Tools for teachers 2017: Doctrine and Covenants and church history [Updated]

2017 brings to Adult Sunday School the Doctrine and Covenants and church history. Let’s just take a moment and offer up thanks that the plan for topical Sunday School lessons was scrapped. Now, the Doctrine and Covenants is a great opportunity, because we have more context for it than any other scripture in our canon. There is also a fair amount of terrible material masquerading as study helps out there. This post is an outline of the best resources we have for approaching the text and preparing lessons in the coming year. Also, as a bonus, BCCers will be putting up lessons throughout the year, including lesson-specific resources.

Introductions, contexts, commentaries, and questions
I think that the three best and accessible resources are:

Check out my review, here. This book is already eight years old, and there has been a lot of important work since. Still it is great all-around resource.

There is a free version online [Thanks Jim!]. This book is questions, not answers. But they are good questions, and will perhaps help you think of new ways of approaching the text and your lessons.

I understand that these will be collected and published by the church. In the interim, they are Besides being available online, and in your LDS Library App under “Church History,” [Update] you can purchase a hard copy from the distribution center. These are great essays giving excellent context for the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants.

The Joseph Smith Papers Project is critical here. And the website has done a lot of important work to get documents and volume introductions up. For the deep dive, however, the introductions for the individual documents are only available printed Documents volumes. They are pretty spendy, so they are probably best for people that have a long-term commitment to research. Still, check out the volume intros:

[Update] Also the Document introductions and annotations are available from the published volumes one year after publication.  So when you go to the JSPP website and select, for example, a revelation text.  You can read the document intro, which is invariably important.


And if the deep dive really is your thing, let me recommend Robin Jensen’s “‘Rely upon the Things Which Are Written’: Text, Context, and the Creation of Mormon Revelatory Records” (MLIS thesis, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 2009). This really changed how I see the revelation texts. I think it is only available from ProQuest, if you have institutional access, or you know someone.

The Gospel Doctrine curriculum isn’t just on the Doctrine and Covenants. Church History is also a topic for lessons. Here are some suggestions on that front:

Matt’s volume is an engaging wonderful one-volume history of the church. It is on Audible, if you prefer to go that route.

I will not deceive you, this is a bit of a slog to get through, and probably best for people committed to research. It has weaknesses as well as strengths (see my review here). But most of the revelations came from Kirtland, so this is a good place to go if you want to bone up on the era.

Others to think about might be Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith, Turner’s biography of Brigham Young, and/or Kimball’s biography of Spencer Kimball (out of print, but available used and on Kindle). As mentioned, I’m sure that we will have article and chapter suggestions for the individual lesson posts we put up.

If there are other resources that you have found helpful, feel free to share.


  1. Thanks. I wish BCC had a “save” function.
    I would find this all useful if I were teaching (less so the “bit of a slog” Ohio Revelations), probably frustrating if I were just a student, and useful again when I do my own ‘as if’ work at my desk since I so seldom get to class.

  2. I have found the four volumes of Commentary on the Doctrine and Covenants by Stephen Robinson and Dean Garrett helpful.

  3. Brent Tubbs says:

    I hadn’t heard that the church was working on switching Sunday School to “topical” lessons, or that the effort was scrapped. Where is there more information on this?

  4. Hadn’t heard that it was scrapped. I just thought that it was delayed in coming out so that PH/RS could get through the last of the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church manuals, since next year is Pres. Hinckley and the last one if we don’t include Pres. Monson. Since it also coincided with the end of the 4 year Gospel Doctrine cycle I figured that we would be starting the new program in 2018 once they could translate all of the materials into the various other languages.

    Wouldn’t be the first time I was wrong though.

  5. J. Stapley says:

    Jared, it may very well be implemented in 2018. But for whatever reason, 2017 didn’t work out.

  6. Looking forward to the BCCers contributions!

  7. Jenny Reeder’s and my book–The Witness of Women is meant to offer a lot of women’s voices and experiences to supplement the dearth of women’s voices in the manual. Chapters are arranged topically to try and be as accessible as possible for use as lesson resource.

  8. J. Stapley says:

    Janiece, that is great to hear! What is the latest on publication date, and do you have a link for preorder?

  9. Janiece clearly knows better than I do about release dates, but it’s currently available for preorder

  10. This is probably off topic, but I find it deeply disturbing and disheartening that we are moving further and further away from studying and understanding the scriptures in their own context and more into proof-texting them into ‘topics.’ I hadn’t heard that Sunday School was going to go the way of the youth program (which my teens all hate). I’m seriously saddened by the thought.

  11. I’m ordering jjohnson’s book for sure. Been waiting for it! At least one, maybe one for each sibling or sibling in law… which reminds me: When will _She Shall Be an Ensign_ be ready?

