The Latter-day Saint Concept of Canon

Alexander B. Morrison

Alexander B. Morrison, “The Latter-day Saint Concept of Canon,” in Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2001), 1–16.

Elder Alexander B. Morrison was a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy in  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when this was published.

Traditional Christianity struggled for many years to define its canon, to determine which of its writings were sacred, inspired, and authoritative. The Latter-day Saint concept of canon differs from that of other Christians. In addition to the Bible, the Latter-day Saint canon includes the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. These “standard works” provide a measuring rod by which we can judge other texts and statements. But while we have a canon, we nevertheless believe that God continues to make known His will through the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostlesmen we sustain as prophets, seers, and revelators. Inspired by the Holy Ghost, their decisions are to be made in unity (D&C 107:27). We as Church members also need the Holy Ghost in order to recognize scriptural power in their words, and we can be comforted in the Lord’s promise that the President of the Church will never lead us astray.

I begin my remarks today with a caveat and a conclusion. I speak to you not as a scholar, but as one—albeit the least—of those who are called to be “especial witnesses unto the Gentiles and in all the world” (D&C 107:25). Mine is the voice of witness and testimony, not of scholarship. I do not come as an apologist for the Latter-day Saint canon, its historicity, or contents, but rather as a “witness of the sufferings of Christ” (1 Pet. 5:1), of His Resurrection and Atonement, and of the Restoration through the Prophet Joseph Smith of Christ’s gospel in its fulness.

In the final analysis, the truth of our canon will not be discovered by scholarly examination alone. I am reminded of Winston Churchill’s words: “History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past trying to reconstruct its success to revive the echoes and kindle with pale gleams the passions of former days.” [1] Flickering lamps and pale gleams will not, cannot, illuminate the face of God. The writer of Ecclesiastes put it well: “When I applied mine heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done upon the earth . . . then I beheld all the work of God, that a man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun: because though a man labour to seek it out, yet he shall not find it; yea further; though a wise man think to know it, yet shall he not be able to find it” (Eccl. 8:16–17). In the book of Job we read, “Canst thou by searching find out God? canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection? It is as high as heaven; what canst thou do? deeper than hell; what canst thou know? The measure thereof is longer than the earth, and broader than the sea” (Job 11:7–9).

If history is an inadequate tool in our search for religious truth, so too is logic. Despite the grandeur of the logic of the medieval philosophers and theologians, despite the genius of men such as Augustine, Anselm, Abelard, or Aquinas, logic—while it may buttress—can never prove the existence of God, nor the facticity of the canon that we espouse.

With great respect, in a sense then, the conclusions of this or any other learned symposium are irrelevant. God will not be found through scholarly analysis alone. To find Him is primarily a journey of faith. The options open to the seeker of religious truth are stark and simple. Either God is or He is not. The Prophet Joseph Smith either saw Him, conversed with Him, and learned from Him, or he did not. Either President Hinckley is a prophet or he is not. The truth of the matter supersedes history and transcends human logic. The Lord does not think as man thinks. “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14).


Against the background of that caveat and conclusion, permit me to make a few observations about the Latter-day Saint concept of canon. As you all know, the word canon is of Latin and Greek origin. Though it has numerous meanings, for our purposes it denotes “a collection or authoritative list of books accepted as holy scripture.” [2] I leave to others the task of defining—insofar as the Bible is concerned—the content of that list of books, but note in passing that the traditional Christian world has had a long and hard struggle throughout its history to define which writings are sacred, inspired, and binding on believers. Protestant Bibles (including the King James Version), which Latter-day Saints accept as “the word of God as far as it is translated correctly” (A of F 8), do not include some books accepted as canonical by the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. Even within Protestantism, the question of canon is perhaps not yet unanimously resolved. Martin Luther characterized the epistle of James as an “epistle of straw,” apparently because it did not substantiate his teaching of justification by faith alone, and he mistrusted the book of Revelation. [3]

Latter-day Saint views on canon, in the minds of some Christians, are so extreme as to deny us the right to even refer to ourselves as Christians. We are simply unacceptable to some of our Christian brethren, gone beyond heresy to anathema. While that may be regrettable, what others label us, or even think about us, is of far lesser importance than what is true and thus acceptable to God.

