Author-Attributed Manuals

For virtually my entire life, Church manuals have been anonymously written, produced by committees, reviewed extensively by the correlation process, and churned out for various church classes.  In 1980, I think it was, John Sorenson called me to my first post-mission calling, as Elders’ Quorum Instructor. That manual was just such a nameless production. I remember that John told me it was a “personal study guide,” and that I should not follow it slavishly but do more in our classes. Every manual I’ve used in the Church since that time has been similar: nameless and highly correlated. I think we may have used an author-attributed book for the church history year of seminary, which would have been some time between 1972 and 1976, but for me personally that was it.

On and after my mission I learned it had not always been that way. En mish I purchased a reprint edition of Hugh Nibley’s An Approach to the Book of Mormon, which was the priesthood guide for 1957. After my dad died in 1980 I inherited some of his old priesthood manuals, which were author-attributed books (and frankly knock the socks off anything we get today). In this old post Ed Snow goes over some of the classics among early Church author-attributed manuals.

I’m curious what your thoughts are about the advantages and disadvantages of each style of manual. I’ll toss out a few initial thoughts and then turn it over to you for your reflections.

One advantage to author attribution is that the Church would not have to carry the full weight of something like this week’s egregious manual error. Putting a name on it means that person bears ultimate  responsibility for the contents. Under the current practice, the Church as an institution has to own it.

On the other hand, if we went back to author attribution would that encourage a class of “star” authors that might seem unseemly in the context of church manual publication?

An author attributed manual would I assume still be subject to review, if not the massive correlation process of today. What happens in the event of disagreements? is the only recourse not to publish, as in the case of B.H. Roberts’ magnum opus?

Anyway, it seems to me beyond question that author attribution would ensure a stronger product. But are we too far down  the Correlation rabbit hole for such a manual to ever appear again?

What do you think about this?


  1. Perhaps our closest current analogy is author-attributed articles in the Ensign. I have the unscientific impression that many, perhaps most, readers of the magazine consider anything they read there as “the Church says …” regardless of the name attached. I’m not sure it would make any difference to the manuals to have names attached.

  2. Dane Laverty says:

    I think the main benefit of author attribution is that it demystifies the product. Without a name associated, there’s a sense that the finished work somehow magically appeared of its own accord.

  3. I think that the author attributed manuals helped people realize that different general authorities thought differently on certain topics. Resulting in the church members being either Smith men or Roberts men.
    While I realize that causes division that some find distasteful, I think it’s an overall plus.
    It’s my understanding that these days individual lessons are done by a group of people. I wouldn’t mind having the primary authors listed for individual lessons.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    I suppose Saints might be a bit of a hybrid. There is no designated author, but one can find out the identities of the principal scriveners (at least if one attends the session on the book at MHA).

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    I take it back, Saints has a contributors page, with like 8 names. I guess that’s still a bit of a hybrid, because the authors are identified, but with eight principal authors the responsibility is spread around quite a bit.

  6. Aussie Mormon says:

    I guess my biggest issue with author attributed content would be things like the evolution/pre-adamite argument that happened with JFS and Talmange that ended up with the offical church position being that it doesn’t have a position.

    On the flip side, it would allow people that really faithful members that know their stuff have their content released in a way that people won’t be put off from reading it because it wasn’t by the church or deseret books.

  7. Aussie Mormon says:

    To clarify my first point… I mean that the arguments between groups within the church would likely appear problematic especially when different levels of leadership are arguing.

  8. The shift to some level of author attribution may already be underway. I was surprised when the new missionary handbook was published in October of last year to see an article in the Church News that identified, by name, and quoted extensively from, the primary authors of the new handbook. One of the authors is a woman who provides leadership training at the MTC, and the other is a well-known professor, author and returned mission president. The authors discussed their intent with a high level of specificity. The introduction to the new handbook by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles says: “These missionary standards are *approved* by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles”. (asterisks added for emphasis).

    I’m not sure what it all means, but it feels different to me. In a good way.

  9. Susan Tanner wrote Daughters in My Kingdom, which was published quite a few years ago now…I’d guess 2012? It doesn’t say her name on the cover, but if you read the introduction it’s clear that she wrote it.

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    Great point that the Church seems to be experimenting with at least some measure of author identification. There are definite benefits to that approach and I’m guessing the PTB are starting to see that.

  11. nobody, really says:

    Without author attribution, the Church gets to attribute it to “The Brethren”.

    “You need to stick to what The Brethren have provided.”
    “These lessons come from The Brethren.”
    “Because The Brethren wrote this, you can count on it like scripture.”
    “Aren’t The Brethren so inspired to have provided this for us?”

