Important Documents from Latter-day Saint History

I’ve always had the idea running in the back of my mind to compile a list of the most important documents across the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that are not in the scriptures nor book-length publications.  Documents in the list include important summaries of doctrine that capture the thought of an era, documents that outlined and solidified an approach to policy or doctrine in the Church, or which signaled some significant changes.  I’m going to take a stab at it here, though no doubt it will fall far short of the goal.  Still, I’ll try to present in approximate chronological order and break it up into four broad eras, roughly following the time periods covered by each volume of the Saints history series.

Period 1: Up to 1846

Period 2: 1846-1893

  • 1847 Brigham Young’s Dream of Joseph Smith
    • This dream where Brigham Young asks Joseph Smith about the practice of adoption sealings of that time includes the memorable quote about listening to the Holy Ghost. It also led to a lesser focus on adoption sealings.
  • 1851 Brigham Young’s Statement on the Word of Wisdom
    • Whether it was the intention at the time or not, this moment was used at the turn of the twentieth century as the time when the Word of Wisdom was adopted as a commandment by general vote of the Church membership.
  • 1852 Brigham Young’s Statement on the Priesthood Ban
    • Not all significant documents are good ones. This one is the official point at which we can say the priesthood and temple ban on individuals of black African descent went into full effect.
  • 1852, Orson Pratt on Plural Marriage
    • This was the official announcement by the Church that we were practicing plural marriage and also provided the main apologetic defenses for the practice.
  • 1853, Orson Pratt, “Celestial Marriage”
    • Another significant document written in defense of plural marriage, this article includes both one of the earliest versions of interpreting Jacob 2 in light of the Church practicing polygamy and the publication of the wording for the plural marriage sealing ordinance.
  • 1865, Proclamation of the First Presidency and the Twelve Apostles
    • Written in response to some publications by Elder Orson Pratt that proposed controversial understandings of the nature of God, this document outlined the order of the Church that new doctrines need to be established by the First Presidency.
  • 1867, Brigham Young Discourse, December 8
    • After he disbanded Relief Society for over 20 years, this discourse marks the official green light for reorganizing the Church-wide Relief Society.
  • 1868 Eliza R. Snow’s Commission to Reorganize the Relief Society
    • The recollection documents the president of the Church’s vision for the reorganized Relief Society as communicated to the society’s president.
  • 1868, Eliza R. Snow, “Female Relief Society”
    • Written by Eliza R. Snow when she was traveling throughout Utah Territory to oversee the reestablishment of the Church-wide Relief Society, this provided an explanation of the society’s basic organizational patterns and objectives and tied the institution to the Nauvoo Relief Society and the New Testament Church.
  • 1869, Eliza R. Snow, “Let Us Cultivate Ourselves”
    • This is an example of the addresses President Snow gave as she traveled around to reestablish the Relief Society, advocating for cultivating themselves as part of the society and caring for those in need.
  • 1877, First Presidency Circular Letter
    • This letter served as the charter document for Brigham Young’s priesthood reforms during his final years, standardizing stake and ward organization throughout the Church.
  • 1882 John Taylor 13 Oct 1882 Revelation
    • One of several revelations received by John Taylor while he led the Church, this is one of only two that were published. It dealt with Church organizational matters, particularly the call of three men to fill vacancies in the leading quorums of the Church.
  • 1883, “To the Seventies”
    • This is the other document to include a published revelation by President John Taylor, this one was focused on organizing the quorums of the Seventies by geography rather than ordination.
  • 1887, Wilford Woodruff Letter to Heber J. Grant
    • This letter was important in establishing the current practice of the senior apostle becoming the president of the Church after the death of his predecessor. It was originally meant to convince Heber J. Grant that it should be the practice of the Church and was subsequently used by President Grant to assert his right to lead after Joseph F. Smith’s death against claims by the patriarch of the Church.
  • 1890 George Q. Cannon Remarks on the Manifesto
    • When the decision to have the Church stop practicing plural marriages was announced in a conference, President George Q. Cannon was asked to speak and he used the opportunity to share the rationales for stopping a defining practice of the Church.
  • 1893 Mattie Horne Tingey, “The School of Experience”
    • This document is significant as a presentation from a member of the Church to the World’s Congress of Representative Women and as an example of introducing significant beliefs of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—including the belief in a Heavenly Mother—to an audience of people from a variety of faith traditions.
  • 1893 Salt Lake City Temple Dedicatory Prayer
    • The Salt Lake Temple represents the culmination of decades of work during the early settlement of Utah by Latter-day Saints. The prayer to dedicate this temple is a nice counterpoint to the Kirtland Temple dedicatory prayer and addresses some of the major concerns of the time.

Period 3: 1893-1955

  • 1894 Wilford Woodruff Sermon on The Law of Adoption
    • This discourse included the disclosure of a revelation to focus temple sealings on uniting biological families rather than sealing oneself to significant leaders of the Church. It led directly to the formation of the Church’s renowned genealogical research system.
  • 1896 Political Manifesto
    • As the Church distanced itself somewhat from politics and joined into national political parties in the United States of America, there was some discord, particularly over the efforts of Democrats Apostle Moses Thatcher and Seventy B. H. Roberts to run for political office in congress. These disagreements frequently centered on acrimony between Church leaders who were Republicans (often trying to curtail the activities of Democrats in the Church hierarchy) and those who were Democrats (who resented efforts to curtail their activities.  This document was a resolution for leaders of the Church to not run for political office without approval from their superiors and for the Church to not interfere in the choices of individual Church members in political matters.
  • 1898 Discourse by George Q. Cannon
    • This is one of the earliest signals given by general authorities that slowing down the gathering to Utah was considered a good idea.  While it didn’t mark a change in doctrine about gathering, it did mark a change in practice by asking missionaries to tell converts “in the various lands where they embrace the Gospel to remain quiet for awhile; to not be anxious to break up their homes to gather to Zion.”
  • 1899, Discourse on Tithing by President Lorenzo Snow
    • This is a record of the famous discourse of President Lorenzo Snow in St. George where he announced that the word of the Lord was that Latter-day Saints needed to return to paying tithing. This launched a church-wide campaign on tithing that laid the foundation for the Church to resolve debts and other financial concerns caused by anti-polygamy legislation in the United States of America.
  • 1900 Jane Manning James’s Life Sketch
    • This document is significant as one of the few documents by a well-known African American member of the Church during the 19th century to record their life’s experiences.
  • 1901, Lorenzo Snow Sermon, “The Grand Destiny of Man”
    • This is one of the most-often cited documents for a description of the Latter-day Saint view of apotheosis, including the famous couplet “As man now is, God once was; / As God now is, man may be.” I could do without the victim blaming for domestic abuse towards the end, though.
  • 1904, The Second Manifesto
    • After the original Manifesto, members of the Church continued to practice plural marriage in secret. Faced with a national investigation during the Reed Smoot Hearings, though, Church leaders were forced to take action to end plural marriage.  This document added teeth to the previous Manifesto by making performing or entering new plural marriages an excommunicable offense.
  • 1907, A Declaration to Establishing a More Perfect Understanding Respecting Ourselves and Our Religion
    • As national attention was focused on the Church during the Reed Smoot Hearings and their aftermath, this document was an effort by leaders of the Church to state what the Church believed in and practiced, a sort of updated and greatly expanded Articles of Faith. It was shared in a general conference of the Church and adopted by vote.
  • 1907, B. H. Roberts, “Immortality of Man”
    • H. Roberts is one of the most influential theologians in the Church, and this represents one of his key contributions. In an effort to reconcile Joseph Smith’s description of coming into God’s family as an adoption of eternally existing spirits with subsequent Church leaders’ teachings that coming into God’s family was a process of sexual reproduction and birth of a premortal spirit, Roberts proposed a multilayered creation where an eternally existent “intelligence” is adopted by God and then subsequently given a spirit body through a birth process.  This is one of the main documents where the idea is discussed in detail.
  • 1910, The Origin of Man
    • During an era where organic evolution was a matter of religious debate, this document was written as a doctrinal exposition of the Church’s position on the subject.
  • 1910, Rudger Clawson, “Our Mother in Heaven”
    • This is one of the most thorough defenses of the idea of a Mother in Heaven to be written by a member of the leading councils of the Church (Elder Clawson was an apostle).
  • 1911, B. H. Roberts, “The Atonement”
    • This represents Elder Roberts’s contribution to a uniquely Latter-day Saint view of the Atonement of Jesus Christ by shifting the reasons for punishment to a natural consequence of universal laws.
  • 1916, The Father and the Son
    • Written during an era of theological exploration and clarification, this document shaped the Church’s understanding of the relationship between Jesus and God the Father throughout the 20th
  • 1917 Epistle to the Relief Society Concerning These War Times
    • This is a statement by the Relief Society presidency during WWI, incorporating elements of a statement by President Joseph F. Smith into a general statement on war and how members should conduct themselves during martial conflicts.
  • 1925, First Presidency Treatise, The Mormon View of Evolution
    • As the Scopes Trial drew national attention to the debates over evolution in religion, the Church issued a new statement on evolution. It is essentially an update to the “Origin of Man” document above, but it is less overtly opposed to organic evolution as an idea.
  • 1925, Melvin J. Ballard, Dedicatory Prayer of South America
    • South America (in particular, Brazil) is one of the areas of greatest growth in the Church. This is the text of the dedicatory prayer offered for missionary work on that continent.
  • 1931, First Presidency Statement to General Authorities on Evolution
    • Made in the midst of a public argument between Joseph Fielding Smith and B. H. Roberts about evolution, this small document (included in the introductory text in the link) still stands as the official stance of the Church on evolution—basically that we don’t have a stance.
  • 1938, J. Reuben Clark, Jr. Sermon, “The Charted Course of the Church in Education”
    • This is a document that is used in the Church for laying out an approach to educating in seminary, institute, etc.
  • 1942, First Presidency Statement on War
    • In the midst of WWII, this lengthy statement was shared in general conference as the Church’s official stance on warfare and service in the military.
  • 1954, J. Reuben Clark, Jr. Sermon, “When are Church Leader’s Words Entitled to the Claim of Scripture?”
    • In an effort to mitigate the impact of written works by Joseph Fielding Smith that advocate anti-evolution views, President David O. McKay asked J. Reuben Clark, Jr. to go to BYU and give an address that made it clear that apostles do not determine Church doctrine. This address still forms a basis of how doctrine is determined in the Church today.

Period 4: 1955-2021


So, there you have it—my list of documents that I’ve noticed are particularly significant or noteworthy over the course of the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  I recognize that I have my blind spots (especially when it comes to the international church) and that my interests affect my selection (i.e., I probably focus more on discussions about a Heavenly Mother than other compilers would).  That being said, I would love feedback to improve this list and make it a solid place to reference important documents for Latter-day Saints.  With that being the case:

18 comments for “Important Documents from Latter-day Saint History

  1. Needs something in Period 4 with reference to women who are not Mother in Heaven. For good or ill — I’m not saying which — that would likely be Ezra Taft Benson’s 1987 “To the Mothers in Zion.”

    For the international church, perhaps a candidate would be David O. McKay’s talk at the dedication of a chapel in Scotland in 1952, when he spoke about the church being “truly international” and able to thrive beyond “the western deserts of the United States.” Although he didn’t locate the precise spot for the Swiss Temple on that trip, he did visit Switzerland with the idea of building a temple there and began looking for a site. (I mean, it might make for a more impressive document if he had given an entire speech dedicated to the building of temples in Europe while standing on the site of the future first temple there, but he didn’t — so that chapel dedication makes the handiest substitute I can think of.)

  2. This is fantastic. This post is worth publishing as a stand-alone website for utility and reference.

    For me, the Rocky Mountain Prophesy marks a significant change in doctrinal trajectory and the course of the Restoration.

    Also Valerie Hudson’s “Two Trees” lecture.

    And many of Margaret Barker’s lectures at BYU/FAIR, etc., twenty years from now, will have had a significant impact on LDS theology, though I assume she won’t make the list because she isn’t yet baptised.

  3. For me, another President Benson entry would be “Beware of Pride” from the April, 1989 General Conference.

  4. Thanks Ardis. I’ve added two entries along the lines of women in leaders’ discourses in period 4, including Benson’s. As far as President McKay, do you know if there is a good way to access older issues of the Church News online, or is it something I need to go to the Church History Library for?

    Thanks for the suggestions, Travis. As far as Barker, I’m not opposed to having her on the list, but I also haven’t seen a significant impact from the lectures yet (though, as you say, they may have a large impact down the road). As far a stand-alone website, I’ll keep that in mind–maybe even work on reformatting the blog where I posted a lot of the referenced documents to make them more accessible.

    Thanks Stephen!

    I’ve gone back and forth on including “Beware of Pride”, Terry. Still might, but need to keep thinking on it.

  5. That would qualify as one that is in the scriptures, so falls outside the scope of this list.

  6. Those make good additions, Chad — the ETB talk, especially, is fitting for your list because it wasn’t just informational but caused a lot of reflection and changed plans (and sometimes feelings of guilt) among young women.

    As first a page/later a section of the Deseret News, the Church News is included in — do you have access?

  7. Ah. Yes, I do have access. I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit, but to be honest, I’d seen it referenced just as Church News so much, I had forgotten that it wasn’t its own periodical.

    Thanks for the suggestion, John! I’ll take a closer look when I have some time

  8. I would include Elder McConkie’s message All Are Alike Unto God, Gene England’s Why the Church is as True as the Gospel (1985), President Manson officially adding “helping the poor” as a fourth fundamental mission of the Church in 2009, President Oaks’ April 2014 Conference address concerning women and the priesthood, and President Ballard’s 2016 address to CES educators.

  9. I would also add early and influential documentation concerning Family Home Evening and Church Correlation, the reorganization of the Seventy during the administration of President Kimball, the cessation of the office of Patriarch to the Church, and the designation of other emeritus general authorities asa common practice. Maybe documentation about female general officers being active participants in more of the leading councils/committees of the Church as well. Materials concerning institutional support for the JST in Church teaching should also be considered.

  10. Thanks for the suggestions Justin. I’ve incorporated many of them. I considered President Monson’s addition, but I had trouble finding a primary source and also found that it has been superseded in the current handbook with something else anyway.

  11. This is a very nice list, but you have missed powerful documents like Oliver Cowdery’s 8 letters to W. W. Phelps starting in 1834!

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