Patriot Prophet: The New Teachings of the Presidents of the Church Manual

As a teenager, I became acquainted with both Ezra Taft Benson’s teachings and the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church manual series that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been working on for over 15 years now to serve as the manuals for Relief Society and Elders Quorum meetings and a basis for Church members’ gospel reference books collections. At the time, I was very impressed with President Benson’s teachings because of both the thoughts expressed and the way in which they were expressed. So, not understanding that the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church series were not yet complete, I asked my mother if I could borrow her copy of Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Ezra Taft Benson book so I could read it. She informed me that she didn’t think they had that one yet. Not quite believing her, I searched the house, but, of course, didn’t find it. Well, now the Church released has Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Ezra Taft Benson as the lesson manual for Elders Quorum and Relief Society for 2015 and I have finally had the chance to read it.

The 2015 Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Ezra Taft Benson

The 2015 Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Ezra Taft Benson

There’ve been a few subtle changes since previous books in the series. First, the cover artwork seems to be an actual picture rather than a painting for the first time. Second, while the “teaching help” sections at the end of each chapter are still largely drawn from the Church’s official teaching manual Teaching, No Greater Call, they seem to have a larger number drawn from other resources, such as conference talks, Ensign articles, etc. Third, as is usually the case, the lessons are drawn from things that Ezra Taft Benson emphasized and taught most frequently during his ministry—at least the ones deemed most necessary to the modern, international Church. As such, the flavor of the book and subject matters selected are slightly different than other years, though the standard temple, Jesus Christ, Joseph Smith, missionary work, and other such lessons are still present. Since Ezra Taft Benson was more focused on behavioral issues than doctrine, however, more emphasis is placed on topics such as repentance, sharing and reading the Book of Mormon, and strengthening the family rather than things like the Plan of Salvation or the nature of the Atonement or God like we had in, say, the more doctrinally-minded Joseph Fielding Smith manual. That being said, let’s glance through a few themes emphasized by President Benson in his lifetime and how they are reflected in this manual.

More than any other topic, Ezra Taft Benson will probably be remembered for his emphasis on reading and sharing the Book of Mormon. By July 1989, President Benson had delivered thirty-nine public addresses on the Book of Mormon—fourteen of which were delivered in general conferences. As such, it is not surprising to find that two chapters of the 24 chapter manual are devoted entirely to the subject, and that it shines through in many of the other chapters in the book. Of course, we find the most famous quotes on the subject, such as the statement that the Book of Mormon is the keystone of our religion and that “just as the arch crumbles if the keystone is removed, so does all the Church stand or fall with the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon,” as well as his belief that “it is not just that the Book of Mormon teaches us truth, though it indeed does that. It is not just that the Book of Mormon bears testimony of Christ, though it indeed does that, too. But there is something more. There is a power in the book which will begin to flow into your lives the moment you being a serious study of the book.”[1] We also find a few other insightful thoughts on the subject that I find quite interesting, such as his statement that, “The Doctrine and Covenants is the binding link between the Book of Mormon and the continuing work of the Restoration through the Prophet Joseph Smith and his successors.”[2]

Ezra Taft Benson reading the scriptures.

Ezra Taft Benson reading the scriptures.

The Book of Mormon is not the only emphasis Ezra Taft Benson had during his time as a general authority. As one excellent history of the Church observed, “He gave prophetic advice to parents, commemorated the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution with a general conference address on its inspiration, called upon the Saints to love the Lord, denounced the evil of pride, spoke to children about their responsibilities, encouraged the elderly, and reminded the Saints of their duty toward the aged.”[3] Most of these themes come out in the manual in one chapter or another. For example, the advice to parents comes in chapter 15, “The Sacred Calling of Fathers and Mothers;” the themes of encouraging the elderly and duty toward the aged come out in Ch. 16, “The Elderly in the Church;” while several other chapters dwell on family-related themes, including an entire chapter on the law of chastity (the fourth manual in the series to do so). Since President Benson’s most famous sermon may very well be his “Beware of Pride,” General Conference Address, there is an entire chapter devoted to that sermon after a brief historical introduction.  The theme of calling upon the Saints to love the Lord comes forward in the first and last chapters of the book (gratefully providing a Christmas text in the proper season in the latter case), with another chapter on Christ in the early part of the book.

As mentioned in the list of themes, patriotism and the U.S. constitution were important to Ezra Taft Benson. He was, perhaps, the most conservative and patriotic of all LDS Presidents to date, believing and preaching that the United States was “the cradle of liberty,” that it had a “prophetic mission” and served as “the Lord’s base of operations in these latter days.”[4] He served as a member of a U.S. President’s Cabinet while serving as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve and held other political positions related to his profession in agriculture prior to his call as a general authority. He was a staunch supporter of American freedoms and fought bitterly against what he saw as the great evils of communism (and most other liberalistic agendas, which he often labeled “communistic”), embracing and advocating the controversial and conservative policies espoused by the John Birch Society. He particularly did this during President David O. McKay’s tenure. During Benson’s presidency, however, he rarely addressed these topics, and the manual—reflecting that shift of emphasis and the needs of the international Church today—provides no chapters on patriotism, anti-communism, or the U.S. Constitution. There is one chapter on “Freedom of Choice, and Eternal Principle,” but this chapter focuses on using freedom and moral agency to make good choices and become something better rather than human liberty and rights. The manual does, however, readily speak of his service in the US government and American patriotism in the “Life and Ministry of Ezra Taft Benson” section at the start of the manual.

Ezra Taft Benson, the Patriot Prophet

Ezra Taft Benson, the Patriot Prophet

On a historical note, the manual does not cover the controversies associated with Ezra Taft Benson’s service in the Church, such as his anti-communist campaigns and outspokenness about his political views, his efforts to block and dismantle Leonard J. Arrington’s Church History department (known as the “Camelot” era to Mormon historians because of the openness and objectivity of the department during that time) because he felt the histories they were producing weren’t faith promoting, and the fact that he suffered from dementia and many other health problems in his final years of life. I also felt that the chapter on Joseph Smith, Jr. tends to perpetuate an un-nuanced view of the Prophet’s history and the Mormon hero-worship of its founder, though this is probably more a reflection on Ezra Taft Benson than the manual. It is very understandable that the manual is this way on both accounts (avoiding the darker history of Benson and Smith), considering that the manual is instructionally-produced devotional literature focused on promoting faith in a Mormon-specific way, not a historical textbook. Despite these omissions, I did feel that the historical sections of the book were well-put together, though I was somewhat disappointed that many of the chapters’ “From the Life of Ezra Taft Benson” sections reflected more on his sermons than life, despite the name of the section.

Ezra Taft Benson on the cover of Time Magazine

Ezra Taft Benson on the cover of Time Magazine

As a final note, one of my favorite chapters in the book was the one on repentance (chapter 5). Eugene England characterized President Benson—along with Spencer W. Kimball—with the quote that “great religious leaders both comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,”[5] and I felt that was well represented within this chapter. Perhaps my favorite quote from the chapter was that:

The Lord works from the inside out. The world works from the outside in. The world would take people out of the slums. Christ takes the slums out of people, and then they take themselves out of the slums. The world would mold men by changing their environment. Christ changes men, who then change their environment. The world would shape human behavior, but Christ can change human nature. …

Yes, Christ changes men, and changed men can change the world.[6]

Anyway, the manual is pretty solid overall and will be a great course of study for the next year and will serve well as reference book in the future.  I am excited to work with it as an Elder’s Quorum instructor. For those interested in reading more, the manual is available for reading here, and available for purchase here.

k g doc Ezra Taft Benson

[1] Ezra Taft Benson Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Ezra Taft Benson (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2014): 128, 141.

[2] Benson, 133.

[3] James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, The Story of the Latter-day Saints, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City, Deseret Book Company, 1992), 669.

[4] Benson, 21.

[5] Eugene England, “‘No Cause, No Cause’: An Essay Toward Reconciliation,” Sunstone, January 2002: 39.

