Categorizing Mormon Doctrine

Defining Mormon Doctrine can be a difficult task.  Not in defining the core doctrines, of course.  But rather, in defining the corollaries which follow. 

Armand Mauss has designated four categories of Mormon doctrine as “an operational construct [and] not a theological one”, which was “derived from empirical induction, rather than from anything formal.”[1] Mauss’ structure proves to be extremely useful in evaluating and judging the authenticity of Mormon doctrine and observing how these various doctrines find place within not just the Church’s theological framework, but also the cultural underpinnings which are highly influenced by doctrinal notions. Mauss’ categories include, canon doctrine, official doctrine (and policy), authoritative doctrine, and popular doctrine. These categories represent a “scale of authenticity” and are helpful in assigning, or at least approximating the priority of LDS doctrinal conceptions.[2]

Mauss identifies canon doctrine as both “doctrines and 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.” The KJV Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price “obviously fall into this highest category of authenticity.”

Official doctrine is described as “nearly as important” as canon doctrine, and includes “statements from the president or from the First Presidency, whether to priesthood leaders or to the world as a whole…church lesson manuals, magazines, [and/or] other publications appearing under the explicit auspices of the First Presidency.”[3] Mauss is careful to explain that “General Conference addresses in their oral form should not routinely be included here, or if so, only tentatively, given the revisions that they have frequently undergone before being allowed to appear in print.”[4] Further, “there is no assumption of infallibility here, but only that the legitimate spokesmen for the Church are expressing its official position at a given point in time.” It should also be pointed out that there is a marked difference between statements by members of the First Presidency and statements made by the First Presidency as a whole. The latter seem to carry much more weight.

Authoritative doctrine includes “all of the other talks, teachings and publication of authorities on Mormon doctrines and scriptures, whether or not these are published by a church press like Deseret Book.” These teachings and publications are presumed authoritative due to the “speaker’s high ecclesiastical office”, “formal scholarly credentials” (and I would add quasi-Church endorsement as in the case of a well-respected BYU professor), or “from both”. Mauss offers Bruce R. McConkie, Hugh Nibley, and James Talmage as examples of these “authoritative” sources respectfully.

The least authentic form of Mormon doctrine is popular doctrine which Mauss identifies as “folklore.” This doctrine often includes “apocryphal prophecies that often circulate around the Church” and other common beliefs that have either “local or general circulation.” Mauss notes that “occasionally a popular doctrine will be considered subversive enough by the General Authorities to warrant official condemnation, but usually folklore flourishes unimpeded by official notice.”

Clearly, “a particular doctrine can be found in all four categories simultaneously” and “such would ideally be the case for canon doctrine.” Thus Mauss’ “’authenticity scale’ may have a cumulative property in many cases” and in fact, “it is rare for a doctrine in a given category not to have some ‘following’ in the lower categories.” In evaluating authoritative LDS doctrine then, “it becomes crucial for us to determine… how high up the scale is the primary source of a given doctrine or policy.” In practice “this determination is rarely made, or even considered, by most Church members, who therefore remain very susceptible to folklore, as well as to doctrines that may be authoritative or even official, for a time, but later prove erroneous.”

Mauss’ doctrinal construct is extremely useful and allows us the attempt to categorize and prioritize the various and sometimes competing iterations of Mormon doctrine. However, this construct also has its limitations. For example, what Mauss considers canon doctrine is not always clearly understood and must be interpreted by the Church’s First Presidency in order to be put into practice.[5] In these cases, it seems that official interpretation and policy perhaps do not take precedence over canon doctrine, but rather, are necessary corollaries used to interpret the meaning and intended purpose of the canon. Of course, this is not always the case and such official interpretations, as it were, are not appropriate (or necessary) when the canon appears to be very clear and definitive on a given subject. The canon indeed does have authority in itself which may trump official or authoritative interpretation.[6] Thus the dynamic between canon doctrine and authoritative doctrine is complex and it is often difficult to define when official doctrine should accompany canon doctrine, and when the canon is sufficiently clear.

It is interesting to note the times when the First Presidency and/or member of the Quorum of the Twelve have felt it necessary to clarify authoritative or canon doctrine.  Leaders such as Bruce R. McConkie and Joseph F. Smith felt comfortable elevating certain speculations to authoritative status with their speeches and writing.  Some of their pronouncements are now seen as authoritative today.  I remember devoting an entire biology class session at BYU reading “competing” quotes from LDS leaders on the subject of evolution.  A fellow classmate beside me, fully exasperated, put her hand to her forehead and sighed: “I’m so confused…..”

Today’s leaders seem less likely to make authoritative pronouncements.  The 1995 Proclamation seems to be the most recent authoritative doctrinal statement.  Even so, it certainly didn’t break new ground.  Rather, it reaffirmed beliefs already considered authoritative within the LDS ethos.

Cynics claim that LDS leaders are less-likely to make official procouncements because it is not politically expedient to do so.  I suppose this may be the case.  However, I wonder if, as President Hinckley noted, the doctrines revealed to early prophets laid the foundation of all doctrine necessary for the Church.  If so, when the day comes that LDS leaders offer what is yet to be revealed, I wonder what it will look like.

