Mystery Solved: Who Wrote the Lectures on Faith? - Noel Reynolds
In 1835, the church published the Doctrine and Covenants, which contained significant additions to the 1833 Book of Commandments. At the beginning of the collection of revelations were seven theological lectures that had originally been delivered at the Kirtland School the preceding winter.
Details about the purpose and curriculum of the Kirtland School, later referred to as the “School for the Elders” or “School of the Prophets,” are uncertain. Most of what we know is taken from late reminiscences recorded nearly fifty years after its commencement. Lessons included at least an English grammar element and the seven theological lectures, which were part of a series to “unfold … the doctrine of Jesus Christ.” The classroom consisted of prospective missionaries and church leaders and, by all accounts, was presided over by Sidney Rigdon.
The lectures were removed from the Doctrine and Covenants in the 1921 edition, but they did not fade away. They have proven to be particularly buoyant as they have experienced resurgent popularity over the years and an ability to maintain a loyal following. But the history of the Lectures on Faith are a cautionary tale for members of the church that illustrates the dangers of historical forgetting.
It was common knowledge in the 19th century that the lectures were written by Sidney Rigdon, but by the mid-twentieth century it was thought that the Prophet Joseph Smith had penned them. Perhaps enamored with the arcane rhetorical style of the arguments, some members latched on to them as a source of deep theological thought. What they didn’t realize was that the style mimics that of the preachers of the 19th century and of the Campbellites in particular. Especially telling is the reference to a binary Godhead in the fifth lecture. Joseph Smith explicitly declared in Nauvoo that his concept of the Godhead had never changed, and he had always taught the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost were separate entities.
But all the historical evidence to discredit Joseph Smith and attribute Sidney Rigdon as author was circumstantial. It wasn’t until Noel Reynold’s discovered some new documents that he realized he had found the “smoking gun” and the confirmation that he needed to form a solid argument for Sidney Rigdon as the author.
Join Laura Harris Hales as she discusses with Noel Reynolds the mystery of the authorship of the Lectures on Faith and what we can learn from this episode in Mormon history.
LDS Perspectives Podcast
Episode 44: The Lectures on Faith with Noel Reynolds
Laura Hales: Hello and welcome to the LDS Perspectives Podcast. This is Laura Harris Hales, and I am here today with Noel Reynolds to talk about an article that was published back in 2005 from a lecture he gave at the 2003 Mormon Historical Association meetings entitled, “The Case for Sidney Rigdon as Author of the Lectures on Faith.” Noel, tell us a little bit about your background because you taught political science at BYU, but you’re known for you research in Book of Mormon and historical studies.
Noel Reynolds: You’re exactly right, BYU hired me in 1970 to teach philosophy, particular political and legal philosophy classes, which were my specialty. I did continue to teach that throughout my career there. But I also was involved in teaching Book of Mormon classes, one a semester usually. This led to involvement with a lot of other topics, church history and so forth. Over time, I’ve actually published a couple of articles in church history in addition to quite a few things in Book of Mormon studies. Those kinds of things, even though they were more my hobbies than my main line of scholarly research, obviously attracted a lot more attention from an LDS community, things on the rule of law and legal philosophy.
Laura Hales: Oh, I bet. Noel can you start us out by reviewing a little background.
Noel Reynolds: The Lectures on Faith come out of the Kirtland School, it was called, the winter of 1834, 1835. There is almost no documentation on this school. We have a few reports about it in the journals of some of the participants and the most interesting reports were written 50 years after the fact. It’s really uncertain what exactly it was, even who taught it. It was presided over on all accounts by Sidney Rigdon and included simple things like handwriting and grammar. This was an attempt to help the brethren be a little more sophisticated; most of them did not have a strong educational background. But one dimension of it was to discuss gospel topics, and faith was one that was featured by those accounts. That school has since gained the label of School of the Elders or School of the Prophets, but at the time it was just called the Kirtland School.
Laura Hales: How does what they were doing in that Kirtland School end up as something that we know as the Lectures on Faith?
