An Open Letter to the January Ensign

Dear January Ensign,

Thank you for coming mid-December.  Your punctuality is an inspiration to the secular periodicals in our home, for which I am eternally grateful.  As usual, your shrink-wrapping still permitted the mailman to gaze at the cover, in hopes that someday postal service employees will come to Christ.  The image of young Joseph Smith wandering midst the Grove is a nice portrait, a refreshing change from the Kinkade-style Jesus portraits that seem to have plagued you lately.  Good to see that you are branching out. 

If I may be so bold, may I make a few recommendations?

I’ve noticed that you changed last year to have a consistent internationalized format.  Viva la correlacion!  But may I point out that your new fonts are all over the map?  I think you might be better off with a little more consistency.  You’re the Ensign, after all, not Redbook or even the Friend — do you really need five different fonts for the First Presidency message?

I enjoyed the depictions of the First Vision, particularly the international submissions; any way we can see more of those?  Maybe you should get your friends at to provide multimedia content specifically tailored to your current articles!  That would be fun, wouldn’t it?  Oh, and maybe also talk about how Joseph’s description of the First Vision changed over time.  But that’s just the naysayer in me talking.

May I ask you why we get the "Gospel Classics" column?  Aren’t there contemporary authors that could give current research insights?  I love the classics too, but people have got to be dying to hear something more recent…

Okay, enough beating around the bush… I have some real beefs. You know I love you, January Ensign, but you need to change.  Here’s how:

1.  the "Falling out of love…and falling back in" story was a mess.  What are you trying to teach people?  Are you telling me it’s okay to fall out of love, so long as I fall back in?  Can I get divorced instead?  I’m confused, Ensign.

2.  pages on the Deacon’s Quorum??  You’re a friendly magazine, but you’re not The Friend.  Come on, now, Ensign.  Treat us like grownups.  Maybe tell us instead why when adults receive the Aaronic Priesthood they go straight to the office of Priest?  Now THAT would be fun!

3.  you seem disorganized, January Ensign.  You do great until the "Gratitude" story, then your whole back half is a jumble, like the real planning and preparation went into the G.A.-penned sections, with the rest thrown together.  Do you think we only like your front?  January Ensign, please put more thought into the R.S.-related sections and give them the same respect as you would your G.A.’s car story — it’s worth it.  Maybe you could move some of your G.A. talks towards the back, so that you’re not all front-loaded?  I’m grasping at ideas, here, Ensign, but as it stands no one need read half of you!

4.  The big one: bring back "I Have A Question."  It is sorely needed.  Are you afraid that people will take you too seriously, Ensign?  Are you afraid that people will take these answers too much to heart?  You’re probably right — they will.  But we deserve a good Q&A column.  We have some good questions!  Please help.

Please know, dear Ensign, that I will probably keep on subscribing to you, even though there is no reason on Earth I should do so, since you’re now on the Internet for free in all of your typeset majesty.  Such is my devotion!  Maybe you could throw in something for me, just to show you care?  A bookmark?




  1. D. Fletcher says:

    Ok, I laughed. Steve, I’m begging you. Get serious about comedy.

  2. D., this letter was from the heart! That Jan. Ensign is a bag of mixed emotions for me. I’m still trying to work through them all.

    In all seriousness, they need to bring back I Have A Question.

  3. D. Fletcher says:

    In all seriousness, I haven’t looked at the Ensign in 25 years! Except briefly last spring when there was that article about somebody trying to change his (gay) sexual preference. I have one word for him… NOPE!

  4. I was concerned about the falling out of love article. It seemed to indicate that if you’re having problems with your marriage, that you-alone can fix it – without any help from your spouse. I’m sure that wasn’t the intent of the article, but I do worry that some abused / brainwashed woman will take it literally. There are some people who take the Ensign literally, right?

  5. Steve, are you really serious about I Have a Question? IIRC, it was largely pre-selected (at least it seemed that way) questions that got answered with the most basic, watered-down response you can imagine. Maybe it used to be better. . .

  6. Steve, this is quite a timely letter you have written. I just recently wrote a blog about my personal feelings that the Ensign (and other Church literature) uses a form of propaganda in its photos and illustrations. While mine is mostly a visual complaint and yours is more of an editorial/literary one, I think we are both in agreement that the magazine is not quite fulfiling the measure of its creation.

    Sumer, you are joking right? That’s the whole reason they have a policy to not include conceptual art, because so many people take everything published by the Church so literally (“well, the Ensign said it, which means God said it”).

