Across the world, the 2017 LDS Sunday School course of study is the Doctrine and Covenants and Church History. While church history has consistently been in the now regular four-year canonical rotation; the historical content beyond the manual has been minimal—basically limited to the 1838 canonized Joseph Smith—History and a glorified pamphlet—Our Heritage: A Brief History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (1996) in the last decade. Regrettably, English speaking members who use a hard copy manual or download the pdf will continue to use the same manual. (So don’t.) However, those who use the online lessons from lds.org or from the Gospel Library app will have access to a much broader scope of historical sources.
The new manual introduction—“Helps for the Teacher”—quotes from and links to M. Russell Ballard’s seminal February 2016 talk to Church Education System personnel, “The Opportunities and Responsibilities of CES Teachers in the 21st Century.” He then urged instructors to study the “best books”—including “the best LDS scholarship available.” Ballard cited “extraordinary efforts” made “to provide accurate context and understanding of the teachings of the Restoration.” The origin of many of these “extraordinary efforts” is the LDS Church History Department. And the additions to this new edition of the manual reflect that commitment.
Rather than specifically warning against using other materials, this manual encourages the use of a wide array of resources. It likewise removes any question as to the orthodoxy of such sources. The cited sources have varying levels of historical content thereby enabling different levels of engagement with the historical sources. The range is well suited for a broad audience. This list includes: Revelations in Context essays contextualizing sections of the Doctrine and Covenants, the 11* historical Gospel Topics Essays, The Joseph Smith Papers, Daughters in My Kingdom, The First Fifty Years of Relief Society, virtual tours of LDS Historic Sites visually incorporating place history, articles and films from Pioneers in Every Land, and videos from the LDS Media Library (for the most part these are not new, but teaching videos created for teenage seminary audiences). All are available online at least in part, many at history.lds.org further familiarizing Latter-day Saints with the resource.
There is a preparation section for each week’s lesson. The revised Gospel Library and lds.org versions of the lessons add a bullet point under the preparation section (usually the third or fourth bullet). The more general topical chapters such as “Behold, I Am Jesus Christ, the Savior of the World” (Lesson 2) include a general link to resources—“To gain a greater understanding of historical events related to the doctrine in this lesson, consider reviewing the following: Additional historical material for this lesson.” In more historically focused lessons such as the lesson on the First Vision—“I Had Seen a Vision” (3), a few specific articles and resources are specifically enumerated within the lesson placing adding emphasis on those particular sources. Lesson 3’s focus on Joseph Smith’s First Vision, includes a Revelations in Context article by historian Steve Harper, “The First Vision: A Narrative from Joseph Smith’s Accounts,” the Gospel Topics essay on “First Vision Accounts” which includes links to all of Joseph’s accounts of the First Vision from the Joseph Smith Papers, a short video on the “Preparation of Joseph Smith: The First Vision,” and the general link for “additional historical information.” All of the specific supplementary resources for each lesson are linked in the Church History Study Guide.
An additional element of interest relates to authorship and the continued professionalization of those working on church materials. While LDS periodicals have historically used articles by individual authors since the 1830s, details of authorship for official church resources has been inconsistent—of course, what might qualify as an official or quasi-official resource likewise changes considerably over time. Though published under Joseph Smith’s name, the earliest History of the Church was always collaborative. B.H. Roberts’ 1902 effort to modernize and contextualize the history bore his name. The initial plan of Leonard Arrington as church historian was to publish the multi-volume history of the church with individual authors. However, more recent correlated efforts have generally been published without a specific author. Even those works with a known individual author—as with Susan Tanner and the Daughters in My Kingdom—have been published anonymously. The Gospel Topics essays were originally the work of individual academics, though highly edited through the vetting process. Ultimately they became a cooperative effort with the final versions published anonymously. The Revelations in Context essays have been rolled out on history.lds.org over the last few years, some with author’s names and others as interim content without attribution. There are now essays that offer context for each section of the Doctrine and Covenants and each complete essay has authorial attribution giving credit to the many hard-working historians of the Church History Department. And all of the essays are now available in a low-cost compilation book available through church distribution. These resources are further bringing the work of professional historians to the larger church—and sometimes that work is even acknowledged with their names.
I consider all of these additions positive. Though any historian would likely add a litany of books to these enumerated resources, this is a really great start. The wide array of historical resources offered with the official imprimatur is a considerable improvement. The new Church History section of the Gospel Library app makes many of these resources particularly accessible (though the placement at the bottom of the start page might allow many to miss its presence). Nevertheless, since these resources do not supplant the older manual content, taking advantage of the materials will never be automatic. Perhaps most regrettably, none of the new resources have reached the Class Study guide–it has not changed. The key question remains—will members take advantage of what has been offered them? Will they even know about the resources? Lessons will always vary with the person of the teacher and the culture of the ward. However, for those looking for a more substantive engagement with LDS church history, the resources are plentiful–if they know where to find them. Let the history and the historians ring in the New Year.
*I have been long puzzled by how one counts the Gospel Topics Essays; I would say that that there are 11+3 additional plural marriage essays.