Beginning in January, as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints embark on a yearlong study of their history, the task will be to bring this retelling to the rank and file without undermining their faith in the story’s fundamentals.
It will be complicated.
Rather than redo the Sunday school manual — a curriculum guide for lay teachers to explore the text and themes in the compilation of revelations, mostly to Smith, called the Doctrine & Covenants (D&C) — Mormon leaders chose simply to add the new material to the end of existing lesson plans as they appear online.
Each lesson will begin with an introduction directing teachers to the resource writings at the conclusion, says Matthew McBride, editor in chief of history.lds.org who oversees the publication of the essays on that site.
Of particular relevance to the D&C is a series of articles, “Revelations in Context,” which provides stories behind specific sections, McBride says, as well as insights gleaned from the landmark multiyear, multivolume Joseph Smith Papers Project.
“We were trying to take a different approach to D&C studies,” McBride says, “offering a narrative [about a section] from a single individual’s point of view, sometimes Joseph Smith but often a lesser-known Mormon figure.”
The extra resources also will include various descriptions of Smith’s “First Vision,” which Latter-day Saints believe was an actual exchange with God and Jesus but which the founding Mormon prophet described differently on separate occasions.
Then there are the groundbreaking Gospel Topics essays — ranging from priesthood and polygamy to the nature of God and Mormon belief in a Heavenly Mother.
Most of these supplements will be available in 10 languages online starting next week and then printed and available in LDS distribution centers by year’s end.
It is “a good-faith effort on the part of church leaders” — including Mormon apostle M. Russell Ballard’s “strongly worded charge” for teachers and members to become familiar with the essays, McBride says. “We think this will really move the needle.”
He acknowledges there is no mandate from top Mormon leaders for teachers to use these materials.
“We put it out there and hope that people will find it and use it,” he says, with a further wish that “as these resources become more available, there will be more nuance in the way we talk about our history.”
Some LDS scholars, though, worry such an approach will create more confusion for members rather than enlarge their understanding.
Thorny topics • Mormon historian Paul Reeve began complaining about the 1999 D&C manual (revised in 2003) eight years ago and, he says, it’s even worse today.
The guide either ignores, or instructs teachers not to tackle, some issues, says Reeve, a history professor at the University of Utah. In some instances, it even contradicts the essays.
Consider the lesson on D&C 132, a section describing and defending the practice of polygamy while reinforcing the doctrine of eternal marriage.
The lesson provides little historical background, saying Smith was reluctant to take additional wives but obeyed God’s command to do so. It then goes on to say the practice ended in 1890 with President Wilford Woodruff’s “Manifesto” and urges teachers not to make polygamy “the focus of the lesson.”
By contrast, the essays deal with polygamy, explaining how widespread it was, how it was experienced and how it took years after Woodruff’s decree to eradicate the practice.
“If you can’t talk about polygamy,” Reeve asks, “how are saints in the pews going to understand the history of polygamy?”
More troubling to the U. professor is what the manual says about the former ban on black males being ordained.
Lesson 25, titled “Priesthood: The Power of Godliness,” mentions nothing about the prohibition, while Lesson 42, “Continuing Revelation to Latter-day Prophets” cites several examples of what it sees as revelatory changes — including operation of church auxiliaries and publication of new editions of LDS scriptures.
The only one considered a revelation by most members — and canonized in the D&C — is the 1978 declaration opening the faith’s priesthood to “all worthy men,” no matter what race, and it gets only a brief mention in the lesson.
Recent scholarship, including the new introductory heading for the 1978 pronouncement and the 2013 essay “Race and the Priesthood,” explains that black men were ordained in the faith’s early years, Reeve says, and helps today’s church “recover the lives of black Mormon pioneers and return them to their rightful place in LDS history.”
It is “beyond ironic” that the lesson, he notes, “offers no context and no explanation as to why a revelation extending the priesthood to blacks of African descent was needed in the first place.”
The LDS Church is in the “middle of a long-term process on how to tell its own story,” he says, a similar agony Americans faced in the 1970s, when less-sanitized narratives about U.S. history became available.
The essays were intended partly to help believers cope with controversial information readily available online.
“The challenge is creating safe spaces for these to be discussed in an open manner,” Reeve says, “so people in pews don’t feel that there’s any credibility in accusations that the church is hiding something.”
If not in church-sanctioned Sunday school, he wonders, where can this be done?
Small steps vs. giant leaps • Mormon historian Matthew Bowman never expected the D&C manual to be overhauled.
“Sunday school is a misnomer,” says Bowman, author of “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith.” “It hasn’t been about conveying information or promoting transparency for about 50 years.”
Instead, that weekly meeting “is about the cultivation of moral behavior and ethics,” he says. “The actual body of scripture under discussion is secondary to the practical application and living the life of a Latter-day Saint.”
The scholar, who teaches history at Henderson State University in Arkansas, would be more surprised if the church had radically changed its curriculum in such a short time.
“It will take something of a reformation on what the purpose of Sunday school is,” he says, “and that is a fairly large thing to do.”
Still, he sees these resources being widely available as positives.
“The slow trickle of the Gospel Topics essay into prominence,” Bowman says, “is a good first step.”
But some argue longer strides are needed — and soon.
Save tomorrow — today • It’s easy to forget how much Mormon scholars have learned in the past 20 years about their past, says LDS researcher and writer Ardis Parshall, “but none of that is reflected in a manual that dates to the last century.”
It is an “exciting time to be a historian and a Mormon,” she says, but also frustrating to bring discoveries to her Sunday school class, where they are “greeted with suspicion, even outright denial.”
Today, there is “one relatively small group of Latter-day Saints who have read and are digesting the new Gospel Topics essays,” Parshall says, “and a much larger majority who have never heard of them or who question their validity. What is that division doing to our ability to discuss our faith?”
The Salt Lake City-based researcher worries about the next generation of believers.
“The young people I associate with today are struggling to understand our past and present, and to find their place in the church now,” Parshall says. “Some of them who might have [stayed in] the church won’t be here in two or three years if our curricula and teaching materials aren’t updated until then.”
So the key to Mormonism’s future may rest with how it teaches followers about its past.