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The Authorship Debate Concerning Lectures on Faith: Exhumation and Reburial

TitleThe Authorship Debate Concerning Lectures on Faith: Exhumation and Reburial
Publication TypeBook Chapter
Year of Publication2000
AuthorsReynolds, Noel B.
EditorRicks, Stephen D., Donald W. Parry, and Andrew H. Hedges
Book TitleThe Disciple as Witness: Essays on Latter-day Saint History and Doctrine in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson
PublisherFoundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies
CityProvo, UT
KeywordsAuthorship; Lectures on Faith; Rigdon, Sidney; Smith, Joseph, Jr.

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The Authorship Debate Concerning Lectures on Faith: Exhumation and Reburial

Noel B. Reynolds

In 1835, Joseph Smith’s revelations, given for the direction of the restored church, were published a second time under the title Doctrine and Covenants. This publication contained significant additions to the original 1833 Book of Commandments. Prominently placed at the beginning of this sacred collection were seven “lectures” derived from presentations at the School of the Elders in Kirtland the preceding winter. These seven lectures were apparently conceived as the first installment in a projected “course of lectures designed to unfold . . . the doctrine of Jesus Christ.”1 All seven lectures take up the doctrine of faith as “the first principle in revealed religion and the foundation of all righteousness.”2 There is no evidence of subsequent efforts to follow through with similar treatments of other basic gospel principles. The seven lectures were included in subsequent editions of the revelations until the 1921 edition, when they were discontinued with the explanation that they were not really part of canonical LDS scripture because “they were never presented to nor accepted by the church as being otherwise than theological lectures or lessons.”3 These lectures were only rarely used by scripture scholars and were almost never mentioned or quoted in general conference talks. Known in their subsequently separated state as the Lectures on Faith, these lectures were published and attracted a small and devoted following.4 While there have been rumors that the lectures might be resurrected for inclusion in an enhanced edition of LDS scripture, nothing has ever materialized. More recently, in 1990, BYU professors Larry E. Dahl and Charles D. Tate Jr. produced a new edition of the lectures, which they published with supplementary chapters on each lecture drawn from a special conference designed to promote them and to enhance our awareness and understanding of them.5

It is worth noting that the title of the 1835 publication, Doctrine and Covenants, was actually devised to accommodate these lectures. The 1833 publication of Joseph Smith’s revelations was variously referred to as the Book of Commandments, the Book of Covenants, or the Articles and Covenants of the Church, following the name of its lead section as it was circulated principally in handwritten copies. In 1835, when the lectures (part 1), under the title “On the Doctrine of the Church of the Latter Day Saints,” were combined with Joseph’s revelations (part 2), under the title “Covenants and Commandments,” the resulting volume was labeled Doctrine and Covenants to signal the two major divisions of the contents.6

The range of reactions to the lectures within the LDS community is not easy to explain. From the beginning, there appears to have been a rather general disinterest on the part of most church members and leaders.7 Also, there have been doubts about the lectures evident in the judgment of those who found them to be excessively “Protestant” in tone or content and to contain teachings not easily reconciled with standard Latter-day Saint doctrinal understandings. Indeed, this perspective played some role in the decision of the church to abandon the lectures in the 1921 re-editing of the Doctrine and Covenants.8 Supporters of the lectures, on the other hand, found them to be among the most sublime of all religious writings and fortified with doctrines that were essential to a clear grasp of the true LDS position. The church never chose to enter this debate in any official or public way.

These differing views over the value of the lectures in the intellectual tradition of the Latter-day Saints were sometimes developed and expressed in terms of a debate about authorship. Those who disliked the lectures usually attributed them principally to Sidney Rigdon. Their promoters assumed Joseph Smith to be the author. No one has yet produced solid historical evidence from the 1834–35 time period to establish or refute either view. The 1990 volume on the Lectures on Faith presents a good example of this. The historical background presented there underplays the evidence for Rigdon’s leading role. Most contributors assumed Joseph Smith’s authorship as an unquestioned fact. Recognizing the impossibility of settling this question with certainty on the basis of information available to scholars at this time, I wish to offer a more vigorous exploration of the thesis that Sidney Rigdon may have been the sole or principal author of the lectures. While this analysis makes the Rigdon thesis look more promising than the alternatives, the full truth of the matter is likely sealed in the memories of the actual participants in the key events of 1834 and 1835, during which time period these distinctive compositions were produced. Recognition of Sidney Rigdon’s probable leading role in the writing of the lectures would not, however, settle the question of their worth or importance for Latter-day Saints. It would only serve as a warning that the discussion of those issues should not proceed on the assumption that Joseph Smith was their author, an assumption that has helped to elevate the lectures to something near scriptural status in the eyes of some interpreters.

