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Is the Gospel Changing?
Research by Kerry A. Shirts
John A. Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations, p.47ff
Definite principles and ordinances constitute the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The first of these principles is faith. It is the beginning of all wisdom. The second is repentance: the sorrow of the man of faith for his past errors, and the resolution to commit them no more. Following these two principles are two ordinances: first, baptism by immersion, the outward sign or witness of a person's readiness to accept Jesus Christ, and to conform to the laws of the gospel; second, the laying on of hands for the reception of the gift of the Holy Ghost, to enlighten, protect, and bless all who enter the Church of Christ. It is the reward to all who by faith, repentance, and obedience prepare themselves for membership in the Church of Christ whether on earth or in heaven.
These basic, eternal principles and ordinances are made as one by the authoritative Priesthood committed to the Church, which on earth holds the gospel in its keeping. Not by a "jot or tittle" may these principles and ordinances be changed. They will ever remain the foundation stones of the Church of Christ.
Then, there are other principles and ordinances designed for those who have won membership in the Church. Such, among others, are the law of sacrifice, temple service for the living and the dead, and missionary work. These are equally permanent. They cannot be changed or abrogated; they are eternal.
This view is verified by the leaders in this dispensation. For example, Joseph Smith said, "[Jesus] set the ordinances to be the same forever and ever." (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 168.) "Ordinances instituted in the heavens before the foundations of the world, in the priesthood, for the salvation of men, are not to be altered or changed." (Ibid., p. 308.) Brigham Young: ". . . from the day that Adam was created and placed in the Garden of Eden, to this day, the plan of salvation and the revelations of the will of God to man are unchanged. . ." (Discourses of Brigham Young, 1941 Edition, p. 103.) John Taylor: "God is unchangeable, so are also his laws, in all their forms, and in all their applications." (The Gospel Kingdom, p. 103.) Wilford Woodruff: "The gospel consists of the simple principles taught by the Savior and contained in the New Testament, which principles never deviate one from another." (Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, p. 19.) Joseph F. Smith: "The principles that underlie the organization of the Church of Jesus Christ are irrevocable, unchanging and unchangeable." (Gospel Doctrine, p. 12.)
This then is the answer to the question at the head of this article. The gospel is not changing, nor can it change if it is to remain the gospel of Jesus Christ.
However, at various times and in various places people have lived and live under different conditions. In the early clays of the restored Church, pioneer conditions prevailed. Nearly all were tillers of the soil or husbandmen. Transportation was by ox or horse team. Communication was by slow mail. Little money was in circulation. Education was not easy to secure.
Today, many members of the Church follow other arts than that of agriculture. The continent is crossed in a few hours by railroad or airplane. By telephone, telegraph, or radio, communication with distant places is accomplished almost instantly. Much money is in circulation. Halls of learning are within reach of every one.
The gospel, founded in intelligence, must meet such changing conditions. Indeed, could it not do so, it would fail of its saving purpose. It must help all men under every condition. Sometimes changes are required, but only in applications or outward forms. Baptism was first performed in out-of-door ponds, lakes, or streams; now, very often in beautiful fonts in meetinghouses. In earlier days tithing was paid in kind; now, more often the new day makes it simpler for the farmer to sell his crop and pay tithing in cash. Formerly, all missionaries went out without purse or scrip; now, many are obliged because of new conditions to pay their way in the mission field.
Some people, noting such outward changes, fail to recognize that the law itself is not affected. The ordinance is unchanged whether one is baptized in the open or indoors. The law of sacrifice is fully respected whether tithing is paid in kind or in cash. To bear witness of the restoration of the gospel is not dependent upon whether the missionary travels with or without money. Yet, it often happens that thoughtless people confuse eternal, unchanging principles and ordinances with their applications in a changing world.
President Brigham Young understood this condition. At the laying of the cornerstones of the Salt Lake Temple, he told the people that in vision he had seen the completed temple. It would have six towers he said, three at each end. Then he warned those who confuse principles with their applications, "Now do not any of you apostatize because it will have six towers, and Joseph built only one." He understood of course that the sacred temple ordinances may be performed in a building properly dedicated, whether it has one or many towers, or has none.
It is really a glorious thought that the Church may meet any emergency, any new demand, any legitimate human aspiration by the use of everlasting gospel principles. It opens the door to individual as well as to Church progress; yet preserves the stability of the Church and its members. The experience of more than a century shows that by gospel truth every problem confronting humanity may be solved.
Some people allow themselves to be disturbed by new, often necessary, applications of gospel principles. By brooding upon their views, the spirit of apostasy may creep into their hearts. A little prayerful reflection will show that there has been no violation of basic law. In the steady growth and progress of the Church that is the one thing that needs to be watched.
The Church in its growth employs the unchanged principles underlying the gospel but applies them freely in meeting the needs of any time or place. In its essence the gospel is unchanging; in its applications it is everchanging to fit the needs of the day.