The Lectures on Faith are one of the most misunderstood aspects of the early church. However, with a little bit of research the truth can easily be discovered. It is also misunderstood because some people in positions of prominence have said authoritative statements, concerning the Lectures, which are quite clearly wrong. I personally didn’t know much about them until a few years ago, however after studying the Lectures and understanding their purpose then my understanding of God has simplified while also deepening.
History of the Lectures
In order to understand the purpose of the Lectures on Faith then it is important to first look at their history. On September 24th, 1834, the Kirtland high council met to discuss the Book of Commandments which was published the previous year and how they might standardize the doctrines of the church. This was because in the growing church there was a lot of misunderstandings which also included intentional attacks on the church and their doctrines. The minutes from the 1834 high council meeting are as follows:
The council then proceeded to appoint a committee to arrange the items of the doctrine of Jesus Christ for the government of the church of Latter-Day Saints which church was organized and commenced its rise on the 6th of April 1830. These items are to be taken from the bible, book of mormon, and the revelations which have been given to the church up to this date or shall be, until such arrangement is made. Brother Samuel H. Smith then nominated brethren Joseph Smith Junr. Oliver Cowdery, Sidney Rigdon and Frederick G. Williams, to compose said committee which was seconded by brother Hyrum Smith. The Counsellors then gave their vote, which was also agreed to by the whole conference.Kirtland High Council meeting minutes
From this quote we can see a few key points to consider. First, the entire council decided they wanted the “doctrine of Jesus Christ” to be better defined. Second, these doctrines were to be taken from the scriptures. Third, the entire First Presidency along with Oliver Cowdery, who was an assistant to the presidency, was chosen to make this new doctrinal arrangement.
In Joseph’s personal journal for January 1835, which was about 4 months after being assigned to the committee, he recorded the following entry:
During the month of January I was engaged in the school of the elders, and in preparing the Lectures on Theology for publication in the Book of Doctrine and covenants, which the committee appointed last September, were now compililing.Joseph Smith journal – January 1835
It is honestly not clear how much Joseph was personally involved in writing the Lectures on Faith. However, the journal entry certainly suggests it was a major focus of his time at least during January of 1835.
Later that same year on August 17th, 1835, there was a general assembly of the church where they met to “take into consideration the labors” of the committee which was organized to define more fully the doctrines of the church. The proceedings of this assembly were actually fully written out and included in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants along with what they produced which was called the Lectures on Faith. The record is a little too long to fully include here however looking at key aspects of that record can certainly be helpful. The following is a condensed version of that record.
President Cowdery arose and introduced the “Book of doctrine and covenants of the church of the Latter Day Saints,” in behalf of the committee: he was followed by President Rigdon, who explained the manner by which they intended to obtain the voice of the assembly for or against said book … W. W. Phelps bore record that the book presented to the assembly, was true. President John Whitmer, also arose, and testified that it was true. Elder John Smith … bore record that the revelations in said book were true, and that the lectures were judiciously arranged and compiled, and were profitable for doctrine; Elder Levi Jackman … bore testimony that the revelations in said book were true … Bishop N. K. Whitney bore record of the truth of the book … Bishop, John Corrill, bore record of the truth of the book … and the whole congregation, accepted and acknowledged it as the doctrine and covenants of their faith, by a unanimous vote. The several authorities, and the general assembly, by a unanimous vote, accepted of the labors of the committee.General Assembly – August 17th, 1835
As was mentioned, this meeting was so important it was actually included in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants. This meeting clearly showed that all the leaders and the congregation present accepted the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants along with the “labors of the committee” which were the Lectures on Faith. This is why the Lectures were included and deemed to be the doctrine portion of the Doctrine and Covenants. It was accepted “by a unanimous vote” of the church and canonized as scripture.
The last point to consider concerning the history of the Lectures is a February 17th, 1835, letter written by the members of the committee which later became the preface to the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants. In this letter the committee, which if we remember was the entire First Presidency, stated:
The first part of the book will be found to contain a series of Lectures as delivered before a Theological class in this place, and in consequence of their embracing the important doctrine of salvation, we have arranged them into the following work.
