Fundamental Principles of Mormonism

Today marks the 176th anniversary of the day that Joseph Smith died in an untimely fashion.  As I’ve been pondering on what his legacy means to me personally, I wanted to write about three topics that were central to Joseph Smith’s ministry, at least according to his own words.  As far as I am aware from the records I have searched through, he only used the term “fundamental principle” to describe aspects of our religion on three occasions.  The first was in 1838, when he wrote that the “the fundamental principles of our religion” were focused on the Atonement of Jesus Christ and “all other things are only appendages to these, which pertain to our religion.”[1]  The second occasion was in 1843, when he declared that, “the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism is to recieve thruth let it come from where it may.”[2]  The third occasion was also in 1843, when the Prophet stated that “friendship is the grand fundamental principle of Mormonism.”[3]  Together, these three fundamental principles form the heart of Joseph Smith’s message and, perhaps, help us to understand how Joseph Smith has done “more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it” (D&C 135:3).[4]

  1. Atonement and Resurrection

The first of the three fundamental principles is the Atonement of Jesus the Christ. The full quote, written by Joseph Smith in 1838, is as follows: “The fundamental principles of our religion is the testimony of the apostles and prophets concerning Jesus Christ, ‘that he died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended up into heaven;’ and all other things are only appendages to these, which pertain to our religion.”[5] Throughout his lifetime, Joseph focused on bringing people closer to the Christ and facilitating access to the Atonement.

A couple of salient points along these lines were brought up by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland.  He pointed out that: “No man in ancient or modern times has been the agent or vehicle through which so much scripture and other supporting material has been written regarding the message and reality of Jesus Christ. ”[6] The Book of Mormon was the initial work of Joseph Smith’s ministry, and it has an intense focus on Christ. The title page declares that one of the central purposes of the text was to achieve “the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations.” The Book of Mormon carries this message throughout and concludes by imploring all to “come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness” (Moroni 10:32). Likewise, there is much in the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price, and in Joseph Smith’s sermons and personal writings that emphasizes Christ’s role in the Plan of Salvation and human history. Much of this material (particularly in the Doctrine and Covenants and in the JS-H) shows the ways in which Joseph Smith was, in the words of Elder Holland, “the supreme witness of the Lord Jesus Christ in this dispensation.”[7]  Taken together, these scriptures and other records from Joseph Smith testify and teach of Jesus the Messiah in a very powerful way.

Another way that Joseph Smith facilitated salvation through the Christ was through sharing the priesthood and ordinances that were restored to him.  These provide full access to the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland summarized this when he said:

Joseph Smith is revered because he was the one chosen to make efficacious the Atonement of Jesus Christ for the living and the dead in this last and greatest of all dispensations.  Someone had to authoritatively baptize and confirm and ordain and seal.  Someone had to turn the key in the lock that had been closed since the death of the ancient apostles.  Without the priesthood and the keys of the kingdom that provide the covenantal significance of the Church, the redeeming purposes of the Lord would have been utterly wasted, with the ultimate reach of the Atonement lying outside the grasp of those searching for but unable to find the way to—and into—the Kingdom of God.[8]

Priesthood authority and ordinances are necessary to fully access the Atonement of Jesus Christ, and the Restoration made them accessible to all mankind, which mark some of the important aspects of how Joseph Smith was used as an instrument in the hand of God.

Ultimately, however, as is pointed out in the Book of Mormon, “there shall be no other name given nor any other way nor means whereby salvation can come unto the children of men, only in and through the name of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent” (Mosiah 3:17).  Joseph Smith’s focus on redemption through Christ is something that we need to keep in mind, whenever we honor Joseph Smith’s life and legacy.  I have always loved the following anecdote from John Taylor for bringing out that focus: “Shortly after the death of the Prophet Joseph Smith in June 1844, a prominent eastern visitor to Nauvoo [Illinois] was being ‘shown around’ by Apostle Taylor.  He remarked to Brother Taylor that he sincerely regretted the murder of the head of the Mormon Church.  Brother Taylor got a twinkle in his eye at this reference to the ‘head of the Church’ and replied, ‘Yes, and isn’t it wonderful that on the on the third day he arose from the tomb and came back to administer to the Saints.’”[9]  Jesus Christ is the head of the Church and the focus of our beliefs.

