Sunday School Manual: Supplementary Materials

The manuals of the church include a section at the beginning instructing readers how the manual is to be used. These instructions general advise such things as the use of the Spirit in study and teaching, how to focus on discussion, and how to prepare to teach. One of the features included in these manuals is an advisory about the use of supplemental sources.

Interestingly, there is no set phrase on the advisory against supplemental texts. I offer a small sample below from a few of the manuals that I have lying around:

Old Testament Gospel Doctrine Teacher’s Manual, (2001)

“This manual is a tool to help you teach the scriptures….Be judicious in your use of commentaries and other nonscriptural sources of information. Class members should be taught to seek knowledge and inspiration from the scriptures and the words of the latter-day prophets.”

This version is interesting because it seems to divide preparation from teaching as two distinct categories. It suggests that one should be “judicious” in using non-scriptural sources and other commentaries, but it does not prohibit the use of other materials. It suggests a pedagogical goal of teaching about the scriptures and latter-day prophets, but does not exclude other ways of learning or teaching.

Gospel Principles Manual (2009)

If you have been called to teach a quorum or class using this book, do not substitute outside materials, however interesting they may be. Stay true to the scriptures and the words in the book.

This manual contains a more explicit prohibition on “outside materials,” presumably meaning anything that is “outside” the manual. It also warns to never speculate about doctrine. Though this text is used for Priesthood and Relief Society meetings now, it is primarily intended to introduce students to the basics of the church, so understandably it has a strong stance on limiting teachers to no more than is provided.

Book of Mormon Gospel Doctrine Teacher’s Manual, 1999

“Elder M. Russell Ballard said: ‘Teachers would be well advised to study carefully the scriptures and their manuals before reaching out for supplemental materials. Far too many teachers seem to stray from the approved curriculum materials without fully reviewing them. If teachers feel the need to use some good supplemental resources beyond the scriptures and manuals in presenting a lesson, they should first consider the use of the Church magazines.” (Ensign, May 1983, 68)

This version quotes Elder Ballard, who suggests that in general teachers are straying from the curriculum without having first fully reviewed it. It suggests that the use of other sources may be felt to be needed, and suggests that “first” Church magazines be used. It does not, however, prohibit teachers from going beyond these sources as well.

Teaching, No Greater Call, (1999)

“Sometimes it is also helpful to study the political, social, or economic history of the times in which a scripture was given….The Bible Dictionary can be an excellent source for this and other background information on passages in the Bible….In providing context, it is essential not to lose sight of its purpose, which is to contribute to a better understanding of a particular scripture passage. Be careful not to turn context–such as history, politics, economics, or language of the people in the scriptures–into the main focus of a lesson.” (55)

This version is among the most permissive statements. Though it does not address specifically the use of other materials beyond the manual, it does suggest that information not contained in the manual may be particular helpful in understanding the scriptures. Specifically, it suggests that history, politics, economics, and even language can illuminate context, so long as the lesson’s “focus” not be exclusively on these points.

Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith (2007)

The Lord has commanded that we teach “none other things than that which the prophets and apostles have written, and that which is taught [us] by the Comforter through the prayer of faith” (D&C 52:9)….Your assignment is to help others understand the Prophet Joseph Smith’s teachings and the scriptures. Do not set this book aside or prepare lessons from other materials. Dedicate a significant portion of the lesson to reading Joseph Smith’s teachings in this book and discussing their meaning and application.” (viii)

This prohibtion “Do not…prepare lessons from other materials” is among the strongest of any statements on this issue, much stronger than other PotC manuals I reviewed. Perhaps it is because Joseph Smith is among the most controversial figures that the prohibition against seeking outside information is so strongly stated.

Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: David O. McKay (2003)

“Teachers should focus on the content of the text and related scriptures and should apply these teachings to circumstances with which class members will be familiar….It is not necessary or recommended that members purchase additional commentaries or reference texts to supplement the material in this book.” (vi)

This version emphasizes the limitation to the material in the manual, but offers a pedagogical focus for how the lesson is to be taught. The emphasis is on pratical knowledge rather than historical context. The statement that it is not necessary to purchase additional materials makes sense, but the added statement that it is “not recommended” to do so comes off as a little strong.

Lay Hold Upon the Word of God: Melchizedek Priesthood Personal Study Guide (1988)

“If a particular need exists that is not covered in the current manual, you may use previous study guides, conference addresses, and scriptures.” (x)

In the former iterations of Priesthood and Relief Society manuals, there was more flexibility given to local teachers to determine what needed to be focused on. Lessons could be taught out of order if needed, and some could be skipped in favor of a conference talk. Here, materials are limited to conference talks and scriptures, but also prior manuals.

