What is Mormon Doctrine?

For decades I’ve been fascinated at the regular conflation of doctrine, policy, and practice among members. We tend to claim the policy of today as not just practical, meaningful, and inspired, but as doctrine. Until it changes and we forget all about it.

What is Mormon Doctrine?

One example that comes to mind is the “doctrine” from my childhood of only taking the sacrament (and only passing the sacrament tray) with the right (covenant-making, clean, dextro) hand and never with the left (unlucky, dirty, sinistro) hand. Somewhere between the church of my childhood and my 30s, this teaching disappeared from all teaching manuals, missionary discussions, and the gospel principles class. (My search was not exhaustive and I haven’t renewed that effort, but I could not find this teaching in any current materials at the time.) 

Did the general authorities and curriculum advisors just forget to include this? Was this a massive, sweeping oversight that—as one woman suggested to me—needs to be corrected by member-to-member teaching? (Yes, as in correcting anyone seen using the “wrong” hand and making it a point of testimony meeting content.) Or was this symbolic gesture allowed to quietly fade from emphasis while focusing on things more meaningful to the current generation?

It seems that one of the most confusing parts of Mormondom is nailing down doctrine. We know it’s not:

  1. Mormon Doctrine
  2. Policies and practices
  3. Stuff that your stake president/mission president/seminary teacher/bishop/Sunday School teacher/neighbor told you that doesn’t align with anything from the general level.

So what is is? The point of this post is to glean insights about the things that constitute actual LDS doctrine. I’ve got three things that seem central to me:

  1. Agency
  2. Atonement
  3. Charity

Do you agree with those? What would you add to this list?

37 comments for “What is Mormon Doctrine?

  1. I’ll be back later for more substantial discussion, but I remember coming across this on my mission-

    Alvin F. wrote to ask if there were a rule about pouring the oil with the right hand when administering to the sick. Answering the question, Joseph F. [Smith] took occasion to warn his son against excessive attention to details that tend to obscure the true meaning of the ordinances.
    December 16, 1905

    [Joseph F. replied]
    –The question you ask about anointing seems very simple to me. I think it is the general practice to pour the oil with the right hand. I suppose because most people are right-handed. But there is no law or rule against anointing . . . with the left. We shake with the right hand. In the endowments the signs and tokens are made and given with the right hand. When we lay but one hand on the sick it should be the right. We take the Sacrament with the right hand. The practice makes the rule. But always remember that it is not the rule, or practice, which gives life or force, but the true spirit. There is no good in splitting hairs nor in tickey-technical rules. “The letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.”

    – Joseph F. Smith, From Prophet to Son: Advice of Joseph F. Smith to His Missionary Sons, compiled by Hyrum M. Smith III and Scott G. Kenney [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1981], 93.

  2. Alison, with Agency, Atonement and Charity, you’ve simply provided the “names” of three doctrines; you haven’t defined or explained them. Which, of course, you can’t, which is to say no one can, at least not with complete accuracy and understanding since we are inherently incapable, in our mortal state, of perfectly articulating and comprehending any of the Lord’s teachings.

    I’m not saying that we don’t, or shouldn’t have doctrines; all religions do. But, at best, the doctrines we preach are a rough approximation of certain eternal principles the Lord would like to see us follow. They change with some frequency, and not always for the better. Some are abandoned, others are modified, a few are replaced with “new and improved versions” or, when they fall out of favor, are relabeled “policies.”

    What I guess I’m advocating is an honest admission on our part that whether we call something a doctrine, teaching or principle, on a certain level, it isn’t all that important. What matters is whether “it” affords some spiritual insight and promotes communal and individual righteousness.

    Or perhaps we should simply adopt Justice Potter Stewart’s approach to defining pornography: “I know it when I see it.”

  3. Our doctrines are justly vague and open to significant revision. That’s as it should be. Our primary focus should be on charity and developing our spiritual connection with God. That’s not to say we’re all about practice or ethics rather than doctrine. However our doctrine doesn’t typically move into the area of creedalism and often is there to inform our practices.

