What Can Lesson Manuals Teach Us? Voices from the Dusty Bookshelf
Lesson manuals are curious creations. Some believe a manual can facilitate discussion and conversation. Others believe a manual can provide structure and guidance. Ultimately, a manual is a tool for teaching and learning. But what is to be taught? How should it be taught? These are perennial questions that plague any community of faith concerned with imparting first principles and beyond.
Perhaps no religious tradition begins with lesson manuals. The first religious text that Joseph Smith produced was the Book of Mormon, arguably not a work with subject matter conveniently arranged in a topical format. Yet pedagogical works seem to follow quickly as the need grows to impart knowledge and instruct in principles of the gospel in a formal setting. Many lesson manuals in the past are hardly remembered and perhaps not even known by many Latter-day Saints today, although a few have definitely made their mark.
The first lesson manual in the Latter-day Saint tradition was probably the Lectures on Faith published in 1835. Developed for the School of the Elders in Kirtland, Ohio, the Lectures on Faith consisted of seven theological presentations.
Widtsoe on Rational Theology
Many lesson manuals were written by apostles or soon-to-be apostles. In 1915, the Latter-day Saint immigrant John Andreas Widtsoe published “Rational Theology,” a year after the MacMillan Company published his book on principles of irrigation practice. Rational Theology was used as the priesthood manual in 1915. Improvement Era, Vol. XVIII. January, 1915. No. 3. In many ways, Widtsoe’s text had the inklings of a systematic treatment of Mormon theology. He covers topics often treated in Christian systematics such as epistemology, anthropology, soteriology, ecclesiology, and so forth. He published Rational Theology the year before becoming the president of the University of Utah and six years before being ordained an apostle in 1921.
Talmage on Jesus the Christ
Jesus the Christ, the classic work by scientist James E. Talmage, was used as the priesthood manual from 1916-1917. Talmage was ordained as an apostle in 1911 at the age of 49. “Jesus the Christ” originally began as a series of lectures in 1904. Talmage then worked from 1914 to 1915 to publish his material in book format. LDS thinking on Jesus Christ would never be the same.
McKay on Ancient Apostles
In 1918, junior apostle David Oman McKay wrote “Ancient Apostles” one of the first lesson manuals for use in Sunday School. That same year McKay was appointed as the general superintendent of the Deseret Sunday School Union. He had served as an assistant to the general superintendent since being ordained to an apostle in 1909. See Garr, Arnold K., Donald Q. Cannon, and Richard O. Cowan, eds. Encyclopedia of Latter-day Saint History. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2000. McKay’s preface to Ancient Apostles reveals how he thought his manual should be used.
Each chapter is planned, also, to emphasize one general aim, which should be correlated with the incident or incidents with which the personality of the Apostle and his companions is associated. Since it is difficult, if not impossible to teach morality and doctrine without personality, the wise teachers will ever keep in mind that the persons, settings, actions, and conversations in this little work are only a means of teaching truths and principles of conduct that will contribute to the moulding of God-like character in their boys and girls.
The suggestive outlines and aims in the appendix are offered as helps and guides to teachers. Only a few suggestive applications are offered; but no lesson should be given, or even prepared, without the teachers’ attempting, at least, to devise the most efficient means of introducing into the children’s daily lives the aims and ideals taught. David O. McKay, Ancient Apostles. Salt Lake City: Deseret Sunday School Union, 1918, pp. iii-iv.
Ancient Apostles was also used by teachers and priests in 1919.
Smith on Essentials in Church History
In 1922, Joseph Fielding Smith published Essentials in Church History, a 700-page volume on Church history used as a manual for Melchizedek priesthood and for priests. Joseph Fielding Smith had been ordained to the apostleship in 1910 and was appointed Church historian by Heber J. Grant in 1921. He had been working on his one-volume history before his appointment. Essentials in Church History saw more than 24 publications and was by far one of the most influential historical works in Mormon history. This Church historian would eventually become president of the Church.
In 1947, Gordon Bitner Hinckley, along with Marion G. Merkley co-authored a Sunday school manual titled Leaders of the Scriptures. In November 2003 General Conference, Elder Monte J. Brough based his talk on the influence of that manual. Elder Monte J. Brough, Young Men-Holders of Keys, Ensign, November 2003, p.47. Hinckley wouldn’t be ordained as an apostle until 14 years later.
