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Latter-day Saint History

What Have Prophets Taught About the Law of the Gospel?

Definitions used by church leaders have shifted over time.

The law of the gospel is one of five covenants made in Latter-day Saint temples. Interestingly, definitions used by church leaders have shifted since the days of Joseph Smith. For example, David O. McKay taught that it included scripture study, and Bruce R. McConkie referred to it as the “celestial law.” In this interview, independent scholar Samuel R. Weber explains the history of the law of the gospel, culminating in a definition included in the General Handbook.


Learn more about how interpretations of the law of the gospel have evolved in Samuel Weber’s article in the Journal of Mormon History.


Table of Contents


When did Joseph Smith first use the term?

Joseph Smith’s first known use of the term “law of the gospel” came in a December 1832 revelation. Later included in the Doctrine and Covenants as Section 88, the revelation instructed Latter-day Saints to:

teach one another the doctrines of the kingdom teach ye diligently [sic] & my grace shall attend you that ye may be instructed more perfectly in theory in principle in doctrine in the law of the gospel.

D&C 88:77–781

In this revelation and elsewhere, Smith gave no definition for the law of the gospel. The absence of a clear definition set the stage for this law to be variously interpreted by church leaders throughout Latter-day Saint history, often in response to social, political, and internal stressors.

The definition began to fade.

The lack of clarity regarding this law’s meaning is what first attracted me to write about it. I recall as a first time temple attendee in the early 2000s wanting to understand what was meant by the term “law of the gospel.” I asked family, friends, my stake president, and my temple president what it meant.

I received a variety of answers. One was that the law of the gospel simply meant to “keep the commandments.” Most of the time the answer I received was simply, “I don’t know.” When Elder David A. Bednar spoke openly about the law of the gospel and other temple covenants in the April 2019 General Conference, this seemed to provide a window of opportunity to explore this covenant more openly.2

This spurred me to study the history of the law of the gospel and how it has been variously used throughout church history.


How often did Joseph Smith use the term afterward?

After the aforementioned 1832 revelation, Joseph Smith rarely used the phrase “law of the gospel.” In April 1834 he dictated a revelation which stated:

Therefore if any man shall take of the abundance which I have made, & impart not his portion according to the law of my gospel unto the poor & the needy, he shall with Dives lift up his eyes in hell, being in torment.”3 (Dives is a Latin word for rich man.)

This was later interpreted as equating the law of the gospel with charitable donations.

In 1844, Smith referenced the law of the gospel when describing conditions that must be met in order for baptisms for the dead to become effective:

Every man that has been baptized and belongs to the Kingdom, has a right to be baptized for those who are gone before, and, as soon as the Law of the Gospel is obeyed here by their friends, who act as proxy for them, the Lord has administrators there to set them free.4

Joseph Smith

Here the law of the gospel was used as a general placeholder for obedience to God’s commandments, a theme that recurred after the church migrated to Utah.


Was the Law of the Gospel part of the 1842 temple endowment?

Although faithful Saints recorded some details about their early endowment experiences in journals and some disenchanted members published exposes of temple rites, there is no complete, written script from those earliest endowment ceremonies.

The endowment was initially transmitted only orally (Heber C. Kimball once noted that the ceremony was “not to be riten” [sic]).5

Without a written script, we can’t know for certain if the law of the gospel was included when Joseph Smith introduced the Nauvoo endowment in 1842. However, given its inclusion in the contemporary endowment ritual, it seems reasonable to assume it was.

Learn more about how temples and covenants such as the Law of the Gospel have changed over time.

How did Brigham Young define the Law of the Gospel?

After Joseph Smith’s death, Brigham Young (and other church leaders) defined the law of the gospel as Jesus Christ’s higher law that replaced the law of Moses with the command to love one another.

This understanding appears to have been inherited from other Christian denominations that used “law of the gospel” in a similar way.