  12. ReTx,

    From what I remember reading, the program they tested back in 2014 wasn’t purely topic based. For Gospel Doctrine they basically assigned a section of scripture to the entire month, gave some suggested topics and lesson plans for sections of that scripture, and then let the teacher choose how they approached the material with their class. I seem to remember that in the program they tested was Old Testament and January covered Moses/Genesis through around Chapter 40.

    Of course my memory may be wrong and the program may also have changed since then. Who knows. Only those in the Church Office Building probably.

  13. The official date is 1 January, however, DB tells us it will be available earlier–we already have copies, so if you order from DB you’ll get them first.

  14. ReTx,

    The problem, IMO, with the not-so-new youth curriculum is that for it to be effective, it requires skills from the teachers and the students we don’t cultivate institutionally: willingness to openly ask questions with inherently ambiguous answers, the ability to tolerate multiple readings of a text, understanding the difference between a good question and a boring one, sincerely encouraging differences of opinion and interpretation. You know, good teaching.

    I was in YW as a Laurels Advisor in one of the stakes that piloted the new curriculum and remember thinking it was a vast improvement over the old manuals, which seemed to revolve around girls named Jenny who were perpetually late to their piano lessons. I spent much of my own time as a YW in Brazil, and it was cray-ay-ay-zy how white middle/upper-middle class the old manuals were. I remember feeling faintly embarrassed by them in the context of 1990s northeast Brazil. I was shocked to find them still in use fifteen years later.

    But I agree with you overall, and with the OP. Switching from study of the scriptures to topics in GD is a recipe for awful for many of the same reasons I’m sure your kids hate the YW/YM curriculum. I’m glad it’s not happening next year.

    Glad to have the resources in the OP. Thank you!

  15. FWIW, I really liked the new Aaronic priesthood curriculum when I was teaching as a deacon’s quorum advisor. But, like Leona says, it requires a decent amount of investment from teachers and students. We had to really make an effort to get the teachers, parents, and kids to understand that what we were doing would not work with the old manuals’ regurgitation model. And even making that effort, I’m not sure we really succeeded. We had some really great lessons, but we had a lot that fell flat, too. On the whole, though, I think it was better than the old manuals.

    The other problem with the youth curriculum, though, is that changing both Aaronic Priesthood/YW and Sunday School to topic-based makes them seem kind of redundant. I think topical works well for YW/Aaronic Priesthood, but Sunday School works better with a scripture-based curriculum.

  16. Dancer_Esquire says:

    Thanks for pulling these resources together in one post, J.

    As a fairly unread newly-called GD instructor, I’ve been worried about moving into next year without the excellent resources available at Book of Mormon Central. These will prove immensely helpful (I LOVE the Faulconer questions approach!).

  17. Clark Goble says:

    Am I the only one who would really like a change and go back to topical lessons like they did in the 80’s and before?

  18. Leona,

    “girls named Jenny who were perpetually late to their piano lessons” is pretty much the best thing I’ve read all week. Thanks!

  19. Greetings to all. On December 26, the Joseph Smith Papers will publish an e-book in which we have collected the transcripts and annotation for all the Joseph Smith revelations that have so far appeared in the Documents series (volumes 1 through 4). This means we will cover all the revelations up through section 107. The e-book will be distributed through Deseret Book, same as all of our other print and e-books. We expect the retail price will be about $15. We will also do a free update of this book (to those who purchased it) when we have completed the transcripts and annotation for the Joseph Smith revelations we were not able to include this time. We are publishing this e-book this year, even though the e-book will be incomplete, in order to support the teaching of the Doctrine and Covenants in Gospel Doctrine next year. We hope the compilation will be helpful for other reasons as well.

  20. Hey, Eric. That is cool. Thanks for the heads-up!

  21. Thanks to all those that replied back to my little rant. I have to say that a program as described by Jared sounds wonderful to teach (as someone with a professional teaching background), but I am also iffy about most GD teachers having the skills/time to do any better than what is happening in YW/YM.

    I wonder how other wards are handling the ‘no outside material’ rules. Our ward is still big on this with individuals being called into the Bishop’s office for bringing in church history not presented in official manuals, etc.

  22. It always surprises me to hear complaints about outside material when in fact there is no “no outside material” rule. Even the strictest statements in church manuals warn against *substituting* outside material for the lesson, while many manuals explicitly recommend additional study for context, as long as this is used to supplement, not replace, the lesson topic.

    In other words, it should be pretty easy to convince a micromanaging bishop that there’s no blanket ban.

  23. @christiankimball I also long for a Save function. I end up doing a lot of copy/paste and save to a Google Doc. Not perfect, but at least the stuff I really, really want on hand is always available.

  24. The term being thrown around in our ward is “divinely approved sources.” (Gag) Which I believe comes from the new seminary program. We had an entire talk on it with a big graphic showing all the various leaders of the church we should seek knowledge from (God–>Prophet–>Apostles–>All the way down to Bishops). Then the outside of the graphic (outer darkness?) was everything else that offers knowledge (summarized as the internet). I wanted to raise my hand and ask where Historians fell in this scheme, but it never goes well for me when I start ruffling feathers.

