On Confessing Belief: Thoughts on the Language of the Articles of Faith

Steven P. Sondrup

Steven P. Sondrup, “On Confessing Belief: Thoughts on the Language of the Articles of Faith,” in Literature of Belief: Sacred Scripture and Religious Experience, ed. Neal E. Lambert (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1981), 197–216.

A professor of comparative literature at BYU when this was published, Steven Sondrup graduated magna cum laude from the University of Utah with an honors B.A. in German in 1968 and later earned his A.M. and PhD from Harvard University with emphasis in modern German and Scandinavian literature. With speaking or reading ability in nine languages, he had published two books on Hugo von Hofmannsthal, numerous reviews and articles examining various aspects of nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature, and a number of translations when this was published. As executive secretary of the Association for Mormon Letters since its founding when this was published, he broadened his interests to include Mormon literary documents and was awarded the 1979 AML prize for critical writing for his article, “The Literary Dimensions of Mormon Autobiography,” Dialogue, 11 (Summer 1978): 75–80.

In this paper, Professor Sondrup points out some of the ways that the Articles of Faith, though not formally a creed of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, still perform some of the actions of a creed without binding members to a fixed set of doctrinal tenets, an impossibility in a church that asserts the primacy of continued revelation. Designed primarily for use in explaining gospel doctrines simply and briefly to nonmembers, these statements still show a surprising depth and richness of nuance suggested by the different meanings of “I believe,” the phrase that opens twelve of the thirteen articles. Professor Sondrup points out that this phrase expresses meanings of agreement, trust, and confidence—ranging from the believer’s giving assent to a proposition to his exercising faith that a given statement is, in fact, representative of verity. Another element of that phrase’s supple richness shows when compared to the assertion that usually precedes a member’s public affirmed testimony: “I know . . . .” Belief is not simply a weak form of knowledge, argues Professor Sondrup, but “is a mode of being and a course of action. “ And the communal feeling expressed by “we believe” stands in fruitful tension with the individualistic proposition, “I know,” making “the dichotomy between them . . . a source of energy and enlightenment.”

Man kann den eigenen Sinnen mißtrauen, aber nicht dem eigenen Glauben. (One can mistrust one’s own senses, but not one’s own belief.) Ludwig Wittgenstein Philosophische Untersuchungen

In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Articles of Faith are surely among the best-known scriptures. They are memorized and recited by thousands of Primary children each year, they are the basis of countless talks, and they are used by missionaries in a variety of ways ranging from door approaches to visiting cards. They are in fact so familiar, such an integral part of the fabric of Mormon religious life, that it is often forgotten that they belong to that exalted class of statements called scripture. Although the Articles of Faith are not formally regarded as a creed, as similar statements in other churches are, they, in their cogent and succinct summary of Mormon doctrine and experience, come as close as anything to a creedal statement. It is, moreover, in the context of creedlike statements that the language of the Articles of Faith can be profitably investigated in terms of three major considerations:

  1. In contrast of form and function to other Christian creedal statements.
  2. In terms of making explicit some of the implicit assumptions of the “language game” of confessing one’s faith.
  3. In the framework of particularly Mormon insights, beliefs, and practices. [1]

A creed or a creedal statement is, in general, a public pronouncement or a formal avowal in which the essential doctrinal content of religious belief is set forth. A creed may be simple and straightforward or relatively complex; it may be very brief or comparatively lengthy. The earliest Christian creeds are found in the Bible: “Thou art the Christ” (Mark 8:29), for example, or “Thou art the Christ the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16), or the more extended “There is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him” (1 Cor. 8:6).

