Guest Post: The Significance of the New Seminary and Institute Manuals



[This guest post from Joshua Sears is a follow-up to my last post on the new Institute manual. Joshua is a graduate student in Hebrew Bible and serves as the mission leader in his Texas ward. This post is adapted from an email to fellow members of his ward council.]


The problem


To understand the importance of the new Church manuals Doctrine and Covenants and Church History (updated Seminary manual) and Foundations of the Restoration (new Institute manual), here’s a scenario of a problem that’s been going on for a number of years. I’ll use the Book of Abraham, but other topics could be substituted.

Someone grows up in the Church, attends Sunday School and Seminary, and maybe even serves a mission. Through those experiences he has picked up all basic Church teachings and a basic historical framework, but he does not pursue much gospel study outside the scriptures and classes at Church (due to: lack of curiosity? pressed for time? not a “reader”? assumption that basics are enough?). One day he’s on the Internet, when he encounters some sources that tell him:

1) The Egyptian papyri that Joseph Smith had were rediscovered in the 1960s, and when Egyptologists translated the papyri the meaning had nothing to do with the Book of Abraham.
2) This means Joseph Smith was a fraud and false prophet.
3) And the whole Church isn’t true.
4) And you’re a gullible idiot for being a Mormon.

For our hypothetical fellow, two problems arise.

Problem #1: Lack of knowledge. Because this person never learned about the background of the Book of Abraham in a classroom setting and never bothered to study up on his own, he is in no position to critically evaluate the claims he suddenly encounters online. Turning to Google for help, he scans some websites and confirms that there are indeed recovered papyri and they do not match the document Joseph produced. With that bit of information, the panic begins. If the papyri weren’t translated accurately, could the other points be true as well? Was Joseph making things up? Is the Church not really true?

(While we’re on the subject of “new” information about Church history causing faith crises, I wish to emphasize that Church history itself is not the main problem. Church history is not some land mine waiting to explode—99% of the time, Church history itself is positive and faith-promoting. The problem is not in knowing too much Church history; the problem is knowing too little Church history. With too little Church history, some negative or complicated item can seem disproportionately huge because it’s not balanced with the many positive things out there. With too little Church history, things can also appear more negative than they really are because we are unfamiliar with the historical context.)

Problem #2: Breach of trust. As new information brings up troubling questions, some people, as Elder Christofferson put it, then “accuse the Church of hiding something because they only recently found or heard about it.” Unfortunately, anti-Mormon material online feeds this problem by incessantly pushing the idea that “if you hadn’t heard about this before, it’s because the Church has been lying to you. They are desperately trying to hide the truth from you.” Many people report that the feeling of having been lied to and the institutional distrust this creates actually becomes much worse than whatever particular issue sparked it. As observed by Terryl Givens, “The problem is not so much the discovery of particular details that are deal breakers for the faithful; the problem is a loss of faith and trust in an institution that was less that forthcoming to begin with.”
The reality is that there is no Church conspiracy to keep information from its members. It is true that in past decades the complexities of certain historical issues and the nuances of certain doctrinal topics were not explored in great length in Church magazines and manuals, but this was a matter of emphasis, not a cover up. Most items of any kind of importance were indeed published here and there in Church venues of various sorts, but the mission of the Church is to bring souls to Christ and that means that people generally get more out of Sunday School by learning how to live covenants in the modern world, not by learning how polygamy was practiced 170 years ago. Most Church manuals were also kept relatively simple so that foreign-language speakers and new converts could easily learn from them (and, especially in places where the Church is new, so that new converts could easily teach from them). And besides, why spend the resources explaining an old-time historical issue when few members will ever hear of it to begin with? Given all those realities, the Church left publishing detailed historical analyses to Deseret Book, BYU, and other third-party venues. Members who wanted to learn more could go to those sources for more rigorous material.

And then the Internet happened.


Nothing occurred overnight, of course, but over the years the Internet has fundamentally changed how Church members interact with Church history. While back in the 1980s anti-Mormon literature was its own clearly identifiable genre (printed in something called “books” you bought in a “bookstore”), now critical claims appear frequently in a variety of subtle ways, from Facebook feeds to the comments following news articles to Wikipedia. Stuff that was once in the domain of historians now makes the rounds at the click of a button. For many once-obscure issues, it’s no longer a matter of if a Church member will ever hear of them, but when. Given these realities, the old approach—having the Church’s official materials focus on basic doctrinal and practical teachings while leaving the detailed scholarship to BYU and other independent publishers—became untenable.

