“What do you believe?”
Any Church member who has been asked this question can appreciate the difficulty of effectively expressing complex beliefs in a short statement. Fortunately, today we have a ready-made answer—the Articles of Faith.
But how did early members of the Church respond to the question? Interestingly enough, several early statements have survived which were made by prominent members of the Church before the present Articles of Faith were written. Some of those had an important influence on Joseph Smith’s final version of the Articles of Faith. Yet the Prophet wrote with clarity and vision not found in earlier statements. This was a task worthy of a prophet of God. Studying the development of the Articles of Faith can both increase our doctrinal understanding and strengthen our testimonies. Here is found a unique chapter in the history of modern scripture.
As soon as the restored Church commenced its intense missionary efforts, there was a need for a statement to use in presenting the Church’s beliefs to the world. At first, missionaries had to write their own statements of faith, just as they had to prepare their own tracts. Fortunately, copies of many of these early statements still exist. Statements by Oliver Cowdery, Joseph Young, Orson Pratt, and Orson Hyde were among the important summaries of the beliefs of the Latter-day Saints:
Probably the earliest formulation of the beliefs of the Church was published by Oliver Cowdery in the first issue of the Latter-day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate in October 1834. This summary, Elder Cowdery explained, was published to give the Saints an assurance of the “correctness of their own system,” so that none would engage in any religious controversy without knowledge. Its specific points are well worth our reflection today: (The numbers in brackets and words in italics indicate wording that closely resembles wording in the present Article of Faith with that number.)
“ We believe in God, and his Son Jesus Christ. We believe that God, from the beginning, revealed himself to man; and that whenever he has had a people on earth, he always has revealed himself to them by the Holy Ghost, the ministering of angels, or his own voice.  We do not believe that he ever had a church on earth without revealing himself to that church; consequently, there were apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers, in the same.
“We believe that God is the same in all ages; … and that, as He is no respecter of persons,  always has, and always will reveal himself to men when they call upon him.
“We believe that God has revealed himself to men in this age, and commenced to raise up a church preparatory to his second advent, when he will come in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.
“We believe that the popular religious theories of the day are incorrect. …
“ We believe that all men are born free and equal; that no man, combination of men, or government of men, have power or authority to compel or force others to embrace any system of religion, … so long as they do not molest or disturb others in theirs, in a manner to deprive them of their privilege as free citizens—or of worshiping God as they choose. …
“ We believe that God has set his hand the second time to recover the remnant of his people, Israel. …
“ And further: We believe in embracing good wherever it may be found; of proving all things, and holding fast that which is righteous.
“This, in short, is our belief, and we stand ready to defend it upon its own foundation when ever it is assailed by men of character and respectability.—And while we act upon these broad principles, we trust in God that we shall never be confounded!”
Several of our Articles of Faith begin to take shape here. Although not fully developed and not divided into individual sections, Oliver Cowdery’s enumeration of “our principles” bears important similarities to the statements of Joseph Smith eight years later. Like the Articles of Faith, Oliver Cowdery’s list begins with the basic principle of belief in God and in his son Jesus Christ. The Holy Ghost is also mentioned here, but only in his role as the revelator of God. Elder Cowdery also affirms that the true church contains apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers, and asserts the Church’s belief in the restoration of Israel, Christ’s second coming, and each man’s right to worship God as he chooses.
There are, however, also important differences between Oliver Cowdery’s statement and the Articles of Faith. Oliver Cowdery does not touch on such important subjects as the atonement of Christ, the ordinances of the gospel, the gifts of the spirit, the Bible, or the Book of Mormon. He does mention the general gathering of Israel, but gives few specifics. On the other hand, Oliver Cowdery fervently declares the error of the religions of his day and affirms the constancy of God in dealing with mankind—ideas which do not appear in the Articles of Faith.