[6] Benson, 76-77.


Joseph Fielding Smith, Ch. 18: Living by Every Word That Proceeds from the Mouth of God

This lesson is, at its heart, a “keep the commandments” lesson. In the manual, it is split into a historical introduction and five sections over the course of slightly less than ten pages. The historical introduction talks about Joseph Fielding Smith’s experiences in encouraging people to repent and keep the commandments. Section one outlines that God rules by law, and as such, humans have laws we must follow. Section two talks about reverence and showing our love for the Lord by keeping the commandments. Section three is a section telling us that God will not help us if we don’t keep the commandments. Section four focuses on the commandments guiding us to partake of the divine nature. Section five focuses on the blessings that come in this life and the eternities that come from keeping the commandments.

The 2014 manual

The 2014 manual

There are sections of this lesson I really like and some that I’m not quite comfortable in how President Smith addresses things. Like Lorenzo Snow, the idea of partaking of the divine nature—or, as he put it, “As man now is, God once was:/ As God now is, man may be”—is a “constant light and guide” and a “bright, illuminating star” in my life that makes the gospel sensible to me.[1] As such, the sections (1, 4 and parts of 5) that bring in that idea connect really well with me, and would be sections I would focus in on in preparing the lesson. The historical introduction was also important in reconciling myself to Joseph Fielding Smith after years of not fully appreciating him—it helped me see that he was a sincere, good man who very much believed in what he was doing and believing, even if I do not always agree with him and even if he wasn’t as tactful about it as he could have been at times. I also loved how President Smith focused on keeping the commandments as a sign of our love and reverence for God.

I wasn’t as comfortable with the section 3 of this chapter, especially when he focused on the idea that God may ignore our prayers because we have ignored Him at times. While we do indeed have scriptural precedent of that, focusing on the idea too much could breed the perception that if we have sinned, we shouldn’t even bother trying to pray or turn to God because He won’t care about us anymore. That smacks too much of Jonathan Edwards’s God of whom he (Edwards) declared:

The wrath of God is like great waters that are dammed for the present. . . .The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you…. When God beholds the ineffable extremity of your case, and sees your torment to be so vastly disproportioned to your strength, and sees how your poor soul is crushed, and sinks down, as it were, into an infinite gloom; He will have no compassion upon you,. . . there shall be no moderation or mercy.[2]

Anyway, my inclination would be to minimize that section or to focus on making our hearts right before God and not telling Him what to do when we won’t receive counsel from Him, but always encouraging prayer no matter what. Perhaps to balance the manual out, we could emphasize that God did eventually hear the prayers of Lamoni’s people in the land of Nephi, even if it took a while, or use the parable of the unjust judge in the New Testament (Luke 18:1-8) to emphasize that we need to work and keep at it to have our prayers answered. As Joseph Smith would say, “God is not a respecter of persons, we all have the same privilege. Come to God weary him until he blesses you &c we are entitled to the same blessings” ([recorded in Willard Richards Pocket Companion, 78–79] cited in The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph, comp. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook [1980], 15).

It should also be noted that if there are times when the Lord isn’t answering prayers, it isn’t necessarily because of wickedness. President Lorenzo Snow acknowledged that, “Every man and woman who serves the Lord, no matter how faithful they may be, have their dark hours; but if they have lived faithfully, light will burst upon them and relief will be furnished.” (Lorenzo Snow, Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Lorenzo Snow, [Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2012], 107.) Beyond the trials of life, Elder Richard G. Scott taught that God sometimes has a great purpose in mind in not answering prayers:

It is a mistake to assume that every prayer we offer will be answered immediately….

We are here on earth to gain experience we can obtain in no other way. We are given the opportunity to grow, to develop, and to gain spiritual maturity. To do that, we must learn to apply truth. How we face challenges and resolve difficult problems is crucially important to our happiness….

When He withholds an answer, it is to have us grow through faith in Him, obedience to His commandments, and a willingness to act on truth. We are expected to assume accountability by acting on a decision that is consistent with His teachings without prior confirmation. We are not to sit passively waiting or to murmur because the Lord has not spoken. We are to act (Richard G. Scott, “Learning to Recognize Answers to Prayer,” CR October 1989).

Extra-Manual Resources and Quotes

            As per the idea of becoming or partaking of the divine nature (see sections 1 and 4 of the manual chapter), there are a huge number of sources and quotes available to assist teaching that idea. Some of my favorites are as follows:

From the Prophet Joseph Smith, we have the following statement::

God has in reserve a time, or period appointed in His own bosom, when He will bring all His subjects, who have obeyed His voice and kept His commandments, into His Celestial rest. This rest is of such perfection and glory, that man has need of a preparation before he can, according to the laws of that kingdom, enter it and enjoy its blessings. This being the fact, God has given certain laws to the human family, which, if observed, are sufficient to prepare them to inherit this rest. This, then, we conclude, was the purpose of God in giving His laws to us: if not, why, or for what were they given? If the whole family of man were as well off without them as they might be with them, for what purpose or intent were they ever given? Was it that God wanted to merely show that He could talk? It would be nonsense to suppose that He would condescend to talk in vain: for it would be in vain, and to no purpose whatever: because, all the commandments contained in the law of the Lord, have the sure promise annexed of a reward to all.[3]

Joseph Smith, Jr.

Joseph Smith, Jr.

Also, in the King Follett Discourse, the Prophet stated that:

God himself, finding he was in the midst of spirits and glory, because he was more intelligent, saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest could have a privilege to advance like himself. The relationship we have with God places us in a situation to advance in knowledge. He has power to institute laws to instruct the weaker intelligences, that they may be exalted with himself, so that they might have one glory upon another, and all that knowledge, power, glory, and intelligence, which is requisite in order to save them in the world of spirits.[4]

Another General Authority who taught this idea quite beautifully is Elder B.H. Roberts. Here are several quotes from him on the subject: “Salvation is a matter of character-building under the Gospel laws and ordinances, and more especially with the direct aid of the Holy Spirit.”[5] “Our lives through the gospel may be made to touch the life of God, and by touching the life of God partake somewhat of His qualities.”[6] “The man who so walks in the light and wisdom and power of God, will at the last, by the very force of association, make the light and wisdom and power of God his own—weaving those bright rays into a chain divine, linking himself forever to God and God to him. This the sum of Messiah’s mystic words, ‘Thou, Father, in me, and I in thee’—beyond this human greatness cannot achieve.”[7]

A more recent conference address that has a great parable in it is Elder Dallin H. Oaks, “The Challenge to Become.” It might even be good to show a clip from this address during the lesson. The parable that I love from this talk is as follows:

A wealthy father knew that if he were to bestow his wealth upon a child who had not yet developed the needed wisdom and stature, the inheritance would probably be wasted. The father said to his child:

“All that I have I desire to give you—not only my wealth, but also my position and standing among men. That which I have I can easily give you, but that which I am you must obtain for yourself. You will qualify for your inheritance by learning what I have learned and by living as I have lived. I will give you the laws and principles by which I have acquired my wisdom and stature. Follow my example, mastering as I have mastered, and you will become as I am, and all that I have will be yours.”

