You know the granite sphere that the Salt Lake Temple Moroni stands on? It’s hollow, and inside there’s something of a time capsule that includes a handful of key Church books. A Compendium of the Doctrines of the Gospel by apostle Franklin D. Richards and co-author James A. Little, published in 1882 and now available free on Project Gutenberg, is one such book. It was sufficiently authoritative that James E. Talmage, listing it among the capstone’s contents, can refer to it as just Compendium. It’s also one of only seven works from the 19th century that makes the Encyclopedia of Mormonism’s list of doctrinally significant books.
So what’s the big deal? Compendium is the first reasonably comprehensive, topically organized doctrinal exposition the Church ever produced. It took 74 key gospel topics and provided a succinct statement regarding each, along with key scriptural and other references establishing the stated doctrine. Think the Topical Guide, Bible Dictionary, Index, and True to the Faith all rolled into one, released for the first time ever.
Today, anyone who wants to know the Church’s doctrine on baptism or spiritual gifts or the second coming can Google it, look it up in any number of books, check the various study helps in the scriptures, etc. But lest we forget, the Topical Guide and Bible Dictionary date back only to 1979. The Book of Mormon itself first received an index in Talmage’s 1920 edition, and Reynolds’ Complete Concordance of the Book of Mormon was only published in 1900. In the earliest days of the Church, you had the text of the scriptures (if you were lucky enough to have access to the Pearl of Great Price or its constituent works) and some periodicals or pamphlets.
So if, in 1881, you asked “what is the Church’s doctrine on [insert basic topic], and what are the key scripture reference, talks, etc. establishing that doctrine?” you were courting a substantial research project. But with the 1882 publication of Compendium, for the first time in Church history, that information was at any reader’s fingertips.
As a default source of such information for decades, with reprints as late as 1925, the importance of Compendium as a doctrinal standard can hardly be overstated (although it may seem I’m doing my best). It’s one of those books I can hardly believe no one’s heard of. So go read it. And someone please publish a brilliant paper on its doctrinal impact, and let me know when you do.
Katie Liston, one of our summer 2015 interns, proofread and produced Compendium–many thanks to her!