Basic to the Latter-day Saint concept of canon are two eternal principles. The first is that compared to the rest of the Christian world, ours is an expanded canon. In addition to the Bible, we accept as canonical three other books of holy scripture—the Book of Mormon (531 pages), the Doctrine and Covenants (294 pages), and the Pearl of Great Price (61 pages). [4] These four books make up the “standard works” of the Church, a term first used a century ago by Elder James E. Talmage. The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ has as one of its purposes “the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations” (Title Page). Of it the Prophet Joseph Smith declared, “I told the brethren [the Twelve Apostles and Joseph Fielding] that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.” [5] When that statement is coupled with our assertion that the Bible is the word of God as far as it is translated correctly, it must be concluded that even within the written canon, there are gradations of inerrancy and spiritual power.

The Doctrine and Covenants, we affirm, is a collection of divine revelations and inspired declarations given for the establishment and regulation of the kingdom of God on the earth in the last days. The Pearl of Great Price is a selection of inspired writings touching the faith and doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including, in the present edition, selections from the Book of Moses, the Book of Abraham, Joseph Smith’s history, and his translation of chapter 24 of the book of Matthew from the Bible, as well as the Articles of Faith.

Not only is ours an expanded canon, but it is also open and unended. We do not subscribe to the finalist and minimalist views of other Christians with regard to holy writ. We believe in continuing and unending revelation, ever augmented by living prophets.

The scriptures of the past are not sufficient for us today. I quote President Joseph F. Smith on this matter:

Are we to understand, then, that God does not, and will not further make known his will to men; that what he has said suffices? His will to Moses and Isaiah and John is abundant for modern followers of Christ? The Latter-day Saints take issue with this doctrine, and pronounce it illogical, inconsistent, and untrue, and bear testimony to all the world that God lives and that he reveals his will to men who believe in him and who obey his commandments, as much in our day as at any time in the history of nations. The canon of scripture is not full. God has never revealed at any time that he would cease to speak forever to men. If we are permitted to believe that he has spoken, we must and do believe that he continues to speak, because he is unchangeable.

His will to Abraham did not suffice for Moses, neither did his will to Moses suffice for Isaiah. Why? Because their different missions required different instructions; and logically, that is also true of the prophets and people of today. A progressive world will never discover all truth until its inhabitants become familiar with all the knowledge of the Perfect One. [6]

That is not to say, of course, that every word the Brethren speak is scripture. The scriptures inform us on how to answer the crucial question: When are the writings and sermons of Church leaders entitled to the claim of being scripture? The answer is found in D&C 68:2–4, a revelation given through the Prophet Joseph to brethren who were to engage in missionary work: “And, behold, and lo, this is an ensample unto all those who were ordained unto this priesthood, whose mission is appointed unto them to go forth—and this is the ensample unto them, that they shall speak as they are moved upon by the Holy Ghost. And 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 word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation.” The burden of proof for what is scriptural thus rests on the reader or hearer. This rule or principle, President J. Reuben Clark Jr. noted, has no exceptions. It is universal in its application. Having thought deeply about how we know if things spoken by the Brethren are said as they are “moved upon by the Holy Ghost,” President Clark concluded: “I have given some thought to this question, and the answer thereto so far as I can determine, is: we can tell when the speakers are ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost’ only if we, ourselves, are ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost.’ In a way, this completely shifts the responsibility from them to us to determine when they so speak.” [7]

Brigham Young’s wise counsel comes to mind. He said, “Were your faith concentrated upon the proper object, your confidence unshaken, your lives pure and holy, every one fulfilling the duties of his or her calling according to the Priesthood and capacity bestowed upon you, you would be filled with the Holy Ghost, and it would be as impossible for any man to deceive and lead you to destruction as for a feather to remain unconsumed in the midst of intense heat.” [8]

Our individual responsibilities to find out for ourselves what constitutes scripture and what does not are underlined by this additional comment from President Young: “I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by Him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation, and weaken that influence they could give to their leaders, did they know for themselves, by the revelations of Jesus, that they are led in the right way. Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not.” [9]

Are There Problems with an Open Canon?

