Mormons and Catholics

Mormon Doctrine Style Guide

Posted by davekeller on May 18th, 2006

Part 1: Motivation

I have a measure of respect for those who choose to write about Mormon doctrine, whether the aim is to critique it, teach something about it, or to just explore possibilities. I hope this style guide can increase the accuracy Mormonism is represented by non-Mormons and Mormons alike. I humbly suggest that both groups have room to improve.

On a regular basis, Mormon writers seem to conflate what they personally believe with what the LDS church authoritatively teaches. While hopefully there is a strong correlation between the two, an LDS believer should understand that this creates a problematic, subjective criterion for determining doctrine. Something can be true and not doctrine. Likewise doctrine is not necessarily all true and there is room for faithful Saints to disagree on secondary matters. Mormon doctrinal sources are often considered inspired, but aren’t perfect in the sense that they are entirely free from error, language ambiguities, or cultural assumptions. Sometimes the suboptimal nature of a text only becomes known through advances in science, further revelation, or systematic study of a variety of texts.

I don’t bring these mild criticisms up to offend my fellow Mormons; I just hope that we can be more self-reflective about following objective standards in our interfaith discussions. If we deterministically use our personal beliefs to evaluate the authority of a particular source, then we have little basis of appeal when former Mormons represent Mormon doctrine as synomous to what they used to believe. To control for my bias, I try to survey other Mormon thought in my writing, methodically cite authorities, build some consensus with my audience, and strive for consistency.

I am also mindful of those seeking to learn more about Mormonism. There is such a discrepancy in quality of material that one encounters about Mormonism. Part of the work of this site will be to answer questions about the credibility various sources. Consider me as an internet librarian that can point out where the most reliable, accessible information can be found. As I find out more about a person’s needs, I adjust my recommendations accordingly so that I can be helpful.

I hope friends and critics of the Mormons alike will also follow some of the guidelines I set forth. Some have complained that describing Mormon doctrine is like nailing jello to a wall, and use that excuse to shape LDS belief into a convenient form for easy refutation. Doing this might gain such a critic high accolades when he or she is “preaching to the choir,” but to be an effective influence on Mormons, one should work first to present Mormon belief as something they can recognize. I admire our knowledgeable friends who offer corrective influence when they observe that their co-religionists have inaccurately or unfairly portrayed Mormon doctrine. That truly takes a lot of courage.

Part 2: Basic Style Guide

The most important thing to get right in representing a particular Mormon belief is whether said belief can be traced to a source considered doctrinal. Let me start with a few definitions.

From Wikipedia:

doctrine: “a body of teachings” or “instructions”, taught principles or positions, as the body of teachings in a branch of knowledge or belief system.

From Princeton’s Wordnet:

doctrine: a belief (or system of beliefs) accepted as authoritative by some group or school.

religious doctrine: the written body of teachings of a religious group that are generally accepted by that group.

These definitions bring up a number of criteria in determining whether a belief is doctrine or not. To qualify, a doctrine must be written, must be considered an authoratative teaching, and must be generally accepted by the group. Each of these criteria have their own challenge in Mormonism. For example, unwritten traditions, oral teachings, art, ritual practices, experiences too sacred to be written about, or written but not accessible, or multimedia presentations often play a role in shaping beliefs. My style guide pragmatically focuses on written, accessible sources. The next criteria stipulates that authority is given to a specific teacher or text. Just as the LDS church has a hierarchy of authority among its teachers it has a hierarchy of authoritative texts. Again, I am concentrating on texts and I hope drive a wedge between judging the authority of a text solely based on the authority of its author. Finally, the last criteria is perhaps the toughest to quantify. One has to survey the landscape of Mormon belief to see if some particular tenet is generally accepted or not. Just as there are degrees of authority, there are degrees of acceptance. And just because a belief is generally accepted, it does not necessarily mean that belief is authoritatively taught as doctrine in the LDS church.

