Pinning Down Mormon Doctrine

By Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson

These articles first appeared in the Volume 23 / Number 3 and Volume 23 / Number 4 issues of the Christian Research Journal.

Part One

A significant difficulty when witnessing to a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) is to determine what that individual believes to be doctrinally true. The problem is that the LDS Church has never been consistent as to how official doctrine is ascertained. Although some Mormons give their leaders wide latitude when it comes to spiritual direction, others insist that only the standard works 1 need to be accepted as truth. Still others take a type of postmodern approach and accept what they feel to be true as their test for doctrinal authenticity; thus, they often disregard teachings that make them feel uncomfortable. Consequently, a Christian who hopes to dialogue successfully with a Mormon acquaintance needs to understand how Mormons determine what is true.

Since Mormonism began in 1830, its leaders have rejected the idea of a closed canon. This is demonstrated on page 398 of the Encyclopedia of Mormonism: “Since Latter-day Saints believe in the genuine gift of prophecy, it follows that the revelations received by modern prophets should be esteemed as highly as those received by ancient ones. Hence, the LDS canon of scripture can never be closed.” Traditionally Mormonism has insisted that doctrine limited to the Bible is a trademark of an “apostate Christendom.” Second Nephi 29:6 in the Book of Mormon calls anyone who receives theological truth from the Bible alone a fool.

Tenth LDS President Joseph Fielding Smith believed that new revelation should not be accepted unless it coincided with previous teaching. He wrote, “My words, and the teachings of any other member of the Church, high or low, if they do not square with the revelations, we need not accept them….We have accepted the four standard works as the measuring yardsticks, or balances, by which we measure every man’s doctrine.” 2 Other LDS leaders, however, did not concur with Smith’s position.

This was probably best illustrated in a story told by fourth LDS President Wilford Woodruff, and it has since been related in several general conference messages. In an 1897 conference speech, Woodruff recounted how he was present at a meeting in Kirtland, Ohio, when a “leading man in the church” had admonished his contemporaries to confine their revelations to the Bible, Book of Mormon, and Doctrine and Covenants.3 Mormonism’s founder Joseph Smith responded by asking Brigham Young, who later became the second LDS prophet, to give his position on the matter. The story continues:

Brother Brigham took the stand, and he took the Bible, and laid it down; he took the Book of Mormon, and laid it down; and he took the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, and laid it down before him, and he said: “There is the written word of God to us, concerning the work of God from the beginning of the world, almost, to our day.” “And now,” said he, “when compared with the living oracles those books are nothing to me; those books do not convey the word of God direct to us now, as do the words of a Prophet or a man bearing the Holy Priesthood in our day and generation. I would rather have the living oracles than all the writing in the books.” When he was through, Brother Joseph said to the congregation: “Brother Brigham has told you the word of the Lord, and he has told you the truth.”4

Defining LDS Scripture

Page 55 of the LDS Church manual entitled “Gospel Principles” reads, “In addition to these four books of scripture, the inspired words of our living prophets become scripture to us. Their words come to us through conferences, Church publications, and instructions to local priesthood leaders.”

Several leaders in the Mormon Church have emphatically stated that the living oracles carry even more weight than the standard works. Speaking in conference in 1916, LDS Apostle Orson Whitney said, “No book presides over this Church, and no book lies at its foundation. You cannot pile up books enough to take the place of God’s priesthood, inspired by the power of the Holy Ghost. That is the constitution of the Church of Christ…There is no book big enough or good enough to preside over this Church.”5

According to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, “Neither written scripture, nor natural theology, supersedes the ‘living oracles.'”6 In his “Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet” speech given in 1980, Ezra Taft Benson insisted that the “living prophet is more vital to us than the standard works.”

Sticking solely to the standard works is inconsistent for several important reasons:

  1. Most revelations by LDS prophets never get into the standard works.
  2. Previously canonized doctrines have been reversed. For instance, Section 101 in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants (D&C) outlawed the practice of polygamy. In 1876, Section 101 was dropped and Section 132, which encouraged the practice of polygamy, was added.
  3. The standard works “measuring rod” was ignored on at least two occasions in order to make doctrinal course corrections. They included the abandonment of polygamy in 1890 (Section 132) and the lifting of the priesthood ban against those of African heritage in 1978 (Abraham 1:26).
  4. Later leaders expunged teachings that were part of the canon. For instance, the “Lectures on Faith” were added to the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants. In 1921, the Lectures were deleted from the D&C.