The Authorship Issue

The issue that continues to provoke the most interest relative to the Lectures on Faith is their authorship. Who wrote them? The available evidence tends to undermine the view that Joseph Smith was primarily responsible for them. It is unfortunate that some feel so strongly about maintaining Joseph Smith’s authorship or responsibility for these lectures. This makes it difficult for other faithful Latter-day Saints to assess the evidence critically, and it also plays into the hands of critics of the church and Joseph Smith. Critics find much in the lectures and in the church’s eventual exclusion of them from the scriptural canon with which to embarrass faithful Mormons.9 Insisting that Joseph was responsible for the lectures only makes the critics’ task easier. For example, Lecture 5 provides Dan Vogel with his principal evidence for an evolving Mormon concept of God that in 1835 reflected “Sidney Rigdon’s Primitivistic background and not the orthodox LDS view of three distinct personages in the godhead.”10

Opinions on the authorship and status of the lectures in Latter-day Saint literature have varied widely among both scholars and church authorities. Elders Bruce R. McConkie and Joseph Fielding Smith both saw Joseph Smith as a principal author of the lectures and believed he had approved them in full, having revised and prepared them for publication.11 However, that view does not appear to have been generally shared by the church leadership that discontinued official publication of the seven lectures in 1921, allowed the copyright to lapse, and explicitly reiterated that these lectures were not scripture but merely “helps.”12 The “Explanatory Introductions” of subsequent editions have included such explanations as this one from page v of the 1966 edition:

Certain lessons, entitled “Lectures on Faith,” which were bound in with the Doctrine and Covenants in some of its former issues, are not included in this edition. These lessons were prepared for use in the School of the Elders, conducted in Kirtland, Ohio, during the winter of 1834–1835; but they were never presented to nor accepted by the Church as being otherwise than theological lectures or lessons.

At least some of the presiding brethren possibly held the view published later by Elder John A. Widtsoe, who believed they were “written by Sidney Rigdon and others.”13 Three independent authorship studies conducted in recent decades and using different reputable techniques all conclude that Sidney Rigdon was the primary author of the lectures. Based on these studies, not a single lecture can conclusively be attributed to Joseph Smith.

Authorship Studies

The first authorship study on the lectures was done at the request of the Historical Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1976. Elinore H. Partridge performed a traditional qualitative stylistic analysis on Joseph Smith’s holographic writings and compared these to the lectures. She identified a set of clear differences between the writing styles of Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon and used these as guides in her analysis of the lectures. While she could find possible influences of Joseph Smith in the images, examples, scriptural references, and phrasing of the lectures, she was “quite certain that Joseph Smith neither wrote nor dictated the major portion of the lectures.”14 Similarly, some passages reminded her of Oliver Cowdery’s argumentative style, while other passages and features of the lectures did not seem to fit any of the potential authors she considered. Unfortunately, she did not extend her analysis to include contemporary Protestant lectures of this same type that might have provided stylistic elements possibly borrowed by the Kirtland lecturers. While she found Sidney Rigdon’s style to be dominant throughout most of the seven lectures and thought he most likely prepared them for publication, she warned that the style was not consistently his throughout.15

At about the same time, Alan J. Phipps was writing a master’s thesis on the authorship of the lectures at Brigham Young University.16 Phipps used the quantitative technique of counting “function words” in the writings of several candidates for authorship of the lectures and then compared their frequency ratios with frequencies in the seven lectures as a whole. He concluded that of the possible authors considered, the function word frequency of the lectures most nearly matched the writings of Sidney Rigdon. In spite of the brevity of the individual lectures, the same technique was invoked to assess their authorship, one at a time. Again, Rigdon emerged as the likely author, except for Lecture 5, the results for which more closely matched the writings of Joseph Smith. Lectures 2, 3, 4, and 6 were not as clearly distinguishable as 1, 5, and 7.17

One needs to be very cautious about giving too much weight to such a study for two reasons. First, there have not been enough statistical studies performed on function word frequencies to establish either the reliability of this method or base statistical measures that would tell us how much of a difference is significant. Phipps had to rely on his own intuition and common sense for these guidelines. Second, the lectures are individually quite short and offer only small textual samples, varying in length from a mere 744 words in Lecture 5 to 2,929 in Lecture 7. Small samples are the bane of statisticians and cannot ordinarily be used to draw strong conclusions. Phipps also attempted some other tests, but problems of sample size make these even less convincing, especially as they were applied to individual paragraphs in an attempt to sort out editorial additions.

Similar cautions apply to the 1980 study of Wayne Larsen, Alvin Rencher, and Tim Layton. However, these professional statisticians were well aware of such issues and took appropriate precautions in selecting analytical techniques that could work for such small texts. They extended their massive statistical study of noncontextual word frequencies in the text of the Book of Mormon—which first established scientifically the independent authorship of the different sections of that book—to include the Lectures on Faith.18 One reason for doing this was that their statistical techniques were different from and more powerful than those used by Phipps, and they also had a stronger set of comparison texts to work from. Still, their findings generally confirmed those of Phipps. They were virtually positive that Rigdon had authored all lectures except 2 and 5. Lecture 2, it should be noted, consists principally of materials quoted from the Bible and the Joseph Smith Translation (JST), a fact not easily accommodated in these kinds of studies. Larsen, Rencher, and Layton would attribute Lecture 5 to W. W. Phelps or even Parley P. Pratt, but those statistical correlations are much weaker. Lecture 2 statistics were also weak and favored Joseph Smith, with Sidney Rigdon a close second choice.

The formal authorship studies that have been conducted on the Lectures on Faith all favor Sidney Rigdon as author or principal author in a group effort. When considered individually, Lecture 5 was consistently problematic and was linked tentatively to W. W. Phelps, Parley P. Pratt, or Joseph Smith. This uncertainty is to be expected because the text of Lecture 5 is so much smaller than any of the other six and provides little data for analysis. While these studies each have their own limitations and none should be relied on alone for strong conclusions, the fact that three different studies, using completely different assumptions and approaches, reached the same general conclusion provides support for the Rigdon thesis. Furthermore, the historical and circumstantial evidence leans the same way.

