On the evening of 21 January 1836, the First Presidency of the Church and the Patriarch, Joseph Smith, Sr., were holding a special meeting by candlelight in a room of the Kirtland Temple. Suddenly the heavens were opened to them and they beheld some magnificent visions. The Prophet Joseph Smith saw the celestial kingdom, and among the inhabitants of that kingdom was his long-deceased brother, Alvin. This astonished the prophet, who said that he “marvelled how it was that he (Alvin) had obtained an inheritance in that kingdom, seeing that he had departed this life before the Lord had set his hand to gather Israel the second time, and had not been baptized for the remission of sins.” (D&C 137:6.)
It was a new thought, even to Joseph Smith, that people who had passed away without authoritative baptism could reap the same blessings in the world to come as those who were members of the restored Church. But some new information was about to be given to the Church, and as the prophet wondered at what he was seeing, the voice of the Lord came to him with these words:
“All who have died without a knowledge of this gospel, who would have received it if they had been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom of God;
“Also all that shall die henceforth without a knowledge of it, who would have received it with all their hearts, shall be heirs of that kingdom;
“For I, the Lord, will judge all men according to their works, according to the desire of their hearts” (D&C 137:7–9.)
Many years later another prophet, President Joseph F. Smith, was pondering the scriptures relating to the atonement. By this time the Church understood well the principle of salvation for the dead, but there was still a missing piece of information concerning the Savior’s mission in the spirit world immediately after his death. President Smith had wondered how the Lord could preach to all the spirits in prison in the short time he was there. “As I wondered,” he said, “my eyes were opened, and my understanding quickened, and I perceived that the Lord went not in person among the wicked and the disobedient who had rejected the truth …
“But behold, from among the righteous, he organized his forces and appointed messengers.” (D&C 138:29–30.)
These two experiences represent one of the most fundamental concepts of the restored gospel: that of continuing, modern revelation through living prophets. The Lord has said that “he will give unto the faithful line upon line, precept upon precept” (D&C 98:12). Brigham Young told the Saints that knowledge and understanding come slowly, and that none of the revelations revealed everything about a subject. Said he:
“I am so far from believing that any government upon this earth has constitutions and laws that are perfect, that I do not even believe that there is a single revelation, among the many God has given to the Church, that is perfect in its fulness.
“The revelations of God contain correct doctrine and principles, so far as they go; but it is impossible for the poor, weak, low, grovelling, sinful inhabitants of the earth to receive a revelation from the Almighty in all its perfections. He has to speak to us according to our capacity to receive.” (Journal of Discourses, 2:314.)
Our knowledge of Church history suggests that this, indeed, has been the case. As the Saints have been prepared to receive new information, it has been given and as the programs of the Church have needed modification to meet new challenges, the prophets have been directed by the Spirit to institute them. The historical development of a few key practices and teachings in the Church shows how this process has continued.
Historically, most changes have been concerned with certain outward practices, procedures, and administrative duties. These have been particularly apparent in recent years in connection with the needs of a rapidly growing and ever more international Church. Joseph Smith anticipated this as early as 1842, when he observed “that which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another” (History of the Church, 5:135). Elder Orson Pratt of the Council of the Twelve put it well in 1877, as the Church was perfecting some aspects of its organization: “To say that there will be a stated time, in the history of this Church, during its imperfections and weakness, when the organization will be perfect, and that there will be no further extension or addition to the organization would be a mistake. Organization is to go on, step after step from one degree to another, just as the people increase and grow in knowledge of the principles and laws of the kingdom of God.” (Journal of Discourses, 19:12.)
In 1962, Elder Harold B. Lee, then a member of the Council of the Twelve, used a very practical modern example of that principle. “It is sometimes very interesting to get the reaction of people,” he observed. “I recall when President McKay announced to the Church that the First Council of Seventy were being ordained high priests in order to extend their usefulness and to give them authority to act when no other General Authority could be present. I went down to Phoenix, Arizona, and I found a Seventy who was very much disturbed. He said to me, ‘Didn’t the Prophet Joseph Smith say that this was contrary to the order of heaven to name high priests as presidents of the First Council of Seventy when they were named in the beginning?’