Barker on the Divine Church
From 1952 to 1954, James Louis Barker’s three volume work “Apostasy from the Divine Church” was used as the Melchizedek priesthood manual. “Announcing the 1952 Melchizedek Priesthood Course of Study.” Improvement Era. Vol. Liv. December 1951. No. 12. At this time Dr. Barker was professor of languages at the University of Utah. As a result, Dr. Barker utilized important scholarship on Christian history only accessible in French. Previously in 1938, Barker had written a series of articles in the Improvement Era under the title “The Protestors of Christianity.” Barker served as member of the Deseret Sunday School Union (since 1928), and later as president of the Argentina Mission (1942) and then president of the French Mission (1946). In fact, Barker suggested to President McKay that foreign languages should be taught to missionaries before leaving to the mission field. Royal Skousen explained how he came across a version of this manual while serving as a missionary in Finland in 1965 and how he used it as a text for an institute class on primitive Christianity. Skousen, Royal. “Through a Glass Darkly: Trying to Understand the Scriptures”. BYU Studies 26/4 (Fall 1986): 3–20. This course of study was serious with discussion questions like the following:
Suggestions on teaching procedure:
1. Briefly review how the Nicean Council was called together and for what purpose.
2. State the chief problem before the council.
a. How could the idea of one God (accepted by the Jews and Pagan philosophers) be reconciled with the idea that the Son is divine? How [could one] maintain that the Son is divine without believing in two Gods? What is the relationship of the Son to the Father?
3. Explain the three parties in the council and their respective positions. Improvement Era, Vol. Lvi. February 1953. No. 2. “Melchizedek Priesthood: Lessons 8 and 9.”
Other suggested questions included: “Why did not the Donatists appeal to a central church authority?” “How did the division of the Roman Empire into the Eastern and Western Empires affect the Church?” and “How did political division of the American states during the Civil War period affect the organization of American churches?”
It’s uncertain whether people appreciated such a rigorous manual. In 1954, Elder Henry D. Moyle of the Quorum of the Twelve, referenced the manual during General Conference.
By their very nature the facts found have not lent themselves to too great a simplification. The priesthood quorums for the past three years have struggled with these lessons. Some of them put themselves in the spirit of the researcher and have succeeded in getting the greatest benefit therefrom. . . . Others have struggled without getting so deeply into the spirit in which this great work entitled The Divine Church was written. It has been a subject that could not be mastered without effort. Let me say it was not written without effort. There seems to be a relationship between the effort of the author and that required by the student to master the course. Others, we are advised, fell by the wayside and substituted other courses more to their individual liking. They have not prepared themselves to meet these issues so vital and current today in our intercourse with our fellow men in spreading the light which is ours among our neighbors at home and abroad. . . . The very fact that these three volumes of Elder Barker’s on The Divine Church were not as simple as some desired is added reason why we should read them a second time, and those in the meantime who have been advanced Into the Melchizedek Priesthood, or who have returned from the forces or from missions or both, might have the benefit of them for the first time. We advocate very seriously a first reading of these manuals by all who have not already mastered them. The dividends to be received from a study such as suggested, are certain, not alone in qualifying us to teach others, but above all to give to each of us a broader foundation of knowledge upon which our own faith may rest. We never lose sight in all our class-work and study of the fact that the glory of God is intelligence. Elder Henry D. Moyle, Conference Report, October 1954, Afternoon Meeting, p.34-35
Nibley on the Book of Mormon
Perhaps the most famous Melchizedek priesthood manual in more recent times is Hugh W. Nibley’s An Approach to the Book of Mormon. Famous in part because of Nibley’s clash with the goals of the committee in charge of the manual. The story is well known. President McKay, impressed with Nibley’s previous works on the Book of Mormon, asks him to prepare a Book of Mormon study manual to be used in the 1957 priesthood curriculum. Nibley’s desire to produce “something to move mountains” was muted by the desire of some that Nibley write something that an uneducated and uninformed audience could appreciate. Nibley wrote to the chair of the committee, Elder Henry D. Moyle:
I have always been impressed by the intelligence of the average priesthood member, and to ask me to write for his benefit a textbook for backward ten-year-olds is to ask the impossible. . . . The evidences for the Book of Mormon are simply overwhelming; they leave me breathless, but I have learned only too well in my few years in Utah that they excite great anger and resentment in certain quarters, and I should be most reluctant to write a whole priesthood manual for the wastebasket. To write a typical priesthood manual is totally beyond my powers: the question is, can the Lord’s work be helped by a new approach? If so, we’ve got a million of them —and a couple may be pretty good. Boyd K. Peterson, “Something to Move Mountains”: The Book of Mormon in Hugh Nibley’s Correspondence, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, 6/2 (1997), pp. 1-25.
The reading committee rejected Nibley’s lessons and although ultimately the project was saved by McKay, Nibley remarked “The committee knows best, but this is certainly the last thing I will ever write for the church.” Peterson, p. 9.