This parable parallels the pattern of heaven. The gospel of Jesus Christ promises the incomparable inheritance of eternal life, the fulness of the Father, and reveals the laws and principles by which it can be obtained.[8]

Terryl and Fiona Givens wrote about the subject in their book, The God That Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life. A quote from that book that I liked is this one:

Commandments are the expression of those eternal laws that will lead us to a condition of optimal joyfulness. They are the beacon lights of greater realities that define the cosmic streams in which we swim. Operating in harmony with those realities, as a swimmer who works with the current rather than against it, empowers and liberates us to fill the measure of our creation. We may ignore them in the illusion of utter self-sufficiency and independence. But we are then no more than a swimmer thrashing furiously, confident of our powerful strokes, but swept along nevertheless, a captive of the prevailing tides.[9]

If one wishes to tie the idea into section 5 of the book, there is Joseph Fielding Smith quote about how the endowment ceremony gives us protection and that obedience to the covenants made there will “save us now and they exalt us hereafter.” The following quote from former Relief Society President, Bonnie D. Parkin supplements that idea quite nicely, I think:

Covenants—or binding promises between us and Heavenly Father—are essential for our eternal progression. Step-by-step, He tutors us to become like Him by enlisting us in His work. At baptism we covenant to love Him with all our hearts and love our sisters and brothers as ourselves. In the temple we further covenant to be obedient, selfless, faithful, honorable, charitable. We covenant to make sacrifices and consecrate all that we have. Forged through priesthood authority, our kept covenants bring blessings to fill our cups to overflowing. How often do you reflect that your covenants reach beyond mortality and connect you to the Divine? Making covenants is the expression of a willing heart; keeping covenants, the expression of a faithful heart.[10]

As far as President Smith’s quotes in this chapter of the manual on not picking and choosing which Gospel Principles to live by, the following quote from Elder Holland comes to mind:

Obviously as the path of discipleship ascends, that trail gets ever more narrow until we come to that knee-buckling pinnacle of the sermon of which Elder Christofferson just spoke: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” What was gentle in the lowlands of initial loyalty becomes deeply strenuous and very demanding at the summit of true discipleship. Clearly anyone who thinks Jesus taught no-fault theology did not read the fine print in the contract! No, in matters of discipleship the Church is not a fast-food outlet; we can’t always have it “our way.” Some day every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is the Christ and that salvation can only come His way.[11]

A Deeper Look

            Statements like the one listed above, and ones in the manual, such as “I haven’t the privilege of discarding some of the principles of the gospel and believing others, and then feel that I am entitled to the full blessings of salvation and exaltation in the kingdom of God…. We are commanded to live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God,”[12] raise an important question, especially in today’s world: How do we know what words proceeded from the mouth of God and what came strictly from the men who are serving as General Authorities of the Church? There is Wilford Woodruff’s semi-canonical statement that:

The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty.[13]

Wilford Woodruff (in front)

Wilford Woodruff (in front)

Despite this, however, the men who are called to lead the Church are imperfect, mortal beings who have not permanently mind-melded with God as has sometimes been supposed. Those who wish to push for that view of things will quickly run into trouble, since the men who we have sustained as prophets, seers, and revelators have admitted that they are not perfect and that not everything they have said is perfect—thus if everything they say is true, then when they say that some of the things they say are not true, that must be true, but if statements of the sort are true, they might be incorrect and they are perfect, and the loops go round and round. President David O. McKay observed, “When God makes the prophet He does not unmake the man.”[14] Elder Bruce R. McConkie likewise observed that, “With all their inspiration and greatness, prophets are yet mortal men with imperfections common to mankind in general. They have their opinions and prejudices and are left to work out their problems without inspiration in many instances.”[15] In another example, President J. Reuben Clark, Jr. taught us that:

Even the President of the Church, himself, may not always be “moved upon by the Holy Ghost,” when he addresses the people. This has happened about matters of doctrine (usually of a highly spec­ulative character) where a subsequent President of the Church and the people themselves have felt that in declaring the doctrine, the an­nouncer was not “moved upon by the Holy Ghost.”[16]

We see this problem arising, even during Joseph Fielding Smith’s ministry as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve on a few points of doctrine. The most prominent example is that of the “Negro Doctrine.” It was Joseph Fielding Smith who laid out the fullest expression of a doctrinal defense of the policy of denying men and women with black African ancestry the right to receive the priesthood or to attend the temple. Involved in this defense was the declaration that Blacks were descendants of Cain and Ham—both cursed individuals in the Bible, thus beginning a curse of ineligibility to hold the priesthood—and that they were placed into that cursed lineage because they were the least-faithful souls to come to earth from the premortal existence and thus did not qualify for the priesthood or temple blessings in mortality. More recently, the Church has repudiated those teachings, declaring that:

Over time, Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions. None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church…. Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.”[17]

Joseph Fielding Smith

Joseph Fielding Smith

Many other examples may be given. With this problem in mind, the question arises: Where does it end? How do we know that anything a prophet says is really from God and not just a good man trying the best to act the part without inspiration? Even if they are inspired, how do we know what is the wheat, so to speak, and what is chaff in Church teachings and practice today? This is one of the most difficult problems to navigate in Mormonism, as has been shown by the trials of two very visible individuals in the Mormon community—John Dehlin and Kate Kelly—who have been willing to challenge current Church practice in the public arena while claiming they are doing nothing wrong. The reason they may feel that way is that they have doubts on whether prophets have spoken the will of God rather than the will of man on their particular issues.

The classic spiritual solution posited by Church leaders is to receive a personal witness from the Holy Ghost on what is right and wrong, and that consensus—either in governing counsels or the voice of the Church as a whole—establishes truth. President J. Reuben Clark’s stated that “The Church will know by the testimony of the Holy Ghost in the body of the members, whether the brethren in voicing their views are ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost’; and in due time that knowledge will be made manifest.”[18] Similarly, President Brigham Young taught that:

I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by Him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation, and weaken that influence they could give to their leaders, did they know for themselves, by the revelations of Jesus, that they are led in the right way. Let every man and woman know, by the whisperings of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not.[19]

So again, the solution posited by these men is that individuals are to pray about what is being taught and receiving a witness through the Spirit whether it’s right or wrong, and that if the Saints all collectively do this, they will be able to sort it out. While ultimately, that is what must happen, there are other controls and check points in place to weigh doctrines and teachings of the Church by. Included in this evaluation is how much weight and authority is given to the source of the doctrine or quote (both the person stating it and the form of publication), how recently it was taught, how consistently it’s been taught, and how relevant the information is to our present existence.

As for the authority of a comment, the first consideration is who the statement comes from. President Clark wrote that:

Some of the General Authorities have had assigned to them a spe­cial calling; they possess a special gift; they are sustained as prophets, seers, and revelators, which gives them a special spiritual endowment in connection with their teaching of the people. They have the right, the power, and authority to declare the mind and will of God to his people, subject to the over-all power and authority of the President of the Church. Others of the General Authorities are not given this special spiritual endowment and authority covering their teaching; they have a resulting limitation, and the resulting limitation upon their power and authority in teaching applies to every other officer and member of the Church, for none of them is spiritually endowed as a prophet, seer, and revelator. Furthermore, as just indicated, the Presi­dent of the Church has a further and special spiritual endowment in this respect, for he is the Prophet, Seer, and Revelator for the whole Church.

Here we must have in mind—must know—that only the President of the Church, the Presiding High Priest, is sustained as Prophet, Seer, and Revelator for the Church, and he alone has the right to re­ceive revelations for the Church, either new or amendatory, or to give authoritative interpretations of scriptures that shall be binding on the Church, or change in any way the existing doctrines of the Church.[20]

J. Reuben Clark, Jr.

J. Reuben Clark, Jr.

Herein we see at least three tiers of authority in the Church hierarchy. At the highest level, there is the President of the Church, who “alone has the right to re­ceive revelations for the Church, either new or amendatory.” The next step down are those General Authorities sustained as prophets, seers and revelators—the First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve, and (in times past) the Patriarch to the Church, who “have the right, the power, and authority to declare the mind and will of God to his people, subject to the over-all power and authority of the President of the Church.” In the third tier, we have those General Authorities not sustained as prophets, seers, and revelators (Seventies, and whatever now-defunct offices have been used in the past), auxiliary presidencies, and lay members and leaders that are not given “this special spiritual endowment and authority covering their teaching.” Non-Mormons (who should be considered in this discussion) when considered from an institutional standing would probably constitute a fourth, lower tier in declaring doctrine, though aspects of their writing may give them great value to Latter-day Saints, as has been shown in the case of C.S. Lewis. It should also be noted that statements, letters, proclamations, declarations, etc. given by groups and counsels often carry more weight than statements by individuals.