D&C 68:2 states that in order for a speaker to give the church scripture, he must first be “moved by the Holy Ghost.” In 1954, J. Reuben Clark, a member of the LDS First Presidency, describes what this means: “We can tell when the speakers are ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost’ only when we ourselves are ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost.’ In a way, this completely shifts the responsibility from them to us to determine when they so speak.'”7 You might ask your Mormon acquaintances if their feelings have ever deceived them. If so, how can this be a foolproof test? Moreover, if the average member actually has such a capability for determining truth, why are prophets even needed?

The Definers of Truth

The job of clarifying the position of the church has been entrusted to the Mormon prophet as well as to his two counselors. These three men compose the First Presidency. It is not the job of LDS lay members or employees at church-owned schools. Ezra Taft Benson stated, “Doctrinal interpretation is the province of the First Presidency. The Lord has given that stewardship to them by revelation. No [mere] teacher has the right to interpret doctrine for the members of the Church.”8

When asked by Larry King to describe his role as the leader of a major religion, current LDS President Gordon Hinckley replied, “My role is to declare doctrine.”9 This thinking can be traced to Doctrine and Covenants 21:4. Speaking specifically of Joseph Smith, the commandment states that members are to “give heed unto all his words and commandments which he shall give unto you as he receiveth them, walking in all holiness before me; for his word ye shall receive, as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith” (emphasis added). President Harold B. Lee taught that this passage applied to LDS prophets in general and should not be limited to just the founder of Mormonism.10

Lee also said, “We are not dependent only upon the revelations given in the past as contained in our standard works — as wonderful as they are — but we have a mouthpiece to whom God does reveal and is revealing His mind and will.”11 Page 21 of Teachings of the Living Prophets says, “Not every word they speak should be thought of as an official interpretation or pronouncement. However, their discourses to the Saints and their official writings should be considered products of their prophetic calling and should be heeded.”

Christians who ask Mormons to own up to what their leaders have said are often rebuffed with a comment made by Joseph Smith in 1843. Speaking to two members in a private conversation, he remarked, “A prophet was a prophet only when he was acting as such.” All things being equal, however, this noncanonical comment really becomes no more authoritative than the quotes that the Mormon might be trying to sidestep. Some leaders have also insisted that it is wrong to “pit a dead prophet against a living prophet.” Common sense would dictate that if the LDS leaders were getting their truth from the same source — presumably God — this should not be a problem.

One would think that these men speak with some semblance of authority when they stand behind church pulpits or take the time to put their thoughts into writing. In light of the above quotes, it is appropriate for Christians to hold Mormons accountable for what their leaders have said. Should an individual Mormon disagree, you might politely ask why you should be compelled to trust in leaders whom even he doesn’t find to be fully reliable.

In part two of this article, we will look closely at the subjective test of the Mormon “testimony,” as well as the idea that Mormon prophets cannot lead the church astray.

Part Two

In our previous installment on how Latter-day Saints (LDS) ascertain doctrine, we examined the supremacy of the Teachings of the Living Prophets over the LDS standard works. Throughout the history of their church, LDS leaders have maintained God will never allow church prophets to lead their members astray. In the words of President Ezra Taft Benson, “Only one man stands as the Lord’s spokesman to the Church and the world, and he is the President of the Church. The words of all other men should be weighed against his inspired words. Though His prophet is mortal, God will not let him lead His Church astray.”1

Benson also taught that Mormons should not pit dead prophets against the current living prophet; yet, if, as Benson maintained, “eternal laws exist universally” and “fundamental principles and values never change,”2 why have LDS prophets decided to change them? Why is Mormon history replete with examples of LDS prophets contradicting each other?

Such questions should not offend Latter-day Saints, since one of their own general authorities, George A. Smith, offered a similar challenge on 13 August 1871: “If a faith will not bear to be investigated; if its preachers and professors are afraid to have it examined, their foundation must be very weak.”3 Few Mormons doubt Mormonism’s ability to hold up under serious cross-examination.

