The JS Manual’s Relevance to Women

December 4, 2007

by BiV

Since the introduction of the series of “Prophets Manuals” in 1998, I have seen the quality of teaching in RS disintegrate. I was and am dismayed that the long-standing practice of the General RS board and women of the Church writing and preparing their own manuals was discontinued at that time. Women were asked to teach from manuals written by the Church’s correlation department loaded with quotations by and primarily directed toward men. The “instructions” in the front of the manuals caution against bringing in other materials. In the past ten years RS classes in the Church have lost their immediacy and their relevance to women.

As I have reviewed the most recent manual presented as our course of study in 2008 and 2009, I have noticed some improvements as relating to their pertinence to women and some areas which continue to disappoint.

In the introductory remarks to this manual, we are asked to “ponder how Joseph Smith’s teachings apply to you.” This manual does better than previous manuals in presenting a format through which women may observe how the teachings of a particular prophet apply to them. At the beginning of each chapter we are given an historical context of Joseph Smith’s life which provides an excellent way to introduce stories of how women responded to and applied the teachings to be presented. This manual has made more of an attempt to include women’s thoughts and experiences than the former eight, However, I felt there was less of an emphasis than potentially available in the historical prelude to each chapter. For example, in chapter 15—Establishing the Cause of Zion, the experience of Polly Knight is presented in the words of her son rather than herself. More research could have been done to present a more fully-fleshed account of a faithful woman who represented this concept.

Past manuals have discussed the priesthood from the male point of view. One year in a Relief Society class, the teacher had printed out the questions directly from the manual and handed them out to the sisters. I got the question, “As a priesthood holder, how can the knowledge that you are on the Lord’s errand help you magnify your priesthood callings?” This experience irritated a sore spot in my heart that our manuals were oriented more to a male audience than a female one. In the Joseph Smith manual, chapter 8 “The Everlasting Priesthood” does better than past manuals at being relevant to its women readers. A major theme in this chapter is how the priesthood can bring all of the saints into the presence of God. The section ends with a quote by Eliza R. Snow on the importance of everyone’s magnifying their own office and calling—an implication that women’s offices and callings are equally as important. The questions at the end are oriented to how the priesthood helps us to more fully understand the gospel.

Chapter 39 of this manual is completely devoted to women and Relief Society. This has been done in past manuals. When women spend many Sundays learning about priesthood and subjects which apply primarily to men, it is appropriate that men study about the Relief Society and things which apply mostly to women. However, the manuals in their present form as teachings of a prophet present the Relief Society from a male centric point of view. We have quotes expounding what the prophet taught about the women but not what the women felt or what they actually accomplished through their Society. Several quotes from Eliza R. Snow are given, wherein she simply says that Joseph Smith taught such-and-such. Perhaps it would have detracted from a teachings-of-the-prophet manual to have substituted quotations from Eliza or Emma on how they felt about the new Society. But this would have added relevance for women.

The manuals invariably include a chapter on Missionary Work. This is an area which is often neglectful of women and their contributions and was also disappointing in this manual. It is true that in Joseph Smith’s day the full-time missionary work was conducted by men, so I would expect the majority of the chapter (28) to deal with their contributions. However, since the manual is purported to deal with the application of Joseph’s teachings to our day (see introduction), it would be nice if women’s contributions to this important cause were brought in more fully. A photo caption states, “Each member of the Church has a responsibility to share the gospel. “All are to preach the Gospel,” the Prophet Joseph Smith declared, “by the power and influence of the Holy Ghost.” But the body of the text belies this exhortation. Even a glance at the full quotation here stated makes it clear that JS was speaking to the men of the church: “…no man can preach the Gospel without the Holy Ghost.” No quotation by the prophet involving member women in this responsibility is included. A quote by Elizabeth Ann Whitney describes her husband’s activities as a missionary, but says nothing of any sacrifices she made so that he could leave the home and travel to other lands preaching the gospel. |A section like this hearkens back to previous manuals where a woman teaching the lesson is hard pressed to stay with the material presented and yet apply the teachings to her audience.

Chapter 47 “Praise to the Man” is a collection of statements by Latter-day prophets bearing testimony of the divine mission of Joseph Smith. Although necessarily all of the quotations in this section come from men, I was heartened to see a balancing chapter included which contains the statements of many women and their feelings about Joseph’s prophetic mission. Chapter 43 contains touching remembrances and testimonies of Joseph Smith by contemporary women and men. The women quoted included early Relief Society Presidents whose statements thus carry with them some small authoritative merit (Eliza R. Snow, Bathsheba W. Smith, Emmeline B. Wells), as well as other faithful women members of the Church (Mary Alice Cannon Lambert, Mercy Fielding Thompson, Mary Ann Stearns Winters). The pictures included with this section include four of these women.