The next consideration when it comes to authority is where the statement may be found. President Hugh B. Brown had the following to say on the matter:

We… have only to defend those doctrines of the church contained in the four standard works—the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price.… The only way I know of by which the teachings of any person or group may become binding upon the church is if the teachings have been reviewed by all the brethren, submitted to the highest councils of the church, and then approved by the whole body of the church.[21]

BYU Professor Robert Millet added the following parameters as well:

In determining whether something is a part of the doctrine of the Church, we might ask, Is it found within the four standard works? Within official declarations or proclamations? Is it discussed in general conference or other official gatherings by general Church leaders today? Is it found in the general handbooks or approved curriculum of the Church today? If it meets at least one of these criteria, we can feel secure and appropriate about teaching it.[22]

From this, we see that there are certain sources viewed as more dependable than others, and that there are tiered amounts of authority even among those sources. That tiered structure might be constructed as followed:

  1. The canonical scriptures, or standard works.
  2. Official declarations and proclamations by leading counsels of the Church
  3. Statements from General Conference or other official gatherings
  4. General handbooks or current curricula
  5. Other published sources
  6. Hearsay and unpublished sources
The authority given to the sources of materials affects the weight they are given.

The authority given to the sources of materials affects the weight they are given.

When approaching documents at any of these levels, it must be understood that things change and evolve with time, and that no source is perfect or dictated by God Himself. Along these lines, President Brigham Young taught that:

I do not even believe that there is a single revelation, among the many God has given the Church, that is perfect in its fullness. The revelations of God contain correct doctrine and principle, so far as they go; but it is impossible for the poor, weak, low, groveling, sinful inhabitants of the earth to receive a revelation from the Almighty in all its perfections. He has to speak to us in a manner to meet the extent of our capacities.”[23]

It is because of this that there is the need for the next major parameter for judging a teaching or practice: How recently was it taught? As Dr. Millet wrote, “

Not everything that was ever spoken or written by a past Church leader is a part of what we teach today. Ours is a living constitution, a living tree of life, a dynamic Church (see D&C 1:30). We are commanded to pay heed to the words of living oracles (see D&C 90:3-5)…. Thus, it is important to note that ultimately the Lord will hold us responsible for the teachings, direction, and focus provided by the living oracles of our own day.[24]

BYU Professor Joseph Fielding McConkie likewise wrote that:

We have the scholarship of the early brethren to build upon; we have the advantage of additional history; we have inched our way up the mountain of our destiny and now stand in a position to see some things with greater clarity than did they…. We live in finer houses than did our pioneer forefathers, but this does not argue that we are better or that our rewards will be greater. In like manner our understanding of gospel principles should be better housed, and we should constantly be seeking to make it so. There is no honor in our reading by oil lamps when we have been granted better light.[25]

Although we must find our roots in the writings, revelations, and speeches of Joseph Smith, Jr. and other early Brethren of the Restoration, room must be made for evolution and adaptation to the needs of our times and the advances of thought and practice as we learn more about life and the eternities in an iterative process of “line upon line” revelation. If I had to make suggestions of a weighted tier of Church history for drawing doctrine, it would probably come out something like this (in descending order of weight):

  1. Recent History (1990-2014)
  2. Correlation and Consolidation (1960-1990)
  3. Early Modern Mormonism (1930-1960)
  4. Mormonism in Transition (1890-1930)
  5. Pioneer Mormonism (1844-1890)
  6. The Josephian Nauvoo Era (1839-1844)
  7. The Ohio-Missouri Era (1831-1839)
  8. Early Mormonism (1820-1831)
  9. Pre Mormonism (pre-1820)
The Quorum of the Twelve

The Quorum of the Twelve

The next major point of consideration is how consistently a doctrine has been taught. Points included in this category are how often a doctrine is taught, how many individuals teach the doctrine, and whether or not the teachings have or have not been contradicted.

Concerning determining doctrine by frequency of appearance in number of individuals and time, Elder Neil L. Anderson of the Quorum of the Twelve taught that, “There is an important principle that governs the doctrine of the Church. The doctrine is taught by all 15 members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. It is not hidden in an obscure paragraph of one talk. True principles are taught frequently and by many.”[26] Considering that that sums up the matter pretty well, I’ll move on to contradictions.

At times, things taught by one Mormon leader may be directly contradicted by another. We have already seen that teachings about men and women of Black African Ancestry taught by Joseph Fielding Smith and many other individuals have been renounced in recent times. In another example, President Spencer W. Kimball directly disavowed Brigham Young’s Adam-God Doctrine, stating that, “We warn you against the dissemination of doctrines which are not according to the scriptures and which are alleged to have been taught by some of the General Authorities of past generations. Such, for instance, is the Adam-God theory. We denounce that theory and hope that everyone will be cautioned against this and other kinds of false doctrine.”[27] At other times, doctrines and teachings may also be implicitly or indirectly contradicted by other teachings and doctrines without direct references to each other.

When these types of breaks in consistency occur, it must be left to the individual to judge which statement holds more weight. In both of the cases above, the time factor would favor the disavowing statements. In the case of the Adam-God theory, that disavowal is further supported by the authority of the pronouncer (a president of the Church) and the publication source (a conference report). In the case of the Black doctrinal statement, it is unclear as to the source of the statement, other than it is published by the Church on the official website. Presumably, it was done so under the First Presidency’s direction, but it is difficult to tell. As for consistency, statements by President David O. McKay, Spencer W. Kimball, Dallin H. Oaks, and Gordon B. Hinckley may be found to support the disavowing statement more recently than many of the older teachings.

As a related corollary, doctrines and teachings should have at least a fair amount of consistency with common sense, tangible observations, and the inner moral compass of human beings. Elder Orson Pratt observed that:

The study of science is the study of something eternal. If we study astronomy, we study the works of God. If we study chemistry, geology, optics, or any other branch of science, every new truth we come to the understanding of is eternal; it is a part of the great system of universal truth. It is truth that exists throughout universal nature; and God is the dispenser of all truth—scientific, religious, and political.[28]

Science and intellect can be used in determining truth along with spiritual confirmation and prophetic authority. Granted, this can get into a morass of debate and problems, since each of those can be highly subjective and prone to change over time, however, intellect is an important consideration in accepting teachings and practices of the Church.

The First Presidency

The First Presidency

In connection to tangible observations, it is important to note the relevancy of a doctrine to our current sphere of existence. I once had a retired Catholic priest share the phrase with me that “the scriptures aren’t there to tell us how the heavens go as much as to tell us how to go to heaven.” When we move into speculative subjects, history too far back to verify, and periods of existence outside of mortality it should be noted that while we know some things about them through revelation, we do not know everything about these subjects and what we do say about them may be taken with a grain of salt if experience and reality turn out to be something other than we thought. When President Gordon B. Hinckley was asked in a TV interview in 2004, “What happens when you die?” his initial response was the lighthearted comment: “When you die? Well, I’m not fully conversant with that. I haven’t passed through that yet” before he went on to explain that, “We believe that death is part of an eternal journey,” and so on.[29] Like President Hinckley, our best response to these subjects is probably to admit that we have not experienced these things, but we do have beliefs and opinions on such matters. Mormonism is, as President Brigham Young characterized, “a matter-of-fact religion” that “taketh hold of the every-day duties and realities of this life” and one that “reduce[s] the Gospel to the present time, circumstances and condition of the people.”[30] Elsewhere, President Young observed that:

Many have tried to penetrate to the First Cause of all things; but it would be as easy for an ant to number the grains of sand on the earth. It is not for man, with his limited intelligence, to grasp eternity in his comprehension. . . . It would be as easy for a gnat to trace the history of man back to his origin as for man to fathom the First Cause of all things, lift the veil of eternity, and reveal the mysteries that have been sought after by philosophers from the beginning. What then, should be the calling and duty of the children of men? Instead of inquiring after the origin of Gods—instead of trying to explore the depths of eternities that have been, that are, and that will be, instead of endeavoring to discover the boundaries of boundless space, let them seek to know the object of their present existence, and how to apply, in the most profitable manner for their mutual good and salvation, the intelligence they possess. Let them seek to know and thoroughly understand things within their reach, and to make themselves well acquainted with the object of their being here, by diligently seeking unto a super-power for information and by the careful study of the best books.[31]

Again, the scriptures aren’t there to tell us how the heavens go as much as to tell us how to go to heaven and when we speculate on how the heavens go, it must be done so with the realization that such speculation is tentative.