The most fundamental difference between Oliver Cowdery’s statement and the Articles of Faith, however, lies in their basic characters. Oliver Cowdery simply asserts certain abstract principles, whereas the Articles of Faith simultaneously set standards for conduct and declare principles of faith. For example, where Elder Cowdery says, “We believe that God has revealed himself to man,” Joseph Smith will say, “We believe all that God has revealed” (italics added). The difference is apparent: it is one thing to believe that God has revealed himself; it is another to believe that which has been revealed. Where Oliver states a belief in certain civil liberties, Joseph Smith will go on to impose a duty upon all who believe in such liberties to “obey, honor, and sustain the law.” This difference in approach is significant, for what religious value do statements of belief have if they do not lead directly to righteous conduct?
A second early statement of the beliefs of the restored Church was penned by Joseph Young, a brother of Brigham Young. While proselyting in Boston in 1836, Joseph Young was approached by John Hayward, a local editor, who asked for a written statement of the “creed, doctrines, sentiments or religious notions” of the Church.1 Within three days, Elder Young delivered the following statement:
“This Church was organized on the 6th of April, 1830, in the State of New York, and its principal articles of faith are,
“1.  A belief in one true and living God, the creator of the heavens and the earth, and in his Son Jesus Christ, who came into this world 1800 years since, at Jerusalem; was slain, rose from the dead, ascended on high, and now sits on the right hand of the Majesty in the heavens;  that through the atonement thus wrought out, all men may come to God and find acceptance; all of which they believe is revealed in the holy Scripture.
“2.  That God requires all men, wherever his gospel is proclaimed, or his law known, to repent of all sins, forsake evil, and follow righteousness; that his word also requires men to be baptized, as well as to repent; and that the direct way pointed out by the Scriptures for baptism, is immersion. After which, the individual has the promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit. … This gift of the Holy Spirit, was anciently bestowed by the laying on of the apostles’ hands:  so this church believes that those who have authority to administer in the ordinances of the gospel, have this right and authority. …
“3.  That God will, in the last days, gather the literal descendants of Jacob to the lands anciently possessed by their fathers; that he will lead them as at the first, and build them as at the beginning. …  And that, as men anciently saw visions, dreamed dreams, held communion with angels, and conversed with the heavens, so it will be in the last days, to prepare the way for all nations, languages and tongues, to serve him in truth.
“4. That the time will come when the Lord Jesus will descend from heaven, accompanied with ten thousand of his saints; that a mighty angel will lay hold on the dragon, bind him, cast him into the pit. …
“5. They believe in the resurrection of the body; that all men will stand in the presence of God, and be judged according to the deeds, or works, done in this life.”
Elder Young’s statement reflects the keen awareness in the restored Church of Christ’s atonement and of man’s need to repent, be baptized, and receive the Holy Ghost. Thus, in the first three of Joseph Young’s “articles of faith,” we find many parallels to our present Articles of Faith. It is interesting that most of the points which Oliver Cowdery’s statement lacked are present here, while many of the points included by Oliver Cowdery are omitted by Joseph Young.
All of the ideas in Joseph Young’s statement, however, are not yet clearly refined, and there are still significant differences between his statement and the present Articles of Faith. In Joseph Young’s statement, God is still not referred to as the Father, and the Holy Ghost is not yet named as a member of the Godhead. Elder Young speaks of the gathering of the literal descendants of Israel; Joseph Smith declares the literal gathering of Israel. Moreover, the approach taken by Joseph Young is fundamentally different from that which would be employed by Joseph Smith. Joseph Young’s style is somewhat expository and detached, unless this characteristic was contributed by Hayward’s editing.
In 1840, yet another statement of the “faith and doctrine of the Church” appeared. This was authored by Orson Pratt, an apostle of the Church, and was written while he was a missionary in Scotland. It was over seven pages long as it originally appeared in Pratt’s tract Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions and of the Late Discovery of Ancient American Records. It is an intricate statement which soon came to be used as a standard explanation of the teachings of the Church. As is readily apparent, it seems to have had many definite influences on Joseph Smith’s ultimate formulation of the Articles of Faith. Due to its length, only a small part of it will be quoted here:
“We now proceed to give a sketch of the faith and doctrine of this Church.