Bible Dictionary

“[The Bible Dictionary] is not intended as an official or revealed endorsement by the Church of doctrinal, historical cultural, and other matters set forth. Many of the items have been drawn from the best available scholarship of the world and are subject to reevaluation based on new research and discoveries or on new revelation….If an elaborative discussion is desired, the student should consult a more exhaustive dictionary.” (599).

This important prefatory remark not only suggests that the “best available scholarship” is the source for the BD, but also admits that it is subject to revision. This caveat on the BD itself, and source of its authority, set important parameters on what can be taken as definitive on any given topic. Further, research is explicitly valued. The text even encourages students to consult other Bible dictionaries. Given the provisionality of the text, it seems to require that we continue to seek the best scholarship in the world.

Concluding Remarks

The advisory about the use of outside sources seems to function variously as a limitation and as a starting point. That is, in some versions outside sources are prohibited, in others merely discouraged as unncessary, and in others the text seems to understand itself as a beginning point, and encourages other materials, especially those in official Church publications. Indeed, the extent to which other official Church publications are encouraged or not also poses an interesting point of comparison beyond the issue of outside materials. Only the Bible Dictionary actually encourages the use of publications not offered by the Church.

One must suspect that part of the reason for the limitations on outside materials represents not simply a suppression of “outside” scholarship, but also a suppression of semi-authoritative LDS writings and speculation. For instance, the works of Cleon Skousen on scriptural matters are equally prohibited as are the works of Michael Coogan. The controls placed on these materials cuts against certain modes of inquiry, but also works to unseat non-official LDS “scholarship.”

Regardless of how careful the wording actually is in the manuals about “judicious” use of outside materials, a serious cultural trend has been to see the manual as not only the sole source of scriptural knowledge, but often to take the place of the scriptures themselves. The manual becomes an exhaustive guide to the scriptures, so that reading scriptures which are not taught in the manual itself risks reading materials beyond what the manual approves. One risk is that the scriptures are simply props in the “lesson,” and the scriptures themselves are never really investigated, understood, or allowed to speak on their own, sometimes troubling, terms.

A final problem for thinking about the limitation of approved sources is that such sources are not a closed loop. This is the problem of citationality. The manuals draw upon texts, sources, scholarship, and cultural locations that extend beyond the pages of the manual. The Bible Dictionary acknowledges its dependance on “outside” scholarship. The Institute Manuals, for instance, rely heavily on non-LDS biblical commentaries. The manuals are not delivered by revelation, but by study and by faith. Those who produce them seek information from “outside” and even cite it on occasion. The manuals already occupy a space in between the inside and outside and act as a mediating point for discipling both.

To stay within the closed walls of the manual as entirely sufficient produces an untenable contradiction, since the manuals themselves already rely on the “outside.” The fiction of a pure inside and pure outside cannot be seriously sustained. Even if one limits oneself to the teachings of the leaders of the church, they frequently draw upon “outside” materials such as poetry, scholarship, and cultural trends which they freely cite in their addresses. And how would it be possible to never read or reflect on anything except that which was “inside,” which is always already “outside” too? Surely Mormon culture cannot survive if those who are trusted to translate “outside” materials for Mormon audience are LDS leaders alone. If we become so self-referential that only that which is “inside” is appropriate for thought and discussion in our teaching and learning, we would create a closed loop and no progress could ever occur.

29 Replies to “Sunday School Manual: Supplementary Materials”

  1. The manual instructions could be even shorter. Testify (that the idea we assume the text is about) that principle is true. Exhort, exhort. Remind ourselves that we fall short. Mischaracterize others. Repeat.

  2. TT, if you put these in order of publication date you will see that the wording of the warnings to steer clear of supplemental material grows stronger and stronger to the present day. I would be interested to see if this injunction was even in place before the 1980’s. I’m feeling that much of this is coming from a place of fear and control rather than a desire to keep the doctrine pure or to give the members a stronger grounding in the scriptures or in truth. Is this a function of a growing membership, or other factors? Provocative subject to consider.

  3. Very nice discussion, TT. It is interesting to see the variation in counsel given in the various manuals.

    I’m not sure to what extent the manuals integrate outside scholarship. I don’t see much evidence of that in the Sunday School manuals or the President of the Church series. I think one of the goals of Correlation is specifically to eliminate any role for outside scholarship in official LDS thinking. I don’t think that approach works in the long run.

