Classic Discourses from the General Authorities:
A Covenant People

by Elder John A. Widtsoe

of the Council of the Twelve from 1921 to his death in 1952

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    Reprinted from the Improvement Era, June 1945, pp. 349, 375.

    A covenant means an agreement between two or more persons. Therefore, when a member of the Church, as is frequently done, signs his letter “your brother in the covenant,” it implies that as Church members, he and others have entered into an agreement with the Lord, the head of the Church.

    The existence of man on earth is evidence that he accepted, in the great pre-existent council, the terms proposed in the plan of salvation. Otherwise he would not be here. The degree to which he will enjoy the promised results of life on earth depends upon his conformity with the agreement. Only when we promise or covenant to use a gift, and then keep our covenant, does our possession blossom into life. Therefore, in all the works of God, provision is made that we must earn by obedience, in part at least, the blessings that the Lord has placed within our reach.

    The first ordinance of the Church shows the necessity of this principle. A man may have faith, and may even have turned away from his past sins, yet to enter God’s kingdom on earth, he must sign, as it were, his agreement of obedience, his covenant with the Lord, to accept Jesus the Christ and the principles of his gospel by submitting to baptism. That is indeed a main meaning of baptism. This requirement was made of Adam, himself, the earthly father of the race (Moses 6:64), and is a continuing requirement of those who would participate fully in the blessings of the plan of salvation. All who do this become the covenant people of the Lord.

    So important is this covenant, with the others that follow, that we are required to keep it in constant remembrance (before the coming of Christ by sacrifice) by the regular partaking of the sacrament.

    Such covenants, to be valid, must be made through the Church, with its divine authority and power, known as the priesthood. (D&C 84:39.) Adam, who stood at the head of the Church in his day, was a high priest, and conferred like authority on others. Thus, from man’s early history on earth, there was ample opportunity to make these authoritative, sacred covenants with the Lord. Unfortunately, as is well known, a succession of apostasies and corruptions of eternal truth left many wandering outside the realm of the covenant people. The restoration of the gospel in our day leaves no one now with that excuse.

    There came a time, centuries after Adam, when Abraham, a lover of righteousness, desired to make his covenants with the Lord, and to receive the priesthood. His forebears, who had come down a priestly line, had turned away from righteousness. He decided, therefore, to seek a place where, freed from surrounding idolatry, he might worship the Lord properly. When thus approached, the Lord made a well-known covenant with Abraham, which makes us doubly a covenant people. He said to Abraham:

    “And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee above measure, and make thy name great among all nations, and thou shalt be a blessing unto thy seed after thee, that in their hands they shall bear this ministry and Priesthood unto all nations.” (Abr. 2:9. See also Gen. 17:2–7.) This promise of the Lord, which was also a call to service among the nations, was reiterated through Isaac and Jacob, Abraham’s faithful son and grandson.

    The essence of the covenant thus made with Abraham was the ancient, everlasting one, that those who are obedient to God’s law shall inherit the blessings of the Lord. Because Jesus the Christ replaced the lesser law of Israel by the higher one, we now speak, for the sake of distinction, of the “new and everlasting covenant.” The word new seems to have a sense of “restored;” as in the words of the Lord to the Prophet Joseph Smith, “this is a new and everlasting covenant, even that which was from the beginning.” (D&C 22:1.)

    This covenant with Abraham was also a call to leadership. Therefore, it has been interpreted to mean that Abraham and his descendants were chosen to conserve in purity and to advance on earth the eternal plan for human salvation. Consequently, the seed of Abraham are often spoken of as the chosen or covenant people.

    It does not follow, however, that the mere possession of the blood of Abraham entitles a person to special privileges. No one can be accounted of the covenant people, who has not entered into the required agreement with the Lord, or having done so, does not keep his part of the covenant. A broken covenant is “void and of none effect.” (D&C 54:4.) This is made clear in a revelation to Abraham:

    “As many as receive this Gospel shall be called after thy name, and shall be accounted thy seed, and shall rise up and bless thee, as their father.” (Abr. 2:10.)

    That makes true kinship within the covenant race primarily of a spiritual nature. The covenant is a call to individual obedience and cleansing, and to cooperation with the Lord in blessing, if they so permit, “all nations” of earth. Those who accept the call are the true children of Abraham (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 150); they become the covenant people. Therefore, the Latter-day Saints are properly called Israel—modern Israel.

    In short, those who accept the gospel, whatever their line of descent may be, and who subject themselves to its ordinances, enter the covenant and become the true people of Israel, with full claim upon the blessings bestowed upon Abraham. They become, in any age, the membership of the authoritative church of Christ. Brigham Young confirmed this view:

    “All Latter-day Saints enter the new and everlasting covenant when they enter this Church. They covenant to cease sustaining, upholding and cherishing the kingdom of the Devil. … They enter the new and everlasting covenant to sustain the Kingdom of God. … They take a vow of the most solemn kind, before the heavens and earth, and that, too, upon the validity of their own salvation, that they will sustain truth and righteousness instead of wickedness and falsehood, and build up the Kingdom of God, instead of the kingdoms of this world.” (Discourses of Brigham Young [Deseret News Press, 1925], p. 160.)

    The covenant with Abraham was held as a choice possession by the people of Israel, descended from Abraham through Jacob. Throughout the centuries the Israelitish prophets discussed it, and held it as an ideal and a promise before the people. Jesus the Christ, and his followers, often spoke of it. In our day the Lord again spoke of it. Indeed it runs through the whole course of the Lord’s dealings with man. It lies deep in the gospel structure. But it is an effective covenant only to those who obey God’s law, of which the covenant is part.

    The children of ancient Israel were not true to the faith of their father Abraham. They are not so today. Nevertheless, the Lord has kept a part of his promise, for the accomplishment of his purposes. The descendants of Abraham did become a nation, at one time among the foremost on earth. But, later the Israelitish nation was obliterated; the tribes of Jacob have practically vanished. Nevertheless, history seems to show that by a wide scattering over the earth, Abraham’s blood may be found in every nation (see James H. Anders, The Present Time and Prophecy, or in an abbreviated form, God’s Covenant Race); and thereby, whenever the gospel is accepted, the promise of the covenant is fulfilled.

    This partial fulfillment of prophecy has led many earnest people, believers in the Bible, to examine historical data, with a view of tracing the course of Israelitish blood among the nations. The British-Israel movement is foremost in the search. An impressive mass of information has been and is being gathered by them. If their findings are correct, which show the location on earth of the preponderance of Israelitish blood, then the restored gospel has been accepted most readily in the nations where the blood of Abraham is most dominant—among the British and North Europeans.

    Unfortunately, many persons have become too enthusiastic and have been tempted to bend their findings to their desires, and to other matters than those contained in the covenant. Others, unacquainted with the gospel and its course on earth, have made a near religion of the search.

    With the blood of Abraham in our veins, it should perhaps be easier for us to accept the gospel; but if we have none, if we are “pure gentile,” yet accept the truth of the gospel, and make the required covenants, every good thing implied in Abraham’s blessing will be ours. We are then, because of our obedience, lawful children of Abraham. (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 150.)

    Latter-day Saints are called a covenant people, because, under the authority of the priesthood, they have covenanted with God, by baptism and other ordinances, to obey the requirements of the plan of salvation and to give their strength to the spread of righteousness over the world. They are further called a covenant people because they accept the gospel of Abraham, and therefore claim the blessings of the Lord’s covenant with Abraham.

    We have received much in obtaining the gospel of Jesus Christ; we must give much, in personal obedience and in spreading the truth among the nations, to be a really covenant people.

    Engraving by Gustave Dore