Perhaps I will never be fully satisfied with the Relief Society curriculum until it has been placed back in the control of women themselves. This seems unlikely at least for the cycle of 15-plus years that it will take to finish the Prophets series of manuals (some take two years to complete). Thus, I urge women teachers of these manuals to add relevance to their audience of women. Since this series of manuals has been introduced, I have seen more direct reading from the manual and less discussion among the sisters of the topics presented. However, the manual encourages teachers to tell personal experiences that relate to the teachings. Teachers are also directed to “ask questions that encourage participants to compare what they learn from the Prophet’s teachings to their own thoughts, feelings, and experiences.” I think it is extremely important to include examples of women’s responses to the teachings. Since the manual often fails to provide these, sharing personal experiences and encouraging discussion of class members’ reactions is important.


  1. I would love to see a PS/RS manual made devoted to teachings from Relief Society presidents (especially the earlier ones who were more independent and whose callings had more revelatory weight).

  2. I think narrator has something here – I wonder if a PS/RS manual devoted to RS presidents were to come out, if there would be more emphasis on doctrine than homemaking.

    I read a comment on a blog once that there was a need for the General Relief Society Presidents to be more than homemaking enthusiasts – it makes me wonder if this is how a RS Presidents manual would be

    Even though the homemaking thing seems to be prevalent in the last 50 years, not since the Church started

  3. Brandt,

    that’s why I think it should focus on older 19th century Presidents. This was back in the days when women were encouraged by the prophet to be the best lawyers, doctors, and accountants instead of the modern woman being encouraged to be the best seamstresses.

  4. It seemed like for a period in the middle 1900’s (1950-1990) the Church took the attitude of “Women get married let the men have the career,” but I would say within the last 5 years Pres. Hinckley as of late has been telling the women especially to get as much education as they can and to learn a skill

    Perhaps organizations such as CES, who aren’t as keen to hire women, and who have a strong influence on youth (especially in the seminary system), should rethink their position.

    Perhaps that would have an effect

    I think Sheri Dew did some great work for women, especially teaching doctrine

    I also think Julie Beck, as a strong willed women, would be a great example of one who looks past homemaking and how women dress…

  5. Hm. I always find it interesting to hear women upset that we are studying the same things as the men…isn’t that a good thing, that we are ‘equal’ in what we are learning? I think these manuals are awesome because we are getting more doctrine, straight teachings from the prophets, which is the way we are supposed to get the doctrine. To me, we women ought to rejoice about this.

  6. I think that how lessons are taught depends upon the outlook of the teachers. When I was an EQ instructor I prepared a less on the topic and used the manual to support and get some interaction and discussion going. Personally I am excited about studying the teachings of Joseph Smith. I am also excited that the writers used orginal source materials and not books such as Gospel Doctrine or Discourses of Brigham Young. I might even finish re-reading RSR.

  7. M&M, if you read carefully you will see that I am not against doctrinal teachings, but mostly about the removal of control from the women of writing their own manuals. Also the injunction to stick so closely to the lesson manual. This often results in boring lessons where the teacher reads word for word what is written, and there is no application made. When lessons are written specifically for men this causes a disconnect. I don’t know if you are old enough to remember what it was like before these Prophets manuals, but in my experience, RS used to be vastly different–a “living” class where doctrine was applied, teachers were free to use their creativity, and discussion was fervent. Why have we lost that feeling today?

  8. And, we are not “equal” in what we are learning if we are taught (for example) that the responsibility for missionary work lies with men and here is how they are to accomplish that responsibility. How do women fit in? What is their responsibility in missionary work? How did women in JS’s time participate in the work? This is an example of what I’d like to see addressed.

    That said, my impression on the whole is that these manuals are slowly improving in their relevance to women.

  9. BiV, first of all, I don’t see that it’s necessary for women to write their own manuals. Women are involved in the production of these manuals.

    Secondly, I find RS to be a wonderful experience…I suppose I am fortunate to live in a ward where people don’t just read — we discuss, and have lively discussions at that. Perhaps it’s more where you have lived and are living than the manuals themselves. I realize they challenge teachers more to really prepare with the Spirit and lead discussions with the Spirit, and I think teachers can still improve there, but all in all, I don’t feel we have lost ‘that feeling’ as you do. Sorry to hear you feel that way.