Nibley’s frustration is certainly understandable. Yet, the problem is not so easy to solve. Manuals are written for various audiences, and those in the class may be at various stages both intellectually and spiritually. They may have joined the church twenty years ago, or twenty hours ago. According to Nibley, McKay’s views arguably erred on the side of making members struggle with the material. Indeed, it is unclear exactly why Moyle, who advocated for Barker’s demanding opus, would not have been pleased with An Approach to the Book of Mormon. Nibley expressed McKay’s views to say “Well, if you think it’s over their heads, let them reach for it; we have to give them something more than pat answers.” Peterson, p. 9; See also Gregory A. Prince, William Robert Wright, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism. University of Utah Press, 2005, p. 160.
Manuals meet the World-Wide Church
Nibley’s confrontation with those more interested in writing basic manuals was only a harbinger of things to come. With the global expansion of a modern church, the primary concern for curriculum was to produce material that would assist in training local leadership in developing areas. A massive restructuring of Church organization in the 1960s and 1970s created committees charged with simplifying and correlating church materials. See for example, Hafen, Bruce C. “Disciple’s Life: A Biograph of Neal A. Maxwell, Early Years as General Authority 1974-1981: Correlation Department.” Deseret Book, 2002.
Concerns over the “translatability” of Church curriculum materials received much attention. Allen and Leonard explain the difficulties:
The challenge of crossing national boundaries was one thing, but crossing cultural boundaries was another challenge entirely. Many cultural challenges were facing the Church in the late twentieth century, largely because the gospel was still often transmitted and interpreted in American terms. One priesthood manual, for example, admonished husbands to treat their wives with love and respect, certainly an appropriate universal theme, but then urged them to kiss their wives each time they left the house or returned home. This created a cultural conflict that most American manual writers would never perceive. . . . On a different level, American manual writers were traditionally enthralled with capitalism, but many Latin American Saints identified capitalism with wealthy upper classes and economic and political oppression. Such problems suggested that the Church as an institution, as well as the Saints as individuals, still had a ways to go in their efforts to teach and practice the gospel in universal terms.
One response of the Church was to instruct those who produced manuals to simplify them. Texts were to focus on essential gospel principles and avoid illustrations that represented peculiarly American, or Utah, cultural values. The result was a new genre of manuals for many Church organizations that were short, focused on the scriptures and basic principles. This approach left ample opportunity for local teachers to expand according to their own concerns and inspiration. James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, The Story of the Latter-day Saints, 2nd ed., rev. and enl., p.646-647.
These challenges were no doubt behind the development of the original Gospel Principles (1978) manual. In fact, in some areas Gospel Principles (1978) constituted the full-curriculum for the church, which partly explains why the original publication included a hymn book, the articles of faith, and a collection of images to use for teaching.
Some members consider the rise of a correlated curriculum to signal a kind of loss of the original vitality of Church manuals. For example, one reviewer of Nibley’s manual put it this way:
My overall reaction to An Approach to the Book of Mormon can best be stated as follows: When in this age of correlation and manuals written by committees will we see another Melchizedek Priesthood lesson manual as exciting and insightful as this one? William J. Hamblin, “Time Vindicates Hugh Nibley,” Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 2 (1990): 119-27.
Interestingly, one may consider the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church series that took effect in 1998 to be somewhat of a departure from basic manuals that have universal appeal cross-culturally. According to Church News:
These changes [i.e. introduction of new manuals] come three years after the Church implemented a simplified, modified general curriculum in 1995, which reduced the amount of core curriculum materials by 50 percent in order to better facilitate taking the Church curriculum to members worldwide. At the time, it did not affect the Melchizedek Priesthood and Relief Society curriculum. “Strengthening the Work of the Melchizedek Priesthood Quorums and Relief Society.” LDS Church News, 1997, 11/08/97.
Each additional volume of the Teachings series was to add to each member’s gospel library leading to a deepening understanding of the Gospel. Indeed, outside of the English-speaking areas of the Church, the Teaching series has achieved such a goal. The latest in the series, Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith is arguably one of the best manuals ever produced by the curriculum department, which included an important Appendix on Sources. Footnotes clearly indicate a massive undertaking and many references include the name of the original reporter.
Now the pendulum has swung back to a manual presenting core teachings simply, indicative of a growing concern for members who have joined the church in the past decade world-wide, and perhaps a concern for training local leadership in developing wards and branches. See Russell M. Nelson, “The New Gospel Principles Manual” Ensign, January 2010, p.28-31. HTML – PDF
One thing this brief and selected review cannot tell us is what exactly happened in individual classrooms in the Church when these manuals were used. It cannot tell us much about the quality of teaching that actually occurred in individual classes. Regardless of the complexity of the manual and regardless of the manual’s author, what shape the lesson takes is determined by the instructor and the class. Even the most carefully written manual does not teach itself, and a great teacher is not great because of the manual. Ultimately, as President McKay taught, the manual is a guide but “no lesson should be given, or even prepared, without the teachers’ attempting, at least, to devise the most efficient means of introducing … the aims and ideals taught.”