The Historical Evidence

None of the participants in the 1834 School of the Elders left us any clarifying contemporary statements about the lectures or their authors. The only direct statements we have from the participants include a relatively contemporary journal entry by Heber C. Kimball and an interview with Zebedee Coltrin published almost fifty years later in Salt Lake City. Kimball referred to the Theological School held during the winter of 1834–35, in which the Lectures on Faith were given. While it is usually assumed that the lectures were delivered before the opening of the grammar school on 22 December 1834, “under the superintendence of Sidney Rigdon and William E. McLellin teachers,”19 the record is not definitive on this matter. Rigdon himself noted in 1845 that the course of lectures was “delivered before a theological class in Kirtland, O. in the winter of 1834 & 5.”20 Nor does it seem likely that the rhetorically homogenous lectures published in the Doctrine and Covenants are transcriptions of all the teachings on faith given at the school. Kimball describes how “a certain number were appointed to speak at each meeting.” On the day appointed for his turn, Kimball followed others who were also assigned to speak on faith and who “quoted every passage mentioned in the scriptures on the subject.” He records how he retold a family incident illustrating the faith of a child and reduced the Prophet to tears.21 Zebedee Coltrin also remembers that the School of the Elders in which the Lectures on Faith were studied was held in a school “where Sidney [Rigdon] presided.”22

The History of the Church appears to have a few helpful entries. But those who have relied on these accounts to establish the Prophet’s responsibility for the lectures have failed to notice that they are not all drawn from original records such as the Prophet’s journals but are interpolated by later secretaries. The only one of these that would appear to link Joseph Smith to the content of the lectures is a January 1835 entry, which reads as follows:

During the month of January, I was engaged in the school of the Elders, and in preparing the lectures on theology for publication in the book of Doctrine and Covenants, which the committee appointed last September were now compiling.23

Such a statement falls far short of acceptable historical evidence that Joseph was responsible for their content or method. If Rigdon is the main author, how are we to know if Joseph’s review was light or heavy? Those who have had the experience of revising materials written by a close associate know what a complex task that can be.

Furthermore, the statement itself may not reflect Joseph Smith’s own memory at all. Joseph’s original diaries and journals, which for some periods provided most of the source material from which the History of the Church was later compiled, have a fifteen-month gap that includes the period in which the lectures were delivered and prepared for publication. Consequently, we can never know from Joseph’s own records whether or not he was heavily involved. The statement quoted above was introduced by Willard Richards eight years later, as can be demonstrated by consulting Richards’s journal entry for 28 August 1843 containing his note indicating which pages of the manuscript history he worked on that day.24 It cannot be determined whether Richards’s insertion was suggested by Joseph Smith or by someone else. Joseph may have been in town on that day,25 but Richards seems to have been working largely alone during this period. In the face of these contingencies, the most reasonable assumption is that Richards did have some factual basis, now not available to us, for this January entry. But the language is unfortunately too vague to help us assess the level of Joseph Smith’s contribution to the publication of the lectures.

Similarly, claims that the Saints in 1835 accepted the theological lectures as the “doctrine of the Church” and that they were “wholly approved”26 by the Prophet overstate the documented facts. In contrast, the minutes of the church conference that approved publication of the new Doctrine and Covenants identify Joseph’s revelations as church doctrine and the lectures as “judiciously arranged and compiled, and . . . profitable for doctrine.”27 But even this weaker claim is a later expansion of the original record of the conference.28 The Kirtland Council Minute Book reports President John Smith’s response principally in terms of his personal experiences of being present when some of the revelations were given and his joy in finally receiving “the long wished for document to govern the church in righteousness and bring the elders to see eye to eye.”29 The derivative account published only weeks later in the Messenger and Advocate and also the Doctrine and Covenants may indeed have correctly reported additional comments by John Smith that referred explicitly to the lectures, but these comments are not found in the original record. John Smith was speaking as the president of the Kirtland High Council, the body that in August 1834 had appointed the four-man committee to prepare a new edition of Joseph’s revelations for publication. Of the four members of the First Presidency (who composed this committee), Oliver Cowdery and Sidney Rigdon were the only ones present for the August 1835 assembly. Joseph Smith and Frederick G. Williams were duly noted as absent.

The longer account of the Kirtland Council Minute Book reports the essence of the comments made by each quorum or group as they registered their vote on the book (combining the lectures with the revelations to Joseph Smith). Apparently, Oliver Cowdery presented a set of page proofs as “the Book,” which was passed from one president to the next as they stood in turn to announce their quorum votes. While most of the comments referred to the revelations and to personal experiences of those present when the revelations were received, two men did refer to the lectures, including them in their testimonies of the truthfulness of the new book. Bishop Newel K. Whitney referred to both parts of the proposed volume and specified that he had examined the lectures contained in the book, “that he believed them beyond a doubt,” and that “the revelations contained in it . . . were true.”30 Similarly, President Leonard Rich, appointed to speak for the Seventy, took the book in his turn, “and said that he had examined the Lectures and many of the Revelations contained in it, and was perfectly satisfied with the same, and further, that he knew that they were true by the testimony of the Holy Spirit of God given unto him.”31 The written “Testimony of the Twelve Apostles,” which was also read at this meeting and written into the minutes, only endorsed the revelations, mentioning “the Book of the Lord’s Commandments” given “to His Church through Joseph Smith Jun.” They testify that “these commandments,” without mentioning the Lectures, were “given by the inspiration of God.”32 The comments of most others focused their testimonies on the revelations or the Book of Mormon, without any clear suggestion that they had actually read the new book, or even a major portion of it. Neither the original minutes nor the revised versions published later give any suggestion of divided opinion on the new book. The voting on it and on the two additional articles on government and marriage was unanimous.

