I recently had a conversation in a public Facebook group (now deleted by an admin) about the “printing error” in the 2020 Book of Mormon manual. I raised some substantial concerns, filled out with a number of links to my own research and posts about cursing in scripture (e.g. here and in my posts on 2 Nephi 1-5, here and here). Two S&I (Seminaries and Institute) /COB (Church Office Building) employees responded to me by bearing fervent testimony of the Curriculum and Correlation processes and berating anyone who dared hold any other opinion.
These testimonies constituted de facto witnessing of inerrancy (not the first I’ve seen) and also violated Elder Ballard’s directive specifically to S&I teachers;
“Gone are the days when a student raised a sincere concern and a teacher bore his or her testimony as a response intended to avoid the issue.”
I even called them out on avoiding the central issues, which received no response. One of them said (quoting from a screenshot),
“It is not just Correlation that reviews and approves curriculum, but the very Apostles and prophets you are using to attempt to straighten [first S&I commenter] out. Does it really not occur to you that the Quorum of the Twelve understands and approves these materials? The ‘ark’ does not need steadying.”
Let’s set aside the traditional misunderstanding of the “steadying the ark” story. Let’s set aside the fact that Elder Stevenson demonstrates below that in this case, the ark did need steadying, as Curriculum, Correlation, and review failed to do its job, or more likely, simply saw nothing wrong with what had been written. Let’s set aside that manuals themselves invite feedback and constructive criticism via an email address. (Seriously, open any printed manual and look. I myself was one of those back in fall who was made aware of the problems with the printed manual, and privately raised my voice.)
No, the problem is that while S&I may venerate these manuals because of their mythic view of the review process, it does not appear that such intensive Apostolic review is actually the case. (Even if it were, it would not guarantee the correctness of the material.)
From the Deseret News on January 20, here is an Apostle speaking about this issue, my italics.
Elder Stevenson preceded his remarks by expressing regret that the church’s 2020 “Come, Follow Me” gospel study manual includes an old statement that dark skin in the Book of Mormon was the sign of a curse.
Elder Stevenson disavowed that statement.
“One of our recent church manuals includes a paragraph with some outdated commentary about race,” he said. “It was mistakenly included in the printed version of the manual, which had been prepared for print nearly two years ago. When it was brought to the attention of church leaders late last year, they directed that it be immediately removed in our annual online manual, which is used by the great majority of our members. We have also directed that any future printed manuals will reflect this change.
“We’re asking our members to disregard the paragraph in the printed manual,” he added. “Now I’m deeply saddened and hurt by this error and for any pain that it may have caused our members and for others. I would just like to reiterate our position as a church is clear. We do condemn all racism, past and present, in any form, and we disavow any theory advanced that black or dark skin is a sign of a curse. We are brothers and sisters, and I consider you friends. I love and appreciate you,” he said, drawing applause from those gathered.
So, in Elder Stevenson’s words, this was a mistake in the manual, which escaped the attention of Church leaders.
His words do not lend support to the view of these two S&I employees that the printed published manuals must be treated as the infallible word of God because they have been closely reviewed by Apostles. Nor does the printed history support it.
Example 1, manuals change, sometimes 180 degrees.
Another example of the review process comes from Dan Peterson’s story (links here). Writing a manual, he included a joke in the NT manual about Paul preaching late into the night, and Eutychus falling asleep from boredom, and falling out the window to his death, only to be brought back to life by Paul. Peterson included the following thought question.
Have a class member read Acts 20:7-12. Have you ever killed anyone with a sacrament meeting speech? How did it make you feel? What steps can you take in the future to ensure that it does not happen again?
This text went all the way through the review process, and was included in the final galleys, when Peterson, surprised, suggested that perhaps it should not be included.
A third example of a different sort. The 1980 Old Testament Institute manual (which is still the current manual) included a 2000-word excerpt from a Seventh-day Adventist creationism pamphlet about science and evolution (Harold Coffin, Creation: The Evidence from Science)
At no level of review or Correlation was any pushback or suggestion made that this was perhaps not a great source to use. Ditto for the inclusion of Immanuel Velikovsky, and Joseph Fielding Smith’s forced and false dichotomy that one must choose between evolution and the Gospel.
The result? A lot of unnecessary loss of faith through self-inflicted intellectual injuries, shooting ourselves in the spiritual foot.
In Italy, the church manual used for teaching the Old Testament in Seminaries and Institutes was a translation of a manual that focused on the writings of conservative Mormon leaders who opposed Darwin’s theory of evolution. The manual failed to balance the presentation by citing the writings of moderate church authorities who have sought to find harmony between science and religion on this question. The ensuing debates on this issue among members aroused tension and continued to be a source of discord.- Toronto, Dursteler, and Homer, Mormons in the Piazza: History of the Latter-day Saints in Italy. (I am indebted to Ardis E. Parshall for bringing this reference to my attention.)
Beyond Italy, I could speak at length and by name about a number of high-profile exits from the Church caused quite directly by false teachings of inerrancy combined with false framings of science and religion, often evolution, the age of the earth, the flood, etc. (See here at the bottom for one.)
Inerrancy is a false doctrine, and dramatically undermines faith in the long-term.
What are our youth getting? What are they being fed? If S&I professionals, curriculum writers, and others associated with or employed by the Church (see below) are teaching and encouraging inerrancy, they are creating false expectations about the gospel and Church leadership, and setting students up for massive spiritual failure and utter loss of faith. What is the average volunteer teacher to think?
Just today, I saw an anecdote about a mission president teaching that the manual writing and approval process consists of divine dictation, the very height of fundamentalism and inerrancy!
My mission president tried to paint a picture of James E. Talmage sitting in the upper room of the Salt Lake Temple, taking shorthand notes as he interviewed Christ Himself for the story of His life. “You can be assured that your discussion booklets and Missionary Guide have been provided in the same way. When you teach, you are using the literal words of Jesus Christ.”
I have raised this issue before in context of the 2020 Old Testament Seminary manual (now gone with the Come Follow Me realignment). I have spoken about LDS inerrancy and fundamentalism at the FAIRMormon conference. My professional research deals with American fundamentalism, interpretations of scripture, and the interactions with science; Latter-day Saints —particularly those responsible for writing and approving manuals and magazines— swim within that American intellectual stream. It affects how we read our scriptures and understand creation. It affects how we think about science and religion. It affects how we write our manuals, which affects how teachers teach, how we grow up and integrate assumptions about “what The Church teaches.”
These are not “academic” concerns, but issues that directly affect faith and activity.
One faithful LDS friend wrote that he hoped the manual writers received some professional repercussions. I initially balked at that, but on further reflection and the conversations above…
Well, I try to write very carefully, but I feel a need to be blunt here because of what’s at stake. I am devastated at the losses we continue to inflict on ourselves by pushing inerrancy and fundamentalism, and I keep uncovering more and more of it in my historical research in archives and interviews. I’m frustrated and I’m mad.
Those who continue to push these ideas of inerrancy and fundamentalism, in the Church’s name, with the cultural authority of “Well, I work in the Church Office Building” or “I’m a professional Seminary/Institute teacher,” paid by tithing funds, should be fired, or at least forced into early retirement like Randy Bott. In pushing thoughtless fundamentalism and inerrancy, they undermine the Church’s mission, they undermine faith, and they destroy God’s children.
You want to know where some cancerous faith-destroying messages are coming from? Not “the world” but middle-management Church employees.
(Follow-up post here)