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The new Joseph Smith manual…zzzzzzzz

December 7, 2007

 

When I first read that we would be studying the teachings of Joseph Smith for the next two years in PH/RS, I was excited. Even though he died over 160 years ago, I get the feeling that my generation feels more of a connection to him than Heber J. Grant, Harold B. Lee, or perhaps even Spencer W. Kimball (three twentieth-century prophets who have been featured in the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church series). For Mormons, Joseph Smith is the quintessential “mouthpiece of the Lord.” His life is more familiar to us than that of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln.

Although I’ve only skimmed the new manual, I must admit that while there may be some improvements over past installments in the TPC series, I’m still underwhelmed. Somehow, it still manages to relatively dull lesson manual of the type we’ve grown accustomed to.

For instance, after browsing the table of contents, I turned to one of the more interesting-sounding chapters: “Beyond the Veil: Life in the Eternities.” I was disappointed to find that most of the chapter is merely excerpted from D&C 76. It barely addresses what life will actually consist of in the eternities. Surprisingly, it even leaves out scriptures such as D&C 130:2.

According to the Introduction, one of the express purposes of the manual is to present “Teachings for Our Day.” I understand that it makes sense to focus on those principles that are most relevant to modern life, but I honestly think we dull down the manuals far too much in the interest of avoiding topics or statements that we deem to be “irrelevant.” I don’t think the committees that write these manuals have much interest in studying past prophets for who they were; their main concern seems to be fitting these prophets’ teachings into a box that is easily identified with the “Hinckleyan” prophetic character (even though Joseph Smith and Gordon Hinckley are very different prophets). I’m only half-joking when I say I’m surprised that Correlation was unable to come up with a condemnation of pornography or homosexuality.

Interestingly, the “Teachings for Our Day” section in the Introduction is entirely devoted to explaining why the manual does not discuss plural marriage (although that is only one of many major teachings that were left out). I didn’t know whether to laugh or groan when I read this line: “The Prophet taught the doctrine of plural marriage, and a number of such marriages were performed during his lifetime.” Gotta love the passive voice. It feels like a weak and intentionally ambiguous attempt on the committee’s part to address Joseph’s own polygamous marriages. However, those who aren’t already aware of Joseph’s own practice of polygamy may easily interpret this line as referring to other people’s polygamous marriages.

The line is reminiscent of this gem from the Spencer W. Kimball manual: “Throughout [Kimball’s] service as President of the Church, he received revelations to guide the Saints. The most well known of all these revelations came in June 1978, when the Lord revealed to him and also to his brethren in the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles that the blessings of the priesthood, which had been restricted to some, could now be available to all worthy members of the church (see Doctrine and Covenants, Official Declaration 2).” (Although, in fairness, there is a brief reference to “[t]he question of extending the blessings of the priesthood to blacks” in the seldom-read “Life and Ministry” section that precedes the actual lessons).

The problem of how to deal with history has plagued the TPC manuals in the past. For instance, here is a two-year old post in which J. Nelson-Seawright addresses polygamy in the Wilford Woodruff manual. I don’t want to spend much time on this topic, but I do think that the Joseph Smith manual is one more indication of just how hesitant Correlation is to approach certain topics. Their attitude almost seems begrudging.

I know, I know–some topics just aren’t necessary for our salvation. And not all things that are true are useful. But ironically, that didn’t seem to be a very big concern for Joseph Smith. He taught that whatever knowledge we gained in this life would be of benefit to us in the life to come (D&C 130:19). And if he felt that it was important enough to teach the Saints how to distinguish true angels (both bodied and disembodied) from the devil appearing as an “angel of light” (D&C 129),  or that the earth would become a sea of glass in its celestial state (D&C 130:7), then I wonder why certain other topics are so easily dismissed as being “unnecessary for our salvation.”

In any case, Joseph Smith is a fascinating character, and that alone may be enough to stir up some interesting discussion. Perhaps a sufficient number of mainstream members have read Rough Stone Rolling by now so as to facilitate a more informed approach.