Professor W. D. Davies has posed a fundamental question raised by the existence of an open canon. “Progressive and continuous revelation,” he has noted, “is certainly an attractive notion, but equally certainly it is not without the grave danger of so altering or enlarging upon the original revelation as to distort, annul, or even falsify it.” [10]

While it certainly is not in any sense a closed canon, the existence and acceptance of the standard works provides the Latter-day Saints with a core set of texts with which to judge or measure other religious writings or pronouncements. New light and knowledge is judged by its uniformity to “the things which are written; for in them are all things written concerning the foundation of my church, my gospel, and my rock” (D&C 18:3–4). In other words, new revelation must fit into the great framework of the plan of salvation as presented in the standard works.

It is important to note that the standard works support and sustain each other. Elder Bruce R. McConkie put it this way:

Every book of scripture is a witness of the truth and divinity of every other volume of holy writ. No compilation of the divine word stands alone; all join in bearing the same witness and in teaching the same truths. Their settings vary; their miracles fit their own needs; their prophets have different names and speak the local languages. But the message of salvation is the same. Always the scriptures bear witness of Christ; always they teach the truths of salvation; always they call upon fallen man to forsake the world and be reconciled to God through the atonement of his Son; always they speak peace to sorrowing souls in this world and hold out to them the hope of eternal life in the world to come. [11]

Thus, the Bible and the Book of Mormon speak of, describe, and support each other. Indeed, in a revelation given through the Prophet Joseph Smith in April 1830, the Lord declared that the Book of Mormon came forth to prove “to the world that the holy scriptures [i.e., the Bible] are true” (D&C 20:11). Nephi saw in vision a book, the Bible, carried forth among the people. An angelic ministrant said to him: “Knowest thou the meaning of the book? . . . The book that thou beholdest is a record of the Jews, which contains the covenants of the Lord, which he hath made unto the house of Israel; and it also containeth many [but not all!] of the prophecies of the holy prophets; and it is a record like unto the engravings which are upon the plates of brass, save there are not so many; nevertheless, they contain the covenants of the Lord, which he hath made unto the house of Israel; wherefore, they are of great worth unto the Gentiles . . . . And when it proceeded forth from the mouth of a Jew it contained the fulness of the gospel of the Lord, of whom the twelve apostles bear record” (1 Ne. 13:21–24).

Then something happened to the Bible, which had “contained the fulness of the gospel”—something which goes beyond the inevitable errors and shortcomings of even the most accomplished and devoted translators and transcribers. As the Church, bereft of apostolic leadership by the end of the first century after Christ’s death and resurrection, struggled to adjust to the philosophies of men, Christ’s message to the world was altered. “Many plain and precious things” were taken away from the book, “which is the book of the Lamb of God,” causing an “exceedingly great many” to stumble, “insomuch that Satan hath great power over them” (1 Ne. 13:28–29). Nevertheless, God in His mercy will not suffer “that the Gentiles shall forever remain in that awful state of blindness . . . because of the plain and most precious parts of the gospel of the Lamb which have been kept back by that abominable church, . . . which is the mother of harlots, saith the Lamb—I will be merciful unto the Gentiles in that day, insomuch that I will bring forth unto them, in mine own power, much of my gospel, which shall be plain and precious, saith the Lamb” (1 Ne. 13:32–34). “These plain and precious things,” the Lord proclaimed, shall be written by the Nephites to come forth in the last days “unto the Gentiles, by the gift and power of the Lamb. And in them shall be written my gospel . . . and my rock and my salvation” (see 1 Ne. 13:29, 35–36). This record is the Book of Mormon, which not only supports and sustains the Bible but also restores many of the plain and precious truths lost from it by Satan-inspired perversion of the record.