    I am old enough to remember the manuals before, and I liked them, but I like having the pure words of the leaders. They challenge teachers in new ways, but they are also designed to be study manuals for years to come, and I like having the prophets’ words, rather than a committee’s view of certain ideas and principles. As good as those manuals are, they removed us a level or two from the prophets’ teachings. I think this approach has more potential because as I study the words myself, the Spirit can teach me what is relevant to me. The other manuals had us rely on others’ perceptions of what was important and how to view and apply things. They also had topics that weren’t all as doctrinally focused as these are. Again, I liked them, but it’s sort of like the difference between studying the scriptural text vs. studying commentaries on the texts. The latter is interesting and sometimes insightful, but they provide other people’s insights. I am grateful for the opportunity to experience my own insights first-hand through the Spirit. I feel like our leaders are wanting us to do more of these types of things where we have direct contact with the doctrine so we have more oportunties to feel the Spirit and discern what the Lord would have us do. The more layers the doctrine comes though, the more chance there is that the interpretation has missed key elements. I’m feeling burdened by how dense with truth the words of our leaders are. But what an exciting challenge!

    I also disagree that the topics aren’t relevant to women or that we aren’t equal. What may differ is how we apply, but everything can be applicable to us in some way. We each learn the same things, and we each have the opportunity to apply what we are learning. . For example, we are taught the same things today about missionary work being primarily a priesthood responsibility. But that has never precluded women from participating in that amazing service. We all know that we can and should all be missionaries, and that some of us have had and will have opportunities for missionary service. And the Spirit could impress us with how we should apply these teachings. Who doesn’t need to consider teaching by the spirit, teaching the principles of the gospel, seeking opportunities to teach, teaching with love, avoiding contention, etc. These are principles I could apply in teaching my family. I’ve never felt that because the original text addresses men in some instances that that somehow precludes us as women from applying them. But I think it’s on our shoulders to look beyond the gendered language that may exist to find what is there for us. The same challenge exists in the scriptures, and you know what amazing truths can be discovered as we feast.

    Truth be told, I have felt these manuals relevant to me as a woman, from the beginning. I’m looking forward to delving into this manual more. It seems a bit different in format and organization, including some historical tidbits, which weren’t so readily included in the other manuals beyond the historical introduction.

    I’m trying to fathom what kind of a project this must have been to undertake. whew!

  10. M&M, as always, it is good to have your perspective. Let me just repeat that I think this manual has improved upon the former Prophets manuals in relevance to women. I agree with you that it is upon our shoulders to look beyond the gendered language to find what there is for us. The historical and doctrinal accuracy has been given much consideration and I’m sure the manual will be a blessing to all who study it.

  11. m&m,

    What I admire about you, and what simultaneously drives me nuts, is your ability to see good in everything – a talent i definitely need to learn. However, if driven to excess it somewhat renders things meaningless. For example, everyday at work when asked how I am, I respond ‘Never been better.’ Whether I’m having a wonderful day or a terrible one, the response is the same. The phrase is absolutely meaningless when I say it. So my question to you is, can there be an instance where the church could ever do anything less than desirable for you? For example, if the Church leaders decided that relief society meetings would consist of getting whipped and having feces thrown at you, would you be telling others how wonderfully inspired and spiritual the meeting was?

  12. Oh, Narrator. You really made me laugh.

    I love M&M’s comment comparing the current manuals to the scriptures rather than commentaries on the scriptures. That was right on.

    I had a conversation with a woman who had a calling for a few years to work on the committee that assembled these manuals. What she gathered from her orientation to the work was that this was a project driven by President Hinckley’s desire to get the words of the prophets into the homes of the people where they could study them directly. The hope is that every member will have a gospel library of teachings of the latter-day prophets that they can refer to as they teach their families the gospel.

    She also mentioned that he had expressed frustration that so many people were taking the topic of the lesson and creating their own lesson, essentially ignoring the teachings of the prophet that were supposed to be studied. He wanted a selection of those quotes to be at the core of the lesson and to drive the discussion.

    Take that third-hand information with however much salt you feel is needed, but it certainly altered my view of how I ought to prepare those lessons. Even so, that usually means that I’ll focus on four or five quotes from the lesson for discussion, leaving the others for individual study.

