8 or 4?

I’m guessing that for most of you, as long as you can remember Sunday School has followed a four-year rotation: OT, NT, BoM, D&C/Church History. I suspect at least some of you young pups may be surprised to learn that when Correlation first rolled out the new Sunday School program after 1971 the rotation was actually eight years long, spending two years rather than one on each volume of scripture. At some point in the late 80s or early 90s[1] the Church went to the four-year rotation we’ve become accustomed to.[2]

I’ve taught GD under both systems.

One thing I liked about the new rotation when it first rolled around was that we got to change gears every year and the material felt a little fresher that way. Spending two consecutive years on a volume of scripture can come to feel like a bit of a slog.

But I privately lament the change the most during the OT years, such as we’re experiencing now in 2018. Trying to “cover” the OT in one curriculum year is pretty ridiculous. The OT is so much longer than the other volumes of scripture that I really felt the difference the most in the OT years. A single year on the entire OT isn’t even close to being enough. Two years allows the text to really breathe and enables the class to get much more into the weeds than a single year will permit.

I’m curious whether any of you old timers remember the eight-year SS rotation, and what your thoughts are about eight years versus four years in how we present SS. Your experiences and perspectives on this topic appreciated.

[1] Substantial googling has failed to turn up the exact year when the Church changed the rotation from an eight-year cycle to a four-year cycle. I believe we went through at least two full eight-year rotations starting in 1972, but after that it gets murky. I found on lds.org a 1994 announcement of the 1995 curriculum that includes the words “will continue to rotate over a four-year cycle,” so that is a terminus ad quem and we know the change happened some time before that year. (Help us, Ardis, you’re our only hope!)

[2] My understanding is that the Church went to the four-year rotation because the Brethren didn’t like the idea of going so many years in between those devoted to the BoM curriculum.

Comments

  1. Jaime Fernandez says:

    I surmise the rest is given to us to spend more time in our personal study to further our knowledge of the volume of scriptures we have. To be candid, I learned more during my profound personal study than relying to 45 mins or less in Sunday School class.

  2. I’d be all-in for a 5 year rotation, 2yrs for OT and 1yr for each of the others. Or even a 6 year rotation where we have 1 year of church history and one year of actually reading the D&C (since all I ever get during D&C years is history stories instead of talking about the doctrine contained therein.

  3. HughinKC says:

    I was disappointed at the change, but mostly because it occurred together with a change from semi-serious study of the scriptures themselves to the current Correlation 101, in which the same questions recur regardless of the nominal scripture under discussion.

    Besides the change in annual focus, I regretted the loss of the eighth year, a serious focus on church history. It was an excellent generalist presentation, I thought.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    Yeah, the D&C year has turned into a potpourri assortment of leftover stuff. That is actually my least favorite year to teach (I remember having to do multiple lessons on missionary work, for example). A true focus on the D&C and on Church history would substantially improve that course in the curriculum in my view.

  5. Alas, I cannot help!

    I don’t actually remember ever spending two years on any book. That may be because in the midst of that time I graduated into a Young Adult version of Gospel Doctrine, followed a few years later by a mission, and that may have broken up the pattern so much that I wasn’t even aware of it.

    I will say that I think it is a shame what we as a Church have allowed to happen to our relationship with the Bible. As important as the Book of Mormon is, ever since Pres. Benson’s emphasize on the importance of reading it, it seems to have become the only scripture that matters to us. General Authorities urge us each conference to read it daily (regardless of the Sunday School curriculum), and there are some programs (e.g., the temporal preparedness program, whatever it’s called, and Pathways) where participants must commit to reading the Book of Mormon daily. None of these promotions encourage study, but merely reading, as if merely letting the words of the Book of Mormon wash over you will somehow make you better. We seem to have abandoned the Bible entirely, except for the limited lip service we pay to it in Sunday School once in four years (and even then, you may end up in a class like the one taught by a man in my ward who announced at least twice that he was “not a fan of the Old Testament”)

    It’s got to the point where, between neglect in our Sacrament meetings, prooftexting in Sunday School, and waning literacy in King James English, it’s like we no longer even consider it scripture. That’s a shame. That’s wrong.

    I’d go to a midweek Bible study class if one could be organized. And I’d enthusiastically support a long-term study in our regular Sunday curriculum … but only if it were led by someone who knew and loved the Bible.

  6. It’s possible that the four-year rotation phased in. I don’t remember a time when we spent more than a year on the NT, BOM or D&C…if you trust my neurons, that’s some evidence that there were no 8-year rotations in the early 80s. But I do think I remember spending two years on the OT, so I wonder if that phased out last (for the reasons you mention).

