The Grand Fundamental Principles of Mormonism, Part 2: Truth Seeking

From time to time during Joseph Smith’s prophetic career, he tried to summarize and define Mormonism. Beginning with the “articles and covenants” that comprises Doctrine and Covenants 20 in the current edition, followed by the Lectures on Faith, and the Articles of Faith, these attempts each failed in turn to capture the faith’s essence for time and all eternity. Observing this, Don Bradley wrote that, “The task of capturing Mormonism in a creedal statement was Sisyphean, because Mormonism was more committed to the principle of forever acquiring truth than to any particular formulation of the truth. It was a circle no static set of doctrines could square.”[1]

The Scannel Daguerreotype: a purported photograph of the Prophet Joseph Smith. No one know or has been able to prove either way whether or not this is a photograph of Joseph Smith

The Scannel Daguerreotype: a purported photograph of the Prophet Joseph Smith.

Perhaps, then, the best summary of Mormonism’s essence laid down by Joseph Smith came in the summer of 1843, when, instead of in terms of doctrine, Joseph summarized his faith in two grand fundamental principles. One of the two was stated as being that “friendship is the grand fundamental principle of Mormonism,”[2] with the second being that “the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism is to recieve thruth let it come from where it may.”[3] The second of the two summarizes in and of itself why defining Mormonism in doctrinal terms remains elusive, because Mormonism is always expanding and changing its views as it seeks for truth.

Joseph Smith loved learning and teaching. When it came to revelation, he once stated that:

It is my meditation all the day & more than my meat & drink to know how I shall make the saints of God to comprehend the visions that roll like an overflowing surge, before my mind.

O how I would delight to bring before you things which you never thought of, but poverty & the cares of the world prevent. but I am glad I have the privilige of communicating to you some things.[4]

He spoke and looked forward to the Millennium, stating that, “in that day when the Lord shall come, he shall reveal all things” (D&C 101:32) and envisioning the perfected world as a place that “will be made like unto crystal and will be a Urim and Thummim to the inhabitants who dwell thereon, whereby all things pertaining to an inferior kingdom, or all kingdoms of a lower order, will be manifest to those who dwell on it.” (D&C 130:9). Joseph’s words and revelations even tantalized the Saints by indicating that the process of revealing all things would begin during the dispensation of the fulness of times, if they were worthy. In the Book of Mormon it is written that, “he that will not harden his heart, to him is given the greater portion of the word, until it is given unto him to know the mysteries of God until he know them in full.” (Alma 12:10). Again, “he the repenteth and exerciseth faith, and bringeth forth good works, and prayeth continually without ceasing—unto such is given to know the mysteries of God; yea, unto such it shall be given to reveal things which never have been revealed.” (Alma 26:22.) And, in an 1830 revelation it was stated in the voice of the Lord in reference to the Church that, “all things might be revealed unto them, whatsoever I will, according to their faith.” (D&C 25:9.)[5]

Though Joseph believed that “one truth revealed from heaven is worth all the sectarian notions in exhistance,”[6] he indicated that it would take intellectual rigor to achieve communication with God. A revelation about receiving revelation directed to Oliver Cowdery stated that, “you must study it out in your mind,” rather than simply asking with no thought beforehand (D&C 9:7-8), and another revelation taught that understanding comes “by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118). On another occasion Joseph taught that:

The things of God are of deep import; and time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, O man! if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity—thou must commune with God.[7]

Joseph instructs the Twelve

Joseph instructs the Twelve

Joseph himself exemplified a life of studying to know the things of God. George Q. Cannon observed that Joseph “loved learning” and that “he loved knowledge for its righteous power…. The Lord had commanded him to study, and he was obeying…. His mind, quickened by the Holy Spirit, grasped with readiness all true principles, and one by one he mastered these branches and became in them a teacher.”[8] For one example, an 1832 revelation to Joseph and his counselors in the First Presidency commanded them to “study and learn, and become acquainted with all good books, and with languages, tongues and people” (D&C 90:15). Following this council, Joseph studied Hebrew in Kirtland and German in Nauvoo, and applied himself to reading the Bible in both of these languages, which gave him new perspectives to use in his sermons, including the famous King Follett discourse.