  4. BIV,
    There may be something to your hypothesis that the prohibition on supplemental material grows stronger as time goes on. I thought of that, but since I didn’t have access to the full range of quotes I wasn’t sure I could make the case. It would require further study.
    One thing to notice is that there is some difference depending on the kind of class being taught. in Phood/RS, where the focus is especially on practical matters, the prohibition seems to be stronger. In SS, it seems more moderated. In the BD, it doesn’t exist. This may have to do with the type of teaching/learning that is expected.

    You’re right that the role of scholarship in the current for-Sunday-use manuals is limited at best, but in Institute manuals it is more present. If the former are a distillation of the latter (I’m not sure they are), then we can suppose that scholarship has at least somewhat informed them. Of course, I am not really sure there is such a thing as a pure “inside” to begin with, and even if the manuals don’t cite “scholarship,” they are still produced within a particular historical context that shapes the approaches, selections, topics, and texts that are put forth. In this way, the inside is always already outside, since these divisions are artificial.

    I also think you’re right about the goal of Correlation, but as I note this cuts against both “outside” scholarship as well as semi-official “inside” scholarship, which is often pretty bad. Of course, the limitations set on what can be taught have the inevitable effect on what can be learned.

  5. thanks for pulling these together, tt.

    i couldn’t agree more.

    it would be helpful if we all reviewed these various statements each time we begin a new manual in sunday school or whatever.

    more often than not i think the assumption is that outside materials have always been discouraged.

  6. TT, I think you may be overlooking a distinction between preparation and teaching. The limits all seem to be placed on what is taught, at least as the focus of the lesson given during the church hour. I see no prohibition, for example, in a teacher’s use of any material for study while preparing a lesson — study that would aid a teacher in really understanding the scriptures, avoiding proof-texting and other forms of misunderstanding, supplying the context to resolve difficulties, and any other aid to truly being ready to teach the scriptures.

    But once the teacher stands up in class and begins teaching, these instructions seem to limit teaching itself to the scriptures — teaching that has been informed and shaped by all the previous study in every appropriate source, but teaching that focuses almost solely on the scriptures. In other words, teachers in church settings shouldn’t take the class with them through all the preliminary research and scholarly sources, but should only teach the scriptural conclusions from all that preliminary work.

    That resolves the contradiction between inside and outside, doesn’t it?

  7. This is a tricky topic. According to some of these warnings/prescriptions I should never be called upon to teach a lesson in a church or sem./inst. setting because there is no way that I can teach a lesson without bringing in “outside” material (nor can anyone else, of course). In a NT class, even If I were to consciously avoid referring to Greek terms and translation issues, there is no possible way that I could think about the given text and talk about the text without issues of translation popping up in my mind.

    I should probably be muzzled from here on out. Word on the street is that g.wesley has been self muzzling for years. I guess that makes him more faithful to the manual than me.

  8. Ardis,

    I agree with your preparation vs teaching distinction and I try to walk that tight rope too. But I think that things can quickly become slippery once the teaching begins. If the teacher as prepared and read and researched widely, and then teaches a lesson infused with this preparation, there can be a gap between the sources used in preparation, and what the students garner from the teacher. In other words, how does the teacher teach the prep-infused lesson without referring to her sources while maintaining that what she is saying is authoritative or at least insightful and not just because she herself is the source? Can we responsibly funnel the information gathered from prep and research into the persona of the teacher without proper attribution? It seems to me that acknowledgment of sources used is necessary, but that, of course, is more or less frowned upon.

  9. I stirred up a little controversy in teaching straight from the scriptures about Noah, and the animals on the ark, when we read in one place it says 7 of each kind and in the other 2. One of the resolutions of the conundrum is the documentary hypothesis, the JEDP. Is it wrong to address apparent contradictions in the scriptures and mention some solutions like JEDP or the evangelical apologetic answer that they are not inconsistent, because where the passage says 2, it means no less than 2?

  10. I think that a large factor in regards to these instructions is that the Church wants to allay the fears of its lay membership about being qualified to teach. For example, this was one of the main messages in the Worldwide Leadership Training Meeting on Teaching and Learning that was broadcast on February 10, 2007 (printed in Jeffrey R. Holland, “Teaching and Learning in the Church,” Ensign, June 2007, 88–105). As part of the broadcast Elder Holland lead an actual class and offered a teaching demonstration. He began by saying “If someone were newly called, what would you advise him or her to do? What would you say to help this teacher take courage and be able to accept the call and fulfill it and enjoy it?” One of his messages was that “You can do it. Everybody can teach.” (see the discussion on p. 92). So, while there is clearly a concern to keep the doctrine pure and avoid doctrinal speculation, there is a great need to console newly called instructors and not scare them away from the calling or make them feel overwhelmed or that they simply lack the knowledge or ability to teach in the Church. I’m not suggesting this explains everything but I do think it is a factor we simply cannot overlook. It is a great challenge to try to raise the quality of Gospel instruction without unintentionally making instructors feel inadequate and that someone else should have been called instead of them. So, in some cases the instruction isn’t coming from the concern about corrupting the Gospel but the concern for instructor who feels overwhelmed and inadequate. Elder Holland specifically addressed this issue:

    “We all feel that way; every teacher who has ever taught has felt that way. I think it’s fair to say that all of us here represent the collective effort of the Church to put good material in people’s hands. We really do have good curricular materials. We have good lesson manuals. They don’t teach themselves, but there is a great reassurance there that we are not in this alone, and we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We have wonderful resources, and we are going to talk about those throughout the day. That helps us not feel quite so overwhelmed.” (p. 94).

  11. My reaction to all this is a big “meh.” My opinion of the manuals is that they are a big, steaming pile of crap, so I’m not likely to pay much attention to a prohibition/warning/suggestion that is contained within the manual itself. Seriously though, I teach GD and I look at the manual exactly twice– once to see what block of scriptures are covered, and a second time if I run out of ideas. I do agree with Aquinas though, the manuals are likely there so that we can legitimately encourage every member to be a teacher. But I am not scared of teaching, have no fears on inadequacy, and personally don’t find the manual useful.

  12. I was acculturated in the tradition within the Church that holds that the scriptures themselves are the “manual,” and the lesson manual is just a set of suggestive helps. As the manual has come to take center stage, I hold to the earlier tradition. Which means that I focus my preparation and teaching directly on the scriptures. If people don’t like the way I teach, I wouldn’t be offended to be released.

  13. #12, Kevin, I don’t think anyone would have a problem with that, provided you were trying to teach one of the principle(s) the manual asked you to teach at least most of the time.

    I think it’s good to remind ourselves the purpose of Sunday School is not to study the scriptures for the sake of reading this book or that chapter, but rather to glean some principles we can apply in our lives from the text.

    I don’t know why some people get so huffy about making Sunday School into a bible study group where we dig into the history for the sake of it. That knowledge is interesting, and if it applies to a principle which can help me, great. But more often than not, when someone says, “Well Moses probably didn’t write this according to the latest research…” there is a lot of tangent before getting to whatever principle would come out of that knowledge (and I’m sure there is one, but it’s probably not as useful as a discussion of the importance of sustaining each other and our called leaders for instance).

  14. chris’s characterization may be a little strong, but I don’t think he’s entirely off the mark. Haven’t you been in a class where the teacher goes off at length on why he believes there were two or more authors of Isaiah or that Ruth wasn’t written until x-centuries after the fact, turning the hour into a lecture about the scriptures rather than a lesson from the scriptures? If chris means only that such discussions should be reserved for another venue, and not that they shouldn’t be held at all, then I agree with him. On the other hand, if an awareness of some historical event influences how we would read a passage, then it merits mentioning — without allowing history and other context to overwhelm the religious principle that should be the focus of a Sunday class.

  15. oh no. self-muzzling sounds an awful lot like self-correlating. woe is me!

    at random:

    once i pulled the ancient language hypnotizing trick on a gospel doctrine class. and never felt more dirty. (that’s the second thing i’m going to undo as soon as dmc is back in business.) the problem was that i wanted to impress.

    nothing makes the discussion more bland than when all defer to sister ‘expert.’ so i agree that everyone can teach (and cook). or at least should. but instead of simplifying the material, how about saying that everyone ought to read more?

    i too think that the full text of any source cited in the manual is fair game, especially the scripture chapters for the week.

    i also think drawing on memory is the way to go. physically bringing in to class a copy of the scriptures in critical edition or some heathen or deutero-correlated commentary is likely to alienate and put people on the defensive. referencing it by author/title is not much different. why attribute? just slip the information in.

    about the purpose of sunday school and the like, could it be that by studying the scriptures in more detail and better understanding them, we might better apply them? and why does the lesson itself have to focus on application?

  16. I prefer to take the approach outlined by K. Barney and Duke. When teaching a SS class or other class that has clear connection to certain passages of scripture, I just get out the scriptures and start preparing. The manual can then be somewhat supplemental.
    The TotPC manuals are different, because they are the ‘primary’ source. Of course many of the quotes include or are about certain scriptural passages. That is also why I struggle with the gospel principles manual. Selecting the best scriptures and 5-10 questions for discussion is the most preparation that I do.