  7. John H.,
    Back in the day (1940s?) it the I Have a Question section was pretty impressive. They had a stack of old church magazines in my mission office and they were fun to go through.

    They aren’t giving you a bookmark, but recently they have been sending you DVDs which double as frisbees. I appreciate that the Church is making use of this new medium. I think it has great potential since it is cheap to manufacture and mail. That said, I have serious problems with the Doubting Thomas DVD they sent me recently. We watched it with the missionaries one night (their idea) and then they asked what we thought. I told them and then they wished they hadn’t asked.

  8. John H., random John is right — back awhile, IHAQ really was something interesting.

  9. Correlation killed the Ensign. It is now as thrilling to read as a Conference talk or a Sunday School manual. Which isn’t surprising, since most of the material in the Ensign is either (1) Conference reprints, twice a year; (2) articles of moral exhortation written by GAs that are indistinguishable from Conference talks; or (3) articles keyed to the Sunday School or Priesthood/RS curriculum. You would think the present publishing team received the following directive: Remove every feature of the magazine that a living, breathing human being would find interesting.

    Perhaps “I Have A Question” was perceived as threatening, suggesting some members actually ask questions, a dubious activity at best. Or maybe they simply ran out of answers.

  10. Dave, I agree with you — there’s no longer any distinction between conference/the Ensign/sunday school/priesthood. All meetings and preachings are beginning to blend into one. I think content control is important, but not at the cost of engaging the audience.

  11. cue ominous music

  12. Man I love ordering from Wu Liang Ye.

  13. Was that irrelevant?

  14. Steve,

    So are you going to send a copy of your letter to the magazine staff?

  15. rick, what are you talking about?

  16. Sorry Steve, I took a break from work to eat some dinner and read bcc: and I was digging on my Wu Liang Ye feast so hard I had to tell someone about it.

    In the future, I’ll try to refrain from such frivolities.

  17. Steve,

    I should have included a smiley face at the end of my comment.

    I don’t, however, agree that all meetings and preaching is blending into one–and if they are, a good portion of the blame should fall directly on the local membership’s shoulders. (Please don’t see that remark as a defense of the Ensign as I’m not a fan of the new layout either.) It is us, after all, who are given responsibility for most talks and lessons. No doubt we take some of our cues from what we see in larger assemblies, but I find the quality of the talks delivered at the stake level to be considerably higher than those given at the ward level–so I wouldn’t object if more people sounded like a visiting seventy. While we are all teaching out the correlated manual, our instructors and students still bear the responsibility for preparing interesting and thoughtful lessons–and there are more and more resources available on which to draw.

    As an instructor I no doubt sometimes inadequately prepare-and my class is never in a position to take up my slack. Even when I have spent many hours preparing what I believe to be a thoughtful lesson, I find it difficult to have a good discussion. A lot of this is because Elder’s quorum has become politicized in the same way that the bloggernacle is–with people jealously watching the presentation of materials for signs of perceived heresy or a political slight. Instead of a room full of brotherhood and goodwill I get (and give) polarized sparring. My fellow saints predictably flock to their respective camps and unimaginatively defend positions that seem to have little to do with the gospel and much to do with favorite hobby horses. Inevitably the discussion produces more light than heat.

    The alternative, of course, involves sticking as closely as possible to the manual and finding that the answer to whatever is being discussed is prayer and scripture reading.

    I have to take a good deal of responsibility for this state of affairs. I guarded my political views as much as any other twenty-something during our church discussions. Recently I have come to see how boring these discussions are and since being called as an Elder’s quorum instructor in my new ward have tried to strip my lessons of covert partisanship. The results have been generally uninspiring. The lessons are certainly less interesting to me because there is no rancor (conflict junkie that I am)–but I haven’t had much luck moving the discussion beyond canned answers. No one seems to want to get involved if they don’t have a tribal flag to rally to.

    Engaging your audience, whether in the classroom or across the pulpit, is difficult but I can’t help but feel that our failures are more often our own rather than our source materials or examples. I offer as proof what I consider to be one of the best Elder’s quorum discussions I have participated in in the last five years–Elder Eyring’s visit several months back. I think the fact that an apostle was with us meant that we were all on our best behavior–we strove to thoughtfully engage the topic and had a genuine discussion of an important gospel issue. There were differences of opinion, but it was my feeling that we respected those differences. As you will recall, Elder Eyring didn’t participate in the discussion until closing remarks–so we can’t credit him with steering us to higher ground. We can, however, credit his presence with making us want to be thoughtful. I believe it is a lack of genuine thoughtfullness that makes our lessons and talks sound alike. I know I sound self-righteous here so let me emphasize that I suffer from a lack of thoughtfullness as much as anyone–probably more.