Guideline 1: When representing Mormon belief, if possible, please document it by quoting from a relevant doctrinal source– the higher on the list below the better–a list which is limited to the following:

  1. binding, official doctrine: The canonized LDS scriptures: The Bible (For English speakers the KJV), The Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and The Pearl of Great Price.
  2. official doctrine: Statements signed and publicly promulgated by the First Presidency; should be able to find a reference to such on the LDS church website or the Church Handbook of Instructions. Examples include: The Proclamation on the Family, The Living Christ, and The Father and the Son.
  3. recent, public discourse doctrine: General Conference addresses as are easily searchable on the LDS Church site.
  4. correlated doctrine: found in recent church lesson manuals, recent church periodicals, current church handbooks, and books approved and available from the church distribution services such as Jesus the Christ.

Guideline 2: If you use any of the above to verify or to help explain a Mormon belief, consider using the same or similiar modifying adjectives to the word doctrine to clarify the text’s position on the doctrinal hierarchy.

Guideline 3: If for some reason, you wish to use an historical quote which doesn’t originating in any of the above sources, please do not label it “doctrine” unless you find that particular text cited approvingly in one of the above.

Guideline 4: Please don’t succomb to the temptation to elevate influential books or works authored by influential authors to authoratative status. This applies to Mormon Doctrine by Bruce R. McConkie, The Seer by Orson Pratt, Doctrines of Salvation by Joseph Fielding Smith, The Lectures on Faith by Sidney Rigdon, and The Journal of Discourses among other works. The ideas developed in these works should be tested for doctrinal soundness against literature currently considered authoritative. Many works by General Authorities of the LDS Church are prefaced with a disclaimer that the author takes sole responsibility for their content.

Guideline 5: Please note any source in the Mormon doctrinal hierarchy listed above that conflicts with your selected quote directly or the interpretation you draw from it. Consider reading more broadly so a range of Mormon belief can be represented on a particular subject.

Guideline 6: Please don’t expect a Mormon adherent to regard any doctrinal text as inerrant or infallible.

Guideline 7: If you must comment on an older source that is no longer considered doctrinally sound, please allow that Mormon self-understanding is that doctrine develops over time in response to greater knowledge (sometimes revealed) and experience. What was emphasized to deal with needs of 19th century Mormons should not necessarily be emphasized today.

Guideline 8: Don’t expect Mormon doctrinal sources to contain a prescribed and systematic answer to every religious question one wishes to be addressed. Consider consulting non-authoritative works that treat specific subjects, but note the cautions expressed in the previous guidelines.

Part 3: Are These Guidelines Supported by Mormon Doctrine?

I will now backtrack and review each of guidelines above and demonstrate that each is a reasonably sound synthesis of statements found within Mormon doctrine that help LDS members determine what that doctrine is. I will, however make liberal use of Guideline 8 to draw from sources that do a more systematic job of weighing the various statements and then inductively use the sources identified guidelines to demonstrate soundness and self consistency. For Guideline 1 let me cite me a brilliant treatment of what constitutes Mormon doctrine by Dr. Robert Millet, a former BYU religion dean and current LDS Public Affairs member:

“What is our doctrine? What do we teach today?” I indicated that if some teaching or idea was not in the standard works, not among official declarations or proclamations, was not taught currently by living apostles or prophets in general conference or other official gatherings, or was not in the general handbooks or official curriculum of the Church, it is probably not a part of the doctrine or teachings of the Church.

Elder A. Roger Merrill, writes in a similiar vein. He is the current Sunday School General President as mentioned in his article found on the LDS church website.

