Among those who are aware of their existence, the Lectures on Faith are a source of controversy. Their canonization and decanonization, force us to contemplate the fallibility of Church leaders, and to question whether we are collectively gaining or losing light.

Their decanonization is often defended by an appeal to the infallibility of Church authorities, such as “If the brethren removed them, then there was a reason,” and “their removal can’t have been in error, because we have modern prophets and apostles.” This, of course, requires overlooking the Lectures’ initial authorship and canonization, the work of leaders who were the wellspring of any authority held by those who championed decanonization. One could just as easily say “If the brethren canonized them, then there was a reason,” and “their canonization as scripture can’t have been in error, because we have modern prophets and apostles.”  So this isn’t to be settled by an appeal to authority.

The controversy about the status of the Lectures is really a controversy about epistemology: how do we claim to “know” what we “know”, and how do we trust others’ claims to knowledge and authority?

The Lectures on Faith were accepted as scripture by a covenantal vote of the Church in 1835, which you can read about in the Joseph Smith papers’ historical introduction to the 1835 D&C here. The purpose of the meeting was described at the time:

“This Committee having finished said Book according to the instructions given them,it was deemed necessary to call the general assembly of the Church to see whether the book be approved or not by the authoroties of the church, that it may, if approved, become a law unto the church, and a rule of faith and practice unto the same.”

The general assembly of the Church, male and female, unanimously voted to accept the book as “the doctrine and covenants of their faith,” meaning that the Lectures were accepted as the “doctrine” of the Church and as scripture.

By 1921, there had been many decades of argument, negotiation, reasoning, and doctrinal innovation regarding the Mormon concept of the nature of God, the goal of those efforts in the 20th century being to attempt to create a consistent doctrinal formulation that could be considered “authoritative” and “official” by the Church. James E. Talmage had done a great deal of that formulative work in the early 20th century, and the conclusions that he had come to, which had gained wide acceptance, appeared at odds with Lecture 5. You can read about this phase of the Church’s doctrinal evolution beginning in the “Progressive Reconstruction of Doctrine” section of this article, beginning on page 5 of the pdf (magazine page 19). Talmage was the chairman of a committee assigned to review and revise the Doctrine and Covenants for republication in 1921.

It was that committee which proposed the deletion of the Lectures from the 1921 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. Had the committee declared that they were commanded of God to remove the Lectures, or that they had seen the heavens open and the description of God given in the Lectures was now to be superceded by a more comprehensive one, then the controversy would be settled simply by prayerfully weighing the truth of their testimony. Instead, however, they gave as their reason that the Lectures were “lessons prepared for use in the School of the Elders, conducted in Kirtland, Ohio, during the winter of 1834-35; but they were never presented to nor accepted by the Church as being otherwise than theological lectures or lessons.”  As we have already seen, this is factually inaccurate. The Lectures were presented and accepted in 1835 as “the doctrine” of the Church, “a law unto the church, and a rule of faith and practice unto the same.”

Joseph Fielding Smith, another member of the committee, later gave the following reasons for the elimination of the Lectures:

(a) They were not received as revelations by the prophet Joseph Smith.

(b) They are instructions relative to the general subject of faith. They are explanations of this principle but not doctrine.

(c) They are not complete as to their teachings regarding the Godhead. More complete instructions on the point of doctrine are given in section 130 of the 1876 and all subsequent editions of the Doctrine and Covenants.

(d) It was thought by James E. Talmage, chairman, and other members of the committee who were responsible for their omission that to avoid confusion and contention on this vital point of belief, it would be better not to have them bound in the same volume as the commandments or revelations which make up the Doctrine and Covenants.”

Reason “a” would require the elimination of our current D&C sections 121, 122, 128, and 130 as well, for they were also not revelations given to Joseph, and one of them (section 130) was not written by him. Reason “a” is therefore not a reliable standard by which to judge scripture. Furthermore, while we cannot trace the origins of many of the alterations to the revelations in the 1835 D&C (changes perpetuated in all future editions), we have Joseph’s journals testifying that he devoted his time in late 1834 and early 1835 to correcting, amending, and preparing the Lectures for publication (HC 2:180). While Joseph clearly employed scribes to compose the initial text for him, he took ultimate responsibility for the form and content. The doctrine is his, a fact that is abundantly demonstrated by his sermons, letters, and revelations. See, for instance, this letter to his Uncle Silas, which essentially summarized the doctrine of the Lectures in a few pages. If more people would read Joseph Smith’s words enough to understand his actual teachings (rather than assuming he believed as Latter-day Saints do today), they would find the Lectures shot through with those teachings.

Reason “b” is factually incorrect, as the Lectures were presented and accepted explicitly as “the doctrine” of the Church.

Reasons “c” and “d” refer to Lecture 5’s description of the Godhead, and are where the real meat of the controversy is, not just about the Lectures but about how we judge religious truth generally. This is the epistemological test: Do we judge that Joseph Smith was honest and faithful in reporting what he saw and heard, or do we trust others who did not claim to have seen what Joseph saw, but relied instead on textual evidence to create a more harmonized doctrinal formula? Are doctrinal controversies to be settled by censorship of apparently contradictory texts? How much scripture do we cut out in the interest of eliminating controversy? Does “authority” to determine truth come from pure knowledge (D&C 121:42), or does one’s teachings become true because he has an ecclesiastical position giving him “authority”?

While each of us need to answer those questions for ourselves, Joseph Smith trusted experience over textual reasoning or status as Church leader.

Joseph taught:

“Reading the experience of others, or the revelations given to them, can never give us a comprehensive view of our condition and true relation to God

Knowledge of these things, can only be obtained by experience in these things, through the ordinance of God set forth for that purpose.”

“Could we read and comprehend all that has been written from the days of Adam on the relations of man to God & angels, and the spirits of just men in a future state. we should know very little about it.

Could you gaze in heaven 5 minutes you would know more than you possibly can know by read all that ever was written on the subject”

Until we become eyewitnesses for ourselves, we had best rely on the testimony of those who have seen. If the whole sum their recorded words cannot give us even five minutes worth of firsthand experience, then how much less can we gain by binding ourselves to the doctrinal formulations of those who don’t know God, formulations that are nothing more than their best attempt to interpret others’ words.

Joseph also taught:

“Whenever Salvation has been administered it has been by Testimony. Men at the present time testify of Heaven & of hell, & have never seen either–& I will say that no man knows these things without this.”

This is as true today and in 1921 as it was in 1839. Let’s not make the same mistake the committee did in 1921, presuming to know what we have not seen and heard, even presuming to know better than those who have seen. Joseph saw, and his testimony is not subject to correction or correlation by those who have not seen, and therefore do not know. For Joseph, firsthand knowledge was authority.

I suggest that we are like a man who has been blindfolded his whole life, and is informed by a seeing neighbor that 1) the moon is simultaneously crescent and spherical, and 2) the only way to understand its true nature is to remove the blindfold and see for ourselves. Instead of removing the blindfold and seeing for ourselves (D&C 93:1), we choose to pretend that our neighbor didn’t say the moon was spherical, or that we somehow now understand better and can disregard his puzzling statement about the sphere, before proceeding to write endless volumes about the majesty of the crescent moon; After all, his statements about a spherical moon clearly represented an “incomplete” understanding. We write adoringly of our neighbor who endowed us with our superior understanding of the moon’s crescence; and oh! how we wish the poor benighted masses would understand the moon the way we do! Meanwhile we will never understand the moon as we prefer our blindfolds comfortably in-place, and the ego-stroking vanity of our presumed knowledge.

There is irony in the fact that we praise Joseph Smith for cutting through the Christian arguments about God’s nature with pure testimony, but when the exact same arguments arose in Mormonism after Joseph’s death we settled them in true Christian fashion: rampant speculation, doctrinal treatises, committees, creeds, counsels, compromises, retroactive editing and censorship of documents, and official statements. I would give away a whole library of those things in exchange for the few, sparse, and apparently contradictory words of true witnesses that we have in scripture.

I recommend approaching Joseph Smith’s teachings with some epistemological humility. By 1833, when he delivered the Lectures in the School of the Prophets, and long before 1834/35 when he labored to perfect them for publication, he had stood in the presence of God many times. He had seen the Father and Son in the grove as a boy. He had seen the heavens open and viewed the Son on the right hand of the Father with Sydney Rigdon in 1832. They were taught by them and received of the Father’s fulness. He said of that vision, contained in D&C 76, that he could have written 100 times what he did if he had been permitted to do so. Our approach to Lecture 5 reveals our tolerance for apparent contradiction when reviewing eye-witness accounts. Are we willing to wait for contradictions to reconcile themselves by gaining greater light, or do crave harmony and consistency so much that we are willing to accept only half the truth rather than sit with with an apparent contradiction in pursuit of the fulness.

For my part, I can’t find a single word of Lecture 5 that contradicts any of Joseph Smith’s recorded teachings about God. I find far more contradiction in the Book of Mormon, but I’m certainly not going to take my scissors to it in an effort to avoid controversy. Am I willing to thrust the Book of Mormon’s beautiful teachings about God’s nature into obscurity because they, like Lecture 5’s, are “incomplete”? The way to settle these things is with “pure knowledge” (meaning firsthand witness with one’s eyes and ears), not with compulsive censorship. Pure knowledge reconciles contradictions by adding light, and censorship by removing light. Until we see for ourselves, let’s be cautious about what we claim to “know”. Epistemological humility demands that I assume that I, rather than the authors of scripture, am the one lacking knowledge.

As the Lectures themselves state

55 Let us here observe, that after any portion of the human family are made acquainted with the important fact that there is a God who has created and does uphold all things, the extent of their knowledge, respecting his character and glory, will depend upon their diligence and faithfulness in seeking after him, until like Enoch the brother of Jared, and Moses, they shall obtain faith in God, and power with him to behold him face to face.

56 We have now clearly set forth how it is, and how it was, that God became an object of faith for rational beings; and also, upon what foundation the testimony was based, which excited the enquiry and diligent search of the ancient saints, to seek after and obtain a knowledge of the glory of God: and we have seen that it was human testimony, and human testimony only, that excited this enquiry, in the first instance in their minds—it was the credence they gave to the testimony of their fathers—this testimony having aroused their minds to enquire after the knowledge of God, the enquiry frequently terminated, indeed, always terminated, when rightly pursued, in the most glorious discoveries, and eternal certainty.  (Lecture 2)

Human testimony (meaning an eye and ear witness) can correctly set us on the path. After that our knowledge depends on our own seeking, with God’s assurance that a faithfully and diligently pursued enquiry will always terminate in the most glorious discoveries and eternal certainty. When the gospel plan is so distilled, theorizing, formulating, censoring, creedalizing, and correlating seem far more distracting than enriching; and locating the testimony of witnesses becomes vital. The Lectures constitute testimony by a true witness, and they remain scripture.