(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here) Remember the Lectures on Faith sections in the Mormon scripture, “Doctrine and Covenants?” No? But they were there for 86 years? I’m reading an 1918 “Doctrine and Covenants” and sure enough, there’s Lectures on Faith.” What about “Section 101″ in early D&C editions, the “Article on Marriage” that says men and women should only have one spouse? No, haven’t heard of that one either? It was eventually deleted by church leaders and replaced by Section 132, which details celestial marriage and having multiple wives. Decanonization of scripture is not talked about much in the LDS church, and it’s certainly far less frequent than examples of added scripture in Mormon canon, but it does happen.
In the fall 1987 issue of “Dialogue,” historians Richard S. Van Wagoner, Steven C. Walker and Allen D. Roberts explore “The ‘Lectures on Faith’: A Case Study in Decanonization.” (Read) The lectures, comprised of seven chapters and totaling 70-plus pages, were part of the “School of the Elders” that Joseph Smith had in Kirtland, Ohio. Most scholars believe church leader Sidney Rigdon wrote most of them, with Smith and another leader, W.W. Phelps, writing one each. According to the Dialogue article, Smith “accepted responsibility for ‘every principle advanced.’” However, in 1921, via a committee of church leaders, the Lectures on Faith were deleted from the D&C. The explanation given, the Dialogue authors explain, underscores the LDS Church’s muddled explanations for why canon is deleted. The committee wrote, “… Those lessons were prepared for use in the School of Elders … but they were never presented nor accepted by the Church as being otherwise than theological lectures or lessons.“
Related to this issue is confusion from LDS authorities over what constitutes revelations. In testimony before a court and later before Congress, church presidents Wilford Woodruff and Joseph F. Smith stated that church members have the right to reject revelation and that true revelation needs to be accepted by the church. It’s likely those statements were part of efforts to avoid secular pressure on the LDS faith, which was dealing with the unpopularity of polygamy. Most other church leaders, including George Q. Cannon and Bruce R. McConkie, strongly reject the idea that a prophet’s revelations from God need to be approved by members. Even the D&C has conflicting advice on revelations. As the Dialogue article points out, Section 68:4 seems to indicate that once a prophet declares revelation, it is revelation. However, Section: 28:13 says that common consent is needed for church doctrine. (On a personal note, I’ve always been taught that when the LDS prophet claims revelation, debate ends.)
One reason the Lectures on Faith may have been decanonized, the Dialogue authors posit, is that its teaching as to the character of Heavenly Father — as taught by Smith in the 1830s — differ from later teachings. As the Dialogue authors explain, the Lectures on Faith read, “There are two personages who constitute the great matchless, governing and supreme power over all things, by whom all things were created, and made. … They are the Father and the Son — the Father being a personage of spirit, glory, and power … the son … a personage of tabernacle, made or fashioned like unto man.”
What the Lectures on Faith and its subsequent decanonization teach observers is that Mormon doctrine was in a constant evolution in the 1830s. It was not until 1841, more than a score of years after the First Vision, that Smith taught that God had a body of flesh and bone. This doctrine would later be expanded in Smith’s 1844 King Follett sermon, where, the authors point out, Smith taught: “God, who sits enthroned in yonder heavens is a man like unto one of yourselves,” and “You have got to learn how to be Gods yourself.”
Perhaps the most important thing to learn from the Lectures on Faith’s history, as well as the deletion of “Section 101″ of the early D&C, is that Joseph Smith’s understanding of the doctrine of the church he started grew over time. Yet, the majority of Latter-day Saints today, as the Dialogue authors concede, are quite unaware of these evolutionary changes.
As for the Lectures on Faith, while obscure today, are considered of value by the LDS Church and easily accessible to buy or read for free on the Internet. They are also available on the church’s website (click).