This is summarized nicely in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which states:

The Law of the Gospel ‘fulfills,’ refines, surpasses, and leads the Old Law to its perfection… The entire Law of the Gospel is contained in the ‘new commandment’ of Jesus, to love one another as he has loved us.6

Catechism of the Catholic Church

The earliest Latter-day Saints were generally converts from other Christian traditions, and they brought with them this understanding of the law of the gospel inherited from their former faith traditions.

As time passed, the church distinguished itself from other Christian denominations, physically removed itself from contact with many denominations with the migration to Utah, and younger generations were born that did not inherit this understanding.

Thus, the definition began to fade—or at least became more flexible. The fact that over time Latter-day Saints seemed to become more reticent to talk about the endowment further contributed to a situation in which this original understanding lost strength over time.


Did early church leaders believe ancient Israel had the law?

Since the law of the gospel was interpreted to mean Christ’s law of love that replaced the law of Moses, it would be natural to think of it as an invention of Jesus during the New Testament era. However, some Latter-day Saint leaders asserted that pre-New Testament Israelites were in possession of this law dating all the way back to Adam and Eve.

These leaders stated that the Israelites eventually rejected this higher law and were given the “lesser” law of Moses as a replacement in consequence of this rejection.

When Jesus taught the law of the gospel He was therefore not creating something new, but restoring lost truths. This concept fit nicely with the Latter-day Saint view of historical patterns of apostasy and restoration.


What role did obedience play in 20th century definitions?

When Latter-day Saints migrated west and settled into a new home beyond the borders of the United States, leaders urged their flock to continually recommit themselves to the behavioral standards of the church. Such exhortations to obedience reached their zenith during the Mormon Reformation of 1856-1857, as church authorities admonished members to repent and be rebaptized as a sign of commitment.

Obedience became paramount during the early Utah period, as the church first sought to build commitment to plural marriage as a holy necessity, then later required its members to accept the divine undoing of that marital mandate.

During these often-turbulent years, the law of the gospel was frequently used as a rhetorical device to encourage obedience.

As an example, apostle Wilford Woodruff stated in 1868: “In order that [men] may be benefitted by [Jesus’] death… they must abide [i.e. obey] the law of the Gospel.”7

Obedience continued to be emphasized within the church into the twentieth century, but how heavily certain commandments were promoted shifted over time. Adherence to the Word of Wisdom was strongly encouraged for temple attendees beginning in 1902, and was stressed by church leaders (most notably Heber J. Grant) in the following years.

During this period of focus on the Word of Wisdom, Elder Francis M. Lyman connected the prohibition of alcohol with the law of the gospel in his April 1908 General Conference address: “We have been living under prohibition… under the law of the Gospel.”8

Over time, the scope of the law of the gospel expanded in the minds of some to include all laws and commandments. Thus, William R. Bradford said in the October 1977 General Conference:

There is another law of which I will speak. It is a greater and more encompassing law than gravity. In fact, the law of gravity is only one among a totality of laws encompassed within it. It is the law of the gospel of Jesus Christ.9

William R. Bradford

After the 1980s, statements equating the law of the gospel with obedience to commandments cannot be found in general authorities’ published discourses. This may be due to a growing discomfort with using a term publicly which by that time was primarily associated with the secretive endowment ceremony.


How was it defined during periods of political pressure?

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints faced intense political pressure from the United States government due to its practice of polygamy. The Utah War of 1857-1858, the 1862 Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act, the 1882 Edmunds Act, the 1887 Edmunds-Tucker Act, and the Smoot hearings of 1904 all left Latter-day Saints eager to be rid of government interference.

Between the 1870s and 1920—years of significant strain between church and state—church leaders used the law of the gospel rhetorically to refer to religious governance as opposed to secular political rule.

For example, John Taylor (in hiding to avoid federal prosecution for his practice of polygamy) said in 1884:

Here as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we profess to be governed by a law that is different from others… It is the law of the Gospel.10

John Taylor

After Utah obtained statehood in 1896, the transition to pro-American sentiment was not immediate, leading to some persistence of this definition into the early 1900s.