Let us then deal squarely with Professor Davies’ concern that continued revelation is in “grave danger of so altering and enlarging upon the original revelation as to distort, annul, or even falsify it.” Distortion, annulment, and falsification of the revelations of God have, we readily concede, occurred. But The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not responsible for them. We assert in boldness that uninspired men have “strayed from mine ordinances, and have broken mine everlasting covenant; they seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol, which waxeth old and shall perish” (D&C 1:15–16). Thus we reject the Christ of the creeds and councils; we reject the doctrines of the Trinity as taught by most Christian churches; we assert that the creeds which set forth the view of “traditional” Christianity about the nature of the Godhead, and were adopted only after centuries of debate and political maneuvering, do not reflect accurately the doctrine or beliefs of the New Testament Church. For similar reasons, we reject the doctrines of original sin and of salvation by grace alone, asserting that they, too, are false doctrines which arose and were accepted by so-called “traditional” Christianity centuries after Christ.

Although the standard works provide canonical measuring rods against which additional revelation is to be judged, it is important to note the role of the spoken word as given by the living prophets. Continuing revelation for the Church and world comes through the First Presidency and the Twelve, who have a special spiritual endowment as prophets, seers, and revelators to declare the mind and will of God to the world. As Joseph Smith said, “Where the Oracles of God are not there the Kingdom of God is not.” [12]

Every decision made by the Twelve, the revelations tell us, “must be by the unanimous voice of the same; . . . every member in each quorum must be agreed to its decisions” (D&C 107:27). The First Presidency also are as one, fully and completely united in the work of the kingdom. President Joseph F. Smith spoke of that unity as follows:

I propose that my counselors and fellow presidents in the First Presidency shall share with me in the responsibility of every act which I shall perform in this capacity. I do not propose to take the reins in my own hands to do as I please; but I propose to do as my brethren and I agree upon, and as the Spirit of the Lord manifests to us. I have always held, and do hold, and trust I always shall hold, that it is wrong for one man to exercise all the authority and power of presiding in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I dare not assume such a responsibility, and I will not, so long as I can have men like these (pointing to presidents Winder and Lund) to stand by and counsel with me in the labors we have to perform, and in doing all those things that shall tend to the peace, advancement and happiness of the people of God and the building up of Zion. [13]

President Gordon B. Hinckley has added his personal testimony that decisions of the First Presidency and the Twelve are made in unity. He said:

No decision emanates from the deliberations of the First Presidency and the Twelve without total unanimity among all concerned. At the outset in considering matters, there may be differences of opinion. These are to be expected. These men come from different backgrounds. They are men who think for themselves. But before a final decision is reached, there comes a unanimity of mind and voice.

This is to be expected if the revealed word of the Lord is followed. . . . I add by way of personal testimony that during the twenty years I served as a member of the Council of the Twelve and during the nearly thirteen years that I have served in the First Presidency, there has never been a major action taken where this procedure was not observed. I have seen differences of opinion presented in these deliberations. Out of this very process of men speaking their minds has come a sifting and winnowing of ideas and concepts. But I have never observed serious discord or personal enmity among my Brethren. I have, rather, observed a beautiful and remarkable thing—the coming together, under the directing influence of the Holy Spirit and under the power of revelation, of divergent views until there is a total harmony and full agreement. Only then is implementation made. That, I testify, represents the spirit of revelation manifested again and again in directing this the Lord’s work.

I know of no other governing body of any kind of which this might be said.