  4. There are two questions associated with this: 1) What is doctrine? 2) What are the doctrines?

    To answer the first question, it appears that the term doctrine, in the way that the LDS leaders use it, is a reality that cannot be known about by human beings through plain reason and observation, but only through God’s revelation. For instance, God supposedly revealed to the early Hebrews and early Semite inhabitants of the Americas that all human beings would face a predicament in the afterlife that he was sending his only begotten son Jesus Christ to save them from, on the condition that they kept God’s commandments. When Jesus, who is God, came to the earth, he told people that he was God’s son and the savior of humankind. No one could have known about this by mere observation, only God’s revelation.

    To answer the second question, there are quite a few of them. I would add a couple more key doctrines in the LDS church. 1) You can know things are true by praying about them and strong feeling of the spirit (which is called a testimony). 2) You have to make a formal promise to God in the temple, called a covenant, to consecrate your time and talents to the LDS church in order to be saved from this massive predicament in the afterlife.

    Policies appear to be procedural implements of mortals based on their understanding of doctrine as contained in the scriptures and words of the prophets, but do not in and of themselves constitute God’s words.

  5. I would, with a snarky mindset, suggest the following as being considered doctrine due to the emphasis placed upon them by the Church and Brethren:

    1) Gender is eternal (leaving gender undefined)
    2) Families are eternal (without providing a scriptural basis for this doctrine)
    3) Obedience is the first law of heaven (even though obedience is an action taken upon a law and not a law unto itself)
    4) Priesthood authority is not subject to scrutiny or accountability.
    5) Jesus Christ is Lord and Saviour.

  6. The Creation and The Fall (the other two of Bruce R. McConkie’s “Three Pillars of Eternity”) seem important.

  7. For me personally, I consider doctrine that which is directly associated with my covenants. The law of the gospel and its associated covenant, and the law of sacrifice and its associated covenant, the law of chastity and its associated covenant, and the law of consecration and its associated covenant—for me these are the doctrines. Associated with these doctrines is the cosmology in which those covenants are made (God and Jesus are creators; they formed the earth and humankind, though we do not know how, and that life is eternal and set within a plan.)

    In other words, I learn doctrine when I go to the temple. Ironically, I learn the most doctrine when there is no speaker or authority figure proclaiming “doctrines”, just the liturgy and covenant.

    On the other hand, at church we learn lots of things that are not doctrines. That is why I also say that “Church is where I work, the Temple is where I worship.” Frankly, there is much that is taught in church that is NOT doctrine. The sycophantic mantra of “follow the prophet no matter what” comes to mind. I don’t mind the first three words–to me that is doctrine–but we Mormons always augment our doctrines with traditions, and thus we add the last three words “no matter what” which has just invalidated the doctrine.

    And, alas, as a left-handed person, I have always been seen as a heretic.

  8. Sean, I’m not sure all doctrine is revealed only in scripture. Consider D&C 138 and the doctrines therein. The vision was given in 1918. It was made scripture (canon) in 1976. Did that mean the doctrines from D&C 138 (which I find significant) only were doctrine in 1976? That seems hard to accept. (And of course the proclamation on the family is not yet scripture)

    While gender is left undefined in the proclamation I think they simply mean some kind of essential difference that became sexual difference once we were sexually embodied. While this isn’t sure, it seems pretty clear contextually. I suspect the reason gender as a word was used rather than sex is simply the perception of linguistic propriety and the realization we don’t know about the nature of spirits but they likely aren’t biologically sexual the way our bodies are.

    Regarding “obedience is the first law of heaven” (a phrase I find unfortunate that I think originated with Bruce R. McConkie), it seems wrong to say obedience requires a law. If I tell my son to clean his room I’m not making a new law but a more limited directive. I think it’s that sense Elder McConkie was after. The idea is much more of atonement as leading us to a kind of shared mind with God. This is not divine command theory, as some have portrayed it as, but much more a kind of harmony out of I suspect something more akin to virtue ethics.

    The idea priesthood authority is not subject to accountability is just plain wrong. (I recognize you’re being snarky, but this seems so demonstrate if only by how disobedient leaders are excommunicated that I’m surprised anyone raises it)

    The idea families are eternal having no scriptural basis seems quite odd given D&C 132. Admittedly there are some elements of eternal family not as clear in D&C 132 as in other places. But it is fairly straightforward there.

  9. Doctrine is an odd thing when we consider what the Lord said his doctrine was in rather exclusive terms – repent and follow him.

    There is a lot to unpack in these concepts (what do we need to repent of and why, and what does following him entail and why).

  10. Some other early doctrine that I have been literally told by one LDS leader or another:

    1. Hair longer than the collar is a sin.
    2. White shirts and ties are required by all worthy priesthood holders.
    3. Caffeine is a drug banned by the Word of Wisdom.
    4. Blacks were less valiant in the pre-mortal life
    5. French kissing is heavy petting and is a form of sex that you must repent from.
    6. Raiding girls camp will garner a church court (Okay that was a rumor, but I thought it was true for a time. Stupid me…except I did it anyway!)
    7. If you are a leader you must be clean shaven.
    8. Jesus drank grape juice and not real wine.

    There are more but I do get a chuckle out of these now.

  11. We should probably distinguish between doctrine and perceptions of doctrine. I’m not sure the category of doctrine is problematic just because people make mistakes. Likewise I don’t think science is in any danger because once some people presented phrenology or Freudianism as science.

  12. I wish the church would permit less important things to “allowed to quietly fade from emphasis” but it seems like they are just shifting the emphasis to _other_ unimportant things, like how many earrings a woman has, or what color of shirts men wear, or the means and temperature by which members consume caffeine. The list is extensive.

    The church has always been focused on many trivial unimportant things, in addition to the weighty. I wish it was just cultural, but unfortunately these originate from the pulpit at general conference.

  13. Did the article Approaching Mormon Doctrine issued by the Newsroom in 2007 help or hurt? I think too many people put too much weight on single, isolated statements of leaders which in turn causes it to become church culture. (Ex. “We didn’t allow our children to attend sleepovers when they were young..” creates taboo against ever letting children sleep over regardless of the circumstances.) That, and we often equate counsel to commandment.

  14. My hope (today) for LDS doctrine is kind of at the other end of Henrik Ibsen’s Mrs. Alving’s from*Ghosts*. Alving said, “It was then that I began to look into the seams of your doctrine. I wanted only to pick at a single knot; but when I had got that undone, the whole thing raveled out. And then I understood that it was all machine-sewn.” I hope that LDS doctrine doesn’t comprise finished pieces machine-sewn that may simply unravel the whole thing, but instead includes the creation of pieces that we all work on with holy inspiration to make better all the while. In other words, it’s what gets doctored (healed) as we go, learning and progressing along the way. I think that would include, for example, agency, charity, and the atonement. Doctrine.

  15. 3 Nephi 11:

    31 Behold, verily, verily, I say unto you, I will declare unto you my doctrine.

    Belief in Christ (v33), Baptism (v33), Humble repentance (v37)

    39 Verily, verily, I say unto you, that this is my doctrine, and whoso buildeth upon this buildeth upon my rock, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against them.

    40 And whoso shall declare more or less than this, and establish it for my doctrine, the same cometh of evil, and is not built upon my rock; but he buildeth upon a sandy foundation, and the gates of hell stand open to receive such when the floods come and the winds beat upon them.

    Mind you, the Nephites had previously received teachings on the Priesthood, preexistence, chastity, foreordination, and all kinds of prophecies about their future and the future of the House of Israel. None of these things are included in the simple list of what Christ Himself is willing to call His doctrine. Does it surprise anyone how much we contend over what is doctrine when we ignore the most plain and unambigious definition ever given?

  16. We are here to love, learn and enjoy the beauty of life and live in humble service in order to be worthy of the wonder of creating the universe in the hereafter. The rest of the doctrine all stems from that.

