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Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Lesson 9: "The Only True and Living Church"

Introduction:

Close behind the organization of the Church in the meridian of time came the apostasy, accompanied by a diversification of beliefs that would lead ultimately to thousands of different Christian denominations. Every doctrinal disagreement seemed to be a cause for reorganization: perhaps the only cause. In any religious organization where doctrine does not matter, or where there is unity of opinion about the doctrine, splinter groups are not likely to break off from the main body. But thousands had broken off and now, on the 6th of April of 1830, the time had finally come for the Lord to put things right and to restore “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth . . .” (D&C 1:30).

The following article may give you an increased appreciation for what has happened during the past centuries.

Lifetime of Religious-Sect Study Produces Invaluable Guide

By RICHARD N. OSTLING AP Religion Writer on Saturday, February 08

The Daily Herald, Saturday, February 8, 2003, pp. C-1, C-2

Americans are proud of their freedom of religion, and the work of J. Gordon Melton shows they have a whole lot of religions to choose from.

The Roman Catholic Church may be huge but it's only one among 116 Catholic denominations. Orthodox Christians have an even higher total, and Protestantism is notoriously splintered; its Pentecostal segment alone counts groups by the hundreds.

There's a denomination for practically everyone.

If the Episcopal Church won't do, worshippers can move leftward into the Metaphysical Episcopal Church or Free Episcopal Church, or rightward into dozens of breakaways like the Anglican Mission in America.

Does Unitarianism seem too conventional? The denomination offers a subgroup of Unitarian Universalist Pagans.

Moving further from the mainstream, there's always the Church of God Anonymous, the Nudist Christian Church of the Blessed Virgin Jesus or the Only Fair Religion.

All are among 2,630 U.S. and Canadian faith groups described in the new edition of the indispensable "Encyclopedia of American Religion." Melton, a one-time United Methodist pastor, treats each entry with nonpartisan objectivity and—when necessary—a straight face.

The total includes ecumenical organizations, loosely-knit movements and defunct faiths. But most are still-existing denominations with distinct flocks (Melton prefers to call them "primary religious groups").

Melton's task includes placing religions into 26 "families"—and then breaking those down into subcategories. For instance, his "Psychic New Age" family includes Sun Myung Moon's Unification movement, Jim Jones' suicidal People's Temple and the Church of Scientology.

Among religions difficult to classify are the eight that practice drug use, 22 that believe in UFOs —including the Raelians at the center of the recent human cloning claims—and 12 mail-order religions that dispense instant clergy credentials or divinity degrees.

Melton's curiosity originated during his Alabama boyhood when he attended a family reunion at a rural church. His mother warned, "Whatever you do, don't talk about religion" because some relatives were touchy Pentecostalists and Jehovah's Witnesses. By late high school, he had given up stamp collecting for sect collecting.

In the 44 years since he has obsessively compiled data on more creeds than anyone knew existed.

He has deposited his trove of 70,000 books and 40 filing cabinets of materials at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he teaches part time. The campus is two blocks from his Institute for the Study of American Religion.

Melton, 60, is especially adept at tracking obscure, smaller groups. He's an expert on occultism and takes pride in discovering religions that practice rigorous secrecy, such as the Kennedy Worshippers, who have made the late U.S. president into a divinity, and the Two-by-Two's, a network of nomadic evangelists.

Other Melton mentions:

* All-One-God-Faith Inc. (based in Escondido, Calif.) is simply a soap company that spreads its eclectic doctrines through the labels of its products.

* The Church of the New Song (Bluffs, Ill.) recruits prison inmates and once claimed porterhouse steaks and Harvey's Bristol Cream to be its communion elements.

* The Embassy of Heaven (Strayton, Ore.) considers all earthly governments illegitimate and takes the logical step of issuing its own auto license plates.

* The Worldwide Church of God (Pasadena, Calif.) did something no other new religion ever has, rapidly reverting to standard Christian theology after the death of idiosyncratic founder Herbert W. Armstrong, known for his "World Tomorrow" broadcasts and Plain Truth magazine.

Two points emerge to Melton from all his counting, tracking and compiling.

The United States is the most religiously diverse nation in the world—especially since immigration laws loosened in 1965—though Europe as a whole is comparable. Christianity is the biggest single element: 70 percent of Americans belong to "some brand of Christian church."

What's more distinct, Melton says, is that America "is certainly the most religious country that has ever existed, in terms of voluntarily taking part in religion. There's no country to equal us, to date." The turning point was World War II when "the majority of the public became church members for the first time."

He thinks diversity contributes to that.

