Studying the Doctrines of the Gospel in the D&C and Church History this year by Jeffrey Marsh: A response

Over at Meridian (ht: Grant Hardy), Jeffrey Marsh offers an interesting perspective on the structure of the D&C manual, a subject that Ben Park has ably discussed as well.  Ben’s post covers many of the problems with a topical approach and I will try not to repeat those here.  However, Marsh’s article suggests some reasons why this approach might be useful for our time. First, he suggests that a topical approach allows the manual to cover more ground while highlighting the ‘unfolding doctrinal drama of the Restoration’. Second, the manual is a unique approach to a unique period of history. I would like to suggest a few reasons reasons why I am not quite convinced.

According to Marsh, the first-draft of the ‘Doctrine & Covenants and Church History’ manual was organized chronologically. Yet, after submitting that draft to the Twelve for approval the writing committee received these comments: “There have been so many revelations received since the end of the Doctrine and Covenants, and so much Church history has occurred since the martyrdom at Carthage–is there any possible way to cover the revelations that have been received and the history that has taken place since then? Can we include more? And do it without adding any more pages?” [paraphrased by Marsh].

Certainly this is an interesting perspective to take and I can see why our leaders would want to emphasize the nature and scope of continuing revelation in the church. Yet, perhaps this shift in emphasis could have been accomplished by collapsing some of the material that covered these earlier periods (obviously I am speculating about the content and structure of that unseen first draft) and instead give more time to material from later periods. A radical reorganization does not seem to be required, or even hinted at, in this response.

At the same time, I would suggest that organizing the material topically actually obscures the ‘unfolding doctrinal drama’ because it is not at all clear how or where a particular doctrine was unfurled. Our history has often been presented in ways that are congruent with the theatrical; we love the stories and visual images of those early years.  We even reenact them.  As a drama, the Restoration is a theatrical production whose characters work and struggle to reveal our theology. The action, of course, plays out over time on the stage as the curtains are lifted and dropped, and sets are altered.  However, the dehistoricization of our history and doctrine, in effect, places another set of curtains in front of that stage where the drama is actually happening.  The actors are still playing their part and the doctrines are still being revealed, except that all we see now is the conclusion: the final moments of the final act when the finished product is brought through this second curtain and into the light. In short, I think this approach actually obscures what Marsh thinks it reveals: the unfolding drama of the Restoration.

I do not disagree that our time is unique in some ways and I sure that Marsh would agree that there are many things about our world that are not all that different from the past. The question I want to explore here is what makes this time period so unique that it requires a unique teaching manual. This is not entirely clear in Marsh’s piece and I cannot think of an argument that might support this position.  But, and perhaps this is just my own preference[1], I can think of one reason why the uniqueness of our time might require a historical approach.

The church’s position in the world has been inevitably shaped by its relationship with those peoples and places it has come into contact with. The unfolding doctrinal drama is embedded within the unfolding history of the world as a whole and also the specific histories of countries and nations. Revelations related to the priesthood or the size and location of temples will be understood in a slightly different light when viewed through the international growth of the church. There are clearly some unique features about our era but I am not sure how they relate directly to the structure of this particular manual.

One final caveat: I think organizing this manual chronologically would provide one other wonderful opportunity. We could insert lessons that allow for local variation. For example, every six months, or so, there could be a lesson which deals with the specific history of the church in a specific part of the world. So Europeans would learn about the history of the church in Europe and Africans would learn about the history of the church in Africa. These materials could be prepared by the committee but with guidance from our excellent church historians (perhaps even with local help).  They could then be distributed to the relevant areas with the other teaching materials. These local supplements would not radically decentralize the manual or the writing committee but it would allow local peoples to see themselves in the history of this church.

Marsh and I both agree that teaching the unfolding doctrinal drama would be a spiritually enlightening and enriching effort. I suppose we disagree about how that is best accomplished. However, I appreciate his attempt to provide some insight into why he have the particular that we do.

Notes:

1. In all likelihood, this is all based on my preferences.

Comments

  1. J. Stapley says:

    Bingo.

  2. Researcher says:

    I’ve only read a few chapters of the lesson manual, but from what I’ve read, it’s amusing to see Marsh’s claim that the new manual answered this charge: “is there any possible way to cover the revelations that have been received and the history that has taken place since then? Can we include more?”

    ROFL.