“And I said, ‘Well, I had understood that he did, but had you ever thought that what was contrary to the order of heaven in 1840 might not be contrary to the order of heaven in 1960?’ You see, he had not thought of that. He … was following a dead prophet, and he was forgetting that there is a living prophet today. Hence the importance of our stressing the word ‘living.’” (“The Place of the Living Prophet, Seer, and Revelator,” address given to Seminary and Institute Faculty at BYU on July, 1964.)
The important thing for the Saints to understand is not just that change and development take place—that seems obvious—but also that changes are made by or under the direction of the living prophet. This is the practical application of the principle of continuing revelation.
The understanding of the doctrine of the gathering illustrates the statement made by the Prophet Joseph Smith that what is right under one set of circumstances may not be right under another. In this case, no basic doctrinal principle was involved. Rather, it was the Lord giving special instructions to his Saints, according to the needs and circumstances of the times. Thus is continuous revelation.
The early revelations to Joseph Smith were filled with commands that the Saints should gather to the land of Zion, and particularly to the headquarters of the Church. The building of the kingdom, the First Presidency wrote in 1840, would require “the concentration of the Saints, to accomplish works of such magnitude and grandeur … and everyone who is zealous for the promoting of truth and righteousness is equally zealous for the gathering of the Saints.” (History of the Church, 4:185–86.)
Among other things, this led to the organization of a systematic immigration program, which was only intensified after Church headquarters were moved to Utah. “Emigrate as speedily as possible to this vicinity,” the Council of the Twelve advised the European Saints in 1847. They were told to bring everything and anything that would enhance the building of the new community of Saints in the West.
After this concept of the gathering had been taught so strongly for two generations or more it became almost automatic—especially to the Saints in Europe. But in the late 1890s certain circumstances were changing. The Church was more secure in its western setting. The kingdom had been strengthened in its new location, the days of pioneering were over, and the challenge now was to build up Zion—the “pure in heart”—throughout the world. This was clearly the larger mission of the Church from the beginning.
These and other considerations undoubtedly led Church leaders to consider prayerfully what should be done. In 1898 George Q. Cannon, a member of the First Presidency, announced that the Saints in various lands were being counseled to “remain quiet for a while; to not be anxious to leave their homes to gather to Zion.” (In Conference Report, Oct. 1898, p. 4.) By the following year it was concluded that it was no longer advisable for them to gather, even if they did so at their own expense.
The change in policy was implemented rapidly. The Church undertook to furnish more permanent headquarters in the missions and to build more chapels as a way of encouraging converts to remain in their homelands. “We do not advise you to emigrate,” President Joseph F. Smith told the Swedish Saints in 1910. “We would rather that you remain until you have been well established in the faith in the Gospel.”
And in 1958 three mission presidents in Europe issued a strongly worded editorial in Der Stern which epitomized the necessity to build Zion abroad:
“We have not discontinued to preach the Gathering of the House of Israel. We still call all people to come out of the spiritual Babylon, which means to come out of spiritual darkness. We are still gathering the children of light. We are still gathering scattered Israel. But we no longer urge them to emigrate to America. On the contrary, we tell the Saints exactly what the Lord required, namely to build up the stakes of Zion and to enlarge the boundaries of His kingdom …
“We believe that God directs His Church through the words of His prophets. The world conditions have undergone a complete change and we must adapt to the new situation.”
These developments are easily understood when placed in historical context. Others were not so clearly connected with specific historical events, but their history reveals a gradual unfolding of ideas, “line upon line, precept upon precept.” (D&C 98:12.)
For example, it is interesting to observe that LDS understanding of the nature of the Godhead has also seen considerable growth since the Church was organized in 1830. There was no question among the Saints from the beginning that God was a personal being, or that man had direct access to him through prayer. Joseph Smith had seen him, as well as his Son, Jesus Christ, in vision, years before the Church was organized.