You guys will have to tell me how this thing plays out in PH and RS. I’ve already been assured by the bishop that I’ll be in the nursery at least until summer.

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37 comments

  1. It feels like a weak and intentionally ambiguous attempt on the committee’s part to address Joseph’s own polygamous marriages.

    Well duh Steve. Joseph Smith only had one wife. The Church says so, so stop complaining. As I pointed out on my blog long ago, if you go to the biographical sketches of Church Presidents on the Church’s website, only Presidents with one wife have their wives’ names listed. Joseph has only one wife listed. Thus, he only had one wife. Stop trying to teach otherwise.

    Ironically, the Community of Christ (RLDS) which once denied Joseph’s polygamy is much more honest with this historical fact than ours which used to declare it with pride.


  2. I remember asking a seminary teacher when we were doing the D&C and church history if Joseph had more than one wife. He told me that he did, but that they were only sealed to him after his death. This was a guy from CES and he didn’t even know!


  3. Still, you have to remember this is a manual for the entire church, in all their different stages of belief and conversion. I’m not saying we should hide the fact that Joseph Smith had more than one wife, or that he looked for treasure, etc. I’m saying that the important thing is to emphasize his prophetic calling and importance to the restoration. Maybe it’s time that we had three adult Sunday School classes: Gospel Principles (for the newbies), Gospel Doctrine (for most members) and Gospel Mysteries and Esoterica (for those that go get their Diet Coke between Priesthood and Sacrament Meeting)(just kidding!). For the latter class, we could use “A Rough Stone Rolling” for the text.


  4. the important thing is to emphasize his prophetic calling and importance to the restoration.

    Ask Brigham Young and he’ll tell you that the revelation and restoration of polygamy was of the utmost importance in Joseph Smith’s restoration.

    Gospel Principles (for the newbies), Gospel Doctrine (for most members) and Gospel Mysteries and Esoterica (for those that go get their Diet Coke between Priesthood and Sacrament Meeting)(just kidding!)

    The funny thing is that it’s in Gospel Principles class that teaches on the mysteries and esoteric stuff. I could really care less about mysteries and such. I’d rather have a class that pushes for social progress and such – you know, the stuff that Jesus was always talking about.


  5. Re #4

    Well, I would ask Brigham, but he hasn’t been returning my calls.

    And as far as your second comment, about the “stuff that Jesus was always talking about”, I think here again the problems of a world wide church come into play. While beatitudes and other teachings are universal, the implimentation (pushing for social progress and such) are subject to the culture and mores and interpretation of the “pushers”.

    Maybe what we need is less lessons, and more doing. Instead of meeting for an hour in Priesthood or Sunday School, we could practice what we preach and “do”. Like instead of getting just one Diet Coke, we could grab a couple and go visit with homebound Sister Whatsername and do her dishes and sweep the kitchen.


  6. I was afraid that correlation would find a way to make this manual as boring as the others have been. I was hoping otherwise. I am still looking forward to reading it, but have not got it yet. I am also thinking of taking the plunge and getting RSR for Christmas and reading it along with the manual.


  7. Re: #3

    I agree that there should be 3 classes for gospel teaching in Sunday school, but how would you determine who gets to go into the upper echelon of classes? I know newbies who know more than some 30+ year members…

    Plus, this upper class (Gospel Mysteries and Esoterica) would be just another forum for people to spout off their personal pet hobbies for topics of the gospel instead of getting to the real meat of things

    Gospel Principles – Ground Beef
    Gospel Doctrine – Swiss Steak
    Gospel Mysteries and Esoterica – Fillet Mignon

    Maybe they should put out another manual written by Richard Bushman for the GM&E class


  8. Why don’t we have a “study hall” option? Instead of going to Sunday School, you could use the hour to read or study whatever you want. Or to go get donuts.


  9. Re: #7

    Let ’em go where they want. In our ward, you can pick what class you attend in Sunday School. We have Gospel Principles, Gospel Doctrine, and Gospel Convience Store Diet Coke classes.

    And I think instead of Filet Migon, we should offer Escargot instead. That’s really pretentious. And instead of a teacher, we’d just have a roundtable discussion of whatever.