While individuals have the responsibility to live in such a manner that the Holy Ghost may assist them in discerning truth, the following criteria taught by the Brethren may be useful to Sunday School leaders, teachers, and students in learning and teaching accurate doctrine:

  1. Is the doctrine clearly expressed in the standard works of the Church? President Hinckley said, “[The standard works] provide the standard by which all gospel doctrine is measured” (regional representatives’ seminar, Apr. 5, 1991).
  2. Is the doctrine found within the official declarations, proclamations, or statements of the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve Apostles? President Boyd K. Packer stated: “Only [the] standard works, official statements, and other publications written under assignment from the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve Apostles are considered authorized publications by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled [1991], introduction).
  3. Is the doctrine clearly taught or discussed by current general Church leaders in general conference or other official gatherings of the Church? President George Q. Cannon said, “We have the Bible, the Book of Mormon and the Book of Doctrine and Covenants; but all these books, without the living oracles and a constant stream of revelation from the Lord, would not lead any people into the Celestial Kingdom of God” (Gospel Truth, sel. Jerrald L. Newquist, 2 vols. [1957–74], 1:323).
  4. Is the doctrine found in the general handbooks or the presently approved curriculum of the Church? Elder M. Russell Ballard said, “Teachers would be well advised to study carefully the scriptures and their manuals before reaching out for supplemental materials. Far too many teachers seem to stray from the approved curriculum materials without fully reviewing them. If teachers feel a need to use some good supplemental resources beyond the scriptures and manuals in presenting a lesson, they should first consider the use of the Church magazines” (“Teaching—No Greater Call,Ensign, May 1983, 68).


If the doctrine or idea in question meets one or more of these criteria, we can generally be confident that it is one of the official doctrines of the Church.

The astute reader will notice Dr. Millet’s and Elder Merrill’s four divisions match the style guide’s closely. The only discrepancy is that they include other official gatherings with general conference on the third level. This is somewhat problematic because the proceedings of other official meetings current General Authorities attend, such as stake conferences, are not usually published. Like the style guide, Elder Merrill distinguishes official doctrine from doctrine. However, his use of official doctrine roughly corresponds to what the style guide recommends for doctrine. But these are mere semantic quibbles, I recognize that the word doctrine has been used more broadly in the past and its meaning must be determined from context.

I also note that neither Dr. Millet’s or Elder Merrill’s articles are doctrine in and of themselves, although they freely quote scriptures, recent conference addresses, and church publications. Some of their presentation draws from other doctrinally sound material as I will continue to demonstrate. President Packer’s list of “authorized publications” covers the same set of works the guide does, but doesn’t neatly create as many categories. The style guide goes further, in the interest of additional clarity, than these leaders in advocating that doctrine be considered as a hierarchy of texts and that consideration should be limited to the effective Correlation era starting in 1971. After that date, apostolic committee review of church publications provides the needed reliability assurances. Before then, material is not as accessible. There is a decreased chance that a Mormon will be familiar with a pre-1971 work unless it quoted from by a correlated source.

Part of determining that there is indeed a hierarchy of doctrine is paying attention to belief dynamics in the LDS church. We will briefly explore a few axioms.

  • The living Prophet has the ultimate earthly authority to reveal new doctrine (D&C 43:1-7, D&C 28:2), to appoint and supervise teachers of doctrine (Mos. 18:18-19), to officially interpret scripture (2 Pet. 1:20–21),[1,2], or to change doctrine [3].
  • The most authoratative textual source of doctrine are the canonized scriptures also known as the Standard Works. This can be inferred from lists of doctrinal teaching sources, all include the scriptures and all list the scriptures first (2 Tim 3:16-7, D&C 42:12-13 –somewhat anachronistic), [4, 5]. New scripture can be canonized with the joint approval of the Prophet and common consent (D&C 28:13) manifest by a procedural vote of the membership [6,7,8]. According to B. H. Roberts, this procedural vote makes the canon the only direct binding source of Mormon doctrine. As an analogy, through affirmations in priesthood interviews and through making covenants we make certain practices binding (like the Word of Wisdom observance) even if said practice derives from handbooks and official interpretations of scripture rather than scripture itself. [9,10]
  • Leaders and teachers are also sustained through the principle of common consent (D&C 20:62-66,1 Sam 8:6-22, Mos. 29:26-27). This conveys acceptance of the leadership hierarchy directly and the texts the general leadership promulgates as extra-canonical doctrine indirectly. After the scriptures, statements signed and propagated by First Presidency occupy the next tier of doctrine. Only these top two tiers can be considered official doctrine [11]. Note here that Dr. Robinson appears to include doctrines directly voted on via the common consent. He probably has the unique case entailing a delay between the acceptance of D&C 132 in a general conference of 1852 and its canonization in 1880 [12]. Additional support that First Presidency proclamations are very close, if not on par, with canonized doctrine is found when an older Marion G. Romney quote is cited with approval in the 1982 Ensign [13].
  • The importance of general conference is stressed throughout the Doctrine & Covenants (D&C 52: 2, D&C 58: 56, D&C 124: 88). It is the primary means of mass communication for apostles and prophets to relay uncanonized scripture as per D&C 68‘s broad definition. [14,15] The most current conference report is emphasized as the most important study material after the scriptures.[16]
  • The catch-all 4th tier of correlated doctrine contains all recent, official publications not covered in the first 3 tiers, Clearly the 3 tiers take precedent as sources for teaching in devotional settings. [17] The Correlation committee is led by the apostles with 1st Presidency oversight and results in a peer review process which encorporates the principles of common consent. The approval of the corelation committee sets these books, manuals, and materials apart from extra-doctrinal works [18].
  • Neither texts , nor prophets are considered inerrant or infallible [BOM: Title Page, Ether 12:23-25, Mormon 9:31, 19, 20,21, 22]. The Mormon church is infallibly led by Christ [23] and through the inspiration of the Holy Ghost [24].

