Sunday School 2.0 (sort of)

dandc-manualLove it or hate it, it’s still around: Gospel Doctrine in LDS Sunday School. The SL Trib has a long story detailing the upgrades to the curriculum for the upcoming year, “New scholarship coming to Mormon lessons, but will instructors really teach it?” Apparently the plan for revising the manual is to change absolutely nothing in the current instructor’s manual for D&C and Church History, but to (1) post some additional material online somewhere at the sprawling site, (2) hope the teachers use some of the material posted at the Revelations in Context site (itself a subdomain of, and (3) print some of this additional material in a booklet to be made available through LDS distribution centers. Maybe some teachers will use this extra material, maybe they won’t.

You really ought to go read the article before commenting. But I know some of you won’t, so here are a few quotations, with my comments following in italics.

  • “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 [of LDS history as reflected in the Gospel Topics essays] to the rank and file without undermining their faith in the story’s fundamentals.” Okay, this is good — this is the next step on the path that started with the Gospel Topics Initiative. Balancing the “retelling” (reflecting more accurate historical facts) with the “fundamentals” or origiinal telling (which often avoided historical facts) is the challenge here.
  • “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.” And send ten copies to every ward and branch in the Church, right?
  • “He [Matthew McBride, editor-in-chief of] acknowledges there is no mandate from top Mormon leaders for teachers to use these materials.” That does seem to be a problem. Almost like they are hoping teachers won’t actually use the new material.
  • “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.” Why they didn’t implement the obvious solution and just write a new and better manual from scratch is simply incomprehensible. Billions in tithing revenue, tens of thousands of employees, three university religion faculties at their disposal, and they can’t just write a better manual?
  • “‘Sunday school is a misnomer,’ says [LDS historian Matthew] 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.'” This seems like an obvious point but it is rarely articulated.
  • “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.'” Again, what’s wrong with just writing a better manual?

How successful this new approach to upgrading the LDS Gospel Doctrine curriculum turns out to be will depend on the actual content of the supplementary material, how easy it is to access, and whether teachers actually figure out how to use it (assuming they even want to or are encouraged to). Let’s hope for the best.

33 comments for “Sunday School 2.0 (sort of)

  1. Nothing wrong with a new manual. I’d encourage it. But that’ll take years. It’s not something you whip out in a year.

    My personal hope is that we shift to topical lessons. While I think it was important to start studying the scriptures in order, I think the problem today isn’t so much people not reading their scriptures as people being ignorant of doctrine. Yes there’s Gospel Principles but it’s usually oriented around new members.

  2. All the teachers have been gathering for weekly training on Sunday, for the past several months in my ward. I don’t know exactly what they are learning about, but presumably it is instruction on how to use the new curriculum materials.

  3. The teacher meetings are for learning how to teach more effectively, and not about any new curriculum. I’d be shocked if this new curriculum even came up in passing in the teacher meetings I’ve been attending.

  4. Our ward holds teacher “councils” (not training) every week, but attendance is rotational because there are so many. I only attend the one for Priesthood and Relief Society teachers, but my wife attends the Sunday School session. She has made no mention of these materials, nor has the Sunday School president said anything abut them in Ward Council. They are very much under the radar.

  5. A new manual? Bleh. The problem with Gospel Doctrine is that there is a manual, or that we believe that we can educate and edify modern thinking adults by creating a manual which makes everything doctrinally clear, opens up the scriptures to every mind and transforms an uninteresting adult into a dazzling teacher. Clark is correct. That would take years. And since it has never been done before, it would be miraculous.

    Burn the old manual. Call the brightest and the wisest to take the reins in each class. Train and encourage teacher development. Have readings and ancillary materials available online for teacher and student use. Adopt an attitude that Gospel learning and Gospel living requires a bit of adventurous ambiguity.

  6. I agree with Old Man’s (#5) second paragraph, especially about calling the most capable to be teachers. I have seen too frequently leadership call a member to teaching a position because they want to help the individual grow, but doing so undercuts the tremendous effect a gifted teacher can have on a class. I have seen individuals be assigned teaching callings as a means for them to overcome their shyness (bless their souls), and classes have suffered as a result. Gosh, maybe I’m spouting off social Darwinism, but I have a hard time suppressing this view.

  7. To Clark Goble in #1– The concept that a manual would take years to produce is probably true, but only due to bureaucratic inertia. For much of the 20th Century, the Church produced a new manual, from scratch, every single year for every one of the auxilliaries. And this is when the Church was a tenth of it’s current size.

    To prove they could still do it, for the last 20 years, they’ve produced a new Priesthood/RS manual nearly every year (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church.)