The second part contains items or principles for the regulation of the church, as taken from the revelations which have been given since its organization, as well as from former ones. …
We do not present this little volume with any other expectation than that we are to be called to answer to every principle advanced, in that day when the secrets of all hearts will be revealed, and the reward of every man’s labor be given him.Preface to 1835 Doctrine and Covenants
From this letter, which was included as the preface, it is clear that the Lectures were not a random weekend pet project. They were foundational to the church and an “important doctrine of salvation” to the members. Joseph Smith and the other members signed their names and stated they were willing “to answer to every principle advanced” in the book which clearly also included the Lectures.
Removal of the Lectures
Starting in 1920 the apostles of the church began to revise the scriptures into a consistent format of double columns and included additional footnotes and indexes. It wasn’t until 1921 that they began with the Doctrine and Covenants where they decided, without a vote or discussion of the church, that the Lectures on Faith were no longer consistent with the church’s teachings and decided to remove them from all future published versions.
In 1940, John W. Fitzgerald, who was a master’s student at BYU, wrote to Joseph Fielding Smith, who was part of the scripture revision committee, asking for the reasons for the removal of the Lectures. Elder Smith responded with four main reasons:
A Study of the Doctrine and Covenants, 1940 Masters thesis, John William Fitzgerald
- They were not received as revelations by the Prophet Joseph Smith.
- They are only instructions relative to the general subject of faith. They are explanations of this principle but not doctrine.
- They are not complete as to their teachings regarding the Godhead. More complete instructions on this point of doctrine are given in section 130 of … The Doctrine and Covenants.
- It was thought by Elder James E. Talmage, chairman, and other members of the committee who were responsible for their omission that to avoid confusion and contention on this vital point of belief [i.e., on the Godhead], it would be better not to have them bound in the same volume as the commandments or revelations which make up The Doctrine and Covenants
If we go through each of the items individually then we can see that they are completely without merit.
The first point is technically correct, in that Joseph never stated the Lectures on Faith as being from God, however it misses the entire point. Joseph signed his name to the Lectures and subsequently allowed them to be published in the 1835 and then again in the 1844 editions of the Doctrine and Covenants. He allowed them to be published in the May 1835 Messenger and Advocate, which was the newspaper at the time, and prefaced the reprinting by stating the Lectures would give the readers “a perfect understanding of the doctrine believed by this society”. Joseph also used the Lectures when teaching the School of the Prophets.
To say they were not revelations is disingenuous at best. However, in our current edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, we have multiple sections which were never received as revelations but are instead reconstructed from notes of a speech that Joseph may or may not have actually given. This includes D&C 129, D&C 130, and D&C 131. All three sections are notes from William Clayton and Willard Richards for 129 and 130. In the case of section 130 Willard Richards wasn’t even in Ramus where the speech was given therefore we are basing critical points of doctrine on notes of notes.
The second point of the Lectures not being doctrine has already been shown to be totally incorrect. The 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants titled the Lectures as “the Doctrine of the Church of the Latter Day Saints“. The second part, which is what we have today, was titled, “PART SECOND Covenants and Commandments of the Lord”. Therefore, in our current edition we have the covenants of God but threw out the doctrine. Lastly, in the preface that Joseph Smith and the rest of the First Presidency wrote, he stated that the Lectures were “the important doctrine of salvation”. Therefore, it is clear that the Lectures were the doctrines of the church and certainly were not “only instructions relative to the general subject of faith” as Elder Smith claimed they were.
The third point is honestly backwards however I can see the confusion. D&C 130 certainly does seem to contradict Lecture 5 which describes the Godhead. However, D&C 130 was never accepted as scripture and there is no evidence Joseph said it or ever wanted it to be canonized as such. It is true that Joseph seemed to change his view of the Godhead in the Nauvoo era such as with his King Follett discourse. However, verbally surmising about something doesn’t mean you accept the idea as the revealed word of God. The backwards nature of this comes from the fact that D&C 130 was added as scripture, with no basis by Brigham Young, and that is a justification for removing the Lectures which actually were accepted as scripture by the entire church. Shouldn’t D&C 130 not be added if it contradicted previously accepted scripture? Shouldn’t conflicts be resolved by seeking the truth instead of discarding what is inconvenient?