The Church’s efforts to address these problems

The current Church Historian, Elder Steven E. Snow, explained that “much of what’s written now [to challenge the Church on the Internet]—these arguments and these issues have been around for decades, 150 years, and it’s the same material repackaged. And we [the Church] understandably have not spent a lot of time in the past worrying about these issues because our mission is to promote faith and belief in the Lord Jesus Christ. But, as the information age is now upon us, we feel with all of this information out there we owe it, particularly to the rising generation, to provide good, reliable information about these matters.”

To that end, in recent years improvements in both the quality and the accessibility of historical information have been made available through a variety of free, Church-sponsored outlets, including:

    1) “Gospel Topics” articles at https://www.lds.org/topics. Drafts of these articles were prepared by scholars who are experts in their fields, and final versions were made through feedback from members of the Church History department and then the Quorum of the Twelve and the First Presidency. These articles provide authoritative and well-written analyses of topics ranging from polygamy to DNA and the Book of Mormon to deification.
    2) “Revelations in Context” articles at https://history.lds.org/section/revelations. These insightful articles provide historical background about various sections and subjects in the Doctrine and Covenants and incorporate the latest findings from the Joseph Smith Papers Project and other ongoing historical research initiatives.
    3) “Perspectives on Church History” essays at https://history.lds.org/section/perspectives-on-church-history. This growing collection currently includes a talk on Joseph Smith’s strengths and weaknesses and an important four-part essay series exploring race and the former priesthood/temple restriction. 

These and other sources provide accurate and detailed information. Much of this information is not “new” (books and articles have explored these issues for decades) but it is groundbreaking that it is now available on LDS.org—from the Church itself—and not just through Deseret Book, BYU’s Religious Studies Center, the Maxwell Institute, the Mormon History Association, etc.

The new Seminary and Institute manuals

But a major challenge still remains: it does not matter how many historical articles are stuffed into the digital libraries at LDS.org if everyday Church members aren’t learning what they say. Therefore, in addition to providing the raw historical research, the Church has been working on how to disseminate it. Elder Snow explained that “Seminaries and Institutes and Curriculum have really stepped up and said in essence, ‘You know we really want to take this on, we would like to talk about these sensitive issues in our seminaries and institutes.’ It’s one thing to tell a fourteen-year-old some of these sensitive things and they say, ‘OK, that’s great.’ But sometimes when you are twenty-something, it comes across a little differently…. We can build faith and better prepare people if we will weave some of the unusual threads in history into the curriculum.”

This new approach to Church history in the official curriculum is evident in two new manuals: the new edition of the seminary manual for the Doctrine and Covenants (Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Seminary Teacher Manual, online herePDF here), and the Institute manual for a brand-new course called Foundations of the Restoration (Foundations of the Restoration Teacher Manual, online herePDF here)

In addition to free online access, both of these manuals are also available on anyone’s smart phone or tablet through the Gospel Library app. 

How do these two manuals provide solutions to the problems I outlined above? They do so in at least two important—and groundbreaking—ways:

New manual benefit #1: The new manuals provide information on almost all the historical and doctrinal subjects that sometimes trouble people. These manuals are frank and detailed about potentially troublesome topics to an extent I don’t think we’ve had in any classroom manual before. The Seminary manual, for example, includes discussions about
    – differences in accounts of the First Vision;
    – the Mountain Meadows Massacre;
    – the dating of the Book of Abraham papyri;
    – everything to do with polygamy; and
    – race and the priesthood.

The Institute manual provides information on an even wider range of topics. All but one of the Gospel Topics articles are assigned as the background reading for various lessons (the one exception is “Are Mormons Christian?” which is geared toward non-LDS anyway) and several articles from the Revelations in Context series and the Perspectives on Church History series are assigned as well, as can be seen in the list below:

