In research it is generally thought that turning to primary sources is ideal, when possible. This means that we should read what people actually said or wrote instead of reading it through the interpretive lenses of other researchers or writers. This is not always possible, especially if the primary sources are in languages you cannot read, but it is best to go back to the original source as often as possible. What happens when you don’t? Untruths and misconceptions can develop and grow.
For example, in genealogical research, you always want to go to the primary sources if possible (also, read this post). FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com are not primary sources. If you don’t go to the primary sources, you really aren’t doing research, you are just compiling information together that might or might not be true. Start with the online databases but then try and verify everything in there by seeking out the primary sources.
As another example, there is a widespread belief that a majority of people in the Middle Ages believed that the earth was flat. This is merely a myth. Yes, there were some people who believed that but it was not widespread. Historians in the 1800s and early 1900s created the myth, which myth then spiraled out of control until it was taught as historical truth. The problem is that people trusted secondary and tertiary and other sources without actually going back to verify if what they read or heard was in fact true.
The same thing is true for discovering what people believe. Ask them. Don’t assume that you know what they believe. I’ve had a number of experiences where people have tried to tell me that my religious beliefs were different than what they really are. “You believe this and this.” “No I don’t.” “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” I don’t mind people telling me what I believe if it actually matches what I believe (e.g., “You believe that there is a Celestial Kingdom.” “Yes, I do.”). Of course, there are a lot of people who do not know what their churches’ doctrines are but that simply adds to my argument that people do not generally check primary sources. Sometimes they don’t even check secondary sources and simply remain in ignorance. A number of Christian churches spend Sunday School time studying the doctrines of other churches. I have yet to hear a good explanation of why they do this (especially in light of a general lack of knowledge of the Bible and other components of Christianity among most church goers). I’d like to be optimistic and state that the doctrines of the LDS Church are always correctly portrayed but I know that is not the case. If the pastors of these churches really wanted to increase the knowledge of members of the congregation, the pastor would encourage them to talk with members of the other churches and read their literature (e.g., The Book of Mormon, mormon.org, Gospel Principles, the Koran, the Watchtower). In other words, instead of learning about other religions people should learn from other religions. That is honesty in inquiry. This is the same standard that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints need to hold. If we don’t want people telling us what we believe, we shouldn’t tell them what they believe.
What primary sources do we have in the gospel? The answer might vary based on what you consider primary. I know some Christians believe the Bible to be a primary source. I’d disagree. The Bible is a collection of smaller books that weren’t even books until relatively recently. It is a translation of a copy of a copy (etc.) of the original document. In some cases it is a translation of a translation. I’m not saying the Bible is incorrect, I’m just pointing out that using a strict definition of primary source means that the Bible is not a primary source. What about the Book of Mormon? This is closer to a primary source than the Bible is. The Book of Mormon as we have it consists of two main parts: the first part was written by Nephi and his near righteous descendants; the second part is Mormon’s abridgment of many other writings with some additions by his son Moroni. So Mormon put most of the book together and Moroni finished it up and buried it. Moroni placed it in the ground with a dedicatory prayer of protection. Then about 1400 years later, Joseph Smith was guided to where the Book of Mormon was buried. It was then translated directly into English by the power of God. Thus, the Book of Mormon isn’t strictly a primary source either. It’s awfully close though.
I’m going to argue that the Doctrine and Covenants is not even a primary source, although it is as good as primary sources get in this life. So just what is a primary source? There is only one Ultimate Source for truth and knowledge. God is the giver of all Truth. If we want to know the truth of anything, we pray and ask Him (see Moroni 10:3-5). This goes for anything that we read in the scriptures or that we hear or read from the living prophet(s) – it can be verified by praying. That is how we check the primary source in the gospel. Now, I’m not saying that we try to supersede the scriptures or living prophets, but we need to do our own research and seek out the one true Primary Source. This can only happen as we ask sincerely with an honest heart. I’ve met at least one person who said they didn’t believe the Book of Mormon because they had prayed to ask if it was true and God told them it was false. Unfortunately, they were mistaken in their answer, assuming they had prayed about the Book of Mormon. I can also unequivocally state that this particular person did not ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, and with faith in Christ (see Moroni 10:4). It was like this person had performed a research literature search, found the article she wanted (e.g., a physics article), read a completely different article (e.g., an anthropology article), and then stated that she didn’t believe the physics article because of what she learned from the anthropology article. We need to read the scriptures, heed the living prophets, and pray to Heavenly Father that His Spirit might guide us and teach us Truth. As we seek the Primary Source of Truth, we will be blessed.