But in the early years, few members of the Church were fully aware of Joseph Smith’s first vision, for at first he did not widely circulate any account of it. Only in 1838, to correct “the many reports which have been put into circulation by evil-disposed and designing persons,” would he prepare it for publication (JS—H 1:1). Consequently, since there was no effort in the first few years of Church history to define precisely the full nature of the Godhead, many new converts undoubtedly kept some of their old sectarian ideas. In addition, their ideas may well have been reinforced by a few statements in the first edition of the Book of Mormon that did not clearly distinguish between the Father and the Son.
Many passages in the first edition of the Book of Mormon clearly identified the Savior as the Son of God. But isolated verses were still not fully understood and some were subject to misinterpretation. In 1916, the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve issued a carefully stated doctrinal exposition entitled The Father and the Son. This statement clearly identified the various ways in which the term Father might be used in the scriptures, especially with reference to Jesus Christ, and helped thereby any who were inclined to misunderstand.
The 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants included an important, though unofficial, early statement of Church beliefs known as the Lectures on Faith. At this time Joseph Smith had announced no revelation on whether the Father had a physical body of flesh and bone, or on the nature of the Holy Ghost, and consequently the fifth lecture contained an incomplete description of the Godhead that might not be understood by members of the Church today. Nevertheless, Joseph Smith undoubtedly continued to meditate and pray on this and many other issues. Precisely when he may have received new revelation on this subject we do not know, but on 2 April 1843, he gave some important “items of instruction” at Ramus, Illinois, which stated with more clarity than ever before the physical nature of the Godhead and particularly the Holy Ghost. These instructions later became part of the Doctrine and Covenants: “The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also; but the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit. Were it not so, the Holy Ghost could not dwell in us.” (D&C 130:22.)
A year later Joseph Smith delivered one of his most famous discourses on the nature of God. Here he added great new insight for the Saints by explaining that God the Father was “once as we are now,” and that now he is “an exalted man … It is the first principle of the gospel to know for a certainty the character of God, and to know that we may converse with Him as one man converses with another, and that He was once a man like us; yea, that God himself, the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth, the same as Jesus Christ Himself did.” (History of the Church, 6:305; this is from the King Follett funeral sermon.)
Thus, only a little more than two months before his death, Joseph Smith was continuing to clarify many things for the Saints, and laid the basis for the broadened understanding of the Godhead they hold today.
These are only a few examples, but they are sufficient to illustrate the fact that Latter-day Saints’ understanding, both individual and group, grows “line upon line” over the years. Some apparent changes have been related to specific historical circumstances. Others reflect refinements that come as Church leaders contemplate the issues and seek greater understanding through revelation.
The ideas and policies of the Church are clearly not stagnant. The door is open for the prophets of each generation to seek new insight and direction from the Lord.
Joseph Smith underlined this promise when he wrote, “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God” (A of F 1:9).
This concept of the expanding nature of gospel understanding has been accompanied by extreme caution, for Church leaders well understand the danger of being “tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine.” (See Eph. 4:14.) In spite of developments like those we have described, certain simple truths and fundamental principles remain constant. They include faith in the divine mission and literal atonement of Jesus Christ; belief in the power and authority of the priesthood, as restored through Joseph Smith and in the necessity for priesthood authority in administering the ordinances essential to salvation; belief in the authenticity of the Book of Mormon and of the visions and revelations of the Prophet Joseph Smith; and, of course, the assurance of continuous divine relation in the Church.
We must keep in mind that only the President of the Church, the Presiding High Priest, is sustained as the Prophet, Seer, and Revelator of the Church who is empowered to announce new revelation. As President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., reminded the Seminary and Institute of Religion teachers of the Church in 1954, the prophet “alone has the right to receive revelations for the Church, either new or amendatory, or to give authoritative interpretations of scriptures that shall be binding on the Church, or change in any way the existing doctrines of the Church.”
Part of the value in studying history lies in the confirmation one receives of the developing, expanding nature of the Church, its programs, its teachings, and the reality of continuous revelation. Latter-day Saints should not be surprised if, in the future, more new developments come. They need only ask themselves the question: Is not this the very essence of revealed religion?