“Who among us knew the first principles of the Gospel of Christ until we heard them from the Elders of Israel? Who told us that it was right to be baptized in the name of Jesus for the remission of sins? Who taught us it was right to receive the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands? … It was communicated to Joseph Smith by the opening of the heavens, by the ministering of Holy Angels, and by the voice of God. … Until these communications were made known [to Joseph], the inhabitants of the world were wrapped in ignorance; they knew nothing about God nor the principles of eternity, nor the way to save themselves nor anybody else.”1
So taught President John Taylor regarding the importance of the first principles and ordinances of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and of the role of the Prophet Joseph Smith in bringing them forward. What other teachings are as important to the Church’s core teachings as these saving doctrines? They were so carefully impressed upon the Prophet’s mind in perfect, instructional sequence that by the time he wrote them as the fourth Article of Faith in the famous Wentworth letter of 1842, they were far more than words; they had become part of his being: “We believe that the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are: first, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; second, Repentance; third, Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; fourth, Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost” (A of F 1:4).
Early Church history shows that the Prophet Joseph Smith came to know of these saving principles in at least three ways: (1) from heavenly messengers, (2) from the consequences of some unwise decisions, (3) from his translation of ancient scripture, and (4) from frequent divine inspiration. It was a careful schooling, prepared and profound.
Unschooled in the religions of man, the boy prophet Joseph lacked wisdom. After reading James 1:5, he decided to pray and ask God which of all the churches was right. Though young Joseph had been foreordained to his latter-day work,2 faith must precede the blessing. In the divine drama of the First Vision, wherein the purposes of God, and the power of Satan and the desires of a mortal being were all manifest, the boy prophet learned much more than which church to join. While in the act of praying vocally for the first time in his life and in a secluded grove, he was suddenly “seized upon by some power which entirely overcame” him and which was intent upon his “sudden destruction” (JS—H 1:15). Thus his quiet petition was abruptly transformed into a life and death struggle. Gripped in terror and unable to cry out for help, Joseph had nowhere to turn but his greatest resource. At that moment of greatest alarm, his prayer became a desperate plea for deliverance “from the enemy that held [him] bound.” Only after he had exercised his unbounded faith in God did the heavens open and the destroyer flee.
Of this truth President Gordon B. Hinckley has said: “It was faith, the simple faith of a fourteen-year-old boy, that took him into the woods that spring morning. It was faith that took him to his knees in pleading for understanding. The marvelous fruit of that faith was a vision glorious and beautiful, of which this great work is but the extended shadow.”3
Of all the many lessons that Joseph learned from the First Vision, surely among the most important were that God does answer prayers and that by faith He can save us in our darkest hour. His faith saved him from his greatest trouble, and from it came the revelation of the Father and the Son and the introduction of the long-prophesied Restoration.
Beginning in 1823, the prophet-apprentice learned much about the first principles from his master teacher, Moroni. Joseph later wrote, “I … received instruction and intelligence from him at each of our interviews, respecting what the Lord was going to do, and how and in what manner his kingdom was to be conducted in the last days” (JS—H 1:54). When finally entrusted with the gold plates, the young prophet understood the blueprint of the restored gospel, its organization and essential doctrines. President Joseph F. Smith said of this instruction: “He was taught by the angel Moroni. He received his education from above, from God Almighty, and not from man-made institutions, … [and] he possessed a knowledge of God and of his law.”4
The young prophet also learned firsthand about baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost from heavenly messengers. While translating the Book of Mormon with his scribe, Oliver Cowdery, they “on a certain day [in May 1829] went into the woods” in Harmony Township, Pennsylvania, on the banks of the Susquehanna River “to pray and inquire of the Lord respecting baptism for the remission of sins, that [they had] found mentioned in the translation of the plates” (JS—H 1:68). A vision of yet another heavenly messenger, the resurrected John the Baptist, opened to them. To his young inquirers, John said, “Upon you my fellow servants, in the name of Messiah, I confer the Priesthood of Aaron, which holds the keys of the ministering of angels, and of the gospel of repentance, and of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins” (JS—H 1:69; emphasis in original). Joseph then baptized Oliver, and afterwards Oliver baptized Joseph.