  1. Truth

The second fundamental principle of Mormonism is to seek truth. In the context of his sermon in which Joseph Smith stated that: “The grand fundamental principles of Mormonism is to recieve thruth let it come from where it may,”[10] he was indicating that truths can be gained from many sources, including other religions. In addition to this, learning through revelation, such as the theology that Joseph Smith learned through divine communications and taught adds depth to our understanding about the Plan of Salvation in very important ways.  The belief that Joseph Smith seems to have held is that we should seek knowledge and truth with humility from both divine sources and from human sources in our quest for exaltation.

There are a number of key doctrines restored through Joseph Smith that can be pointed to as vital, saving truths learned by revelation.[11]  One is our understanding of God as a loving creator who “saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest [of us], who were less in intelligence, could have a privilege to advance like Himself and be exalted with Him.”[12]  His teachings about human nature are also important, helping us to know that while we are prone to temptations and sinfulness, our divine and eternally existent nature also means that humans are inherently good in nature with unlimited potential.  A third important point is our understanding of the creation—that it wasn’t ex nihilo, or out of nothing, but that the word create means “to organize; the same as a man would organize and use things to build a ship. Hence, we infer that God Himself had materials to organize the world out of chaos—chaotic matter—which is element and in which dwells all the glory.” [13] These truths are vital to our worldview, aspirations, and our understanding of the Atonement and demonstrate the importance of revelation in learning saving truths.

Yet, while we often fixate on learning through revelation—whether through the Church leaders or through individual experiences with God and His Holy Spirit—Joseph Smith also held that we should be willing to look to human sources for truth and learn from them.  He stated on one occasion that “[If the] Presbyterians [have] any truth. embrace that. [Same for the] Baptist. Methodist &c. get all the good in the world. [and you will] come out a pure Mormon.”[14]  On another, he added that: “The first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation or without being circumscribed or prohibited by the creeds or superstitious notions of men, or by the denominations of one another, when that truth is clearly demonstrated to our minds, and we have the highest degree of evidence of the same.”[15]  In other words, we ought to seek learning from both divine sources and human experience and understanding.

Joseph Smith encouraged learning through both means as an essential part of obtaining salvation.  He taught this idea over and over: “Knowledge is necessary to life and godliness. … Knowledge is the power of God unto salvation.”[16]  “As far as we degenerate from God, we descend to the devil and lose knowledge, and without knowledge we cannot be saved.”[17]  “It is impossible for a man to be saved in ignorance” (D&C 131:6). “A man is saved no faster than he gets knowledge.”[18]  He believed that knowledge helped an individual to become more like God (the very essence of exaltation), since “the glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth” (D&C 93:36).  As one student of Mormon history wrote: “Smith… envisioned a world where human striving, learning, and obedience would result in the partaking of all that God has. Mormon eternal identity, therefore, was governed by a quest for intelligence and knowledge: knowledge drew one to God and made one like God.”[19]  Learning both in vertical directions (revelation) and horizontal directions (from the words and experiences of other human beings) are important parts of the methods of learning that Joseph Smith emphasized along the path of eternal progression.

  1. Friendship

The final fundamental principle of Mormonism pronounced by the Prophet Joseph Smith is that “friendship is the grand fundamental principle of Mormonism.”[20] This fundamental principle comes out in Joseph Smith’s teaching on several levels. First, Joseph Smith prized true friendship in this life and felt that friendship could “revolutionize and civilize the world, and cause wars and contentions to cease and men to become friends and brothers. … It unites the human family with its happy influence.”[21]  Joseph Smith also expressed that relationships could even persist after death, continuing their “happy influence” in the afterlife. As he stated on one occasion: “That same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory, which glory we do not now enjoy” (D&C 130:2).  With this in mind, the Prophet joked that: “Let me be resurrected with the saints whether to heaven or hell or any other good place—[where they are is] good society. what do we care [about where we are] if the society is good?”[22]  Friendships and relationships in this life and the next were important to Joseph Smith.

On another level, the Prophet tied our relationships with other human beings to our salvation. Baptism not only involves taking the name of Christ upon us to enter into a relationship with Him as His daughter or son but also the covenant to “bear one another’s burdens… mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:8-9). Further, Joseph linked our responsibility to God to our responsibility to other humans. He told the Relief Society that, “it grieves me that there is no fuller fellowship—if one member suffer all feel it[.] by union of feeling we obtain pow’r with God.”[23]  He also added: “If you would have God have mercy on you, have mercy on one another.”[24]  Joseph Smith believed that to be reconciled with God, the Saints must be reconciled with each other.

