“When moved upon by the Holy Ghost”

At this point in the year, we’ve finally caught back up with the context of where we began—Section 1.  The conference in early November 1831 (at which Sections 1, 67 and 68 were recorded) was focused on publishing the revelations that Joseph Smith had been—a project which would come to be known as the Book of Commandments and later The Doctrine and Covenants.

It is, perhaps, inevitable in a religious movement that believes in both being led by prophets and that everyone can receive revelation that there are going to be tensions about who is able to speak for the Lord.  From a revelation sparked by the Hiram Page incident in September 1830, we have the statement that: “No one shall be appointed to Receive commandments & Revelations in this Church excepting my Servent Joseph for he Receiveth them even as Moses.”[1]  This placed the burden of receiving revelations for the Church squarely on the shoulders of Joseph Smith as the prophet of the Church.  At the November 1831 conference, however, members of the Church expressed concerns about whether the revelations were the Lord’s words or whether they were Joseph Smith’s words.  Section 67 issued the challenge to “appoint him that is the most wise among you or if there be any among you that shall make one like unto it then ye are Justified in saying that ye do not know that is true” as a way to rebut those concerns.[2]  Section 1 also attempted to address these concerns by stating that the revelations “were given unto my servants … after the manner of their language,” even though they “are of [the Lord],” but ultimately sidesteps answering whether the revelations were word-for-word dictations from the Lord or not by stating that it doesn’t matter whether they are Joseph Smith’s words or the Lord’s words because, either way, they are approved by the Lord: “Whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.”[3]  The overall purpose of these statements was to shore up Joseph Smith’s role as revelator and mouthpiece for the Lord, consolidating the right to speak for the Lord to one person.

In the midst of that same November 1831 conference, however, we have reminders that other people can speak for the Lord as well.  For example, Section 1 states that the Lord “called upon my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and spake unto him from heaven, and gave him commandments … that every man might speak in the name of God the Lord, even the Savior of the world.”[4]  That indicates that one of the central goals of the Restoration is to facilitate revelation for everyone.  Likewise, we have a significant statement in a revelation directed to a group of four elders at the conference who wanted to know the Lord’s will concerning them.  In that revelation (now Section 68), it is stated that the elders should “proclaim the everlasting Gospel by the spirit of the living God.”  The revelation went on to state that:

this is the ensample unto them that they shall speak as they are moved upon by the Holy Ghost & whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be Scripture shall be the will of the Lord shall be the mind of the Lord shall be the voice of the Lord & shall be the power of God unto Salvation[5]

This indicates that any elder can speak for the Lord “when moved upon by the Holy Ghost.”

Still, this opens up the question: How do we know when someone is authentically “moved upon by the Holy Ghost”?  In other words, if everyone can speak for the Lord, how do we recognize what is actually from the Lord?  We can say that we must recognize it through confirmation by the Holy Spirit, but the reality is that, as humans, we’re generally pretty bad at discerning what is the Spirit and what are our own thoughts.  This makes it quite difficult at times to recognize truth or to identify official Church doctrine.  The latter, though easier than the former, is complicated by the fact that individual presidents of the Church and the other high-ranking officers of the Church each have their own set of beliefs and opinions that shape official doctrine, but those don’t always line up with each other, particularly when compared over time.  This makes it difficult to pin down what the Church as an institution accepts as the word of Lord and as official doctrine.  While human beings may be bad at discerning the Holy Ghost, however, we are relatively good at systematizing things.  As a result, over the years, several systems and guiderails have been outlined or suggested by various individuals to help make sense of what the Church’s official stance is on a given topic.

One of the key touchstones from Church leaders is a 1954 address given by President J. Reuben Clark Jr. at BYU.  Given in the midst of a behind-the-scenes effort to respond to Joseph Fielding Smith’s publication of Man, His Origin and Destiny (which advocated positions on topics like evolution to which President David O. McKay did not agree),[6] the talk focused on the quote from Section 68 that was cited above, asking the question “how shall we know when the things they have spo­ken were said as they were ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost?’”  Clark outlined a series of points to use in guiding whether or not we should consider something as having been inspired by the Holy Ghost, largely using statements from the Doctrine and Covenants to support his statements:

  • First, he indicated that we “must be guided by the written word” and are “not to rely upon his own ideas and concepts.” In other words, texts accepted as canonical scripture in the Church have primacy in determining whether other statements are coming from the Lord.
  • Second, he emphasized that the first principles (repentance, keeping the commandments, faith on the Savior, baptism and receiving the Holy Ghost) should be our primary focus, since he felt that: “It would not be easy to preach false doctrines, undetected, on the first principles of the Gospel.”
  • Third, he noted that while “some of the General Authorities have had assigned to them a spe­cial calling” that includes “the right, the power, and authority to declare the mind and will of God to his people,” only those officers who are “spiritually endowed as a prophet, seer, and revelator” have that calling. Further, “only the President of the Church … 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.”  Because of that, all other authorities “must act and teach subject to the over-all power and authority of the President of the Church.”
  • Fourth, he acknowledged that “there are many doctrines … that have not been of­ficially defined and declared” and that there have been times when apostles have “spo­ken ‘out of turn,’ so to speak” by stepping beyond the bound in the third point in stating beliefs about these ill-defined doctrines. Beyond that, “There have been rare occasions when even the President of the Church in his preaching and teaching has not been ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost.’ You will recall the Prophet Joseph declared that a prophet is not always a prophet.”  The only ways he indicated we could know this had happened was “by the testimony of the Holy Ghost in the body of the members” as a Church or when a subsequent President of the Church declares that the previous teaching was wrong.[7]

Thus, President Clark indicated that the baseline rules are that not everything a general authority says is scripture, that there are well-defined tenets that can be looked at as reliable and other doctrines that are more speculative in nature (and thus less reliable), that the Church’s canon has primacy in determining doctrine, and that the current President of the Church is the only fully-authorized arbiter of Church doctrine.

While Clark’s address was notably cited by Elder D. Todd Christofferson in a 2012 general conference address, a more fully-developed system of determining doctrine based on President Clark’s remarks comes from BYU professor Robert Millet.  As outlined in his 2003 essay, “What Is Our Doctrine?”, he looked at ways for religious educators in the Church to “keep the doctrine pure.”  A few of his key points were to “teach directly from the scriptures, the standard works,” to “present the doctrine the same way the prophets in our own day present it—in terms of both content and emphasis,” to “pay special attention to the scriptural commentary offered by living apostles and prophets in general conference addresses,” to “focus on fundamentals, and emphasize what matters most,” and to “acknowledge that there are some things we simply do not know.”  While that list seems to be derivative from Clark’s address, Millet went on to state that:

In determining whether something is a part of the doctrine of the Church, we might ask, Is it found within the four standard works?  Within official declarations or proclamations?  Is it discussed in general conference or other official gatherings by general Church leaders today?  Is it found in the general handbook or approved curriculum of the Church today?  If it meets at least one of these criteria, we can feel secure and appropriate about teaching it.[8]

This takes things a bit beyond President Clark’s approach by providing more systematic approach of weighing beliefs based on current Church publications.

The latter part of Millet’s approach bears similarities to an idea proposed by Latter-day Saint and sociologist Armand Mauss.  While addressing the issue of the racist teachings that supported the priesthood and temple ban on individuals with Black African ancestry, Mauss noted that “the changing definitions surrounding the black man in Mormon history raises the question … of just what is authentic doctrine in the Church?”  He proposed viewing teachings through the lens of a “scale of authenticity,” with four levels of doctrinal authenticity in the Church—canonical, official, authoritative, and folklore.  In this scale, canon doctrine includes “both doctrines and (for these purposes) policy statements which the prophets represent to the Church as having been received by direct revelation, and which are subsequently accepted as such by the sustaining vote of the membership” (in other words, our scriptures or Standard Works).  Official doctrine includes “statements from the president or from the First Presidency … also, church lesson manuals, magazines, or other publications appearing under the explicit auspices of the First Presidency.”  Authoritative doctrine is characterized as “other talks, teachings and publications of authorities on Mormon doctrine and scripture,” particularly those from people with authority from “high ecclesiastical office (e.g., Brucer R. McConkie), or from formal scholarly credentials and research (e.g., Hugh Nibley).”  Folklore, or popular doctrine, is a residual category for anything that cannot claim the authority of the higher three categories, such as “apocryphal prophesies that often circulate around the Church; common beliefs … and a host of other notions having either local or general circulation.”

Mauss went on to indicate that “a particular doctrine can be found in all four categories,” and that “it is rare for a doctrine in a given category to not have some ‘following’ in the lower categories.”  He felt that “what becomes crucial for us to determine, however, is how high up the scale is the primary source of a given doctrine or policy.”[9]  He also indicate that these categories were not permanent for any given doctrine, with changes in both directions having occurred in the past (such as happened with the doctrines surrounding the priesthood/temple ban, since their status has gone from folklore to official doctrine and back to folklore over the course of the Church’s history).[10]  Changes do make the process messy, since it takes time for doctrines to shift between categories, resulting in some contention between members who assess the level of authenticity of a given doctrine differently.

Systems such as those described by Clark, Millet, and Mauss are useful in determining what the Church currently accepts as official doctrine, or (in other words), what statements can be officially treated as having been given while the speaker was “moved upon by the Holy Ghost.”  In any case, measuring my own words by any of these systems, I cannot be said to be saying anything authoritative, so I’ll wrap this post up here.

What do you think of these different systems?  How do you approach discerning what statements are inspired by the Lord and which ones aren’t as inspired?  What are some statements and beliefs that you’ve had to weigh in this way?



[1]  “Revelation, September 1830–B [D&C 28],” p. 40, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed March 16, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-september-1830-b-dc-28/1

[2] “Revelation, circa 2 November 1831 [D&C 67],” p. 115, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed December 26, 2020, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-circa-2-november-1831-dc-67/2. Compare D&C 67:6-7.

[3] D&C 1:24

[4] D&C 1:17, 20.

[5] “Revelation, 1 November 1831–A [D&C 68],” p. 113, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed June 23, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-1-november-1831-a-dc-68/1

[6] See Gregory A. Prince and Wm. Robert Wright, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (Salt Lake City, University of Utah Press, 2005), 46-49.

[7] Clark, J. Reuben. “When Are the Writings or Sermons of Church Leaders Entitled to the Claim of Scripture?,” in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought Vol. 12, No. 2, 68-81.

[8] Robert L. Millet, “What is Our Doctrine?”, The Religious Educator, Vol 4 No 3, 2003, 15-33.

[9] See pp. 32-34 in Armand Mauss, “The Fading of Pharaoh’s Curse,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 14, 3 (Fall 1981):10-45, https://www.dialoguejournal.com/articles/the-fading-of-the-pharaohs-curse-the-decline-and-fall-of-the-priesthoods-ban-against-blacks/.

[10] See Harris, Matthew L; Bringhurst, Newell G.. The LDS Gospel Topics Series: A Scholarly Engagement (p. 298). Signature Books. Kindle Edition.

2 comments for ““When moved upon by the Holy Ghost”

  1. “[Church doctrine] is complicated by the fact that individual presidents of the Church and the other high-ranking officers of the Church each have their own set of beliefs and opinions that shape official doctrine.”

    Many scholars have beliefs so entrenched, they are unable to differentiate between faith and belief. If we do differentiate faith from belief, we can ask the question:

    How do we “define” and “discern” doctrine?

    This key helps me define doctrine:

    Faith is informed by Doctrine;
    Doctrine is informed by Ordinance;
    Ordinance is informed by Covenant.

    This key helps me discern doctrine:

    There is no doctrine, except it expounds ordinance. There is no ordinance, except it expounds covenant.

    I find that contention, confusion, and historical hiccups concerning doctrine have root in belief or belief systems. Pharisees will sell us beliefs and call loyalty to their beliefs, “faith.” We should be careful to recognize this.

    When President Nelson boldly and prophetically divorced “Mormonism” from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, he did so, in part, to free the Church from the culture, beliefs, and belief systems that had mingled into and become Mormonism.

  2. Thank you for taking on this convoluted and fluid topic. I have constructed and tried to live by “the gospel according to charlene” for quite some time. I consider this something for my life and not what I teach others unless I’m asked directly. Even then, I try to conclude by encouraging the listener(s) to do their own research and prayerful search to determine validity. Some examples that varied from current official teachings:
    -when first reading the BoM as a young teen in the 1960s, 2 Nephi 26:33 became a foundation of my faith and actions. This egalitarian God resonated with me.
    -a decade later as a young married, I made decisions regarding birth control to manage my own family’s situation.
    -another decade and I was an employed mother of young children. I determined that I had to make decisions for my life and be accountable to God before accountability to church.
    -late 1990s, PoFam had serious stumbling blocks. After careful consideration, I determined that if it were put before the church body for canonization, it could be the end of my membership
    -Nov 2015 POX was a real kick in my gut. I could feel no love in the proclamation and talked openly with my bishop about all my feelings regarding it.

    I consider it my responsibility to work out my decisions and live the way I believe is in accordance with the way I understand God. My covenants are between me and God, not between me and the church. I may not be right, but I’ll have to work that out with God directly.

Comments are closed.