Lesson 1: A Marvelous Work and a Wonder
Lesson 2: The First Vision
    >>> Gospel Topics: “First Vision Accounts”Lesson 3: The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon
    >>> Gospel Topics: “Book of Mormon Translation”Lesson 4: The Book of Mormon—Keystone of Our Religion
    >>> Gospel Topics: “Book of Mormon and DNA Studies”Lesson 5: The Restoration of the Priesthood
Lesson 6: The Organization of the Church
    >>> Revelations in Context: “Build Up My Church”Lesson 7: Proclaim the Everlasting Gospel
Lesson 8: The Gathering of Latter-day Israel
Lesson 9: Follow the Living Prophet
Lesson 10: Seek Truth
    >>> Gospel Topics: “Gospel Learning”Lesson 11: The Lord’s Voice in the Doctrine and Covenants
Lesson 12: Additional Scriptures in Our Day
    >>> Gospel Topics: “Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham”    >>> Revelations in Context: “Joseph Smith’s Bible Translation”Lesson 13: “The Vision”
    >>> Revelations in Context: “The Vision”Lesson 14: The Kirtland Temple and Priesthood Keys
Lesson 15: Strength amid Opposition
Lesson 16: Redemption of the Dead
    >>> Revelations in Context: “Letters on Baptism for the Dead”Lesson 17: Gospel Teachings in Nauvoo
    >>> Gospel Topics: “Becoming Like God”Lesson 18: The Relief Society and the Church
Lesson 19: The Doctrine of Eternal Marriage and Family
Lesson 20: Plural Marriage
    >>> Gospel Topics: “Plural Marriage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”    >>> Gospel Topics: “Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo”    >>> Gospel Topics: “Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah”    >>> Gospel Topics: “The Manifesto and the End of Plural Marriage”Lesson 21: The Prophetic Mission of Joseph Smith
Lesson 22: The Martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph Smith
Lesson 23: Succession in the Presidency
Lesson 24: Leaving Nauvoo and the Trek West
Lesson 25: The Utah War and the Mountain Meadows Massacre
    >>> Gospel Topics: “Peace and Violence among 19th-Century Latter-day Saints”Lesson 26: The Revelation on the Priesthood
    >>> Gospel Topics: “Race and the Priesthood”    >>> Perspectives on Church History: “A Personal Essay on Race and the Priesthood [parts 1–4]”Lesson 27: Preparing the World for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ
Lesson 28: Hastening the Work of Salvation

The benefits of providing information on these topics to youth and young adults are enormous, as they help prevent the problems I described earlier. First, people become armed with accurate facts and a faithful framework for interpreting those facts. When they encounter potentially troubling information on the Internet they won’t be caught off guard because they will already have answers to the questions. For example, returning to the Book of Abraham scenario I gave above, someone might read online that “the Egyptian papyri that Joseph Smith had were rediscovered in the 1960s, and when Egyptologists translated the papyri the meaning had nothing to do with the Book of Abraham.” But, thanks to the Gospel Topics article and a previous class discussion, he might know to say something like this: “That’s true, but there are at least two ways to understand this. Since Joseph Smith had multiple rolls of papyri and only a few small scraps have survived, it’s very likely Egyptologists still don’t have access to the text Joseph used for the Book of Abraham. Alternatively, it’s also possible that the Lord didn’t have the actual papyri translated at all, but instead the papyri served as a trigger for Joseph to receive a revelation about Abraham’s time in Egypt, much like how the book of Genesis served as a trigger for Joseph to receive the revelations on Moses and Enoch found in the Pearl of Great Price.”

Even if a student doesn’t necessarily remember such a detailed answer years after leaving a class, there is still a second major benefit to covering the topic in that class: simply having taught it prevents the breach of institutional trust that can occur when people ask, “Why didn’t I learn about X before? Was the Church trying to hide this from me?” Instead, someone can say, “I don’t know exactly what the answer is for this Book of Abraham thing, but I do remember that we discussed this and that there are answers out there.”

New manual benefit #2: The new manuals teach students HOW to discern truth from error and HOW to appropriately seek answers to gospel questions. In addition to historical and doctrinal information, the new Seminary and Institute manuals tackle the problem of faith crises head-on. They take a realist approach by directly acknowledging that we will all have troubling gospel questions at some time or another, and they teach how to navigate those questions. For example, the Seminary manual contains this statement, which is repeated almost word-for-word in the Institute manual: “There [are] individuals and groups today who spread false or misleading information about the Church with the intent to undermine faith…. Those who sincerely want the truth should diligently seek out credible sources of information about the Church and its history rather than simply accept any information they hear, including whatever comes up as a result of an Internet search.”

The manuals contain many quotations from Church leaders who have addressed these issues, such as:

    — Neil L. Andersen on false information on the Internet
    — Dallin H. Oaks on being sophisticated in our evaluation of historical facts
    — M. Russell Ballard on how news media reports are often focused on controversies
    — Dieter F. Uchtdorf on correctly discerning true, partially true, and false information
    — Steven E. Snow on looking for sources by recognized historians, not sensationalist bloggers
    — Thomas S. Monson on obedience as the key to receiving answers to spiritual questions
    — Dieter F. Uchtdorf on asking hard questions (it’s okay!)
    — Neal A. Maxwell on studying Church doctrine through the eyes of defectors.

