Joining the One True Church in all the land has spawned gratitude in millions of adherents to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints across time. This is common among both converts and long-term members reaffirming their convictions. Yet when members testify that the church is true, also noting or implying that it is the only true one, others may grow apprehensive–if not amused or aggravated.
Even to fellow believers, such certainty can seem the hybrid epitome of naïveté and arrogance. Barely half of church members are confident that ours is “the only true faith leading to exaltation.” That percentage, moreover, is in decline. As popularly understood, that view can even erode faith. “I stopped believing that there was one true church” is among the most frequent explanations offered by those who no longer identify as Saints.((Riess, The Next Mormons (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2019), pp. 19, 214–218. This concern, of course, often combines with other issues, including Jana disagreement with church policy on predominant social issues.))
So far as outsiders are concerned, Martin Marty, who during the second half of the 20th century was the most prolific and widely cited scholar of American religion, cast the issue in stark terms. Responding in 1984 to a query posed by a member of the church’s Public Affairs department, Marty declared, “The most important issue facing Mormons in the next ten years is maintaining the posture that you are the only true church, to the exclusion of all others, and then trying to get along with those you exclude.”((Ronald Barney, citing the report of a long-time colleague in Public Affairs, private correspondence to author (July 4, 2019).))
In light of the enthusiasm and the contrasting unease provoked by the proclamation in the first section of the Doctrine and Covenants that ours is “the only true and living church” pleasing to the Lord, how ought Latter-day Saints properly construe and respond to the assertion?
Some respond with rejection. That, however, is too simple a solution for those of us who find uncommon goodness, truth, inspiration, and individual and communal empowerment in the church. D&C 1:30 and its ramifications may often be poorly grasped and misapplied, but it is lodged there in scripture and this key passage means something. The idea was intrinsic, not incidental, to the formation of the church in the 1830s.
In contemporary times, President Dallin Oaks has warned church members against succumbing to “the powerful tide of political correctness” by retreating from the pronouncement.((“The Only True and Living Church.” From an address delivered on June 25, 2010, at a seminar for new mission presidents. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/new-era/2011/08/the-only-true-and-living-church?lang=eng)) His point is wise. Coming to grips with the Lord’s declaration, or with any assertion of truth, ought not pivot on what President Oaks calls “the fashionable opinion of this age.”
While the sway of fashionable opinion can be a problem, the usual understanding of “only true church” vexes folks for other reasons too. These must be addressed if these devoted or potential disciples are to enjoy light and nourishment, rather than ambivalence or embarrassment, from the passage.
In what follows, I will first point to four aspects of the “only true church” claim that seem troublesome.((These and other dimension of the problem, as well as an appreciation of the necessity and distinctiveness of the church, require further unpacking. I am at work on a book-length expansion of this essay.))
- The claim of Section 1 may seem irrelevant to increasing portions of society in the 21st century, especially to the young–i.e. it’s an answer to a question they are not asking.
- The claim seems implausible to an even wider group.
- The claim seems in some respects contradictory to other scriptures.
- Perhaps most foundationally, the claim’s meaning is less self-evident than may first appear.
After sketching these difficulties, I will reconsider possibilities for how the faithful might fruitfully think about “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth with which I the Lord am well pleased.”
Is the claim relevant to people today?
Joseph Smith left several accounts of his first visionary experience. According to the official one (1838), he inquired of the Lord during a “tumult of opinions” among the Christian sects of his time and place, mentioning the Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists by name. Each were “equally zealous in endeavoring to establish their own tenets and disprove all others.” This “unusual excitement” was a local expression of a titanic energy unleashed by the First Amendment in the new American republic, then in the latter stages of disestablishing official, tax-supported churches in the various states. In the wake of this novel religious freedom and consequent vacuum of overarching authority, Joseph and legions of others were keen to learn which of the contending parties, if any, were right.
Joseph famously received his answer: He was to join none of those churches, as they were “wrong.” Their creeds were abominable, their “professors” corrupt, and they tainted pure doctrine with the philosophies of men. This portrayal did not flatter the region’s churches and their predictable response was less than amiable.
But for believers, Joseph’s visions ushered in a marvelous work and a wonder, one worth living by, defending, and proclaiming. For multitudes and for a long time, the primary issue remained which church is “true”: the one Joseph midwifed into the world–or some rival. Many a mission was launched among the Saints to energize this contest. Many a ministry formed in opposition.