Sources used to verify guidelines, cited from approved doctrinal texts.

  1. “Beware also of private interpretation. Look to the living prophets and official policies for interpretation.” [1]
  2. “Determining what the original author meant is not a simple matter, especially when the writing was produced under inspiration. As Peter warns, ‘No prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.’ (2 Pet. 1:20–21.) Just as the authors of the scriptures sought the Spirit as they wrote, so must we as we study the scriptures if we are to understand them.” [2]
  3. “President J. Reuben Clark Jr. said, “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’ (in Church News, 31 July 1954, 10). We should not teach our private interpretation of gospel principles or the scriptures.”[3]
  4. “Elder Boyd K. Packer declared: ‘You are to teach the scriptures. … ‘[4]
  5. “President Ezra Taft Benson taught: ‘What should be the source for teaching the great plan of the Eternal God? The scriptures, of course—particularly the Book of Mormon. This should also include the other modern-day revelations. These should be coupled with the words of the Apostles and prophets and the promptings of the Spirit’ (in Conference Report, Apr. 1987, 107; or Ensign, May 1987, 85).” [5]
  6. “Because of our belief in continuing revelation, we Latter-day Saints maintain that the canon (the authoritative body) of scriptures is open. In fact, the scriptural canon is open in several ways, and continuing revelation is crucial to each of them. First, we believe that God will guide his children by giving new additions to the existing body of scriptures through the prophet and the established procedures of his Church. The Book of Mormon is such an addition. So are the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants, including sections 137 and 138 [D&C 137; D&C 138], which were added in our lifetime. Second, we believe that God will give new revelations on the meaning of scriptures previously canonized, meanings that were not evident in earlier times. These new revelations are of two types: public and private.” [6]
  7. “In October 1880, Elder George Q. Cannon, then First Counselor to the First Presidency, held up the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price before the members and explained that new material had been added since the original canonization of the Doctrine and Covenants in Kirtland. The brethren felt it wise, he continued, “to see whether the conference will vote to accept these books and their contents as from God, and binding upon us as a people and as a Church.”[7]
    In a source that doesn’t meet the style guide’s criteria, yet appears to be doctrinally sound, B. H. Roberts explained:
    “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. . . .
    “It is not sufficient to quote sayings purported to come from Joseph Smith or Brigham Young upon matters of doctrine. Our own people also need instruction and correction in respect of this. It is common to hear some of our older brethren say, “But I heard Brother Joseph myself say so,” or “Brother Brigham preached it; I heard him.” But that is not the question. The question is has God said it? Was the prophet speaking officially? . . .
    “As to the printed discourses of even leading brethren, the same principle holds. They do not constitute the court of ultimate appeal on doctrine. They may be very useful in the way of elucidation and are very generally good and sound in doctrine, but they are not the ultimate sources of the doctrines of the Church, and are not binding upon the Church. The rule in that respect is–What God has spoken, and what has been accepted by the Church as the word of God, by that, and that only, are we bound in doctrine.” —Speech given July 10, 1921 and cited in Dr. Robinson’s book Are Mormons Christian?
  8. “Based on deliberation and forethought, knowing full well the import and effect of the proposition then before them [that of canonizing two new texts in 1976], fifteen hands were raised to the square as those whom the Church sustains as prophets, seers, and revelators each certified his personal concurrence to the momentous motion then before them.
  9. In the true Church, where there are apostles and prophets to give the mind and will and voice of the Lord to the Church and the world—among the Saints of the Most High, where all of the elders of Israel are the Lord’s ministers to feed the flock of God and preach the gospel to all mankind—nothing is better known or more greatly appreciated than the fact that the canon of scripture is not now and never will be full. . . .