  17. My favorite doctrine is that beards are evil, while mustaches are somewhat less so. I would love to see what would happen if a general authority refused to shave his beard.

  18. Alex Trebek: “An unfortunately named book, the worst possible sacrament talk assignment, tomorrow’s ‘just a policy,’ and an ever-shifting standard that not even prophets, seers and revelators can agree upon, but which local leaders are nonetheless obligated to enforce.”

    Ken Jennings: “What is Mormon Doctrine?”

  19. Thanks for the good comments, folks. Hopefully I’ll be responding soon. You should’ve seen the firestorm this caused on the Mormon Transhumanist Association (MTA) Facebook page. heh You’re all so gentile here!

  20. Alison, may I suggest adding resurrection from the dead to your list? Joseph Smith said that if Jesus Christ hadn’t accomplished that, nothing else would matter.

  21. No mention of the Restoration as a doctrine? What’s the purpose of Mormonism without the Restoration?

    Of course, no one knows what doctrine is, as evidenced by the post and comments but not to worry, there is only one doctrine that matters: obedience is the first law of heaven. If you are obedient to what current leaders say is doctrine, you will do just fine. If that bothers you, Mormonism will be a struggle.

  22. Adam Smith, I’m not sure if you’re being serious or ironic in your post. Assuming you are being serious, if you start with “obedience”, to me it seems you are missing something: how do you know what to be obedient to? Obedience to leaders, you may say, but what leaders?

    For me, if something is a step two, it cannot be a foundation doctrine, much less the only one that matters. Even obedience to God must come as a second step, since a person must decide on some way of knowing what God is saying to her.

  23. My daughter was somewhat disturbed by the online seminary devotional the other day. “Is that canon?” she asked, “that Adam and Eve didn’t have a circulatory system before the fall?” I told her no it wasn’t. She looked really ticked off, and asked “so why are they teaching us things that aren’t canon?” Why indeed!

  24. On the one hand, this ^^ is ridiculous. On the other hand, it’s virtually impossible to teach anything without invoking non-canonical ideas, terminology, or explanation. The best you can do is distinguish cleanly between them, and teach students to identify what scripture says, what it implies, and what bs (cultural assumptions, whatever) we’re bringing to the text ourselves

  25. I agree Ben. My daughter is pretty hung up on canon in other spheres as well at the moment. It’s a word she uses frequently at the moment, so is also interested in it in a church setting. But she’d definitely appreciate the richer discussion, so long as what is and what is not canon is clearly delineated.

  26. I like this:
    Joseph Smith stated:
    “The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it.”
    (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company [1976], 121).

  27. While it’s clearly not canonical that Adam and Eve did or did not have a circulatory system, it seems reasonable to ask why they would. Whatever a terrestrial or celestial body is, it presumably isn’t the same as ours in biology. It seems fair to question the importance of red blood cells being given oxygen by blood. If you were designing a body from a position of high technology rather than evolution on a particular planet Would they have red blood cells and then an immune system working with white blood cells and targeting based upon molecular targets the ways our does?

    The tradition that terrestrial bodies and resurrected bodies don’t have blood seem to be just speculation. Yet I’m not sure it’s speculation that’s wrong. While I’m sure our resurrected bodies will be similar to ours, I’d also assume many solutions arrived at by evolution for function are replaced. So hopefully we don’t have blood vessels in the way in our eyes, our intestinal track isn’t so dependent upon the right gut flora, etc.

  28. As a non-Mormon I have to ask, not just what is actually doctrinal to the Mormon church, but what parts of the ‘doctrine’ separate the Mormon church from other Christian religions? (Nothing Allison mentioned in the OP seems unique there). Is it doctrine or organization or something else that makes you feel ‘Mormon’ despite the teachings that you hope will eventually be dismissed as ‘policies’?

  29. The main doctrines that we differ on from traditional conservative Christianity are

    1. rejections of creation ex nihilo in preference to organization out of always existing matter
    2. essential embodiment of God the Father
    3. spirits as essentially material rather than immaterial as in Cartesian or Thomist views.
    4. ability to be like God in a more robust fashion than traditional Christianity allows due to (1)
    5. emphasis on important of authority for ordinances (although that’s mainly a break with Protestants)
    6. belief in expanding canon
    7. belief that Christ appears to the Americas soon after his death

    There are lots of other differences but those are the core ones.

  30. Thanks for those thoughts, Clark. #4 seems to be the big one for my husband, and I suppose it differs from Buddhism in that the individual retains individuality and action rather than becoming part of a greater whole. #3 is one I’d never heard before, despite growing up Mormon, though it’s not unique to Mormonism (as evidenced by the ‘weight of a soul’ experiments). What is your source for calling this doctrine? #6 and #2 seem to be an unofficial (at least) part of most religions, and I would argue that ironically #6 is officially part of Mormon doctrine, but is unofficially not really accepted (if the brethren haven’t already done it, it must not be right!)

  31. Yeah, technically deification is a Christian doctrine although not one most know. However because of the absolute gulf between God and creatures it was always seen as receiving a kind of divine image. There were further differences between eastern Christianity (where the doctrine was seen as quite important) and western Christianity (where it tended to get downplayed more). A constant theme in Christian history is the problem of Christian platonists (often part and parcel of mystic movements). Those Platonists tended to efface the distinction between God and creature entailed by (1) to a more Platonic notion where things are made out of God. There would be regular burnings at the stake or at minimum heresy charges in western Christianity over this issue.

    Mormonism is a little different from the Christian Platonist since we tend to make more of a difference between God and any individual. So unlike Platonism (or many forms of Buddhism) the difference between God and us is never really effaced. Thus deification for Mormons is rarely taken as a kind of mystic union but much more being like Christ in the flesh. So in a way Mormons are actually more like traditional Christians despite our rejection of creation ex nihilo in that we maintain that gap. That said some Mormon theologians like Orson Pratt did move more in the Platonic direction, albeit with more of a materialist thrust. However on this point their theology never really caught on.

    The idea of spirits as material actually has a long history in Christian thought. The traditional notion of ghosts as sort of like a gaseous substance really is remnants of folk traditions where spirits are material. You find this in several significant Renaissance philosophers. Part of this is, I suspect, due to it being very hard to make sense of what an immaterial substance is. People tend to (erroneously) think it’s still spatial but just invisible. The very idea of the weight of a soul some atheists like to attack Christians with is really critiquing these folk traditions within western Christianity. Typically the atheists in question don’t realize it’s at odds with most mainstream Christian theology. (There are other problems as well – since it might be a soul just weights very little or doesn’t interact gravitationally)

    Regarding sources for calling these doctrine, again doctrine is a little loose in Mormonism. The focus tends to be more on practice. However D&C 130 & 131 cover several of the points. The meaning of (4) is a bit more debatable as it’s typically a teaching taught outside of canon by both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. The King Follet Discourse is usually appealed to it although some Mormon thinkers like Blake Ostler reject the King Follet Discourse as a means of grounding theology. In any case it appears to be a common teaching from the Nauvoo era of Mormonism through contemporary sermons even if not technically part of canon. Whether it counts as doctrine probably depends upon how one defines “being like God.” I left it intentionally vague since I’m not sure we know what it means.

    Regarding (6) Mormon canon has expanded quite a few times, most recently with additions to the Pearl of Great Price. D&C 138 was added early in the 20th century. I think most Mormons treat things like the proclamation on the family as quasi-canon even if it hasn’t been canonized yet. I don’t quite see why you’d see this as non really accepted. From what I can see people get really excited every General Conference hoping new big changes are happening. I’d say that many recent changes from the mundane (changes to the priesthood quorums of the Seventy) to the significant (opening priesthood up to all males in the 70’s) have taken place. I think most people are always hoping for new canon changes.

    It’s also the case that Mormons expect there to be many future new scriptures. So only around ? of the Book of Mormon was translated. (116 pages of translation was lost, but also at least half was sealed and not allowed to be translated) There’s also expectation of scriptures to appear from other groups.

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