Does Mormon Doctrine Change?

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Doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, (sometimes erroneously called the Mormon Church), do not change. Policies, however, do evolve as continuous revelation is received. This is consistent with Christ's primitive church, and the Church of Jesus Christ is the restoration of that original church.

Mormon Doctrine revelation

After the crucifixion of the Savior, the apostles continued to teach the gospel among the Jews. When Peter was in Joppa, however, he was approached by a group of gentile believers. The Lord prepared Peter for this event by revelation. Peter had a vision of unclean animals, lowered in a cloth gathered by its four corners. The Lord told him not to consider anything unclean that the Lord had declared clean. The Lord also told Peter that gentiles sought him, and not to refuse. Peter would not have entered a gentile household at all, had he not received this revelation. The gentiles were not only rapt listeners to the word of God, but received the Holy Ghost. (See Holy Bible, Acts 10.)

Peter related the experience to the other apostles, and together, they reasoned and prayed. Through additional revelation, they realized it was time to take the gospel to the gentiles. This was not a change in doctrine, but a change in policy.

In the same manner, the apostles counseled with the Lord regarding requiring gentile Christians to keep aspects of the Law of Moses. The Law of Moses had been fulfilled. This does not necessarily mean that it was done away — the Law of Moses contained the foundation of the gospel — faith, repentance, baptism, and sacrifice. Jesus Christ ended sacrifice by the shedding of blood, but many Israelite Christians wanted to keep circumcision and the dietary laws and to require gentile Christians to follow suit. Through prayer and revelation, it was decided by the apostles that Christians should not have to be circumcised, nor should they be required to keep all the Jewish dietary laws, but should avoid eating blood and things sacrificed to idols, and things strangled. Again, this was a change of policy, not doctrine. The doctrine remained belief on Jesus Christ, and Him crucified and resurrected, who died for our sins. The ordinances of baptism and conferring the Holy Ghost did not change. (See Acts 15.)

Is Everything an Apostle Says Considered Doctrine?

In the Pauline Epistles we do have some verses of greeting to fellow missionaries, such as Timothy, and greetings to various congregations, Paul's considerations of his journeys and his trials, but the rest of the verses are generally considered doctrine. Since he was under house arrest for many years, Paul probably wrote hundreds of such epistles, and if we had more of these, we would have more doctrine, but also more extraneous or historical material. If we had all of this material, we would have to sort out doctrine and revelatory information from Paul's personal ideas and thoughts.

It is important to understand the nature of a prophet, and all of the apostles were prophets, receiving revelation for the church. Prophets don't know everything, and they are not shown all things by God. They are expected, just like the rest of us, to walk by faith in their own lives, and therefore, must have some mystery. Knowledge replaces faith. Prophets also have limited knowledge withing the confines of their own era and culture. Thus, Ezekiel's attempts to explain possible modern warfare seen in vision without any experience with modern machinery. Sometimes a prophet sees something in vision or receives information from God and then may speculate to fill in the blanks. A prophet might not speculate to his followers, but in privacy, he might. Here's an example from Joseph Smith:

I was once praying very earnestly to know the time of the coming of the Son of Man, when I heard a voice repeat the following: Joseph, my son, if thou livest until thou art eighty-five years old, thou shalt see the face of the Son of Man; therefore let this suffice, and trouble me no more on this matter. I was left thus, without being able to decide whether this coming referred to the beginning of the millennium or to some previous appearing, or whether I should die and thus see his face. [1] It is interesting that Joseph had already seen the Savior many times in vision. [2] [3]

Is Everything a Leader or Scholar Says Considered Doctrine?

Russell M. Nelson, prophet and president

Leaders and scholars of all churches comment all the time about their beliefs and how they view their faith. There are protestant scholars who question the divinity of Christ, yet everyone knows this is not doctrine, but opinion. Yet, critics of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ take these kinds of statements from past and current prophets, leaders and scholars in the Church of Jesus Christ, quote them as doctrine, and then attempt to demonstrate how the doctrine has changed. This is not the standard used to judge the doctrines of other religions, and it should not be employed to try to debunk the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.

The following are some historical events that have been labeled as changes of doctrine by those outside the Church, but really have been changes in policy. Friends of other faiths also sometimes assume that such changes came as the result of pressure. By resting upon that assumption, they think they can change Church doctrine by applying pressure. But the Church does not bow to outside pressure to make doctrinal changes. Nor does it bow to pressure to make policy changes. Doctrine does not change; policy changes through revelation; as more is revealed, understanding grows.

Perceived Changes in Latter-day Saint Doctrine


New converts to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the early 1800s were nearly all of European descent, and it was the Victorian era, when the roles of men and women were very clearly defined, and marriages were monogamous. It was common, however, for men to take mistresses even during this era. Eighty-five percent of the world's population, however, practiced polygamy at the time. Joseph Smith had gone to the Lord with a question regarding prophets of old and the fact that they had more than one wife. The Lord answered that their behavior was righteous as long as the Lord approved, and He sometimes did. The people had to be righteous and chaste and faithful for the practice to be approved. The Lord approved the practice when He desired to raise up seed unto Himself. In one instance in the Book of Mormon the Lord commands the people to take only one wife, and this because of their unrighteousness. When Joseph Smith inquired of the Lord concerning the prophets of old who practiced polygamy, the Lord answered using Abraham as an example:

"God commanded Abraham, and Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham to wife. And why did she do it? Because this was the law; and from Hagar sprang many people. This, therefore, was fulfilling, among other things, the promises. Was Abraham, therefore, under condemnation? Verily I say unto you, Nay; for I, the Lord, commanded it. . . . Abraham received concubines, and they bore him children; and it was accounted unto him for righteousness, because they were given unto him, and he abode in my law; as Isaac also and Jacob did none other things than that which they were commanded; and because they did none other things than that which they were commanded, they have entered into their exaltation" (Doctrine and Covenants 132:34, 35, 37).