"The Christian groups know they have to compete. It keeps them alive, growing and adapting, not resting on their laurels as groups in the majority tend to do," he says.

The latest encyclopedia, its seventh edition, has some 250 groups that are newly listed since the 1999 version.

As soon as the manuscript went to the printer, Melton set aside a manila folder for discoveries to add next time. So far, he has found 10 new faiths, three of which believe in vampires.

1. The Church is organized in the latter days.

When Moroni appeared to Joseph Smith, he quoted numerous passages from the Old and the New Testaments, all of them related to the restoration of the Gospel in the last days. Joseph wrote:

"After telling me these things [relating to the coming forth of the Book of Mormon], he commenced quoting the prophecies of the Old Testament. He first quoted part of the third chapter of Malachi; and he quoted also the fourth or last chapter of the same prophecy, though with a little variation from the way it reads in our Bibles. . . .
"And again, he quoted the fifth verse . . .
"He also quoted the next verse differently. . . .
"In addition to these, he quoted the eleventh chapter of Isaiah, saying that it was about to be fulfilled. He quoted also the third chapter of Acts, twenty second and twenty third verses, precisely as they stand in our New Testament. He said that that prophet was Christ; but the day had not yet come when 'they who would not hear his voice should be cut off from among the people,' but soon would come.
"He also quoted the second chapter of Joel, from the twenty eighth verse to the last. He also said that this was not yet fulfilled, but was soon to be. And he further stated that the fulness of the Gentiles was soon to come in. He quoted many other passages of scripture, and offered many explanations which cannot be mentioned here" (JSH 1:36-41).

It was on April 6, 1830 that this momentous event took place—an event hardly noticed on this planet but no doubt celebrated in the most remote corners of the Celestial regions. Six men formally and legally organized the church according to the laws of the state of New York and according to the will of God.

Consider the years of preparation for this event, and particularly the significance of the Book of Mormon in preparing the Prophet and other believers for the restoration.

With the exception of the First Vision in 1820 and the restoration of the Priesthoods in 1829, almost every major event of the 1820's pertaining to the Restoration is related to the translation and publication of the Book of Mormon. The book came from the press about the last week of March of 1830, and the following week, on the day specified by the Lord, Joseph proceeded with the organization.

2. The Lord commands Church members to follow the prophet.

Records indicate that more than 50 people met at the Whitmer home in Fayette, New York on that early Spring day to establish what was first called The Church of Christ. The name of the Church that we use now was given by revelation in 1838 (see D&C 115:4).

At this organizational meeting, Joseph and Oliver were sustained as the presiding officers of the Church. The Lord then gave a revelation to the people there assembled in which he clarified the relationship of the Church to the Prophet. The Lord gave the following instruction to the saints in Fayette and in all the world,

"Wherefore, meaning the church, thou shalt give heed unto all his words and commandments which he shall give unto you as he receiveth them, walking in all holiness before me;

"For his word ye shall receive, as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith" (D&C 21:4,5).

These verses are worth careful attention, for the Lord defines some principles in a clearer way than perhaps at any other time in our history.

We are to give heed to “all his words and commandments.” There is no wiggle room here for those who want to distinguish between the commandments of the Lord and the words of the living prophet. We are to give heed to all of both of them. In addition, we are to do so with “all patience and faith.” How many hundreds of times in our history has the Prophet called upon members to do things that require both patience and faith. Married men including fathers with sick families were called on extended missions. Families were directed (forced!) to leave homes and belongings behind again and again. Men and women with newly constructed homes in the Salt Lake area were called to go to remote corners of Zion to colonize new communities (my great grandfather, Andrew Smith Gibbons, planted nine orchards before he ate a piece of fruit). The list is extensive. And those faith-requiring callings were not always dramatic nor earth-shaking. Sometimes they seemed to be tiny things.

"Year by year, [Levi M. Savage] did all that duty required. He entered polygamy and reared a large family. In his old age he wanted a little rest. He would not ask to be relieved. The following item is from a letter dated March 29, 1918, sent by the president of the church to the president of the Snowflake Stake.
"We have just received a letter dated 27th instant from Parley Savage, son of Levi M. Savage of Woodruff Arizona, stating in effect that his father who is now near 70 years old, is obliged to work for his living, that he is doing day’s work on the Woodruff Dam, walking six miles to and from the place of his work; that he has been eager for years to leave Woodruff, that he thought that after 40 years on the Little Colorado, shoveling sand a great part of that time into the river only to see it washed away, was sufficient to bring him release, but he is willing to stay provided we think it best for him to do so.
“The president of all the Mormons sent the assurance that Bishop Savage should consider himself free to make his home elsewhere. However, according to his own journal, Savage changed his mind and remained some time longer, until a new dam was built to get the water into the valley again, after which he felt relieved of a duty imposed by priesthood authority in 1871 [47 years before]” (Dallin H. Oaks, “The Secular Purpose of Genealogical Work,” Ensign, Oct. 1972, 24).