There might be stronger warrant for attributing the lectures to Joseph Smith if we could reasonably project present-day church decision-making processes back to 1834–1835 without anachronism. It is not likely that counselors in a contemporary First Presidency would ever try to impose statements of doctrine on a president if he did not fully endorse them. The church has, however, matured a great deal since 1835. The internal dynamics of first presidencies today exhibit a unity of purpose and approach and a deference for the president that Joseph Smith may have dreamed of, but appears never to have enjoyed. This was a period of time in which Joseph’s preeminent role as president was not clearly established (see D&C 28:1–7; 30:7; and 43:1–7). And within a few years all the key actors in this particular episode turned against Joseph openly and left the church.

For the same 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants in which the theological lectures were first published, we have clear evidence of other significant materials being included despite explicit, repeated requests from Joseph Smith to leave them out. According to Brigham Young, Oliver Cowdery had included the statement on marriage in the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants against Joseph’s wishes.33 Yet Joseph’s printed name leads the list of signatories to the prefatory letter prepared six months earlier for that volume. How can we conclude any particular level of enthusiasm for the lectures on Joseph’s part merely from their inclusion and his name on the prefatory letter? To do so would be to project our own enthusiasm onto him in the absence of any clear evidence. In all these matters, Joseph may have felt bound by the majority of the four-man committee—and later by the vote of the 1835 conference—to accept the new publication, even though it was presided over by Rigdon and Cowdery in Joseph’s absence. Further, the letter of preface clearly recognizes that it was the Kirtland High Council that commissioned this work, not the presidency itself. In terms of the decision-making process regarding the composition and publication of the Lectures on Faith, the only clearly documented role played by Joseph Smith was his membership on the four-man committee that prepared the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants for publication. Given the historical record, it is perfectly possible that Joseph’s role was limited to the preparation of his own revelations, which constituted the bulk of that volume. The most obvious procedure for that committee would have been to make each member responsible for the preparation of his own contributions to the larger volume. If that were their procedure, it would also make sense for each of them to be signatories to the preface, even though we have such clear evidence that Joseph wished some of the materials to be excluded. Could it be that Joseph felt it necessary—given the dynamics of his presidency—to let them include their personal contributions in order to get his revelations in print?

Why were the Lectures on Faith included in the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants? They were added to the revelations of Joseph Smith along with two additional items known to have been written by Oliver Cowdery (and possibly W. W. Phelps): the statements on government and marriage.34 The preface to the 1835 edition, dated 17 February 1835, alludes rather clearly to each of these three nonrevelatory items and indicates that they were written in response to criticisms of the church. This is generally recognized to be the motive for the statement on marriage, which goes overboard to make Mormon marriage look identical to nineteenth-century Christian American practices. It is also commonly seen as the motive for the statement on government, which is mostly a summary of standard tenets of American democratic liberalism and ignores interesting political concepts in the Book of Mormon and other revelations to Joseph Smith.

The reasons given for the Kirtland High Council having appointed the committee to prepare these materials for publication are “adduced” by the committee to have been as follows: “They knew that the church was evil spoken of in many places—its faith and belief misrepresented, and the way of truth thus subverted. By some it was represented as disbelieving the Bible, by others as being an enemy to all good order and uprightness, and by others as being injurious to the peace of all governments civil and political” (“Preface,” Doctrine and Covenants, 1835). The three common accusations listed in the last sentence are rebutted in the order given by (1) the lectures, (2) the statement on marriage, and (3) the statement on government.

Similarly, viewing the lectures as a response to criticism might help to explain their atypical style. Some of the early brethren were apparently embarrassed by Joseph’s lack of education and the simple language of his inspired writings.35 The idea of taking a leading role in the School of the Elders or the publication process might come easily to Oliver Cowdery, Frederick G. Williams, W. W. Phelps, or Sidney Rigdon, all of whom boasted some education and had at some point earned their living as school teachers or publishers. Furthermore, the expansions of the 1835 edition may be seen as a means of reducing the preeminence of Joseph’s revelations by combining them with contributions from others—the two doctrinal statements from Cowdery and Phelps and the theological lectures from Rigdon—and placing the lectures first in the compilation.

It is intriguing to note that when Rigdon left Nauvoo in 1844 and organized his own Church of Christ in Pittsburgh, he started up a paper (another Messenger and Advocate) and republished the seven Kirtland lectures in a monthly series between October 1845 and March 1846.36 This action clearly indicates that Rigdon placed high value on the lectures, quite plausibly because of his own primary role as author or chief author. Also, while the lectures include 136 Bible quotations and 11 JST quotations, the revelations to Joseph are cited only twice (Lecture 7), and the Book of Mormon is referred to in only a single paragraph of Lecture 1. The predominant stance of the lectures is to derive its premises from the Bible alone, while ignoring the vast treasury of knowledge made available through Joseph Smith’s revelations. The only significant exception is the emphasis on the JST in Lecture 2.