Like the quest to gain knowledge, the emphasis on friendship is tied to Joseph Smith’s teachings about being exalted and becoming like God. He taught: “If you wish to go whare God is you must be like god or possess the principles which God possesses for if we are not drawing towards God in principle we are going from him & drawing towards the devil, . . . is not God good, Yes then you be good. if he is faithful then you be faithful.”[25]  Many of the most significant attributes of God are social attributes that can only be obtained by developing appropriate relationships with other human beings. For example, Joseph Smith declared that: “Righteousness is not that which men esteem holiness. That which the world call righteousness I have not any regard for. To be righteous is to be just and merciful. If a man fails in kindness justice and mercy he will be dam[n]ed.”[26]  Justice, mercy, and kindness, then, are among the most important attributes to have woven into the fiber of our lives.  Because of this focus, it would seem that one of Joseph Smith’s greatest goals in life was to establish a Zion society, where the Saints could be called “Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them” (Moses 7:18). Living in a Zion society would prepare the Saints to both enter into the presence of God and to become like God in their attributes.

Conclusion

The Atonement of Jesus Christ, seeking our truth wherever we can, and building eternal friendships and relationships are, to me, the core components of Joseph Smith’s ministry that I find important.  The focus on building friendships—whether within families, within wards or branches, or with associates of any faith, race, or nationality—as the foundation of both Zion and heaven brings joy to me.  The quest for knowledge from any source available is a driving passion to me in my religion, in my career, and all other aspects of my life.  And the focus on the Atonement or Christ has helped me to focus me life on receiving the grace that is offered through it, and even if I can’t say I fully understand it, I can say that I have felt its effects.  So, as I ponder on the significance of Joseph Smith’s teachings in my life, these are the key, fundamental principles, that come to mind.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Elder’s Journal, Vol.1, No.3 (July 1838): 42-44.

[2] Joseph Smith sermon, 9 July 1843, in Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 4598-4604). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition

[3] Joseph Smith sermon, 23 July 1843, in Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 4714-4719). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition

[4] The latter two of these three fundamental principles were pointed out to me in an interesting article by Don Bradley, who tied them to masonry.  See Don Bradley, “’The Grand Fundamental Principles of Mormonism’ Joseph Smith’s Unfinished Reformation,” Sunstone, April 2006, 36.

[5] Elder’s Journal, Vol.1, No.3 (July 1838): 42-44.

[6] Jeffrey R. Holland, “Knowing Brother Joseph”— Logan Institute of Religion Annual Joseph Smith Memorial Devotional Utah State University Spectrum, January 29, 2012.

[7] Holland, “Knowing Brother Joseph.”

[8] Holland, “Knowing Brother Joseph.”

[9] Leonard Arrington Journal, 14 May 1973

[10] Joseph Smith sermon, 9 July 1843, in Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 4598-4604). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition

[11] See Donald Q. Cannon, Larry E. Dahl, and John W. Welch, “The Restoration of Major Doctrines through Joseph Smith, Ensign January 1989 and February 1989.

[12] King Follett, 12.

[13] Stan Larson, “The King Follett Discourse: A Newly Amalgamated Text,” BYU Studies 18, no. 2 (1978), 10-11.  I touched briefly on why these are important in a previous blog post: “A Lake of Fire and the Problem of Evil”

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

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

[16] Smith, Teachings of the Presidents, 265

[17] Smith, Teachings of the Presidents, 265

[18] Smith, Teachings of the Presidents, 266

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

[20] Joseph Smith sermon, 23 July 1843, in Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 4714-4719). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition

[21] Smith Teachings of the Presidents, 463.

[22] Joseph Smith sermon, 23 July 1843, in Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 4714-4719). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition

[23] Joseph Smith remarks, 9 June 1842, in Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 2607-2608). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition

[24] Joseph Smith remarks, 9 June 1842, Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Location 2621). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition

[25] Joseph Smith sermon, 10 April 1842, in Cook, Lyndon W.. The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 2307-2313). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition.

[26] Joseph Smith sermon, 21 May 1843, in Cook, Lyndon W.. The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 4052-4053). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition.

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