    The Gospel Topics essays were published in 2014, and easily could have been incorporated into the Church history manuals at that time. The fact that they were not leads me to suspect that someone in the hierarchy (maybe Elder Packer?) quashed the idea, and now the individual is gone, there wasn’t enough time to do a full rewrite.

    I’m hoping the adult SS program is remodeled to match the youth version.

  8. A secondary problem to “brightest and wisest” is that it works great in established wards or wards with a moderately educated population. It doesn’t work in small numbered branches or wards where no one feels qualified to teach.

  9. I’m not sure the RS/PH manuals are quite the same though since 95% of them are just selecting quotes from the figure in question. Usually out of existing quote books. Redoing an entire close reading of scripture seems a bit more challenging. Also for various reasons there is the correlation you mention where is goes back and forth to get approved.

    Personally I’d rather they spend a few years and do manuals well. Although that may be a bit misguided of me.

    Old Man, I agree no manual will make a poor teacher great. And most of the good teachers don’t really use the manuals much anyway, so I think their value is a bit overstated. However often a lot of inexperienced people get called. I think having a few better guidelines would be helpful. In many ways the current manuals are a bit too minimal. That makes it hard for many teachers I think.

  10. I can’t help but wonder if the 12 can’t reach concensus about teaching Church History. The Correlation Committee is probably splintered with opinions too. “Better to stay on the safe side.” I love LDS history, but it might seem scary to many. Too bad. Opportunity missed.

  11. Teaching Councils (which are monthly, not weekly), discuss the topics decided on by those who attend. If you attend those meetings and want to talk about the new materials, do it. It is a council, not a lesson.

  12. Yeah, let’s write a better manual. But what would a better manual look like?

    The purpose of Sunday School is to test and reinforce loyalty. Nothing historically substantive is learned there. Somehow I don’t see how an in-depth discussion about how Joseph Smith married 14-year-old girls would have much effect other than causing more to question the LDS church and eventually leave it.

  13. Mark S,

    I have been a student of church history for most of my life. I am reasonably well-read in the field. I’ve wrestled with issues. But I feel more secure in my faith because I have studied and come to terms with some of the more difficult issues. I don’t believe that many people leave the Church over historical difficulties because of the difficulties themselves. I believe that some leave the Church because they feel betrayed by the membership and leadership for refusing to acknowledge and discuss these issues openly. The monster under the bed or in the shadows is more terrifying and dangerous than the one blinking in the intensity of full sunlight. Your approach makes the issues in question more powerful and dangerous, not less.

    It is best to deal with some of these complex issues in the safety of a faith community. Resources and ideas can be shared. Infantilizing adults has serious ramifications. It leads us all to spiritual destruction. LDS teens and adults can be empowered and edified through serious study and the evaluation of multiple perspectives. Count me among those who believe that the richest and rigorous education is possible with every Latter-day Saint community across the globe. But we need thoughtful, humble adults to develop into skilled and inspiring teachers to help us.

    As Joseph Smith taught: “The things of God are of deep import; and time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, O man! if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity—thou must commune with God.”

    Church instruction should aid us in our ponderous and solemn search from the “utmost heavens” and into the “darkest abyss.” Anything less just isn’t fit for the minds of Saints aspiring for salvation.

  14. Personally I want lessons that focus on scriptures. I don’t want topical lessons or lessons like the youth have. Youth lessons are topics with a set of general authority talks and a few cherry picked scriptures. We already get GA talks in sacrament and Rs/preisthhood. I’d really like some intelligent study of scriptures — for example that incorporates biblical scholarship.

  15. Old Man, cj,

    I think that the LDS leaders have essentially infantilized adults with their curricula for Sunday School and PH/RS because it has been effective. Plus, you speak as older adults (I’m assuming) who have had a long history in the LDS church and who are probably well socialized in it. You would have a lot to lose if you left the church and are probably pretty comfortable in it. I think that younger generation and converts are likely to react negatively to an in-depth study of church history. Mention of polygamy and blacks and the priesthood and other potential troubling issues in passing might be conducive to keeping activity rates at the same levels that they have been at in the past, or even increasing them, but dwelling at length on the issues could backfire. I think that is the aim of the new manual. Briefly mention, “oh yeah, the leaders used to practice polygamy because God commanded them to, but then God told them not to at some point,” and then say, “but that’s not too important, what’s important is praying, reading scriptures, family, etc.” In other words the idea is to bring the monster out into the light and then give them the illusion that they have fully acknowledged the monster’s presence and are fully aware of what it is and then subtly point them away from it. Whitewashing has been effective in the past, it will continue to be effective moving forward. Especially because we live in an age of too much information. The challenge is no longer trying to find information about church history, it is sifting through the endless pile of writings about it and trying to construct a framework through which to make sense out of it.