  10. And instead of a teacher, we’d just have a roundtable discussion of whatever.

    I like that idea a lot, actually. On my mission, one branch I served in was so small (about 15-20 people attended on any given Sunday, mostly women) that they just combined PH and RS and had roundtable discussions on the topic covered in the lesson. I really enjoyed the format.


  11. Guess it’s good that I didn’t write my post yesterday, because I’m on the other side of the spectrum. I’m weary of people thinking that they know better than Correlation about what should be put in the manuals. I am so grateful we don’t focus on history that I feel is irrelevant to my life. I don’t care how many wives JS had, or how he translated the plates, or whether he was into gold for a while, or about anything else — or at least I don’t care to discuss that at Church. I want the pure principles of the gospel. I want to know what he taught about the things that have been taught through the decades/centuries since the Restoration. I love seeing the consistency of teachings across prophets. People complain that we don’t really have or know our doctrine. Well, these manuals give us a really easy way to figure that out…at least the doctrine that deserves the most energy and attention. You don’t have to go farther than your own library of RS/PH books to be able to see what our faith is realy about. I love that.

    The idea of splitting up classes to that extent makes me feel a bit ill. I have run into this idea before, and it never ceases to amaze me that people would suggest such a thing. It makes me think of the scripture about how people divided themselves into ranks based on their chances for learning. (That was a BAD thing, by the way.) It’s hard not to take it a bit personally, actually, like you don’t really like hanging out with people who actually like the manuals. So much for that idea of unity, I guess…..

    BTW, I’m all for people studying on their own. I do it often. Its just when things get to being critical of the church materials because you think they haven’t reached some desired level of intellectual whatever. There is so much to be gained from these manuals. That’s part of the opportunity of these manuals…to invite us to receive by the Spirit. You don’t have to go to new texts to do that. The scriptures — which in a real sense include words of the prophets — can be discovered and rediscovered time and time again if we receive with the Spirit. That’s been my experience anyway.


  12. And instead of a teacher, we’d just have a roundtable discussion of whatever.

    Part of the challenge some may face is that this is more what classes are supposed to be like, even with a teacher. I think our teachers still have a lot to learn in this regard.


  13. IMHO, some folks in the Bloggernacle set unrealistic expectations for this manual. As an example, in a Mormon Matters podcast John Dehlin and Blake Ostler were praising this manual to the skies as ushering in a new era of openness in doctrinal teaching. Everything I’ve read about the manual indicates that it’s more of the same ol’ same ol’. That’s great for the people who love the teachings of the modern prophets series, and a let down for people who don’t.

    The purpose of Gospel Doctrine is to teach Gospel Doctrine, using the scriptures as a framework. Priesthood/RS serve essentially the same function, but with the teachings of the modern prophets as the framework. You could drop either one and there’d be little difference in the content of what’s being taught; only the framework would be change.


  14. Steve, where did you get the cartoon?


  15. m&m

    The Gospel Mysteries and Esoterica class was tongue-in-cheek. So please don’t feel a bit ill. Besides, that’s what we have High Priest Group meeting for!

    Ummm, that was tongue-in-cheek, too.


  16. I’m weary of people thinking that they know better than Correlation about what should be put in the manuals.

    For what reason should the Correlation Committee be accorded so much deference?


  17. BTW, I got the cartoon from Sunstone online. I’m probably infringing copyright.


  18. For what reason should the Correlation Committee be accorded so much deference?

    Steve, I know how this committee works, and have heard some amazing stories about how involved the Lord is in what they do. I have a great deal of confidence in the process and in the results. These people are called and set apart, and the Spirit is at work in their work. Of course, the people are not perfect by any means, but they have a stewardship and I believe they are doing what the Lord and His leaders want to have done.

    They also have the have the authority to provide the Church’s stamp of approval on whatever they approve, which means that the prophets and apostles approve them. That is a huge deal, and I think it deserves a lot more deference than it gets.

    In addition, I know enough about this manual to know that criticizing it is a sad mistake. This was inspired work. I look forward to studying it.