Noel Reynolds: That’s very controversial. Different people have different theories about what that connection might be. We do have the seven lectures that were published in 1835 that were combined with Joseph Smith’s revelations and in a new book called Doctrine and Covenants. The seven lectures were prepended to Joseph’s revelations in the 1835 publication and were subsequently removed from the Doctrine and Covenants in 1921 when the church did a major overhaul of the scriptures. After they were removed, they gained the title Lectures on Faith. That’s in the 20th century and since then that is how we know them. You can buy them separately now. If you buy them from Deseret Book, it will say they’re written by Joseph Smith. If you buy them through Seagull, it says probably written by Sidney Rigdon. That’s getting to my topic.
Laura Hales: Isn’t it true that it was the original “doctrine” of the Doctrine and Covenants?
Noel Reynolds: The name title doctrine was added in 1835 to account for the lectures. That is correct.
Laura Hales: I’m just going to segue here and talk about the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. When it was canonized, it was a unique situation. Quite an interesting situation. I’m sure you’re aware of it. Do you want to go over that and how that might fit into how the Lectures on Faith even got into the Doctrine and Covenants?
Noel Reynolds: Yes, it’s actually a long and complicated story. I hope I can make sense of it in a brief way. With the failure of the attempted publication in Missouri in 1833, the Brethren knew that they needed to produce the revelations of Joseph Smith in some kind of usable format for the members of the church. So in 1834, a committee was formed consisting of the members of the first presidency of the church to pursue that publication. These were Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, Sidney Rigdon, and Frederick G. Williams. At the time the project was undertaken, it was focused on just Joseph Smith’s revelations. By the time it came to fruition, it had grown to include not only his edited revelations but also the seven lectures from the Kirtland School and two additional sections, we would call them today, written by Oliver Cowdery, probably with some help from some other people. One of those is an article on marriage and the second one is in our present Doctrine and Covenants on politics, both written primarily by Sidney Rigdon. Sidney Rigdon as we’ve come to understand now was the author of the lectures.
The 1835 edition, now called Doctrine and Covenants, actually included writing from each of those three members of the first presidency. Interestingly, with Sidney Rigdon’s lectures put at the front in spite of the fact that there was a Lord’s preface revealed in now our section one of the Doctrine and Covenants. But all that gets pushed back and Sidney’s lectures go at the front. It should be mentioned in this regard that for months during the last stages of publication Sidney and Oliver were alone in Kirtland. Joseph and nearly all of the 12 apostles were off on missions. So there is this interesting phenomenon that their word becomes prominent.
The canonization that you refer to occurs for some reason a week before any of these other general authorities return to Kirtland. It’s pretty complicated, and in retrospect pretty clear that Sidney and Oliver had gotten some ideas that are pretty ambitious promoting some of their own work here, trying to temper some of Joseph’s work. These Brethren had been involved in earlier attempts to improve Joseph’s revelations, and in Sidney’s case to actually take over leadership of the church when Joseph had been out of town for an extended period. Things aren’t as smooth in Kirtland as they are in Salt Lake City in 2017.
Laura Hales: Oh, definitely. But that context is really interesting. It seems less weird that they have things in the Doctrine and Covenants after you pointed out that they were each members of the first presidency. Then also we know that there was this kind of tug and pull as they tried to figure out their roles. At first, Oliver and Joseph were co-presidents, and then Joseph kind of said, “No, Oliver. I need to be the head here.”
Noel Reynolds: I think this is not easy for modern church members to appreciate. Joseph had never been the head of a church. All they had for examples were the Protestant churches around them, frontier Protestant churches by the way, which themselves were very fluid in their organization. It’s not until 1838 that Joseph understands the necessity of establishing his own priority as president of the church.
Laura Hales: When did you first become interested in the authorship question in regard to the Lectures on Faith?