They then experienced a moment of intense joy and personal revelation. Remembered Oliver, “This earth [has not] power to give the joy, to bestow the peace, or comprehend the wisdom which was contained in each sentence as they were delivered by the power of the Holy Spirit!”5 Joseph also wrote: “No sooner had I baptized Oliver Cowdery, than the Holy Ghost fell upon him, and he stood up and prophesied many things which should shortly come to pass. And again, so soon as I had been baptized by him [Oliver], I also had the spirit of prophecy, when, standing up, I prophesied concerning the rise of this Church. … We were filled with the Holy Ghost, and rejoiced in the God of our salvation” (JS—H 1:73).
Although blessed abundantly, they learned from John the Baptist that the gift of the Holy Ghost would not be conferred upon them until later with the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood by the Apostles Peter, James, and John.6 And though the Prophet Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery baptized other believers for the remission of sins between May 1829 and April 1830, at the organizational meeting of the Church on 6 April 1830 in Fayette, Seneca County, New York, the Prophet noted the following: “We then laid our hands on each [previously baptized] individual member of the Church present that they might receive the gift of the Holy Ghost, and be confirmed members of the Church of Christ. The Holy Ghost was poured out upon us to a very great degree—some prophesied, whilst we all praised the Lord, and rejoiced exceedingly.”7 The Prophet was “inspired of the Holy Ghost to lay the foundation” of the Church “and to build it up unto the most holy faith” (D&C 21:2).
Three and a half years after faith was the active first principle in the Sacred Grove in 1820, Joseph knelt in prayer feeling “condemned for [his] weaknesses and imperfections,” yet he had “full confidence in obtaining a divine manifestation” (see JS—H 1:29). It was an earnest desire to set things right with God and to repent of some unwise decisions that once more drove him to his knees. Subsequently, on the evening of 21 September 1823, an angel from the presence of God revealed many scriptural truths to the forgiven lad. Joseph was given specific instructions pertaining to the work God had for him to do. Faith opened the heavens the first time, and faith and repentance together did so the second time.
After a season of difficult and intermittent translation of the Book of Mormon, the young prophet in June 1828 reluctantly surrendered 116 pages of Book of Mormon manuscript into the hands of his older benefactor and scribe, Martin Harris. When Martin returned empty-handed and confessed that he had lost the manuscript, Joseph sprang from his breakfast table in anguish and exclaimed in utter self-condemnation: “Oh, my God, my God. All is lost, is lost! What shall I do? I have sinned. It is I who tempted the wrath of God.”8
Utterly downcast and full of godly sorrow for his disobedience, Joseph stood rebuked and chastened by the Lord. “How strict were your commandments,” the Lord instructed, “… and behold, how oft you have transgressed. … For thou hast suffered the counsel of thy director to be trampled upon from the beginning” (D&C 3:5–6, 15). It was a heaven-sent excoriation that Joseph’s penitent soul understood. Nevertheless, in what must have been soaring relief to the young Prophet, the Lord said, “Remember, God is merciful; … and thou art still chosen, and art again called to the work” (D&C 3:10). This early experience impressed upon Joseph Smith’s mind that repentance and trust in God rather than man are indeed requisite for doing the work of the Lord.
Thus from the spring of 1820 to the spring of 1830, on that 10-year road of instruction from Palmyra to Fayette, the Prophet came to personally know and live the first principles and ordinances of the gospel from what he experienced, suffered, overcame, and had revealed to him by heavenly messengers. Just as members of the original church of Christ had been taught by Peter on the day of Pentecost to “repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:38), so also had the Prophet Joseph been taught these principles in our day, culminating in the Holy Ghost being poured out to a great degree.
Although heavenly messengers were his most intimate instructors, the young prophet also learned of the importance of these principles from the writings he translated, particularly during the fulfillment of his divinely appointed role as translator of the Book of Mormon. The approximately 80 calendar days he spent translating the message of Cumorah into the English language with the aid of the Urim and Thummim and by the power of the Holy Ghost, constituted yet another divine schooling.
