Authorized readings

Whenever I visit a home for the first time, inevitably and when convenient, I drift toward any bookshelf in view. A survey of any such edifice among our people is an enlightening experience. Some titles that were once great forces among us are now obscure or completely forgotten. Other titles persevere through decades and centuries. Quite telling among the thousands of books published during our history are those that carry the explicit endorsement of the Church. This group of books is most often associated with our Missionaries and our ward-house libraries.

In 1899, the First Presidency authorized the First Seven Presidents of the Seventies to select potential missionaries from the local quorums of the Seventies and send them to one of three schools for a year of education in preparation for their service (1). Later in 1912, President Joseph F. Smith wrote in a general circular:

There are now more than 2000 missionaries in the field, most of whom are young men. Many of this number, according to the reports of the Presidents of Missions, have not had the advantages of a thorough public school training. In this respect they do not represent our people fairly, nor do they accomplish as much good as they would if they were better informed. In some instances it requires the first year of their mission to prepare them for their calling. This is a great loss to themselves, their parents and the cause they represent. (2)

President Smith recognized that there had been the one year courses set up at various schools, but that “[t]o quit work and go to a Church School for one or two years, and follow that with a mission of two or three years, is a greater sacrifice than many feel that they can make.” (2) He subsequently announced the creation of a correspondence course, which all prospective missionaries were to engage. He also delineated the books used in the course:

The text books used during the first part of the course are: “A Young Folks’ History of the Church,” by Nephi Anderson; “The Gospel,” by B. H. Roberts; “Mormon Doctrine,” by Charles W. Penrose;…”The Articles of Faith,” by James E. Talmage; “Ecclesiastical History,” by B. H. Roberts; together with a brief outline of statistics and other general information pertaining to the Church and also to our State. (2)

Articles of Faith, a series of lectures by James Talmage, was generally approved by the First Presidency in 1899 (3). Later, in 1924, the First Presidency commended the revised edition to the saints (4). The First Presidency approved Jesus the Christ in 1915 (3) and Talmage’s Vitality of Mormonism in 1919 (5).

In 1944, the First Presidency appointed a reading committee consisting of Joseph Fielding Smith, John A. Widtsoe, Harold B. Lee, and Marion G. Romney. This committee was charged to “approve all materials, other than those that are purely secular, to be used by our Church Priesthood, Educational, Auxiliary, and Missionary organizations in their work of instructing members of the Church in the principles of the Gospel and in leading others to a knowledge of the truth.” (6)

It seems that reading committee focused mainly on curriculum materials. It is not until 1966 that a newly formed Church Library and Instructional Materials Committee established libraries in each church including books, handbooks, media and personnel. Each ward-house library was to include Articles of Faith, Documentary History of the Church (7 volumes), Essentials in Church History, and Jesus the Christ. (7)

The authorized library was updated in 1976 to the following titles: A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, The Miracle of Forgiveness, Gospel Doctrine, Jesus the Christ, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, and Doctrines of Salvation (3 volumes). (8) These books were also considered the Missionary Library.

Elder Dean L. Larsen of the Seventy and Managing Director of Curriculum Resources responded to the question, “Should that which is written in Church publications and lesson manuals be taken as official doctrine?” in the Ensign:

Over the years a careful selection of these hardbound, independently published books has been made and approved by the First Presidency and the Twelve for placement in Church meetinghouse libraries. They are to serve as approved resource materials for priesthood leaders, teachers, and the general membership. Any additions to this ‘authorized list’ of hardbound books must be approved by the First Presidency and the Twelve. The number of books on this list is small. (9)

The Missionary Library was updated in 1988 to: Jesus the Christ, Articles of Faith, Truth Restored, Gospel Principles, A Marvelous Work and a Wonder and Our Search for Happiness. (10)

Most recently and with the publication of Preach My Gospel, the Missionary Library was updated to: Jesus the Christ, Our Heritage, Our Search for Happiness and True to the Faith. (11)

Jesus the Christ is the only title of the original First Presidency approved triad to remain in the authorized library. This is, perhaps, surprising as it is the most scholarly of all the books to be approved. It is also the only book to be offered in digital audio format at the Church’s website.


  1. Messages of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, vol. 3, pg. 323.
  2. ibid. vol. 4, pg. 268. It is uncertain, how long these courses were held.
  3. ibid. vol. 6, pg. 208.
  4. ibid. vol. 5, pg. 234.
  5. ibid. vol. 5, pg. 121. Vitality of Mormonism is interesting as it was published by a national non-Mormon press and contained a series of articles that had been published in newspapers around the nation. The title page included the subtitle: “Brief Essays on Distinctive Doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
  6. ibid. vol. 6, pg. 209.
  7. Church Library and Instructional Materials Committee. Information Series #1, December 1, 1967. Copy available in the James R. Clark Research Collection. L. Tom Perry Special Collections.
  8. Teaching: No Greater Call. (1978 edition, Unit C, Topic 5)
  9. Ensign. Aug. 1977, pg. 38.
  10. Copies of the originals with the subtitle “Missionary Reference Library” in the authors possession.
  11. Preach My Gospel, page viii


  1. Steve Evans says:

    Very, very interesting. I wonder if there will ever be another book penned by a single author that makes it into the approved library.