From these and other similar New Testament models, many different creeds developed to meet widely varying needs. One of the earliest of these was the baptismal creed by means of which the newly converted Christian could profess his faith as he entered into the fold. Alongside the baptismal formulae, creeds developed with declaratory, instructive, and informative intents. Some of these assumed their most eloquent and soul-searing form, tradition holds, when uttered by martyrs in the moment they faced a violent death at the hands of their enemies. By the beginning of the fourth century, though, the nature of these creeds had changed and evolved into something quite new. Formerly, creeds had been relatively simple expressions of heartfelt conviction; they had been spoken by the believer in order to profess his faith or to align himself with the Christian cause; they had often been conceived in order to declare the nature of the Christian message to the hostile and antagonistic pagan on the one hand and to the indignant and offended Jew on the other. The earliest Christians understood that the profession of faith was fraught with danger and that the possibility of death was always imminent.

By the fourth century, though, matters had changed. Creedal statements were no longer motivated primarily by the need to confess the faith before a belligerent and inimical world but rather by theologic controversies within the church itself. Creeds often became pointed and aggressive polemics against heretics and were used as norms for assessing the orthodoxy of any individual or any position. The Nicean Creed was conceived, for example, as a definition of orthodoxy for the bishops and bristles with anti-Arian dogma and rhetoric. Gradually Roman Catholic creeds became less personal in emphasis and more doctrinal in orientation; the individual act of confessing the faith receded into the background while the institutionalized definitions of the faith advanced. The decrees of the First Vatican Council (1870), for example, began, “Sancta catholica apostolica Romana Ecclesia credit et confitetur, unum esse Deum verum et vivum . . . .” [2] Although it may be argued that Protestant creeds have tended to preserve some of the personal quality lost in the Catholic tradition, some institutionalization may be observed.

The Articles of Faith certainly have some similarities with the great Catholic and Protestant creeds but many differences can also be observed. Like the great creeds, they are public pronouncements in which the essential doctrinal content of the Mormon faith is set forth. James Talmage, though, notes an important and central difference: “Beliefs and prescribed practises of most religious sects are usually set forth in formulated creeds. The Latter-day Saints announce no such creed as a complete code of faith; for they accept the principle of continuous revelation as an essential feature of their belief.” Against the background of this caveat, Talmage, nonetheless, concludes that the Articles of Faith are “an epitome of the tenets of the Church”; that “they include fundamental and characteristic doctrines of the Gospel as taught by the Church;” and that they are an “authoritative exposition” of Church doctrine as formally/ accepted by the Church on 6 October 1890. [3]

As was the case with many early Christian creeds, the Articles of Faith emerged out of the interaction between believers and nonbelievers. They appear in a letter dated 1 March 1842 from Joseph Smith to a certain John Wentworth, editor and proprietor of the Chicago Democrat, in response to his request for a “sketch of the rise, progress, persecution, and faith of the Latter-day Saints.” [4] Desiring, perhaps, to distinguish the Articles of Faith from other creedal statements, B. H. Roberts makes a telling observation concerning their composition: “[The Articles of Faith] were not produced by the labored efforts and the harmonized contentions of scholastics, but were struck off by one inspired mind at a single effort to make a declaration of that which is most assuredly believed by the church, for one making earnest inquiry about her history and her fundamental doctrines.” [5] B. H. Roberts thus situates the Articles of Faith much nearer the spontaneous confessions of faith of the earliest followers of Christ than the doctrinally polemic statements of the later Church fathers.

Like the immediate and direct confessions of belief of the first Christians and differing from the subsequent more formal / creeds, the Articles of Faith have no official liturgical function t and play no particular role in Church ceremonies or observations. They do not have any function that is even remotely/ equivalent to the use of creeds as baptismal formulae during the first and second centuries, that even faintly resembles the role of the creed in the Catholic mass, or that generally parallels the recitation of the creed in many Protestant services. Beyond serving as an authorized summary of beliefs, the Articles of Faith function most notably in a missionary context. [6] B. H. Roberts stresses that they were written for anyone “making earnest inquiry” about Mormonism. [7] The context in which they appear in the letter from Joseph Smith to Mr. Wentworth is indicative of this fact:

