Here’s a list of my top 10 LDS lesson manuals ever. Did I hear someone snicker? Shame on you–some of my favorite books were once church lesson manuals. Perhaps it’s because you are too young or didn’t have parents who kept their old manuals next to balls of twine on sagging bookshelves in the basement, just inviting you to blow off the dust and read them like I did. I’m talking about nothing less than the golden age of LDS Church manuals here.
Richard Poll remembers those days:
In the days when authors were identified, the lesson manuals of the Church auxiliaries and the Melchizedek Priesthood were written by a who’s who of the best educated men and women in the Church, many of them academics. The manuals, like the early seminary and institute texts, were often intended to stimulate and motivate rather than indoctrinate and pacify. I can only imagine the lively discussions that B. H. Roberts’s course of study may have engendered in some seventies quorums. I can testify to how exciting it was a generation ago to help young people see the implications of gospel principles through [O.C.] Tanner’s manual or Lowell Bennion’s The Religion of the Latter-day Saints. (“The Swearing Elders: Some Reflections,” Richard Poll, Sunstone (Jan 86))
Of course this is merely an invitation for you to suggest your own lists and reasons. No fair listing the scriptures, though.
10. John A. Widtsoe, Rational Theology: As Taught by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (currently reprinted by Signature Books as a part of its Signature Mormon Classics)
I probably wouldn’t have listed this title in my top 10, except for the fact that you can’t mention James Talmage and B.H. Roberts (see below) without listing Widtsoe as a part of that “holy triumvirate” of GAs who wrote church manuals in the early part of the 20th Century. I wasn’t so much excited about Widtsoe’s specific conclusions as I was about Widtsoe’s general approach. This priesthood manual shows his confidence that religion and reason can co-exist and learn from each other, that healthy religious belief bears scrutiny.
9. B.H. Roberts, The Truth, the Way and the Life (currently published in separate editions by Smith Research Associates and BYU Studies)
I tricked you–this was never actually published as a church manual, but only submitted as one. It was deemed too controversial for the brethren since it addressed “pre-Adamites” and other “too” progressive notions, but Roberts refused to change it because he was stubborn and he considered it his masterpiece. While not as “juicy” as his posthumously published and even more controversial Studies of the Book of Mormon, it is considered by many to be one of the most profound statements of Mormon thought.
8. J. Reuben Clark, Our Lord of the Gospels (available in Utah used bookstores)
Tricked you again. This manual is actually a scriptural by-product, a harmony of the NT gospels published as a priesthood manual. One reason to like it is that President Clark in his introduction disputes the popular Mormon belief that April 6, 1830, was the 1,830th birthday of Jesus. The book would have been more useable if it had been arranged with parallel columns so the reader could actually compare the synoptic gospels side by side. Here’s an interesting endorsement of this text from a GA the year it was published:
As you doubtless know, we are using Our Lord of the Gospels, that splendid book Brother Clark has given to us after years and years of careful study. We are not Bible readers. Here is an opportunity for us in our homes to become such, and I would like to recommend that the members of the families — not only the priesthood – - but all the members, become familiar with this monumental work by reading the Melchizedek Priesthood manual (Elder Clifford E. Young, Assistant to the Council of the Twelve Apostles, Conference Report, April 1955, p.39, emphasis added).
7. Russell B. Swensen, The New Testament: The Acts and the Epistles (available in Utah used bookstores)
In the 1930s, LDS Church leaders “called” Russell Swensen and other young Mormon scholars to attend the Divinity School of the University of Chicago to pursue graduate degrees in religious studies. Many of them returned and wrote church manuals. Says Swensen:
I had been teaching seminary for four years, but now, impressed with the need for greater understanding of the background of the Scriptures and convinced that I could make my best contribution to the Church only after studying under the finest Biblical scholars in the country, I became one of several Church educators who decided to take what, for a Mormon, would be a most unusual step [to enter the Divinity School of the University of Chicago] (Russell B. Swensen, “Mormons at the University of Chicago Divinity School: A Personal Reminiscence,” Dialogue, Vol.7, No.2).
I love this text. It has rich detail–for instance, Swensen reports that James the brother of Jesus was said to have prayed so often his knees looked like a camel’s (p. 62). And, this Sunday School manual is not afraid to ask questions, for example, questioning the Pauline authorship of Hebrews (p. 255).
6. Lectures on Faith (still available in print (?) or from Utah used bookstores)
Sorry, tricked you yet again. The Lectures on Faith were once a part of the Doctrine and Covenants, comprising the “doctrine” portion of the title of that book of scripture, until they were removed in 1921 (due to some interesting doctrinal issues — in one passage the text suggests that God the Father does not have a tangible body like the Son’s). Originally, they were lectures prepared and given to the elder’s quorum in Kirtland, Ohio, constituting the first lesson manual published in the Mormon church (See, “What of the Lectures on Faith?” by Leland H. Gentry BYU Studies, Fall 1978).