  2. Our Search For Happiness, one of the new additions, is written by Elder Ballard.

  3. I agree, it seems like everything is vanishing from peoples Library shelves. I remember my mission I had one whole suitcase of church books (It seems) Now all they get is Jesus the Christ, Our Heritage, Our Search for Happiness and True to the Faith. I could fit those books into my coat pocket.

  4. Not that those aren’t fine books.

  5. Actually, Our Search For Happiness was included with the 1988 release, which had many single-author titles. I’m not sure that there will ever be a single author anything unless correlation is reformed.

  6. One could have said the same thing about the 1912 collection, as well, Ben.

  7. Yes, I know. It is a shame that these books are not as “common” or standard as they once were. They should be read and studied. Perhaps the titles have changed to focus on what is applicable to the now and current needs. Not that these other books should be forgotten.

  8. I didn’t quite understand Dean Larsen’s answer to the question. Was that a yes or a no?

  9. Matt, see here for the full response.

  10. Wow. His answer seems to be “We try to make it official Church Doctrine as much as we can…”

  11. Thanks for the history. I think a reason for minimal official libraries is a view of them as necessary reading, and necessary things have to be kept minimal.

  12. As an interesting aside, the Missionary Library may soon include videos, as the Church has filmed a sort of reality TV show about missionaries here in San Antonio. We were able to watch some episodes here, and they are apparantly playing some in the MTC now. Their expanded use is not yet known, but it is interesting.

    I am wondering what Church Videos, etc would be considered in the Church Official Library.

    As for single author sources, I may be naive, but I believe the Ensign Articles and General Conference Talks are written by who it says wrote it. This may be the only venue we have.

  13. Interesting about the videos I’d be intrigued. It does make sense to keep things organized and updated when it comes to essential. Remember I’m a little OCD when it comes to organization. I agree that they keep things current for a reason. Yet am a firm believer in archive and study of history.

  14. I wonder, if we polled honestly, how many of us have actually read the basic library, or whether they’re just so generally familiar that we ignore them.

    To get a good picture of my library, J., you’d have to scrutinize my hard drive as well as my shelves. Shelves are for the sentimental gifts and the books that somehow accumulate even though I vow never to buy another one. Hard drives are for the ones I really study.

  15. To get a good picture of my library, J., you’d have to scrutinize my hard drive as well as my shelves.

    (grin) So, bookshelves are like the outward performances and the hard drive is our heart.

  16. Hard drive… I am along those lines. I try to do everything paperless now. (New years resolution) Not all books you can find digitized yet. If any one know a link to a good source for hard to find books that would be great.

  17. Kevin Barney says:

    Fun post, J.

    I remember the 1976 set, which was my missionary library in 77 when I went on my mission. I found A Marvelous Work and a Wonder very helpful; that was probably my favorite from the set. I really enjoyed Teachings. I’ve always loathed Miracle; an awful book. I never read Gospel Doctrine, and I just kind of skimmed Doctrines of Salvation. I enjoyed Jesus the Christ and never understood why people said it was so tough to understand; it seemed perfectly clear to me.

    That lasted about a month, and then I moved on to other things. Pretty soon I had an entire trunk of books (of a more scholarly nature) that I was lugging around on transfers. If there was a rule limiting us to the official set, I don’t remember it, but if such existed I violated it flagrantly.

    It was interesting to me that Charles Penrose wrote a book called Mormon Doctrine; I was not aware of that and just assumed that the BRM opus was the first with that title.

  18. honestly, how many of us have actually read the basic library

    I read most of my basic library: Jesus the Christ, Our Search for Happiness, A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, and Truth Restored–half of it before I even started my mission. I consulted Articles of Faith, but didn’t actually read it through, and Gospel Principles is really a lesson manual, so I looked at it as needed.

    My mission didn’t have a book rule, so I also accumulated quite a few books (which I shipped home periodically). I had a bike, which was transported in the cardboard box it came in, so clothes and other lightweights went in with the bike so that books could go in the suitcase.

  19. How big does a bookcase have to be before it qualifies as an “edifice”?

    I hope that mine are big enough, and I hope to have more before long.

  20. Yeah, Kevin, I had the same thoughts regarding Mormon Doctrine. It would be fun to get a copy of the original…perhaps we could refer to it as the “true” Mormon Doctrine. And why am I not surprised at your missionary bibliophilism? (you too Jared*).

    Mark, I too aspire to enormity in this area…much to the consternation of my budget.

  21. I found that Kessinger sells a reprint of Penrose’s Mormon Doctrine, Plain and Simple, or Leaves from the Tree of Life. At 70 or so pages, it would fit into today’s missionary library. I also found a good description of Penrose’s book in the Deseret News (April 5, 1882): A Valuable Little Work (middle column, bottom of the page).

