The discussion of Hawkgrrrl’s post last week took a bit of a tangent into familiar bloggernacle territory: the Gospel Topics essays. Regular commenter Elder Anderson expressed appropriate shock when some of us described our observations of member apathy towards the essays.
LDS historians went to a lot of trouble to compile them, they are approved by the 1st presidency and Q12, and members are encouraged to include them as teaching materials… [A]ll that effort implies the LDS 1st presidency and Q12 *want* members to be interested. The members are saying “Meh. Your essays are boring. Thanks but no thanks.”?
Well, not in so many words. When I asked a few dozen LDS friends outside the bloggernacle community about general perceptions of the essays, those that were aware of them agreed they serve a useful purpose. However, with so much on their plates, it’s hard for a lot of members to make studying the issues in the essays a high priority. (And when they have friends and relatives leave the church, ostensibly due to the essays, they have even less desire to touch them.)
Then there are people who don’t put much stock in the essays because, in spite of going through the painstaking approval process of church leaders, they recognize the essays as purely academic. As Michael R. Ash put it yesterday, “The essays satisfy the requirement for ‘official’ answers, but it’s important to understand that they do not represent official LDS doctrine. They are academic examinations of the issues. Academic answers can change—they can be right, they can be wrong, or they may need to be modified upon the discovery of additional information.”
Did we even need the essays in the first place? According to Ash, maybe not. “Insisting on official answer answers for everything is a cheap and easy approach that superficially appears to provide comfort, but is nothing more than an information inhibitor.”
What Prompted the Gospel Topics Essays?
Ultimately, something akin to the Gospel Topics essays was inevitable. With my parents and grandparents, a lot of the topics we deem controversial today did not have the same taboos. They lived the priesthood ban. They personally knew older family members who lived polygamy and dealt with the effects of both Manifestos. They were around in the 1960s with the rediscovery and church’s acquisition of the surviving Book of Abraham papyri fragments. For them, many of these things really were common knowledge (even if that knowledge wasn’t always the most accurate).
But something happened. Blame it on correlation or whatever, in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s, younger members began relying much more heavily on officially-sanctioned sources for their information, and the church was providing increasingly simplified versions of its history and doctrine for the benefit of a rapidly expanding worldwide base. The church outsourced explanation of complex or less appealing doctrinal and historical aspects to BYU and unofficial apologetic channels like FARMS, FairMormon, and independent scholars. Some members heavily utilized those channels. Others were more skittish about church information from anything other than official sources, sometimes based on recommendations from local and general church leaders.
In the Google age, those tactics just didn’t cut it. Anyone familiar with the internet understands that the website of any major organization has a list of Frequently Asked Questions. This section provides quick access to statements for the most common problems or concerns raised by users. To put it bluntly, the church failed spectacularly in this respect for years. And because of that, people turned elsewhere for answers.
To its credit, the church started moving towards greater transparency on difficult historical aspects at the end of the last decade. It allowed independent LDS scholars unprecedented access to primary documents in preparation for the 2008 publication Massacre at Mountain Meadows. The same year, the Church Historian’s Press was formed and published the first volume of the The Joseph Smith Papers.
Sharon Eubank insightfully noted in December 2008 that the church felt it had unwisely “allowed our detractors to define us in the media.” She continued, “There will be a greater effort to tell our story on our own terms.” To increase positive public perception, the church consulted advertising firms in 2009 and the “I’m a Mormon” campaign was born. Along with the “I’m a Mormon” campaign were opportunities for individual members to answer common questions about Mormonism. Perhaps the church felt apologetic answers from individual members were the way to go.
In my mind, two big events forced the church’s hand in creating “official” responses to controversial topics: #bottgate and the Swedish Rescue.
On February 28, 2012, the Washington Post ran an article on the Genesis group and the LDS church’s evolution on views governing race. Reflections by African-American members like Darius Gray and Don Harwell were the main features (with obligatory coverage of presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s personal experiences, of course). The problem was a section where doctrinal justifications of the priesthood ban were given by Randy Bott, a popular BYU religion professor. He repeated familiar views of past members and church leaders, views considered highly problematic today.
It didn’t take long for the Mormon community to react (for an in-depth examination of the response, see here). The next day the church publicly disavowed Randy Bott’s statements and issued a separate official statement, “Race and the Church: All Are Alike Unto God” (if you follow the link, you’ll see it now has prominent links to the Race and Priesthood gospel topics essay). Within 2 weeks, the Mormon Newsroom published a new tool called “Mormonism 101: What is Mormonism.” The website gave introductory information about the church and included a Frequently Asked Questions section briefly covering common concerns including women’s roles in the church, polygamy, race and the priesthood, and our understanding of godhood.