The inspired contents of the Book of Mormon deeply impressed the two men. “No men, in their sober senses,” Oliver Cowdery recalled, “could translate and write the directions given to the Nephites from the mouth of the Savior, of the precise manner in which men should build up His Church, and especially when corruption had spread an uncertainty over all forms and systems practiced among men, without desiring a privilege of showing the willingness of the heart by being buried in the liquid grave, to answer a ‘good conscience by the resurrection of Jesus Christ’” (JS—H 1:71, note on pages 58–59).
The first principles and ordinances of the gospel run like a golden thread of truth throughout the entire Book of Mormon, from 1 Nephi through Moroni. The prophet Nephi, son of Lehi, called these principles “the doctrine of Christ” (2 Ne. 31:2). “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, I know that if ye shall follow the Son, with full purpose of heart, acting no hypocrisy and no deception before God, but with real intent, repenting of your sins, witnessing unto the Father that ye are willing to take upon you the name of Christ, by baptism—yea, by following your Lord and your Savior down into the water, according to his word, behold, then shall ye receive the Holy Ghost; yea, then cometh the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost” (2 Ne. 31:13).
Nephi’s younger brother Jacob warned that those who reject the gospel “and deny the good word of Christ, and the power of God, and the gift of the Holy Ghost, and quench the Holy Spirit, and make a mock of the great plan of redemption” will be brought “to stand with shame and awful guilt before the bar of God” (Jacob 6:8–9).
The prophet Mormon declared in one of his final letters: “The first fruits of repentance is baptism; and baptism cometh by faith unto the fulfilling the commandments; and the fulfilling the commandments bringeth remission of sins;
“And the remission of sins bringeth meekness, and lowliness of heart; and because of meekness and lowliness of heart cometh the visitation of the Holy Ghost, which Comforter filleth with hope and perfect love” (Moro. 8:25–26).
When the Prophet Joseph Smith was translating the Book of Mormon, he found these first principles especially well presented through a powerful sequence of the following four grand discourses in the book of Mosiah: the sermons of King Benjamin (Mosiah 2–5) and Abinadi (Mosiah 11–17) and the teachings of Alma (Mosiah 18, 25–26) and his son, Alma the Younger (Mosiah 27–28). The common denominator in them all is the mission and redemption of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent. Furthermore, a central message of King Benjamin’s sermon is faith in Jesus Christ. “Believe in God,” he taught, “believe that he is, and that he created all things, both in heaven and in earth; believe that he has all wisdom, and all power, both in heaven and in earth; believe that man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend. … And now, if you believe all these things see that ye do them” (Mosiah 4:9–10).
Repentance, the second principle, is the primary focus of Abinadi’s message to King Noah and his wicked priests. Abinadi boldly preached what the Lord had told him: “Except they repent I will visit them in mine anger,” “except they repent … I will deliver them into the hands of their enemies,” “except this people repent … they shall be brought into bondage,” and “except they repent … I will not hear their prayers” (see Mosiah 11:20–21, 23, 25; emphasis added). After rehearsing the vital messages of the Ten Commandments and the Christ-centered prophecies of Isaiah to his unbelieving audience, Abinadi concluded: “And now, ought ye not to tremble and repent of your sins, and remember that only in and through Christ ye can be saved?” (Mosiah 16:13).
One of Abinadi’s converts, Alma, fled from King Noah into the wilderness and preached “repentance, and redemption, and faith on the Lord” to his followers (Mosiah 18:7). Alma’s teachings also emphasized that the ordinance of baptism is a covenant and sequel to faith and repentance—a natural progression in the doctrine of Christ. “Now I say unto you,” he said near the Waters of Mormon, “if this be the desire of your hearts, what have you against being baptized in the name of the Lord, as a witness before him that ye have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you?” (Mosiah 18:10). Also, if Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery had not fully understood before translating this passage that baptism was to be done by immersion for the remission of sins, they certainly would have afterward.
The last great sermon in Mosiah directly addresses the need for a rebirth of the soul by the Holy Ghost. The account of Alma the Younger’s miraculous conversion speaks less of baptism by water and more of baptism by fire, or being born of the Spirit:
“Marvel not that all mankind … must be born again; yea, born of God, changed from their carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters;
“And thus they become new creatures; and unless they do this, they can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God” (Mosiah 27:25–26).