Eventually the anti-polygamy crusade subsided and Latter-day Saints assimilated into broader American culture, replacing their former distrust of American government with fervent patriotism.


What did James E. Talmage say about the Law of the Gospel?

In 1911, a disgruntled Latter-day Saint named Gisbert Bossard illicitly photographed the interior of the Sale Lake City temple. He conspired with others to blackmail the church or receive payment from non-Mormons curious about the temple interior seen previously only by the faithful.

Rather than acquiesce to any financial demands of Bossard and his associates, church leadership responded by commissioning James E. Talmage to write a book about Latter-day Saint temple worship. The book House of the Lord, first published in 1912, included photographs of the temple interior provided by the church to preempt Bossard and company’s threats.

In addition to the photographs, Talmage’s accompanying text provided broad outlines of the endowment ceremony written for a non-Latter-day Saint audience. Although he did not name specific covenants, Talmage summarized the endowment as follows:

The ordinances of the endowment embody certain obligations on the part of the individual, such as covenant and promise to observe the law of strict virtue and chastity, to be charitable, benevolent, tolerant, and pure; to devote both talent and material means to the spread of truth and the uplifting of the race; to maintain devotion to the cause of truth; and to seek in every way to contribute to the great preparation that the earth may be made ready to receive her King,–the Lord Jesus Christ.11

Although Talmage was vague in his summary, it appears he was comprehensive in listing the endowment covenants. He mentioned the following covenants:

  1. The law of obedience: “To maintain devotion to the cause of truth.”
  2. The law of sacrifice: “To devote both talent and material means to the spread of truth and the uplifting of the race.”
  3. The law of chastity: “The law of strict virtue and chastity.”
  4. The law of consecration: “To seek in every way to contribute to the great preparation that the earth may be made ready to receive her King.”

This leaves “to be charitable, benevolent, tolerant and pure” as Talmage’s interpretation for the law of the gospel. Few others followed Talmage’s interpretation of the law of the gospel as an injunction to lead lives of purity.


Have any definitions included charitable offerings as part of the law?

First introduced in 1936 in response to national welfare programs implemented in the wake of the Great Depression, the Church Security Plan (renamed Church Welfare Plan in 1938) rapidly developed over the succeeding decade-and-a-half as a means to provide temporal assistance to church members worldwide.

After the introduction of the Church Welfare Plan, church leaders frequently defined the law of the gospel as a command to offer assistance to the poor. They made reference to Joseph Smith’s 1834 revelation quoted above (by then canonized in Doctrine and Covenants section 104), to “impart [of] his portion according to the law of my gospel unto the poor & the needy.”

Several general authorities, including Milton R. Hunter, Marion G. Romney, and Russell M. Nelson, stated that the law of the gospel required payments of tithing, fast offerings, and welfare contributions.

Just as church leaders had used the law of the gospel to distinguish between civil and religious law during times of political turmoil, they subsequently used it to promote a church welfare plan which rivaled government welfare programs.

Some leaders indicated that the Church Welfare Program was more inspired than the secular equivalent, making this law of the gospel a “higher law” to promote temporal well-being.12


Did David O. McKay suggest it included scripture study?

David O. McKay was “disappointed” by his first endowment experience as a young man, and as a general authority he wanted to improve preparatory instruction for first-time temple attendees.13 In an effort to prepare departing missionaries for their endowment, he gave a speech in 1941 that explicitly reviewed the covenants associated with the ritual.

Regarding the law of the gospel, he said: “In the presentation of the Law of the Gospel, ‘the power of God unto salvation,’ you will be told where to find these laws specifically, which you are expected to obey—in the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price.”

