“Home teaching has been described as the pivot around which all other church activities are to be correlated.”
- Marion G. Romney, “Church Correlation: Address to Seminary and Institute Faculty,” June 22, 1964. Church History Library and Archives.
For a hundred years, the practice of what was first called “ward teaching” and later “home teaching” saw two Mormon men visit families in their congregation, carrying to them a message from church leadership and reporting back on any needs they found. “Visiting teaching,” for decades after the founding of the Relief Society in 1842, saw women of the Relief Society engage in a similar practice.
It is hard to underestimate the importance of home teaching to the initial vision of the framers of the Mormon correlation movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Exploring the reasons for its importance shed some light on the announcement at the church’s General Conference this past weekend that home and visiting teaching are to be replaced with “ministering.”
The history of home and visiting teaching extend back to the nineteenth century, and perhaps derives from the Protestant tradition of home visits. “Visiting teaching” derived from the Relief Society practice of visiting members of the Church in Nauvoo in order to seek out those in distress or need of relief; “home teaching” followed shortly.
During the correlation movement of the 1960s, “home teaching” was renvisioned as a link welding the explicit priesthood hierarchy of the church and the implicit priesthood hierarchy of the family together. As Romney declared,
“This program puts the priesthood in its place. It contemplates that the temporal and spiritual welfare of every member of every family in the church will be an assigned responsibility of a pair of righteous, dedicated priesthood bearers under the supervision and with the help of ward or branch and priesthood leaders.”
The “place” of the priesthood, Romney and other correlation leaders believed, was at the center of the church. Home teachers were not only given lessons to bear to their families; they were given a check-list of 32 items they might check on when they visited their families, and bishops were directed to set up “evaluations” with each set of home teachers (either personally or though subordinates) in which home teachers and priesthood leaders would “appraise and evaluate the objectives they have theretofore set for bringing the blessings of the church and the Gospel into each home.” ([Hyrum Andrus] Priesthood Correlation: The Lord’s Battle Plan (Provo: BYU Fourth Stake, 1972), 54) Those objectives had to do with how well other church programs – welfare, genealogy, the Sunday school, and so forth, were being implemented in every Mormon home.
In short, home teaching was to be the spokes in the wheel in John Fugal’s illustration (from his “A Review of Priesthood Correlation” (Provo: BYU Press, 1968)), seen below: an explicitly priestly, and therefore authoritative, and therefore male program.
This means, of course, that correlation leaders had little to say about Visiting Teaching, which remained largely spoken of in correlation documents as a means for ascertaining the material well being of ward members. Its perceived redundancy meant that correlation left it largely untouched, except as an adjunct for home teaching.
The reframing of home and visiting teaching as “ministering,” then, perhaps indicates a few things. I’ll speculate about two: 1) consistent with many trends in church curriculum today, a reduction of specific programs, points, and detail in favor of local flexibility and adaptation; and 2) perhaps a foreshadowed softening of the rhetorical emphasis on the importance of priestly centralization.