Joseph Smith said the following:

"Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire” (History of the Church, 5:135).

Joseph Smith was commanded to practice polygamy and to teach his followers to begin the practice.

The institution of the practice of polygamy in the Church wrenched it to its foundation. It cleansed the Church of the weak in faith and the hypocritical among its congregations. It was too difficult to live, especially in a Victorian, western culture, for any but the most faithful. But these most faithful had huge posterity, and they became the backbone of the Church. The practice was made public when the Latter-day Saints were well-settled in Utah Territory. The U.S. government launched such a barrage of persecuting measures, that it nearly killed the Church, which was the intent. Latter-day Saint women were forced to testify against their husbands, husbands and fathers were imprisoned, the right to vote was taken away, and church property was confiscated. Finally, the Latter-day Saints put an end to polygamy.

People outside the Church of Jesus Christ see this as bowing to pressure so that Utah Territory could obtain statehood. But the members of the Church would have continued the practice if the Lord hadn't ended it by revelation. Then prophet Wilford Woodruff received a vision showing him what would happen if the practice were not abandoned. The Church temples would be closed, and the male members of the Church would be unable to provide for their families or serve in the Church (the Church has a lay clergy). Prophet Woodruff told his vision to the Saints, and they sustained him in ending the practice. (Those who dissented broke off into tiny fundamentalist sects, the most notorious of which is the FLDS.)

Men of all Races Can Hold the Priesthood of God

In the early days of the restoration of the gospel, Blacks held the priesthood. The Saints were very much anti-slavery, and Joseph Smith wanted to create a program to free Black slaves and ensconce them in Missouri, where the Latter-day Saints had gathered. Since most Missourians wanted a slave state, this idea increased the persecution suffered by the Saints. (Latter-day Saint congregations have never been segregated, even during the 1800s.) Some time later the priesthood was denied to Blacks. Black members remained faithful and questioning. Many had received inspiration that the priesthood would someday come, while even some Church leaders felt it may not come until the Millennium.

While Latter-day Saints are amazing record-keepers, no one could discover a prophetic statement denying the priesthood to Blacks and thus could not discern the reason for the ban. As the years passed, congregations formed in Africa, sometimes outside the legal structure of the Church, their faith was so great. As the Civil Rights Movement progressed in the U.S. and old racial biases began to change, members of the Church, as well as leaders of the Church began to pray that the priesthood would be given to all worthy males. Pressure was great in the U.S. and the Church was seen as a bigoted organization by some people. But it would take a revelation for the change in policy to occur.

That revelation did come in the summer of 1978, far into the Civil Rights Movement. It was evidently a momentous revelatory experience for the General Authorities who experienced it, and it brought great joy to the members of the Church of Jesus Christ. Again, the change came because of revelation and not outside pressure. However, the movement in the U.S. did cause both leaders and members to petition the Lord, and prayer and asking the Lord are necessary in most cases — part of the process through which the Lord guides His children.

The Women's Liberation Movement

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, although neutral in matters of politics, does enter the public square when social trends endanger morality or family life. The Women's Rights Movement did that, and the Church fought against amendments proposed during this movement. Leaders of the Church are prophets, and they can see into the future regarding the effects of such trends and laws. Now many years down the road, we can see the descent of family integrity, marriage, and morality. One result unforeseen by the world at large is the slowing maturity of men, due to the independence of women and choice not to marry or bear children. The media are writing and talking about grown men who are still boys, hanging out and playing video games, instead of becoming husbands, fathers, and heads of households. Working mothers are often frazzled, and children lack the nurturing and stability enjoyed by those of yesteryear.

In this situation the Church stood its ground. No revelation came to ordain women to the priesthood. (Women officiate in priesthood ordinances in Latter-day Saint temples and are leaders in the Church.) The family is of such central, eternal importance, no policy change would come.

The Gay Rights Movement

God's laws of morality never change. The Law of Chastity demands abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage (which is defined as the legal union of a man and a woman) and complete fidelity within marriage. To approve gay sexual activity or gay marriage would necessitate a change in doctrine, and doctrine does not change. Activists visualize the ending of polygamy and the giving of the priesthood to all worthy men as changes that came because of pressure. They assume that if the pressure is strong enough, the Church of Jesus Christ will support gay marriage, or at least cease to defend traditional marriage, but they are working from an erroneous assumption. God's laws of morality are eternal.

Changes in Latter-day Saint Policy

There have been some remarkable new policies in the Church (in addition to beginning and ending polygamy and ending the priesthood ban) that have borne much good fruit and are examples of how The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is God's living church on earth.

  • The beginning of the Church Welfare Program during the Great Depression.
  • The change to a 3-hour block for Sunday meetings, obviating many trips to church and helping those living far away from a meetinghouse to attend. This also gave more Sunday time to families.
  • The institution of the home teaching and visiting teaching programs.
  • The institution of the Family Home Evening program to strengthen families.
  • [The institution of the Perpetual Education Fund to benefit returned missionaries from poor countries.
  • The enlightened decision to build smaller temples all over the world, so Latter-day Saints would all have access to temple covenants and ordinances.
  • The establishment of Seminary and Institute programs to provide religious education to teenagers and young adults.

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