What is Official Mormon Doctrine?
What’s Official, And What Isn’t?
Copyright 2010, Donald L. Ashton
The 14 million members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day
Saints are spread across 160 countries on 6 continents. Yet there is a
remarkable consistency in beliefs, attitudes, teachings and practices
among Mormons everywhere. A traveler visiting congregations throughout
the world will find familiar curricula materials, beliefs, and
attitudes on most every religious topic.
Yet Mormonism is not dogmatic. There is no creed or statement of core
beliefs which adherents are obliged to accept. Both members
and leaders alike hold varying opinions ranging from whether watching
TV on Sunday is sinful, to whether every statement by a General
Authority must be explicitly and unconditionally obeyed.
Such questions may be insignificant or disquieting. If a person is
struggling with faith issues, it may become important to distinguish
between Official Doctrine and less authoritative council. A
clear understanding of Official Doctrine can reduce controversy,
minimize anxiety and perhaps open up new options for resolving faith
issues. This essay attempts to evaluate the authoritativeness of
council ranging from canonized scripture to conventional wisdom.
What Is Official
Doctrine, and How Is It Established?
One of the best-kept secrets in Mormondom is “What is Official
Doctrine, and how is it established.” Church leaders seldom discuss the process, because Official Doctrine is
rarely introduced. Yet Church history reveals a clearly established
procedure that has been carefully followed for over 180 years.
D&C 28:13 explains “all things must be done in order, and by
common consent in the church, by the prayer of faith." Since
the Church was founded in 1830, new doctrine has been accepted six
times. On every occasion, a three-step process was followed to add
Official Doctrine: It requires the approval of the First
Presidency, the concurrence of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, and then
it must be accepted in a sustaining vote of the entire membership.
Only then is it binding on the membership of the Church. The change
will then be made to the body of accepted (canonized) scriptures. Those
Also, in 1921 the Church removed the Lectures on Faith from the
Doctrine and Covenants, with the explanation that they were never
presented to the Church as being divinely revealed scripture.
As lectures and lessons, it was determined that they simply did not
measure up to standard of Official
- 1830, Bible and Book of Mormon were officially accepted with
the organization of the Church
- 1835, Doctrine and Covenants, first 103 sections were
- 1880, Doctrine and Covenants additional 32 sections were
accepted along with the Pearl of Great Price
- 1890, Polygamy was repealed (Official Declaration,
- 1976, D&C sections 137 & 138 were
- 1978, The priesthood was made available to all
worthy males regardless of race (Official Declaration 2, p. 292)
Elder B.H. Roberts explained what Official Doctrine is:
The Church has confined the
sources of doctrine
by which it is willing to be bound before the world to the things that
God has revealed, and which the Church has officially accepted, and
those alone. These would include the Bible, the Book of
Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price; these
have been repeatedly accepted and endorsed by the Church in general
conference assembled, and are the only sources of absolute appeal for
our doctrine.” 2
An example of this process was in 1880 when President George Q. Cannon
presented the Pearl of Great Price and 32 additional sections of the
Doctrine and Covenants;
I hold in my hand the Book of
Doctrine and Covenants, and also the book, The Pearl of Great Price,
which books contain revelations of God. In Kirtland, the Doctrine and
Covenants in its original form, as first printed, was submitted to the
officers of the Church and the members of the Church to vote upon.
As there have been additions made to it by the publishing of
revelations which were not contained in the original edition, it has
been deemed wise to submit these books with their contents to the
see whether the conference will vote to accept the books and their
contents as from God, and binding upon us as a people and as a Church.3
Mormons commonly assume official publications, policies, procedures,
pronouncements, and pontifications are Official Doctrine.
While they are necessary and important for the running of the Church,
they don’t meet the standard Elder Roberts described above as something
“…the Church is willing to be bound before the world to the things that
God has revealed, and which the Church has officially accepted.”
More recently (2007) the Church issued a press release defining
Official Doctrine as established by
“The First Presidency … and the
Quorum of the Twelve Apostles… counsel together to establish doctrine
that is consistently proclaimed in official Church publications. This
doctrine resides in the four “standard works” of scripture (the Holy
Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of
Great Price).” 4
This is a singular standard that the Church has held since its founding
for officially binding doctrine. Everything else is, by definition,
less official, less authoritative. President Harold B. Lee
“It is not to be thought that
every word spoken by the General Authorities is inspired, or that they
are moved upon by the Holy Ghost in everything they write. I don't care
what his position is, if he writes something or speaks something that
goes beyond anything that you can find in the standard church works.”
There are five items often assumed to be Official Doctrine, but fail
the above standard. They are
Following is a discussion of these five items plus a discussion of
Eternal Truth. Following that are some suggestions for how with the
Lord’s help we can responsibly comport our lives, being responsible for
our own feelings, thoughts and actions.
- Official talks and statements
- Official publications
- Official policy and procedure
- Books by General Authorities
- Conventional wisdom
Official Talks and
Statements by General Authorities
Are Not Official Doctrine
While many members say statements by the First Presidency and Quorum of
the Twelve Apostles are Official Doctrine, history shows GA’s
statements occasionally are not reliable.
Infallibility of prophets and apostles is not, nor has it ever been, a
doctrine of the Church. They are wise men, with many decades
of life experience, and enjoy a special relationship with God because
of their callings. While their guidance is quite valuable, God has not
absolved them from the weaknesses of mortality, nor does He eliminate
all errors in their understanding and judgment. They must be
tried and tested like everyone else, and they make mistakes both
trivial and sometimes tragic like everyone else.
- Several GA’s taught that polygamy is essential for
salvation and would never be removed from the Church. 6
- Brigham Young vigorously taught the Adam-God theory, though
Church leaders since have repeatedly disavowed it. 7
- Several GA’s from Brigham Young to Bruce R McConkie taught
the Blacks would never get the Priesthood. 8
- Joseph Fielding Smith said man would never set foot on the
- Apostle Franklin D. Richards promised the Martin and Wiley
handcart companies the Lord would protect them on their journey so they
would arrive unscathed. Nevertheless, 200+ died in route. 10
The fallibility of God’s leaders is not unique to the “latter
days.” The Old and New Testaments are replete with examples
of similar errors. Here are a few examples: 11
Prophets and apostles have never been perfect, nor have their
statements however strongly stated. That is not their calling, that is
not their role.
- Noah got drunk, ( Genesis 9:21 )
- Abraham lied, 9 Genesis 12:12-18 )
- Moses' was proud, ( Numbers 20:12 )
- Circumcision is an eternal covenant, ( Genesis 17:13 )
- Apostles’ lack of faith as Christ quiets the storm, ( Mark
- Peter denied Christ three times, ( Matthew 26:69-75 )
- Thomas refuses to believe Christ is resurrected until he
sees with his eyes and feels the wounds, ( John 20:24-29 )
- Millennium to come within “this generation”, ( Luke
21:24-27, 32 )
Their role is to teach of Christ, and to call people to repentance.
Are Not Official Doctrine
The Church publishes a variety of books, videos, magazines, etc. for
the religious instruction for its members. Instructional
manuals are prepared for seminary and institute classes, Sunday church
classes, missionary materials, and General Conference addresses, among
Since 1972, they have been prepared by the Church Correlation Committee
to insure consistency, simplicity and orthodoxy. The resulting
institutional mindset has devolved to the lowest common denominator.
The same lesson is presented to a sixth-generation Mormon living on
Bountiful East Bench who’s served a mission, been a Bishop, Stake
President, etc, as a new member in a brand new branch in Bangkok,
Thailand. The result is that profound spiritual principles are
homogenized and watered down.
Is Not Official Doctrine
Like any organization, the Church has a need to set policy so
consistency and direction can be established. Occasionally
these policies incorrectly take on the aura of Official Doctrine.