“ First, We believe in God the Eternal Father, and in his Son Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost, who bears record of them, the same throughout all ages and for ever.
“ We believe that all mankind, by the transgression of their first parents, and not by their own sins, were brought under the curse and penalty of that transgression, which consigned them to an eternal banishment from the presence of God, and their bodies to an endless sleep in the dust, never more to rise. …
“ We believe, that through the sufferings, death, and atonement of Jesus Christ, all mankind, without one exception, are to be completely, and fully redeemed, both body and spirit from the endless banishment and curse, to which they were consigned, by Adam’s transgression. … After this full, complete, and universal redemption, restoration, and salvation of the whole of Adam’s race, through the atonement of Jesus Christ, without faith, repentance, baptism, or any other works, then, all and every one of them, will enjoy eternal life and happiness, never more to be banished from the presence of God, if they themselves have committed no sin. …
“ We believe that the first condition to be complied with on the part of sinners is, to believe in God, and in the sufferings and death of his Son Jesus Christ. … That the second condition is, to repent. …
“That the third condition is, to be baptized by immersion in water, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, for remission of sins; and that this ordinance is to be administered by one who is called and authorized of Jesus Christ to baptize, otherwise it is illegal, and of no advantage, and not accepted by him. …
“And that the fourth condition is, to receive the laying on of hands, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the gift of the Holy Ghost; and that this ordinance is to be administered by the apostles or elders, whom the Lord Jesus hath called and authorized to lay on hands. … These are the first conditions of the gospel. …
“They are then required to be humble, to be meek and lowly in heart, to watch and pray, to deal justly, and inasmuch as they have the riches of this world, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. …
“ It is the duty and privilege of the saints thus organized upon the everlasting gospel, to believe in and enjoy all the gifts, powers, and blessings which flow from the Holy Spirit. Such, for instance, as the gifts of revelation, prophecy, visions, the ministry of angels, healing the sick by the laying on hands in the name of Jesus, the working of miracles, and, in short all the gifts as mentioned in Scripture, or as enjoyed by the ancient saints.  We believe that inspired apostles and prophets, together with all the officers as mentioned in the New Testament, are necessary to be in the Church in these days.
“We believe that there has been a general and awful apostasy from the religion of the New Testament. …
“ The gospel in the ‘Book of Mormon’, is the same as that in the New Testament, and is revealed in great plainness, so that no one that reads it can misunderstand its principles. …
“ Many revelations and prophecies have been given to this church since its rise, which have been printed and sent forth to the world. These also contain the gospel in great plainness, and instructions of infinite importance to the saints. … We believe that God will continue to give revelations by visions, by the ministry of angels, and by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, until the saints are guided unto all truth. …
“We believe that God has raised up this church, in order to prepare a people for his second coming. …
“And we now bear testimony to all, both small and great, that the Lord of Hosts hath sent us with a message of glad tidings—the everlasting gospel, to cry repentance to the nations, and prepare the way of his second coming. … Therefore, remember, O reader, and perish not.”
This statement of the truths of the gospel is full and eloquent. Only occasional wordiness detracts from its effectiveness. In most respects, the teachings of the Church are accurately and powerfully restated here by Orson Pratt.
Orson Pratt’s inclination toward logic and thoroughness permeates this 1840 exposition. For example, we find a systematic explanation both of the human condition and the steps which must be taken to improve it. Here also we find an explanation of what one might term the “second principles of the gospel”—humility, prayerfulness, fairness, generosity, sympathy, endurance, and observance of the sacrament. But while thoroughness is often a strength, it may also hinder a writer’s effectiveness. Here Elder Pratt requires three full pages to state the truth that men will be punished for their own sins and not for Adam’s transgression, and that they can be saved through Christ’s atonement by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel—truths which Joseph Smith would encapsulate into two short sentences. Although his account is technically correct and extremely interesting, Orson Pratt produced a statement so detailed that is difficult to use, much less to memorize.