  19. I don’t want to get into a debate over “sustaining” Correlation, but I’ve read much less generous accounts (written by faithful members) of their work. When Leonard Arrington was Church Historian, for instance, he actually had GAs instructing him to not submit his department’s work to Correlation, because according to those GAs, Correlation knew nothing about history and would tear their work apart.

    In any case, I’m really not a fan of some of their primary functions, i.e., stripping materials of “controversial” or “unsafe” things. I’m not convinced that this actually benefits the members of the Church.


  20. m&m,

    I am so grateful we don’t focus on history that I feel is irrelevant to my life. I don’t care how many wives JS had, or how he translated the plates, or whether he was into gold for a while, or about anything else — or at least I don’t care to discuss that at Church. I want the pure principles of the gospel.

    Two problems. One is that it is not just difficult history that gets left out of the manuals, but also lots of stuff Joseph would have referred to as “pure principles of the gospel.” Second, there is quite a lot of what Joseph said which simply cannot be understood without the historical context. That doesn’t require us to delve into every controversial subject, but it will be pretty embarrassing when some members of the church sit through two years of classes about Joseph Smith and his teachings after which they don’t know some of the most basic facts about his life (for example, how many wives he had).


  21. I’m weary of people thinking that they know better than Correlation about what should be put in the manuals.

    I agree. Doesn’t everyone know that when you are added to the correlation committee that you sign a waiver, negated your free will, thought, and everything else that makes you human? That way God is able to infallibly control everyone like puppets to ensure that the manual churns out exactly the way that God wanted it. If anyone somehow manages to regain their free will and thought, God kills them to assure that they don’t lead the church astray.

    The church is totally perfect like that. That’s why it’s so awesome!!!

    Hooray!


  22. When Leonard Arrington was Church Historian, for instance, he actually had GAs instructing him to not submit his department’s work to Correlation, because according to those GAs, Correlation knew nothing about history and would tear their work apart.

    Well those GA’s obviously didn’t have as much faith, nor were as spiritually endowed as the GA’s who knew how awesome and divinely perfect correlation really is!


  23. They also have the have the authority to provide the Church’s stamp of approval on whatever they approve, which means that the prophets and apostles approve them.

    Except of course the prophets and apostles who aren’t as spiritually inept as the one’s that whole-heartedly approve of correlation.

    m&m, you should read Leonard Arrington’s Adventures of a Church Historian he does a good job at detailing how Elders Monsen, Tanner, Hunter, and others were so unruly and unspiritual. They totally should have been kicked off the team for not supporting the divine censorship that others in correlation wanted.

    Hooray!


  24. For what reason should the Correlation Committee be accorded so much deference?

    Cuz God perfectly controls it. Jesus actually sits in on the meetings and personally approves everything.


  25. I’m done, folks. This is pointless discussion as far as I’m concerned.


  26. I should say most of it I find pointless.

    But I did want to respond to Jacob J. While I understand your point of view, I essentially disagree. I don’t think it’s necessary to know how many wives Joseph Smith had, for example. I don’t dispute the fact that sometimes some historical context can be helpful, but when it comes to doctrinal principles, very little is really needed, imo. And the book gives a little along the way.

    More of my thoughts on that topic can be found here.


  27. I have heard many people say that the reason our manuals don’t discuss certain topics (e.g., Joseph’s polygamy) is that they just don’t matter. It’s not important or relevant to our faith, they say.

    My question then would be, if it really isn’t important, then why does Correlation seem so adamant about not mentioning polygamy? It’s not just that they neglect to address it; they repeatedly and actively refuse to address it. Their repeated refusals to address the topic seem to indicate that they feel that it is an important topic as far as members’ faith goes. That is to say, it’s important that members not know about it. So in the interest of the members’ faith, Correlation actively works to censor any and all direct references to Joseph’s polygamous marriages. Were it really an innocuous topic in Correlation’s eyes, then they would probably have a more neutral approach to it.

    This raises the question: Do they really believe that Joseph Smith was inspired to practice polygamy? If so, then why do they act so embarrassed about it?