The fourth and last point is quite similar to the previous one. The Lectures were seen as contradictory and so to remove the contradiction it was seen as best by the committee to remove them entirely. This was without a vote of the church or a discussion with anyone except the highest authorities in the church. They made a simple decision that the accepted scripture of the church was no longer scripture and should no longer go to all the members of the church as such. This is honestly extreme arrogance to think that they alone can decide what is scripture for the entire church. In addition, the church today publicly rebukes the groups of scholars who wrote the Nicene and Athanasian creeds, which redefined Christian doctrine. However, did not the 1920 scriptural revision committee do the same to the LDS doctrines? Is this a case where it is okay when we do it, but not when others do it?
Various LDS apologists have proposed several justifications for the removal of the Lectures. These have taken several forms however almost always share the same core points. These points are described fairly well from an LDS apologist perspective through a linked Fair LDS article.
The first point is that Joseph didn’t write the Lectures so therefore they were not authoritative. This argument is shown through complicated computer word analysis. However, this argument also misses the entire point. It frankly doesn’t matter if Joseph wrote every word or didn’t write anything. Joseph was on the committee, was very focused on their endeavor, and signed his name to the accuracy of the Lectures. The Lectures were also clearly the doctrine of the church and accepted as such through a vote of common consent. Joseph also could have easily had them removed during the almost 10 years of his life that they were canonized. Honestly, if I was Joseph, I wouldn’t write any of it either. I would assign that to Sidney who was an expert orator and had a wonderful command of the language.
Another common point is that Joseph never saw the Lectures and never presented them to the church. This point is a very strange technicality and seems to be focusing on the minutia while ignoring the overwhelming evidence. It would be like claiming your house is not really on fire because a small section of a corner is not burning, while ignoring the multiple firefighters fighting the massive blaze. As was shown multiple times, the Lectures were presented to the church, and they were accepted as doctrine. They were printed in church publications and Joseph Smith himself also used them to teach. Joseph’s own journal for December 5th, 1834, mentioned that the “lectures on theology … were regularly delivered” to the “school for the elders” as they called the class then. Claiming Joseph didn’t know anything about them would be to assume that he was an ignorant idiot. Honestly, how else could something like the Lectures be included as the doctrine of the church and the leader of the church not know about it?
When the evidence is so overwhelming then how could any LDS apologists not side with the LDS church on this one? Does anyone honestly think an LDS scholar could openly admit that the LDS church was wrong, and we should add the Lectures on Faith back while removing D&C 130? That person would be reeducated, lovingly of course, or they would lose their livelihood and probably membership. The price would be far too large so why should we think they would openly admit the obvious?
To briefly recap, the Lectures on Faith were commissioned by the Kirtland high council, in September 1834, as a desire to standardize the doctrines of the church and make them clearer to the growing church. This committee was the entire First Presidency which of course included Joseph Smith. This committee worked for several months until August 1835 where the Lectures on Faith were presented to the entire church and accepted unanimously as binding scriptures for the church. During that meeting several individuals bore their testimony concerning the divine nature of the Lectures along with the Doctrine and Covenants which contained the Lectures.
In addition, Joseph and the rest of the First Presidency declared the Lectures to be “important doctrine of salvation” for the entire church. They signed their names to this and stated they would be willing “to be called to answer to every principle advanced” concerning the Lectures or the covenants contained in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants.
I don’t see how anyone can look at the overwhelming evidence and then willfully decide to discard the Lectures. I have personally studied them and find them to be absolutely amazing. They are clear and the views in Lecture 5 concerning the Godhead align perfectly with how the Book of Mormon describes the relationship between the Father and the Son.
I want to echo the words of Bruce R. McConkie who in a 1972 address spoke about the Lectures on Faith, specifically Lecture 5, where he stated:
In my judgment, it is the most comprehensive, intelligent, inspired utterance that now exists in the English language – that exists in one place defining, interpreting, expounding, announcing, and testifying what kind of being God is. It was written by the power of the Holy Ghost, by the spirit of inspiration. It is, in effect, eternal scripture; it is true.Bruce R. McConkie – January 4, 1972, BYU address