Even more cumbersome is the next set of articles of faith, which appeared in a treatise published by Orson Hyde in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1842, entitled A Cry From the Wilderness. The fourth chapter of this tract consists of sixteen articles, called “Articles of Faith and Points of Doctrine.” Elder Hyde prefaces this chapter by explaining that he compiled these points of doctrine himself while serving in responsible positions within the Church. Each article is, in and of itself, a seasoned essay, containing very valuable information. The approach to specific issues, however, is rather disjointed at times. The titles of these articles reflect their content.
The first article is entitled “About the Godhead,” and the second “About the Use and the Validity of the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament in Our Church.” Noticeably, neither the Book of Mormon nor the need for a correct translation of the Bible is mentioned here. Examples of other titles are “Faith,” “Repentance,” “Baptism,” “Confirmation By the Laying on of Hands After Baptism,” “The Sacrament of the Bread and Wine,” “The Confession of Sins and the Method of Dealing With Members Who Act Contrary To The Laws of The Church,” “Baptism For the Dead,” “Prayer and the Manner of Prayer,” and “Patriarchal Blessings and A Word About Marriage.”
It is apparent from these titles that Elder Hyde focuses his attention on the ordinances of the priesthood. Furthermore, where he is not discussing these ordinances themselves, Elder Hyde considers items closely related to them, such as the absence of paid ministry in the Church, the proper age at which to baptize children, prayer, and the Sabbath day.
The importance of priesthood ordinances in the Church cannot be overstated; still, Orson Hyde’s statement is more an explanation than a succinct declaration of belief—that task fell to the Prophet Joseph Smith.
In light of the varied approaches taken by Oliver Cowdery, Joseph Young, Orson Pratt and Orson Hyde, the need for an official statement of the Church’s beliefs is clearly visible. With many writers and Church leaders stressing different aspects of the gospel, confusion over the fundamental teachings of the Church could easily have resulted.
In 1842, at the invitation of John Wentworth, the editor of the Chicago Democrat, Joseph Smith wrote a letter designed for publication in which he sketched the history and faith of the Latter-day Saints. Joseph Smith’s response to Wentworth is now known as the Wentworth letter. It appeared in many publications both within and outside the Church for many years after it was written. The letter, signed by Joseph Smith, closed by stating thirteen points of faith. These have come to be known as the Articles of Faith. Except for certain minor changes, particularly in the fourth, fifth, sixth, and tenth articles, we still use these statements today as they originally appeared on 1 March 1842.2
Several things need to be said about the Articles of Faith. First, they are brief and succinct. Joseph Smith states each proposition with unusual clarity and economy. This is particularly noticeable when one compares Joseph Smith’s Articles of Faith with those of Orson Pratt or Orson Hyde.
Also, despite their brevity, Joseph Smith’s statements are remarkably complete. The Prophet selects his language with great precision.
Further, the scope of his statements is broad, encompassing a full range of gospel principles. He covers more main points of the gospel than most of the other authors combined. And the Prophet is not limited by attentiveness to any single aspect of the gospel, as was Orson Hyde, nor by any theoretical constraints, as was Oliver Cowdery.
Joseph Smith’s approach is declarative and affirmative. He makes no effort to justify these principles—they are firm statements which stand on their own merit. Each epitomizes a fundamental point of doctrine. Each is directed toward actively influencing the lives of the Saints.
Some have suggested that Joseph Smith wrote the Articles of Faith in response to the religious controversies of his time. This is doubtful, however, because Joseph Smith’s Articles lack the argumentative language commonly found in the earlier articles of faith. Apparently, he did not feel this was either the time or the place for pointing out the errors of other denominations.