- The Family, Proclamation to the World is not official
doctrine because it has not been approved by the membership. But this
very formal statement on the family unequivocally states, “Marriage
between man and woman is essential to His eternal plan”. In the very
heated California Proposition 8 campaign in 2008 a sizable majority of
members followed the Church’s prompting to campaign against gay
marriage. The Church authorities censured no members who
opposed their stand against gay marriage. 12
- President McKay had a personal dislike for crucifixes and
directed the Church building committee to not use them, though they had
been used earlier. But once initiated in the Church Building
Committee, 50 years later, his personal preference has taken on a life
of its own. Some GA’s even speculate on theological reasons without
regard to its history. 13
- President Heber J. Grant, in 1921, made abstinence from the
four forbidden WofW items a requirement for a temple recommend. But
there is no claim to any revelation as a basis for the change. 14
- Temple Recommend questions are thought to be a constant
guide for the faithful, yet they change every few years. In
the 19th century, temple goers were asked if they maintained proper
fences to prevent their cows from wandering into a neighbor’s field. 15
- GA’s consistently taught that the Lamanites were the
primary ancestors of the American Indians. In 2007, the introduction to
the Book of Mormon changed to stating Lamanites were among the
ancestors of American Indians.
Books Written by General
Are Not Official Doctrine
Many books are written by the general authorities to help us understand
gospel principles and practices. They can be very helpful, but care
should be used with the usual caveat to distinguish between their
private opinions and teachings of the canonized scriptures. Elder Bruce
R. McConkie explained:
general authorities are authorities in the sense of having power to
administer church affairs, they
may or may not be authorities in the sense of doctrinal knowledge, the
intricacies of church Procedures, or the receipt of the promptings of
A call to an administrative position of itself
adds little knowledge or power of discernment to an individual,
although every person called to a position in the Church does
grow in grace, knowledge, and power by magnifying the calling given
Is Not Official Doctrine
There are lots of things many people erroneously believe are Official
Doctrine. Among them are:
Like the Pharisees and Sadducees of the Bible, some people are so
obsessive fulfilling the letter of the law that they forget the spirit
of the law. They teach the lesson, but ignore the student. They are so
busy with church work, that they have little time for their own
children. They are so set on arguing their religion that they alienate
people. In their zeal to be right, they fail to be good. We
must not let them draw us away from that which is good, true and
enduring in the gospel.
- To be a good member, you must be a Republican.
- Caffeinenated soft drinks, chocolate bars, etc. are
forbidden, along with coffee.
- GA’s will never lead you wrong. You will be perfectly safe
if you follow what they say.
- Temple garments will protect you from physical harm. You
will be safe from hazards like fire or chemical burns wherever and
whenever you are covered.
- Always trust Church leaders advice over such “worldly
types” like psychologists, social workers, philosophers, scientists of
various disciplines, and other intellectuals.
- If you go to church, say your prayers, pay your tithing,
accept church callings, the Lord will bless you so you will have no
Is Not Eternal Truth
Official Doctrine is not Eternal Truth, but only approximations of it.
We should not be surprised to see it change and develop as our
circumstances and capabilities change.
as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than
your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55: 9)
So the Lord must speak to our level of understanding and our
willingness to learn,
behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men
line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little;
and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear
unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that
receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have
enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have.” (2
Ne. 28: 30)
not write anything upon plates save it be that I think it be sacred.
And now, if I do err…I would excuse myself … because of the weakness
which is in me, according to the flesh.”( 1 Nephi 19: 6, 20 )
Learning Eternal Truths is an evolving process between man and God. As
the ninth Article of Faith says, “We believe all that God has revealed,
all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal
many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.”
He will reveal truths to us only when we are ready. God will
force no truths upon us. Nor should we ever try to pressure anyone to
accept our understanding of the Gospel. As a hymn “Every Soul Is Free”
this, that ev'ry soul is free
To choose his life and what he'll be;
For this eternal truth is giv'n:
That God will force no man to heav'n.
He'll call, persuade, direct aright,
And bless with wisdom, love, and light,
In nameless ways be good and kind,
But never force the human mind.” 17
We must all struggle with the limitations of human language as we try
to convey spiritual truths. That leads to a couple of
problems. First, spiritual truths are frequently subtle,
nuanced and simply cannot be expressed in human language. For
example, how would you convey an understanding of love to those who
have never experienced it? Likewise many spiritual truths can
only be understood when experienced through personal revelation.
Second, language presents a challenge in any large
organization. The Church has a set of policy, procedures,
pronouncements and pontifications which go out to 14 million members in
160 different countries. One size frequently must fit all.