Brigham Young

Brigham Young

To pull it all back together, prophets, apostles, and other general authorities are not perfect beings and may at times make imperfect statements. The most important weighing of statements is a spiritual confirmation through the Holy Ghost. Other aspects may be weighed as well, including the authority of the pronouncement (in publication and pronouncer), how recently it was stated, how consistently the doctrine has been taught (evaluating frequency, number of people teaching the doctrine, whether it is contradicted, and whether it is consistent with rational thought and human experience), and whether it directly affects our mortal experience. We cannot know for certainty what comes from God, but hopefully, these principles are helpful in deciding what is likely to have come from God. As a closing note to this section, Elder B.H. Roberts once wrote:

As to the matter of attaining certainty in human affairs, that is not to be expected. Is it indeed desirable? “Know ye not that we walk by faith and not by sight,” is the language of Paul to the Saints in his day. By which token I infer that we are placed in this earth-probation to pass through just such experiences as those to which we seem born heirs. Is it not in part the meaning of life that we are here under just such conditions as prevail, in order that we may learn the value of better things? Is not this very doubt of ours concerning the finality of things—finality which ever seems to elude our grasp—the means of our education? What mere automatons would we become, if we found truth machine-made and limited, that is to say, finite, instead of being, as we now find it, infinite and elusive, and attainable only as we beat it out on the anvil of our own experiences? Yet so far as men may be furnished with the means of attaining to certainty concerning the class of things of which we are speaking, the Saints of God are supplied with that means. Their obedience to the gospel brings to them the possession of the Holy Ghost, and it is ”Mormon” doctrine that “by the power of the Holy Ghost we may know the truth of all things.” (Moroni). This spirit takes of the things of God and makes them known to men.… But even with the possession of this Spirit to guide us into all truth, I pray you, nevertheless, not to look for finality in things, for you will look in vain. Intelligence, purity, truth, will always remain with us relative terms and also relative qualities. Ascend to what heights you may, ever beyond you will see other heights in respect of these thing?; and ever as you ascend, more heights will appear, and it is doubtful if we shall ever attain the absolute in respect of these qualities. Our joy will be the joy of approximating them, of attaining unto ever-increasing excellence, without attaining the absolute. It will be the joy of eternal progress.[32]

Come unto Christ Moment


            I have already gone on too long, however, I feel that adding the “Come unto Christ Moment” of the lesson is important, so I will cover it briefly. Joseph Fielding Smith and the curriculum committee provide a ready-made moment in the text of the manual in section 2, where it reads that:

This is the law to members of the Church, in the words of the Savior: “He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me. . . .” (John 14:21.) Again, the Savior said: “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” (John 14:15.) . . .

The Savior never committed any sin nor carried any troubled conscience. He was not under the necessity of repenting as you and I are; but in some way that I cannot understand, he carried the weight of my transgressions and yours. . . . He came and offered himself as a sacrifice to pay the debt for each of us who is willing to repent of his sins and return to him and keep his commandments. Think of it, if you can. The Savior carried that burden in some way beyond our comprehension. I know that, because I accept his word. He tells us of the torment he went through; the torment was so great that he pled with his Father that if it were possible he might not drink the bitter cup and shrink: “. . . nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.” (Luke 22:42.) The answer he got from his Father was, “You have to drink it.”

Can I help loving him? No, I cannot. Do you love him? Then keep his commandments.[33]

In this statement, Joseph Fielding Smith expresses a bit of the moral theory of the Atonement—one of the four primary ways the Atonement has been understood in the history of Christianity—in the context of some of the other, legalistic theories of the Atonement. In way of explanation of this theory of the Atonement, I turn to Mormon intellectual Sterling McMurrin, who wrote the following:

[Mormonism] exhibits especially the moralistic interpretation of the atonement that became a hallmark of nineteenth-century liberalism and was a continuation of the heretical doctrine of Abelard in the twelfth century. Abelard had denied the entire substitution-ransom-satisfaction framework and held simply that Christ’s voluntary sacrifice moves sinful man to a consciousness of guilt and so to repentance and a moral change of life. “I think therefore,” he said in a statement condemned in 1141 by the Council of Sens, “that the purpose and cause of the Incarnation was that He might illuminate the world by His wisdom and excite it to the love of Himself.”

The moral impact of Christ’s sacrifice upon the sinner had always been an important factor in the doctrine of the atonement, although never before Abelard had it been made central, even though there was scriptural backing for such an interpretation.… Not until the nineteenth century did Abelard’s heresy produce its full impact. The idea that God’s forgiveness is possible only because man, moved by the sacrifice of Christ, repents and overcomes his sin and thereby eliminates the demand for punishment become then a somewhat common element of dissident and liberal theology.[34]

Michelangelo's Pieta

Michelangelo’s Pieta

While Mormon theology does not generally reject the entire substitution-ransom-satisfaction framework of the Atonement (I apologize for not explaining those theories in this setting), we see the idea that Christ’s sacrifice moves us to repent and overcome sin in President Smith’s statement above, emphasized in the concluding remark that, “Can I help loving him? No, I cannot. Do you love him? Then keep his commandments.” For years, I have found the echoes of this in the following sonnet that Miguel de Guevara wrote both inspiring and thought-provoking:

I am not moved to love thee, my Lord God,

by the heaven thou hast promised me;

I am not moved by the sore dreaded hell

to forbear me from offending thee.

I am moved by thee, Lord; I am moved

at seeing thee nailed upon the cross and mocked;

I am moved by thy body all over wounds;

I am moved by thy dishonor and thy death.

I am moved, last, by thy love, in such a wise

that though there were no heaven I still should love thee,

and though there were no hell I still should fear thee.

I need no gift of thee to make me love thee;

for though my present hope were all despair,

as now I love thee I should love thee still.[35]

The love of Christ, especially as shown in laying down his life for us, should move us to honor and obey him.


[1] Lorenzo Snow, Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Lorenzo Snow (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2012), 84.

[2] Cited in Givens, Terryl; Fiona Givens (2012-10-01). The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life (Kindle Locations 311-315). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition.

[3] DHC 2:11-12.

[4] Joseph Smith, Jr., Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2007), 210.

[5] The Gospel: An Exposition of its first principles; and Man’s Relationship to Deity (3rd ed.; Salt Lake City: Desert News, 1901), 208.

[6] B.H. Roberts, CR, April 1905, 45.

[7] B.H. Roberts, “Brigham Young: A Character Sketch,” Improvement Era, June 1903, 574.

[8] Dallin H. Oaks, “The Challenge to Become,” CR October 2000.

[9] Givens, Terryl; Fiona Givens (2012-10-01). The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life (Kindle Locations 1374-1378). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition.

[10] Bonnie D. Parkin, “With Holiness of Heart,” Ensign, Nov. 2002, 103.

[11] Jeffrey R. Holland, “An Ensign to the Nations,” CR April 2011.

[12] Joseph Fielding Smith, Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), 233

[13] “Excerpts from Three Addresses by President Wilford Woodruff Regarding the Manifesto,” Official Declaration 1, Doctrine and Covenants.

[14] David O. McKay, in CR, April 1907, 11-12.

[15] Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 608.

[16] Clark, J. Reuben. “When Are the Writings or Sermons of Church Leaders Entitled to the Claim of Scripture?” in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought Vol. 12, No. 2 (1978): 73.

[17] “Race and the Priesthood.” topics, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Web. Accessed 15 January 2014.