  13. m&m,

    here is a another to say what I was trying to say…

    You said “Truth be told, I have felt these manuals relevant to me as a woman, from the beginning. ” I have the strong feeling that no matter what the content of the manuals may have been, you would have said the exact same thing – that if we renamed a manual that was specifically made for the priesthood, you would have said that “the manual was relevant to me as a woman” and if they renamed a manual that was specifically made for the relief society that you would have said “the manual was relevant to me as a woman.” Do you disagree? If not, what does it mean to say “relevant to me as a woman” when nothing can qualify as making a manual not relevant to you as a woman?

    I guess what I’m trying to ask you m&m, is what would it take for a manual to not be relevant for you as a woman?

  14. As a priesthood holder…

    Ouch. Someone screwed up on that one.

  15. I guess what I’m trying to ask you m&m, is what would it take for a manual to not be relevant for you as a woman?

    Hm. Are these two comments meant to be trick questions, Loyd? 🙂

    Ok, long answer follows. Don’t forget; you asked. 🙂

    Let me start by turning your question around. What part of the gospel and understanding about church functioning and prophetic teaching that we get at church you think is not relevant to each and all of us? Really, is Relief Society only relevant to women? Is learning about priesthood only relevant to men? Is discussing the importance of motherhood or fatherhood and marriage, or on the flip side, dating or schooling, or any other topic only important to a narrow range of people? I believe that it’s all important for all of us.

    And so some of what you are getting from me is the reflection that I love it all — all that makes up the gospel, the Church, and the teachings of our day and of the past that have been chosen for our manuals. I don’t care about the gender of the speaker, or if what is being discussed applies more to women, or men, or leaders, or nursery teachers, or new converts, or elderly “lifers,” or teenagers, or mothers, or single women or pre-missionaries, or whoever else. I want to know it ALL. I want to understand all the facets of our doctrine and the different elements of the Church, and different roles and responsibilities of men and women and leaders and members. I want to know what our leaders think and have thought on everything that is relevant to any and all of us. If what they teach is not directly relevant to my current life, then it can help me understand what is relevant to others’ lives, which in turn ends up making it relevant to me because I care about the lives of those around me. And often, I need to know what the teachings are so I can better talk to others whose lives may currently be different from mine so I can talk and share and brainstorm and teach as appropriate. I don’t see how this approach makes it meaningless. To me, it just makes it all meaningFUL.

    But just so you understand that I’m not just a mindless polyanna, or that I always speak with rosy language, if you were to ask me how I’ve been doing lately, I’d tell you it’s been a hard week on many fronts. I feel run down. I am struggling with my new calling and have had some draining experiences with church stuff this week. I’m worn out as a mommy, and could use a break.

    So, know that I don’t just mush everything together into a polyanna view of things. But when it comes to the Church in general and at a general level, I find that a critical spirit only hurts my spirit, and hurts my ability to feel the Spirit. I also feel it often does a disservice to the Church and perhaps to others in need of some positive rather than feeding the negative they are struggling with. It’s not that I don’t ever see anything to be critical about (any organization will have its problems because they are run by humans). I just choose not to vocalize those things, especially not in a public setting. I feel my stewardship is not to worry so much about what happens at the general level and to worry more about what I should be doing and changing in myself and with my own responsibilities. Besides, often when I am frustrated with something (generally or locally), I find it’s often because there is something *I* need to change or don’t understand. I also understand limitations that the Church faces, such as not being able to update all of our manuals as often as we (or they) would like. Or not being able to cover all the material in a manual or a talk. And so I’m inclined to give it all the benefit of the doubt. I find it is helpful to just give the benefit of the doubt and be grateful rather than critical.

    You might also be interested to know (or you might not) that in almost any other organizational realm, I have a different approach. My professoinal background is in organizational change, so my natural tendency is to analyze and think critically and think of ways things could be better.

    And, in fact, I have even been known often to give feedback locally at church, or when asked for it. (I actually have done this quite often.) I also have given input when asked in other situations.

    So again, don’t think that I’m blind, or voiceless, or that I never think or act analytically or critically. I’m actually quite into feedback and brainstorming, I just choose carefully when and where and how to do that. Public criticism of the Church is not something I feel is appropriate or useful. And as I said, it is not good for me personally. And really, the more I focus on the positive, the more I feel the Spirit helps me to see how good it all really is. On the flip side, I find that criticism is usually self-fulfilling to a large degree.

    Aren’t you glad you asked? 🙂

  16. Jacob J, lol!
    You don’t know how tempted I was…

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