    “From the days of the first dispensation it has been the practice of the Lord’s people to make selections from the scriptural utterances of those who are appointed to lead the Church and to publish these selections as formal and official scripture. All inspired sayings and writings are true and are and should be accepted and believed by all who call themselves Saints. But the revelations, visions, prophecies, and narrations selected and published for official use are thereby made binding upon the people in a particular and special sense. They become part of the standard works of the Church. They become the standards, the measuring rods, by which doctrine and procedure are determined.
    “By being added to the standard works, the Prophet’s vision of the celestial kingdom and President Joseph F. Smith’s vision of the redemption of the dead take on a new and added significance. They both contain gospel truths which are not otherwise found in the standard works, and they will now be cited and known more, and will be cross-referenced into the balance of the standard works as their subject matter requires.”[8]
  10. “A covenant is a binding and solemn agreement entered into by at least two individuals. It requires that all parties involved abide the conditions of the compact in order to make it effective and binding.”[9]
  11. “The Word of Wisdom, section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants, [D&C 89] remains as to terms and specifications as found in that section. There has been no official interpretation of that Word of Wisdom except that which was given by the Brethren in the very early days of the Church when it was declared that ‘hot drinks’ meant tea and coffee.”[10]
  12. “The official doctrine of the Latter-day Saints is clearly defined and readily accessible to all. Doctrines are official if they are found in the standard works of the Church, if they are sustained by the Church in general conference (D&C 26:2), or if they are taught by the First Presidency as a presidency. Policies and procedures are official whenever those who hold the keys and have been sustained by the Church to make them declare them so. Other churches claim the right to define and interpret their own doctrines and policies and to distinguish between official church teachings and the opinions of individual members. Surely the Latter-day Saints must be allowed the same privilege.”[11]
  13. “On the second day of the conference, under the direction of President Brigham Young, Orson Pratt made the public announcement that the Church was practicing plural marriage under commandment of God. … Brigham Young then spoke giving a brief history concerning the revelation on celestial marriage. Thomas Bullock, a clerk in the historian’s office, then read the revelation to the congregation for their sustaining vote.”[12]
  14. “Today the Lord is revealing his will to all the inhabitants of the earth, and to members of the Church in particular, on the issues of this our day through the living prophets, with the First Presidency at the head. What they say as a presidency is what the Lord would say if he were here in person. This is the rock foundation of Mormonism. … So I repeat again, what the presidency say as a presidency is what the Lord would say if he were here, and it is scripture. It should be studied, understood, and followed, even as the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants and other scriptures.”[13]
  15. “Tonight I would like to focus on one of these sources of guidance—the living prophets, seers, and revelators that we sustained today. In fact, I would like to focus on one of the main ways we get direction from them—general conference. Conferences have been part of the Church since the beginning of this dispensation. The first conference was held just two months after the Church was organized. We meet twice a year to be instructed by the General Authorities and general officers of the Church.”[14]
  16. “If you want to know what the Lord has for this people at the present time, I would admonish you to get and read the discourses that have been delivered at this conference, for what these brethren have spoken by the power of the Holy Ghost is the mind of the Lord, the will of the Lord, the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation.” [15]
  17. “For the next six months, your conference edition of the ENSIGN should stand next to your standard works and be referred to frequently. As my dear friend and brother Harold B. Lee said, we should let these conference addresses ‘be the guide to [our] walk and talk during the next six months. These are the important matters the Lord sees fit to reveal to this people in this day’ (in Conference Report, Apr. 1946,p. 68).” [16]
