There is a note at the front of the new Institute manual “Foundations of the Restoration” that says “Comments and corrections are appreciated.” I’m going to take that seriously here. There are some things to recommend this new Institute manual, namely the frequent use of the Gospel Topics Essays and the question “How can we improve what we say about women in the Church to reflect the true significance of their contributions?” within the Relief Society chapter. And this good reminder after the question “What does it mean to you that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is ‘the only true and living church’ on the earth? (Before students respond, you may want to remind them that this doctrine is not intended to mean we should feel superior to others.)”
However there are a few things that stand out of which I will take umbrage. Besides the aforementioned Relief Society chapter, there is so little, too little, practically nothing that I saw wherein women were mentioned or quoted until page 39 (first mention of a woman by name is the infamous Mrs. Hubble story). And then after that, few and far between. Ironically, this manual does not take that “how can we improve what we say about women” question seriously. This lack of women’s voices should not happen in a 2015 manual of the church.
But more to the point of this post. I found the framework of many of the chapters, especially the ones dealing with the more “controversial” aspects of church history to be roundly negative in tone. Almost like the writers felt like they needed to over-defend aspects of church history before bringing up the issue.
Our college students deserve so much better. This framework teaches them to be afraid of our church history in a brace-yourself-fashion that is not going to be helpful in the long run. Let me show you what I’m talking about with cherry-picked examples from the new manual (note: all bolding is directly from the manual):
Lesson 2: The First Vision
“Explain that today there continue to be individuals and groups who spread false or misleading information about the Church with the intent to destroy faith.”
“Why is it important that “inquirers after truth” about the Restoration rely on Joseph Smith’s firsthand account? (Students may use different words, but be sure it is clear that relying on the Prophet’s account can help individuals avoid being deceived by false or misleading information.”
“Elder Anderson: ‘There have always been a few who want to discredit the Church and to destroy faith. Today they use the Internet. Some of the information about the Church, no matter how convincing, is just not true’ (“Trial of Your Faith,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2012, 41).”
“What sources should we seek out and trust in our personal search to know the truth regarding the First Vision, the Restoration of the gospel, and other events in Church history? Why? (Help students understand the following principle: To avoid being deceived by false or misleading information, those who seek the truth should search out credible sources of information about the Church and its history rather than simply accepting any information they hear or read, including information that comes from an Internet search.) Explain that critics of the Church argue against the reality of the First Vision by saying that Joseph Smith did not record his experience with the vision until many years after it occurred. Explain that 14-year-old Joseph Smith became reluctant to speak about his vision following the reaction of those he initially told (see Joseph Smith—History 1:21–26).”
And with these as the framework, now the differing accounts of the First Vision are brought up. It feels sleight of hand.
“Invite a student to read aloud the following statement by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles: “For [more than 180] years this book has been examined and attacked, denied and deconstructed, targeted and torn apart like perhaps no other book in modern religious history—perhaps like no other book in any religious history. And still it stands. Failed theories about its origins have been born and parroted and have died—from Ethan Smith to Solomon Spaulding to deranged paranoid to cunning genius. None of these frankly pathetic answers for this book has ever withstood examination because there is no other answer than the one Joseph gave as its young unlearned translator.”
“• Why is it important to remember that modern enemies of the Church frequently attempt to discredit the Book of Mormon? ”
“[Y]ou may want to explain that one way modern enemies of the Church attempt to discredit the Book of Mormon is by using DNA evidence to try to discredit any link between Book of Mormon peoples and Native Americans. If students have questions about this issue, encourage them to read the Gospel Topics article “Book of Mormon and DNA Studies,” which can be found at lds.org/topics. ”
“Ask students to imagine that a friend has said that he or she has heard something that seems to contradict the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon.
• What counsel would you give to your friend?
• How can your witness that the Book of Mormon is true help you when you are confronted by criticisms of the Book of Mormon?
“How has regularly studying the Book of Mormon protected you against those who want to destroy your faith?”
And then the entirety of Chapter 10: Seek Truth is a negative framing:
Here is one example: “Provide each student a copy of the handout “Discerning Truth from Error,” which includes counsel from Church leaders for those who have questions or doubts. Invite students to read the statements on the handout silently and identify principles that would help someone approach questions or doubts in a faithful manner. After sufficient time, invite students to explain how something they read on the handout could help someone who has a question or doubt about the Church’s doctrine, history, or position on social issues.”
Let me pause for a moment to consider Chapter 12: Additional Scriptures in Our Day.