Brigham Young: Never Wrong?

Nevertheless, a Mormon who takes an honest look at the teachings of his or her leaders, both past and present, will quickly see how LDS prophets are, in fact, quite capable of leading members “astray.” A classic example of this is found in the teachings of Brigham Young. To this day, no LDS president has held the presidency for a longer period of time, and probably none introduced more controversial teachings than Young.

Four years before he died, Young challenged his audience to give proof that he had ever given incorrect counsel: “If there is an Elder here, or any member of this Church…who can bring up the first idea, the first sentence that I have delivered to the people as counsel that is wrong, I really wish they would do it; but they cannot do it, for the simple reason that I have never given counsel that is wrong; this is the reason.”4

Mormons may be surprised to know that even some LDS leaders have exposed Young’s errant counsel. Though coming short of denouncing him as a false prophet, many Mormons have engaged in the same sort of spin we expect in political controversies. One of these has to do with Young’s teaching that Adam was God and “the only God with whom we have to do.”5

Should this subject come up, your Mormon friend might respond by saying this was merely Brigham’s “theory.” Since it was never canonized, it need not be taken seriously. Young, however, did not categorize this teaching as mere speculation. Contrary to common LDS opinion, Young emphatically identified this principle as a serious doctrine. Speaking at a conference on 9 April 1852, he closed his comments on this subject with the following warning: “Now, let all who may hear these doctrines, pause before they make light of them or treat them with indifference, for they will prove their salvation or damnation.”6

To insist that this teaching is not a part of the LDS canon is also questionable, since in the Doctrine and Covenants Adam is described as the “Ancient of Days,” a term whose biblical and historical usage has been reserved for Almighty God.7 It appears that Young took this reference to its logical, albeit erroneous, conclusion.

Ample evidence demonstrates that Young’s message regarding Adam misled others. Heber C. Kimball, Young’s first counselor, taught: “I have learned by experience that there is but one God that pertains to this people, and He is the God that pertains to this earth — the first man. That first man sent his own Son to redeem the world, to redeem his brethren; his life was taken, his blood shed, that our sins might be remitted.”8

Kimball’s grandson, President Spencer W. Kimball, claimed that the Adam-God “theory” was only “alleged” to have been taught by some of the general authorities. In his October 1978 conference remarks, Kimball cautioned his listeners against “this and other kinds of false doctrine” (emphasis added).9 To claim this teaching was only alleged to have been taught is in and of itself misleading.

Young also believed that just as humans who achieve godhood would continually progress in knowledge, so too does the Mormon God.10 Fourth LDS President Wilford Woodruff concurred: “God Himself is increasing and progressing in knowledge, power, and dominion, and will do so, worlds without end. It is just so with us.”11

Tenth LDS President Joseph Fielding Smith strongly disagreed with his predecessors and asked, “Where has the Lord ever revealed to us that he is lacking in knowledge? That he is still learning new truth; discovering new laws that are unknown to him? I think this kind of doctrine is very dangerous.”12

Smith claimed that he did not know where the Lord had ever made such a declaration; however, two LDS presidents, one of whom said his counsel was never wrong, taught this doctrine. Space does not permit the examination of other inconsistencies. It is clear, however, that there is no merit to the idea that LDS prophets are incapable of leading members astray.

The Mormon “Testimony”

Latter-day Saints believe the ability to discern doctrinal truth comes through a “personal testimony,” which is also known as the “burning in the bosom.” Many Mormons believe they are right, based solely on an alleged confirmation by the “Holy Ghost.”13 To some this subjective feeling is all they need to tell them that the LDS position is true. This method for determining truth is fraught with serious flaws. At this point, we would like to offer a word of caution should this subject ever arise. Many Christians have made light of this experience, even to the point of mocking it. We would hope that Christians would avoid this temptation and maintain a spirit of gentleness and respect (1 Pet. 3:15–16).