    I feel especially disappointed in the OT year about how shallowly our adult scripture study course treats a rich and difficult body of scripture–one that in some ways is more tightly tied to the unique aspects of LDS theology than the NT. But, then I remember how shallowly it treats all the other scriptures–even the BOM readings are just scattered topical verses, nowhere near reading the entire book.

    Spoiler alert: we learned at a recent leadership meeting with a 70 that next year’s curriculum will be very different, involving principle-based “scripture blocks” to be discussed each week and apparently no systematic adult scripture study at all.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    Ardis, I absolutely agree about our increasingly attenuated relationship with the Bible. And GD as presently constituted doesn’t do much to counter that trend.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for the head’s up, Abbey, I’ve heard rumors to that effect. It sounds like our relationship with the Bible will be further attenuated in such a system.

  9. Elizabeth says:

    Jaime Fernandez, of course you learn more in your personal study. That is why we are told, repeatedly, to “study the scriptures,” if we were to learn all in SS we would be told “be sure you go to GD every week.” Just don’t ask the Lord to help you to study more diligently. He will see that you are called as GD teacher. Boy, have I learned a lot in the last 3 years.

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    My recollection is that the old eight-year rotation SS manuals were far more substantive than the ones we have now. We seem to be going in the wrong direction.

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    Yeah, Elizabeth, the teacher always learns the most. I hope it’s been a good experience for you. I used to burn out at about the 2-1/2 year mark like clockwork, but this last go round I went six years without burning out at all, so I guess I must have learned to be a little more chill about my preparation for class.

  12. I’m old enough that I could theoretically remember the 8-year cycle, but I didn’t pay much attention to Sunday School when I was a teen. Now that I’m a Gospel Doctrine teacher, however, I pay a lot of attention to Sunday School and recently found myself wishing that we could spend two years on the Old Testament.

    Maybe we could have a four-year cycle of Everything Part 1, followed by another four-year cycle of Everything Part 2. First half of the Old Testament, first half of the New Testament, and so on, followed by the second half four years later. That way, we could go more in depth into the scriptures, but not have too many years in between our Book of Mormon studies, and especially not have two years of the same scriptures right after each other. Kind of like when you watch, say, a Star Wars movie and you have to wait three years for the next one to come out. But in the meantime, there are Avengers movies, Star Trek movies, Fantastic Beasts movies, and so on.

  13. Abbey, I hope that doesn’t mean proof texting lessons over and over again. Like so many of you have said, we don’t know the Bible or Church history as a people. As others have said, I learn more from personal study than SS.

  14. “Spoiler alert: we learned at a recent leadership meeting with a 70 that next year’s curriculum will be very different, involving principle-based “scripture blocks” to be discussed each week and apparently no systematic adult scripture study at all.”

    Oh, no …

  15. Kevin Barney says:

    Tobia, I like your compromise suggestion! (It’ll never happen, but still…)

  16. My ideal might be something like:

    Year One – First half of Old Testament.
    Year Two – The Gospels.
    Year Three – Second half of Old Testament.
    Year Four – The New Testament Epistles.
    Year Five – Book of Mormon.
    Year Six – The Gospels.
    Year Seven – D&C
    Year Eight – The New Testament Epistles.

  17. For me to spend 2 years on the Old Testament I’d need some sort of official acknowledgement that virtually none of it happened exactly as written. In my ward we have way too many literalists.

  18. Kristine says:

    Sign me up, JKC!

    One advantage of a 5 year cycle would be disrupting the correspondence between studying the Book of Mormon and US election years. If I never had to hear that the Gadianton robbers are the Democrats again… ;) I’d gladly spend two years (or 4) on the Old Testament. It’s inexhaustible (as a couple of millennia of talmudic commentary and midrash amply demonstrate…

  19. Rexicorn says:

    I’d also like it if our classes were more focused on history and context, and less geared around trying to shoehorn every section into one specific principle or theme. Doctrine & Covenants is the only one that really works well for.

    Since most people’s personal study is really just scripture reading, it’d be nice if our church lessons focused on practical tools to enhance that, like historical research and parsing out language and stuff like that.

  20. Mark B. says:

    I’d be happy if we had two years for the Old Testament—one year for Isaiah and the other year for everything else.

  21. Last Lemming says:

    The downplaying of the Bible predates Ezra Taft Benson. In my mission (76-78), the “standard works of the mission” were the Book of Mormon, the Missionary Handbook, the discussions, and a set of notes somebody took from a presentation by Bruce R. McConkie. Except on P-day, that was all we were allowed to read during our first year. After that, we could read the New Testament too. Even the GA who overruled that said we could read any book of scripture we wanted as long as the ratio of Book of Mormon to everything else was at least 5:1.