[18] Clark, “When are the Writings,” 75.

[19] Brigham Young, JD 9:150

[20] Clark, “When are the Writings,”72.

[21] Hugh B. Brown and Edwin B. Firmage (ed.), An Abundant Life, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1999),  123-125.

[22] Robert L. Millet, “What is Our Doctrine?” The Religious Educator, 4, no. 3 (2003): 19.

[23] Brigham Young, JD 2:314

[24] Millet, “What is Our Doctrine,” 19, 23.

[25] Joseph Fielding McConkie, “The Gathering of Israel and the Return of Christ,” the Sixth Annual Church Educational System Religious Educators’ Symposium, August 1982, Brigham Young University, typescript, 3, 5.

[26] Neil L. Anderson, “Trial of Your Faith,” CR October 2012.

[27] Spencer W. Kimball, “Our Own Lianhona,” General Conference Report, October 1976.

[28] Orson Pratt, JD, 7:157.

[29] “A Conversation with Gordon B. Hinkcley, President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, CNN Larry King Live, 26 Dec 2004.

[30] Brigham Young, Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1997), 23.

[31] Young, Teachings of the Presidents, 31.

[32] B.H. Roberts, “Relation of Inspiration and Revelation to Church Government,” IE 8 (March 1905): 365-369.

[33] Joseph Fielding Smith, Teachings of the Presidents, 231-232.

[34] Sterling McMurrin, The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1965), 89.

[35] Miguel de Guevara, “I am not moved to love thee, my Lord God,” in Mexican Poetry: An Anthology, Octavio Paz, comp., Samuel Beckett, trans. (New York: Grove Press, 1985), 61-62.

Joseph Fielding Smith, Ch 17: Sealing Power and Temple Blessings

I’m experimenting with different ways to present resources for class discussions on this blog, so most of these blog posts will probably come out different in form, though content will ultimately be similar.

Temples are very important to me, and I am excited to teach about Sealing Power and Temple Blessings (lesson 17, Joseph Fielding Smith manual). The timing of this lesson for us—the week before the Ogden Temple rededication—adds interest to the lesson as well. Speaking of which, I recently attended my parents’ ward in the suburbs of Ogden and a sister in their ward bore her testimony of temple work. She shared that at a meeting for people involved in the temple open house she was told that the goal for the Ogden Temple is for it to be a self-sufficient temple. By that, she explained, they hope that Ogden Temple district members will provide all the names that ordinance work will be performed for in the temple once it is operational. While probably not realistic, the goal is impressive. The sister also shared that when she first heard this, she said, “Well, I guess I’m not going to be attending the Ogden Temple because all my family work is already done.” Another ward member showed her how to do “cousin lines”—researching descendants of direct ancestors rather than just direct ancestors—and she has had tremendous success in finding names to use. My wife has picked up on this cue and has been doing similar work on her ancestry with good results.

The newly renovated Ogden Temple.

The newly renovated Ogden Temple.

As I mentioned, though the goal of a self-sufficient temple is probably not realistic, it is inspiring, and I want my ward to catch some of the spirit of that idea, even though we’re in a neighboring (Logan) temple district. Since most of Utah (at least Northern Utah) will have their church services taken over by the Ogden Temple Dedication on the 21 of September, Joseph Fielding Smith’s quote from the original Ogden Temple Dedication in the manual is particularly suited to the situation: “May I remind you that when we dedicate a house to the Lord, what we really do is dedicate ourselves to the Lord’s service, with a covenant that we shall use the house in the way he intends that it shall be used.”[1] My goal for the lesson is to motivate quorum members to dedicate themselves to hastening the work of salvation for the dead in all aspects of that work.

The Manual

There are six sections in the lesson manual chapter, covering about 10 pages. The historical introduction focused on President Smith explaining the Spirit of Elijah to a non-member with a short conclusion of quotes about the importance of temple work. Section one explains the role of Elijah in restoring the sealing power and some discussion of the sealing power. Section two underscores the necessity of temple work in preparing the world for the Second Coming of Christ. Section 3 teaches that temple ordinances are necessary for salvation in the highest degree of the Celestial Kingdom. Section 4 outlines the doctrines behind proxy work for the dead. Section 5 extols temple service as selfless and wonderful. Section 6 discusses the work of welding families together for eternity that occurs in the temple.

For my purposes, I have chosen to emphasize four themes in my lesson:

  1. Temple work has hastened and grown line-upon line since it was introduced to today.
  2. Understanding the role of Elijah and the Sealing Power.
  3. It is necessary to weld families together in the eternal scheme of things.
  4. By serving in the temple we become more like Christ.

Other teachers may approach it differently according to their styles and the needs of the quorum or class, however, this is how I’ve felt to prepare the lesson based on the manual.

Extra-Manual Resources and Quotes

While the lesson should primarily be drawn from the manual (and I would encourage teachers to focus on preparing the lesson mostly from there before adding additional resources such as those presented here), there is a plethora of conference talks and Church magazine articles that can be used to supplement the lesson. In many of these, the emphasis has been on Church members extracting their own names and attending the temple—particularly the youth of the Church. The four most important examples to my preparation were three conference talks and a First Presidency Letter given over the last five years:

David A. Bednar: “The Hearts of the Children Shall Turn,” CR, October 2011. This talk was useful in explaining the role of Elijah and the Spirit of Elijah in the work for the dead. In fact, I actually plan to use about 5 minutes of this talk instead of the first section of the chapter in the manual.

Richard G. Scott, “The Joy of Redeeming the Dead,” CR, October 2012. Particularly important to me was his statement that, “Temple and family history work is one work divided into two parts. They are connected together like the ordinances of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost.”

Quentin L. Cook, “Roots and Branches,” CR, April 2014. Again, the emphasis that stood out to me is that, “The doctrine of the family in relation to family history and temple work is clear. The Lord in initial revelatory instructions referred to ‘baptism for your dead.’ Our doctrinal obligation is to our own ancestors. This is because the celestial organization of heaven is based on families.” But his statement that, “What a great time to be alive. This is the last dispensation, and we can feel the hastening of the work of salvation in every area where a saving ordinance is involved,” will serve as a sort of theme for the lesson.

The following First Presidency Letter also formed an important part of the lesson, emphasizing the importance of bringing your own names to the temple, but also just going to do work if you cannot:

1st Pres letter

It is also notable that Dr. Terryl Givens has a few essays up on his website about temple work that may be appropriate. I primarily looked at his essay, “The Heavenly Logic of Proxy Baptism.” Since the lesson I have planned is already too full of extra sources, the only quote that I may use is the following:

Jewish tradition, full of anticipation and yearning, weaves this interpretation [of Elijah’s return]: At the coming of the great judgment day, “the children . . . who had to die in infancy will be found among the just, while their fathers will be ranged on the other side. The babes will implore their fathers to come to them, but God will not permit it. Then Elijah will go to the little ones, and teach them how to plead in behalf of their fathers. They will stand before God and say, ‘Is not the measure of good, the mercy of God, larger than the measure of chastisements? . . . [May they] be permitted to join us in Paradise?’ God will give assent to their pleadings, and Elijah will have fulfilled the word of the prophet Malachi; he will have brought back the fathers to the children.

Another excellent resource I recently got my hands on is Trina Boice’s Ready Resource for Relief Society: Joseph Fielding Smith. The book provides a summary of each lesson, suggestions for hymns, talks and articles from general conference and Church publications as well as quotes to supplement the lesson, and object lessons, videos from, etc. that can be used in the lesson. An object lesson she suggests for this lesson that I intend to use to start the lesson is as follows:

Have a talent contest to see who can comb their hair without bending their elbows or talk on a cell phone without touching it? Ask two sisters [or brothers] to eat a candy bar without bending their elbows. What’s the punch line? It can’t be done, unless they help each other. Our ancestors need us as much as we needed them. Together, we save each other.[2]

A Deeper Look

In each lesson I prepare (and for the sake of this blog) I like to take a deeper look at one or more topics presented in the lesson, particularly doctrinal or historical issues of interest. In the case of this lesson, there are two points I wanted to investigate.

