The Top 10 Mormon Lesson Manuals… Ever

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.


  1. Ed, this is just awesome. Thank-you. I mourn (OK, maybe “wistfully regret”) the fact that I never grew-up with any of these books. Our mutual friend Doug gave me the Best of Lowell Bennion which is just wonderful.

    Oh, and Elder Talmage’s cigars….? Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.

  2. Ronan, you’re too kind.

    Re Talmage, I’m frankly surprised the two legends about him weren’t combined, ie, that he was visited by Jesus while smoking a cigar (Talmage being the smoker, that is). Talmage never inhaled, I understand.

    Talmage also experimented with hashish while studying science at Johns Hopkins, as I remember, part of a classroom project. I’m not making that one up either.

    Hmmm. Ronan, were did you say you were going to grad. school again?

  3. Julie in Austin says:

    O.C. Tanner, Christ’s Ideals for Living

    I just bought this on ebay for 6$.

  4. Talmage was a Hopkinsite?! I felt cool enough knowing that Ronan was one. Now I’m double cool.

  5. Good stuff, Ed. A while back I posted the Priesthood curricula from 1908 to 1950. I’m going to have to go with Teaching of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Even though I pretty much strictly use Words of Joseph Smith, TPJS still holds tons and would never make it past the correlation committee. I’ll also go with Vol. 2 of Church History.

  6. J. Stapley (#5) good calls too, in fact, TPJS should be in the top 5, no doubt, but I was feeling idiosyncratic yesterday. And, I guess these are my favorite choices, not an objective top 10 by any means. Also, I confess once I got “holy triumvirate” in my head I couldn’t help myself with Widstoe and had to throw him in there, thus stealing space from TPJS or something else. It was rigged from the start.

  7. Bro. Snow,
    It is a well known fact that what happens at Hopkins, stays at Hopkins.

  8. a random John says:

    I remember really enjoying reading Jesus the Christ on my mission. About three years ago my wife and I attempted to read it aloud together. This was a miserable failure. The text is so flowery that spitting out the sentences was surprisingly difficult. Ever since that experience the style of the writing has seriously turned me off.

  9. Re Talmage, I’m frankly surprised the two legends about him weren’t combined, ie, that he was visited by Jesus while smoking a cigar (Talmage being the smoker, that is). Talmage never inhaled, I understand.

    Well, there is that scene at the end of The Backslider…

  10. There’s no evidence that Talmage had any visionary experience while writing this text.

    I find this line funny… What kind of evidence do ‘visionary experiences’ typically leave?

  11. KMB (#10), you are right, it is funny.

    What I meant was an entry in Talmage’s journal or a letter he wrote, something in which Talmage claimed such an experience.

    Of course, let’s not discount ectoplasmic slime. Or, in Talmage’s case at the time of his Hopkins science experimentation, hashish residue.

  12. R.W. Rasband says:

    What a great post, Ed: a blast of pre-correlation fresh air.

  13. Kevin Barney says:

    Some additions to your list from books I received my father’s library following his death in 1980:

    James Barker, _The Divine Church_, originally in three volumes (later republished in a single bound volume), and

    T. Edgar Lyon, _Apostasy and Restoration_.

    These four volumes, which as I recall were MP manuals from the late 50’s/early 60’s, are treatments of early Christian history.

    Imagine a correlated manual today talking about something like *patripassionism*; unthinkable!

  14. Kevin, I have Barker’s 1 volume edition. I recall he was a mission president who spoke several languages and compiled his text in Europe–maybe not. It was based on secondary sources mostly, but I remember being delighted to find it. I think it was called “Apostasy from the Divine Church.”

