The Mormon Creed

We are all familiar with the religious biographies of Joseph Smith, and in particular the narrations of the First Vision. It is from the latter of these that we find God’s condemnation of Christian creeds, a formal category or documents that established beliefs for the last two thousand years. Many folks have written about the anti-creedal denominations of the Antebellum period, and how the restoration fit in with that. My experience has been that Mormons have consequently taken a pejorative view of these documents, even if we haven’t really been sure what exactly they are [waves hands and mutters something about the incoherency of the trinity].

Eber Howe got his hands on the Articles and Covenants, the first revelation of the organized church in 1830 (which was based on an antecedent revelation by Oliver Cowdery), and published it within a month of its production. Howe wasn’t particularly friendly and the title he gave to the revelation was “The Mormon Creed.” My sense is that church members have viewed this as a dig at the church and nothing more. The good folk over a the JSPP have noted, however, that Howe was not completely off base and likely viewed similarities between the document and other creedal documents. Let’s dig into that idea a bit more.

Creeds have generally been understood as the products of ecclesiastical councils. These councils produced statements of beliefs and canons. Canons are laws and ordinances of the church. When you mention creeds to church members today, they typically will think of the Nicene Creed, because trinity. After the delineating the creed, the council then enumerated several canons. These are generally practical. E.g., the first canon of the Nicene council dealt with the eligibility of castrated men for priesthood office—totally an ancient analog to the handbook of instructions.

Anyway, if you look at the Articles and Covenants (after several revisions, what is now Section 20 of the Doctrine and Covenants), you’ll notice the pattern. After a bit of history, we have several statements of belief, which each conclude with “Amen.” Then you have a series of rules. What is really interesting is that the primary creed section of the Ariticles and Covenants quotes from and incorporates elements from Apostles’ Creed. The Apostles’ creed is used in Western Christianity and despite a somewhat sketchy provenance, is viewed as early and foundational. Let’s compare the two documents:

Creeds were introduced into church liturgy fairly early on, and you consequently see that across denominations. So for example, the Apostles’ Creed is often incorporated into the baptismal liturgy. So for fun, what is the first “canon” in the Articles and Covenants that immediately follows this section compared in the image above? The mode of baptism.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be so fearful or pejorative of creeds after all. JS clearly hated being constrained. In the intro to Power of Godliness I discusses his railing against the Methodist Discipline—basically the Methodist general handbook—with extremely strong language. This is an important feature of the Restoration and the work JS was doing. But we should also be mindful that our handbooks [n1] would have likely elicited a similar response and be empathetic as we approach our religious friends. We have creeds and canons of our own, even if we can forget or change them.

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  1. Note that in 2010, the General Handbook began including an extensive “doctrinal” introduction, rendering it even more categorically creedal in nature.

Comments

  1. Granting everything you say, I still think there’s an important gap or difference seen in the way creeds do or don’t enter into the liturgy. I’d argue that the temple recommend interview questions are more creed-like (functionally) than the Handbook. Growing use in baptism preparation and youth temple activities just improves the argument. Not quite a liturgy, but repeated and referenced often enough to approach that role.

  2. J. Stapley says:

    That is a brilliant comment, Christian. And I think it is on the money. So for example, the Catholic baptismal liturgy incorporates the Apostles’ Creed as an interrogation:

    “Celebrant: Do you believe in God, the Father almighty,
    creator of heaven and earth?
    Parents and Godparents or Initiate: I do.”

    Even though the recommend interview is separated geographically and temporally from the ritual, it is functioning very similarly.

  3. Does the JSP note the parallels with the Apostles’ Creed, or did you notice that? That’s fascinating. Do you think the Articles and Covenants document was composed with the Apostles’ Creed alongside, or was the author pulling phrases from memory?

  4. Thanks, J. Let’s also not forget the other “Mormon Creed” denominated that by Mormons themselves. See “Minding Business: A Note on ‘The Mormon Creed’” by Michael Hicks, BYU Studies Quarterly, Volume 26, Issue 4 Article 810-1-1986.
    BTW, it has seemed to me from some of the old/former endowment language that early objection to “creeds” might have also been largely in response to the Westminster Confession and its adoption in some other forms by various Christian groups in New England. There’s sure a lot in there that the LDS Church has long since rejected and a lot that is missing from the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. Depending upon how one chooses to understand the words of the Nicene Creed commonly translated “person” and “being” or “substance” there may not even be a lot in the Nicene Creed for our church to object to. I’m still partial to the creed Hicks wrote about, even though its been applied in many different ways, some of which I can’t approve of.
    I agree with Chris, that the temple recommend interview questions are functionally somewhat more like creeds than the Handbook. Like the Nicene creed, their meaning is not necessarily evident from their words (and may vary significantly from one person to another, e.g., “sustain”), but assent to their words (and not, at least officially, a particular interpretation) is expected — rather like expected liturgical recitation of the Apostles’ or Nicene creeds.
    OK, now I’ll go back to minding my own business. I can’t claim any particular expertise on any of this anyway.