Our missionaries are going forth to different nations, and in Germany, Palestine, New Holland, Australia, the East Indies, and other places, the Standard of Truth has been erected; no unhallowed hand can stop the work, from progressing; persecutions may rage, mobs may combine, armies may assemble, calumny may defame, but the truth of God will go forth 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. [8]

What is obvious from the individual articles following is that Joseph Smith intended to summarize succinctly and cogently the particular tenets at the heart of the Mormon religious experience. All but one of the articles begin, accordingly, with the pronouncement “we believe”; and while the substance of each article is relatively easily grasped, the full force and significance of the almost introductory “we believe” can be, and in point of fact is, often overlooked. The verb “to believe” is, moreover, arrestingly complex and disarmingly rich in its communicative range. In general, it is used in three relatively distinct and different ways: [9]

  1. “To believe” can be used in the sense of “believe that,” meaning “accept that,” “have the opinion that,” or “agree that.” In this sense, it corresponds to the Greek pisteu? hoti or the Latin credo quia. For example:
    1. I believe that it is snowing.
    2. “We believe that we shall also live with him” (Rom. 6:8). Greek: Pisteuomen hoti kai syz?somen aut?. Latin: Credimus quia simul etiam vivemus cum Christo.
    3. “I believe that it shall be according as thou hast said” (Alma 19:9).
  2. “To believe” can be used in the sense of “to trust” corresponding to the Greek pisteu? or the Latin credo.
    1. It can be used in this context with reference to a person or to God:
      1. “I believe him,” meaning “I believe that he is telling the truth.”
      2. “Be of good cheer: for I believe God” (Acts 27: 25). Greek: Euthymeite, andres pisteu? gar t? the?. Latin: Propter quod bono animo estote viri: credo enim Deo.
    2. It can also be said of a statement:
      1. I believe what you told me.
      2. “They believed the scripture, and the word which Jesus said” (John 2:22). Greek: Episteusan t? graph? kai t? log? hon eipen ho I?sous. Latin: Crediderunt scripturae, et sermoni, quern dixit Iesus.
      3. “I believe all the words of my father” (1 Ne. 11:5).
  3. “To believe,” finally, can be used in the sense of “believe in” or “believe on.” In this sense, it corresponds to the Greek pisteu? eis or en and the Latin credo quia and means “to have faith in,” or “to have confidence in.”
    1. It can be said of a person:
      1. Son, I believe in you.
      2. “Whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). Greek: Pas ho pisteu?n eis auton m? apol?tai all’ ech? z??n ai?nion. Latin: Omnis, qui credit in eum, non pereat, sed habeat vitam aeternam.
      3. “We believe in Christ” (2 Ne. 25:24).
    2. It can be said of a statement, a pronouncement, or a doctrine. For example: I believe in what you tell me.
    3. It may be said in a general sense of an institution, practice, or concept.
      1. I believe in democracy.
      2. I believe in free enterprise,
      3. “Thousands were brought to believe in the traditions of the Nephites” (Alma 23:5).

This list, reflecting both modern parlance and scriptural usage, is by no means exhaustive, yet it suggests at least some of the subtle variations in meaning that the verb “to believe” can communicate. It would, moreover, be an unnecessary and misleading restriction to argue that any particular attestation of “to believe” cannot function in more than one of these categories at once. Some of the richness and depth of the Articles of Faith can, in fact, be inferred directly from the realization that all three major senses of the verb “we believe” are represented in the twelve times it is used.

