The “Canon” of Mormon Documents

By March 16, 2009

Currently, a couple of seasoned Mormon scholars are working on a book collection of Mormon documents for Columbia University Press. This got me thinking: what would you say are “essential” documents in the LDS past?

A couple weeks ago, Nate O. proposed an addition to what he called “the Mormon Canon”–what he termed as “a number of Mormon pamphlets and books that have achieved a kind of semi-canonical status within Mormon studies.” For examples, he mentions Parley P. Pratt’s Key to the Science of Theology and John Taylor’s Mediation and Atonement; Nate then gives his suggestion to add George Q. Cannon’s A Review of the Decision of the Supreme Court in the Case of Geo. Reynalds v. the United States.

I want to press this issue a little more and see if we can come up with a list. I think Nate’s description of the “canon” is pretty fair, though I don’t want to limit the documents to only pamphlets and books. For example, I think Joseph Smith’s sermon, “Try the Spirits,” is one of the most significant (at least to me) discourses he gave in Nauvoo.

Off the top of my memory (I’m sure I’ll come up with more as soon as i post this), here are just a few (with links when available). If I had more time, I would write which sections of these texts I would include, as well as reasons why I chose them.

  1. J. Smith’s 1832 history
  2. O. Cowdery’s 1834-35 letters
  3. P. Pratt’s Voice of Warning
  4. J. Smith’s Wentworth Letter
  5. Lucy Mack Smith’s Biographical Sketches
  6. O. Pratt’s Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions
  7. J. Smith’s “Try the Spirits
  8. J. Smith’s “King Follett Discourse
  9. P. Pratt’s Key to the Science of Theology
  10. John Taylor’s Mediaton and Atonement

As you can tell, I have a definite theological bias. (As well as a Pratt brother bias–I would have added P. Pratt’s Autobiography, but thought three from him might be too much.)

So, what would be your choices for the Mormon history canon? If this were for a document-based book, you would have to choose only selections from the texts. But, since this is just a list, you can select whole documents. They can be books, pamphlets, sermons, newspaper excerpts, letters, you name it. They can be theologically based (like mine), historically important, or just plain cool–however you justify them as important. The scriptural canon is already understood to be significant, but if you think there are specific sections that stand out (like D&C 76, 132, etc.), list them as well.

Also, I hope people will chime in with post-Nauvoo documents, because that is where I really lack in knowledge.

List away.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Accommodation Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Categories of Periodization: Origins Methodology, Academic Issues


  1. Hehe, you’re also biased toward the nineteenth century, with all your documents, with the exception of Mediation and Atonement, having been produced prior to 1853.

    Comment by David G. — March 16, 2009 @ 7:14 pm

  2. David: you caught me red handed.

    That’s why I mentioned in the text that I hoped people would list post-Nauvoo documents, since I lack in that area.

    Comment by Ben — March 16, 2009 @ 7:16 pm

  3. I’d no doubt want to include parts of the General Epistles issued by the First Presidency and/or Quorum of the Twelve, with reflections on the gathering and other 19th century current issues. Don’t ask me for specific epistles or parts, though, without time to research.

    Also, most definitely Wilford Woodruff’s 1894 Conference address clarifying each person’s obligation to redeem his kindred dead.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — March 16, 2009 @ 7:31 pm

  4. Well, as problematic as it is historically, I think the 1890 Manifesto would need to be included, as would the 1978 revelation. The Family Proclamation also comes to mind.

    Comment by David G. — March 16, 2009 @ 7:34 pm

  5. Ardis: I hadn’t thought of WW’s 1894 address, but it definitely sounds significant.

    David: Those would be obvious inclusions.

    Comment by Ben — March 16, 2009 @ 7:51 pm

  6. My Response: Everything (grin).

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 16, 2009 @ 8:47 pm

  7. J: you would. 😉

    Comment by Ben — March 16, 2009 @ 9:24 pm

  8. Mark Hoffman’s “Salamander Letter”.

    Seriously, I think Orson Hyde’s Ein Ruf aus der Wuste being one of the first foreign language tracts.

    Also, Joseph F. Smith’s Second Manifesto might be interesting.

    Comment by Steve C. — March 16, 2009 @ 9:26 pm

  9. If I remember aright, Try the Spirits is an editorial JSJ probably cowrote with John Taylor and perhaps my boy Billy Phelps. I’d be glad to be corrected, but a lot of it reads like it’s not written by JSJ. Still, it’s a fascinating piece (mb and I are planning to use it in a paper we’re writing–I’d be glad to be corrected).

    I would include Paracletes, though a critical edition is coming out in IJMS soon.

    Also, you left Phelps out of the Cowdery correspondence.

    Some of the early Rigdon theologizing in the church organ might be of interest.

    Voice of Innocence?

    Something from Addison Pratt on mission in Polynesia?

    Something from Orderville?

    Something from the Gillites? The guardian letter for the fundamentalists?

    Something written by Emma, perhaps her interview with JSIII?