[1] Armand L. Mauss, “The Fading of the Pharoah’s Curse: The Decline and Fall of the Priesthood’s Ban against Blacks,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 14, no. 3 (1981): 32.

[2] It is important to note that we are not discussing truth claims here, but rather LDS doctrine. It is true that many Latter-day Saints will view these as one and the same. However, as Mauss has illustrated here and elsewhere, and as mentioned above, LDS doctrine and policy can and does change depending on new and emerging circumstances.

[3] Mauss, “The Fading of the Pharoah’s Curse: The Decline and Fall of the Priesthood’s Ban against Blacks,” 32.

[4] It should be explained here that General Conference is a bi-annual meeting first instituted by Joseph Smith where the entire Church gathers to hear sermons and lectures from the Church’s general authorities. Today, this is facilitated through the use of the Church’s extensive satellite, radio, and television networks.

[5] Consider for example Jesus’ prohibition on divorce. In the New Testament this prohibition is unequivocal while in the Book of Mormon it is disallowed “except for fornication.” In the modern Church, divorce is highly discouraged, but allowed. Even couples who have been married and “sealed” in the LDS Temple can obtain a “cancelation” of their sealing under certain circumstances with direct approval from the First Presidency. Clearly, this is a canon doctrine which requires specific interpretation from Church leadership in order to establish a policy.

[6] While discussing this point with Richard Bushman, this author attempted to argue that it is the authority and present interpretation of the First Presidency which takes precedence over everything doctrinal – including the canon. Bushman countered that Latter-day Saints would readily reject, for example, a statement by the First Presidency that discouraged or prohibited prayer (see 2 Nephi 32:8), or denied the divinity of Jesus Christ (see John 1). He pointed out that while the First Presidency does possess tremendous power in doctrinal definition and interpretation of the canon, this power is in fact limited in many important respects.


Categorizing Mormon Doctrine — 5 Comments

  1. I actually see it as a little more simple. I would say that what the Church teaches – circa 2012 – is in the updated Gospel Principles book that was used last year for RS/PR instruction and continues to be used in SS Gospel Essentials class. Bishops still have their Church Handbook of Instruction, but I think for the standard member, this is all you need. It’s not nearly as fun as reading Samuel Brown’s “In Heaven As It Is On Earth”, which does a magnificent job of tying together all of the esoteric doctrines of the 19th century, or even McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine, but it gives you what LDS’s are expected to know and accept.

  2. Hi Larry,

    Thanks so much for commenting. I think you hit the nail on the head that the Gospel Principles book defines authoritative doctrine. But, for example, it doesn’t address or clarify the issue of D&C 132 which says that entering into the New and Everlasting covenant ensures an eternal reward — a concept BRM felt compelled to address in one of his BYU speeches on the deadly heresies. This is one of those doctrines that I still hear debated day-to-day. Esoteric? Yes. “Necessary for our salvation?” I suppose it depends on who’s answering the question….

    I think the overall point here is that yes, there are clearly defined authoritative doctrines as laid out in the GP manual. However, there are lots of doctrines floating around that may be widely believed but have not been elevated to authoritative status (and probably for good reason).


  3. Interesting classification, Seth. I reviewed the book LDS Beliefs last year and posted a discussion of Robert Millet’s attempt to narrow the definition of LDS doctrine to what is in the scriptures, currently taught by LDS leaders, or published by the Church in handbooks or curriculum materials.

    He uses simpler categories: it’s either doctrine (fits above description) or it’s not doctrine (everything in Mauss’s popular doctrine category, apparently including stuff that might have been authoritative or official doctrine in prior years but is no longer taught or published). At the grass roots level, none of this seems to make much difference: Bruce R. McConkie is still viewed by many as the authoritative source for LDS doctrine. Even the hard-working bureaucrats at Correlation seem to defer to McConkie, which, if true, means that even the folks charged with safeguarding LDS doctrine don’t really know what it is or where to find it.

  4. Dave,

    I was under the impression that McConkie had become an unquotable source among the Correlation minions. McConkie references in the previous edition of Gospel Principles were deleted in the more recent one, for example.

    I agree that present FP interpretations trump all other sources of doctrine. “Follow the Prophet,” and all that implies. Thus, D&C 89 is collapsed into the familiar four cultural markers – elevated to commandment status – while the remainder of the section is disregarded. And priests routinely bless the sacramental emblems, while the D&C requires an elder to do so, if present. (See D&C 20:46,50.)

  5. Thanks for a wonderful entry, Seth Payne. I have to state right away my dislike of the heavy emphasis on doctrine in Mormonism. I would prefer that there be greater focus on making and keeping covenants, as well as service. I have felt for a long time that doctrinal mastery was too often something that people used to attain ego satisfaction and wield informal authority over others. I would much rather congregate with generous souls who have poor mastery of doctrine than the most brilliant doctrinal expert, who nevertheless lacks the milk of human kindness.

    Jesus defined the two great commandments as love of God and love of fellow human beings. Beyond making and keeping covenants with God, and striving to keep these two commandments, I don’t see how doctrine is all that important.

    I understand that it provides the community a language and that it informs the way the Church is governed. It seems to me that there is much to be done to help people, including me, to understand why we should really care about doctrine, and how we should.