Primary Sources

The question that kept me awake one night last week was this: what are the primary sources for my personal LDS faith practice?

Recently, I read a terrific BYU Women’s Conference talk that Francine Bennion gave in 1987[1]. Bennion argued that theology matters, that it informs the way we act and the decisions we make. Therefore, we have to be careful and intentional about crafting our own theologies. She gave examples of scriptural figures who behaved in ways that baffle us today (Jephthah, for example), and explained that their actions accorded with their religious beliefs or theologies. Did she intimate that if I do not think carefully about my personal theology I might end up sacrificing my innocent daughter? No. But if I am not intentional about crafting my own theology, I will likely make facile decisions that do not represent my most cherished spiritual priorities. Bennion was convincing; I finished her talk in agreement with her, feeling smart and proud of myself for reading her talk. I did not attempt to define or examine my own theology.

But the universe conspires against my indolence. Last night I read Ann Patchett’s 2006 Clemson University Freshman Convocation Address, wherein she importuned, “Whenever possible, you need to go to the primary source to make your decisions. Regardless of whether or not you’re a student, it is never enough to rely on other people’s ideas. You have to look at the thing itself and make up your own mind.” [2] In talking about primary and secondary sources, she defined the primary source as “the thing itself” and secondary as “an interpretation of or report about that thing.” Religion professor Heather Curtis gave me related advice when I started writing a dissertation.[3] She told me I needed to keep returning to my primary texts, making sure my analysis was really about them and what they had to say. Professional, personal, and spiritual realms bountifully overlap, but now I am returning specifically to the primary texts of my religious life. I want to clarify what I really believe, and I want to increase the chances that my actions will accord with those beliefs.

All this leads to the question of what I am treating as primary and what as secondary sources in my religious life. Bennion defined theology as providing “a comprehensive framework that gives meaning to the [scripture] fragments and the seeming contradictions or paradoxes which they suggest.” Obviously, then, you have to read those fragments before you can reconcile them into a framework. Initially, classifying the primary and secondary sources seemed easy: the Book of Mormon is a primary source and culture is secondary. Culture includes manuals, Sunday lessons and talks, conversations with coreligionists, books, articles, and blog posts.

But then the answers become less easy. I had to think through whether the Holy Ghost was a primary or a secondary source. An encounter with the Holy Ghost seems primary, but in the LDS church we teach that the Holy Ghost testifies of truth. I think that make the source of truth the primary source and its testifier secondary. A large part of the beauty of the Holy Ghost is how it can transcend fear, confusion, and other muddy human emotion, but sometimes it is less assertive while we give the fear or befuddlement space to grow downright aggressive. Therefore in practice, if not in theory, we sometimes end up with imprecision. Perhaps thinking of the Holy Ghost as a secondary source would actually help bring clarity to spiritual processes. We would require ourselves to approach prayer with a concrete primary source in mind—be it a scripture, a journal entry, a quotation, or a list of pros and cons. Indeed, Mormons’ most celebrated model for heeding the Holy Ghost centers on the process of translating a primary text (the Book of Mormon).[4] In that famous passage of Scripture, Oliver Cowdery is grappling with the means by which to interpret divine help in his efforts to understand the gold plates and the ancient Scripture they contained.

I have determined to think of interactions with the Holy Ghost as a secondary source. Not secondary in importance, but defined as secondary source to clarify its role, which is to help me make sense of primary sources. If the Holy Ghost is a secondary source, that makes General Conference talks primary sources. Even the ones I might wish to edit. They are primary texts, and the Holy Ghost will help me know what to do with them. And so with the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the Doctrine and Covenants, my patriarchal blessing.

I hope I do not appear to suggest that secondary sources do not matter. They matter! One of my top five favorite books is How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read by literature professor and psychoanalyst Pierre Bayard.[5] Bayard describes with impressive chutzpah how conversations about books can compete in importance with the content of the books themselves. We need secondary sources in religious settings (sacrament meeting talks, conversations, essays) to help us make sense of religious words and religious experience. But I am suggesting that we consider primary sources as primary, crucial to return to, re-examine, and reconsider. Bayard describes the role of secondary sources in the world of literature, but I speak now about theology, about defining what you believe to facilitate harmony between your actions and your beliefs.

This is easier to think than to do. Primary texts are not necessarily internally consistent for one thing, and sometimes it is not obvious what to focus on and what to let slide. Leviticus does not get much play time in my head. But really, tending to religious primary texts is hard because it requires that we scrutinize our daily acts. If I look to the Word of Wisdom, I have to take seriously my body’s temporal salvation. I shop at the farmers’ market, which is less convenient than the grocery store, and I buy more whole grains, which generally take longer to prepare than Top Ramen or Mac & Cheese. These don’t cost a lot of money, but everything costs more than Top Ramen and traditional varieties of Mac & Cheese.

I might be cheating using that example. I have enough money to be able to make nutritious food choices and I love farmers’ markets. At least this example makes the point that using primary texts to solidify our theological positions can actually increase pleasure. Other scriptures demand more of me. For example, I often think of 2 Timothy 1:7 “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” in parenting. Fear for my children’s well-being, which news stories and competitive conversations with other parents exacerbate, tempts me to stunt my children’s growth by exercising excessive control over them. I try to act from a place of love instead of fear; I try to let them make and learn from making their own choices. Although this is harder for me than shopping at a farmers market, it, too, increases my sense of pleasure.

Acting in accordance with a personal theology is important in all aspects of life—not just those explicitly connected to the church. Voting is a more secular example for thinking through the relationship of our vote with our primary sources. Sometimes I wonder why so many of my coreligionists feel morally bound to vote the way they do. Many acquaintances tell me that abortion trumps other issues for them, and they vote in ways they hope will discourage the practice of abortion. On the other hand, some Latter-day Saints hope their vote most reflects the priorities of King Benjamin in the Book of Mormon, like caring for the poor and needy. In this fallen world, our votes rarely accomplish what we hope for; we humans and the parties we support tend to be hypocritical. But I do believe that revisiting primary sources and working to shape from them a more consistent, sincere theology will fortify our efforts to resist hypocrisy.

Thinking through the role of various sources and how they contribute to my own sense of LDS theology has led me to marvel that the church teaches every member to read scriptures regularly. It’s a message that insists we not neglect primary in favor of secondary sources, and it expresses astonishing optimism about the moral responsibility of each individual as a thinker. I do not imagine that spending more time with primary sources would make an angel of every church member, nor would we all begin to vote with the same priorities. The primary sources are not so uniform and church members are not so good at doing the right thing, even when we agree about what that is. But I do think returning often to these primary sources keeps us from wandering too far afield in our individual journeys and gives us a concrete, foundational base from which to consider all that is possible.

[1] Francine R. Bennion, “A Latter-day Saint Theology of Suffering,” in A Heritage of Faith: Talks Selected from the BYU’s Women’s Conferences, ed. Mary E. Stovall and Carol Cornwall Madsen (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1988), 53–76.
[2] Ann Patchett, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage (New York: HarperCollins, 2013), 192–93.
[3] I highly recommend the ultimate result of Curtis’s own dissertation research: Heather D. Curtis, Faith in the Great Physician: Suffering and Divine Healing in American Culture, 1860–1900 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007).
[4] Doctrine and Covenants 9:8–9: “But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right. But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong; therefore, you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me.”
[5] Pierre Bayard, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (New York: Holtzbrinck, 2007). The other four, which I do not list in order of preference, include Middlemarch by George Eliot, My Garden Book by Jamaica Kincaid, The Gastronomical Me by M. F. K. Fisher, and Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman.


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