  1. “Believe that” in the sense of “agree” or “accept that.”
    1. No. 2: “We believe that men will be punished for their own sins and not for Adam’s transgression.”
    2. No. 3: “We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.”
    3. No. 4: “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.”
    4. No. 5: “We believe that a man must be called of God, by prophecy, and by the laying on of hands, by those who are in authority to preach the Gospel and administer in the ordinances thereof.”
  2. Believe in the sense of trust.
    1. No. 8: “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.”
    2. No. 9: “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.”
  3. “Believe in” in the sense of “trust,” “have faith in,” or “have confidence in.”
    1. No. 1: “We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.”
    2. No. 6: “We believe in the same organization that existed in the Primitive Church, viz., apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, evangelists, etc.”
    3. No. 7: “We believe in the gift of tongues, prophecy, revelation, visions, healings, interpretation of tongues, etc.”
    4. No. 10: “We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes; that Zion will be built upon this [the American] continent; that Christ will reign personally upon the earth; and, that the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory.”
    5. No. 12: “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.”
    6. No. 13: “We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men; indeed, we may say that we follow the admonition of Paul—We believe all things, we hope all things, we have endured many things, and hope to be able to endure all things. If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.”

The sense of the first group—those beginning “We believe that . . .”—is, perhaps, most directly accessible. Each article in this group expresses agreement with or assent to a proposition—agreement that, for example, “men will be punished for their own sins” and that “through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved.” This is an acknowledgement that what we publicly declare as eternal principle is privately and inwardly so received and accepted. The emphasis is on rational assent or agreement, which stresses the cognitive and propositional while minimizing any element of profound self-involvement.

In the case of the next group—”We believe the Bible to be the word of God . . .” and “We believe all that God has revealed . . .”—the emphasis is somewhat different: here it is not principally a question of assent but rather of placing trust and confidence in a proposition. To believe all that God has revealed is to value, to trust in, to have confidence in his revelations, just as Nephi’s assertion that he believed all of the words of his father implied a trust upon which action could be based, a confidence that opened new spiritual vistas. Etymologically, the verb “to believe” suggests precisely this underlying notion of valuing or esteeming and is related, moreover, to the verb “to love.” The Oxford English Dictionary traces the word back to a common Germanic root meaning “to hold estimable, valuable, pleasing or satisfactory, to be satisfied with” and gives as its first definition “to have confidence or faith in (a person), and consequently to rely upon, trust to.” Similarly, the Latin credo, usually translated “I believe,” etymologically implies “I trust,” “I place confidence in,” or “I rely upon,” just as the Greek pisteu?, “I believe,” is closely associated with pistis, “trust.” [10]

This sense of the word is even more marked and generally more central in the last group of articles, those expressing belief in something. The first Article of Faith, “We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost,” is not primarily asserting, for example, the existence of God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost: their existence is taken as a given, an implicit assumption behind the statement. Just as in nonreligious discourse the statement “I believe in my son” is not primarily cognitive and propositional but rather bespeaks a personal involvement and a special relationship, so the similar utterance “I believe in God, the Eternal Father” also centers on a relationship of involvement and confidence. This Article of Faith is, thus, primarily an assertion of trust, reliance, and perhaps even love. Its assumption is the existence of God; its message is one of confidence and hope. The same is true of the assertion of belief in “the same organization that existed in the Primitive Church” and of belief “in the gift of tongues, prophecy, revelation, visions, healings, interpretation of tongues.” All of the articles expressing belief in something—in God, in the organization of the primitive church—posit self-involvement, commitment, and indeed a deeply personal relationship.

The Articles of Faith, though, are not just accounts of inward spiritual attitudes. They are assertions, they are statements. They present in concentrated and distilled form the doctrinal substance of Mormon theology and of the Mormon theological tradition. They instruct those seeking information about Mormon beliefs and often, perhaps, remind believers privately and inwardly of the most important tenets of the religious community.

The Articles of Faith in both their public as well as their private use, though, have a dimension or function beyond that of simple assertion. Just as the statements “I covenant” or “I promise” both state the substance of the covenant or promise and perform an action—that of promising or covenanting—the Articles of Faith also have a performative element. The performative function does not derive simply from uttering the words “I believe.” It necessarily presupposes that this expression is used in good faith and represents not only an inward attitude but also a specific mode of relating to reality. Paul seems to be making a similar point when, in addressing the Romans, he taught that “if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation” (Rom. 10:9–10). In this context, the statement of belief is not just a report on a mental state but an action which, like covenanting, contributes to salvation. To be sure, confession of belief is not performative in precisely the same way as promising, vowing, or covenanting, yet it is more than simply saying, contending, or asserting.” [11]