  22. Kessinger is a general interest reprint house that overcharges substantially for its publications. They’ll set up for print-on-demand almost anything that they can find in the public domain.

    I’d look around for a better deal than their price — its likely you’ll find used copies at a better price than their reprint.

  23. Does that mean Miracle of Forgiveness isn’t canon now? I was so repelled by that book! It was the first time I had encountered things that seemed wrong to me in official church literature.

  24. I read AoF during my breaks when I worked in a cake factory before my mission. Reading it represented a wonderful oasis.

  25. Left Field says:

    The official Mission Library for my mission (NYC ’78-’80) was: 1. Standard Works 2. Jesus the Christ 3. Articles of Faith 4. Marvelous Work 5. The Challenge (A.R. Dyer) 6. Story of the Latter-day Saints (Allen and Leonard) 7. Miracle of Forgiveness 8. the Mission Manual. We were expected to restrict our reading to the mission library, church magazines, and the Church News. I had a few other books, mostly that were given to me during my mission. We were also expected to read the complete library and were regularly asked about it.

    In practice, almost nobody read the complete library because The Story of the LDS was out of print and nobody had a copy. Halfway through my mission I met one missionary who actually had one, so I borrowed his copy and read it with relish.

  26. capt jack says:

    “The Challenge” by Dyer, now I haven’t heard about that book for years. My missionary comp and I found a copy underneath a pile of 20-year old pamphlets in our rented house in Buenos Aires Argentina.

    That book was a weird combination of sales techniques–challenging your investigators to read, pray, be baptized–and Dyer’s secular and political views. As one example, he was miffed that only a small percentage of Korean War POWs had attempted escape, a demonstration of weakness directly attributable to modern American life.

  27. Kevin Barney says:

    My first MP loved The Challenge, and we were all expected to own a copy and read it. I never did.

  28. Tatiana, as far back as I can remember, missionaries havebeen explicitly directed not to read Miracle of Forgiveness.

  29. Michael Towns says:

    This discussion brings up the very interesting question (at least to me personally) regarding the “Mormon Canon”. Obviously there are both official and unofficial canons. I rarely go into an active LDS home without seeing McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine somewhere. While it’s not a canonical book, the vast majority of the American LDS population seem to think so.

    The Lectures on Faith used to be in the Doctrine and Covenants until 1921, I believe. Now, hardly anyone reads it, yet it was defined as official canon until Talmage recommended that they be removed since they weren’t “revelations”.

  30. capt jack says:


    If you want the Readers’ Digest version of “The Challenge”, here’s a link:

  31. I don’t know who the new Ben S. is in the bloggernacle, but it’s not the M* Ben S.

  32. J. Stapley: I am obviously older than you, because I was encouraged to read Miracle of Forgiveness. I really wish that Bishops today would get rid of it. My experience is that it is used often by Bishops in my stake (they order it by the caseload), and they often require some of their members to read as part of their repentance process.

  33. I have not heard of general counsel to missionaries, or anyone else, not read Miracle of Forgiveness. J.Stapley, do you know of any links to such advice given to missionaries?

    I do know Elder Scott’s counsel is to read the last two chapters of Miracle of Forgivenss first. Richard G. Scott, “The Path to Peace and Joy,” Ensign, Nov. 2000, 25

    I also know that many bishops today distribute copies of Believing Christ in their counseling rather than Miracle of Forgiveness.

  34. my MTC president gave me permission to read Nibley to shore up my faith, and my mission president let me read whatever I wanted because I was the one they rolled out when someone was having a debate over an obscure doctrine. on my own, i finally ended up restricting my reading to just the scriptures because I had such a guilt complex about any deviation from complete devotion, although by then I had read probably ten or so anti-Mormon books and a handful of books from competing sects like Jehovah’s Witnesses.
    re: Dyer, he was the loudest the highest up advocate for doctrines that were better left unchampioned.
    re: Story of the LDS (post 25), Allen and Leonard are both amazingly committed Latter-day Saints but for some reason that book was chosen as indicating the fall from grace of the Church History department circa 1980. I wonder whether those who indicted the book did so because it was being used as an official text (it was finally reissued in a second edition some 20 years later).
    My current “official” library is the Anchor Bible. I save up and buy a new one, and I’m in heaven for a week. They have an entire imprint for general religious studies as well, which is quite enjoyable. Blenkinsopp’s Isaiah I thought was particularly readable and useful.
    For my LDS official library, I tend to read the official newspaper of the church (the Times and Seasons), and the splendidly published primary material of the first half-century or so (I particularly love Jessee’s and Faulring’s offerings). And of course the scriptures.

  35. Kevin Barney says:

    smb, my understanding of the backstory to Allen and Leonard’s The Story of the Latter-day Saints (which I read on my mission pre-controversy) was that ETB was offended at the use of the word communitarian to describe the United Order. So entire pallets of the book at DB were shredded.

    Eventually after ETB’s time had passed people realized how ridiculous the original ban had been and the book was reissued. It is still to this day the finest one-volume history of the Church ever published.