That the language and thought pattern of the lectures was integral to Rigdon’s own is evident in his 1845 introduction to his Pittsburgh publication of them:

Faith being the first principle of action in all intelligent beings, and those lectures setting forth that principle in a clear and interesting manner, we thought perhaps we could not interest our readers more than by giving place to one of them at this time.37

Here Rigdon focuses immediately on the philosophical claim that faith is the first principle of action for all intelligent beings, a claim that is not endorsed elsewhere by Joseph Smith or the scriptures, but which does appear in popular Protestant theologies of the period. He credits the lectures as “clear and interesting” presentations of that central principle, as the most interesting thing he can offer his readers “at this time.”

One is left to wonder if Joseph Smith really desired to give pride of place to a new introductory letter and the lectures and relegate the “Lord’s Preface” and all his revelations to part 2 of the volume. It is also worth noting that the presiding quorums of the church eventually deleted the 1835 preface, the statement on marriage, and the Lectures on Faith, with only the statement on government being retained in the contemporary Doctrine and Covenants. The 1835 preface was the first to go. When Orson Pratt undertook the 1876 edition, he added another twenty-six revelations; because the new section 132 conflicted with the statement on marriage, the latter was dropped at that point. Three years later Pratt found himself in England preparing another edition, and he requested permission from President John Taylor to drop the Lectures on Faith. President Taylor deferred the request, explaining that “the Lectures on Faith were published with the sanction and approval of the Prophet Joseph Smith, and we do not feel that it is desirable to make any alteration in that regard, at any rate, not at present.”38 President Taylor’s letter to Pratt does not give us any new insights into the lectures or their origins. It specifically did not claim that Joseph Smith helped write the lectures. Nor does it provide any further evidence for Joseph’s approval of the lectures other than the inclusion of Joseph’s name on the prefatory letter of 1835. In 1921 the lectures were finally dropped from the Doctrine and Covenants, and the presiding authorities of the church chose to return to the 1833 model of the original Book of Commandments—featuring officially recognized revelations, introduced by the “Lord’s Preface” as the first section.

The Rhetoric of the Lectures on Faith in the Context of 1830s Protestantism

The first thing Latter-day Saints notice when reading the lectures is that they are quite unlike other statements on doctrine by the prophets of the restoration. This is largely because of their philosophical tone. The confidence and certainty that the lectures exhibit—while relying on techniques of philosophical rhetoric, proof texting, and seemingly logical argumentation—make many Latter-day Saints uncomfortable. We are not accustomed to seeing Bible passages used in this way to “prove” unfamiliar theological claims. One of the main points of the lectures is that God is an appropriate object of faith for “rational beings.” The persistent claim is that faith must be rational and based on demonstrable knowledge. Furthermore, the arguments supporting these claims repeatedly appeal to reason. My casual count turned up almost eighty such appeals or allusions in the seven lectures.39 Students of philosophy and Christian theology are accustomed to this kind of rhetorical approach, but Latter-day Saints are not in their role as students of the gospel. If we are not used to that approach, we can mistake its confident rhetoric and philosophical posturing for unusual profundity or sophistication. And, indeed, those were some of the intended effects of this rhetorical style in Protestant teaching.

One writer dismisses the common complaint that the lectures are Protestant in character by showing that the basic concept of God portrayed in the lectures is not exactly the same as the traditional Protestant concept.40 But this misconstrues the objection. It is not that the lectures have no Mormon content or features; on the contrary, they are full of restoration insights that would be obvious to non-LDS readers. Rather, it is that in presenting some uniquely Mormon scriptures and concepts, the lectures repeatedly incorporate Protestant elements of rhetoric and doctrine that seem foreign in the context of other restoration literature, particularly the revelations and teachings of Joseph Smith. Furthermore, one difference does not outweigh numerous similarities.

Critics of Joseph Smith and the development of Latter-day Saint theology point to Lecture 5 as evidence that in the mid-1830s Joseph was following the binitarian doctrine of the godhead that was being promoted among the Christian Primitivists of those decades. Lecture 5 clearly teaches that “there are two personages” who “constitute the . . . supreme power over all things”41 and that the Son possesses “the same mind with the Father, which mind is the Holy Spirit.”42 Juxtaposed to more ambiguous statements in the Book of Mormon, the critics are able to use Lecture 5 to paint a picture of significant change in the thinking of Joseph Smith about the godhead. But even the critics have recognized that Sidney Rigdon, a Reformed Baptist, is the more likely source of the binitarian formulation of the lectures.

Several characteristics of the fifth lecture seem to reflect the “dynamic” monarchianism of the Christian Connection. The lecture never affirms the deity of Jesus but rather reflects a view expressed by Millard and other Primitivists that Jesus “possess[es] all the fulness of the Father . . . being begotten of him,” that he shares the divine nature through the “Holy Spirit,” and that through the same Spirit the saints can become one with the Father “as the Father and Son are one.” . . . The lecture is consistent in its use of the term “Holy Spirit,” a favorite with Campbell’s movement, rather than the Mormon use of “Holy Ghost.”43

But in a later period of theological turmoil in Nauvoo, Joseph Smith publicly affirmed: “I have always declared God to be a distinct personage, Jesus Christ a separate and distinct personage from God the Father, and that the Holy Ghost was a distinct personage and a Spirit: and these three constitute three distinct personages and three Gods.”44 Rather than trying to reconcile his revelations and this 1844 statement with the lectures, why should we not read it as Joseph’s denial that he was the author of Lecture 5?