Something inevitably gets lost in the translation even when everyone
For example, some years ago President Kimball encouraged members to
take pride in their homes and properties. He encouraged them
to paint their fences. Some people lost sight of the principle he was
encouraging, and got caught up in his example. I overheard a
sister overwrought that she had no fence to paint. She fretted about
the impossibility of being obedient.
For these and many other reasons, the “fullness of the everlasting
gospel” does not give us a perfect understanding of all eternal
truths. Individually and collectively we are left with the
responsibility to “work out our salvation with fear and
trembling.” Philippians 2:12 Finding
eternal truth is not easy. Our understanding of it will evolve and
develop over time, just as scientific truths evolve and change over
Also, this human and limited understanding should give us insight to
how speculation, particularly of the early Brethren, can result in
conclusions that sound to us absurd, like Adam-God theoryor the
teachings about Blood Atonement.
General Authorities validate scriptural truths, while the scriptures
validate GA’s statements. That is a chicken-and-an-egg
dilemma with no solution.
Any perceived inconsistency among the various voices in the Church can
and does cause discomfort for some. Mormonism values unity of faith and
a firm belief in the restoration of the one and only true Church of
Jesus Christ. What can we do when challenged by inconsistencies and/or
Much of the perceived inconsistencies can be resolved by understanding
that Church authorities have a unique stewardship. When they speak,
they are talking to 14 million members in 160 different
countries. As leaders of any large institution know, they
must speak with one voice to their followers. It is
impossible to address 14 million different personalities and
situations. That’s where personal responsibility and stewardship comes
It is up to us individually to tailor those messages to our own private
stewardships. Most of us have family, Church, career and perhaps
community responsibilities. We must translate those principles into
practice so that it works for ourselves and those we affect.
We must decide what applies and what doesn’t, what needs to be
adjusted, when no compromise should be allowed, where value judgments
are to be made, and how.
This isn’t easy, and it should not be thought of as a cafeteria plan of
salvation. While we are free to choose what commandments we obey, we
are not free to escape the natural consequences.
is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this
world, upon which all blessings are predicated. And when we obtain any
blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is
predicated. ( D&C 130:20 )
Nevertheless, we can’t just take a canned set of gospel fixes off the
shelf to solve our problems. We cannot expect to achieve exaltation by
just doing religion-by-the-numbers. Stories from the
scriptures all confirm that one size doesn’t fit all. Consider Noah,
Moses, Abraham; and Thomas, Peter, Judas; and Nephi, Alma, Moroni; and
Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and Paul Dunn. They all had
widely different circumstances, opportunities and challenges, so they
received divine guidance for their particular needs and
circumstances. Some paid attention and succeeded while others
ignored it at their peril.
We can learn valuable lessons by understanding the principles guiding
their lives but it would be folly to assume specific directives to them
are necessarily applicable to us. While Nephi was counseled of the Lord
that it is “better that one man should perish than a nation should
dwindle in unbelief” (1 Nephi 3:14), yet few will ever have a similar
situation. We must search out our own path consistent with
gospel principles. Scriptures teach, and the Church
reinforces, that the Lord often helps, not by solving our problems, but
helping to strengthen us to work out the solutions by ourselves.
Joseph Smith taught an important doctrine when asked how he was able to
govern so many people in such perfect order, especially since no one
else could do it. He answered simply, “I teach them correct
principles and they govern themselves.” 18
Our responsibility is to seek divine guidance as we apply correct
principles in our lives. Moroni 10:4-5 promises God’s help to
those who seek wisdom and understanding, and James 1:5 reminds us of
God’s willingness to give wisdom to anyone who seeks it. The right to
personal revelation is an important distinguishing doctrine of the
Church, and is the cornerstone of the missionary message that every
member has the right and responsibility to apply. But we each
have to learn to use the Gift of the Holy Ghost.
Douglas L. Callister observed, “In the genius of the gospel plan, there
ultimately only has to be one witness, but that witness must be you.