Since the oral confession of faith has this performative function that plays a role in the economy of salvation, it is not surprising that many churches provide a formal framework within which the belief in Christ can be confessed. Although the Mormon church does not use the Articles of Faith for this or for any similar function, ample opportunity is, nonetheless, provided for confessing the faith. The monthly testimony meetings along with many less formal occasions for testimony bearing offer abundant possibilities for the expression of one’s belief. Although the form for the expression of testimony is not rigidly prescribed, it has in the course of years become highly formulaic. A comparison of some aspects of the well-established formulae with the more formal and canonized Articles of Faith is revealing. Testimonies typically bear witness of the existence of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, of the divinity of Jesus Christ, of the divine calling of Joseph Smith and the current prophet, seer, and revelator, and of the divine mission and eternal efficacy of the various activities of the Church. Although these statements do not have exact parallels among the Articles of Faith, they correspond in a general sense to the assertion of belief in God the Eternal Father (number 1), of belief that a man must be called of God by prophecy (number 5), and of belief in the same organization that existed in the primitive church (number 6). In any particular testimony additional points may be made which may or may not correspond to other Articles of Faith. One of the most arresting differences between testimony bearing and the Articles of Faith, though, is in the use of verbs. Whereas the Articles of Faith assert “we believe,” testimonies typically proclaim “I know.”

Even without considering some of the most difficult aspects of religious epistomology, it appears that the major intent of the testimonial “I know” is one of propositional surety and confidence. The expression “I know” in this context stands at the end of a continuum containing such elements as “I assume,” “I guess,” “I think,” “I feel certain,” and “I am positive” along with many other expressions denoting various degrees of cognitive certainty. Just as the assertion “I know it is raining” is taken to be a significantly more substantial claim than “I believe it is raining,” so the testimony, “I know that God lives,” it might be argued, maintains far more than the simple “I believe in God.” This line of thinking, though, represents an unnecessary oversimplification of a somewhat more complex issue. The difference between “I know” and “I believe in” is not just a question of the degree of certainty in the speaker’s mind: “I believe in” asserts confidence and trust and implies existence, but the testimonial “I know” cannot simply be construed as intensification. Even while being used in a thoroughly religious context, the verb “to know” carries some of the force it has in a secular—indeed in scientific—usage for many Mormons. It typically suggests knowledge that is taken to be roughly equivalent to knowledge obtained by means of ordinary sensory experience. Ultimately the assertion “I know that God lives” is understood within the uniquely Mormon interpretive matrix to be based on experience with the Divine that can be framed in language—though admittedly, at times, metaphorical language—that is cognitive rather than impressionistic, that is repeatable, and that is, at least in principle, universally accessible. The assertion “I know that God lives” thus directly avers the existence of God and indirectly implies—at least in many cases—experience or personal involvement with God.

The expressions “I know” and “I believe,” therefore, are complementary rather than antithetical. Taken in a broad context, they fulfill and extend one another rather than simply suggesting more or less subtle variations in the strength of a claim. The first—”I know”—asserts the existence of God and implies, within the framework of Mormon parlance, experience with God; the second—”I believe in”—asserts, on the other hand, involvement with God and implies his existence. While it is entirely understandable how the testimonial formula “I know that God lives” describes a certainty that goes beyond “I assume,” “I guess,” “I think,” “I feel certain,” or even “I am positive,” the scriptural declaration “we believe in God the Eternal Father” with its implied assertion of trust, confidence, and perhaps even love should not be forgotten or deemed an inappropriately modest claim.