This dynamic endures, but dwindles. Unlike the 1820s, young people of our era are less animated by the question, “Which church is true?” Instead they ask, “Why church?” This query–or a presumed answer to it–helps fuel the infectious mantra of a generation: “I’m spiritual, not religious.”
Strong answers could be marshaled to those who ask “Why church?”, but this must await another essay. For now, let us simply notice that we must not neglect people as they are. Our response need not adopt the numbing protocols of political correctness, but prudence suggests we should remain relevant and in service to the world in which we find ourselves, even if in part by challenging that world. It is folly relentlessly to trumpet an answer to a question fewer people are posing, without also persuasively addressing questions they are in fact asking.
Is the claim plausible?
If the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is in some sense “the only true and living church” pleasing to the Lord, the claim nonetheless seems an extreme one. After all, a considerable portion of the thousands of churches and religions in the world understand themselves to be the singular or best or most complete path to salvation or enlightenment. An authentic (that is, a patient, listening, understanding, experienced) encounter with members of organizations that make similar claims often provokes humility, further inquiry, or crisis and regret over one’s previous presumptions.
One former Latter-day Saint, Charles, typified a common response in a recent survey. In leaving his faith, Charles had discarded the idea “that we happened to be born into the only true church on the planet in history. Numbers-wise, it’s too far-fetched. What kind of God would … give the real, one truth to [only] a tiny sliver of humanity?”((Riess, Next Mormons, 218.))
It may be easier to look outside one’s own tradition to recognize how talk of the only true church plays as chauvinism. Parson Thwackum, a well-named chap in one of Henry Fielding’s novels, makes the point hard to miss. “When I mention religion,” says Thwackum,
I mean the Christian religion; and not only the Christian religion, but the Protestant religion; and not only the Protestant religion, but the Church of England. And when I mention honor, I mean that mode of Divine grace which is not only consistent with, but dependent upon, this religion; and is consistent with and dependent upon no other.((The History of Tom Jones (London: George G. Harrap & Co., 1925), p. 96.))
Parson Thwakum shows us how religious chauvinism can be not only offensive, but quaint.
Isn’t the claim contradicted by scripture?
The concept of being God’s sole church is related to an identity as the chosen people. But if chosen, why are we chosen? To what end and by what criteria? Are we chosen because of moral and spiritual superiority to everyone else? Are the pre-existent “great and noble ones” mentioned in the Book of Abraham (3:23ff) primarily the Latter-day Saints? We might tell ourselves so, but Jesus’ barbed challenge to presumption among the chosen people of his time should give us pause:
‘We have Abraham as our father,’ you tell me. But I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. (Matthew 3:9).
Nephi targeted similar elitist confidence in a different setting:
Know ye not that there are more nations than one? Know ye not that I, the Lord your God, have created all men, and that I remember those who are upon the isles of the sea; and that I rule in the heavens above and in the earth beneath; and I bring forth my word unto the children of men, yea, even upon all the nations of the earth? (2 Nephi 29:7).
Around the same time that Joseph Smith recorded the D&C Section 1 revelation, he received another revelation, directed to early leaders, wherein the Lord alluded to other “holy men that ye know not of” who were not under sin and whom the Lord had “reserved unto myself” (D&C 49:8). Let’s assume this refers to living persons. Given the smallness of the church only a year after its organization, and in light of other scriptures cited here, it is likely that the righteous persons referenced in the passage were not members of the church and were unknown to Joseph too. How might this affect our concept of the only true church?
Whatever it may properly mean in the sight of God, scripture suggests that a sense of chosenness, like prosperity, bears risks. It mutates easily and may metastasize. It was so with the apostate Zoramites, who grieved the younger Alma with their diseased piety, disclosed in their prayers:
Holy God, we believe that thou hast separated us from our brethren; and we do not believe in the tradition of our brethren, which was handed down to them by the childishness of their fathers…. We thank thee, O God, for we are a chosen people unto thee, while others shall perish (Alma 31: 16, 28).
Our commitment to Section 1 must somehow comport with the rest of scripture and the gospel.
What does the phrase “the only true and living church” even mean?
What, then, was the intent of the crucial phrase: “the only true and living church with which I the Lord am well pleased”? To assume that the assertion needs no interpretation is precarious for reasons beyond those already mentioned.
For broad context, we must first note the overall character of Joseph Smith’s written revelations. Although he felt prophetic license to speak for the Lord, as did biblical prophets, Joseph did not seem to understand himself consistently as some sort of stenographer of the Lord’s precise dictation. At least some of the time, Joseph worked to capture God’s mind, will, and voice by finding words to communicate his revelations, impressions, pondering, images, and inspired concepts.
We can infer some such process both because Joseph himself referred to it ((Doctrine and Covenants 9: 7–9.)) and because he without apology altered the language of some of his published revelations as circumstances changed and as he was granted further knowledge. Occasionally these revisions include what are portrayed as the Lord’s own words. One instance entails alterations to a March 1829 revelation published in the 1833 Book of Commandments. In Section 4, verse 2, we read the Lord saying:
…and he has a gift to translate the book, and I have commanded him that he shall pretend to no other gift, for I will grant him no other gift.
In the 1835 Doctrine & Covenants, the same revelation is amended and developed. Here the Lord says,
And you have a gift to translate the plates; and this is the first gift that I bestowed upon you; and I have commanded that you should pretend to no other gift until my purpose is fulfilled in this; for I will grant unto you no other gift until it is finished. (D&C 5:4 [1835 edition, 32:1]).
Joseph lamented the “crooked, broken” inadequacy of human language to convey his experience of the divine mind. Indeed, the issue seems explicitly reflected only six verses before “the only true church” passage in Section 1. Verse 24 declares, “I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language.”
This and much else suggests that Joseph often searched for his own words to capture his understanding of the Lord’s mind and will, and then cast these words, by prophetic mandate, as if the Lord himself were speaking (much as scribes and secretaries, following custom, cast the original History of the Church in “first-person” form, as if Joseph Smith himself had written it, when, for the most part, he did not). Various church leaders have acknowledged these traits in Joseph’s revelations.((For example, Marlin K. Jensen, “The Joseph Smith Papers: The Manuscript Revelation Books,” Ensign (July 2009), 46–51. John A. Widtsoe, edited and arranged with foreword by G. Homer Durham, Message of the Doctrine and Covenants (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1969), 4–9.))
If this mode of capturing the Lord’s voice was operative for Section 1, we may ask: what did the prophet mean when speaking for the Lord and referring to “the only true and living church” pleasing to him?
A conclusion requires care because Smith frequently borrowed terms from his culture and traditional Christianity, then infused them with fresh, expansive meanings. “Endless punishment” did not for him mean “punishment without end,” but rather “God’s punishment.” “Restoration” was not mere “retrieval of that which once historically was,” but also “repair of things broken” and “an ongoing completion of the partial.” “Soul” was more than a synonym for spirit; it consisted of both “the spirit and the body.”((Doctrine & Covenants 19:4–13; 88:15. Philip L. Barlow, “To Mend a Fractured Reality: Joseph Smith’s Project.” Journal of Mormon History, Vol. 38, No. 3 (Summer 2012), pp. 33–34.)) Joseph similarly renovated the meaning of words like translation, God, atonement, glory, light, priesthood and more.
Joseph did more than transform the meaning of key words, however. His verbal prophetic mode characteristically borrowed whole phrases from biblical and cultural sources, as bricolage, in composing his revelations. This seemed to echo his understanding of God’s way of creating: not the Greek conception of creatio ex nihilo (creating out of nothing), but the Hebrews’ barau (fashioning from pre-existing materials).
Hundreds of disparate phrases making up the Doctrine & Covenants, the Book of Mormon, and the Pearl of Great Price are appropriated from secular and religious sources and woven into the expression of the revelations, which have their own independent meaning and coherence. These became natural units in Joseph’s vocabulary as he gave written form to his revelations. Examples include “opposition in all things” (2 Nephi 2:11) and “sought to destroy the agency of man” (Moses 4:3).
It turns out that “true and living” is an example of this phenomenon. The phrase boasts a history dating back centuries, used to lend emphasis to a range of nouns: “true and living faith,” for example, or “true and living charity,” “true and living member of England,” and “true and living God.”
Sometimes users of the phrase sharpened the emphasis by adding singularity (“sole” or “one” or “only”). Joseph Smith used the phrase thus in contexts outside of D&C 1. Writing to Emma in 1832 during a trip to New York City, he consoled his wife: “[You] must comfort yourself, knowing that God is your friend in heaven and that you have one true and living friend on Earth, your Husband Joseph Smith Jr.”((Italics and punctuation added. “Letter to Emma Smith, 13 October 1832,” p. , The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed May 27, 2019, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/letter-to-emma-smith-13-october-1832/2.))
Joseph’s supportive urging to Emma seems earnest. Given that his phrasing was not uncommon in the world, however, what exactly did he mean? By referring to one true and living friend, did Joseph insinuate that Emma had no others? That her other friends were either false or dead? That her friendships apart from Joseph were perfunctory rather than active, living, organic, and evolving? Or was Joseph’s choice of words a recognizable figure of speech, professing depth of feeling–something akin to: No matter what trials you endure, know that I, at least, am your unalterably devoted friend.
Similarly, does Joseph’s phrasing of “the only true and living church” in Section 1 imply that all other churches are false or dead or both? The prophet never rescinded his claim of exclusive authority and restored truths, but in his mature years he was not so disparaging of other churches. Nor do contemporary church leaders generally speak of other faiths as dead or false, as some saints inclined to do in an earlier era. Thinking of other faiths as uniformly false or dead would insult our friends and disturb Latter-day Saints who have worshipped and worked with other flourishing, inspiring churches in service to God and God’s children.
The notion that other religions are all untrue or dead runs aground not primarily because of political correctness (even if some succumb to this), but because the notion collides with direct experience, common sense, respect, and charity. Moreover, it jars with another scriptural assertion.
The angelic guide to Nephi’s sweeping vision declared there to be “save two churches only”: “the church of the Lamb” and “the church of the devil” (1 Nephi 14). This presents a challenge and potential corrective to one common interpretation of D&C 1:30. If there are two churches only, and if we construe “the church of the Lamb” as synonymous with “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” are we to imagine all churches except our own as demonic, while we alone have flawless morals and teachings? That would seem to be as sinful as it is absurd, reeking of the Rameumptom stand.
A Modest Proposal for a Way Forward
We have considered a few difficulties with a common interpretation of “the only true and living church.” On the other hand, disciples ought not blanch before a central declaration of the church under discussion here–not by avoidance, not by passivity, not by political correctness. Working out these contraries will involve a certain tension, though we need not fear that. Adam and Eve, representing humanity, had to navigate conflicting commandments. Tension among opposing forces is what holds atoms and galaxies together. Justice and mercy are ever in creative tension.
Offering our Unique Gifts with Confidence and Humility
There is something distinctively true, delicious, vital, empowered and empowering about the Restoration brought to us through Joseph Smith. In complementary tension with that conviction, I remind myself that the oft cited but little read Book of Job is also scripture. The fate of Job’s friends, who attracted God’s displeasure, show how it is possible to miss the mark–to sin–even while attempting to champion God through our perception of His ways.
Coming to terms with the proper place of the church in the world requires engagement with Section 1, verse 30. Our understanding ought not be timid, but neither ought it caricature other people or their religions. It should be in service to Christ–hence to the world in which we live. Like the true church itself, our understanding of the passage must be living: fruitful, organic, and subject to growth.
The church exists, in the elegant formulation of Terryl Givens, “to create the kind of persons, in the kinds of relationships, that constitute the divine nature.”((Feeding the Flock (New York: Oxford Univ. Press), p. 34.)) The church is true and living in that God’s hand is in it for this specific end. The Lord has bequeathed to us a breathtaking view of his purpose in creation, a commission to proclaim and participate in that purpose, and a knowledge, authority and communal structure to enable the pursuit of that commission.
This communal structure–the church–is the custodian of a divine series of covenants. Voluntary covenants and commitments, like institutions, are rather out of vogue in our atomized culture that misunderstands freedom(s) and suffers from mass loneliness, conflict, and anxiety. Properly understood and lived into, the covenants are not drab and constricting obligations. They instead provide the template, the stimulus, and the discipline that incubate Zion.
The covenants are avenues to fortify us individually and to bind us to each other and to God with sufficient tensile strength for the task at hand and to weather the travails of existence. The task at hand, in turn, could not be more worthy. It is what 2 Peter describes as “participation in the divine nature.” This entails a transformation: an unshackling of capacity, joy, love, intelligence, and creativity in association with, and service to, others.
As sublime as that enterprise may be, we disciples are capable of making the church less true, less living, and less pleasing to the Lord. This is intrinsically so and has been since the church’s founding. Less than a year after describing himself as singularly well pleased with the fledgling true church, the Lord made it clear he was pleased no longer. Vanity as well as unbelief, he said, had “brought the whole church under condemnation,” which “resteth upon the children of Zion, even all” (D&C 84: 54–58).
We can displease God and deaden life in the church in countless ways: by judging one another, for example, or by sloth or unrighteous dominion or stirring up contention in the kingdom.
Fulfilling Paul’s Prophecy
That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; Eph 1:10
We have no basis for imagining, on grounds that we have a marvelous vision, an authorized and empowered commission, and redeeming covenants, that we therefore have cornered the market on goodness. Or that we have a monopoly on truth. Or that God has not commissioned others for their own roles in the divine plan.
This is not to say that churches are interchangeable or that we should cease from our invitation to the world and our vicarious ordinances. Yet the same prophet who brought us the first section of the Doctrine and Covenants also brought us the 13th article of our faith–a compressed expression of the expansive teachings of his later years.
Joseph taught that one of the “grand fundamental principles of Mormonism” is to seek and adopt, from Presbyterians or Muslims or any source, all that is true, virtuous, lovely, or of good report. Hence it is not merely that other churches have “partial truths” that may be supplemented by our more complete, revealed truths and ordinances, which is commonly acknowledged among the Saints. It is also true–in fact, scripturally declaimed–that we have things to learn and garner from those outside our faith. Apparently the mature Joseph Smith did not find such teachings a threat to his consistent proclamation of a unique restoration of truths, authority, and open-ended revelation.((Smith’s views of other religionists expanded “line upon line, precept on precept.” Compare his accounts of the first vision to his sermons of July 9 and 16, 1843, less than a year prior to his death, in Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1980). For an analysis and context of Smith’s “Reformation” of the movement he founded during the Nauvoo era, see Don Bradley, “The Grand Fundamental Principles of Mormonism: Joseph Smith’s Unfinished Reformation,” Sunstone, April 2006, 32-42. ))
It would be contrary to the spirit of these teachings, and we would be spiritually malnourished, not to seek out and learn from a Mother Teresa, a Dostoevski, a Dalai Lama, a Mahatma Gandhi. As my colleagues and friends have taught me, there is a wealth of spiritual light in ancient Syriac Christianity and in modern Buddhism. Who will not be lifted by studying the inspired courage of Martin Luther King as he contemplated the hate and menace his people faced in 1950s Montgomery?:
I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.
The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.
At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: “Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”((King, Jr., Martin Luther. Stride Toward Freedom (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010), pp. 124-125.))
Our own church leaders, with their own inspiration, have periodically urged our openness to the Lord’s voice wherever it appears. B.H. Roberts noted:
While the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is established for the instruction of men; and it is one of God’s instrumentalities for the making known the truth, yet he is not limited to that institution for such purposes, neither in time nor place. God raises up wise men and prophets here and there among all the children of men, of their own tongue and nationality, speaking to them through means that they can comprehend. . . . All the great teachers are servants of God; among all nations and in all ages. They are inspired men, appointed to instruct God’s children according to the conditions in the midst of which he finds them.((Defense of the Faith and the Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1907), Vol 1, pp. 512–513.))
President Hugh B. Brown similarly invited us to stretch our gospel horizons through an awakened humility:
We have been blessed with much knowledge by revelation from God which, in some part, the world lacks. But there is an incomprehensibly greater part of truth which we must yet discover. Our revealed truth should leave us stricken with the knowledge of how little we really know. It should never lead to an emotional arrogance based upon a false assumption that we somehow have all the answers—that we in fact have a corner on truth. For we do not.((An Eternal Quest–Freedom of the Mind, May 13, 1969, BYU devotional. https://brightspotcdn.byu.edu/33/b4/85f307924e4ca01512072c8c8ba5/an-eternal-quest-freedom-of-the-mind-hugh-b-brown.pdf))
Let us by all means bear witness of our life-changing faith. We have a distinctive, redemptive message and practice. These are true, alive, and pleasing when engorged with love, modesty, and invitational generosity. Their beauty is transmogrified when authority becomes authoritarian, when testifying grows imperialist. I know, for I have indulged in such mistakes.
I delight in joy and faith among the saints. We are a blessed people. But we remain a people among people–God’s people, all.
For more on this topic, read this excerpt from Patrick Mason’s book published through Faith Matters: True and Living Church: Bearer and Receiver of Gifts