Old Manuals, Unintended Consequences, and the Optimistic Turn of “Come Follow Me”

At an amazing S&I address a few years ago, Elder Ballard described past curriculum as well-meaning, but inadequate.

It was only a generation ago that our young people’s access to information about our history, doctrine, and practices was basically limited to materials printed by the Church. Few students came in contact with alternative interpretations. Mostly, our young people lived a sheltered life. Our curriculum at that time, though well-meaning, did not prepare students for today

A few curriculum writers have talked about their experiences. For example, BYU’s Dan Peterson has talked about his experience writing manuals (transcribed here). He’s also told a humorous story about the review process (quoted in a comment here. I’ve heard Dan tell this in person.)

Below, I print a private reminiscence of one writer of older curriculum, whose experience reflects the period when Church growth outside Utah was rapid, non-US growth very rapid, and the early days of Correlation’s standardizing and (over)simplifying of Church materials. 

NB:I have anonymized and edited the account, often without ellipses, but all emphasis is original.

Many years ago I was invited to participate in writing manuals for the Church. [A General Authority] came to meet with us [and give] formal guidelines: write a manual so that a convert of three weeks can pick it up and use it to teach a lesson!

Our group was aghast: you are going to dumb the entire church down to the level of a three-week convert? Yes, he answered. So we offered to do two manuals [at two different levels]…. No, said he, and he gave a clearly unanswerable reason: that would introduce elitism into the church. He was right. We wrote ‘three-week manuals’— eventually [more than a dozen] of them.

So? the problem is that the unintended consequences of the three-week manuals have now caught up with us; in my estimation we are farther away from being able to do the ‘really needed’ lessons than we were. Back then most American LDS at least knew there was/is more to the gospel than was in the manuals. But now we have an entire generation of LDS adults raised on those manuals who think that the three-week level is all there is and to even think beyond that level is heresy. The incredible richness of our heritage, in both concept and attitude, has been reduced to pablum. But the overwhelming majority of our members have been ingrained with the idea that the pablum is profound, and this attitude sets our members up for a fall.

We have not taught them to recognize and evaluate and respect and value differences in theological opinion and scriptural interpretation. We have taught them that the manuals, Church materials, and statements of the brethren are akin to divine writing on stone tablets. We have taught them such indefensible ‘faith-promoting lessons’ as that the brethren always think and speak with one voice, and that that voice is the undiluted voice of deity. And when our people then find some difficulties with all that, they are totally unprepared to deal with it. And now we are reaping what we’ve sowed.”

 I’ve written before about the balance between complexity and simplicity in The Ensign, in Seminary manuals, and Seminary classes, about my experiencing teaching at BYU to students who got their Church history through a “three-week manual” and thought they knew all there was to know. But I’ve seen some very interesting and encouraging things with Come Follow Me. 

As the onus is now on study at home, the burden of what and how to study now shifts much more onto the adults in the home. And that means a much broader variety of approaches. I’ve been extremely pleased to see a flourishing of blogs, social media posts, study groups, and podcasts talking about the New Testament in depth, and serious interest, appreciation for, and debate, even, over the best non-KJV Bibles to supplement our study. 

On the latter, I think we’ve turned a huge corner. Between 1) the implied blessing of Deseret Book publishing Thomas Wayment’s *New Testament: A Translation for Latter-day Saints 2) the apparent massive interest indicated by DB publishing a hardcover after the initial paperback release, and 3) three articles in the Church’s third-party approved list journal, Religious Educator, I suspect our lay approach to the Bible will be very different in a cycle or two, and much more informed. 

The three Religious Educator articles are:

  1. My own on why Bible translations differ and how to integrate non-KJV Bibles into our study. Religious Educator 15:1 (2014)
  2. Daniel O. McClellan’s, on why limiting ourselves (and our curriculum) to the KJV creates problems for the international Church. Dan works in the Church’s Bible translation department, and has multiple relevant degrees in this area, so he is deeply familiar with this material. You can get his article from a link on his blog, but it apparently has a typo, so I link to it directly here“‘As Far as It Is Translated Correctly’: Bible Translation and the Church” Religious Educator
  3. Hot off the press, Joshua Sears’ article, “Study Bibles: An Introduction for Latter-day Saints” Religious Educator 20:3 (2019), 27-57. This builds on the two previous articles, his BYU Studies article on the LDS Spanish quad, and his training in Bible and Semitics. This isn’t available yet electronically, but you can subscribe or buy a copy.

With all this in mind, I’m optimistic for the future of our Gospel scripture study.

As always, you can help me pay my tuition here, or you can support my work through making your regular Amazon purchases through the Amazon links I post. *I am an Amazon Affiliate, and receive a small percentage of purchases made through these links. You can get updates by email whenever a post goes up (subscription box below). You can follow Benjamin the Scribe on Facebook.

2 thoughts on “Old Manuals, Unintended Consequences, and the Optimistic Turn of “Come Follow Me”

  1. One thought I had was that as a church we were deviating in a theological direction that would lead us away from revealed truth. And God had to bring us back, erase the slate, and start over a bit. We are a growing church and we need direction to keep us true to what has been revealed.

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