In light of the obvious similarities between certain of the Articles drafted by Joseph Smith and statements made earlier by Oliver Cowdery and Orson Pratt, it is natural to wonder how heavily Joseph Smith relied on those earlier articles of faith. At the same time, due to the many common threads which consistently run throughout all of these early statements, it is equally necessary to recognize that the Prophet himself probably already stood closely behind those earlier formulations. Although we cannot trace the elements of dependency and contribution here, we can reasonably assume that Joseph Smith’s words and thoughts contributed, either directly or indirectly, to the articles of faith written by Oliver Cowdery, Joseph Young, Orson Pratt, and Orson Hyde. The fact that all of these early statements are quite similar to each other shows that the same gospel principles were consistently taught under Joseph’s leadership.
It also follows, of course, that Joseph Smith’s composition of the Articles of Faith was not a matter of spontaneity. There had probably been considerable discussion among Church leaders on points of faith prior to the Wentworth letter. But whether Joseph Smith was following the language of Orson Pratt or Oliver Cowdery, or excerpting Pauline passages from the New Testament3 (compare A of F 1:4 with Heb. 6:1–4, A of F 1:6 with Eph. 4:11, A of F 1:7 with 1 Cor. 12:22, and A of F 1:13 with 1 Cor. 13:7 and Philip. 4:8), the vision of Joseph Smith was to see clearly the best of what had been said.
Joseph Smith’s Articles of Faith quickly received wide recognition throughout the Church and abroad. John Hayward, who had previously published Joseph Young’s statement of the beliefs of the Church, immediately included Joseph Smith’s Articles of Faith in his Book of Religions, printed in 1842.
Although the Prophet’s Articles of Faith were widely acknowledged, the spirit of personal pamphleteering also remained strong and active within the Church for several decades. This spirit manifested itself in many ways, one of which was the practice of embellishing Joseph Smith’s Articles of Faith. For example, in 1850 the Frontier Guardian, edited by Orson Hyde, carried a statement of Joseph Smith’s Articles of Faith with certain additions. To the fourth article of faith was added “the Lord’s Supper” as the fifth ordinance of the gospel. To the seventh article of faith was added “the gift of faith, discerning of spirits, wisdom, charity, and brotherly love” as further powers and gifts of the spirit. The eighth article of faith was restated to read, “We believe the word of God recorded in the Bible, we also believe the word of God recorded in the Book of Mormon, and in all other good books.” A fourteenth article was added to read, “We believe in the literal resurrection of the body, and that the rest of the dead live not again until the thousand years are expired.” Finally, the last article ends with the resounding utterance:
“Everything virtuous, lovely, praiseworthy, and of good report we seek after, looking forward to the recompense of reward; but an idle or lazy person cannot be a Christian, neither have salvation. He is a drone, and destined to be stung to death and tumbled out of the hive.” Other even more extensive elaborations on Joseph Smith’s Articles of Faith also appeared in the 1850s and 1860s.4
Thus several years had to elapse before Joseph Smith’s Articles of Faith became solidified in the minds and experiences of the members. In 1880 the membership of the Church voted at general conference to accept and use only the Articles of Faith as prepared and distributed by Joseph Smith. Understanding and further appreciation of these Articles grew with the publication of The Articles of Faith by James E. Talmage.
Ever since the Articles of Faith were written, they have taught, inspired, and directed the members of the Church in the basic principles of the gospel. At the same time, they have also gone forth among the peoples of the world to proclaim and explain the gospel to many who hear it for the first time. Yet it is one and the same set that serves all these functions. This versatility reflects the fact that the Articles of Faith emerged as the best of many similar statements produced during a fluid, formative period in Church history.
But more than versatility, we find in the Articles of Faith a precious reflection of truth expressed with precision and purpose. Unlike creeds which are delimiting and dogmatic, the Articles of Faith are living and open. They invite further thought. They influence us in numerous ways, as they give our lives both clarity and breadth. They enhance our understanding of certain principles and give us simultaneously a commitment toward living the same. They belong in the scriptures perhaps more than any of us fully comprehend.