  18. “To help us teach from the scriptures and the words of latter-day prophets, the Church has produced lesson manuals and other materials. There is little need for commentaries or other reference material. We should study the scriptures, teachings of latter-day prophets, and lesson materials thoroughly to be sure we correctly understand the doctrine before we teach it.” [17]
  19. “Church publications fall into four general categories: (1) materials related to the curriculum, such as lesson manuals, teachers’ supplements, and student materials; (2) magazines; (3) administrative documents, such as handbooks, leadership training materials, organizational guidelines and bulletins, etc.; and (4) missionary discussions, tracts, and support materials. All of the materials within these four categories are prepared under the direction of some officially recognized Church agency, and they are reviewed and cleared by the Church Correlation Review committees before they are published and issued to the Church. A wide range of hardbound books, pamphlets, and other printed materials is constantly being printed and placed on the market by independent publishing companies. Many of these materials deal with religious matters. Some are written by Church members, including General Authorities. Publications that fall into this category are not generally authorized by the Church. The authors, compilers, and publishers assume full responsibility for the content and do not seek or receive official Church endorsement. …While the content of the approved Church publications identified above does not claim the same endorsement that the standard works receive, nonetheless they are prepared with great care and are carefully screened before they are published. ….” [18]
  20. “Of course, the President is not infallible. He makes no claims to infallibility.” [19]
  21. “We make no claim of individual infallibility or perfection as the prophets, seers, and revelators. Yet I humbly state that I have sat in the company of these men and I believe their greatest desire is to know and do the will of our Heavenly Father. Those who sit in the highest councils of this Church and have participated therein as inspiration has come and decisions have been reached know that this light and truth is beyond human intelligence and reasoning. These deep, divine impressions have come as the dews from heaven and settled upon them individually and collectively. So inspired, we can go forward in complete unity and accord. ” [20]
  22. “Unfortunately, I am not a perfect man, and infallibility does not come with the call.” [21]
  23. “From Elder B. H. Roberts, who loved the Prophet dearly, there were these words: ‘Joseph Smith … claimed for himself no special sanctity, no faultless life, no perfection of character, no inerrancy for every word spoken by him. And as he did not claim these things for himself, so can they not be claimed for him by others. … ‘Yet to Joseph Smith was given,’ said Brother Roberts, ‘access to the mind of Deity, through the revelations of God to him. (Comprehensive History, 2:360–61.)’ In fact, brothers and sisters, the Prophet Joseph, just a few days before his martyrdom, confirmingly said, “I never told you I was perfect; but there is no error in the revelations which I have taught. Must I, then, be thrown away as a thing of naught?” (History of the Church, 6:366.)” [22]
  24. “In the pursuit of such peace and reassurance, may I quote a great voice from the past. He said: “[In order to make the world] a better place … to live, … the first and most important step is to choose as a leader one whose leadership is infallible, whose teachings when practiced have never failed. In … [any] tempestuous sea of uncertainty, the pilot must be one who through the storm can see the beacon in the harbor of peace” (David O. McKay, Man May Know for Himself, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1967, p. 407.)The message of this general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is that there is but one guiding hand in the universe, only one truly infallible light, one unfailing beacon to the world. That light is Jesus Christ, the light and life of the world, the light which one Book of Mormon prophet described as “a light that is endless, that can never be darkened.” (Mosiah 16:9.)” [23]
  25. “That Spirit—the Holy Ghost—is our comforter, our direction finder, our communicator, our interpreter, our witness, and our purifier—our infallible guide and sanctifier for our mortal journey toward eternal life” [24]

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