When people talk about Mormonism, they often focus in on small things that are not important, aren’t taught currently, aren’t even practiced today. By doing so they miss an opportunity to understand Mormonism as it lives today and even as it was originally taught.
To understand Mormonism, you must focus on core doctrines, those things which are canonized as official doctrine and taught consistently. While church practices sometimes change, truth does not.
There are a few guidelines that can help you evaluate whether or not a teaching is a core doctrine—or even a true doctrine of Mormonism.
First, it is important to understand that every word spoken by a prophet is not necessarily doctrine, particularly in the earliest days of the church. In the beginnings, the church was run much more informally. People talked among themselves and sometimes others took notes and published those conversations or informal speculations of church leaders.
The Journal of Discourses is the usual source for speculations by people of other religions. Journal of Discourses is not an official church publication and is not used as a source of official doctrine. It was compiled by people who took notes of speeches, prayers, sermons, and other events in shorthand and then transcribed them. However, not all the transcriptions were accurate. None were evaluated by or approved by church leaders as being official pronouncements of doctrine. It was privately published in England to provide income for the owner of the journals, although Brigham Young approved the project as a way for European Mormons to find out what was going on in Utah. It was basically the equivalent of a newspaper. Today, the Mormons own Deseret News, but articles that appear in the newspaper are not considered official doctrine, and neither are articles in the Journal of Discourses. With the availability of modern technology, many errors have been officially documented.
Because the church was small, even in General Conference, today a very formal event, people were free to ask questions. Because Mormonism focuses on continuing revelation and learning “line upon line” much of the doctrine was not yet known. Therefore, leaders sometimes speculated about possible answers. These speculations did not become doctrine unless Brigham Young or other prophets prayed and received confirmation of the truthfulness of the doctrine. Otherwise, it was just personal opinion and even a prophet is allowed to have an opinion.
So how does one know if something is an official doctrine? Both official Mormon websites, Mormon.org (intended for people who are not LDS) and LDS.org (aimed more toward Mormons but open to anyone) contain official statements of doctrine. Look for official announcements there.
It is important to remember that not all doctrine is given equal weight or importance in Mormonism. It is also important to remember that in a church that does not refuse to allow God to continue to speak and to lead, doctrine is given in increasing steps, what Mormons call learning line upon line. This means Mormons have, over the years, been given doctrine suitable just for one time period or doctrine that might be considered beginner doctrine. As the church membership grew and people became more informed about the gospel, God gradually added to their knowledge. An easy way to understand how this works is to read the lesson manuals written for children. Although the same subject might be covered in each age group, older children are given more complex information because they are ready for it. Mormons are taught by God in increasingly sophisticated stages.
Joseph Smith outlined thirteen Articles of Faith that explained the core beliefs of Mormonism at that time. These are still taught and even memorized by children. Reading them can help earnest students of Mormonism, those determined to learn only what is true about Mormons, to recognize core doctrine. The first Article of Faith is the very core of Mormonism:
“We believe in God the eternal Father, in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.”
This creates a foundation on which all other doctrines are based. The first Article of Faith makes possible the fourth, which succinctly summarizes the core of Mormonism:
“We believe that the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are: first, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; second, Repentance; third, Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; fourth, Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.”
Faith in Jesus Christ is critical to the mission and doctrine of Mormon beliefs. Repentance, the second portion of this article of faith, refers to Mormon belief in the atonement of Jesus Christ and the importance of both grace and repentance in the process of living a Christian lifestyle. Baptism, performed after the manner in which Jesus was baptized, allows people to be forgiven of their sins and is a result of grace, which came to us through the atonement. The Holy Ghost was a gift Jesus Himself promised to send to His followers once He was gone.
Another principle of Mormonism is that of continuing revelation. Nowhere does the Bible state that once Jesus died, God would no longer be willing to communicate with His children or to send them prophets. While the apostles lived, they received revelation and guidance from God and functioned as apostles, seers, and revelators. Once they died, God did withdraw for a time, an event known as an apostasy. It is not that God is not willing to have prophets on the earth at any given time, but mortals are not always willing to accept and honor prophets. When this happens, they are the ones who remove the gift of prophecy from the earth. This happened frequently throughout the Bible and happened for the longest period of time after the apostles died.