This procedure obtains even in the absence of the President of the Church. I hasten to add, however, that the Brethren would not be inclined to do anything which they feel would be out of harmony with the attitude, feelings, and position of their beloved leader, the prophet of the Lord. [14]

The president of the Church, primus inter pares among the prophets, seers, and revelators, does, however, stand preeminent. He is “like unto Moses” (D&C 107:91), “having all the gifts of God which he bestows upon the head of the church” (D&C 107:92). His official statements in his time may take precedence over revelation in scripture pertinent to other times or other statements by previous presidents—though in fact this rarely occurs. When it does, it is because needs change over time; the word of God needed to answer the problems of our era may not be what is required in another. Speaking of the importance of the living prophet, President Ezra Taft Benson said, “God’s revelations to Adam did not instruct Noah how to build the ark. Noah needed his own revelation. Therefore, the most important prophet, so far as you and I are concerned, is the one living in our day and age to whom the Lord is currently revealing His will for us. Therefore, the most important reading we can do is any of the words of the prophet contained each week in the Church Section of the Deseret News and any words of the prophet contained each month in our Church magazines. Our marching orders for each six months are found in the general conference addresses.” [15]

The president of the Church will never be permitted to lead the people astray. President Wilford Woodruff stated: “I say to Israel the Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as the President of this Church, to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were able to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so he will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty.” [16]

Beyond the prophet lies the consummate authority of God himself. The Prophet Joseph Smith counseled, “The best way to obtain truth and wisdom is not to ask it from books, but to go to God in prayer, and obtain divine teaching.” [17]

The Process of Canonizing

The ways by which revelations become canonized, and hence binding on the faithful, provide an additional check and balance to the openness of the Latter-day Saint canon. The basic principle involved is that of common consent: “And all things shall be done by common consent in the church, by much prayer and faith, for all things you shall receive by faith” (D&C 26:2).

Scripture to be canonized is presented to the people assembled in conference for their sustaining vote. This occurred, for example, with Official Declaration 2, which was presented by President N. Eldon Tanner on behalf of the First Presidency at the semi-annual general conference of the Church on 30 September 1978. The revelation on the priesthood, received by President Spencer W. Kimball, had first been presented to the counselors in the First Presidency, who accepted it and approved it. It was then presented to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who unanimously approved it, and was subsequently presented to all other general authorities, who likewise approved it unanimously. Finally, Official Declaration 2 was presented to all general and local priesthood officers of the Church throughout the world.

What would happen (and it never has and, I warrant, never will) if the people were to reject a proposal for canonization? Elder B. H. Roberts answered that questions as follows: “The truth remains. The action of the Church has not affected it in the least. The truth remains just as true as if the Church had accepted it. Its action simply determines the relationship of the members to that truth; and if they reject it, the truth still remains; and it is my opinion that they would not make further progress until they accepted the rejected truth. The truth remains.” [18]

The Facticity of the Canon

The facticity of three of the standard works (Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price) has been under almost constant attack by the enemies of the Church for 165 years. The adversary knows full well that if he can persuade people, both in and out of the Church, that the latter-day scriptures are false, he will momentarily win the day. He will, of course, not succeed. This work will go forth, as Joseph Smith said, “boldly, nobly, and independent, till it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country, and sounded in every ear; till the purposes of God shall be accomplished and the great Jehovah shall say the work is done.” [19]

But even the Bible’s factual basis is under attack. Luke Timothy Johnson has recently written a scathing review of the work of the so-called Jesus Seminar, a group of individuals more learned than they are wise, who claim they wish to “liberate Jesus” from the Gospels, portraying him as less than the Son of God and by no means the risen Lord. [20] Interestingly enough, a publication of the Jesus Seminar entitled The Five Gospels includes the Gospel of Thomas together with the four canonized Gospels of the New Testament. The Gospel of Thomas, written in Coptic, is one of the compositions discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1947 and is considered by many scholars to be of Gnostic origin. [21]

This is not the place for a full review of the work of the Jesus Seminar. It will be difficult for many biblical scholars to disagree with Johnson’s view that its work has a political agenda and is not responsible or even critical scholarship, but a self-indulgent charade.