  28. m&m,

    I agree that a lot of the doctrine could be covered without the history. I haven’t read the JS manual yet, so I hope to find that they dig in more than the post suggests. So, I am with you in hoping for a lot of pure doctrine. I should have separated my other point from that one. I feel it is a disservice to church members to have them go to years of meetings and come away without knowing basic facts about the history. It is not necessarily important to know how many wives Joseph Smith had until someone tells you how many it was and you have never heard of it, even after “studying” his life in church for two years. I guess this goes back to the inoculation discussions that were happening earlier in the year. There are dangers to inoculation, of course, but I have to think it is best to be conversant in basic historical facts.


  29. Despite the challenges of and drawbacks to correlation, the alternative isn’t very attractive, either. I can imagine frustrated posts all over the bloggernacle if the church started releasing manuals with conflicting quotes or teachings. While I’m sure some members of the church (i.e. everyone on this blog) would appreciate the openness and honesty of this approach, there are even more members of the church who would view it as evidence that the church wasn’t everything it claimed to be.


  30. OK, so the post I never wrote this week was going to be on this one paragraph from the intro:

    This book deals with teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith that have application to our day. For example, this book does not discuss such topics as the Prophet’s teachings regarding the law of consecration as applied to stewardship of property. The Lord withdrew this law from the Church because the Saints were not prepared to live it (see D&C 119, section heading). This book also does not discuss plural marriage. The doctrines and principles relating to plural marriage were revealed to Joseph Smith as early as 1831. The Prophet taught the doctrine of plural marriage, and a number of such marriages were performed during his lifetime. Over the next several decades, under the direction of the Church Presidents who succeeded Joseph Smith, a significant number of Church members entered into plural marriages. In 1890, President Wilford Woodruff issued the Manifesto, which discontinued plural marriage in the Church (see Official Declaration 1). The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints no longer practices plural marriage.

    Steve, since the model of manuals for a long time has been application-focused and not history-focused (even with scriptural stories and the Church history lessons, the focus is not on learning the history, it’s on applying principles from the scriptures and the history to our day), I think your logic is flawed. If this were the only manual that was ever created as an application-based manual, you might have a point. But I think you are making up problems that don’t exist. (See more thoughts below on the fact that I don’t think they fear it at all, and they acknowledge that it was from God in this simple and short paragraph.)

    Jacob J., this paragraph is great, I think. Anyone who reads this intro will know polygamy happened, which I think is good. No one ought be unaware that it happened, so to that point, I agree with you. And while I think the whole inoculation thing is one of those No One Right Answer things, I actually think the way the manual handled this is quite brilliant. They didn’t ignore it, they mention it. Very good. We don’t have to pretend it didn’t happen. They even explain a tiny bit about it — really, imo, all that needs to be said about it: 1) it happened, 2) it happened because it was revealed to Joseph Smith (period, end of story — it was a revealed principle, 3) many plural marriages happened under prophetic direction even after Joseph died, 4) it ended when the prophet Wilford Woodrfuff received a revelation to end it (there is revelation again — it was all under God’s control). There aren’t any apologies for it. But there isn’t undue focus on it (and how). And we go back to our business of studying the doctrine and teachings of the prophet that apply to us today, which is what our prophets today want us to do.

    To me, the structure of the lesson manual is a lesson in and of itself, and I love it. The message to me is this : There are things about our history that may leave us scratching our heads a bit (or more). But perhaps we ought to just keep them simple and not get so caught up with them (if it interests you, great, but it ought not consume or worry you). We ought to let the concern go and just savor the doctrines and truths that are real and wonderful and important for us today — the things that feed and increase faith. We ought not let questions and concerns consume us and distract us, or worse, threaten our faith. We can choose how much focus to give just as has been done here.


  31. M&M,

    Steve, since the model of manuals for a long time has been application-focused and not history-focused (even with scriptural stories and the Church history lessons, the focus is not on learning the history, it’s on applying principles from the scriptures and the history to our day), I think your logic is flawed. If this were the only manual that was ever created as an application-based manual, you might have a point.