  16. I don’t think “infantilized” is appropriate. However they were simplified as in many wards relatively recent converts (less than 10 years) outnumber established members. Further even among established members it’s surprising how many are ignorant of their own faith. Part of the reason Pres. Benson changed the curriculum was as part of his emphasis of the Book of Mormon. Shockingly many members were fairly ignorant of the basics of the Book of Mormon. Say what one will, but in the 25 years since I think people have learned more about their scriptures than they did in the past. I just worry that this focus has left people a tad too ignorant on topics still.

    But at a certain point one has to study on ones own. It’s not like the information isn’t out there. is a huge resource that’s extremely helpful to people if they use it.

  17. Before we left San Diego our stake and ward along with a few others from different areas across the world were part of a pilot program for a new teaching paradigm, similar to ‘Come Follow Me’ the youth have been doing. The new curriculum/framework/manuals (whatever you want to call it) is very minimal like come follow me, but also quite expansive, covering basically all instruction from the entire primary to youth to relief society and priesthood quorums. Almost everyone who participated absolutely loved it. The Teachers’ councils are just the small tip of the iceberg. I suspect (and very much hope) that it will be rolled out in 2018 following the Gordon B. Hinckley manual in 2017. Some critics will still complain, but after having participated for 6 months, it is a huge improvement for many reasons.

    Meaningful highlights:

    1) Synergy between home and church
    It proactively promotes and organizes a meaningful synergy between gospel learning in the home and at church.
    The framework has families study the topic for FHE, live and ponder during the week, allow time for spiritual experiences, and then on Sunday classes, everyone is prepared to share meaningful stuff. You don’t have to hire a P.I. to find out what your kid’s primary lesson was on, because you already know!

    2) Synergy across callings and responsibilities
    Preparing an FHE lesson allows for some good experimentation within your own family. This helps jump start lesson preparation for busy primary, sunday school, and other teachers, and also allows for course correction following the FHE lesson as needed.

    I know many will be appalled at the lack of intellectual rigor, but focus on practice and experiences I feel is the best focus for a public church setting. I love both, but I personally feel that “by study” is best for more intimate settings or with a shared interest group, whereas “by faith,” aka practical application in real life, is best for church settings where we need to mourn with and strengthen each other for another week.

  18. Cameron N.,

    Thanks for your thoughts. I always want to be supportive. However, if you’re right, then there never be any “study” in our church settings — all three hours will be faith-promoting personal stories on a short list of approved topics. No need for a teacher, just a facilitator. To me, that is sad. I love to read and discuss the scriptures. As a people, we’re better when we understand what the scriptures actually say.

  19. I’m not sure it’s a either/or situation. However I think teachers do need to be aware of the range of familiarity with these issues. Also the emphasis shouldn’t be on the structures but the message. That is scripture was written to do something. If we miss that function we’re missing the forest for the trees.

  20. I’m super confused–I see the Revelations in Context materials and the Gospel Topics Essays, buy I’m unclear on how the church us connecting these to the D&C lessons. Have they added links in the online version of the manual? If so can someone give me an example? How are my teachers going to know when to look outside the manual?

  21. SSP, it is indeed a little unclear. My sense is that the online versions of lessons for the current manual contain a few links to relevant material in the essays and possibly to the Rev in Context essays as well. You can (apparently) order hard copies of the Rev in Context essays (see the link in my earlier comment) and just hand those to you Gospel Doctrine teachers to use as supplementary material. No hard copy version of the essays is presently available. You can either print them yourself and hand them out or just email links to the teachers.

    It will be interesting to track feedback from teachers and class members as teachers begin to (rather haphazardly) incorporate material from the essays and Rev in Context into lessons this year. I imagine some classes are going to feature some pointed comments and discussions not seen in earlier lesson cycles.

  22. I’ve been poking around the online ( and Gospel Library iOS app), and I see no indication of any linking between the lessons and these other resources. Maybe I’m just not looking at the right lessons…or maybe they haven’t been updated yet? Surely the First Vision lesson should have some links, right?

    If you read the “Helps for the Teacher” chapter in the online GD manual, it still lists the out-of-date Teaching No Greater Call and does not list Revelations in Context or the essays. And if you download the PDF of the manual, you’re going to get the old print copy.