Patience and faith indeed! The words (“patience and faith”) of D&C 21 seem to warn us that we must not base our obedience on understanding but on conversion. If the Spirit has testified to us that we are led by Living Prophets, then we ought to be up and doing when they point out the way. Our response ought to be like that of Adam who was commanded without any explanation to offer the firstlings of his flock as a sacrifice unto the Lord. After many days of obedience, an angel appeared and asked him what he was doing. “I know not,” he replied, “save the Lord commanded me” (Moses 5:5, 6).

There are three promises in D&C 21 for those who obey in this matter. The Lord promised,

"For by doing these things (1) the gates of hell shall not prevail against you; yea, and (2) the Lord God will disperse the powers of darkness from before you, and (3) cause the heavens to shake for your good, and his name's glory" (D&C 21:6).

This section suggests a way to increase our desire to believe his words. Reflect on these words from D&C 21:9:

"For, behold, I will bless all those who labor in my vineyard with a mighty blessing, and they shall believe on his words, which are given him through me by the Comforter, which manifesteth that Jesus was crucified by sinful men for the sins of the world, yea, for the remission of sins unto the contrite heart."

The suggestion of this verse is that those who labor in the vineyard will believe in the words of the prophets, and that such a belief is a “mighty blessing.”

We must learn the will of our Father in Heaven by earnest study. Next, we must act upon it. Study alone is not sufficient; we must act upon the words of revelation before we know of a surety of the truthfulness of the doctrines. On the day the Church was organized in 1830, the Lord gave a wonderful promise to those who labor in the vineyard:

"For, behold, I will bless all those who labor in my vineyard with a mighty blessing, and they shall [page 65] believe on his [Joseph Smith’s] words, which are given him through me by the Comforter, which manifesteth that Jesus was crucified by sinful men for the sins of the world, yea, for the remission of sins unto the contrite heart.
"If we will follow, with diligence, the counsel and instruction that is the united voice of these Brethren, we will know of the doctrine, whether it be of God or whether they speak of themselves (L. Aldin Porter, “The Revelations of Heaven,” Ensign, Nov. 1994, 64-65).

Speaking on this same verse, a latter-day apostle observed:

There is one more verse we should note particularly; we can take it as a test to measure personal discipleship: “For, behold, I will bless all those who labor in my vineyard with a mighty blessing” (this applies to all of us) “and they shall believe on his words [those of Joseph Smith], which are given him through me by the Comforter, which manifesteth that Jesus was crucified by sinful men for the sins of the word, yea, for the remission of sins unto the contrite heart” (D&C 21:9). "The test of discipleship is how totally and completely and fully we believe the word that was revealed through Joseph Smith, and how effectively we echo or proclaim that word to the world" (Bruce R. McConkie, “This Generation Shall Have My Word through You,” Ensign, June 1980, 56).

3. The Lord encourages Church members to meet together often to partake of the sacrament.

It may be important to observe that at the first meeting of the church, many of the things we accept as commonplace and necessary were absent. No bishopric presided. No high councilmen spoke. No church hymnals were available. Members did not leave the meeting to attend Sunday school classes or priesthood meetings. All of these things would come later, of course, but in the beginning, the meeting focused on the most important things in laying the foundations of the restorations. They had the sacrament. By directing the inclusion of this ordinance in the very first meeting of the restored church in this dispensation, the Lord emphasized the centrality of this ordinance in our worship.

In the revelation given in conjunction with the organization of the Church, the Lord revealed anew (although the words were in the Book of Mormon) the sacramental prayers. He directed:

"It is expedient that the church meet together often to partake of bread and wine in the remembrance of the Lord Jesus . . ." (D&C 20:75)

The Lord Himself presided over this ordinance two days in a row among the Nephites (see 3 Nephi 18-20). 3 Nephi 26:13 tells us that,

"Therefore, I would that ye should behold that the Lord truly did teach the people, for the space of three days; and after that he did show himself unto them oft, and did break bread oft, and bless it, and give it unto them" (3 Nephi 26:13).

It must be important to partake often!