McKay went on to state that “you are to study [the scriptures],” followed by, “today you covenant that that is what you are going to do,” indicating that he interpreted the law of the gospel to include a commitment to scripture study.14

McKay’s interpretation of the law of the gospel as an injunction to study the scriptures was echoed by few other church leaders. However, the temple preparation courses which he laid the groundwork for have had a lasting impact on church membership.


What did Elder McConkie teach about the Law of the Gospel?

Bruce R. McConkie was a prominent church authority whose writings acted as a bulwark against encroaching threats to religious belief from science and academia. He emphasized orthodoxy to distinctive Latter-day Saint tenets, including the tripartite heaven consisting of telestial, terrestrial, and celestial kingdoms.

The Latter-day Saint vision of a three-tiered heaven implied a law for each kingdom. Joseph Smith taught this in an 1832 revelation: “he who is not able to abide the law of a celestial kingdom, cannot abide a celestial glory; and he who cannot abide the law of a terrestrial kingdom, cannot abide a terrestrial glory: he who can not abide the law of a telestial kingdom, cannot abide a telestial glory.”15

McConkie repeatedly asserted that the law of the gospel is the “celestial law,” or the standard required for exaltation in the highest degree of heaven. He used this definition in General Conference and in popular works such as Mormon Doctrine and The Millennial Messiah.

McConkie’s works were so popular that they were regularly cited in church curriculum and “took on almost a scriptural stature” according to Latter-day Saint sociologist Armaund Mauss.16 His views on Latter-day Saint orthodoxy and celestial standards shaped generations of church members, giving his version of the law of the gospel disproportionate impact.


Are there any other key interpretations?

Joseph Smith’s Articles of Faith defined the “first principles and ordinances of the gospel” as “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.”

The Book of Mormon provides a similar definition for the term “gospel” during Jesus’ visit to the Nephites in 3 Nephi 27:20-21:

Now this is the commandment: Repent, all ye ends of the earth, and come unto me and be baptized in my name, that ye may be sanctified by the reception of the Holy Ghost, that ye may stand spotless before me at the last day. Verily, verily, I say unto you, this is my gospel.

Although these passages reference the “gospel” and not the “law of the gospel,” many Latter-day Saints have interpreted the law of the gospel to mean the grouping of faith, repentance, baptism, and the gift of the Holy Ghost.

While a few church leaders and an Ensign article used the law of the gospel in this way, this definition is particularly noticeable among lay members writing online via blogs or webzines. Equating the law of the gospel to the first principles and ordinances of the gospel has primarily been an artifact of the late twentieth century and onward. It may be that President Ezra Taft Benson’s emphasis on the Book of Mormon in the late 1980s led some church members to interpret the law of the gospel through the lens of the previously quoted passage from 3 Nephi.


How is it defined in the 2020 handbook?

The church’s General Handbook was updated in December 2020 to include a section on the endowment ritual. In an outline of the covenants of the endowment, it stated that recipients promise to “Obey the law of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which is the higher law that He taught while He was on the earth.”17

This definition brought the term back to its earliest usage by Brigham Young, his contemporaries, and other Christians of the early 1800s and provided context for modern temple attendees which those earlier participants may have taken for granted.


What’s special about its inclusion in the 2020 handbook?

This is the first time that details regarding the endowment ritual were included in a church handbook. The previous Handbook 1 from 2010 made no mention of endowment covenants or the law of the gospel.

This inclusion in the General Handbook is also significant in that it provides an authoritative definition for the law of the gospel that may close off future applications of the term. Since the law of the gospel had no formally documented interpretation until 2020, it was applied in novel ways throughout the history of the church, as we have discussed in this interview. With a church-endorsed definition now written in a widely publicized handbook, additional experimentation in defining the law of the gospel in the future seems unlikely.


Have there been any relevant changes to the General Handbook since 2020?