In their rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity, Mormons often insist that the “oneness” in the Godhead merely means that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are “one in purpose.” In light of this, we have found it profitable to ask, “If you believe the members of the Godhead are ‘one in purpose,’ is it possible that the Holy Ghost would ever contradict what the Father or Son has already revealed?” Most Mormons would adamantly agree that this is not possible. This being the case, we must politely show them that what they thought was a divine verification was not the Holy Ghost at all.

For example, it would be erroneous to assume that the Holy Ghost confirmed to the Latter-day Saint that God was the offspring of a previous God and that it was also possible for righteous LDS males to become Gods. Isaiah 43:10 rejects such a concept when it says, “Ye are my witnesses, saith the LORD, and my servant whom I have chosen: that ye may know and believe me, and understand that I am he: before me there was no God formed, neither shall there be after me”14 (KJV).

Asking your LDS acquaintances if their feelings have always been 100 percent accurate can sometimes expose the subjectivity of this test for truth. Who has always found his or her feelings to be absolutely reliable? You might remind them that many ex-Mormons have testified that they once felt a divine confirmation regarding the LDS Church, only to find out later that it was not true. The Word of God must support what we believe. If our feelings run counter to this measuring rod for truth, we must, in good conscience, recognize that our feelings are misleading us.

Revelation 22:18–19

In an attempt to place doubt on all LDS extrabiblical teachings, some Christians have felt that quoting Revelation 22:18–19 solves the matter. The passage sternly warns about adding or taking away the words of “this book.” Most evangelical commentators believe John was giving a straightforward warning to the readers about the Book of Revelation, and not the Bible as a whole. Since the Bible had not been compiled at the time of John’s writing, it would be wrong to assume that he was speaking about books other than his own. John’s warning, therefore, should not be used in any other context.

This does not mean that Christians should be any more inclined to accept the validity of Mormon scriptures. In the Bible, God warns those who pretend to speak for Him when they are not authorized to do so. Moses admonished the Israelites in Deuteronomy 4:2 that they were not to add to, or subtract from, the commands of God. In Proverbs 30:6, we are again warned against adding to God’s Word. Such a presumptuous act was worthy of the death penalty, according to Deuteronomy 18:20. Paul also condemned anyone who brings “another gospel” (see Gal. 1:8–9), which Mormonism surely is.

A careful study of the writings of Joseph Smith, his contemporaries, and his successors not only demonstrates how they disagree with each other, but, more importantly, how they often disagree with the teachings of the Bible. The real issue should center on the fact that whenever LDS teachings conflict with the Bible, they should be rejected, not the reverse.


For additional articles on doctrine and theology, click here.


Notes: Part 1

  1. These include the Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price.
  2. Doctrines of Salvation< 3:203 (Bookcraft: Salt Lake City, 1954).
  3. At this time the Pearl of Great Price was not a part of the LDS canon.
  4. Conference Report, October 1897, 22–23.
  5. 1916 Conference Report, 55–56. Also quoted in the official LDS Church manual Teachings of the Living Prophets (1982), 20.
  6. Encyclopedia of Mormonism, vol. 1 (New York: Macmillan, 1982), 257.
  7. Church News, 31 July 1954
  8. Teachings of the Living Prophets, 25.
  9. Larry King Live, 8 September 1998.
  10. Stand Ye in the Holy Places (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co, 1988), 129.
  11. Ibid, 164

Notes Part 2

  1. Ezra Taft Benson, Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1988), 140.
  2. Ibid, 116.
  3. Journal of Discourses, comp. G. D. Watt (Liverpool: F. D. Richards, 1855), 14:216.
  4. Ibid., 16:161.
  5. Ibid., 1:50
  6. Ibid., 1:51.
  7. Doctrine and Covenants 27:11; 116:1; 138:38.
  8. Journal of Discourses 4:1.
  9. LDS Church News, 9 October 1976, 11.
  10. Journal of Discourses 11:286.
  11. The Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, ed. G. Homer Durham (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1983), 3.
  12. Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954), 1:8.
  13. To some Mormons, the Holy Ghost is a separate entity from the Holy Spirit.
  14. It would be difficult for the Mormon to claim that this passage is translated incorrectly since it reads the same in Joseph Smith’s 1833 Inspired Version of the Bible.