The Protestantism of the lectures is not merely doctrinal. It is particularly evident in the rhetorical and stylistic dimensions of the lectures. Why has no one examined them in light of Protestant writings and lectures of the period? The preface to the 1835 edition clearly acknowledges that many similar articles of religious faith were then extant. A casual review of the writings of Charles Finney, the famous frontier revivalist preacher of this period, shows some remarkable similarities in both rhetorical technique and substantive content. When Finney later published his lectures, he called them a course of “Theological Lectures.” He organized them in the same numbered paragraph format as the Kirtland lectures and ended each lecture with similar long lists of catechetical questions and answers. On the central issue of delineating the attributes of God that have to be understood before one can have faith, the Kirtland lectures and those of Finney develop remarkably similar lists.45 Finney’s list of God’s moral attributes or dispositions includes benevolence, omniscience (knowledge), justice, mercy, and truth. The Lectures on Faith list knowledge, faith (power), justice, judgment, mercy, and truth. Neither of these looks much like a list that could be found anywhere in the revelations or teachings of Joseph Smith. Furthermore, the lectures set up an order of gospel principles featuring sacrifice, knowledge, faith, enduring temptation, and eternal life. This differs fundamentally from both the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith’s other revelations, which consistently emphasize repentance, baptism in water, and the gift of the Holy Ghost as central and essential elements of the gospel process by which men may find eternal life.46 Much more needs to be known before the extent of the influence of frontier theologians such as Finney on the Kirtland lectures could be determined, but it is hardly imaginative to see elements of the lectures as imitative of common Protestant theological discourse in light of these simple and obvious facts.

The philosophical tone of the lectures has already been noted. Might it be possible that this was a response to the criticism of those like Charles Finney, whose third lecture on theological method began with the assertion that “Mormonism is ridiculous credulity, founded in utter ignorance or a disregard of the first principles of evidence in relation to the kind and degree of testimony demanded to establish anything that claims to be a revelation from God”?47 How else can the fact that the Kirtland lectures emulate the format, the philosophical tone, and the “principles of evidence” of Finney’s lectures be explained? Why else do the Kirtland Lectures on Faith appeal so frequently to what Finney calls the “affirmations of reason,” contrary to the distinctive Mormon style with its emphasis on revelation and testimony? Assuming that the published version of Finney’s lectures reflects the style and content of what he had been saying in his earlier years on the western lecture circuit, even though he explains that they “have undergone repeated revisions, enlargement, and modification,”48 these connections may indicate some indirect influence on the Kirtland lectures, if only through his earlier influence on people who subsequently converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Finney’s own life features a further development that may provide an appropriate cautionary tale for Mormons who, like Sidney Rigdon, may be overanxious to adopt the rationalistic theologies of their Protestant brothers. Though himself a great critic of Joseph Smith, Finney records a conversion experience that shows him initially following in Joseph Smith’s footsteps in certain remarkable ways, but later reinterpreting his own personal encounters with the Lord because they were not reasonable in light of the theology of his times.

As Finney later wrote in his memoirs, his own conversion to Christ had come on an autumn day in 1821 when he had finally resolved to retire to the woods to pray. After he struggled vainly to pray, a scripture flashed to his mind that enabled him to break through the barrier and pray without restraint and to receive extensive promises from the Spirit in his heart. Returning to his law office, he finished up his affairs for the day. Bidding good-bye to his last associate that evening, he returned to the office to pray and found the previously unlit room to be “perfectly light.”

As I went in and shut the door after me, it seemed as if I met the Lord Jesus Christ face to face. It did not occur to me then, nor did it for some time afterward, that it was wholly a mental state. On the contrary it seemed to me that I saw him as I would see any other man. He said nothing, but looked at me in such a manner as to break me right down at his feet. I have always since regarded this as a most remarkable state of mind; for it seemed to me a reality, that he stood before me, and I fell down at his feet and poured out my soul to him. I wept aloud like a child, and made such confessions as I could with my choked utterance. It seemed to me that I bathed his feet with my tears; and yet I had no distinct impression that I touched him, that I recollect.49

Apparently in his later rationalizing as he developed his theology, Finney concluded that the direct revelation of his youthful memories was really only a mental state. What, we might ask, would have been the consequence for Mormonism and its founding visions had Joseph Smith shifted so decisively in the direction of a rational theology as did Charles G. Finney?


Again, these observations are not based on an exhaustive study of any of the materials mentioned. Much scholarly work on the lectures remains to be accomplished. There needs to be extensive work done on the writings and teachings of Rigdon, Cowdery, Phelps, Williams, and others. The most recent biography of Rigdon gives him primary credit for the Lectures on Faith, but without any analysis of the evidence for authorship.50 Also, it is to be hoped that someone will take a closer look at Finney, Campbell, and other prominent frontier preachers to assess the extent to which their widespread influence in frontier America might have touched the Latter-day Saints and the degree to which their teachings and approaches differed from the revelations made available through Joseph Smith.