On the contrary, in terms of traditional religious values, the assertion of “belief in” may be more significant than the assertion of “knowledge that.” For example, the statement “I believe in Jimmy Carter” with its endorsement and indication of support bespeaks more than the observation “I know that Jimmy Carter exists” which in comparison is relatively detached and noncommittal. Whereas the difference in personal involvement and commitment is obvious when the statements are used with reference to a living person, the distinction seems to be at least partially obscured or even reversed when applied to deity. This fact could, perhaps, be explained by arguing that the words have different grammars when referring to human beings as opposed to divinity. A simpler explanation, though, may be seen in the divergent contexts in which the two terms are used. Since the existence of Jimmy Carter is not seriously questioned by anyone, the assertion of his existence adds nothing to the prevailing climate of opinion. But his policies and actions are hotly debated—as would be those of any politician—and the endorsement communicated by the phrase “I believe in” may contribute in substantial measure to one side of the debate. In the case of God, the situation is reversed: the existence of God is frequently questioned, and thus the assertion of his existence may well challenge prevailing attitudes. If, however, the existence of God, of Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Ghost is accepted, a belief in them in terms of all that “believe in” suggests, though by no means a foregone conclusion, is relatively easily understood. [12]

Nonetheless, even when the existence of God is fully accepted, to believe in him is still a significant spiritual endeavor J and by no means a trivial assertion in the confession of the faith. The Book of Mormon provides some telling examples of the dynamics of “belief in.” At the conclusion of his farewell address, King Benjamin leaves his people with a challenge: he quite simply says, “Believe in God.” He then describes in detail what this means:

believe that he is, and that he created all things, both in heaven and in earth; believe that he has all wisdom, and all power, both in heaven and in earth; believe that man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend.

And again, believe that ye must repent of your sins and forsake them, and humble yourselves before God; and ask in sincerity of heart that he would forgive you (Mosiah 4:9–10).

For King Benjamin, believing in God consists of giving credence to the notion that God exists, that he created all things, that he is omniscient and omnipotent, and that man must humble himself before God. In this context, “believing in” is an encompassing and broad spiritual program, yet what follows is even more significant. King Benjamin, still elaborating on what it means to believe in God, adds, “and now, if you believe all these things see that ye do them” (Mosiah 4:10). Far from being just a passive inward attitude, “believing in” is a mode of being and a course of action. “Belief that,” indeed, “knowledge that” becomes “belief in” when translated into action and being. When Ether maintains, that “whoso believeth in God might hope for a better world, yea, even a place at the right hand of God” (Mosiah 12:4; italics added), he surely understands “believing in” to denote a mode of existence as King Benjamin described it rather than the facile and often vacuous “Yea, Lord, I believe.” Similarly, 3 Nephi reports that the unbelievers set aside a day for the execution of “all those who believed in those traditions” (the traditions concerning the birth of Christ), unless the prophesied sign of Christ’s birth were given (1:9). If the belief in the traditions had only been an inwardly held state of mind, would they have aroused such anger and hostility on the part of the unbelievers? The necessary conclusion is that this belief in the traditions involved a way of living and relating to externality that was offensive to those not holding the belief. “Belief/ in” is, thus, once again not only an attitude but a mode of being.

Joseph Smith’s explanation that we—meaning the membership of the Church—believe in God the Eternal Father, in the’’ same organization that existed in the primitive church, or in the gift of tongues, prophecy, revelations, visions, healing, and the interpretation of tongues is in the broadest sense a description of, a spiritual program leading to a mode of existence that justifies—indeed invites—a sure hope in a better world and a place at the right hand of God.

One final observation remains to be made about the difference between the testimonial formula, “I know,” and the creedal, “we believe.” The difference between the first person singular and the first person plural is symptomatic of a much larger issue centering on the relationship of the individual as individual to the group. In the Church, it has become almost a cliché, for example, to point out that one cannot live—usually meaning live eternally—on borrowed light. Each individual must eventually gain a testimony for himself, must come to knowledge of the gospel for himself. Each individual must, perforce, establish his own relationship with Christ and must come to know Christ individually. Indeed, knowledge can only be held on an individual basis. Common knowledge in this context is knowledge held by each individual member of a group on an individual and particular basis. It is, thus, significant that the assertion “I know” can be and, in point of fact, is made. The testimonial “I know” emphasizes that the speaker has this knowledge on the all-important individual basis, that he is not acting according to the testimonies of others, that he is not living on borrowed light.