The testimony of others may initiate and nourish the desire for faith
and testimony, but eventually every individual must find out for
himself. None can permanently endure on borrowed light.” 19
When asked our opinion, it is second best to respond with “my Church /
my Bishop/ my Sunday school teacher says….” Relying solely on
authorities, we can easily become, “tossed to and fro, and carried
about with every wind of doctrine.” (Ephesians 4:14)
Elder Dieter Uchtdorf has counseled that
are a question-asking people. We have always been, because we know that
inquiry leads to truth. That is how the Church got its start, from a
young man who had questions. In fact, I’m not sure how one can discover
truth without asking questions. In the scriptures you will rarely
discover a revelation that didn’t come in response to a question….
Inquiry is the birthplace of testimony. “Some might feel embarrassed or
unworthy because they have searching questions regarding the gospel,
but they needn’t feel that way. Asking questions isn’t a sign of
weakness. It’s a precursor of growth.” 20
President Brigham Young said,
greatest fear I have is that the people of this Church will accept what
we say as the will of the Lord without first praying about it and
getting the witness within their own hearts that what we say is the
word of the Lord." 21
President Harold B. Lee said,
can know or have the assurance that they (the Prophet and Apostles) are
speaking under inspiration if we so live that we can have a witness
that what they are speaking is the word of the Lord. There is only one
safety, and that is that we shall live to have the witness to know.
We have been given a system of checks and balances to guide us through
life’s challenges. There are “Three Witnesses” to God’s will:
The witness of the scriptures, prophets and apostles are readily
available witnesses, and they provide a firm foundation for our
spiritual growth. Personal revelation may be the most
difficult witness to seek, but it addresses our unique circumstances,
needs and abilities. No one can do it for us.
- Canonized scriptures
- Prophets and apostles
- Personal revelation
Personal revelation is the most important witness, because it is the
only way we can correctly evaluate the other two. Blind obedience even
to the authority of scripture or prophets can ultimately lead to
authoritarianism. Without personal revelation, we risk
becoming mere puppets on a string, tossed to and fro by every wind of
doctrine ( Ephesians 4:11-16 ) from within and
without the Church.
For some, that personal witness comes quickly, and for others it may
take months or perhaps years. But there is middle ground between
ignorance and the “sure word of prophecy.” We can apply the
gospel principles to our lives, and as Joseph Smith explained we can
come to “govern ourselves”. We can know from personal experience the
fruits of the gospel. Following the Word of Wisdom can help us avoid
several addictions and illnesses. Obeying our temple covenants can
strengthen our marriage vows. Accepting Church callings can teach us
about service and compassion. Living the Beatitudes can make
us kinder, gentler people and more open to the Spirit. A
positive personal experience with gospel principles can hold us in good
stead while waiting for the personal witness. The line
between personal experience and personal revelation can become so thin
that it is impossible to distinguish them. In fact, it may be different
ends on the same continuum.
I have made every effort to be as accurate as possible to represent the
teachings of the Church. Nevertheless, I am presenting only
my understanding. The official website for the Church is
www.lds.org I encourage you to prayerfully search these
things for yourself.
1 Lectures on Faith. LINK
2 Official Doctrine. Brigham H. Roberts, sermon of 10 July 1921, delivered in Salt Lake
Tabernacle, printed in Deseret News (23 July 1921) sec. 4:7.
3 Official Doctrine. George Q. Cannon, sermon of 15 November 1880, as reported in the
Millennial Star 42 (15
November 1880): 724.
4 Official Doctrine, LDS
Church press release. LINK
5 GA’s consistent with Standard Works. Elder Harold B. Lee, Stand Ye In Holy Places, pp. 162-3, "The Prophet,
Seer, and Revelator," Address delivered to seminary and institute
teachers, BYU, July 8, 1964.