5 Hugh W. Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon (still in print from FARMS)
This priesthood text was almost declined as a lesson manual until President McKay insisted that it be published. Why listen to my opinion? Consider the remarks of William Hamblin: “When in this age of correlation and manuals written by committees will we see another Melchizedek Priesthood lesson manual as exciting and insightful as this one (Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, Volume 2, 1990, p.127)?
4 Relief Society Magazine (some editions available in Utah used bookstores)
Okay, so it’s not really a manual, but it functioned as one. Until 1970 (another casualty of Correlation), the Relief Society Magazine published the lessons for Relief Society, along with other articles. I include it here because it was written by women for women, unlike any other church manual you’ve ever seen. Its loss is still mourned in some circles.
3 James Talmage, Jesus the Christ (still in print)
Almost tricked you. This 1916 (and 1963) priesthood manual is nearly scripture for many Latter-day Saints. Talmage drew upon substantial Protestant scholarship from a prior generation to produce this text, the literature of the so-called “Victorian Lives” of Jesus (See Malcolm Thorpe’s “James E. Talmage and the Tradition of the Victorian Lives of Jesus,” Sunstone (Jan. 1988)). Compared to McConkie’s verbose Messiah series, Talmage’s “biography” is still readable today, although its scholarship is outdated in most respects. Interesting rumors have circulated about Talmage’s production of this text over the years, ranging from the ridiculous–that he wrote it while he had a smoking habit and littered the floor of his writing room at the SLC temple with cigar butts–to the sublime–that he encountered Jesus during a personal visitation while writing the text. Talmage did briefly smoke cigars as a remedy prescribed by a doctor for his nerves and — I’m not making this up — constipation. Even the First Presidency agreed that it was sound medical advice (see James P. Harris, The Essential James E. Talmage, p.xxxii). There’s no evidence that Talmage had any visionary experience while writing this text.
2 Lowell Bennion, Teachings of the New Testament (or any other text written by Bennion) (available in Utah used bookstores)
Lowell Bennion was, for many, Utah’s Mother Theresa, a true example of Christian discipleship. He also authored more church lesson manuals than any other Mormon, not to mention his many articles in church publications, including one of my favorite (they don’t make them like this anymore): “The Art of Casual Conversation.” In M Man-Gleaner Manual, 1964-65, 1964. pp. 121-26. Listen in to a conversation he had a few years ago with Sunstone about the heyday of personally authored LDS lesson manuals (from “Saint For All Seasons, An Interview with Lowell L. Bennion,” Sunstone (Feb 85)):
BENNION: The first Church manual I wrote was called What about Religion? Dr. Widtsoe [see #10 above] had suggested my name to the MIA General Board. So that got me started writing manuals.
SUNSTONE: What was the process then?
BENNION: It was a glorious day before Correlation. The general board committee would come to me and say, for instance, “We want a manual on doctrine for investigators. You write it, will you?” So I wrote a manual, Introduction to the Gospel. It’s not a bad manual. And I was completely free to write it. Didn’t even show it to the committee until it was done.
SUNSTONE: So they just chose individuals whom they respected and trusted and gave them complete freedom?
BENNION: Committees of the board-the general boards-decided what they needed in the way of subject matter and who could write it. Then they selected people to do it. There was more autonomy in those days among the auxiliaries, before the days of Correlation. Of course, we still had a reading committee in the Church.
I wrote a number of them for the MIA maids, M-Men and Gleaners, and the Sunday School. I also wrote a set of lessons for Relief Society and for the Aaronic Priesthood. I even wrote a set for the Primary (which I shouldn’t have done).
(See also, “The Achievement Of Lowell Bennion,” by Eugene England, Sunstone (July 1988))
1 O.C. Tanner, Christ’s Ideals for Living (available in Utah used bookstores)
This lesson manual is timeless in its appeal, beautiful to read (it’s richly illustrated with art from many masters), an immediate source of comfort and inspiration. To me, it is the embodiment of the wonderful days of President McKay’s administration and ministry. It contains poetry, NT stories, GA quotations, and inspirational words from non-Mormon religious leaders. I still use it to teach my children. Here are just a few of the lesson titles: Good Will; Opportunity; Courage; Beauty; Serenity; Endurance; Thanksgiving; Peace; Magnanimity; Equality; Tolerance; Sacrifice; Eternal Life.
O.C. Tanner was a “less active Lowell Bennion,” one of the original “swearing elders” and an internationally known philanthropist (in addition to being a local businessman). He was a delegate to the Geneva Conference of the World Federation of the United Nations several times and awarded the United Nations Peace Medal. Not only was he an LDS Seminary teacher and LDS Seminary principal, he also taught and served as a chaplain at Stanford University, followed by a long teaching stint at the University of Utah in its philosophy department.