In contrast to the emphasis often given to the need for individual testimony, one is also frequently reminded that man cannot be saved alone. This warning is made most typically with regard to the import of family unity in an immediate as well as a historical sense but certainly applies with reference to the religious community at large. Mormon theology has always stressed that salvation and exaltation come, at least in part, as a result of promises made to groups—the seed of Abraham or the house of Israel, for example—and are contingent upon the realization of social, group-oriented goals which are strongly reminiscent of many aspects of Old Testament theology. The concepts of the house of Israel, the city of Zion, or the kingdom of God all emphasize the communitarian and social dimensions of Mormon soteriological thinking. Given the unique prominence of such thought in Mormon theology, it is hardly surprising that the Articles of Faith should all begin with the pronoun we. The fact that Joseph Smith was responding to an invitation to represent the beliefs of the Church as a whole when he wrote the Articles of Faith certainly is an immediate explanation for the use of we, yet his understanding of the importance of a holy community in the eyes of God must have played a subsidiary though noteworthy role. It is significant, moreover, to observe that the pronoun we, emphasizing communitarian and social goals, is linked with the verb “to believe in” which transcends uniquely inward and private attitudes in its reach toward informing an entire mode of being.

The contrast between the private and perhaps existential “I know” and the communitarian and social “we believe” represents a source of vivifying dynamic tension within Mormon theology. The viability and vigor of both of the formulations as they exist side by side in ordinary parlance suggest that the dichotomy between them is not to be overcome but rather used as a source of energy and enlightenment. The private “I know” must be so ordered that it ultimately contributes to the common “we believe”; and conversely, the communitarian “we believe” must be so structured that it leads every member of the community to a personal “I know.” The dichotomy of knowledge and politics (h? politik?) is, thus, not overcome but transformed into a vitalizing syzygy, into an energizing conjunctio oppistorum.

The Articles of Faith, thus, confess the faith—the faith of the individual Mormon and the faith of the Mormon religious community—on many different and varied levels. Their formulation, indeed, their language, is simple and direct yet implicitly evokes insights lying far beneath the conceptual surface. The Articles of Faith have elements in common with other Christian creedal statements but are uniquely Mormon, not only in their discursive description of Mormon belief, but also in their tacit and often subtle assumptions. Along with and often in contrast to the ordinary testimonial formulae, the language of the Articles of Faith—indeed the “language game” of confessing the faith—evinces a broad and panoramic view of many of the most important aspects of the Mormon religious experience which are more extensive and inclusive than their all too frequently automatized and tradition-laden perception suggests.


[1] Within the Mormon community in general, the concept of a creed has fallen into disrepute. On the occasion of the First Vision, Joseph Smith was told that the creeds of all the churches were an abomination in the sight of the Lord (see JS—H 1:19). The purpose of considering the Articles of Faith in the context of the long tradition of creedal statements is specifically and emphatically not to contrast their contents but rather to examine some of the most fundamental aspects associated with the profession of belief: it is, thus, not the substance of belief that is at question but the implications of the confession of belief. For an introduction to the tradition of creedal statements see Paul T. Fuhrmann, An Introduction to the Great Creeds of the Church (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960) and John H. Leith, ed., Creeds of the Churches: A Reader in Christian Doctrine from the Bible to the Present (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1973). See also the bibliography provided in Sr. Mary-John Mananzan, OSB, The “Language Game” of Confessing One’s Belief: A Wittgensteinian-Austinian Approach to the Linguistic Analysis of Creedal Statements (Tubingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1974), 156–70. It should be noted that the expression “language game” is used throughout in the sense suggested by Wittgenstein.

