GD Lesson 23: “Seek Learning, Even by Study and Also by Faith”

Notes, commentary, and questions for LDS Sunday School teachers using the ‘Doctrine & Covenants and Church History’ manual. Feel free to share your thoughts or ideas regarding the lesson in the comments.

This lesson is all about the value of education, both secular and spiritual, a duality suggested by the key phrase “by study and also by faith” (which also happens to be the title for the two-volume Nibley Festschrift).  Certainly translating that duality of approach into practical terms would be one possible approach to take in this lesson.The Olive Leaf (D&C 88) famously called for the building of a temple in Kirtland:

 119 Organize yourselves; prepare every needful thing; and establish a house, even a house of prayer, a house of fasting, a house of faith, a house of learning, a house of glory, a house of order, a house of God;

Note the anaphora (rhetorical repetition at the beginning of successive clauses, in this case “a house of X”) suggests a progression: prayer, fasting, faith, learning, glory, order, God.  Learning was to be an integral part of worshiping God at this House of the Lord.  And it is in this very context that this institution, that is to play this role of educational arm of the temple, the School of the Prophets, is chartered.

The salutation for members of the School has always reminded me of the Priestly Blessing (cf. Number 6:22-27):

132 And when any shall come in after him, let the teacher arise, and, with uplifted hands to heaven, yea, even directly, salute his brother or brethren with these words:

 133 Art thou a brother or brethren? I salute you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, in token or remembrance of the everlasting covenant, in which covenant I receive you to fellowship, in a determination that is fixed, immovable, and unchangeable, to be your friend and brother through the grace of God in the bonds of love, to walk in all the commandments of God blameless, in thanksgiving, forever and ever. Amen.

Members of the School also received the ordinance of the washing of feet.

The idea of a “school of the prophets” had ample precedent, both in the Old Testament itself and among the leading universities of the day, such as Harvard and Yale.[1]  The Mormon version of such an institution (sometimes called by the alternate name “school of the elders”) began in Kirtland in 1833.  This institution would have various iterations in Kirtland and Missouri, and would be resurrected in the west, continuing until 1884.

One of the things that has always fascinated me about the school is the fact that it included secular, academic subjects, and not just theology (or what we would think of as missionary preparation).  I in particular am interested in the Hebrew School taught by Joshua Seixas.  I have hanging in my den a poster put together by Ron Romig, which on one side has pictures of the books used at the school, and on the other has an actual Hebrew worksheet completed by the Prophet.  (Here is the certificate Seixas gave him upon completing the class.)  Joseph had had very little formal education–even less than Jethro Bodine’s famous sixth grade schooling.  This is not surprising, given that in his youth his family were poor, itinerant farmers, but it was a lack in his life that Joseph felt keenly.  My (subjective) impression is that the time Joseph was able to spend in actual learning in the Kirtland school represented the happiest time in his life.  He was passionate and motivated in his studies; his desire to learn and joy in the results were palpable.

My father was a professor of education, and education was very important to him, a value that I absorbed from his influence.  I love that the Church formally places a high value on education.  (Commentary on the Perpetual Education Fund might be an appropriate angle for this lesson as well.)  But here we return to the duality we started with: by study and also by faith.   How do we negotiate that in practice?  What about our legion of graduate students in various religious studies fields in the academy; how does faith enter into their work?  That is a big, big topic, and I’m going to encourage you in the comments to tell us what that means to you.

Another topic broached by the lesson is the idea that we should continue to learn throughout our lives.  Most of us are beyond our university educations; how do we continue to make ongoing learning a meaningful part of our here and now?  Again, I am going to pose the question here and ask you to respond it it in the comments below.

[1] Joseph F. Darowski, “Schools of the Prophets: An Early American Tradition,” Mormon Historical Studies, Spring 2008, vol. 9 no. 1, pp. 1–13.


  1. This is an article that hits home for me. I’m on the verge of becoming a professor of education like your father (once I complete my dissertation that I need to work on also today). And while raised in the Church I also attended a Hebrew Community Day School from third grade through sixth grade as a child. So many of the details in the article really struck a chord for me.

    I haven’t studied the education of Joseph Smith sufficiently to comment on that aspect of your article. Nothing I say next is meant to be a commentary on that.

    But the strands of influence you mention that I identified with pointed me in various directions, some of them conflicting and sources of stress as I resolved the conflicts over time:

    From the Mormon background: Everyone on the board knows what this gives to a person. The work ethic (e.g. “put your shoulder to the wheel”). The altruism. The encouragement toward success and schooling was always strong. My parents, both active LDS, are well educated and always encouraged me to seek learning, I never felt a conflict between that and church teachings.