The first point is the hastening of temple work during Joseph Fielding Smith’s lifetime. Time will not allow an in-depth look either here or in class, so a short summary will have to do. During Joseph Fielding Smith’s lifetime, temple work took on the shape and form that we recognize today. He even had a role in shaping that process at a few points. As per his philosophy on temple work, he declared at the corner stone ceremony of the Ogden Temple that, “Temple building and temple ordinances are at the very heart of our religion…. There is no more glorious work than the perfecting of family units through the ordinances of the house of the Lord.”[3]

President Smith liked to joke that “his first Church assignment came when he was a baby. When he was nine months old, he and his father, President Joseph F. Smith, accompanied President Brigham Young to St. George, Utah, to attend the dedication of the St. George Temple.”[4] The dedication of the St. George Temple and the years immediately surrounding that event constitute one of the most important turning points for temple work in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. According to the excellent work of historian Richard E. Bennett, there were at least four reasons that this was so.

St. George Temple while still under construction

St. George Temple while still under construction

First, with the completion of the St. George Temple the Latter-day Saints had a temple to perform temple work in for the first time since the Nauvoo Temple. Temple work that had occurred since the Saints left Nauvoo took place in a variety of places, including Willard Richard’s Octagon House in Winter Quarters, at least once on Ensign Peak above Salt Lake City, in the Salt Lake City Council House, and mostly in the Temple Pro Tempore known as the Endowment House. In the St. George Temple, however, the Saints had the chance to reengage in temple work on a full scale and to develop temple worship more fully under the Wilford Woodruff’s tutelage as temple president.

While temple work for the living and baptisms for the dead were performed in the various places listed above prior to the St. George Temple’s completion, endowments for the dead were not. Although both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were both aware that this ordinance was necessary for salvation and that it would one day be performed by proxy for the dead, the Saints had to rush in Nauvoo to perform ordinances for the living—leaving little time to perform higher ordinances for the dead—and after Nauvoo, Brigham Young consistently expressed that the performance of endowments for the dead was reserved for an actual temple. Once the St. George Temple was operational, endowments for the dead began. This gave Latter-day Saints more to do when they came to the temple, a constant chance to review the endowment ceremony, and a need to return again and again to do proxy work.

The third thing that resulted in an increase of temple consciousness during Joseph Fielding Smith’s childhood was the construction of three other temples strategically located in Logan, Manti, and Salt Lake City. Most of the early Utah temples took less than ten years to build, but the monumental Salt Lake Temple—the temple closest to President Smith’s childhood home—took forty years to build, being completed in 1893 when Joseph was 17 years old. He later recalled that, “I used to wonder whether I would ever live long enough to see the [Salt Lake City] temple completed.”[5] The sacrifices in both time and resources that the Saints made to build these temples functioned to keep temples constantly on their minds and to raise expectations of blessings reaped from their sacrifices. And, with the completion of each temple, another region of Mormon settlements was given access to the opportunity to perform temple rites on a more consistent basis.

Mormonism's Pioneer Temples

Mormonism’s Pioneer Temples

The fourth and final reason for the rising temple consciousness among the Latter-day Saints in the late nineteenth century was the canonization of Doctrine and Covenants Section 110 in 1880. This section is a record of the visit of various angels, including Elijah, to the Prophet Joseph Smith in the Kirtland Temple in April 1836 and presented various priesthood keys to the Prophet. Prior to the 1880s, the section was little known—Joseph recorded the visit in his journal around the time he claimed that it happened, but we have no record of the Prophet sharing the vision in public during his lifetime. The journal entry was printed once in the Deseret News in 1852, but was not included in the Doctrine and Covenants until the 1876 edition, prepared by Elder Orson Pratt. After it was included in the Latter-day Saint scripture, this document became the doctrinal and historical cornerstone for discussion of the restoration of the sealing power and the role of Elijah in temple work, as can be seen in the historical introduction and 1st section of this lesson in Joseph Fielding Smith manual.[6]

The next shift in LDS temple theology occurred when Joseph Fielding Smith was a teenager. Prior to the 1890s, for a variety of salvation and dynastic-related reasons, Latter-day Saints were often sealed to (adopted by) priesthood leaders, especially Brigham Young and Joseph Smith. In 1894, however, President Wilford Woodruff declared that the Lord wanted “the Latter-day Saints from this time to trace their genealogies as far as they can, and to be sealed to their fathers and mothers. Have children sealed to their parents, and run this chain through as far as you can get it.”[7] After this proclamation, the Utah Genealogical Society was formed to provide support for temple work by assisting Latter-day Saints in genealogical research so they could be linked to their ancestors. During the 20th century, Joseph Fielding Smith became a “principle force behind the society” and helped the organization’s growth and efficiency by studying the libraries and programs of the eastern United States in 1909 and introducing improved methods of filing and record keeping to the Utah society during a time of great expansion in genealogical and temple work. He went on to serve as president of the society 1934-1961.[8]

Joseph Fielding Smith at work in some archives.

Joseph Fielding Smith at work in some archives.

Once Joseph Fielding Smith was called as an apostle in 1910, he served in other positions that related to temple work. While serving as a de facto secretary to his father, President Joseph F. Smith, in 1918 Joseph Fielding Smith recorded his father’s vision of redemption of the dead, now D&C 138. He also served as a counselor in the Salt Lake Temple Presidency 1919-1935 and as president of the temple 1945-1949. During the era President Smith served as an apostle and as president of the Church, the rapid expansion of temple work initiated by the St. George Temple’s completion continued, even when measured on a per-member basis (see the figure below). As Elder John A. Widtsoe noted in 1921:

There is at present an unusual increased interest in temple activity… [and] the number of temples is also increasing. The Hawaiian temple has only recently been dedicated; the Canadian temple is being rushed to completion, the Arizona temple is being planned, and numerous communities in the Church are anxiously waiting and praying for the time that they may have temples.[9]

Chart of the number of endowment ceremonies performed per member over the course of a number of years. Image taken from David John Buerger, "The Development of the Mormon Temple Endowment Ceremony," Dialogue: A  Journal of Mormon Thought, 20, No. 4, 65.

Chart of the number of endowment ceremonies performed per member over the course of a number of years.
Image taken from David John Buerger, “The Development of the Mormon Temple Endowment Ceremony,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 20, No. 4, 65.

Partially in response to this growth, the endowment ceremony was codified and reduced in length during the 1920s. While the core spiritual truths, covenants, and ritual aspects of the ceremony have been retained, the endowment ceremony (the means of carrying those core components of the ordinance to the Saints) has changed and been refined to fit the needs of the Saints under the direction of the leading councils of the Church from time to time. In this case, the process took place over the course of about eight years under the direction Salt Lake Temple Presidents and apostles Anthon H. Lund (1919-1921) and George F. Richards (1921-1927). Joseph Fielding Smith sat on the counsel that performed this work, along with David O. McKay, Stephen L Richards, John A. Widtsoe, and later James E. Talmage.[10]

As president of the Church in the early 1970s, Joseph Fielding Smith directed the completion and dedication of the next two temples to be constructed in Utah, and the most efficient temples constructed to date—the Ogden and Provo temples. Thus, Joseph Fielding Smith witnessed and participated in the hastening of temple work throughout his lifetime. If other instructors would like to present this info, I would suggest tying it into the lesson by asking how temple and family history work have been hastened in the class members’ lifetimes.

Come unto Christ Moment

Since a major purpose of the Church is to invite others to come unto Christ, with each lesson, I like to at least plan a portion focused on coming unto Christ or at least speaking of Christ. In this lesson, there are two potential routes I have been considering focusing on—first, the nature of the sealing power and second, the idea of becoming saviors on Mt. Zion.

