What was there in the creeds of men that the Lord found abominable, as he stated in the First Vision?
On at least four occasions, the Prophet , manager, curriculum planning and development, Church Curriculum Department.Joseph Smith wrote or dictated an account of his First Vision experience. Only one of these, a brief account recorded in 1835 by Warren Cowdery, makes no mention of false creeds then being taught among men. (See Milton V. Backman, Jr., Joseph Smith’s First Vision, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980; see also Backman, “Joseph Smith’s Recitals of the First Vision,” Ensign, Jan. 1985, pp. 8–17.)
In an account dictated in 1832 to Frederick G. Williams, the Prophet Joseph related how the Savior had told him that “the world lieth in sin at this time and none doeth good.” The Lord further said, “They draw near to me with their lips while their hearts are far from me.” (Backman, First Vision, p. 157.)
The account currently found in the Pearl of Great Price was written in 1838. In this record young Joseph asked Deity “which of all the sects was right.” The Son of God answered that “they were all wrong; … that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: ‘they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.’” (JS—H 1:18–19.)
In an 1842 account known as the Wentworth letter, the Prophet wrote, “Two glorious personages … told me that all religious denominations were believing in incorrect doctrines, and that none of them was acknowledged of God as his church and kingdom.” (Backman, First Vision, p. 169.)
From these accounts of the Prophet’s experience in the Sacred Grove that spring morning of 1820, it is clear that God the Father and his Son were greatly displeased with the doctrines being taught in the churches.
Perhaps one major reason the Lord was displeased is that the precepts of men lack saving power. Anciently, the Apostle Paul warned that perilous times would come, in which many man-made, apostate practices would prevail. He warned that those who advocated such practices would have “a form of godliness” but would deny “the power thereof.” His exhortation was “From such turn away.” (2 Tim. 3:5; see also JS—H 1:19.)
Any creed, doctrine, philosophy, precept, practice, ordinance, or teaching that deliberately or inadvertently leads people from the saving power of Christ and his gospel is an abomination. In this sense, anything that deviates from truth or the divine authority of God, even slightly, lacks godliness; from such we should turn away.
The Lord revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith that the power of godliness is manifest in the ordinances of his priesthood. “Without the ordinances thereof, and the authority of the priesthood, the power of godliness is not manifest unto men in the flesh.” (D&C 84:20–21.)
Gospel ordinances that resemble in form those that Deity has declared necessary for salvation but that lack divine priesthood authority, are not accepted by God and therefore lack the power to save souls. Furthermore, no matter how sincere a person’s intentions may be in performing or receiving a gospel ordinance, if the ordinance is performed without authority recognized by God, it has no power to save.
Elder John A. Widtsoe made the following observation regarding the abominations spoken of in the First Vision:
“Jesus said to Joseph that all the churches were wrong, and that their creeds were an abomination in his sight, that those professors were all corrupt. This statement has given a great deal of offense. It should not amaze us, however, if we consider that Joseph went in search of truth. There was doubt in his mind. All untruth is an abomination. Clear the world of untruth, and the world will be a better place. The ministers were not necessarily corrupt personally; but since they preached untruth and professed untruth, they were corrupt teachers. There is a fine distinction between a man who is misled and one who deliberately teaches untruth. The statement made by the Savior should not be misunderstood. Truth is the only holy thing; and if it is violated or changed, those who teach it become corrupt and abominable.” (“Joseph Smith—The Significance of the First Vision,” The Annual Joseph Smith Memorial Sermons, vol. 1, Logan, Utah: Institute of Religion, 1966, p. 28; italics added.)
The scriptures appropriately counsel us to give no heed to “fables, and commandments of men, that turn from the truth.” (Titus 1:14.)
Latter-day Saints do not intend to give offense by speaking of the false creeds and beliefs of others as abominations. But we must be unyielding in tenaciously holding to the truth. There is but “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” (Eph. 4:5; italics added.)
We acknowledge that the sincere, dedicated efforts of teachers and ministers of other faiths accomplish much good in the world. For example, Sidney Rigdon served as a minister of another church before becoming acquainted with the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. After his conversion, the Lord said to him, “My servant Sidney, I have looked upon thee and thy works. I have heard thy prayers, and prepared thee for a greater work.” (D&C 35:3.)