    The newsroom article indicates that there should be links, but the newsroom doesn’t seem like a very good way of reaching GD instructors. Or really any normal members of the Church. It feels to me like the SLTrib article has made this out to be more than it is (for the simple reason that we all want this to be about more than a few buried links that may or may not exist in a resource many of the teachers aren’t going to use anyway).

    As for me and my Sunday School, we’re going to incorporate RiC and the Essays as fully as possible in our curriculum since the Church leadership doesn’t seem to have any idea what they want to have happen. This will take some ponderizing for sure.

  23. It would be helpful if resources like these were linked to for each section. Maybe on the sidebar or at the bottom of the section.

    If I really want to dream big the Church could slowly redo all those useless footnotes and make them useful linking to new resources. Heck, take a few BYU professors looking for a mission and put them on the task.

  24. Actually, I found the essays and the new Revelations in Context manual in the Church history portion of the Gospel Library App along with Insitute manuals, the four(!) versions of the First vision, and other things. All of it updated. Having said that, I agree with all the criticisms above. Where’s Kevin Barney as General SS President when we need him? When we staffed a new Ward, our bishop said the order of priority was (1) RS President, (2) Scoutmaster and (3) GD Teacher (to keep the people out of the halls). Worked pretty well.

  25. After being a scout leader for many years I’m about at the stage of wishing I was a GD teacher. LOL. But the reality is that’s a really difficult calling for people for some reason. It’s more often done poorly rather than well when people do their calling at all. So I suspect most wards have that as a focus.

  26. Funny that Terry H says that. When they split our ward and I was called as the scoutmaster, we were in the process of looking for a second vehicle. Ended up settling on a Chevy 3/4-ton. Four years later, (six months after being released) I sold the truck to my brother-in-law. Couldn’t justify the poor gas mileage when I didn’t need the truck for camping and other outdoor activities. :o)

  27. I say prepare all needful things and teach by the spirit. The manual is only a guide. It’s not mandatory. I rather be in a class where we can discuss openly.

  28. Since correlation (perhaps before), teaching within the church seems to be largely didactic. This has become culturally entrenched and will take time to unwind. It seems to me a few of the twelve are committed to changing not only curriculum but how principles and doctrines are taught and applied. For example, CES recently announced they have retired Scripture Mastery, a program of rote memorization that is at least a few decades old, implying it does little to help youth prepare for the modern world. Instead, according to Elder Ballard, doctrine needs to be taught in seminary in a way that helps youth learn how to apply doctrines to solving contemporary problems. I think he even said in the past our youth have lead sheltered lives (which I would argue was the church’s purpose and is its own fault–but that is another discussion).

    While church membership has been marinating in a church culture of “follow the prophet” we may be more committed to familiar patterns and traditions. Part of the resistance to embracing a new history of our origins–and the challenges and change in self-identify it may imply–lies with members themselves. The new history, for example, is confusing to many. Did Joseph Smith see two heavenly beings in a grove descend upon him? Or is the reality of what happened much more complex, and how did the popular, simplified narrative come to be if, in fact, the way he recorded the event changes over time as he retells it? What does all of this mean to what I believe and how I feel? These are difficult ideas for some members to embrace, and can create feelings of spiritual instability. At least that is what I’m seeing as our ward works to push forward the new history on the first vision, blacks and the priesthood, etc., and what it means to believers and non-believers.

    We are talking openly in our ward and classes both about the new teacher council program and the new information, and how it can be joined with curriculum. We all walked through the church’s app (Gospel Library/Church History/Gospel Topics Essays, and Revelations in Context, and Joseph Smith’s Accounts of the First Vision) on our first Sunday of the year and talked about what it means. I see uncomfortable body language and comments coming from some, and excitement from others.

    How this is adopted within wards I believe will depend on the support the idea has starting with the bishop and working through other leaders. It will then require skilled teachers who know the scriptures, our doctrines, and, I’ll argue most importantly, the historical context within which scriptural and doctrinal meaning is formed. Teaching Gospel Doctrine will require a serious student of it, and not someone called who takes the class paragraph-by-paragraph through the lesson.

    I’ll add one last thought: I am seeing teachers in my ward embrace the direction given by the new teaching program that unlocks their ability to take greater liberties to roam in class according to the needs and interests of the students and goals of the teacher. Even with the building momentum for change, which I see as being very positive and I might assert mildly progressive, it will take years and years for us to embrace this change culturally. I think we’ll be challenged not only with new information, but with the need to adopt a new way of thinking about our faith and the knowledge which plays an important part in building our faith. While I wish church leadership would move at a faster pace, I also understand doing so risks alienating maybe half of our members. It will take time. Success will depend on the church’s ability to ‘push’ and the local church to ‘pull.’

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