What is Folk Doctrine?

Something that has always confused me in online discussions of LDS doctrine is the term “folk doctrine.” Apparently there are saints that think in terms of folk doctrine vs. “official” Church doctrine. On the other hand, I think in terms of true doctrine vs. false doctrine. How often do we hear our prophet-leaders talking about so-called folk doctrine? For that matter, how often do we here them making a distinction between “official” and any other kind of doctrine? Not very often, I don’t believe.

Recently I read something something by Elder Gerald N. Lund in the February 1982 issue of the Ensign. He wrote in answer to a question about President Lorenzo Snow’s famous couplet about God having once been a man:

To my knowledge there has been no “official” pronouncement by the First Presidency declaring that President Snow’s couplet is to be accepted as doctrine. But that is not a valid criteria for determining whether or not it is doctrine.Generally, the First Presidency issues official doctrinal declarations when there is a general misunderstanding of the doctrine on the part of many people. Therefore, the Church teaches many principles which are accepted as doctrines but which the First Presidency has seen no need to declare in an official pronouncement. This particular doctrine has been taught not only by Lorenzo Snow, fifth President of the Church, but also by others of the Brethren before and since that time.

That pretty much sums up my feelings about folk doctrine. A doctrine or teaching is not false just because there is no “official” pronouncement on the matter. And there are undoubtedly many folk doctrines that are also true doctrines. False doctrine, on the other hand, is an entirely different matter. False doctrine needs to be proclaimed against. Those who promulgate false doctrine need to be lovingly corrected. Our living prophets do, in fact, frequently proclaim against false doctrine and false teachers. Elder Ballard spoke on this interesting topic in a recent General Conference.

Perhaps the most important sermon ever given to the Church in this dispensation, The King Follett Discourse, was Joseph Smith himself proclaiming against false doctrine and false teachers. Yet this sermon has never been canonized. It is not in our standard works. Does that make it folk doctrine or false doctrine? I don’t think so.

So whenever I hear a person ridiculing folk doctrine, I just assume he means a doctrine he doesn’t agree with. If it was a false doctrine, he would call it that. At lease that is my assumption.

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4 Responses to What is Folk Doctrine?

  1. J. Stapley says:

    Interesting. What about the ideas tought about blacks before they recieved the priesthood? I typically call that folk doctrine. I think much of it is demonstrably false, yet we haven’t recieved any clarificaiton. Or Adam-God or, as has been pointed out, Saturday’s warrior or the hemispheric model of the Book of Mormon, etc.

  2. Geoff J says:

    Interesting point John. The term “folk doctrine” seems to usually be evoked in order to imply “false doctrine that those boneheads in the 19th century fell for and only an idiot would believe in 2005”. With you, I find using the term to be a cheap rhetorical trick. The question is one of truth.

    Having said that, there really is a lot of gray area. (What do we know about Mother in heaven? What about multiple mortal probations? How are we literally spirit children and still co-eternal with God? etc.) I think the one time that the term “folk doctrine” is useful is when a church critic accuses Mormons of officially recognizing a speculation as true. It can be used in those cases to mean “some people believe it but there has been no clarification on that yet.”

  3. matt bowman says:

    I agree with Ned. There are many pseudo-doctrines floating around the church which General Authorities have never addressed, period. _Saturday’s Warrior_, to name one example, is a veritable gold mine of them.

    Therefore, the Church teaches many principles which are accepted as doctrines but which the First Presidency has seen no need to declare in an official pronouncement.

    I think you need to make a clearer distinction about who teaches these doctrines. I assume “The Church” means the General Authorities. If it’s in the manual, then we can safely assume it’s probably doctrine (although the writers of these manuals are a layer of interpretation unto themselves). But what about when the Sunday School teacher decides to reinforce the lesson with a common bit of folk doctrine, like “In Heaven, all the other spirits will be awed when they hear you lived in the time of President Hinckley.” I defy anyone to find a _firsthand_ example of any general authority saying that. Indeed, the only official statement of the church is to _discourage_ it – as cited here:

    http://www.ldsgames.org/default.asp?choice=leadersdiscouragemyths

    Yet it still gets tossed around. It’s a bit of folk doctrine based, I think, on actual teachings about the importance of this dispensation.

  4. NFlanders says:

    I think there is a huge valley between the things the Church has established as doctrine, and things the Church has condemned as false doctrine. There is a ton of gray area in between.

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