The incomparable spiritual power and sacred instructions of these four sermons defy simple categorization and analysis. They are charged with long, personal experience and are alive with the Spirit of the Lord—stunning testimonies to the fact that no unschooled farm boy could have ever composed such sublimely simple yet profound verse. Like a spinal cord, the first principles and ordinances of the gospel provide a doctrinal backbone to the book of Mosiah.
Little wonder, then, that two or three years later, when the Prophet was under inspiration revising the New Testament, he paid careful attention to passages which contained the teachings of these principles. For example, in one of the more confusing biblical passages, Hebrews 6:1, it reads, “Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection.” Joseph’s inspired translation inserts the word not before the phrase leaving the principles. Of this change he later commented: “If a man leaves the principles of the doctrine of Christ, how can he be saved in the principles? This is a contradiction. I don’t believe it. I will render it as it should be—‘Therefore not leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.’”9
The Prophet further learned through his efforts of translating or revising the Old Testament that these doctrines were even taught in their fulness to Adam and Eve and their descendants (see Moses 6:52–68).
The first principles and ordinances of the gospel are also found amidst the revelations and instructions given in the Doctrine and Covenants during the early years of the Church. These sacred instructions were received by the Prophet Joseph in answer to prayer, in times of need.
From a revelatory instruction to the Prophet at Manchester, New York, in March 1830 we read: “Of tenets thou shalt not talk, but thou shalt declare repentance and faith on the Savior, and remission of sins by baptism, and by fire, yea, even the Holy Ghost” (D&C 19:31).
From a revelation given at Fayette, New York, seven months later we read: “Yea, repent and be baptized, every one of you, for a remission of your sins; yea, be baptized even by water, and then cometh the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost.
“Behold, verily, verily, I say unto you, this is my gospel” (D&C 33:11–12).
The glorious vision of the degrees of glory revealed in February 1832 again contains reference to these fundamental doctrines:
“And again we bear record—for we saw and heard, and this is the testimony of the gospel of Christ concerning them who shall come forth in the resurrection of the just—
“They are they who received the testimony of Jesus, and believed on his name and were baptized after the manner of his burial, being buried in the water in his name, and this according to the commandment which he has given—
“That by keeping the commandments they might be washed and cleansed from all their sins, and receive the Holy Spirit by the laying on of the hands of him who is ordained and sealed unto this power;
“And who overcome by faith, and are sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise, which the Father sheds forth upon all those who are just and true” (D&C 76:50–53).
Little wonder that the Prophet Joseph Smith also taught these principles to those about to depart into their mission fields: “Oh, ye elders of Israel, hearken to my voice; and when you are sent into the world to preach, tell those things you are sent to tell; preach and cry aloud, ‘Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand; repent and believe the Gospel.’ Declare the first principles, and let mysteries alone, lest ye be overthrown.”10
President John Taylor summarized well the role of the Prophet Joseph Smith in the restoration of the doctrine on the first principles and ordinances when he said: “To what are we indebted for [this] knowledge? To the administration of an angel, which made manifest the order of God to Joseph Smith, and he revealed it unto others—to that we are indebted for the first principles of the Gospel.”11
Since the Prophet Joseph Smith’s time, every President of the Church has taught the central place these principles and ordinances hold, including President Hinckley: “To me the gospel is not a great mass of theological jargon. It is a simple and beautiful and logical thing, with one quiet truth following another in orderly sequence. … God has revealed in this dispensation a great and marvelous and beautiful plan that motivates men and women to love their Creator and their Redeemer, to appreciate and serve one another, to walk in faith on the road that leads to immortality and eternal life.”12
They are simple and beautiful truths and, when lived to their fulness, will ever distinguish the gospel of Jesus Christ from any other religion or philosophy upon the earth and will identify the humble obedience of His followers.
Most Ensign articles can be used for family home evening discussions. These questions are for that purpose or for personal reflection:
Who taught me or members of my family the first principles and ordinances of the gospel? Why are these principles and ordinances essential?
Who were some of the heavenly messengers who taught Joseph Smith about the first principles? Which books in the Book of Mormon are especially helpful in understanding them? Which sections of the Doctrine and Covenants teach about these principles?