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.
- Messages of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, vol. 3, pg. 323.
- ibid. vol. 4, pg. 268. It is uncertain, how long these courses were held.
- ibid. vol. 6, pg. 208.
- ibid. vol. 5, pg. 234.
- 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.”
- ibid. vol. 6, pg. 209.
- 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.
- Teaching: No Greater Call. (1978 edition, Unit C, Topic 5)
- Ensign. Aug. 1977, pg. 38.
- Copies of the originals with the subtitle “Missionary Reference Library” in the authors possession.
- Preach My Gospel, page viii