Joseph also believed in both looking outside of Mormonism for truths and in making room for changes of belief in the Church as a result. In one letter to his attorney, he wrote that:

The most prominent difference in sentiment between the Latter-day Saints and sectarians was, that the latter were all circumscribed by some particular creed, which deprived its members the privilege of believing anything not contained therein, whereas the Latter-day Saints have no creed, but are ready to believe all true principles that exist, as they are made manifest from time to time.[9]

In another letter, he wrote that:

Mormonism is truth; and every man who embraces it feels himself at liberty to embrace every truth…. The first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation or without being circumscribed or prohibited by the creeds or superstitious notions of men, or by the dominations of one another, when that truth is clearly demonstrated to our minds, and we have the highest degree of evidence of the same.[10]

This search for truth included looking to heaven for revelation, around to learn truth from the studies of mankind, and even extended to looking at other religions and faiths for the truths they held: “[If the] Presbyterians [have] any truth. embrace that. [Same for the] Baptist. Methodist &c. get all the good in the world. [and you will] come out a pure Mormon.”[11] There is evidence of Joseph drew upon contemporary sources and ideas in the process of seeking and expressing revelation. Individuals such as Thomas Dick, Emmanuel Swedenborg, and Andrew Ramsay and groups such as Freemasons, Methodists, and others stand out as examples that Joseph learned from.[12] Yet, in his quest for all truth he felt he could not join with any religion but his own because they would limit him: “I cannot subscribe to though all of them have some thruth. but I want to come up into the presence of God & learn all things but the creeds set up stakes, & say hitherto shalt thou come, & no further.—which I cannot subscribe to.”[13]

JS

Joseph Smith

Joseph also believed in investigating and testing different ideas to discover truth. In one letter, he wrote that “by proving contraries truth is made manifest.”[14] Frustrated, perhaps, with the limitations placed upon him by virtue of his role as revelator, he lamented to one friend that “he did not enjoy the right vouchsafed to every American citizen—that of free speech. He said that when he ventured to give his private opinion on any subject of importance, his words were often garbled and their meaning twisted, and then given out as the word of the Lord because they came from him.”[15] Rather than merely believing that prophets knew all things and that all things they spoke were the word of the Lord, he believed in making room for engagement, exploring, and questing as part of the processes of reflection, contestation, and creation even for the oracles of God. Not only that, but he believed in making room for his followers to do the same. At one point he criticized the high council in Nauvoo for trying Pelatiah Brown simply for making a doctrinal error, and stated: “I did not like the old man being called up before the High Council for erring in doctrine.—why I feel so good to have the privilege of thinking & believing as I please.”[16] Yet, while he made room for consideration and discussion, he advocated that “knowledge is necessary to do away contention.”[17]

Beyond spiritual knowledge, Joseph advocated the study of secular knowledge as well. In Kirtland, he received a revelation that led to the organization of the School of the Prophets, and later, the School of the Elders with the directions to direction to “teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118) with a curriculum that included both spiritual matters as well as “things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and also a knowledge of countries and of kingdoms.” (D&C 88:77-79.) Afterwards, in Nauvoo, Joseph also envisioned an education system that would be significant enough that “the great men of the [earth] shall send their sons here to board while they are receiving their education among us And even Noblemen shall crave the priviledge of educating their children with us.”[18]

School of the elders

School of the elders

While Joseph had a lifelong love of learning and encouraged others to follow suite, he didn’t always find studying and learning as interesting or as easy as he may have hoped. On one occasion, Joseph lamented “the little narrow prison almost as it were totel darkness of paper pen and ink and a crooked broken scattered and imperfect language.”[19] Another, more humorous example came in the spring of 1843, when Joseph was apparently doing some personal studying of law.  At one point in his studies he wrote that he stretched out full length on his writing table with his head on a stack of “Law Books” for a pillow.  He then said, “I acknowledge myself a very great lawyer. I am going [to] study law & this is the way I study. And fell asleep. & went to snoring.”[20]

At its core, Mormonism under Joseph Smith encouraged learning as an essential part of obtaining salvation. Joseph taught this idea over and over: “Knowledge is necessary to life and godliness…. Knowledge is the power of God unto salvation.”[21] “As far as we degenerate from God, we descend to the devil and lose knowledge, and without knowledge we cannot be saved.”[22] “It is impossible for a man to be saved in ignorance.” (D&C 131:6.) “A man is saved no faster than he gets knowledge.”[23]

This need for knowledge as the means of obtaining salvation was in part due to a need to outfox and overcome the devil, as it were, and in part for individuals to grow in power and become like God—for knowledge is power. On one occasion, Joseph taught that “if he [a man] does not get knowledge, he will be brought into captivity by some evil power in the other world, as evil spirits will have more knowledge, and consequently more power than many men who are on the earth.”[24] By the same token, God is more powerful than Satan or any other being because He knows more: “In knowledge there is power. God has more power than all other beings, because he has greater Knowledge, and hence he knows how to subject all other beings to him.”[25] Continuing this thought, Joseph Smith’s revelations conceived of God as a being of knowledge and intelligence: “The glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth.” (D&C 93:36.) “These two facts do exist, that there are two spirits, one being more intelligent than the other; there shall be another more intelligent than they; I am the Lord thy God, I am more intelligent than they all.” (Abraham 3:19.)