This review of historical evidence, authorship studies, textual content, and style raises serious questions for the recurring assumption in some Latter-day Saint circles that Joseph Smith authored the Lectures on Faith. In none of these dimensions are the lectures clearly linked to Joseph Smith. Rather, in every detail, the evidence points away from Joseph to Sidney Rigdon. We may never have adequate evidence to settle this authorship question with certainty. But if Rigdon was the principal author, and if the style and content of Finney’s Protestantism was crucial, it would be much easier to understand the rationalistic or theological stance of the lectures, their similarities in style and content with the lectures of such frontier phenomena as Charles Finney, their inconsistencies with standard Latter-day Saint teaching, their noticeably Protestant flavor, and Rigdon’s eagerness to publish them in his own newspaper after leaving the church. To the extent this preliminary study has raised legitimate questions about this enigmatic document, there may be good reason for students of Mormon history to look more closely at the Protestant environment of the lectures, at Sidney Rigdon’s thought and rhetorical style during the Kirtland period, and at his influence on Mormon theological rhetoric in those early days of the church.


While this essay has gained in accuracy and perspective through a decade of research and writing, I am embarrassed that I cannot now remember and thank all those who have contributed to it with criticisms, suggestions, or research assistance. Thomas J. Lowery and Louis T. Cowley were particularly helpful as research assistants. Scott H. Faulring provided invaluable assistance with source materials and documentation. Louis C. Midgley, John A. Tvedtnes, Ronald K. Esplin, Kent P. Jackson, and Matthew Roper all read some version of the paper and offered helpful suggestions. I hope Larry E. Dahl, Robert L. Millet, and Robert J. Matthews will find in this final version an honest attempt to deal with their concerns expressed about earlier drafts.