Noel Reynolds: I think I probably read the Lectures on Faith or read in them when I was a freshman at BYU 100 years ago and was kind of surprised at the philosophical and kind of lofty rhetorical tone that the lectures take. Because I study philosophy, I probably wasn’t very impressed with the lectures at that time. But I think I probably just accepted what other people had said, that Joseph Smith was the author of them. Then after being on the faculty at BYU for really almost 20 years, I was approached to do a book review on a book that had been written and edited, assembled by a group that was becoming pretty aggressive in their promotion of the Lectures on Faith. I thought if they want me to review the book I’ll review it. And not knowing a whole lot about it, I read the book and especially the historical section, which gives the background on the Lectures on Faith and the reasons why they thought Joseph Smith wrote the lectures and was almost stunned to see how thin that evidence was.
At that time, I wrote a kind of a long review. I mentioned the fact that there seemed to be a lot of questions in the air unresolved. Then that kind of set me going over the next 10, 15 years just thinking about it. I came up with a second version after I had accumulated a lot more research on the topic. Then in 2004, I stumbled across what had always been lacking and that is some real concrete evidence one way or the other on who was the author. So I rewrote all this for this paper that was then published in the Journal of Mormon History to show that in fact we have very clear evidence that it was Sidney Rigdon that wrote it, which corresponds to all the circumstantial evidence that had been assembled previously.
Laura Hales: What’s the most convincing evidence you found that Sidney Rigdon really is the author?
Noel Reynolds: That question is what gave rise to that 2005 publication because all the evidence that we were able to find before then was historical and it was really circumstantial. You really couldn’t nail it down. Then about 2004, I came to realize that Sidney Rigdon over a period of 18 months had been publishing this series of essays on these very topics in the church newspapers, so it was serialized there. So what I did, I thought we’ve got a lot of text by Sidney Rigdon here, and let’s compare them and see what the comparison is. So I hired someone who didn’t know anything about this, who himself is a writer, so he would be sensitive to writing styles. I asked him to read three piles of paper. One was these essays that Sidney had written, and they’re long. There’s a lot of stuff there. The second one was the Lectures on Faith, and he had never read it before either. The third was some writings by Joseph Smith. Then I said take 30 days, read this stuff, come back, and tell me which ones you think were or were not written by the same person and why.
He came back. He said, “That’s easy. These two piles of paper were written by the same person.” I said, “Okay. Why?” He said, “There’s some very distinctive rhetorical phrasings that just keep showing up in both of them.” I said, “Okay, give me a list.” So he gave me a list. I can’t remember the exact number. About 30 some phrases that he saw as being characteristics of the two and also being very distinctive. They just really kind of stuck out for him. We then went through and used a computer to go through and identify all the occurrences of all those phrases in all three piles of paper. Those phrasings recurred hundreds of times in Sidney’s essays, almost 200 times in the lectures. Not one of them ever occurred in anything written by Joseph Smith that we considered. Very clearly linking the two. In fact, the per thousand words occurrence of these things was double in the Lectures on Faith what it was in Sidney’s own essays. For most scholars, that’s really convincing evidence. It’s the smoking gun that we had been looking for.
Laura Hales: I need to tell you where I first ran across your work. I was teaching Gospel Doctrine, and I quoted the Lectures on Faith, and I said, “Joseph Smith teaches us blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” A friend was sitting in Gospel Doctrine and afterwards she just quietly came up to me, and she said, “I just read a study about the Lectures on Faith, and there’s some authorship questions.” She sent it to me, and I loved that she did that. I have tried to do the same thing with people with different responses. There still continues to be a devoted following for the Lectures on Faith, even though it’s no longer part of our Doctrine and Covenants. It’s not an official publication. It’s been de-canonized. Why do you think people still are so attracted to the Lectures on Faith?
Noel Reynolds: I’ve had the same question many, many times. Before the 1950s, it was pretty standard assumption on the part of informed Latter-day Saints and church leaders that Sidney Rigdon had written the lectures. That was just assumed and widely understood. But along in the mid-20th century, Elder Bruce R. McConkie, particularly in his younger days as general authority, became quite impressed with the Lectures on Faith and has repeatedly and publicly made extraordinary statements about their level of inspiration and their value and so forth. Other general authorities were much less willing to take those kinds of positions, but a kind of enthusiasm surrounding Elder McConkie developed what probably is not widely understood. But I’ve heard this discussed at least semi-publicly by President Monson, for example. In the 1981 revision of the triple combination Elder McConkie had a prominent role in that and had actually proposed to put the Lectures on Faith back in — that and some other materials. And that after lengthy discussion, the Brethren told him that now he was asking for too much. They didn’t want to do that, so it’s not in there. I loved Elder McConkie. This is not a criticism of him at all. I have great admiration for him and so many of the things he’s done.