    The Jewish background: More specifically from third grade forward even into my teens and adult years I’ve been attracted to intellectual pursuits and even spiritual approaches that can be grouped within the “school of thought” of Hillel the Elder, who was very much promoting learning, education, and a sense of what we now call the golden rule and building a community together through mutual love and mutual cooperation. This would include the work of Martin Buber (I and Thou was a big influence on me in encouraging equality in dialogue with one another). Within some strands of liberal Judaism including the one I became introduced to even while also an active Mormon as a child, there is a different nature of what it means to be faithful than what I found in my Mormon upbringing, and I grant that I speak from only personal experience as a child next, not from what higher training in advanced seminary might have taught . For Hillel and others in this “liberal Judaism” way of thinking, to struggle and grapple and ask questions is encouraged as a way of strengthening faith and understanding. The lessons that many Jewish people learn from the story of Jacob wrestling with God (Genesis 32:22-32) is that it is through “wrestling with God” that you grow and that God encourages us to engage in this wrestling. I know that in higher seminary if I studied religion in, say grad school, I might find that wrestling and questioning is encouraged in the LDS tradition of religious scholarship too, I don’t doubt it in fact when I look at commentary on this board. But in my childhood, teen years, even college years, I found my urge to “wrestle” to be in conflict with what many people in the Church wards I attended were telling me (emphasis on questioning indicating disobedience and pride, especially if questioning authority figures or questioning doctrine or policies) unfortunately. This contributed to my eventual inactivity from church and seeking of religious/spiritual scholarship from other sources. I can see that the majority of people commenting on this board also engage actively in the type of “wrestling” that I do, so please don’t misunderstand what I say of the conundrum and conflict I felt growing up.

    The conflict I felt in college led me to the path I’ve followed and am still following, and my professional experiences in communities has done nothing but strengthen this next approach. The teachings of the church are and always will be part of me. I’m also strongly influenced by scholars within the social gospel approach and write about that in a post I created if you click on my name. I do think that a social gospel approach can be compatible with LDS theology.

  2. In what I just wrote, I think that the lessons we glean and interpret from Jacob wrestling with God represent a key point of conflict that I struggled with as a child, a teen, even as an adult, and this is relevant to your article. I’ve seen many Christian interpretations of the story of Jacob wrestling with God teaching that the story demonstrates the futility of wrestling with God and the necessity of submission. In LDS Church Sunday School (I do not claim this does or does not reflect Church higher seminary teaching in a graduate program) I was taught that Jacob was sinning by wrestling with God, that he was prideful and arrogant. So you can see the conflict between what two approaches (LDS and liberal Judaism) were teaching when I was a child and teen in how to interpret this story, and that’s a crucial illustrative conflict which influenced my own path.

  3. Dale Whiting says:

    Not only is there a duality in the educational process, by study and by spirit, we have placed value on both religious education and secular education, another duality. Yet the duality of the learning methodology applies equally in both areas. For example, in the area of religion we have Joseph Smith instructing Oliver Cowdery on the task of translation to first study it out in his mind, then seek confirmation by the spirit. In the area of secular education, apparent conflicts between science and religion are best handled by using this same technique. We must not forget that in the area of religion, the Lord through His Spirit reveals to us, both collectively and individually, line upon line and precept upon precept, here a little and there a little. And this is pretty much the same way science works on the individual level. Something very similar to this technique is used by scientists. Study it out in the mind first, then obtain that conviction that comes from careful thought and contemplation. Where there is only one ultimate truth, any apparent conflicts between science and religion only mean that one, the other or both are still misunderstood.

    Where the community of scientists meet to discuss apparent conflicting theories on understanding the universe, so do the councils of the Church. And interestingly, God tells us that he will reveal His will to all of His people in His own due time, those revelations for general application being through men known as prophets called from each individual group of His many peoples and written down as scripture for those people to read, contemplate and come to understand. After all, in addition to the 11th Article of Faith, couldn’t this principle of revelation also have been behind the Brethren’s condemnation of that proposal to burn Korans? In that condemnation Korans were placed in the category of sacred scripture. And Muslims do descend from Abraham through Ishmael.

    I still recall Joseph Fielding Smith’s comments about the archeological diggings known as Dinosaur National Monument. While still heading up the History Department and serving as an Apostle, he discounted that scientific study as being “of the Devil.” Yet after he became President of the Church he did not speak another word on this topic. I like to think that perhaps my great uncle by marriage learned something he had not understood before, a new line, a new precept.

    So in what should be our individual, never ending process where we are always seeking to learn something new, and where from time to time our learning may seem to have confused us, study it out carefully, then seek the spirit to come to a deeper understanding. Be patient. After all, Newton, Darwin, Einstein and Joseph Smith were.

  4. Dale – You hit on an area of great concern for me when I look ahead at the future, as you might guess given my career path. Multiple studies on whether the Church has a definitive stance on evolution have been inconclusive but as far as I can tell (just my interpretation here) the Church’s current stance is that the theory of evolution violates theology. The most recent statement by the living prophet, Thomas Munson, to knowledge on the topic is in an Ensign article called “The Lighthouse of the Lord” (2001) in which Munson urged youth to accept the fact of creation and also used the phrase “so-called science” to describe science that might challenge faith. Since I know that the words of the living prophet are considered scripture I take that to be an indication of where the church stands, that creation (as literally interpreted) is a fact and that any science which may challenge faith should be viewed as merely “so-called science.”

    As an educator you can imagine my concerns here. I’m really, really worried about this. Some of the top biologists in the field include biologists and I dread the possibility of the Church becoming more active in the creation/evolution debates.

  5. I meant to say “include Mormon biologists.”

  6. it's a series of tubes says:

    That Munson guy again. He’s always causing trouble.

  7. Eric Facer says:

    At the time Brother Monson (by the way, it’s “Monson,” not “Munson”) authored that Ensign article he was not the prophet. I believe this is significant. President Benson, prior to becoming President of the Church voiced many very strident political views that can only be described, charitably, as extreme, if not bizarre. No one, to my knowledge, suggested that we were compelled to embrace those views when he became prophet.

    More to the point, not ALL words of the living prophet are considered scripture. Elder Todd Christofferson recently reminded the members of this point in his April 2012 General Conference Address:

    “At the same time it should be remembered that not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. It is commonly understood in the Church that a statement made by one leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, not meant to be official or binding for the whole Church. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that ‘a prophet [is] a prophet only when he [is] acting as such.'”

    Finally, I don’t think the Mormon Church will become more active in the creation/evolution debate. It is quite cognizant of how the Catholic Church diminished its credibility when it went after Galileo and other scientists. The Mormon Church won’t make the same mistake (though, as an imperfect institution run by humans, it will likely make a few others).

  8. You’re right that the timing of when this was stated and the fact he wasn’t yet the Church President and Prophet makes all the difference. My mistake in my memory.

    I do grapple with how to tell the difference between what’s considered scripture and what isn’t since a prophet doesn’t have to say “thus sayeth the lord” for something to be scripture. Clearly in formal general conference talks the prophet is acting as prophet. But what about other times, in writings, interviews and so forth? If he doesn’t have to say “thus sayeth the Lord” for us to know when he is acting as a prophet how do we know when he isn’t intending to act as a prophet? Please don’t take that question as mocking at all, it’s an honest question I’ve wondered about since childhood being raised in the Church.

    I would like to hope that the Church doesn’t follow the path of other churches (Southern Baptist and evangelical Baptist, Seventh Day Adventist, evangelical Lutheran come to mind) in taking an active stance in the evolution/creation debate. It would place many people who do accept the validity of the theory of evolution while also loving the Mormon Church in a really difficult position. It’s one thing for a Southern Baptist to tell me that I can’t be Christian if I engage in promoting strong instruction in the biological sciences in public schools, but I don’t want to have to start hearing that from the LDS Church.

  9. Eric Facer says:

    I grapple with the same the dilemma of knowing when a prophet’s words should be taken as divine guidance or whether they simply represent his opinion—and I’m glad I have to. It makes me think, learn, and progress, and it reminds me that while a prophet can provide useful guidance and instruction, at the end of the day, I am ultimately responsible for my own actions and decisions. I believe that anyone who stands before God on judgment day and says: “Well, the prophet told me to do it,” we will receive a chilly (or perhaps an extremely warm) response.

    If it is any consolation, evolution, in all its “glory,” is taught in the science departments at BYU. Also, there is little question in my mind that Darwin got a lot of things right and that many of his discoveries were made with the assistance of the Holy Ghost.

  10. Eric – I appreciate all of what you say here. And yes BYU is known for excellence in the sciences, including biology. I especially like the work of another Mormon who is a biochemist named Martin Nowak of Harvard University related to cooperation as a principle of evolution. Nowak’s work is promising and quite brilliant.

    I wish I had run into people like you and others on the board long ago, feeling like an outsider in the Church of my family has been difficult for too many years. I should get back to work but this has been healthy. Thank you.

  11. Dale Whiting says:

    Let me go a bit further.

    Isaac Newton was a professor of religion, likely a post given him not because of any expertise in that field, but because of his general allround scholarship. And he taught religion in Trinity College at Cambridge University! His work in physics and mathematics was done in his spare after school time. Rumor has it that his private diary discussed his conclusion that the traditional understanding of the Holy Trinity was wrong. His reading of scripture confirmed an understanding of three separate, distinct and unique beings. But he had to hide this understanding to keep his job. The private diary, wherein he kept all this secret, was recently opened but kept secret by its Israeli owner. Those who have read it were the source of this information. Lots of indication that Newton applied careful study and prayer in his personal religious life.