[2] “The Holy Catholic Apostolic Roman Church believes and confesses that there is one true and living God . . .Enchiridion Symbolorum Definitionum et Declarationum de Rebus Fidei et Morum, eds. Henricus Denzinger and Adolfus Schonmetzer S.I., 33rd rev., 12th ed. (Freiburg i.Br.: Herder, 1965) 587 (No. 3001).

[3] A Study of the Articles of Faith (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1924), 6. See Milton R. Hunter, Pearl of Great Price Commentary (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1951), 246–47, for a description of the canonization of the Articles of Faith in both 1880 and 1890.

[4] Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 2nd ed. rev., 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1932–1951), 4:535.

[5] A Comprehensive History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1930), 2:131. Recent research suggests that Joseph Smith’s formulation of the Articles of Faith may not have been as spontaneous and immediate as B. H. Roberts’ description might lead one to believe: Oliver Cowdery, Joseph Young—a brother of Brigham Young—Orson Pratt, and Orson Hyde each wrote a series of Articles of Faith before those written by Joseph Smith. Although Joseph Smith’s bear a marked similarity to earlier versions and may have been based on them in certain respects, his are more precise, more penetrating, and considerably broader than any of the earlier versions. Even in light of these facts, B. H. Roberts is surely correct in his assertion that they “were not produced by the labored efforts and the harmonized contentions of scholastics” (p. 131). See John W. Welch and David J. Whittaker, “ ‘We Believe . . .’ Development of the Articles of Faith,” Ensign, September 1979, 51–55. See also T. Edgar Lyon, “Joseph Smith: The Wentworth Letter and Religious America of 1842,” 5 December 1954, in vol. 2, Annual Joseph Smith Memorial Sermons (Logan, Utah: LDS Institute of Religion, 1966), 116–19. Here the point is made, among others, that Joseph Smith did not intend the Articles of Faith to be a creed in the normative and prescriptive sense in which some creeds function. This fact tends to emphasize their personal, confessional quality.

[6] For an example of the importance of the Articles of Faith in a missionary context, see Spencer W. Kimball, “Priesthood Session Address,” Official Report of the One Hundred Forty-fifth Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints [October 3, 4, 5, 1975] (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1975), 117–19.

[7] Comprehensive History, 2:131.

[8] History of the Church, 4:540.

[9] It is, thus, only the implications and dynamics of the expression of belief that are to be considered, not the substance of belief. See Dallas M. High, Language, Persons, and Belief: Studies in Wittgenstein’s “Philosophical Investigations” and Religious Use of Language (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), 147–48. Many aspects of the following analysis were suggested by this study. The Greek and Latin citations were taken from Novum Testamentum Graece et Latine, ed. Eberhard Nestle; 21st edition, eds. Erwin Nestle and Kurt Aland [which includes the 24th Greek edition] (Stuttgart: Wurttembergische Bibelanstalt, 1962).

[10] Notably, Noah Webster in both the 1829 and 1844 editions of his An American Dictionary of the English Language indicates that “to believe” as a transitive verb can mean “to trust”; this definition, though, is the last rather than the first as in the case of the OED. He further explains that as an intransitive verb, it sometimes implies “a yielding of the will and affection.”

[11] See J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975). Although many of his arguments do not apply in this context, his definition of a performative utterance is succinct and useful: “It indicates that the issuing of the utterance is the performing of an action—it is not normally thought of as just saying something” (6).

[12] Statements like “I believe in Santa Claus,” “I believe in ghosts,” “I believe in monsters,” and, perhaps, “I believe in the devil” all seem to assert the existence of the particular being in question and have little to do with trust or confidence. Since the existence of each of them is often questioned, the assertion of belief in any one of them is basically an ontological question. When Jesus, though, said, “he that believeth in me” shall live (John 11:25), he was clearly not addressing a question of his own existence but was inviting trust, confidence, and love. In this context, belief in Christ follows—rather than precedes—conviction of his experience and is a particularly significant spiritual achievement.