6 Polygamy. MormonWiki LINK
7 Adam God Theory. Wikipedia LINK
8 Blacks and the Priesthood. FAIR LINK
9 Man on the moon. May
14,1961 - Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith address to stake conference in
10 Handcart companies. Times and Seasons LINK
11 Bible prophets also made human
mistakes. Information adapted from a book by Michael Hickenbotham,
"Answering Challenging Mormon Questions." His book is available at CedarFort.com LINK
12 Support of gay marriage tolerated. LINK to NPR news article.
13 Crucifix. LINK to blog article discussing this issue.
For more information, see: LINK at freerepublic.com
14 Word of
Wisdom. Wikipedia LINK
Recommend. See MormonMatters blog article discussing this topic LINK
16 G A’s
fallibility. Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon
Doctrine, 2nd Edition, p 309 in a discussion of General Authorities
soul is free. Know This, That Every Soul Is Free, p.240- Anonymous. Included in the
first LDS hymnbook and all since, 1835. (1985 LDS); Also
found at the official LDS Church website LINK
them rule themselves.See LINK at ProphetJosephSmith.com. John Taylor, “The Organization of the Church,” Millennial Star, Nov.
15, 1851, p. 339.
19 Not on
borrowed light. LDS Church News LINK
20 We are
a question asking people. LINK to blog article.
greatest fear. Brigham Young, Deseret News, 9 Dec. 1857, 317; 12 Feb. 1862, 257, as
quoted by Harold B. Lee, Stand Ye In Holy Places, pp. 162-3.
LINK to text.
Ghost to confirm message of GA’s. Harold B. Lee, Stand Ye In Holy Places, pp. 162-3, "The Prophet, Seer,
and Revelator," Address delivered to seminary and institute teachers,
BYU, July 8, 1964). LINK to text.
There are several topics worth discussing along with Official Doctrine
that don’t belong in the above essay. Here are four of them.
Purpose of This Essay
This essay is primarily written for people who are struggling to stay
in the Church and have questions that are difficult to
answer. As the Internet is making more information available,
challenges can come from any number of subjects such as Church history,
theology, science, archeology and life experience.
Faith is a very personal matter. It can steel us for some of life’s
most difficult challenges. But by definition, faith is something that
cannot be proven to the satisfaction of a scientist or a court of
law. Because it is so much involved with the purpose and
direction of our lives, questioning and challenging it is often
inevitable. Having questions about faith as a teenager, young
adult, or even an adult with a grown family is not unusual for Mormons
or Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, or any other belief
system. It is normal to have questions. Questions
lead to answers and increased faith and understanding.
James Fowler’s Stages of Faith
James Fowler has written a very helpful book for those who find
themselves struggling with their faith. It is called “Stages
of Faith”. The struggle can be very painful, and seem to
those going through it that it is never ending. Based on studying
thousands of people he shows that many can get through that stage to a
very satisfactory place where they are no longer troubled, but can
build a positive relationship with their church and their God.
While this is a gross over-simplification of Fowler’s study, you can
find more at the following links:
A very brief description of the Stages of Faith:
A couple of longer, more detailed summaries of the Fowler Stages of
StayLDS.com an Internet Forum
If you or some you know is struggling with staying in the Church, check
out this site. This forum is available for people to discuss concerns
and struggles with faith. Honest expressions of concern are encouraged,
but the discussion is conducted in a positive and uplifting atmosphere
of tolerance without judgment:
A discussion of how the folks at StayLDS.com use James Fowler’s Stages
Clerical Corrections, Introduction, Chapter Summaries, Footnotes, and
an Index to the Canonized Scriptures
Are Not a Change to Official Doctrine
It should be noted also that many changes made to correct spelling,
grammar, specific facts, and the like have had no substantial effect on
Official Doctrine. Critics of the Church like to say there
are several thousand changes to the Mormon cannon that belie its divine
origin. While some may appear to change the doctrinal meaning
of a given verse, collectively or individually they still do not change
the Official Doctrine of the Church:
For more information, see
“In 1981 The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints published its
most current edition of the Book of the Mormon, the first since 1920,
with additions to aid the reader. Chapter summaries, footnotes, an
introduction, an index and other information — all of which are not
considered scripture — were added or expanded to help the reader
navigate through the book and compare scriptures in the Old and New
As quoted from LDS Newsroom LINK
Copyright 2010, Donald L. Ashton
This essay may be copied for personal use and in a talk, lesson or
presentation to an LDS ward or Stake. Otherwise, it cannot be
reproduced in any publication or on the Internet or any other medium
without prior written permission. Contact me at
Published and hosted by permission from the author at www.staylds.com