However, the Bible assures us that God will do nothing except through his prophets. (See Amos 3:7.) This means that in order to prepare us for the return of Jesus Christ, another core doctrine of Mormonism, God must restore prophets to the earth. He did this when He chose Joseph Smith as His first prophet in the last days. Today, the Church is led by Thomas S. Monson, the Mormon prophet.
There is no question as to the need for a prophet in today’s world. A short drive around most towns will show a large number of churches, all with conflicting doctrine. Clearly, original doctrine has been corrupted over time—this process started even during the New Testament times, leaving the apostles to regularly fight to overcome misunderstandings in doctrine. Without a prophet, no man can do any more than just guess at what God wants of us today or of what specific doctrines mean. Modern-day revelation is key to giving people a fair chance to prepare for the Second Coming.
Another core doctrine of Mormonism is family life. Mormon beliefs include strong teachings on the sacredness of the family unit. Families were planned by God to help Him further His work on earth and are one reason we came to earth. Mormons teach that God’s plan for families today are that families consist of one mother and one father and are meant to last forever. Mormons can be married in a Mormon temple and have their marriages “sealed” for time and all eternity. This means they do not get a divorce at death, but continue the marriage forever if they live worthy of God’s greatest blessings. In addition, parents and children are joined together forever, something most people instinctively understand, even if they say they don’t believe it. Listening to comments at a funeral often reveal a deep belief in eternal families. (“Mom and Dad are together again.”)
Central to Mormon doctrine is the Plan of Salvation. It is the story of our eternal life and unifies the most important teachings of the Mormons.
Our stories began when God created our spirits. We lived with Him as spirits for a very long time, learning truth, learning to love God, and deciding what kind of person we wanted to be. Eventually, as is the case with children living at home, we could progress no further without leaving home and going out “into the world, one God and Jesus would prepare for us. He explained that when we went there we would lose our memory of our time with Him because this journey was about faith. However, we would gain bodies and families and the Spirit of Christ would go with us to help us recognize truth if we wanted to find it.
During our time here we would face trials—different trials for each person—and we could choose our responses to them. Agency was, in fact, key to the experience. Our choices would, as Mormon prophet Thomas Monson likes to say, determine our destiny. However, we could not choose the consequences of those actions.
God knew we would all sin, and He wanted to make it possible for us to return to Him even when we did sin. He loves us and wants us all to make it back home. For this reason, He promised to send a Savior who would live on earth for a time, teach the gospel, and take our sins on Himself, saving us through grace. This grace would allow us to rise from the dead, repent, and make it back to God if we kept the commandments. Grace cannot be bought—we do not have, in ourselves, the power to bring about resurrection or forgiveness. However, the Bible is very clear that only those who keep the commandments and who repent of sins will be allowed to return to God.
“Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). The Bible warns us that faith without works is dead. If you say you believe and accept Jesus Christ as your Savior, you are saying only words unless obedience follows the words.
Some were unwilling to accept Jesus Christ as their Savior, preferring Satan’s unscriptural promise to save people without any risk of any kind. That meant we would also have no agency. We would simply be puppets of Satan and this would render life meaningless. One-third of the spirits chose to follow Satan and were denied the chance to come to earth. All those who were willing to make a commitment to Jesus were allowed to be born.
Life here on earth is not easy, but it is designed to allow us to have opportunities for growth. It allows us to seek out and find truth if at all possible.
But of course, it is not possible for everyone. Some people live their entire lives never having heard of Jesus Christ—some because they lived before He was born and some because the gospel simply never reached them. Over the centuries, theologians have debated what happens to those people. Would God unfairly punish them for something out of their control?
No, of course not. God is loving and fair and He sent us here. This means He will give everyone a fair chance to accept or reject His gospel. Those who die without being given that opportunity will receive it after their death—not a second chance, but a first chance, the only way a loving God would choose to do it. They can, just as we can, accept or reject Jesus Christ’s teachings and accept the blessings and consequences of their choice.
The Plan of Salvation is a kind, loving, and brilliant plan by our Heavenly Father, designed to give us an opportunity to become everything He intended us to become.
As you continue to study official church websites, take note of what Mormons are being currently taught in their classes. The lesson manuals are all openly online. Those teachings are the core. Mormons are impacted only by core doctrines—those taught by current prophets that affect our eternal salvation.