In his later years, Joseph taught that the spirits of mankind—which he often referred to as intelligences—are “self-existent with God” and “susceptible of enlargement and improvement.” The laws of God allow humans “to advance like Himself and be exalted with Him.[26] This process of advancing like God involved obtaining knowledge and increasing in capacity until one becomes like unto God Himself:

You have go to learn how to make yourselves Gods in order to save yourselves and be kings and priests to God, the same as all Gods have done—by going from a small capacity to a great capacity, from a small degree to another, from grace to grace, until the resurrection of the dead, from exaltation to exaltation—till you are able to sit in everlasting burnings and everlasting power and glory as those who have gone before, sit enthroned.[27]

In his mind, any intelligence gained in this life helped prepare one for the process of being exalted like God: “Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection. And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come.” (D&C 130:18-19.) Altogether, this made mortality a school of progressing and preparing to become gods and goddesses in the eternities. As summarized by one student of Mormon history:

Smith… envisioned a world where human striving, learning, and obedience would result in the partaking of all that God has. Mormon eternal identity, therefore, was governed by a quest for intelligence and knowledge: knowledge drew one to God and made one like God. Intelligence formed the substance of an eternal identity placed inside a corporeal body. In the theological world of early Mormonism, to suppress the pursuit of knowledge and intelligence, therefore, would be to deny the eternal nature of “self” and to impede progression towards partaking in the very nature of God.[28]

This was, in Joseph’s mind, what salvation and exaltation consisted of. At its core, then, Mormonism was meant to be a message of truth-seeking and eternal learning. In this regard, a “grand fundamental principles of Mormonism is to recieve thruth let it come from where it may.”[29]

Joseph Smith, Jr.

Joseph Smith, Jr.

[1] Don Bradley, “’The Grand Fundamental Principles of Mormonism’ Joseph Smith’s Unfinished Reformation,” Sunstone, April 2006, 36.

[2] Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 4714-4719). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition

[3] Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 4598-4604). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition

[4] Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 3824-3826). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition.

[5] See also D&C 121:26-28 for another reference of this sort.

[6] Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Location 5783). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition.

[7] Joseph Smith, Jr. Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2007), 267.

[8]George Q. Cannon, The Life of Joseph Smith, the Prophet (1888), p. 189.

[9] Cited in Terryl Givens, “Joseph Smith: Prophecy, Process, and Plenitude,” in ___ 110.

[10] Joseph Smith to Isaac Galland, March 22, 1839, in The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, compiled and edited by Dean C. Jessee (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1984), 420–21.

[11] Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 4714-4719). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition. The brackets are added from clarity, and the longer sections added are taken from the History of the Church rendition of the sermon.

[12] For some examples of this, see Terryl Givens, “The Woman in the Wilderness,” (2013): 14.

[13] Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 5375-5377). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition.

[14] A letter to Daniel Rupp in 1844, quoted in Givens, “Prophesy, Process, and Plenitude,” 108.

[15] Cited in Givens, “Prophesy, Process, and Plenitude,” 111.

[16] Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 3638-3639). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition.

[17] Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 3561). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition.

[18] Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 988-990). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition.

[19] Joseph Smith to William W. Phelps, 27 November 1832, Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[20] Joseph Smith, journal, 18 March 1843, Joseph Smith Collection, CHL, quoted in Jeffrey R. Holland, “Knowing Brother Joseph,” Logan Institute of Religion Annual Joseph Smith Memorial Devotional, Utah State University Spectrum, January 29, 2012.

[21] Smith, Teachings of the Presidents, 265

[22] Smith, Teachings of the Presidents, 265

[23] Smith, Teachings of the Presidents, 266

[24] Smith, Teachings of the Presidents, 266

[25] Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 3564-3565). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition.

[26] Stan Larson, “The King Follett Discourse: A Newly Amalgamated Text,” BYU Studies 18, no. 2 (1978): 12.

[27] Stan Larson, “The King Follett Discourse: A Newly Amalgamated Text,” BYU Studies 18, no. 2 (1978): 8.

[28] Scott Marianno, “Appropriating the Mormon Past: Faith, Intellect, and the Reformation of Mormon Identity” (2013). Arrington Student Writing Award Winners, 12.

[29] Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 4598-4604). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition

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One comment

  1. I love the Bible and also the latter-day scriptures brought forth by the prophet Joseph. There are many counterfeit scripture-like writings, but it is clear that Joseph’s are the authentic ones. Studying the Adam-God teachings of the prophet Brigham Young led me to find the Second Book of Commandments. This has revelations from 1961 to the present. After reading these revelations for two years I realized I had a strong double-negative testimony of them: I honestly could not say they were not true revelation– a continuation of the gift of oracles brought again to earth with Joseph Smith and continued with Brigham, John and Wilford. Does is say anywhere that this gift to write the Word of the Lord as His mouthpiece will be taken from the earth after it was restored? If the 2BC is not this gift, then who does have this gift today? I am simply forced to receive truth let it come from where it may.

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