    I’ve rambled on enough–when is Gigi getting home!

  18. Mat, I agree with your points, so let me clarify what I was trying to say. I was speaking of what comes down to us from SLC rather than what is done on local levels.

    You’re sensitive about this, huh?

  19. Let me also quote for you, in favor of my point of overcorrelation, something from the David O. McKay Manual:

    “It is not necessary or recommended that members purchase additional commentaries or reference texts to supplement the material in this book. For further study of the doctrine…turn to the related scriptures that are included at the end of the “Suggestions for Study and Discussion” section.”

    In other words, preach the manual, and stick to the manual. There are plenty of resources out there, but that’s not what our leaders would prefer that we teach in class. There are plenty of interesting articles out there, but that’s not what the Ensign is for. There is plenty of fun and interesting doctrine out there, but it’s being correlated to death.

    So, you’re right — locally, things have a lot more potential for growth and interest. I just don’t believe that’s necessarily what is wanted by our upper leaders.

  20. As to adult converts going directly to Priest, I’m sure there’s a reason for that somewhere, but I remember that in one of my mission wards in Germany (this was in 1973), when a vice president of Germany’s largest insurance company at the time was baptized into the Church, the Bishop, in an effort to make old-timers in the ward stop murmuring about how this “big cheese” was going to make trouble in the ward by being treated special, started him out as a Deacon and had him passing sacrament with the young deacons, and then had him “progress” to Teacher, and then Priest. He was ordained to Priest in time to baptize his wife, who had been slower in accepting the gospel. Funny thing was, this kind of treatment didn’t offend him and drive him from the church (possibly what some of the old-timers expected and hoped for — this ward had backbiting problems you wouldn’t believe). He was one of the most humble and approachable men I ever met. Within two years he was the Bishop.

  21. Steve:

    About the “I Have a Question”. Is this the question format in the Improvement Era that Joseph Fielding Smith answered and later become Answers to Gospel Questions? Or is it something different?

    As for the manuals, you just touched on the biggest problem. The manuals, or even the Ensign, isn’t necessarily the problem. As I’ve stated many times, the challenge of making materials appeal to the new convert and the 75 year old lifelong member are enormous. And Mathew is absolutely right: Teaching and preaching largely comes from the lay membership.

    So it’s a real problem when we’re told that the manuals are good enough, that conference talks are good enough, and that the Ensign is good enough. Teachers and speakers should be trusted to know their audience and their class and know what materials to use.

    I can handle boring materials – I can’t handle people telling me this is good enough and we shouldn’t ever need anything else when we’re being taught.

  22. Tom Manney says:

    A manual! A manual! We have got a manual and there cannot be any more manual.

  23. David King Landrith says:

    Good one, Tom Manney. That’s one of the best scriptural adaptations I’ve ever read.

  24. John H,

    You are correct. The old magazines I was looking at were the Improvement Era and the answers were written by Joseph Fielding Smith. It seemed to travel in deeper territory than the current Ensign. Of course this probably increases the chances of being wrong…

  25. I realize that I may be interpreting this passage a bit harshly. A more generous interpretation would be that our leaders don’t want people killing themselves with outside research for lessons, that everything we really need has been gathered for our convenience.

  26. Another example of a regular question-and-answer feature in the old Improvement Era that tackled interesting questions was John Widtsoe’s “Evidences and Reconciliations.”

  27. I’ve read some of those, and it’s pretty heady stuff. I guess what we’re lacking is a modern-day Widtsoe or Joseph Fielding Smith.

    On second thought…

  28. Steve,

    An even more generous (and in my opinion accurate) interpretation of your quote from the McKay manual might be that our leaders want teachers to use the scriptures more. From the passage you quoted that seems to be the explicitly stated point, to turn to the scriptures and not to buy other material. Personally, I can’t find anything wrong with that.


  29. Dear Steve,

    Its taken me some time to come to terms with your criticism. I love you dearly and only want whats best for you. I know I’ve been under a lot of stress, holidays and all. The new year is bringing new changes and I’m trying to work out a few things.