  1. Larry E. Dahl and Charles D. Tate Jr., eds., The Lectures on Faith in Historical Perspective (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1990), 31. This paper is derived in part from my earlier review essay on the Dahl and Tate volume in BYU Studies 32/1–2 (1991): 285–94.
  2. Dahl and Tate, Historical Perspective, 31.
  3. “Explanatory Introduction” in the 1921 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, v.
  4. The best brief account of the connection of the lectures to the Doctrine and Covenants is found in Robert J. Woodford, “Doctrine and Covenants Editions,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 1:425–27. The best publication history of the lectures is found in Larry E. Dahl, “Authorship and History of the Lectures on Faith,” in Dahl and Tate, Historical Perspective, 13–16.
  5. See Dahl and Tate, Historical Perspective.
  6. See Woodford, “Doctrine and Covenants Editions,” 425.
  7. The 2 March 1997 CES fireside broadcast is a notable exception wherein Elder Jeffrey R. Holland based part of his presentation on a statement from the lectures. In subsequent conversation he made it perfectly clear that even though he had mentioned Joseph Smith in that connection, he did not want his statements about the lectures to be interpreted as support for any particular theory of their authorship.
  8. See Dahl, “Authorship and History,” 16–18.
  9. See, for example, Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Mormonism—Shadow or Reality, 5th ed. (Salt Lake City: Utah Lighthouse Ministry, 1987), 166–67.
  10. Dan Vogel, “The Earliest Mormon Concept of God,” in Line upon Line: Essays on Mormon Doctrine, ed. Gary J. Bergera (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989), 27; see also 28–29. Similar points are made in other essays in the Bergera volume. See, for example, Thomas G. Alexander, “The Reconstruction of Mormon Doctrine,” 54–56, and Vern G. Swanson, “The Development of the Concept of a Holy Ghost in Mormon Theology,” 89–94, in which Swanson credits the continuing inclusion of the lectures in the Doctrine and Covenants for “the longevity of the idea that the Holy Ghost was not a personage” (p. 94) in Latter-day Saint doctrinal teaching and writing.
  11. See, for example, Bruce R. McConkie, “The Lord God of Joseph Smith,” in Speeches of the Year, 1971–72 (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1972), 4; and Joseph Fielding Smith, Seek Ye Earnestly (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1970), 194, respectively.
  12. Leland H. Gentry, “What of the Lectures on Faith?” BYU Studies 19/1 (1978): 11.
  13. John A. Widtsoe, The Message of the Doctrine and Covenants (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1969), 2.
  14. Elinore H. Partridge, Characteristics of Joseph Smith’s Style and Notes on the Authorship of the Lectures on Faith (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1976), 25.
  15. Ibid., 28.
  16. See Alan J. Phipps, “The Lectures on Faith: An Authorship Study” (master’s thesis, Brigham Young University, 1977), 1–4.
  17. Ibid., 77.
  18. Wayne A. Larsen, Alvin C. Rencher, and Tim Layton, “Who Wrote the Book of Mormon? An Analysis of Wordprints,” BYU Studies 20/3 (1980): 249, appendix E, “The Lectures on Faith,” revised and reprinted most recently in Book of Mormon Authorship, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1996), 183–84.
  19. Dahl, “Authorship and History,” 12.
  20. Ibid., 15.
  21. Ibid. See Journal History for 22 December 1834. It should be noted in passing that the classroom procedures described here match closely those in use by the frontier sensation, Rev. Charles G. Finney, as described in the opening paragraph of the preface to his published lecture outlines. See Finney’s Lectures on Theology (1840; reprint, Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1968), 3.
  22. 1883 Salt Lake School of the Prophets Minute Book, MSS p. 69. Dahl, “Authorship and History,” 2–13, reinterprets these references to Rigdon’s presiding role on the assumption that Joseph must have presided if he were present. While this assumption would clearly be justified in a twentieth-century context, leadership norms in the Kirtland period were not so clearly established. “By 1835 there were nine ‘presidents of the Church,'” and they tended to rotate the duties of conducting and presiding; evidence shows that most of the preaching, doctrinal writing, and teaching were performed by others. Until the institution of the First Presidency was clarified in 1838, Joseph was regarded more as “first among equals.” Ronald K. Esplin, personal correspondence, 1 September 1998.
  23. History of the Church, 2:180.
  24. Compare Willard Richards’s journal (Archives Division, Historical Department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; hereinafter LDS Church Archives), 28 August 1843, with the Manuscript History of the Church, Book B-1, LDS Church Archives, 563.
  25. See Scott H. Faulring, ed., An American Prophet’s Record: The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Signature Books in association with Smith Research Associates, 1989), 411.
  26. Robert L. Millet, “The Supreme Power over All Things: The Doctrine of the Godhead in the Lectures on Faith,” in Dahl and Tate, Historical Perspective, 238–39.
  27. History of the Church, 2:244.
  28. Compare History of the Church, 2:243–44, with Kirtland Council Minute Book, in LDS Church Archives, 98–106.
  29. Kirtland Council Minute Book, 103.
  30. Ibid., 104.
  31. Ibid.
  32. The “Testimony of the Twelve Apostles” was included in the 1835 edition on p. 256 and has been included in the “Explanatory Introduction” of recent editions.
  33. Concerning the “Article on Marriage,” Joseph F. Smith recorded a statement by Brigham Young: “Prest. Young spoke 12 minutes in relation to Sec. 109 B[ook] of Doctrine and Covenants [“Article on Marriage”]. Saying Oliver Cowdery wrote it, and incisted on its being incerted in the Book of D. & C. contrary to the thrice expressed wish and refusal of the Prophet Jos. Smith” (Joseph F. Smith diary, 9 October 1869, LDS Church Archives), cited in Lyndon W. Cook, The Revelations of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Provo, Utah: Seventy’s Mission Book Store, 1981), 348–49 n. 11.
  34. Bruce A. Van Orden has examined the common assumption that Oliver Cowdery wrote the 1835 statements on government and marriage and advances persuasive evidence that Cowdery and Phelps worked together on these, and that Phelps’s background for writing the government statement in particular was significantly stronger than Cowdery’s. See his “W. W. Phelps: His Ohio Contributions, 1835–36,” in Regional Studies in Latter-day Saint Church History (Ohio), ed. Milton V. Backman Jr. (Provo, Utah: Department of Church History and Doctrine, Brigham Young University, 1990), 45–62, esp. 49–50.
  35. Both Rigdon and Cowdery were among the ten elders at the 1 November 1831 conference in Hiram, Ohio, where concerns were expressed over “the seemingly uneducated language found in the revelations then ready for printing.” Lyndon W. Cook, The Revelations of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985), 107. Doctrine and Covenants 67 was given in direct response to those concerns (see verses 5–9).
  36. Sidney Rigdon, ed., “Lectures on Faith,” series in Messenger and Advocate (Pittsburgh, Pa.) 1 (15 October 1845): 360, 364–66; 1 (November 1845): 385–89; 1 (December 1845): 405–7; 1 (January 1846): 422–24; 1 (February 1846): 443–45; 2 (March 1846): 449–52.
  37. Rigdon, “Lectures on Faith,” 360–61, quoted in Dahl, “Authorship and History,” 15.
  38. John Taylor to Orson Pratt, 25 April 1879, retained copy in John Taylor letter book, 16 August 1878 to 27 May 1879, pp. 710– 13, at the LDS Church Archives, cited in Robert J. Woodford, “Historical Development of the Doctrine and Covenants” (Ph.D. diss., Brigham Young University, 1974), 1:87–88.
  39. For example, Lecture 2 explains how God became “an object of faith for rational beings,” and Lecture 3 lists the three conditions “necessary for any rational and intelligent being to exercise faith in God.” Dahl and Tate, Historical Perspective, 39, 51, and 65.
  40. See Millet, “The Supreme Power,” 223.
  41. Dahl and Tate, Historical Perspective, 83.
  42. Ibid., 84.
  43. Vogel, “Earliest Mormon Concept of God,” 27.
  44. History of the Church, 6:474.
  45. Finney, Finney’s Lectures on Theology, 68, 76.
  46. The Book of Mormon pattern is analyzed in detail in Noel B. Reynolds, “The Gospel of Jesus Christ as Taught by the Nephite Prophets,” BYU Studies 31/3 (1991): 31–50, and Noel B. Reynolds, “The True Points of My Doctrine,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 5/2 (1996): 26–56. Cf. Moses 6:52.
  47. Finney, Finney’s Lectures on Theology, 19.
  48. Ibid., 4.
  49. Charles G. Finney, Memoirs of Rev. Charles G. Finney (1876; reprint, New York: AMS, 1973), 18–20.
  50. See Richard S. Van Wagoner, Sidney Rigdon: A Portrait of Religious Excess (Salt Lake City: Signature Press, 1994). See also the review of this biography by David J. Whittaker in Journal of Mormon History 23/1 (1997): 189–95, where similar complaints are raised.