A couple years ago, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints included a list of the covenants made during the endowment session in their general handbook. It was a surprise, to be sure, but a welcome one. Yet, I missed a part of the significance of the text presented until reading a recent interview with Samuel R. Weber over at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk—not only are the specific covenants included, but definitions were as well. In particular, the Law of the Gospel, had an official definition pinned down for the first time in recent history, which is the subject of the interview.
For reference, the handbook states the following:
In the endowment, members are invited to make sacred covenants as follows:
- Live the law of obedience and strive to keep Heavenly Father’s commandments.
- Obey the law of sacrifice, which means sacrificing to support the Lord’s work and repenting with a broken heart and contrite spirit.
- Obey the law of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which is the higher law that He taught while He was on the earth.
- Keep the law of chastity, which means that a member has sexual relations only with the person to whom he or she is legally and lawfully wedded according to God’s law.
- Keep the law of consecration, which means that members dedicate their time, talents, and everything with which the Lord has blessed them to building up Jesus Christ’s Church on the earth.
In return, Heavenly Father promises that those who remain faithful to their temple covenants will be endowed “with power from on high” (Doctrine and Covenants 38:32, 38; see also Luke 24:49; Doctrine and Covenants 43:16).
The law of the gospel of Jesus Christ here receives the definition of “the higher law that He taught while He was on the earth.” For comparison, Weber looked at what Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, James Talmage, and David McKay had to say.
First, in reference to Joseph Smith, Weber wrote the following:
Joseph Smith’s first known use of the term “law of the gospel” came in a December 1832 revelation. Later included in the Doctrine and Covenants as Section 88, the revelation instructed Latter-day Saints to:
teach one another the doctrines of the kingdom teach ye diligently [sic] & my grace shall attend you that ye may be instructed more perfectly in theory in principle in doctrine in the law of the gospel.
In this revelation and elsewhere, Smith gave no definition for the law of the gospel. The absence of a clear definition set the stage for this law to be variously interpreted by church leaders throughout Latter-day Saint history, often in response to social, political, and internal stressors.
Thus, President Smith referred to the law of the gospel, but didn’t explicitly define it.
Brigham Young, on the other had, provided a more direct definition that is closer to the definition in the current handbook. As Weber explained:
After Joseph Smith’s death, Brigham Young (and other church leaders) defined the law of the gospel as Jesus Christ’s higher law that replaced the law of Moses with the command to love one another.
This understanding appears to have been inherited from other Christian denominations that used “law of the gospel” in a similar way.
This is summarized nicely in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which states:
The Law of the Gospel ‘fulfills,’ refines, surpasses, and leads the Old Law to its perfection… The entire Law of the Gospel is contained in the ‘new commandment’ of Jesus, to love one another as he has loved us.
Catechism of the Catholic Church
The earliest Latter-day Saints were generally converts from other Christian traditions, and they brought with them this understanding of the law of the gospel inherited from their former faith traditions.
As time passed, the church distinguished itself from other Christian denominations, physically removed itself from contact with many denominations with the migration to Utah, and younger generations were born that did not inherit this understanding.
Thus, the definition began to fade—or at least became more flexible. The fact that over time Latter-day Saints seemed to become more reticent to talk about the endowment further contributed to a situation in which this original understanding lost strength over time.
For a time, a prevalent definition came to be something more akin to obedience to commandments. In his work The House of the Lord, James E. Talmage offered his own oblique references and definitions for the covenants. By process of elimination for the other four covenants:
This leaves “to be charitable, benevolent, tolerant and pure” as Talmage’s interpretation for the law of the gospel. Few others followed Talmage’s interpretation of the law of the gospel as an injunction to lead lives of purity.
To some degree, it’s a definition that includes both obedience to commandments and the higher law that Jesus taught, but wasn’t commonly used.
Another unique definition was provided by David O. McKay:
David O. McKay was “disappointed” by his first endowment experience as a young man, and as a general authority he wanted to improve preparatory instruction for first-time temple attendees.13 In an effort to prepare departing missionaries for their endowment, he gave a speech in 1941 that explicitly reviewed the covenants associated with the ritual.
Regarding the law of the gospel, he said: “In the presentation of the Law of the Gospel, ‘the power of God unto salvation,’ you will be told where to find these laws specifically, which you are expected to obey—in the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price.
McKay went on to state that “you are to study [the scriptures],” followed by, “today you covenant that that is what you are going to do,” indicating that he interpreted the law of the gospel to include a commitment to scripture study.
McKay’s interpretation of the law of the gospel as an injunction to study the scriptures was echoed by few other church leaders. However, the temple preparation courses which he laid the groundwork for have had a lasting impact on church membership.
So, while he paved the way for the covenants to be included in a publicly available document, President McKay’s definition didn’t really stick.
While several other definitions have been given by various leaders of the Church, the handbook seems to have landed on agreement with Brigham Young:
The church’s General Handbook was updated in December 2020 to include a section on the endowment ritual. In an outline of the covenants of the endowment, it stated that recipients promise to “Obey the law of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which is the higher law that He taught while He was on the earth.”
This definition brought the term back to its earliest usage by Brigham Young, his contemporaries, and other Christians of the early 1800s and provided context for modern temple attendees which those earlier participants may have taken for granted.
In doing so, the Church has drawn upon a broader Christian experience and way of thought.
For more on the law of the gospel, including a few other definitions offered over the years, head on over to the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk.