The story of the First Vision is one of the most beloved in all the Gospel, and many of us have sat through multitudes of lessons on what truths this vision taught, one of which being that the creeds of all of the other religions are an abomination to God. Sometimes this has been interpreted as meaning that the religions are an abomination, but that is not what God said–it was the creeds that God hated. Weirdly, however, while there are some creeds that teach things that we find abominable, there are many that are perfectly fitting with our doctrine. (I don’t think most Latter-day Saints would find it abominable, for example, that Jesus is the son of God, that he saved us from our sins, that he was born of a virgin, etc.) But God did not distinguish between which creeds were an abomination, they were all lumped together.
Joseph Smith’s way of defining the gospel was that “Mormonism is truth, in other words the doctrine of the Latter-day Saints, is truth. … The first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation or without being circumscribed or prohibited by the creeds or superstitious notions of [others].” When explaining what God meant when telling Joseph that the religious creeds were all an abomination, he explained, “I want to come up into the presence of God, and learn all things; but the creeds set up stakes, and say, ‘Hitherto shalt thou come, and no further.’” The problem with the creeds, then, was not necessarily their teachings per say—many, though certainly not all, of their teachings line up well with our own—it was that they discouraged thinking anything beyond what they taught. By their very nature they give the impression that what they teach is all that a human really needs to know (or, in our own much abused phrase, all that is “pertinent to our salvation”), and in doing so create a paradigm that discourages, sometimes even punishes, the believer from seeking greater understanding. In other words, they deny the spirit of revelation, and do so in the worst way possible—by creating a negative association between asking questions and having faith.
For Joseph apostasy wasn’t necessarily thinking something that was wrong (constantly seeking truth creates a natural corrective to that); apostasy, rather, was creating religious laws and beliefs and doctrines to enforce distance between a person and God. The first doctrines of the restored gospel were focused on tearing down these artificial walls of separation and taught people how to have a personal relationship with God. The great work of the gospel is to give each person the tools and skills to live up to their potential as literal children of Heavenly Parents by helping each child to personally come to know them, and learn to understand and carry on their work. Thus the gospel’s focus on revelation.
We tend to divide revelation into two basic categories, what I refer to as Revelation with a capital R and revelation with a lower-case r. Lower-case r revelation is the one we are all privy to. This is where we believe that God can answer personal questions like who we should marry, where we should live, what job should we get, what we should do in our calling, how we should take care of others, confirmation of the truth of an already revealed principle, and so on—basically practical revelation regarding how to live our lives and assurance we are on the right path. Capital R revelation is revelation we generally consider to be relegated to prophets (meaning the heads of the church). This is the kind of revelation where God opens the heavens and explains the mysteries of Godliness. If you pay attention to the average Sunday School discussion you will likely find that this distinction, while perhaps not specifically articulated, is pretty generally accepted. You may even have been in discussions where it is vigorously defended that there is the revelation we receive and there is revelation prophets receive and the way that we show obedience is by unquestioning acceptance of this fact. In other words, our obedience is as much defined by what questions we can ask as what questions we shouldn’t. Questions about lifestyle or seeking validation of what has already been revealed? Have faith and ask God! Serious questions about doctrine or things that haven’t been revealed yet? If you had faith you wouldn’t worry about it, it’s not your province. There is revelation and then there is Revelation, and faith means you respect the boundaries between the two. However, God never, NEVER makes this kind of distinction. Restoration scriptures could not make it clearer that it is God’s will that everyone experience Revelation in its fullest, (and this has been a consistent theme of President Nelson’s administration). Denying the spirit of revelation does not always mean that we are denying that revelation exists at all. While there are certainly many people in the world who deny that there is divine revelation in any form, what may be a more applicable form of denying the spirit of Revelation for most Latter-day Saints is believing in Revelation but denying it the chance to work to its fullest capacity in us personally.
Revelation is a spirit—it is a living thing, and it can only live by being fed and nurtured. It’s so, so much easier to leave the real grunt work of knowing God to Moses or Deborah or Joseph Smith or Russel M. Nelson and to sit in camp at the foot of the mountain waiting to be told what to think and what to do. It is so much easier because it requires absolutely no risk on our part. If things don’t work out there will fortunately be others to blame. Life without risk is appealing for obvious reasons. It is also damming. As Latter-day Saints, our doctrine just doesn’t let us off that easy. God wants to speak to us, to open the heavens to us, and we have the responsibility to do our part in that process—to cultivate the spirit of revelation so it can work in us and open us up. Without doubt it is a risky and difficult and messy endeavor–it’s also exactly what our Heavenly Parents have commanded us to do.
Letter from Joseph Smith to Isaac Galland, Mar. 22, 1839, Liberty Jail, Liberty, Missouri, published in Times and Seasons, Feb. 1840, pp. 53–54.
Joseph Smith; History of the Church, 6:57