  5. J. Stapley says:

    JMS, the JSPP folks do not point explicitly to the Apostle’s creed. I’m not sure who the first person to draw that distinction is. Thomas Alexander has a small note in an old paper noting a similarity, but it looks like it is the BCC crew here that have been on it. See for example posts by Jason and JKC.

  6. J. Stapley says:

    JR, that is a classic. Thanks for mentioning it.

  7. Great post, J. As you note in your response to JMS, this is something I’ve been interested in for a while. The TR questions are like creeds in one other important respect that’s different fron other statements of belief or doctrine: as a practical matter, though there is room for disagreement on many issues, they define the boundaries of orthodoxy.

    While we don’t recite them during worship services, I think there’s a strong argument to be made that the TR interview is itself a liturgical act, either because of its connection with the temple liturgy, or in its own right, as church leaders have often counseled members to obtain a TR even if they can’t, as a practical matter, get to the temple.

    I’ve often said that the way the anti-credal statement of the first vision makes the most sense to me is primarily as a condemnation of the way the creeds were abused through the centuries to justify all kinds of mistreatment, abuse, and even murder of heretics.

  8. John Mansfield says:

    About twenty years ago you may recall, the United Methodists’ national convention approved a document outlining why the religion of the Latter-day Saints is not compatible with that of the Methodists. It was a nice, clean piece of work that took five points of doctrine, such as “The Nature of God”, “The Meaning of Baptism”, etc., and described the Methodist doctrine as found in its creeds and contrasted that with Latter-day Saint belief. Sections of the Nicene Creed were quoted to contrast with some of our heresies.

    The document’s conclusion makes sense: Latter-day Saints are not in harmony with the creeds of Methodism. So those who hold to those creeds reject the restoration. If the rejected restoration is of God, then it can be seen why he may consider such creeds “an abomination in his sight.” According to the Methodists their creeds definitively reject the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and tell people what they need to believe about God instead.

  9. J. Stapley says:

    I think that is right Jared. It makes a lot of sense.

    John, I’m not up to speed on that ruling but I should look into it. The Catholics did something similar, which is odd to me considering the history of heretical baptism. Anyway, I tend to follow a reasoning similar to what Jared wrote coupled with the idea that they were a stasis and stricture that impeded JS’s revelation.

    I also just realized that I missed your final question JMS. The short answer is that I don’t know. There is significant work to do here, still, I think. Cowdery clearly was working from the BoM as he composed the antecedent.

  10. BlueRidgeMormon says:

    Though it doesn’t fit as cleanly into your analysis… off the cuff, isn’t the most obviously creedal thing we have adopted the Family Proclamation? It states doctrinal belief in a very creed-like way (like the Nicene creed), and as a practical matter (all the nearly wrote repetition, the encouragement to examine the text itself, the rise of defend-the-family rhetoric) it seems to have become, in many ways, a key distillation of what we ACTUALLY believe?

  11. John, I think you’re being a little imprecise when you talk about “the creeds of Methodism.” There’s certainly a argument to be made that Latter-day Saint doctrine can’t be reconciled with certain parts of the Nicene creed (though the case is closer, imo, than most people in or out of the church assume it is). But there’s very little, if anything in the earlier creeds, like the apostles’ creed, that is objectionable from the Latter-day Saint point of view.

    Re JMS’s question about Oliver Cowdery, my hunch (only a hunch) is that he probably wasn’t sitting down with a copy of the creed, but that with his Methodist roots, he had the apostles creed memorized and that it formed an important part of his sense of the heart of what it means to believe in Jesus Christ–which the Book of Mormon only confirmed. So that when he sat down to write out the creed-like statements of belief for the new church, it was only natural that pieces of the creed would find their way into it.

  12. BlueRidge, It seems to me there are aspects of creedalism in the use to which many put the Proclamation on the Family, but I must wonder how broadly you mean “we” in the phrases “we have adopted” and “what we ACTUALLY believe.”

    It seems those statements cannot include the historical and general “we,” as Joseph Fielding Smith did not believe gender (as used in the Proclamation) is eternal. “I take it that men and women will, in these [terrestrial, telestial] kingdoms, be just what the so-called Christian world expects us all to be — neither man nor woman, merely immortal beings having received the resurrection.” Joseph Fielding Smith, “Doctrines of Salvation”. vol. 2, p. 288) And, without accepting JFS’ speculation, some others have other reasons for not believing eternal gender, as apparently used in the Proclamation..
    It is also important to some that the Proclamation has not been canonized and that, even if it were, canonization cannot mean error-free in the context of our church. E.g., the Articles of Faith teach of errors in the Bible, the Book of Mormon itself acknowledges error (introduction, Mormon 8:12), and Joseph’s post-first-publication changes to revelations in the D&C, and irreconcilable conflict between the earliest written version of the First Vision and the one canonized in the Pearl of Great Price (I don’t mean the number of personages who appeared). I find such a great variety of current and historical beliefs in our church that I could not say the Proclamation is a “distillation of what we ACTUALLY believe”.