    About your caveat, Aaron, my family attended the Arlington Ward this summer and I just pulled out the program I saved from the church services since the announcements included this gem:

    Topical Adult Sunday School Class Schedule:
    • Module 8 (August): Provident Living
    • Module 9 (September): The Worldwide Church. Register by August 29.
    • Module 10 (October): Boston LDS Church History. Register by Oct. 10.

  3. Researcher, that is very cool.

    However, the one quite serious rebuttal which I have not dealt with here is this: clearly the 12 – or at least a segment of it – thought this new manual did a better job.

  4. Aaron, nice. These were, more or less, my thoughts exactly when I read the Meridian piece.

  5. I’m a prophet.

    You must understand the context, however.

  6. What an amazingly odd article by Marsh. Basically summarized:

    Q: Why did we organize the lessons thematically in the face of all these objections and in contrast to common sense?

    A. Our doctrines are awesome.

  7. Ben P, I think the correct answer was that one of the Q12 complained that all those revelations after JS somehow weren’t represented. I wonder if there were specifics? And who it was that didn’t care for the manual draft (to be fair, maybe it was crap to begin with?)

  8. WVS, I, too, would be interested to know what specific revelations the parties involved thought were missing.

  9. For the record, I disagree: I think there are many other good reasons to study the D&C thematically rather than historically (reasons that Marsh, admittedly, fails to articulate).

    In short, I think this is related to the idea that we are a practice-oriented church (cf. Jim Faulconer’s argument that we are atheological), and a fine-tuned approach to the nuanced historical development of our doctrines would distract from the meaning and important that our (mostly unchanged) doctrines have in existential practice. If the practical significance of our doctrines really hasn’t changed very much over time, and these practical doctrines are more important than our history (or a systematic/formal theology), then a thematic approach makes more sense for the overwhelming majority of members.

    (I’ll try to defend this view more rigorously in a post at the Feast blog, hopefully this weekend or so….)

  10. Robert: I would argue that “the practical significance of our doctrines” has indeed changed quite significantly over time. In fact, I would argue that one of the few significant doctrines that *hasn’t* changed is the fact that our doctrines, well, evolve.

  11. J. Stapley says:

    “If the practical significance of our doctrines really hasn’t changed very much over time…”

    That is a very difficult premise to defend, I think. That is not to say that thematic treatments can’t be wonderful. I imagine a lot of the historically minded folks here have read thematic biographies that they like.

    WVS (#7) and Aaron (#8), the answer of course, is correlation.

  12. I’ll add further here–it was a main point in my post, but perhaps I didn’t make it clear–that I think studying these revelations in context, rather than thematically, is in itself a great teacher of how our theology works. And in that, it is an embodiment of our doctrine better than any scripture chain we come up with.

  13. Robert C.: but are we “practice oriented” by design or reflection, or simply by habit? The latter is precisely what emerges behind the “other set of curtains” Aaron describes when we use history to emphasize what we want to think rather than let history teach us lessons we’re not looking for. In other words, within this framework we’re not really studying the D&C or Church history at all, we’re using the D&C to study other things on an agenda that we’ve created. And I suppose if that’s what we want to do, that’s fine–but we should not do so under the pretense of historical study.

    Also, there’s another tautology on top of the one Ben P. pointed out: it requires a truly diminished regard for the history of our doctrines to claim that our doctrines haven’t changed significantly.

  14. The Explanatory Introduction to the D&C, included in the teaching materials for the first week’s lesson, seems to support a chronological approach. The 3rd, 6th and 8th, paragraphs, singled out in the lesson manual for discussion, discuss very clearly that revelation and the unfolding of the church’s doctrines was an iterative process. It also includes a short history of the process by which the current D&C came to us.

    The D&C presents an opportunity to see how God partners with real people to bring about His work. Understanding that history a little better has the potential to color how we read the rest of the cannon set in the distant past and opens the possibility that ordinary people can participate in meaningful and lasting fashion in the work. The thematic approach runs a greater risk of obscuring this but neither approach will be effective in the hands of a disinterested teacher. I think that disinterested teachers are the norm unfortunately. I wish I was in Julie Smith’s ward.