    Charles Darwin was never much for religion. Yet his voyage on the Beagle was followed by decades of silence while he worked carefully on his “Origin of the Species,” his wife helping him organize and present his ideas in print. She was a devout Christian who respected what her husband had seen and only asked that his conclusions be presented carefully. In the end Darwin was pushed into publication when someone else independently reached many of his conclusions. While he was not much of a religious person, he respected those who were.

    Going beyond his general and special theories of relativity, Albert Einstein searched all of his life for a theory what would unify the large scale Newtonian principles with the subatomic world which he opened up to our examination, never giving up hope of finding it. He opened the door to today’s super-collider investigations into the subatomic world. And we have reason to believe that there are multiple dimensions in this real world surrounding us, all of this seeming to be quite compatible with our understanding of the Spirit World existing among us, but undetectable by mortal man who is stuck in only four of its dimensions. Einstein had one hangup. He could not let go of what was viewed commonly as a steady state universe, one created as such by an unchangeable God. Yet every time I re-read Genesis, I think of how closely it describes to generations of scientifically unsophisticated ancestors a truly Big Bang. Albert could not let go of an apparently traditional religious belief.

    All three of these men have something in common with the Prophet Joseph Smith. They had a curiosity to learn, to resolve disputes common in their day and age, and in doing so, created considerable controversy. All three studied, contemplated and I speculate prayed. And receiving some sort of confirmation, they stood behind what they had come to believe, this process of coming to believe in all likelihood a process involving careful study, contemplation and eventual confirmation by the Holy Ghost, who’s calling it is to confirm to our soles the truth of all things, both spiritual and secular.

    Those of us who have studied religion but not science understandably can become confused at what appears to be contradictions. Those of us who have studied both, discount those seeming contradictions, looking forward to the day when all will have been revealed. For where there seem to be contradictions, and knowing that there is only one grand Eternal and complete truth, contradictions only point out to us a need to study, pray and seek further temporal and spiritual insights. For either one, the other or most likely both are not yet fully understood.

    So if we would continue the process of learning His word, then we shall come to know the truth of all things, both temporal and spiritual, and the truth in all areas of learning – religion, science, humanities, arts, etc – shall make us free!” There is but one study which Our Father in Heaven would have us discard, the study of war. Isaiah 2:1-5. We need to learn how to do that!

    I say to all who would wish to learn more, “Let there be light. Let us escape the darkness into which we are born, putting off the Natural Man in order to become His Saints, ever learning but never quit able to come to a full and complete knowledge of the truth as it unfolds line upon line and precept upon precept before our very eyes, both spiritual and physical eyes that need to be kept wide open.”

    Anybody been to Dinosaur National Monument lately? I’ve only been there once. I expect that my great uncle in law was never there.

  12. JennyP1969 says:

    I have always seen “learning by study and by faith” as studying available information on a given subject, and then learning the fullness by having the faith to apply what you learn. I study crocheting — I read all about it, take classes, consult experts. I’ve learned a lot by such study. But to take yarn, hook, and pattern and begin the first stitch in a new, more complex pattern is learning by faith that all the study in the world can’t teach. It’s a leap of faith that begins the effort, faith that keeps me going, and faith that sees the project through. Same with gospel doctrines. I can study all information available about tithing, and that’s good. But by faith I pay the tithing and learn for myself the value of paying, of blessings received, of faith even when I don’t specifically know where my tithing goes. I love studying stellar nurseries in the cosmos and have faith that someday I may be ready to have enough knowledge and faith to work with one.

    I love learning by study. But learning by faith is so, so much richer, fuller, deeper, personal, and complete.

  13. Bluidy Clavers says:

    I always found it ironic that at BYU professors in all fields—other than religion or biblical studies—could be on the cutting edge of their professions. But in areas related to religion or scriptures, fear of overstepping certain bounds seemed to rule the classes I took, with the result that any approach to religion or the Bible always struck me as infantile and undemanding; seemingly a case of arrested development. Oh, I think we prided ourselves on being far ahead of and superior to “the Bible scholars of the world,” whom we tended to denigrate. In reality when it came to challenging scriptural texts we seemed afraid of our own shadow.

    I learned about the Documentary Hypothesis on my own, something that made much more sense of the contradictory strands of stories in Genesis and opened up a whole new world of exegesis to me (I’m not saying that the hypothesis will stand the tests of time, but it might be of benefit to study scholarly research in order to “prove all things” and hold fast to what is good).

    It is a shame that BYU could not be in the forefront in these fields as well. But I think the heavy hand of Correlation will continue to impose (self-)censorship on any involved in such pursuits. This might be a case where learning by “faith” has stifled learning by “study.” A Jewish proverb that I read once resonates with me: Study is a form of worship.

  14. J. Stapley says:

    I just want to go on record as loving the salutation. I think that this idea of study and faith has tremendous power when properly applied.

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