Within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a classic example of a concerted attack on the facticity of our canon is the so-called modernism controversy of 1910–11 at Brigham Young University. The story of that dramatic event in our history, which had a profound import on this University, was told with his usual skill and spiritual insight by President Boyd K. Packer in an address given on 29 August 1995 to BYU’s Annual University Conference. [22] Time permits only a brief recounting of the controversy. George Brimhall, president of BYU in 1911, had hired three well-trained professors to assist in transforming the institution into a full-fledged university comparable to the country’s best. The professors determined that intellectual and scientific philosophies should take the place of the practicality and religion that had been paramount at the school. “The fundamentals of religion,” they averred, “could and must be investigated by extending the (empirical) method into the spiritual realm.” In other words, religion can and must be proven, like physics or mathematics.

The professors were popular, dynamic, and charismatic. The students flocked to their cause, and many of the faculty agreed.

The superintendent of Church schools, Horace Cummings, reported his deep concerns to the Church Board of Education. His anxieties included the following:

“The teachers were following the ‘higher criticism’ . . ., treating the Bible as a ‘collection of myths, folk-lore, drama, literary production, history and some inspiration.’”

“They also taught that ‘visions and revelations are mental suggestions. The objective reality of the presence of the Father and Son, in Joseph Smith’s first vision, is questioned.’”

“They rejected the flood, the confusion of tongues, the miracle of the Red Sea, and the temptation of Christ.”

“All truths change as we change. Nothing is fixed or reliable.” [23]

Not much basis for religious faith there!

The school administration wavered at first, trying to keep the peace, hoping to smooth things over, not wanting to grasp the nettle and do what needed to be done. Eventually, the professors were let go and the affair subsided. But by that time the faith of many, both young and old, had been shaken and in too many instances lost.

The story has many morals, but one of the lessons to be learned from it is that those who, under the guise of scholarship, sneer at, question, and tear down the faith of others need not feel proud of themselves. They are as those spoken of by the Nephite prophet Jacob, who lamented the vainness, frailties, and foolishness of men: “When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish. But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God” (2 Ne. 9:28–29).

Doctrinal Essentials

I remind you of two statements by the prophets, seers, and revelators that define that core of truth that must be accepted by all who claim membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Nearly sixty years ago, President J. Reuben Clark Jr. defined clearly those things that “may not be overlooked, forgotten, shaded or discarded” by each and all of the members of the Church. They are as follows:

First—that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Only Begotten of the Father in the flesh, the Creator of the world, the Lamb of God, the Sacrifice for the sins of the world, the Atoner for Adam’s transgression; that He was crucified; that His spirit left His body; that He died; that He was laid away in the tomb; that on the third day His spirit was reunited with His body, which again became a living being; that He was raised from the tomb a resurrected being, a perfect Being, the First Fruits of the Resurrection; that He later ascended to the Father; and that because of His death and by and through His resurrection every man born into the world since the beginning will be likewise literally resurrected. . . .

The second of the two things to which we must all give full faith is that the Father and the Son actually and in truth and very deed appeared to the Prophet Joseph in a vision in the woods; that other heavenly visions followed to Joseph and to others; that the gospel and the Holy Priesthood after the Order of the Son of God were in truth and fact restored to the earth from which they were lost by the apostasy of the primitive Church; that the Lord again set up His Church, through the agency of Joseph Smith; that the Book of Mormon is just what it professes to be; that to the Prophet came numerous revelations for the guidance, upbuilding, organization, and encouragement of the Church and its members; that the Prophet’s successors, likewise called of God, have received revelations as the needs of the Church have required, and that they will continue to receive revelations as the Church and its members, living the truth they already have, shall stand in need of more; that this is in truth the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; and that its foundation beliefs are the laws and principles laid down in the Articles of Faith. These facts also, and each of them, together with all things necessarily implied therein or flowing therefrom, must stand, unchanged, unmodified, without dilution, excuse, apology, or avoidance; they may not be explained away or submerged. Without these two great beliefs the Church would cease to be the Church. [24]