Then there was the Swedish Rescue. Sometime before 2010, Hans Mattsson, a former area authority, and other Swedish saints got together and started discussing murkier aspects of church history. Enough disaffection was brewing that the church sent two historians, Elder Marlin K. Jenson and Richard E. Turley, Jr., for a special fireside held November 2010. The historians answered questions from the audience and offered a list of recommended websites as helpful resources.
Enough of a problem persisted, however, that in March 2012 a letter was sent to stake presidents, mission presidents, and district presidents in Sweden with support materials (dubbed “The Swedish Rescue”) for leaders to address the needs of members. Not only were scholarly resources included from the church history department, but also instructions for better pastoral care extended towards those experiencing faith crises.
Releasing the Essays
Although rumors had been circulating for months, the first two essays weren’t released until November 20, 2013. A Deseret News article reported on the project following the release of the third essay, Race and the Priesthood, in early December. The article explained that the intent of the essays was “to use scholarship, historical perspectives and outside resources transparently to help parents answer questions children might come across online.”
As the next 6 essays rolled out over several months, there was relatively little fanfare. In September 2014, a memorandum from the Priesthood Department went out to local church leaders informing them about the Gospel Topics section of lds.org. “When Church members have questions regarding Church history and doctrine, possibly arising when detractors spread misinformation and doubt, you may want to direct their attention to these resources.” The essays weren’t specifically mentioned.
Then, in October 2014, the church released two essays catching the eye of both national and international news outlets: Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo and The Manifesto and the End of Plural Marriage. In the wake of the media storm, the Mormon Newsroom finally published a statement about the Gospel Topics essays. They gave context for the newest polygamy essays, which in many ways described their intent for the entire collection.
Much of what you’ll find in the essays on polygamy has been published in diverse sources and known among long-term and well-read members, historians and Church leaders for many years. The Church has now gathered this information into a single location as a convenient means of placing these resources in the hands of all members.
One year (and a day) later, the final two essays were released: Joseph Smith’s Teachings about Priesthood, Temple and Women and Mother in Heaven. The press release with these essays encouraged members to utilize the information beyond personal study.
The Church hopes that the material will be referenced in various lessons and classes, cited in talks and utilized in home study along with the large volume of resource materials now available to Church members worldwide.
We Finally Have the Essays. Now What?
Given the most recent press release, people probably don’t need to fear being released from callings for using the essays in church. Elder Ballard has encouraged CES instructors to know the essays like the back of their hands. The information in the essays is being incorporated in new CES curriculum. Elder Richard G. Maynes even drew significantly from the First Vision Accounts essay in a recent worldwide CES fireside.
But… what about regular members? In talking with others, it seems incorporation of the essays at the ward level is inconsistent. Some wards are gung-ho, others stay away from controversial topics like the plague. Some stakes have begun weeknight classes covering the essays. Others prefer to leave controversial subjects to personal study. Some members wish their wards would talk more about this stuff. Some members wish their wards would talk less.
In the conversations, though, a common thread emerged. The majority of people I talked to said the controversial stuff should be a low priority in Sunday meetings. Sundays should be about community and reinforcing gospel fundamentals. It’s unfair to expect members to *want* to talk about the controversial stuff (or feel ready to talk about it). Discussions of controversial topics are better suited for smaller, better controlled, intimate settings.
So for those members who are interested in the essays, that’s awesome. For the rest of the members, well, it’s nice to know they’re available, just in case.
 As opposed to doctrine, which is always right and never modified upon the receipt of new revelation.
 About 17:30 minute mark.
 Admittedly, those answers were only posted once they passed an official screening process.
 What?! No CES Letter?! Yeah, so… it got written in April 2013. Rumors about the essays were circulating around the same time. Did the CES Letter contribute to disaffection? Absolutely, but from what I can tell the essays were already being written by the time it went viral.
 Here at Wheat and Tares, Mike S gave his thoughts about the new FAQs.
 High-profile church disciplinary proceedings may have stolen some of the spotlight from the newer essays in 2014.
 Given the charged atmosphere in the last few years, I don’t think it’s coincidence the essays concerning issues most sensitive to Mormon women took the longest to be finalized.
*As Niklas pointed out in the comments below, the church has moved towards getting the information in the essays better incorporated at the ward level. They’ve made the essays easily accessible in the Gospel Library app under the Church History tab. They’ve also referenced them in the new teacher training course, Teaching in the Savior’s Way (teaching.lds.org). A few weeks ago, Julie Smith highlighted a section in the new materials, “Dealing with Difficult Questions,” instructing teachers to become familiar with the information in the essays and encourage other members to use them as resources. In another spot, those teaching youth are encouraged to show them how to access materials in the Gospel Topics section of lds.org.*