Yes! When I wrote the article for the Journal of Mormon History about the law of the gospel, the handbook definition was as noted above. However, in August 2023 the Church released an updated version of the General Handbook. Among other changes, the section outlining covenants associated with the endowment was modified. Regarding the law of the gospel, the handbook now states:

Obey the law of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which means:

  • Exercising faith in Jesus Christ.
  • Repenting daily.
  • Making covenants with God by receiving the ordinances of salvation and exaltation.
  • Enduring to the end by keeping covenants.
  • Striving to live the two great commandments. These are to “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind” and to “love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matthew 22:37, 39).

This is now the longest definition of any of the endowment covenants in the handbook. It reflects the content of the endowment ceremony as updated in 2023.

The final bullet point echoes the previous handbook definition of the “higher law that [Jesus] taught while He was on the earth.” The additional bullet points incorporate material from other aforementioned historical definitions. The first three bullet points are a rewording of the first principles and ordinances of the gospel. The fourth point mirrors earlier usage of the law of the gospel to encourage obedience.

With the General Handbook now a digital text, the Church is able to make adjustments to its content with greater speed and frequency compared to previous Church handbooks available only in print. Although it is difficult to guess whether future adjustments to the law of the gospel will be made in Church manuals, it is worth noting that the current wording combines the content of several historical definitions for this law, thereby reinforcing the statements of past church leaders on this topic as relevant to those seeking to understand and follow this temple covenant.


Are there any other official church sources about it?

The official website of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints includes a section on temples. This site now contains references and quotes about the law of the gospel.

See the following:


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Further reading

Law of the Gospel resources

Sources

  1. Revelation, 27–28 December 1832 [D&C 88:76-80], “Revelation Book 1,” p. 162, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed February 19, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-book-1/150
  2. David A. Bednar, “Prepared to Obtain Every Needful Thing,” April 2019, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2019/04/54bednar?lang=eng.
  3. “Revelation, 23 April 1834 [D&C 104],” p. [23], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed February 8, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-23-april-1834-dc-104/5
  4. Joseph Smith, The Essential Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1995), 248.
  5. Heber C. Kimball to Parley P. Pratt, June 17, 1842, Church History Library, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah. Quoted in Kathleen Flake, “‘Not to be Riten’: The Mormon Temple Rite as Oral Canon,” in The Ancient Order of Things: Essays on the Mormon Temple, edited by Christian Larsen (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2019), 23.
  6. “The Moral Law,” in Catechism of the Catholic Church, http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/p3s1c3a1.htm.
  7. Wilford Woodruff, July 19, 1868, Journal of Discourses 12:279.
  8. Conference Report, April 1908, 18.
  9. William R. Bradford, “The Safety of the Gospel Law,” October 1977, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/1977/10/the-safety-of-the-gospel-law?lang=eng.
  10. John Taylor, February 20, 1884, Journal of Discourses 26:356-7.
  11. James E. Talmage, The House of the Lord (1912; rpt., Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1998), 55.
  12. Marion G. Romney, “Church Welfare Services’ Basic Principles,” April 1976, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/1976/04/church-welfare-services-basic-principles?lang=eng.
  13. David O. McKay, address delivered at the dedicatory services of the additions to the Arizona Temple, Mesa, Arizona, December 30, 1956, quoted in Gregory A. Prince and Wm. Robert Wright, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press, 2005), 277.
  14. David O. McKay, speech to departing missionaries, Sept. 25, 1941, quoted in Devery S. Anderson, The Development of LDS Temple Worship, 1846-2000: A Documentary History (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2011), 267.
  15. “History, 1838–1856, volume A-1 [23 December 1805–30 August 1834][b],” p. 246[b], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed April 7, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-1838-1856-volume-a-1-23-december-1805-30-august-1834/253.
  16. Peggy Fletcher Stack, “Landmark ‘Mormon Doctrine’ Goes Out of Print,” Salt Lake Tribune, May 21, 2010, https://archive.sltrib.com/story.php?ref=/ci_15137409.
  17. General Handbook: Serving in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2020), 230.

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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