    You have failed to demonstrate how my logic is “flawed.” All you have said is that you feel that the traditionally application-focused philosophy of our lesson manuals does not demand a more comprehensive treatment of history in future manuals. However, appeals to tradition are logical fallacies. Our past manuals’ treatment of history should not logically govern how future manuals should treat history. So even though the JS manual is similar in its philosophy to past manuals, I think I still have a point.

    You’re right–the manuals are primarily application-focused (as they should be). However, the application-focused approach and the history-focused approach are not mutually exclusive, as you imply. I think our manuals are very much concerned with teaching history, in addition to principles

    I would argue that history plays a larger role in our lessons than you suggest. Every fourth year, we study the Doctrine and Covenants and Church History. That manual states as one of its express purposes to “[t]each the ongoing history of the restored Church of Jesus Christ” and to “[h]elp class members understand the importance of their day in the history of the Church—that they have inherited a great legacy and that they can find joy in their responsibility to continue to move forward the work of the Lord.” We even canonize Church history; the standard first vision account comes from “Joseph Smith–History.” The latest issue of the Ensign has an interview with Marlin K. Jensen about the importance of Church history. The section entitled “The Life and Ministry of Joseph Smith” at the beginning of the JS manual contains an abbreviated history of the Church during his lifetime, and each chapter includes a “From the Life of Joseph Smith” section, which the manual states is to be used to “provide[ ] information about Joseph Smith’s life and early Church history that can be used in introducing and teaching the lesson” (emphasis added). On numerous occasions, President Hinckley has reiterated the importance of teaching and studying Church history, particularly the life of Joseph Smith.

    Frankly, I’m not interested in another drawn-out discussion. I just don’t think you’re willing to credit anything I say unless it is praising the Church. Therefore, I see no point in continuing the debate. I think it is highly unlikely that we are going to come to any kind of a consensus on this one.

    I’m done with this one.


  32. However, the application-focused approach and the history-focused approach are not mutually exclusive, as you imply.

    For the record, I never suggested otherwise. Of course history has its place in what we learn. I just don’t think that the fact that correlation didn’t include details about polygamy means that they think it wasn’t inspired. That was the point from your comment I was responding, Steve. I should have made that more clear.

    I just don’t think you’re willing to credit anything I say unless it is praising the Church.

    But this is unfair and unkind. I think perhaps our styles of expression differ, but if I only engaged people who were praising the Church all of the time, I would have given up blogging a long time ago. And I wouldn’t have agree to participate in this blog. Obviously, I’ve pushed a button and I’m sorry. But please refrain from the generalizations about me and about what I think and feel. You don’t know my heart, and your last comment shows that you don’t understand my thoughts, either. I’m fine calling it quits, though.


  33. And I will add one more apology…I have had a bad week, and as such have probably been responding more quickly and reading less carefully than I should have. I’m sure that has added to the frustration and I am sorry.


  34. M&M,

    I’m sorry if my last comment sounded frustrated. The combination of finals, too little sleep, and illness probably influenced my terseness, and I apologize for that. However, I still think that it’s probably best to just “agree to disagree” on this one.


  35. Group hug!


  36. Maybe it’s time that we had three adult Sunday School classes: Gospel Principles (for the newbies), Gospel Doctrine (for most members) and Gospel Mysteries and Esoterica (for those that go get their Diet Coke between Priesthood and Sacrament Meeting)(just kidding!). For the latter class, we could use “A Rough Stone Rolling” for the text.

    I loved this comment. Funny story: my wife and I were called to teach an “alternate” gospel doctrine class a few months ago. We were given “Our Heritage,” which as you might know, is a pretty slim volume, as a curriculum text. We’ve supplementing this with the institute manual “Church History in the Fullness of Times” and yes, “Rough Stone Rolling”.
    We try to be honest about uncomfortable issues, like polygamy, and so far, I think, the class has been a hit (no credit for me; my wife is the star).
    No Diet Cokes, unfortunately.


  37. The manuals strip anything out of the Kimball manual that made him sound like a democrat. But I go to the original talks and put it right back in (i.e., environmentalism and anti-military themes).



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