    My mission president tried to paint a picture of James E. Talmage sitting in the upper room of the Salt Lake Temple, taking shorthand notes as he interviewed Christ Himself for the story of His life. “You can be assured that your discussion booklets and Missionary Guide have been provided in the same way. When you teach, you are using the literal words of Jesus Christ.”

    (I may be excessively cynical here. I spent four hours on Sunday driving to/from a stake meeting about how inspired the new youth programs are, but there was no actual information about said youth programs because the books/plans/Gospel Living app haven’t been released yet.)

  12. The Gospel Topics essays had no attribution. It seemed to me that of the few faithful members of the church who knew about them and read them, the lack of attribution was something some clung to in response to feeling stung by the information. It was safer to believe that a rogue church history department got them published on, than to accept the difficult parts of our church history.

  13. *when the essays were first published.

  14. Eric Facer says:

    Author attribution, I believe, has at least two benefits.

    First, the end product will, as you note, be more cohesive and tightly integrated. Instead of a smorgasbord of bullet points, you are likely to get more thoughtful analyses and a discussion of different perspectives on gospel topics.

    Second, the mere fact of attribution may provoke many members to think: “Okay, I know this manual was approved by the church for publication, but it is still the work of one person. That means I shouldn’t feel constrained in questioning his or her perspective.” In other words, an institutional product is more likely to be blindly accepted as doctrine whereas the work of one author may get members to think and to feel more comfortable presenting a different opinion in class discussion.

  15. The authorless approach gives the manuals an aura of authority but still gives the brethren room for plausible deniability. The brethren are very careful not to regard any pronouncements too authoritative. They know that the church over the course of its history has been put in positions where it has been forced to retract statements or move away from certain teachings. They want the members to take the manuals seriously but still not regard them as scripture, but merely as a guide to scripture and doctrine.

  16. The other chad says:

    Two observations:

    During my two dozen or so years of teaching gospel doctrine and high priests, I often taught lessons from older manuals. The amount and variety of material in each chapter make it impossible to cover everything, but instead focus on a single concept (or even poem) introduced as support for the topic at hand. Old manuals by Bennion, Nibley, O.C. Tanner and Roberts are some of the best books in my library.

    As a currently serving missionary, I have been amazed at how the new manuals are anticipated as “the final word of God through his prophets” by our foreign congregations. Without listed authors, manuals have become scripture to them. The attitude is best conveyed by this quote on the wall of our missionaries’ apartments. President Boyd K. Packer said Preach My Gospel was “designed beyond the veil and put together here.” 

  17. Turning this idea around, I’m grateful that Correlation and the preference for authorless works hasn’t gotten so strong that even General Conference talks have no author, and are prepared by committee and read to us by a computer-generated voice. There’s such a strong tradition of hearing from individual GAs in Conference that this seems pretty unimaginable, but I have to think that there are at least some people would prefer it, particularly in light of things like the “ponderize” incident or Boyd K. Packer editing the written version of his talk in 2010 to take out a couple of the most controversial and inflammatory things.

  18. The “Revelations in Context” book the Church published as a supplemental manual a few years ago had the author of each chapter given.

  19. Kevin Barney says:

    I figured out the one author-attributed text I had in seminary: William Berrett, The Restored Church, published in 1973.

  20. Would the benefits of author attribution outweigh the byproducts (e.g., monetization of the Church’s imprimatur through other channels, bestowing unique credibility on an individual, the perception that doctrinal shot-calling has been outsourced, etc.)?

  21. Ziff,

    I appreciate your sentiment and I hope you are right. One thing i have noted about GC is that the amount of quoting of living or recent apostles/prophet even by themselves seems to be going up and up which is decreasing actual new individualized content. I could actually be wrong about that, its a gut intuition and in years past I might actually be motivated to go do the work to test the hypothesis. So its definitely not reading in computer voice or authorless but a sort of step in that direction. I swear there is direction given to the non-apostles who speak to basically base their talk on quotes the way the instruct people to do it in sacrament meeting (which I think degrades the interest and quality of SM when all you get is people 80% regurgitating talks you already heard. Give me speculative doctrine and rambling stories over that any day).

    Its a wonderful tradition that I hope the church keeps alive. Coorelation is boring and the older I get the more I feel like I much rather deal with the problems of non-correlation over boredom. However, without leaning out implied fallibility and creating a way for the church to regularly acknowledge past issues correlation is here to stay me thinks.

  22. Kevin Barney says:

    MoPo, your thoughts are along the lines of my worrying about the “star” authors potential issue. I don’t know the answers, but I agree these are questions worth thinking about.

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