He seemed to have an enthusiasm that was fed by having more and more things be part of the Restoration. I have to admit that I come from a different mentality, which is being skeptical and watching out for people who are trying to import things into the Restoration that really aren’t part of it. There’s those types of different mentalities. I come from a background of knowing what happened in early Christianity, and there were these apocryphal writings that people were trying to sell as basic Christian stuff being written by the apostles and so forth. That’s been an endless battle to keep the basic teachings of Christ limited to what’s in the scriptures and even deciding what was in the New Testament was a huge battle for three centuries. But I think what happened is that with this move to consider republishing the Lectures on Faith as part of the triple combination, I think that out of that a number of individuals feel a great loyalty to Elder McConkie, for one thing, became very supportive of that idea and began just saying that the Lectures on Faith were written by Joseph Smith. But there was never any good evidence for it.
Laura Hales: A comment that I have heard often by people who love the Lectures on Faith is even if Joseph Smith did not write these lectures, he knew they were being given, and he reviewed them. So it’s just like he wrote them. Do you see any problem with that line of thinking?
Noel Reynolds: Well, there’s probably two things we can say about that. One is there’s actually no historical evidence that Joseph ever looked at them or touched them. There is just one statement inserted in the January 1835 History of the Church that says Joseph spent time reviewing the Lectures on Faith for publication. That statement was inserted in the History of the Church eight years later by a secretary who was trying to fill in 18 months’ worth of missing records from Joseph’s daily, regular record that he had been keeping with his secretaries. But there’s an 18 month gap in there. The Kirtland School occurs in the middle of that gap, and eight years later someone is trying in Nauvoo — trying to fill in and make sense and just wrote that. We have no idea what kind of evidence he had for that statement — whether Joseph told him that or whether he’s saying he must’ve done something because he though Joseph must’ve helped. There’s just no way to know. That’s not reliable historical evidence.
The second thing we can look at did Joseph use the lectures, did he claim them, did he quote them, did he teach from them, did he ever repeat these teachings? The answer to that is no, not once. I haven’t checked this against the new Joseph Smith Papers project, which would be an interesting thing to do and maybe somebody will take the time to do that. But I couldn’t find any evidence that Joseph had ever used anything from the lectures. On the contrary, Sidney Rigdon when he left the church in 1844 and went back to Pittsburgh and organized his own church and published the Lectures on Faith, he had a clear sense of ownership and of its value was not shared by Joseph or other church leaders.
I know some writers have tried to defend the Lectures on Faith saying that they do reflect Joseph Smith’s early teachings. I haven’t found that very convincing. What is striking is the strong correlation with some of the Campbellite doctrine that Sidney Rigdon had been involved with Alexander Campbell before Sidney became a convert to Mormonism. One of the most egregious examples is in lecture number five, which actually says that there are two people in the Godhead, the father and the son, and that Jesus shared the mind of God and that sharing is what the Holy Ghost is, not a separate being. Anybody can look in lecture five and there it is. Historians of American religion call that binitarianism. It’s been argued back and forth. The fact that that’s in there has made it easy for anti-Mormon critics to say that Joseph Smith’s understanding of the Godhead evolved considerably and changed over time before it became what we teach in the church today. Joseph very clearly states in Nauvoo … he said, “I have never taught anything but Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” I read that statement by Joseph in Nauvoo as denying that he’s the one that was teaching that binitarian doctrine in Kirtland. But others have tried to find another way around that.
Another example is lecture two. If you look at it, it’s a little hard to read because it gives this long, long list of prophets starting with Adam going down through these long name lists that are in the book of Moses, for example, which extends what’s in the Bible. Why is all that in there? The reason that’s in there is because of the Campbellite doctrine that no man can have a testimony through the spirit, and the spirit comes after Jesus dies, and it comes after baptism. You have to be baptized, and this is all post-Christian. Before that time, all testimony is based on human testimony, so people could believe in God because Adam saw God, and he told his sons about it, and they told their sons, and they told their sons. You have to have this chain of people going back to Adam to be able to justify having to believe in Christ. That’s a pretty odd doctrine from a modern LDS point of view, and it certainly is one that Joseph Smith directly contradicts. Where does it come from? It comes from Alexander Campbell. It’s that simple.
Laura Hales: We were talking before the interview, and you said at this period of time there was a trend during the Great Awakening to have very logical reasons to believe in Christ. Nowadays, I think if you opened your Lectures on Faith on your lap, and you opened up your computer to the Joseph Smith Papers, and you just pulled up a letter that Joseph had written, there would be no question in your mind that Joseph didn’t write the Lectures on Faith because they’re very complex. Can you tell us a little bit about how important that type of philosophy was in the culture? I wonder at its reception. We don’t have any record of this probably, but these were farmers and uneducated men in the School of the Prophets, and you’re throwing the Lectures on Faith to them, which I read after my college experience as well and thought, “Wow. This is deep.”
Noel Reynolds: I think it’s fair to say that the American evangelical preachers, especially on the frontier, but it was actually nationwide, during the latter half of the 19th century … throughout the 19th century, had been influenced heavily by the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was in full bloom a century earlier, but it gets into American evangelical preaching. Basically it’s a rhetorical stance in which the person speaking or writing claims that the truth, the gospel truths, religious truths have to be demonstrated rationally, and they have to make sense to the rational man. That making sense is what in a way what makes them true, how we can tell the true ones from the false ones. It’s not that the people teaching this were so highly educated. None of them had philosophical training or philosophical degrees, but it’s a rhetorical stance, so they just constantly refer to reason and the demands of reason. The reasonable man would say this as a way of compelling agreement with what they were saying. It’s a rhetorical device more than it is evidence of a lot of education, but it’s very characteristic of the Campbellites. Alexander Campbell was definitely into this rhetorical tradition, but also others that were not associated with Campbell also had the same kind of these lectures often published, and you can go in the library and read them. It’s just a style of writing.
The Lectures on Faith just import that exact style as do other writings of Sidney Rigdon, which nobody reads today. People on the American frontier were hearing that kind of thing all the time. Joseph Smith never uses that kind of thing. Brigham Young never uses that kind of rhetoric. But certainly the Latter-day Saints in Kirtland and Nauvoo had heard a lot of it before they got to Sidney Rigdon.
Laura Hales: Many of us members have this book on our shelf, Lectures on Faith, maybe two because we inherited a copy. These lectures written 185 years ago by Sidney Rigdon. Could you just briefly explain what you hope members would take away from these authorship studies you have done as they approach the Lectures on Faith?
Noel Reynolds: The lesson for me was to be careful what you take as authentic sources of gospel teaching. It’s very easy. We’ve seen this in our lives, different individuals, charismatic individuals will come along with some special teaching, get a lot of following and create waves with members of the church, then it all goes away. For some reason, the Lectures on Faith keep coming back. I can remember the 1950s when there was a great enthusiasm across the church for the Dead Sea Scrolls. I actually have been very deeply involved in Dead Sea Scrolls work with the main scholars who have done the work on these. The original things the Mormons were telling themselves about the Dead Sea Scrolls turned out to be very fantastical, not based in an understanding at all of what’s really going on what they are. But we do need to be careful. For me that means paying close attention to what the prophets are saying, to what they are writing, to the things that they tell us are revelation and not trying to expand and increase and fill our minds with exciting new things that seem like they’re highfalutin, new understanding, that’s not where it comes from. I think we need to keep our noses in the Book of Mormon and in the revelations of Joseph Smith and not look for other things to expand or elevate our understanding of the gospel.
Laura Hales: Thank you, Noel, for spending some time with me today visiting and talking about the Lectures on Faith.
Noel Reynolds: You’re very welcome, I’ve enjoyed visiting with you.
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