Sidney Rigdon had obviously rendered a valuable service in his previous ministry but was able, after accepting the restored gospel and receiving divinely restored priesthood power, to go forth in a “greater work,” teaching the revelations of God and administering the saving ordinances of the gospel.
Surely promoters of righteousness, which include many ministers of other churches, are among the honorable men and women of the earth. Yet revelation reminds us that even the “honorable men of the earth” will be among those who fall short of exaltation in the celestial kingdom if they have not accepted the principles and saving ordinances of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which are available only through his restored church. (See D&C 76:75–78.)
Personal righteousness and good intentions are not sufficient to save souls in the celestial kingdom of God. The Savior himself, differentiating between rewards, said, “He that receiveth a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward; and he that receiveth a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward.” (Matt. 10:41.)
If one were to follow the teachings of an honorable, righteous minister who lacked authority to administer the saving ordinances of the gospel, he would receive the reward of that righteous man but fall short of full salvation. The Lord clearly stresses over and over the necessity of certain ordinances to receive salvation. (See John 3:5; D&C 132:18–19.)
In rejecting false creeds and unauthorized ordinances, we do not pass judgment on people. We recognize that there are good, moral, upright people in all churches. Elder James E. Talmage observed that “when we say that the Lord is not pleased with those churches, we do not mean that he is not pleased with the members thereof. … The church as such may be wholly corrupt because of the false claims that are being made for it, and yet within that church as members there may be people who are doing their best.” (In Conference Report, Oct. 1928, p. 120.)
Elder Boyd K. Packer, of the Council of the Twelve Apostles, has noted:
“We know there are decent, respectable, humble people in many churches, Christian and otherwise. In turn, sadly enough, there are so-called Latter-day Saints who by comparison are not as worthy, for they do not keep their covenants.
“But it is not a matter of comparing individuals. …
“Good conduct without the ordinances of the gospel will neither redeem nor exalt mankind; covenants and the ordinances are essential. We are required to teach the doctrines, even the unpopular ones.” (Ensign, Nov. 1985, p. 82.)
We do not ask people to abandon any truths they now possess. Our desire is to share the whole truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ with all mankind and to make the full power of salvation available to each individual.
In declaring this message, we would do well to keep the admonitions of two of God’s servants in mind. The Nephite prophet Alma counseled his son Shiblon to “use boldness, but not overbearance” in preaching the word of God. (Alma 38:12.)
On the other hand, the words of the Apostle Paul should be on the lips and in the hearts of all Latter-day Saints: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth.” (Rom. 1:16.)
Thus, while we boldly declare that the precepts of men are an abomination in the sight of God, we humbly acknowledge the sacred trust we have to share the fulness of the gospel and invite all mankind to come unto Christ. To do less would be to come under condemnation. To have the truth, to be the custodians of the saving ordinances, and to be unwilling to share them with others would itself be an abomination to the Lord.
Perhaps a final thought regarding truth and abomination should be considered. Members of Christ’s kingdom here on earth, who have received the saving ordinances of the gospel through proper priesthood authority, must not be smug or complacent with their membership. The Lord himself declared that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased, speaking unto the church collectively and not individually.” (D&C 1:30.)
Membership in the Lord’s church here on earth does not guarantee exaltation in his kingdom hereafter. One must keep the sacred covenants entered into with God and seek in all things to do his will. Authorized ordinances are essential to salvation, but so is obedience in keeping the commandments and covenants associated with those ordinances.
An ancient prophet reminds us that once we have gotten onto the strait and narrow path, we “must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ,” that if we “press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end,” the Father promises us eternal life. (2 Ne. 31:19–20.)
It makes little difference whether one has followed abominable creeds or abandoned true doctrines. Either way lacks saving power, and the end result is the same: the individual falls short of exaltation.
“For what doth it profit a man if a gift is bestowed upon him, and he receive not the gift? …
“That which … abideth not by law, but seeketh to become a law unto itself, and willeth to abide in sin … cannot be sanctified by law, neither by mercy, justice, nor judgment.” (D&C 88:33, 35.)