President James E. Faust also has spoken of the essentials that must be believed by all Latter-day Saints:

  1. That Jesus is the Christ, the Savior and the Redeemer of all mankind through His Atonement.
  2. That through Joseph Smith, a prophet of God, the gospel of Jesus Christ was restored in its fulness.
  3. That the Book of Mormon is another testament of Christ.
  4. That all of the Presidents of the Church since Joseph Smith have successively possessed the keys and authority which was restored through Joseph Smith.
  5. That Gordon B. Hinckley is the prophet, seer, and revelator to the world at this time. [25]


The Latter-day Saint concept of canon separates us from the rest of our Christian brothers and sisters. We believe not only in an expanded canon but also in an open canon resulting from continued revelation to God’s living, authorized spokesman. At the same time, however, the standard works provide not only a core set of beliefs but also a yardstick against which to judge other religious texts and pronouncements. The process of canonization, involving the unique role of the president of the Church, the need of unanimity among the Twelve, and common consent by the members, combine to assure that additions to scripture are not only consistent with the written word contained in the standard works but also are significant and important. Perhaps of greatest importance is the view that Church leaders pronounce scripture when moved upon by the Holy Ghost, and that members can tell when leaders are so led only if they themselves are moved upon by the Holy Ghost. The burden of responsibility for spiritual discernment thus comes back to the individual. That is, I believe, one of the great strengths of this wondrous latter-day work.


[1] James C. Humes, The Wit and Wisdom of Winston Churchill (New York: Harper Collins, 1994), 43.

[2] Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 1986), s.v. “canon.”

[3] Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York and Toronto: Mentor, 1950), 138, 259–61.

[4] Page totals in current English-language editions.

[5] Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1938), 194.

[6] Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1986), 36–37.

[7] J. Reuben Clark Jr., “When Are Church Leaders’ Words Entitled to Claim of Scripture?” Church News, 31 July 1954, 9.

[8] Journal of Discourses (London: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1854–86), 7:277.

[9] Journal of Discourses, 9:150.

[10] W. D. Davies, “Reflections on the Mormon Canon,” in Christians among Jews and Gentiles: Essays in Honor of Krister Stendahl on His Sixty-Fifth Birthday, ed. George W. E. Nickelsburg (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986), 64.

[11] Bruce R. McConkie, A New Witness for the Articles of Faith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985), 418.

[12] Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1980), 156.

[13] Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, 176–77.

[14] Gordon B. Hinckley, Conference Report, April 1994, 74–75.

[15] Ezra Taft Benson, BYU 1980 Devotional and Fireside Speeches (Provo, UT: University Publications, 1981), 27.

[16] Wilford W. Woodruff, Conference Report, October 1894.

[17] Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 19.

[18] B. H. Roberts, “Relation of Inspiration and Revelation to Church Government,” Improvement Era, March 1905, 364.1.

[19] Times and Seasons 3, no. 9 (1 March 1842): 709.

[20] Luke Timothy Johnson, “The Jesus Seminar’s Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus,” The Christian Century . . . 3, no. 1 (3–10 January 1996), 16–22, esp. 17.

[21] Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar, trans, and eds., The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1993).

[22] Brigham Young Magazine 49, no. 4 (November 1995): 46–52.

[23] Brigham Young Magazine 49, no. 4 (November 1995): 48.

[24] J. Reuben Clark Jr., “The Charted Course of the Church in Education,” Charge to Religious Educators, 3d ed. (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1994), 3–4.

[25] James E. Faust, “Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon,” Ensign, January 1996, 5–6.