    Comment by smb — March 16, 2009 @ 9:33 pm

  10. Steve: I’d agree with you, sans salamander 🙂

    SMB: I fully agree with you that “Try the Spirits” was co-written with John Taylor, and I assumed that “Billy Phelps” (I’m going to call him that from now on) took some part in it, just based on the verbiage. However, I think the principles in it are primarily JS (most of it can be found in his ’40-41 sermons). I was going to write a post on it soon and mention it, but figure’d I’d keep the authorship simple here.

    And my bad for leaving Phelps out of the correspondence–I know that is like insulting your family 😉

    Comment by Ben — March 16, 2009 @ 9:53 pm

  11. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. First Presidency. THE FATHER AND THE SON; A Doctrinal Exposition by the First Presidency and the Twelve. [caption title]. [Salt Lake City, Utah, June 30, 1916].

    23 cm. 8 pages. Pamphlet, stapled. Flake 1667.

    This is one of the most important theological statements or clarifications of the basic concept of the Godhead ever produced by LDS Church authorities. It finally established the basic doctrines of deity which are generally held by Mormons today. After its first appearance in this pamphlet, The Father and The Son was reproduced in the Improvement Era 19 (August 1916), pp. 934-42, and in the missionary journal, Liahona 21 (March 25, 1925), pp. 380-84.

    By 1916, according to Thomas G. Alexander, it would seem that James E. Talmage, John A. Widtsoe and B. H. Roberts had “. . . undertaken a reconstruction which carried doctrine far beyond anything described in the Lectures on Faith or generally believed by Church members prior to 1835.” Despite statements by Joseph Smith in the 1840s, and compounded by a variety of interesting doctrines itemized above, Latter-day Saints held a variety of beliefs. Alexander explains . . .

    Official statements were required to canonize doctrines on the Father and the Son, ideas which were elaborated by the progressive theologians. A clarification was particularly necessary because of the ambiguity in the scriptures and in authoritative statements about the unity of the Father and the Son, the role of Jesus Christ as Father, and the roles of the Father and Son in creation. A statement for the Church membership prepared by the First Presidency and the Twelve, apparently first drafted by Talmage, was published in 1916. The statement made clear the separate corporeal nature of the two beings and delineated their roles in the creation of the earth and their continued relationships with this creation. [Thomas G. Alexander, “The Reconstruction of Mormon Doctrine: From Joseph Smith to Progressive Theology.” Sunstone: Mormon Experience, Scholarship, Issues & Art 5 (July-August 1980), 29]

    The Father and the Son made it necessary for Charles W. Penrose to delete and alter portions of Parley P. Pratt’s Key to the Science of Theology in order to make that work agree with the updated Mormon description of the Godhead. It soon caused the Lectures on Faith to be dropped from the Doctrine and Covenants (on the grounds that the Lectures had supposedly never been canonized by the Church). (Alexander, 29-30). This simple-looking pamphlet, “carefully crafted using scriptural prooftexts” (Melodie Moench Charles, “Book of Mormon Christology,” in Brent Lee Metcalfe, ed.,
    New Approaches to the Book of Mormon, 1993, 105), not only had major impact on Mormon scripture and other texts, but crystallized to some degree the most basic tenets of LDS theology as they are known today.

    Comment by Rick Grunder — March 16, 2009 @ 11:55 pm

  12. Rick: Bingo. That is the type of document and reasoning I was hoping for. Thanks for chiming in.

    Comment by Ben — March 17, 2009 @ 12:02 am

  13. I agree that Try reflects jsj’s views. Wish I had more time to finish stuff. we look at angels as avatars of history and crucial to the navigation of heresy and enthusiasm.

    Comment by Smb — March 17, 2009 @ 7:41 am

  14. I think that we need to include John Taylor’s “Farmhouse Revelation” as an example of revelation that didn’t make it into our present canon.

    Comment by Paul B — March 17, 2009 @ 8:19 am

  15. How about the tract The Plan of Salvation? Heavily used by missionaries for many decades.

    Comment by Researcher — March 17, 2009 @ 9:00 am

  16. I would think Talmage’s Jesus the Christ and/or Articles of Faith would be appropriate inclusions.

    Comment by Christopher — March 17, 2009 @ 9:26 am

  17. Paul: Great idea. JI’s own Christopher has done some work on John Taylor’s revelations, and they are pretty significant for that tumultuous period.

    Researcher: Agreed. That is an important twentieth century source.

    Chris: I would think so as well. Those, along with Father and the Son probably helped shape twentieth century Mormonism more than anything else (at least until JFS2 and BRM).

    And speaking of BRM, as much as many of us have problems with it, we would probably have to include Mormon Doctrine, since it has had such an influence over the Church in the last five decades.

    Comment by Ben — March 17, 2009 @ 10:02 am

  18. I think you’d need to include JS-H, given the way it has shaped how Mormons conceptualize JS’s youth and early visions. Does art count as a text? If so, then Christensen’s Panorama has definitely shaped how Saints remember Church History. And lastly, my guess is that if a Mormon read any church history book during the 20th century, it would have been JFS’s Essentials.