The Savior taught in 3 Nephi 18 that when we partake of the bread and water we bear witness (testimony) of something. After they disciples had partaken of the bread, the Savior commanded

"And this shall ye do in remembrance of my body, which I have shown unto you. And it shall be a testimony unto the Father that ye do always remember me" (3 Nephi 18:7).

After they had partaken of the wine, he taught

". . . this doth witness unto the Father that ye are willing to do that which I have commanded you" (3 Nephi 18:10).

As we partake of the emblems of the sacrament, we witness to the Father that we do always remember his Son and that we are willing to do the things he has commanded us to do. I think as we participate in this holy ordinance we ought to be mindful of those things we are witnessing “unto the Father.”

In a revelation given just four months after the restoration, the Lord gave additional information about this ordinance. He reminded the members of the Church that the importance of the sacrament was not in the materials being consumed, but in the attitude of those participating.

"For, behold, I say unto you, that it mattereth not what ye shall eat or what ye shall drink when ye partake of the sacrament, if it so be that ye do it with an eye single to my glory remembering unto the Father my body which was laid down for you, and my blood which was shed for the remission of your sins" (D&C 27:2).

In this same revelation the Lord promises that He will partake of the sacrament with us at a later date.

"Behold, this is wisdom in me; wherefore, marvel not, for the hour cometh that I will drink of the fruit of the vine with you on the earth . . ." (D&C 27:5).

This meeting is one to which all the redeemed will be invited, for after mentioning 12 specific individuals who will attend, the Lord says He will partake

". . . also with all those whom my Father hath given me out of the world" (D&C 27:14).

Elder McConkie wrote of this meeting.

"Before the Lord Jesus descends openly and publicly in the clouds of glory, attended by all the hosts of heaven; before the great and dreadful day of the Lord sends terror and destruction from one end of the earth to the other; before he stands on Mount Zion, or sets his feet on Olivet, or utters his voice from an American Zion or a Jewish Jerusalem; before all flesh shall see him together; before any of his appearances, which taken together comprise the second coming of the Son of God before all these, there is to be a secret appearance to selected members of his Church. He will come in private to his prophet and to the apostles then living. Those who have held keys and powers and authorities in all ages from Adam to the present will also be present. And further, all the faithful members of the Church then living and all the faithful saints of all the ages past will be present. It will be the greatest congregation of faithful saints ever assembled on planet earth. It will be a sacrament meeting. It will be a day of judgment for the faithful of all the ages. And it will take place in Davies County, Missouri, at a place called Adam ondi Ahman" (Bruce R. McConkie, The Millennial Messiah, p.578 p.579).

4. The Lord explains the duties of Church members.

The D&C is filled with revealed information about the responsibilities of those who agree by covenant to participate in this latter-day work. But in the revelation given to direct the organization, the Lord focused on the basics:

"The duty of the members after they are received by baptism. The elders or priests are to have a sufficient time to expound all things concerning the church of Christ to their understanding, previous to their partaking of the sacrament and being confirmed by the laying on of the hands of the elders, so that all things may be done in order. And the members shall manifest before the church, and also before the elders, by a godly walk and conversation, that they are worthy of it, that there may be works and faith agreeable to the holy scriptures walking in holiness before the Lord" (D&C 20:68, 69).

We are required to manifest by our godly walk and conversation that we are worthy of confirmation and of the sacrament’s promise. This promise is, of course, the promise that we can have the Holy Spirit to be with us at all times. That is also the promise of the confirmation if we make our lives conform, by a godly walk and conversation to the pattern revealed in these last days.

Conclusion:

The humble, almost insignificant beginning of the Church in the latter days was only surprising to those with no vision. Joseph (and no doubt others) knew of the miracles to follow. On one occasion Joseph said to a group of priesthood holders:

"Brethren, I have been very much edified and instructed in your testimonies here tonight, but I want to say to you before the Lord, that you know no more concerning the destinies of this church and kingdom than a babe upon its mother's lap. You don't comprehend it."

He continued:

"It is only a handful of priesthood you see here tonight, but this church will fill North and South America it will fill the world."

Among other things, he said:

"It will fill the Rocky Mountains. There will be tens of thousands of Latter-day Saints who will be gathered to the Rocky Mountains, and there they will open the door for the establishing of the gospel among the Lamanites, who will receive the gospel and their endowments and the blessings of God. This people will go into the Rocky Mountains; they will there build temples to the Most High. They will raise up a posterity there, and the Latter day Saints who dwell in these mountains will stand in the flesh until the coming of the Son of Man. The Son of Man will come to them while in the Rocky Mountains" (Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, pp. 38,39).
Lead image from Getty Images.
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