    My ideal rotation would be as follows:

    1. Genesis-Ruth
    2. Gospels
    3. Mosiah-Mormon
    4. Church history prior to Nauvoo, drawing on D&C 1-123 as appropriate
    5. 1 Samuel-Malachi
    6. Acts-Revelation
    7. Ether-Moroni, 1 Nephi-Words of Mormon
    8. Church history from Nauvoo on, drawing on D&C 124-O.D. 2 as appropriate

  22. Left Field says:

    The hymnal racks in our chapel each have two hymnals and a Book of Mormon. I suggested that, we substitute some Bibles, at least during the years we do the OT and NT in Sunday School, which is held in the chapel. My suggestion got no traction at all. I was told that the Books of Mormon were there for visitors and investigators in the hope that they would take a copy home and read it. Missionary work, you know.

    I pointed out that (1) there is nothing indicating that the books are free for the taking, and nobody is going to steal a Book of Mormon, any more than they would steal a hymnal; (2) there are more effective ways of getting a Book of Mormon in the hands of investigators: maybe a stack of books at the door with a sign that says “take one.”; (3) we could have both Bibles and Books of Mormon in the chapel, so if someone did want to take a Book of Mormon, there would still be one to take; (4) if an investigator wants to take a Bible, that’s cool too, because it’s scripture and all; (5) having only the Book of Mormon in the chapel reinforces the notion that we accept the Book of Mormon, but not the Bible, and this notion is not at all good for missionary work.

    It was to no avail. No Bibles in the chapel unless you bring your own.

  23. CES seemed to recognize that the OT needed twice the manuals as the BOM, OT, etc.

    Not sure with the recent changes.

  24. Kevin Barney says:

    Left Field, the chapel in the Chicago Temple has book racks behind the pews with copies of both the Bible and the Book of Mormon, and I’ve seen that n other temples as well. You could try to guilt them with this practice by saying if it’s good enough for the House of the Lord it ought to be good enough for our chapels. Probably won’t make a difference, but I like the angle of making them diss the temple practice in order to hold to their own–their heads might explode!

  25. “Spoiler alert: we learned at a recent leadership meeting with a 70 that next year’s curriculum will be very different, involving principle-based “scripture blocks” to be discussed each week and apparently no systematic adult scripture study at all.”

    I am really bothered by this! It’s happened in the youth program, and I hear rumors that it’s going to happen in Primary – adult Sunday school next? Is seminary the only place where we’re going to get a systematic, chronological study of the scriptures?

  26. Interesting stuff, Kevin! I had no idea that the eight-year rotation was ever a thing. After some poking around in the Ensign archives, I suspect that the change from 8 to 4 might have occurred in 1982. I found a “Policies and Announcements” column in the March 1981 Ensign that refers to a First Presidency letter that announced “that the Church curriculum year would be unified worldwide to coincide with the calendar year beginning 1 January 1982.” In discussing questions people might have, the column also refers to the curriculum year ending 31 August 1981, so I guess the curriculum also ran on a school year-ish cycle rather than a calendar year cycle. Anyway, there’s not an explicit reference to the 8-to-4 change, but I’m wondering if it might not have been part of the same consolidation.

    Here’s the link: https://www.lds.org/ensign/1981/03/news-of-the-church/policies-and-announcements?lang=eng

  27. Troy Cline says:

    Ardis, I agree wholeheartedly with you. The Bible, in Mormonism, serves essentially as a means to prop up the things that Mormonism professes to be doctrine. In many cases, this occurs without regard to the fact that a simple understanding of the context of the Biblical verse in question, disqualifies Mormonism’s interpretation of said verse.

  28. (Sorry, I’m using multiple comments so I don’t get caught in the spam filter for including too many links.)

    Here’s a 1979 Ensign article that mentions the two-year D&C/Church history curriculum that actually runs across three years. Here’s a quote: “The 1979–80 Gospel Doctrine course will finish the study of the Doctrine and Covenants begun in 1978 and then proceed on to a review of Church history from the 1840s to the present.” When I read this, it made no sense to me (three years on the same book of scripture?) until I read the link in my previous comment, which tells about the old curriculum that followed the school year.