Did I say every chapter that brought up “controversial” issues? *Checking quickly, ok, nope, phew!*
This chapter is quite well done. It brings up the issues without the negative framework, in fact it feels almost normal in the way these are explained and described. It was like a breath of fresh air. This is how the whole manual should have been written.
Chapter 15: Strength amid Opposition is similar to Chapter 10. It’s handout is titled “Remaining Strong amid Times of Opposition: Apostasy in Kirtland: The Need to Faithfully Follow Church Leaders.” And here are a few examples from the chapter: “Those who accuse the Lord’s servants are servants of sin.” and the Brigham Young quote of “I knew it, and they might rail and slander him as much as they pleased, they could not destroy the appointment of the Prophet of God, they could only destroy their own authority, cut the thread that bound them to the Prophet and to God and sink themselves to hell.”
*I will note that there is a mention of Sidney Rigdon beginning the “extermination” rhetoric therein, so yay.
“You may want to remind students that as they study about plural marriage, they should remember the pattern that the Prophet Joseph Smith followed in his gospel learning. He studied, pondered, and prayed to gain knowledge. They should also remember that much unreliable information about plural marriage exists on the Internet and in many print sources. Some authors who write about the Church and its history present information out of context, or they include partial truths that can be misleading. The intent of some of these writings is to destroy faith.”
The placement of this chapter following the Plural Marriage chapter is misguided. I’d probably stick in the Redemption for the Dead chapter in between the two to talk more about the theological underpinnings of sealings. But back to the topic at hand. This chapter has way too many quotes defending Joseph Smith that comes across as trying too hard, for example: “Why do you think the Prophet Joseph Smith has so many critics and enemies, even though many years have passed since his death? (A testimony of the Restoration hinges on whether or not Joseph Smith was a prophet who performed God’s work. Therefore, Satan continues to strive to discredit Joseph Smith.)” and “Why is it helpful to be aware that even though many years have passed since the death of Joseph Smith, enemies of the Church continue to attack his reputation?”
Chapter 22 on the Martyrdom of Joseph Smith continues this defense, with detailed explanations about why and how Joseph Smith was innocent. Does he need this defense in a faithful college student setting?
And then we come to Chapter 25.
Chapter 25: The Utah War and the Mountain Meadows Massacre is probably the worst example. When you begin the lesson with the handout “Preparing to Defend the Territory” and ask the question “If you had been a Latter-day Saint in 1857 and had heard that a large army was approaching your city, what concerns might you have had? (Students might mention that the Saints had been violently driven from Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois; many had lost valued possessions and land; and some had been killed or had died during these persecutions. News of the approaching army caused some Saints to worry that such events might also occur in Utah)” you are going to set a negative tone.
Then turning the Mountain Meadows Massacre part of the lesson into an “applicable for our day” pithy moment is just not appropriate: “What principles can we learn from this tragedy? (Students may identify various principles, including the following: Choosing to hide our sins can lead us to commit further sins. Choosing to hide our sins can bring regret and suffering.) Assure students that if they have started down a path of mistakes and sin, they can prevent future heartache and regret by turning to the Lord and repenting of their sins.”
And then “Explain that because a number of local Latter-day Saints were responsible for planning and carrying out the Mountain Meadows Massacre, some people have allowed this event to negatively affect their view of the entire Church.
• Why is it important to realize that the wrong actions of some Church members do not determine the truthfulness of the gospel”
I just don’t even know. This, however, is the wrong approach.
Lesson 26: The Revelation on the Priesthood felt more to me like along the lines of Chapter 12 in that it doesn’t feel too apologetic, sets out the history and even says “Emphasize that today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past on this issue: black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse; black skin reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; mixed-race marriages are a sin; or blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form. (See “Race and the Priesthood,” Gospel Topics, lds.org/topics.)”
Which can’t be stated often enough.
In conclusion, when church members rely upon a near-perfect model of the church’s past to reinforce their testimonies of the church (i.e. the old manuals), the natural outcome of learning challenging issues can be a fragile testimony. The undertone of much of this lesson manual, on the other hand, is that we fear our past and we must protect those fragile testimonies at all costs. Instead of warning students of complicated history, we should warn them against testimonies based upon simple narratives that are easily disproved and expect them to find truth and testimony in the beautiful, diverse, and albeit messy, narratives.
For a church so closely tied to the marvelous stories of pioneers and prophets who lived a hundred years ago, we should not be afraid.