  17. All,
    I want to address a few points quickly.

    1. I think that the suggestion of the democratization of gospel teaching is an important one. I think that this is evidently a concern in the church, as the Holland quote shows. In this view, the manual presents a baseline, and the limits on the use of supplemental materials is meant to also provide a ceiling, to contain gospel teaching at a lower and upper threshold. Of course, the question arises whether the limits on the upper threshold are actually in the service of the lower threshold, or if it simply forces a downward momentum where the upper limit must be constantly downgraded in order to make a bigger room at the bottom.

    2. It seems that the question of outside materials has been linked here to the issue of the “purpose” of gospel instruction. This discussion has seemed to work around a certain set of assumptions about the relationship between gospel knowledge and teaching, where the former is esoteric, secondary, and superfluous, and the latter is essential, practical, and useful. I think that this division is worth seriously investigating and problematizing.

    3. It seems that the question of quality gospel teaching has perhaps unwisely focused on questions of content rather than questions of technique or even hermeneutic.
    There are many complaints that “bad” gospel doctrine lessons at times focus on history and knowledge to the exclusion of the practical use. I can personally attest to the opposite experience of teachers focusing on the “practical” use to the complete detriment of any substantive engagement with the text. I’m also positive that we have all had both teachers who teach from outside materials and those that rely on the manual only that have been spiritually fulfilling. (For instance, JEPD as noted above actually resolves real live problems in the text, and that can be helpful in making the incoherent coherent). What if we thought about gospel teaching not in terms of what we can or can’t say, but how we taught people to read closely, or to understand these texts in particularly Mormon themes? Have we simply adopted a completely useless pedagogical model of learning which emphasizes content over skills?

    4. I think that we all need to stop pretending that we have some unmediated access to the scriptures. Whether we insist on approaching them from critical or uncritical perspectives, both are simply interpretations.

    5. I admit that one of the main problems that I have when I have occasion to teach is making a point about practical knowledge as it is generally understood. I really just don’t see it in the text anymore, at least not without serious qualification. Instead, I try to teach with a “spiritual” point as my goal (which may or may not be related to the manual’s view), and teach it out of the critical methods I use. It has been incredibly rare that i haven’t gotten positive feedback, even from those who seem very resistant to the “world.” I am by no means perfect, and I definitely struggle, but I can say with confidence that my teaching is not about the critical methods, but rather about a message that I see as a result of those methods.

  18. TT (#20), Amen and well put. I appreciate very much the way your laying out this oft overlooked introductory matter raises some complex issues that avoid facile explanations. The comments have certainly already brought out the fact that it is not clear where Latter-day Saints place value in *understanding* scripture–is it simply the extent to which it can be applied, and no further? In that case, why is understanding necessary? Is it necessary to try to understand it as the putative author intended? The answer is somewhere in between JEDP and W. Cleon Skousen, I’m guessing.

    What do you think this material indicates about an LDS Hermeneutic?

  19. The Bible Dictionary is based on the Cambridge Bible Dictionary, and was edited by Robert Matthews. It is, I think, a reasonable reference.

    The church materials really excel at presenting material in topical form, but the most polite way to describe how the manuals teach the scriptures (e.g., the Old Testament Gospel Doctrine manual) is to simply note that they fail to teach the scriptures, but succeed in demonstrating that the scriptures can effectively be used as proof texts for current LDS doctrines.

  20. Cool summary, TT.

    Teaching: Nor Greater Call refers me to the Bible Dictionary and the Bible Dictionary states that it is “subject to reevaluation based on new research and discoveries or on new revelation,” and more interestingly, “If an elaborative discussion is desired, the student should consult a more exhaustive dictionary.” (599).

    The flood gates are thus opened…

  21. I think it’s good to remind ourselves the purpose of Sunday School is not to study the scriptures for the sake of reading this book or that chapter, but rather to glean some principles we can apply in our lives from the text.

    I hear this response, I get it, but the problem I see with it is that it presupposes that a rigorous look at the context of scriptures can’t be an important part of a lesson informing our daily lives. A good example is the blog post a few days ago about Isaiah and the nail in the sure place. The hypothetical lesson there used a hermeneutic that didn’t wrest the scripture, but also raised questions pertinent to our present needs, like the importance of the atonement.

  22. I really need to start reading all of the comments before replying. TT summed up what I was getting at in this wise:

    This discussion has seemed to work around a certain set of assumptions about the relationship between gospel knowledge and teaching, where the former is esoteric, secondary, and superfluous, and the latter is essential, practical, and useful. I think that this division is worth seriously investigating and problematizing.

    Very well-put, I entirely agree.

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