  15. Sorry, I couldn’t help it. reading this thread reminded me of the Four Yorkshiremen.

    Aye, very passable, that, very passable bit of risotto.
    Nothing like a good glass of Château de Chasselas, eh, Josiah?
    You’re right there, Obadiah.
    Who’d have thought thirty year ago we’d all be sittin’ here drinking Château de Chasselas, eh?
    In them days we was glad to have the price of a cup o’ tea.
    A cup o’ cold tea.
    Without milk or sugar.
    Or tea.
    In a cracked cup, an’ all.
    Oh, we never had a cup. We used to have to drink out of a rolled up newspaper.
    The best we could manage was to suck on a piece of damp cloth.
    But you know, we were happy in those days, though we were poor.
    Because we were poor. My old Dad used to say to me, “Money doesn’t buy you happiness, son”.
    Aye, ‘e was right.
    Aye, ‘e was.
    I was happier then and I had nothin’. We used to live in this tiny old house with great big holes in the roof.
    House! You were lucky to live in a house! We used to live in one room, all twenty-six of us, no furniture, ‘alf the floor was missing, and we were all ‘uddled together in one corner for fear of falling.
    Eh, you were lucky to have a room! We used to have to live in t’ corridor!
    Oh, we used to dream of livin’ in a corridor! Would ha’ been a palace to us. We used to live in an old water tank on a rubbish tip. We got woke up every morning by having a load of rotting fish dumped all over us! House? Huh.
    Well, when I say ‘house’ it was only a hole in the ground covered by a sheet of tarpaulin, but it was a house to us.
    We were evicted from our ‘ole in the ground; we ‘ad to go and live in a lake.
    You were lucky to have a lake! There were a hundred and fifty of us living in t’ shoebox in t’ middle o’ road.
    Cardboard box?
    You were lucky. We lived for three months in a paper bag in a septic tank. We used to have to get up at six in the morning, clean the paper bag, eat a crust of stale bread, go to work down t’ mill, fourteen hours a day, week-in week-out, for sixpence a week, and when we got home our Dad would thrash us to sleep wi’ his belt.
    Luxury. We used to have to get out of the lake at six o’clock in the morning, clean the lake, eat a handful of ‘ot gravel, work twenty hour day at mill for tuppence a month, come home, and Dad would thrash us to sleep with a broken bottle, if we were lucky!
    Well, of course, we had it tough. We used to ‘ave to get up out of shoebox at twelve o’clock at night and lick road clean wit’ tongue. We had two bits of cold gravel, worked twenty-four hours a day at mill for sixpence every four years, and when we got home our Dad would slice us in two wit’ bread knife.
    Right. I had to get up in the morning at ten o’clock at night half an hour before I went to bed, drink a cup of sulphuric acid, work twenty-nine hours a day down mill, and pay mill owner for permission to come to work, and when we got home, our Dad and our mother would kill us and dance about on our graves singing Hallelujah.
    And you try and tell the young people of today that ….. they won’t believe you.
    They won’t!

  16. El Jefe–are you my 12 year old son in disguise? That’s his favorite sketch (mine too–no doubt this will now evolve into our top 10 Python sketches, a worthy follow up). His other favorite sketch is something he’s never really seen, the amplifier dialogue in “Spinal Tap.” Ours go to 11.

    Finally, I have to confess something here–everytime I read an item authored by Pres. John Taylor I hear the voice of John Cleese in my mind, say, from the dead parrot skit. Can’t help it. Could’ve been worse, could’ve been Palin’s voice, I guess. Come to think of it, President Taylor did used to dress up like a woman while on the “dodge” with the other co-habs while hiding from the federal skunks.

  17. Did O.C. Tanner end up leaving the church? I believe someone mentioned that to me once–one of his grandchildren, I believe. Couple him with the way B.H. Roberts ended up, and how Bennion and Lyon finished out their church careers…and it all becomes quite instructive to me.

    The bretheren have clearly decided that this type of thinking isn’t healthy for the broad membership of the church.

    I, too, long for these days…but I don’t know how healthy it really would be for the mainstream 60-70%.

    The Leonard Arrington experiment was clearly deemed a failure–and I’m curious to see if (as a Church) we ever allow the pendulum to swing back.

  18. John (#17) I don’t think OC Tanner so much as left the church as the church left him. I also don’t see why this era of Mormonism can’t be resurrected. As Bishop Edwin Wooley once said to Brigham Young (if memory doesn’t fail me), “it’s just as much my church as it is your church Brother Brigham.”

  19. I love Jesus the Christ for the simple fact it was the only non-scriptoral book we were allowed to read on my mission.

  20. Thanks for this list. I can print it out and cruise e-bay, et al.

  21. John, I asked Lowell Bennion late in his life, after many a frustration with the leadership as well as after his late-life service as a Bishop, why I should continue in activity when church attendance and culture were often so frustrating to me. His answer: “to serve and bless and to be served and blessed.” Lowell’s focus on love is the core of all his manuals. Isn’t that just what all of us need? He also taught principles, not rules. What a welcome change that would be.
    Which messages in Ed’s manual list might be unhealthy for as many as 60-70%? I agree there is no clamour for scriptural exegesis, comprehensive history and a demanding call for Christian service, but I believe that’s because most of those who want that simply fade away in boredom and hunger or quietly blend in unaware of the kindred souls in their midst. I have long taught by weaving in material from most of Ed’s list (and the remaining couple of items I just ordered, thank you, Ed, and thank you Benchmark Books)and I usually find the approach well received.

    Isn’t it gratifying to see Lowell vindicated on the 3 issues which arguably got him in the most trouble: blacks and the priesthood, evolution and birth control? What’s left to defame him?

    I know you as one of the most delightful, thoughtful and talented of members; you’re just the kind of guy who can help resurrect the golden age of church education.

    Molly Bennion (disclaimer: related to Lowell only by marriage and distantly at that)

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