuesday 8th This day Presidents, J. Smith Jr. & S[idney] Rigdon spent the day with Elder Cohoon [Reynolds Cahoon] in visiting the place he had selected, to live, also in some private buisness of their own, also in the after part of the day, in answering the questions proposed in the Elders Journal. Vol. 1st No. 2nd Pages 28, & 29”

    Then, of course, Richards copied the entry sometime in February 1844, changing the point of view to the first person.

  10. David G. says:

    This is great, JKC. Nice detective work, especially the extended textual history. For interested readers, the JSP treats this document in D6:139-145.

  11. Some great comments. Thanks, everyone.

    Samuel: Thanks for pointing that out!. The 1838 journal doesn’t include the questions and answers, so I think it’s still correct to say that the Elder’s Journal, not the 1838 journal, is the original source for the statement I’m investigating here. But the fact that it was included helps support Elder Richards’ attribution of the answers to Joseph Smith, and it completes the picture for the sources he was using to compile the manuscript history. Great addition.

    Ardis: To hear you say that you learned a lot from something I wrote about history is about the highest compliment I could hope for. Thanks!

    John (and Jason): Between your and Stapley’s comments, it’s like you guys already read my notes for the next post before I’ve even written it! On the trinitarian stuff, my sense is that when church leaders and members draw bright lines between the LDS godhead doctrine and the doctrine of the Trinity, we’re usually using “Trinity” as a stand-in for “modalism.” I cant help linking back to my series on Mosiah 15 where I get into that: https://bycommonconsent.com/2016/07/15/abinadi-on-the-godhead-and-the-atonement-a-response-to-book-of-mormon-central-part-iv/

  12. Cody Hatch says:

    Excellent post. I, too, noticed the quoting of the creed in the original. It’s interesting to see how text morphs through history. Thanks for sharing.

  13. Michael H. says:

    Thank you so much for this, JKC, and everyone else for their comments. I look forward to the follow-up. Such a little thing–the removal of quotation marks–nonetheless it says a lot about where we are today.