    Link: https://www.lds.org/ensign/1979/07/keeping-pace/more-aids-for-families-and-teachers?lang=eng

  29. And here’s a 1985 column that mentions a book called “My Kingdom Shall Roll Forth” that was used in the previous round of D&C/Church history that ended in 1981 and that is then being used just four years later, indicating that the change from an 8 to a 4 year cycle had been completed.

    https://www.lds.org/ensign/1985/08/news-of-the-church/policies-and-announcements?lang=eng

  30. Here’s a 1986 discussion with the General Sunday School presidency where they’re asked about the 4-year rotation in a way that makes it sound like it was still pretty new (again suggesting that 1982 is a reasonable start date). Here’s a snippet:

    Ensign: What are your feelings about the current teaching plan in which adults study the scriptures in rotation every four years?

    Elder Simpson: The success of this four-year teaching cycle is a tribute to the approved curriculum plan, and we will continue to use it.

    Elder Tuttle: It’s a good system. We have had some people complain that there’s not enough time to teach the New Testament in a single year. Of course there isn’t! It has never been our intention to fully teach the scriptures in forty minutes on Sunday. The goal is to interest people in the scriptures and inspire them to study at home. Sunday School isn’t where you go to learn it all—it’s simply a place to be introduced to the wonders the scriptures have to offer.

    Link: https://www.lds.org/ensign/1986/11/news-of-the-church/a-conversation-about-the-sunday-school?lang=eng

  31. Finally, here’s a 1976 article reporting on “regional meetings” held the previous month, that outlines the old 8-year rotation. See Figure 1 at the bottom.

    https://www.lds.org/ensign/1976/07/keeping-pace/the-1976-june-regional-meetings-a-significant-milestone?lang=eng&clang=ase

  32. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks, Ziff! Your lds.org jiu jitsu is way better than mine!

  33. You’re welcome! And I think it’s more evidence that I was bored this afternoon than that my skillz exceed yours. :)

  34. kamschron says:

    The October 1975 Ensign (https://www.lds.org/ensign/1975/02/news-of-the-church/personal-scripture-study-outlined?lang=eng) lists eight years of the planned eight-year schedule, ending with the second half of the old testament in the 1981-1982 curriculum year. A change to synchronize the curriculum to the calendar year was announced in September, 1980, and was implemented in January, 1982. If I remember correctly, I told someone, in the fall of 1982, that our Sunday school was studying the Old Testament that year. My guess is that the first year of the four-year cycle was the New Testament in 1983, probably not yet with a student study guide.

  35. HughinKC says:

    “My Kingdom Shall Roll Forth” is quite an impressive publication, which apparently disappeared with the move to a 4-year curriculum.

  36. Kristin Brown says:

    It has been a delight reading these comments. They have been positive, helpful and have stayed in line with the OP. Some comments have made me laugh out loud, especially Left Field. Laughter has the power to lift burdens and heal the soul like the scriptures. We need both- Thank you.

  37. Ardis–I happen to know that your stake will be holding an excellent Old Testament scripture study class starting this September (Wednesdays at 2 pm, I believe) with Hebrew scholar Rebecca Stay. Hope you can attend, she’s fantastic.

  38. D Christian Harrison says:

    If Tuttle’s serious about the goal was to have inspired more personal scripture study, they failed immensely.

    As for the question of what we’d like to see, I think the first thing I think needs to go is the calendar year based schedule. Let’s embrace our liturgical year and do two semesters—each starting with Conference.

    Oct–Apr 1: Gospels
    Apr–Oct 1: BOM 1

    Oct–Apr 2: Acts & Epistles
    Apr–Oct 2: BOM 2

    Oct–Apr 3: Christian History & Special Topics
    Apr–Oct 3: BOM 3

    Oct–Apr 4: Mormon History & Special Topics
    Apr–Oct 4: OT 1 & PGP

    Oct–Apr 5: D&C 1
    Apr–Oct 5: OT 2

    Oct–Apr 6: D&C 2
    Apr–Oct 6: OT 3

    With this five-year schedule, “Mormon” topics are addressed every year. Also, we’ll be able to preview the Christmas story at the start of the holiday season and the Easter story on/around Easter. Finally, note that OT 3 segues into the Gospels.

  39. chompers says:

    To paraphrase @Toad: For me to spend 2 years on the Old Testament we’d need to actually teach the Old Testament, not the current miserable curriculum where it’s all re-written into modern LDS Christian concepts.

  40. D Christian Harrison says:

    * six-year schedule

    Why Christian history and special topics? Because an astounding number of Saints have no sense of our broader milieu—neither can they have useful conversations with our Christian cousins on such topics.

  41. Christian Harrison’s schedule sounds terrific, but only if there were decent manuals that actually brought historical, literary, cultural, and theological insights to bear on the scriptures and church history. I teach early morning seminary and even though we had 180 sessions of 50 minutes each to spend on the Book of Mormon this year, the manual is 80% principles and general authority quotes. It almost seems like Church believes that historical and literary perspectives are inimical to the Spirit. The manual writers appear to care very little about the actual content of the scriptures, as evidenced by what they expect students to know for the two learning assessments (exams) that are required for credit.