As for the sealing power and authority, we use the term sealing in a variety of ways in the Church today. It is, however, useful to understand how the terms developed to understand what they mean more fully. In Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary (removing all references to the mammal known as a seal), a seal is:

A piece of metal or other hard substance, usually round or oval, on which is ingraved some image or device, and sometimes a legend or inscription. This is used by individuals, corporate bodies and states, for making impressions on wax upon instruments of writing, as an evidence of their authenticity. The king of England has his seal and his privy seal. Seals are sometimes worn in rings.

Those familiar with movies may recognize the idea of a seal from the ring the Scarlett Pimpernel wears, the wax stamp the Phantom of the Opera uses to mark his letters, or the wax seal on the back of the letters Harry Potter receives from Hogwarts as seals in this sense, officially marking the letters that are thus sealed as authentic within those stories. Likewise, the seal of the United States may be seen on a dollar bill, marking it as authentic. Signatures are used more often today to authenticate documents in the US, but the idea is similar.

The Scarlet Pimpernel

The Scarlet Pimpernel

The Scarlet Pimpernel's Seal

The Scarlet Pimpernel’s Seal

Continuing the thought, sealed is defined in the 1828 dictionary as “furnished with a seal; fastened with a seal; confirmed closed,” and sealing is “fixing a seal; fastening with a seal; confirming; closing; keeping secret; fixing a piece of wood or iron in a wall with cement.” Here we see two different ideas of sealing—closing off as well as fixing a seal on something to authenticate it, both of which will come into play in Mormon parlance. Finally, a sealer is “one who seals; an officer in chancery who seals writs and instruments.” This idea of a sealer can be seen in the story of Joseph of Egypt—when he placed as second in command to Pharaoh, as part of the process, “Pharaoh took off his ring from his hand, and put it upon Joseph’s hand.” [11] This ring was a signet ring—a finger ring in which was set a stamp seal. By receiving Pharaoh’s signet ring, Joseph was made vizier and seal-bearer of Egypt. A seal bearer in this regard would have authority to act in the place of pharaoh (unless the pharaoh overruled the vizier) and use the pharaoh’s seal to validate things.

In this regard, we see the two basic definitions of sealing being used in Mormonism and gradually developing in their use from these along a few lines. During Joseph Smith’s lifetime we see the following uses of the term sealing occur within Mormonism:

  1. Certifying or validating, as in placing a seal of approval on a teaching or ordinance. Most common was validating or certifying an ordinance, particularly a blessing (especially a Patriarchal Blessing) or ordination to the priesthood, quite often in a second blessing or at the end of the blessing (i.e., “I seal your former ordination and blessings.”)
  2. To hide or to remove from access, such as Joseph being told that, “I have given unto him the keys of the mystery of those things which have been sealed” (D&C 35:18), or the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon.
  3. Sealing up individuals unto eternal life, indicating the assurance that God accepted the recipient and guaranteed eternal life. We see in the Doctrine and Covenants a few examples of this use, including the following: “To them [the elders] is power given, to seal both on earth and in heaven, the unbelieving and rebellious; yea, verily, to seal them up unto the day when the wrath of God shall be poured out upon the wicked” (D&C 1:8-9).
  4. Occasionally people were sealed against the effects of evil in blessings (“I seal you against the power of Satan,” or something along those lines.)
  5. The linking of one person to another such that a familial relationship was assured not only in this life but after the resurrection. Initially, it was the ordinance or marriage that was sealed, or validated, not the people to each other as the term is often used today, though that use of the term did develop fairly quickly.[12]

With all this in mind, the following definition of the sealing power, given by Bruce R. McConkie, becomes more understandable: “This sealing power, restored in this dispensation by Elijah the Prophet is the means whereby ‘All covenants, contracts, bonds, obligations, oaths, vows, performances, connections, associations, or expectations’ attain ‘efficacy, virtue, or force in and after the resurrection from the dead’ (D&C 132:7),”[13] meaning that the sealing power is the authority to validate ordinances eternally. It is God’s authority (which is why this can be used as a come to Christ opportunity) given to man to validate things as if God himself performed the ordinances in the temple, hence it being referred to as the fulness of the priesthood. Since Christ is part of that chain of authority, it is through Christ’s authority that temple work is done. It is His atonement that ransoms us, and He has set the path to the Celestial Kingdom, including the temple ordinances. Further, He has set things in order and given authorization so that we can stand in for those in need of these saving ordinances.

As for the idea becoming saviors on Mt. Zion, Joseph Fielding Smith taught that:

The turning of the hearts of fathers to children and of children to fathers, is the power of salvation for the dead, by means of the vicarious work which the children may perform for their fathers, and is in every sense reasonable and consistent. I have heard it said many times by those who oppose this work that it is impossible for one person to stand vicariously for another. Those who express themselves in this way overlook the fact that the entire work of sal­vation is a vicarious work, Jesus Christ standing as the propitiator, redeeming us from death, for which we were not responsible, and also redeeming us from the responsibility of our own sins, on con­dition of our repentance and acceptance of the gospel. He has done this on a grand infinite scale and by the same principle he has del­egated authority to the members of his Church to act for the dead who are helpless to perform the saving ordinances for themselves.[14]

In this way, we serve as saviors to those we perform temple work for, receiving authority from Christ to stand in by proxy for them in saving ordinances they can no longer perform. We see both the idea of sealing described above here, but we also see that we are given a chance to act as the Savoir would act and become like him by working to save the dead. President Smith also felt that this work purifies those who participate, causing them to take on a more Christ-like nature in general. He taught:

There is no work connected with the gospel that is of a more un­selfish nature than the work in the House of the Lord, for our dead. Those who work for the dead do not expect to receive any earthly remuneration or reward. It is, above all, a work of love, which is begotten in the heart of man through faithful and constant labor in these saving ordinances. There are no financial returns, but there shall be great joy in heaven with those souls whom we have helped to their salvation. It is a work that enlarges the soul of man, broad­ens his views regarding the welfare of his fellowman, and plants in his heart a love for all the children of our Heavenly Father. There is no work equal to that in the temple for the dead in teaching a man to love his neighbor as himself. Jesus so loved the world that he was willing to offer himself as a sacrifice for sin that the world might be saved. We also have the privilege, in a small degree, of showing our great love for Him and our fellow beings by helping them to the blessings of the gospel which now they cannot receive without our assistance.[15]


Hopefully something from this will be of use to those preparing lessons in the upcoming weeks. Always remember that the spiritual feeding of the flock is the most important function of teaching in church settings, not the presentation of information or text. Good luck and God bless.

The Salt Lake City Temple

The Salt Lake City Temple

[1] Joseph Fielding Smith, Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2013), 217.

[2] Boice, Trina (2013-11-13). The Ready Resource for Relief Society Teaching: Joseph Fielding Smith (Kindle Locations 1985-1987). Cedar Fort, Inc.. Kindle Edition

[3] Ogden Cornerstone Laying Report, Journal History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 September 1970, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, UT.

[4] Smith, Teachings of Presidents, 117.

[5] Smith, Teachings of the Presidents, 5.

[6] See Richard E. Bennett, “‘Which is the Wisest Course?’ The Transformation in Mormon Temple Consciousness, 1870-1898,” BYU Studies Quarterly, 52, no. 2 (2013).

[7] Wilford Woodruff, Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Wilford Woodruff (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2004), 174.

[8] Thomas G. Alexander, Mormonism in Transition, 3rd ed. (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2012), 313-315.

[9] John A. Widtsoe, “Temple Worship,” The Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine, Vol. XII, 1921, 50.

[10] David John Buerger, The Mysteries of Godliness: A History of Mormon Temple Worship, (Salt Lake City: Smith Research Associates, 1994),  136.

[11] See Genesis 41:39-43.

[12] See Gregory A. Prince, Power from on High: The Development of Mormon Priesthood (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1995), 155-172.

[13] Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed. [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966], 683.

[14] Smith, Teachings of the Presidents, 222

[15] Smith, Teachings of Presidents, 223-224, emphasis added.