    Comment by David G. — March 17, 2009 @ 10:07 am

  19. David: agreed on all accounts, especially Christensen’s Panorama. I’m still waiting for you to put up a post on his art and their influence.

    Comment by Ben — March 17, 2009 @ 10:32 am

  20. I think Eliza Snow’s poem O my Father should be included. Yes, it’s short, and no, it’s not prose. It’s significant because of its explanation of Heavenly Parents, but also because it has been so heavily ratified by the Church in the years since.

    Comment by Hunter — March 17, 2009 @ 12:09 pm

  21. Ben,

    This is always an interesting exercise and a subject about which Mormons have been discussing and compiling lists for many years. It seems we Mormons have an insatiable appetite to grow our canon.

    Books have been written compiling these lists and suggesting that many documents are semi-canon. A few that come to mind are Fred Collier’s ?Unpublished Revelations? vols 1 & 2, Reay and Reay ?Selected Manifestations,? and Robert Openshaw?s, ?The Notes?. One book even attempted to decrease the canon, titled ?Latter-Day Revelation.? This book was published by the Church with a forward by James E. Talmage.

    Talmage wrote the following in the forward of ?Latter-Day Revelation? about the revelations found in the D&C: ??.. many of these revelations, once of present and pressing significance, became relatively of reduced importance with the passing of the conditions that had brought them forth.?

    Two great thinkers of Mormonism, one who brought the church into the twentieth century, and the other who organized the church for the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, expressed very different feelings about scripture, canon and revelation. I thought the following, contrasting excerpts might be of interest:

    Juvenile Instructor 26 (January 1, 1891), 13-14:

    By George Q. Cannon

    It seems nonsensical that the Prophet of God should submit to such a test as this, and not deem the revelations he received authentic until they had the approval of the different quorums of the Church. They were authentic and divinely inspired, whether any man or body of men received them or not. Their reception or nonreception of them would not affect in the least their divine authenticity.

    Dialogue 12:2, 68-81

    “When Are the Writings or Sermons of Church Leaders Entitled to the Claim of Scripture?”

    By J. Reuben Clark delivered July 7, 1954

    I have tried to suggest the meaning of the scripture which says that what the Priesthood says when “moved upon by the Holy Ghost,” is itself scripture. I have tried to indicate my own thought as to some of the limitations which attend the exercise of this principle, both as to those who are entitled to have their words taken as scripture, and also as to the doctrines that might fall from the lips of those not possessing the special gift and endowment. I have shown that even the President of the Church has not always spoken under the direction of the Holy Ghost, for a prophet is not always a prophet. I noted that the Apostles of the Primitive Church had their differences, that in our own Church, leaders have differed in view from the first.

    I have tried to explain briefly how, as Joseph said, a prophet is not always a prophet, but is a prophet only when acting as such, and that this means that not always may the words of a prophet be taken as a prophecy or revelation, but only when he, too, is speaking as “moved upon by the Holy Ghost.”

    Comment by Joe Geisner — March 17, 2009 @ 7:14 pm

  22. I would suggest the First Presidency’s statement from the 1930s, stating a division between science and religion.

    I would also recommend Benjamin F. Johnson’s diary, as very descriptive of Nauvoo and early Utah life, from the eyes of a member of the Council of 50.

    Comment by Rameumptom — March 20, 2009 @ 1:37 pm

  23. While certainly not at the level of canonical documents, I might add BF Johnson’s account the process through which JSJ introduced him to the concept of plural marriage. It captures details that no else mentions (I’m thinking specifically about how Joseph showed Johnson his temple garments, etc). Also, I would think that something from the Mormon Reformation might be helpful–maybe Joseph F. Smith’s letters that he received from his brother while in Hawaii describing reformation meetings

    Comment by SC Taysom — March 23, 2009 @ 12:50 pm

  24. Joe,
    I think that Ben is using the notion of “canon” in a historical, rather than an ecclesiastical sense, i.e. a collection of documents taken to represent the essential elements of the Mormon historical experience.

    Comment by SC Taysom — March 23, 2009 @ 12:52 pm

  25. I think Quinn was pretty perceptive when he discussed the Johnson and Lee as being not privy to the intimate workings of theology and policy and consequently being misplaced in their ebullience. That said, Lee’s diaries, especially in Nauvoo and on the trail are splendid. Johnson’s reminiscences…meh.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 23, 2009 @ 1:10 pm

  26. I know Johnson isn’t fashionable these days, but I like to keep him around anyway. Like my parachute pants.

    Comment by SC Taysom — March 23, 2009 @ 7:07 pm

  27. Maybe you should change your online name to MC Taysom, then. 🙂

    Comment by Christopher — March 23, 2009 @ 8:07 pm

  28. Those last two comments were, perhaps, the finest I have read in weeks, if not months.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 23, 2009 @ 8:57 pm


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