  42. Bro. Jones says:

    D Christian Harrison: Amen. I’m so tired of hearing that history basically stopped during the Great Apostasy. There are so many amazing and faith-affirming stories of believers during those centuries, and understanding the greater context of Christian history helps explain how we got to the religious landscape of 19th century New York.

  43. I love that, Christian.

  44. An understanding of Biblical scholarship among average church members is unfortunately pretty shallow. I recently subbed in Gospel Doctrine, and referenced the idea that the OT was made up of many different sources, including multiple conflicting sources withing the same account, and was met with a lot of uncomfortable facial expressions. We claim not to believe in Biblical literalism, inerrancy, and absolute historicity until we actually get to discussing the Bible. To suggest that some of the OT is poetry, satire, or other purely literary works is met with suspicion and fear. ii remember the old 8 year schedule with some fondness, but also recognize the associated problems. I dread a change to a topical guide format as Tobia suggested.

    In a similar vein, I also don’t care much for the practice of assigning conference addresses as the topic for sacrament meeting talks. Yes, we get out of it what we bring to it. But I fear that for the speaker, it tends to limit somewhat the pondering and study of a particular topic by referring to the scriptures and then searching out for ourselves what current general authorities may have said. That kind of study can often lead to new insights and greater spiritual growth, IMO.

  45. acw: Some of us have to work for a living. Classes in the middle of a weekday are fine for wives being supported by husbands, or retired people, but not for self-supporting workers.

  46. Kevin Barney says:

    Per Noel Reynolds, “The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon in the Twentieth Century” in BYU Studies, the 8-year cycle began in 1972 and switched to a 4-year cycle in 1982.

  47. I think the rotation is good. The problem is the identical lesson four years later. They should alternate, and cover different parts of the books every four years.

  48. Arriviste says:

    My first post at this site.

    When the bishop called me as GD teacher last November, I “warned” him that I’d be wielding my background in religious studies and ancient languages. He gave me a strange look and said “why do you think I called you in the first place?” When I added that I thought there was a lot of contextual value in apocryphal works, he said “Ya, I’ve read D&C 91 as well … go for it.” Then he gave me these instructions (paraphrasing):

    1. Arrive early Sunday morning and go turn down the temperature in the Relief Society room – where we hold GD. That will keep everyone awake (I didn’t think he was serious, but in the weeks following I found out he was actually sending one of his counselors to do it after ward council).

    2. Set aside a day to fast and pray, then sit down for two hours to skim through the whole manual, checking off the lessons/doctrines that leap out at you as you go.

    3. Draw up an adapted lesson schedule based on that, so that the members (and potential substitutes) get fair warning about what’s coming each week.

    4. ‘You know how you would normally deal with each lesson by emphasizing some points, while ignoring others because there isn’t enough time in forty minutes to handle it all? Try doing that with the whole manual.’

    The end result so far this year: one week on lesson 2, seven weeks on lessons 3 and 4 (Creation and Fall)… two full classes on Enoch, etc.; we’ve entirely skipped four lessons, including the first. I can’t recall our even having mentioned Noah and the ark, the technicolor dreamcoat, plagues in Egypt, or the Ten Commandments, except to observe them through the window as we sped past.

    Neither I nor the bishop has received a single complaint, the only weird looks have been from visitors who wonder just what in the name of sanity is going on. People in the class love having time to dig in, deal with Hebrew lexicons, look at historical context, engage in conversations about doctrine that can ‘go deep’ … it’s been great. And total backing from priesthood leaders.

    What I’m learning is that doctrines are doctrines, and the bullet-point structures of Church curriculums are not. I believe we need to be clear and firm about the former, but the latter shouldn’t generate any anxiety. We’re supposed to “go wherever the Spirit listeth …”

  49. Joseph Stanford says:

    Why can’t we have more than one GD class to meet different needs of different members? I was very blessed to live for 12 years in a ward where there were 2 GD classes, and one of the (the much smaller one) was taught by someone who actually delved into the scriptures and history. I learned about the documentary hypothesis, BoM translation without the plates in the room, Book of Abraham translation issues, post-manifesto polygamy, etc., etc. all in that class, long before gospel topics essays. Members self-selected which GD class they were most comfortable in.

  50. the current manuals have copyrights about 2001 so the current four year lesson cycle started about that time. I vote for a Gospel Scriptures class as an alternate for the gospel doctrine droning