    Maybe for the time being we just need some space.
    Amicably yours,

  30. I think that’s a fair interpretation, Brian. It’s possible that all of the concerns we’ve mentioned have fit into the mix on some level. You’re certainly right that there has been a push to rely more on the scriptures and less on outside texts.

    Is there anything wrong with that? There’s nothing wrong with reading the scriptures. However, if all you knew of the Church were through the manual and the scriptures referred to in the manual, in my mind you’d have an anemic knowledge of church history and thought.

  31. This my not be a popular stance but I am a big fan of correlation. I know most think it was the death of anything interesting in Church doctrine, lessons, talks, etc. However, what bothers me more than a boring talk is a talk devoid of any real spiritual insight. Talks that reference Stephen Robison, “Elder” Covey, and random bits from Elder McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine that aren’t really. I realize correlation might be like taking an ax to a cuticle but I will gladly give up references to Journal of Discourses, Orson Pratt, and Widstoe if it means we also expunge Covey, Robison (no hard feelings personally against these guys or anything), Tennis Shoes Among the Nephites (now I do harbor hard feelings against these authors), and Charly from Sunday School and Sacrament meeting. I have always been a snob (I won’t try to hide that fact now): I’m for a republic over a democracy (do we really want EVERY vote to count–I know several we should just throw out), I think an intellectual should be in the White House, not a moron (this goes back to my first point about votes: I know the majority can’t be right when they select someone like Bush), and I think Mormon kitsch should be relegated to the trash heap. And if that means I can’t parade out more heady fare during Church, then so be it.

  32. A good point, HL, except that thus far, those kitschy stories are still in the Ensign — like roaches they have survived the nuclear blast.

  33. Well, we are Mormons after all. Kitsch will always survive. But I think (and I have no empirical data to back me up here) that the kitsch to good content ratio has improved through the years and that the bleakest times are behind us. I think the assumption that content delivered through Church or church mediums and thus leading to an anemic view of doctrine and history is a bit suspect. Everyone supplements scripture and manual with their own resources. Whether its the Papers of Joseph Smith, Journal of Discourse, old issues of Dialogue (b/c it has become near unreadable in the last 15 years), or Charly, Singles Ward, the Book of Mormon movie or Ludlow pseudo-academic fare (once again no personal hard feelings against Ludlow but it would be nice if Church scholars began living up to that name). Point being everyone supplements but I don’t want to hear everyone’s pet supplements at Church even if I’m sure my particular supplements are superior to the next person’s (which I clearly do). That doesn’t mean I don’t have to sit through talks using the Luther bible (b/c Joseph Smith said it was the better translation, even if he was referring to the actual German language version and your using an English translation fo the German text), the J of D, or 7 Habits for Highly Effective Non-Original money Making Schemes (or whatever the latest Covey book happens to be). I know I may sound harsh but I find the manuals to be a welcome rest from a storm of Mormon marketing whether from Signature books or Deseret books. This of course doesn’t mean I don’t supplement the manual when I teach but that simply points to my snobbish rules don’t apply to me attitude I have already divulged.

  34. HL brings up some interesting points. I think it is a question of appropriate supplementary material for the right class. For example, in my Gospel Doctrine class last Sunday the teacher (who I like quite a bit and is generally loved by everyone) handed out a 93 page packet containing among other things nine different accounts of the First Vision. Hardly anemic, right? But is that the right choice for Gospel Essentials or Elders Quorm? Probably not. It’s intimidating to be greeted by nearly a hundred pages the moment you walk in the door. Incidentally, it took a member of the ward eight hours to photocopy and assemble these packets, which represents eight hours away from home and family. Now I have this packet and can’t wait to find time to read it, but in class we didn’t really have any time to actually read and discuss any of the accounts in much detail. I was still edified, but that would have been nice.

  35. But Brian, what your teacher did is explicitly discouraged by the sunday school curriculum…. does that matter?

  36. Doug Evans says:

    I get the Ensign on line. I download the Priesthood manual for my Palm. I have very little room in my home for any more big books, manuals, etc, without cleaning out some writings that are meaningless or for pure entertainment. I also support the correlation program of the Church. I support the approach that a new Priesthood holder (no matter what age) should start as a Deacon and learn precept upon precept and by putting into practice each precept that is learned.

    I also believe there are great volumes of wisdom and new and often very contemporary thinking about the Gospel written or spoken by those who are serving or have served as members of the Twelve or in the Presidency. So I read virtually anything I can get that was said or written by persons like Neil A. Maxwell and President Hinckley and other Christ-like persons like them who spend more time than me considering the Lord’s directions and his handbooks and are worthy to receive great understanding from the Lord. I believe that the contemporaries that are best followed in life are those that lead by the disciple-like lives they set before us and who, through their words, open our minds to new ways of thinking. I find that their thoughts show us that just when we feel we know it all about our purpose here and the directions we should go in life, provide us with further light, knowledge, observations and analysis that make us say to ourselves ” wow, I missed that” or “why didn’t I think of that?”. After 70 years of membership in the Church, I know one thing for sure, and that is that I am really a beginner in the Lord’s eyes and I honestly believe that he really loves and cares for beginners.

  37. Maybe then the problem is one of audience — as the Church expands, the Ensign has become more and more geared towards a global, general audience. As a result, it’s become watered down a touch and has lost some of the real spark and deep thinking that went into the earlier Ensigns and Improvement Eras.

    Have we lowered the bar for spiritual discussion in the Church?

  38. I’m vaguely “offended” you lump Stephen Robinson, a good respected scholar inside and outside the Church, with Jack Weyland, a cheeze writer…

  39. Ben, I agree with you — Robinson deserves better, but he suffers from overexposure. Everybody and their dog has read Believing Christ, and I think ultimately that kind of wide-spread popularity has opened him up to criticism as a pop figure (like Covey).

  40. Isn’t the Ensign English language only? What is the Liahona for?

  41. I suppose we should define good scholar. I think Robinson has had some great insights and has put those down on paper well. However, I find his parable of the bicycle problematic and the way it has been used by some members even more problematic. However, I think you’re right that I shouldn’t lump Robinson with Weyland. Robinson certainly deserves better company.

  42. This thread touches on the dilemma we face. I don’t want a Joseph Fielding Smith doing an Answers segment. (Authoritative statements that completely ignore or completely misunderstand what previous leaders have said – I’ll pass.) But I certainly don’t want what we have now – Church leaders visibly paranoid about delving too deep or stirring up waters.

    So it really is unfair to correlation. We all complain and essentially say, give me what *I* want. I’m sure there’s a reasonable middle ground, but I haven’t given it enough thought to determine what that is.

  43. As much as it pains me, I think that HL is about right with regard to the no outside material comments. In almost all of the lessons in the church that I have sat through where outside material has been brought in, the material has tended toward the fluff. The real target here, I think, is not so much Sunstone, Dialogue, and other sources of “serious thought,” but pop pyschology, Chiken Soup For the Soul schlock, and the like.

    Of course, I bring in outside material into my lessons (never once had a single complaint from anyone anywhere in six years of more or less continuous teaching about bringing in this material; on the other hand, if I did get a complaint I would probably ignore it ;-> ), but this is because I trust be. It is all of the rest of you that I am worried about.

    On the other hand, for those who feel stiffled by correlation, use the scriptures more — they are about as uncorrelated as they come and the official curriculum that accompanies them in Sunday school is so thin as to create very little in the way of “official” interpretations.

    For example, in my last Elder’s Quorum lesson we did chapter 2 of the David O. McKay manual, which has all of this very dualistic, anti-body language. Then we read a bunch of pro-body scriptures from the D&C and started talking about the tension between these two lines of teaching. A fun time was had by all.

  44. Um, Dave, correlation didn’t destroy the Ensign, it created it. Before correlation there was no Ensign…

  45. I beg to differ, Nate, having at one point on my mission read through stacks of old Ensigns dating from the seventies that were qualitatively different from today’s Ensign. (Do all missionaries do this at some point?) I specifically recall reading Nibley’s 12-part “Stranger in a Strange Land” series about the Book of Enoch. I don’t have a threshold date or event by which I can mark exactly when Ensign was secretly murdered and replaced by its evil twin “Correlated Ensign,” but I know it happened.

  46. Nate Oman says:

    Dave: Prior to the implimentation of correlation the Church magazine was the Improvement Era, and there was also the Relief Society magazine. Correlation combined them and created a single magazine called “The Ensign.” Prior to correlation no such magazine existed. As to the change in its character over time, you are no doubt correct…

  47. p.s. Dear January Ensign, I noticed that your brother, the February Ensign, has a Q&A. But it’s the wrong kind — it’s Q&A responses from peers, not the old-style I Have A Question. What’s going on?