    A discussion of creeds and their use reminds me of an event unusual, in my limited experience as substitute organist in a variety of non-LDS Christian churches. On Trinity Sunday a minister introduced the communal recitation of the Nicene Creed by acknowledging that some of the congregation did not believe it, just as he did not, that he also couldn’t understand it. For those, he encouraged participation in the recitation as a recitation of poetry that had been and continued to be very significant in the development of the church. I thought his openness and encouragement admirable and have wondered what application it could or should have relative to anything the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints might treat as if it were a creed.

    Sorry about what may be a thread-jack. I guess I’ve failed again to adhere to the “mind [my] own business” Mormon Creed. :)

  13. John Mansfield says:

    Jared, I will place a URL for the Methodists’ Sacramental Faithfulness: Guidelines for Receiving People from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in a subsequent comment (which will probably be embargoed like most comments with URL links that I leave at this website). That document states, “The LDS church clearly rejects the creeds that The United Methodist Church uses to interpret the Bible. This rejection of the historic creeds of
    the church is actually foundational to the establishment of the LDS religion.” Sacramental Falthfulness lays out its arguments by quoting from “The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church,” “The Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church,” the Nicene Creed, “The Confession of Faith of The Evangelical United Brethren Church,” the Apostles’ Creed, and an official interpretive statement “By Water and the Spirit: A United Methodist Understanding of Baptism.” Such is what I was referring to however imprecisely as the creeds of Methodism.

  14. John Mansfield says:
  15. John Mansfield says:

    The link is now in your comment queue. Fish it out if you want.

  16. Thanks for the link, John. That will be interesting to read.

  17. Jared Livesey says:

    1. Did Jesus command a creed be instituted during his personal ministry?
    2. Did Jesus command a creed be instituted after his personal ministry?
    3. Did Moses institute a creed?
    4. Within the context of God’s work, what problem are creeds supposed to address?
    5. Do creeds solve that problem without complications?

  18. Reading the Nicene creed
    Posted by Steve Evans
    President Hinckley has encouraged members of the Church to read the Nicene Creed and compare it with the testimony of Joseph Smith on the nature of God.

    https://bycommonconsent.com/2005/08/28/reading-the-nicene-creed/

  19. Worth noting there’s nothing in the Nicene Creed technically incompatible with Mormon thought, although individual Mormon theories on ontology may split with it. The main divides between Mormons and Creedal Christianity is much more over the embodiment of the Father and creation ex nihilo. I’d say we take hypostasis as person much more in a fashion close to how a human person is a person. Whereas the Creed, while vague on that point, often took person as hypostasis more abstractly just as a kind of individuality not necessarily personhood.

  20. Not sure if anyone has mentioned the Articles of Faith yet. A lot of time is spent during Primary drilling them into young skulls. I learned them 40 years ago as new convert and have often recited them to myself, if only to test my memory. As a former Methodist, I remember being a little bewildered by my new faith’s insistence that it didn’t have any creeds. It seemed to me that it certainly did, but that they were not incorporated into the meetings as such. Does it take regular public recitation to turn something into a creed?

  21. Jeremiah S says:

    I remember years ago coming across that passage from D&C and noticing how striking a resemblance it had to the Creed. I was even contemplating writing a Mormon Mass, and using a Latin translation of the passage as the text for the Credo movements. It never came to pass, but it’s fascinating that you point this connection out.

  22. Another Roy says:

    I second the idea that we treat the AofF like a creed. As a primary teacher of 4 year olds a few years back I asked why there was even a push to have the kids memorize these. I was told that having kids memorize stuff will help them in their capacity to memorize stuff later on in life. This seemed like a terrible answer to me. Surely we can do better things with our church and devotional time. My class specifically did not participate in any of the memorization and recitation effort.
    As an aside, I do believe there is value to having a bulleted summary of beliefs. I do not believe that the AofF is a very good summary of our modern principle beliefs. We are mostly stuck with it because JS wrote it … making it fit even more into the category of a Mormon Creed. ;-)

  23. Kevin Christensen says:

    Most discussions of the condemnation of creeds in the 1838 account don’t consider Joseph Smith’s own explanations. The problem is not falsity, since he acknowledged that “all of them have some truth” and elsewhere commented that “it don’t prove that a man is not a good man because he believes false doctrine.” (The Words of Joseph Smith (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center Monograph, 1980), 183–84). But rather, ““creeds set up stakes, and say, ‘Hitherto thou shalt come, and no further’; which I cannot subscribe to.” (TPJS, 327). He stated that “the most prominent difference in sentiment between the Latter-day Saints and sectarians was that the latter were all circumscribed by some particular creed, which deprived its members of the privilege of believing anything not contained therein, whereas the Latter-day Saints have no creed, but are ready to believe all true principles that exist, as they are made manifest from time to time.” (History of the Church, 5:215).

    The problem with creeds is their restrictive function, rather than content. They declare what to think and closing the door to further light and knowledge.

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