Warnings and instructions of this nature are sprinkled throughout the manuals. Additionally, the Institute manual devotes two entire lessons to these topics (chapter 10, “Seek Truth” and chapter 15, “Strength amid Opposition”). The first focuses on “discerning truth from error” and “staying faithful when questions arise.” The second uses cases of apostasy from Church history to teach how to respond when fellow Church members criticize the Lord’s apostles, lose their testimonies, and attempt to spread their doubt to others.

The manuals also contain not just teachings but activities to help reinforce these concepts. For example, the Seminary manual asks students to imagine they will write a school report about the Church that needs at least three sources. The students must then discuss what sources might be used, why it matters what sources are used, and how they can determine if a source accurately describes the Church’s teachings. The manual also contains a scripted role-play for students to act out how to respond to someone’s criticisms about the Book of Abraham. The Institute manual invites students to study a handout with several quotations and then identify in groups “principles that would help someone . . . who has a question or doubt about the Church’s doctrine, history, or position on social issues.” 

Those are just a few snippets, but you can see how helpful these lessons can be for young Latter-day Saints beginning a lifetime of encounters with questions and questioners. 

Helping all Saints benefit

Teaching Seminary and Institute students is obviously a great place to start, but there are many members of the Church, both young and old, who need to learn these principles of discernment and gospel learning and who are not in Seminary or Institute. What about them? I believe that all of us as parents, gospel teachers, and Church leaders have a role to play.

First, each of us can recommit ourselves to gospel learning, including studying Church history. Unless our knowledge expands and our testimonies are strong, we may be unable to help others who struggle with questions. However, we do not need to approach Church history solely with the goal of fortifying ourselves against problems. I can witness that Church history is amazing and wonderful, a treasure trove of insights and wisdom and revelation! It is like adding the strength of thousands of testimonies to your own. Most of our LDS history may not be canonized in the Doctrine and Covenants, but the accounts of our forebears’ dedicated discipleship can become sacred scripture to you as you draw inspiration from “the foundation of the past.”

Second, “when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren” (Luke 22:32). In one capacity or another, we are all gospel teachers with an obligation to “preach, teach, expound, exhort” (D&C 20:42). The Church’s new online resources are available at the click of a button, but people need to be taught why they are important and how to find them. The two manuals I have described may have been written for Seminary and Institute, but there is no reason their information and principles cannot be appropriately adapted for other settings, including Sunday School, Relief Society, priesthood meetings, home and visiting teaching, or family home evening. Both youth and adults need to learn what Church leaders are trying to help us learn, because for Heavenly Father, there are far too many “lost ones, off from my shelter astray.”

3 thoughts on “Guest Post: The Significance of the New Seminary and Institute Manuals

  1. I am surprised myself that many members think these things were hidden. They have always been there and if one studies the scriptures and understands how Heavenly Father works. These things are not an issue. For example, Blacks and the priesthood, God has always chosen who he wants to have the fullness of his gospel at different times. 1. In the old testament who was God's chosen people? Answer: the children of Israel. Everyone else was completely destroyed. God told Moses to kill all people in their way to the Promised land. 2. When Jesus came to the earth what was his earthly Mission and whom did he come to? Answer: The house of Israel. Matthew 15:22-27 Jesus did not take the Gospel to the gentiles only to the House of Israel. 3. When did the gentiles start receiving the Gospel? Answer: in the Book of Acts under the guidance of Peter. Acts 10:9-48 Finally, the gospel was aloud to be taken to the Gentiles. Boy all of this hidden history seems pretty racist to me. (Sarcasm) Now let's move forward in time at one point Blacks were not aloud to hold the priesthood until 1978 when Spencer W. Kimball a prophet just like Peter received a revelation to allow all worthy men to hold the priesthood. Even if one disagrees one has too see the similarity of the patterns and how God works

    • 1. Joseph Smith gave the priesthood and temple blessings to black people with no indication that anything differentiated them from white people. 2. Brigham Young instituted the priesthood ban a few years into his ministry, and explained it with blatantly racist teachings that today are denounced as "theories" (he taught that slavery was a divine institution and that race mixing should be punished by death, for Pete's sake). 3. These racist teachings and others were perpetuated in the writings of General Authorities for decades afterward, and generally accepted as truth by the membership. 4. The ban itself was inconsistent in its scope and application because church leaders didn't know where it came from or what the real reason was. For example, sometimes black people were allowed to do baptisms for the dead and sometimes they weren't. And it is clear that several mistakes were made and people with African ancestry were ordained.

      I am also a faithful Latter-day Saint and believe that the priesthood ban was God's will for whatever reason(s), but any paradigm that omits facts like these is simply not an honest one, and looking down on people for being disturbed by them is highly unfair.

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