    “Divinely approve sources” really caught on after that though and comes up regularly in lessons. (Again, Gag.)

  25. I’m with Clark, I’m not old enough to have experienced the topical lessons, but I’m looking forward to not having teachers try to squeeze some sort of relevant lesson from Levitical sacrificial protocol. If you accept the premises of the Church (that we have modern day prophets who have the same authority as the old ones), it seems to make more sense to focus on more current issues.

    With the traditional approach we’re studying copies of copies of copies x 10 of manuscripts written in completely different languages from completely different time periods (when nobody batted an eye at slaughtering cities wholesale), and that’s before we get to the fact that in about half of the cases the purported prophetic authors probably weren’t the actual authors. It might be more challenging intellectually, but if I want an intellectual exercise I’ll go play chess; that’s not the point of church.

    As far as “outside material,” I think that varies a lot depending on the particular ward. I recently gave a talk that included information about the psychological research on God imagery, Jonathan Edwards sermons, 18th century diaries, and the JS papers. Nobody cared and many people thanked me afterwards.

  26. I feel your pain, ReTx. I have a relative in a stake where some weird new jargon invented by the stake president took on a life of its own and essentially became doctrine, with bishoprics assigining Sacrament meeting talks and fifth Sunday lessons on it. I can easily see the same thing happening with “divinely approved sources.”

  27. ReTx, I suggest Elder Ballard’s February 2016 talk to CES teachers as an antidote to the kind of restrictions you describe. “Divinely appointed sources” is from the seminary curriculum but here is one sentence from Elder Ballard’s talk that suggests its possible breadth, especially in light of the study of the Doctrine and Covenants and church history that we will undertake this next year: “For you to understand the doctrinal and historical content and context of the scriptures and our history, you will need to study from the ‘best books,’ as the Lord directed. The ‘best books’ include the scriptures, the teachings of modern prophets and apostles, and the best LDS scholarship available.”

  28. Elder Ballard’s talk was used for a R.S. lesson. It didn’t pick up nearly as much traction and my daughter’s seminary teacher sticks with only officially church sanctioned sources. Which says something about what the local people/leadership wants. Either way, I’m not teaching at the moment so it isn’t worth having a battle over.

    This all has caused a number of discussions at our house though. My daughter is putting pressure on her seminary teacher to come up with better answers to historical questions and then feels frustrated when the teacher comes back to ‘it isn’t vital for eternal salvation’ as an answer. My response is that if my daughter wants real answers, she has to do the hard work of researching herself. And she’s coming to agree, but then sees seminary as totally worthless – especially compared to the excellent classes she is taking in high school.

  29. Aussie Mormon says:

    They way I figure, and I’m not claiming any authority on the matter, is that as all lessons and talks are supposed to be prepared under the influence of the Spirit (as in the member of the Godhead, not the kind from a glass bottle), if the Spirit approves your use of a source, and you are using it to help enhance your message, then you should feel more at ease using it (since lacking personal visitations, the Spirit is how most of us check whether something is in line with the Lord’s desire).

    For example, I used a Maxwell Institute article in a lesson I took. It was relevant to the topic at hand, it helped demonstrate an important point, and gave people some different ways of thinking about things while reading the scriptures that could help improve/enhance what they gain from them in the future, and so I felt nothing wrong using it.

    However, I probably wouldn’t include a non-scriptural or manual source purely because it contains a funny story about a handcart pioneer vomiting on their pet dog (I made that example up. I have no idea if any similar stories exist, or whether any pioneers actually vomited on their pet dogs anyway).
    Likewise, I almost certainly wouldn’t use any sources that were intended to be antagonistic towards the Church, God, Christianity, etc, as its unlikely that they will allow the Spirit to be present.

  30. I wish your daughter were in my seminary class, ReTx. It would be more interesting with a couple more or her curiosity and capacity.

  31. The Revelations in Context articles have already been compiled in a book and made available from the Distribution Center: Only $3.45!

  32. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks, JMS. I’ll update the post.

  33. J. Stapley says:

    Quite the list there, Ben. Thanks for the link.

  34. The Doctrine & Covenants lesson manual isn’t working for me. Skipping from section to section and reading just a verse or two makes it difficult to contextualize. Can I just use Revelations in Context and the D&C sections themselves and skip using the manual and its topic based approach? I wonder how many complaints to the bishop there would be? Does anyone else dare to do that?

  35. J. Stapley says:

    Jolene, I think that teachers are under the obligation to read the material, and then craft a lesson that is appropriate to their class. No one should be a slave to the manual. That is counter to the push of the current SS training materials. You can see some of the stuff people around here are doing by looking for posts with the hashtag #DandC2017.

%d bloggers like this: