Sacrificing the Lectures on Faith

By James P. Harris

IN EARLY 1921, Elder James E. Talmage lED A committee, that included Elders Joseph Fielding Smith and John A. Widtsoe, tasked with overseeing changes to the Doctrine and Covenants. It was this committee that ultimately recommended the removal of the “Lectures on Faith,” which had been bound at the front of D&C since 1835 and had been the materials that were considered the “doctrine” part of “Doctrine and Covenants.” In a 1940 interview by John W. Fitzgerald for his BYU master’s thesis, Elder Smith gave four reasons for the Lectures’ removal:


• They were not received as revelations by the Prophet Joseph Smith.

• They are instructions relative to the general subject of faith. They are explanations of this principle but are not doctrine.

• They are not complete as to their teachings regarding the Godhead. . . .

• It was thought by . . . members of the committee . . . that to avoid confusion and contention on this vital point of belief, it would be better not to have them bound in the same volume as the commandments or revelations which make up The Doctrine and Covenants.

The following story, which unfolded from April 1920 and was still ongoing during the committee’s work, suggests an additional factor that might have influenced this decision.

On 17 April 1920, Elder Talmage took a train to Eureka, Utah, with the intent of investigating alleged activities by a group of “separatists.” The next day, he wrote in his journal:


I had occasion to investigate the alleged organization of a body of people who are said to have claimed that the time had arrived for the establishment of the United Order and that they were the ones to start the movement. I found that the rumors and reports that have reached the First Presidency concerning this matter have been greatly exaggerated. The so-called “movement” is confined to the people belonging to the West Tintic branch, not more than forty families in all, under the supervision of Brother Moses Gudmundsen as presiding Elder. It appears that before the organization of the branch Brother Gudmundsen and a few relatives, together with some other interested people took up a tract of land and tried to establish a system of cooperative farming. Their motives appear to have been good; but others have come in who claim to have received divine manifestations that this marked the beginning of the re-establishment of the United Order and that they were commanded to enter it.  Since the organization of the branch, Church rules have been observed so far as I could learn.


Less than two months later, Talmage returned to West Tintic and, along with stake president E. Franklin Birch, interviewed some brethren involved in the movement. Following the interviews, Talmage’s attitude toward the group had reversed: “I am convinced that the evil one is acting upon the minds of certain men and women in this locality, thereby seeking to undermine their faith and confidence in the leadership of the Church.” That July, Talmage returned once again and visited the colony settlement where he found


The rumors afloat, representing this undertaking as the initial step in the establishment of the United Order, appear to have this foundation of fact—that the members claim to be preparing themselves for the United Order, and, in consequence, they live a semi-community life. . . . With-out doubt there are fanatics among them; but in general the people are good at heart, though I believe they have undertaken more than they can carry through.


At this time, Talmage and Elder Charles H. Hart of the First Council of the Seventy decided it would be best to release Moses Gudmundsen as branch president. Talmage said that Gudmundsen, after hearing that this was what they had determined, “very promptly requested his release, which was granted.”

Talmage recorded no more about the West Tintic Branch until 10 February 1921 when he had various consultations regarding “the evil conditions prevailing in the West Tintic branch.” On 20 February, he returned to West Tintic with Elder Rudger Clawson, then acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve, where they were invited to take part in a high council proceeding in which “complaints of wicked and dangerous teachings and practices” by Gudmundsen and others were heard. Talmage writes:


The testimony adduced proved conclusively that these men and other residents of the West Tintic branch had been so far misled as to disregard the sanctity of the marriage obligation, as administered in the Temples, and had adopted a system of “wife-sacrifice,” whereby men were required to give up their wives to other men, and this under a diabolical misinterpretation of Scripture as to the law of sacrifice requiring one to give up all he has, even wife and children.


The trial continued the next day ending with twelve men being excommunicated or disfellowshipped. Additionally, “By further action taken on unanimous vote of the High Council the branch hitherto known as the West Tintic branch of the Tintic Stake of Zion was disorganized. Thus all semblance of Church supervision in the affairs of that unfortunate little group of people has been taken away.”

Reflecting on the trial in his journal, Talmage concludes:


The best I can say of the people is that they have become fanatical through the power of evil. They have made sacrifice their hobby. The eating of meat, the taking of animal life even to provide food, and many other practices common with other people have been forbidden there; while long fasts and particularly the sacrificing of comforts and wholesome desires have been held up as ideals. Now they have reached the abominable status of men sacrificing their wives to other men; and by this means they have put themselves under the laws of Church discipline and have made themselves subject to the punishment provided for by the law of the land. The present state is one of abominable immorality. Some of the women, notably the wife of Moses Gudmundsen  . . . withdrew promptly from the colony rather than countenance in any degree these ungodly practices. I believe that the judgment of the High Council in these cases is just; and that others than those already tried are involved.


To my knowledge, the only academic exploration into the West Tintic affair was made by Carlton Culmsee, resulting in his article, “A Modern Moses at West Tintic” published in 1967 by Utah State University Press. Culmsee reviewed the newspaper literature and was able to interview some of those involved in the movement. He writes that “Gudmundsen could argue for hours proving from the Doctrine and Covenants of the Church that revelation was the foundation of religion.” As a result of this emphasis “they felt that they had progressed far beyond the LDS Church and authoritative interpretation of sacred literature.”


Sacrifice became a keynote. Gudmundsen admonished them that they must sacrifice everything—home, family, all. Day in, day out he stressed that they must ‘lay everything on the altar.’ Until they were ready to do this they were not in a condition to receive the promptings of the Spirit. He built much upon the discussion of sacrifice in the Sixth Lecture [on Faith] of the Doctrine and Covenants. Love your fellowmen and sacrifice all.


Culmsee is referencing lecture six, paragraph seven, the origins of an oft-cited passage that reads in part:


Let us here observe that a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation. For from the first existence of man, the faith necessary unto the enjoyment of life and salvation never could be obtained without the sacrifice of all earthly things. It is through this sacrifice, and this only, that God has ordained that men should enjoy eternal life.


Did Talmage’s year-long awareness of these extreme forms of misguided devotion to sections of the Lectures on Faith taking place in West Tintic contribute to his committee’s recommendation that they be removed them from the D&C? It is difficult to draw a direct correlation, but I find it likely. In a 1975 BYU Studies article titled “What of the Lectures on Faith?” Leland H. Gentry suggests something that matches the spirit of this possibility:


Some have wondered why the Lectures on Faith were removed from the Doctrine and Covenants. The answer is not difficult to find. Their inclusion in the Book of Doctrine and Covenants had gained for the lectures a position of honor not likely intended by those who first placed them there. They were study helps, not revelations. When it became apparent that some in the Church were according these doctrinal aids dignity equal to, and sometimes surpassing, that of the revelations themselves, the lectures were removed.