  15. Do you mean “disinterested” or “uninterested”? I’m trying to figure out why partiality in the teacher matters.

  16. Uninterested.

  17. Researcher says:

    So now I’ve read more of the manual (Chapters 1-6, 33-36, 39-44). Having read chapters 41-42, the claim I quoted above doesn’t seem so woefully absurd anymore, and overall I’m not displeased with the production. The modern content includes stories of President Kimball and missionary work, President Hinckley and the changes in building temples, and President Monson in Europe.

    One concern I had before reading the additional material today was that women seemed strikingly absent from the manual, but today I see ten references to Lucy Smith and Emma Smith in the materials used in the first six chapters plus a story about modern translation of church materials into Fante by Ghanaian Priscilla Sampson-Davis.

    The other ten chapters I read include more than 30 references to or sources created by women. For example, a story in Our Heritage about Hosea Stout’s unnamed wife from a book edited by Juanita Brooks (see manual chapter 33) would count as two references, the wording “every man or woman” (chapter 40) would count as one reference, and a mention of the Relief Society (chapter 42) would count as one reference.

    But of course the question of the representation of women in official church history is entirely off topic for this post.

    Another off-topic question is the one of historical accuracy. The manual still includes the mythical story of the three teenagers who saved the handcart pioneers and were therefore assured their everlasting salvation.

    But back on topic: particularly in the later lessons, there seems to be plenty of room for local adaptation. I am entirely out of time now to find the reference, but one of the chapters specifically provided for the inclusion of local material.

  18. Researcher: “there seems to be plenty of room for local adaptation”
    I’m not quite sure how that works! Could you explain a little further?

  19. Researcher, like cesc101, I would like to here more about that as well because it might help us guide our series on D&C lessons.

  20. Researcher says:

    This is what I was thinking about in particular, from lesson 34:

    Ask the assigned class members to summarize the following sections from Our Heritage: “The Brooklyn Saints”… “The Gathering Continues”… and “This Is the Right Place”…. As time permits, you may want to tell other inspiring pioneer stories (see the first additional teaching idea for an example). You could also invite class members to tell pioneer stories that are inspiring to them. These pioneer stories could also be from other periods in the history of the Church and from other countries where the Church is established.

    Because of the way I’m used to teaching the Young Women lessons, I would read that and (after praying about it, of course) spend 75 percent of the Gospel Doctrine lesson on the history of the Church in the [large city in the eastern United States] region where I live, and in particular the more recent church history with participation from some of our “old timers.”

    And then, for example, if you look at a lesson like #44 “Being Good Citizens,” the additional teaching ideas include “Report on volunteer services in the community,” and “Ideas for community service.” This would be a great way to make that connection between the practical advice in the Doctrine and Covenants and our modern role in a Mormon-scarce community. If I were teaching this lesson, I’d probably ask for some comments from a member who serves as a councilman in his local borough.

  21. it's a series of tubes says:

    Another off-topic question is the one of historical accuracy. The manual still includes the mythical story of the three teenagers who saved the handcart pioneers and were therefore assured their everlasting salvation.

    How is that version of the story still being propogated? Orton’s 2006 BYU Studies article should have killed that version, in favor of the much more amazing and historically accurate version. https://byustudies.byu.edu/PDFLibrary/45.3OrtonHandcart-60fc35f2-245b-497b-a7ce-e32aa44f58a8.pdf

  22. Incidentally, Sweetwater is a good example of the way that historical narratives can embody religious principles, doctrine, or theology, depending on your preference. If it is the case (as repeated in lesson 35 of the Doctrine and Covenants manual) that one heroic act can “ensure everlasting salvation in the Celestial Kingdom of God, worlds without end” then wouldn’t that have serious ramifications for our soteriology? In other words, wouldn’t that support a doctrine of salvation by heroic act? This could be analogous to the Roman Catholic doctrine of baptism by blood, where a martyr to the faith who was not baptized by water is considered to be baptized. Without passing judgment on whether such a doctrine may or may not fit within Mormonism given how salvation is configured, this remains a good example of how the crafted historical narrative has serious ramifications for doctrine. A theologian who explores doctrine through the lens of inaccurate history runs the risks of accommodating or creating doctrines that end up not having the support one might think that they do. It’s problematic to say that the most important thing is to teach doctrine and teaching the history is a luxury on the side for those who are interested or so inclined.

  23. FYI, I’ve posted some thoughts on this issue here.

  24. Robert C., thanks. I had already put it in the sideblog, it should be appearing shortly, but thanks for adding it here as well.

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