If they look hard enough, Gospel Doctrine teachers will see changes to their (online) Doctrine & Covenants and Church History manuals this year. Elder M. Russell Ballard said last February, “[W]e are making extraordinary efforts to provide accurate context and understanding of the teachings of the Restoration.” Newer materials have already been incorporated into seminary and institute curricula, and leaders are now setting their sights on Gospel Doctrine.

The Bad News

The changes aren’t obvious. Matthew McBride, web content manager for the Church History Department, explained to the Deseret News, “We’re using essentially the same manual with some additional links to supporting materials to help students and teachers answer questions.” Generally, the only mention of new supporting materials in the manual happens in the “Preparation” section of each lesson, not in the body of the lesson itself. At a minimum there’ll be a simple link (“Additional historical material for this lesson”) taking the teacher to a central webpage listing supplemental material by lesson number. Occasionally the lesson will link directly to recommended reading material. Regardless of how it’s accessed, since the material is never mentioned in the body of the lesson, it’s up to the teacher to figure out how supplemental information is pertinent.

Class member study guides don’t refer to new materials. That small percentage of class members who arrive well-prepared for discussion won’t even be aware of new supplemental material if they rely solely on the study guides. Student exposure will be limited to what the teacher presents to the class (which, admittedly, is already the case for most class participants).

The Good News

We technically have permission to talk about controversial stuff in Sunday School. One consistent complaint you’ll find on the bloggernacle is that we don’t talk about unpleasant details of church history in Sunday meetings. Well, this (theoretically… maybe… sigh, probably not) could change that. The Gospel Topics essays were necessary because, at least in recent memory, we had very few “authorized” materials covering controversial church history topics. Even when the Gospel Topics essays were first released, people encountered resistance when bringing up the content of those church-approved essays in Sunday meetings. We now have authorized church-approved materials to discuss controversial church history topics and space to discuss those topics via a church-approved curriculum.

The “Helps for the Teacher” chapter is awesome. Most content changes are concentrated in the “Helps for the Teacher” chapter at the front of the teacher’s manual. I always thought that chapter was helpful when I taught Gospel Doctrine, but I’m excited about this improved framework. (I’m fully aware that I’m a nerd and most teachers don’t look at this.)

The updated “Materials You Should Use” portion section recommends many useful resources beyond just the scriptures and Our Heritage (pretty much the limit of what you were supposed to use before). Most people reading this blog are familiar with two recommended resources: the Gospel Topics essays and the Joseph Smith Papers. Another recommended resource is Revelations in Context. This newer collection of essays by historians gives backstories on revelations in the D&C from the viewpoint of specific historical figures. Two recommended resources provide female perspectives on church history: Daughters in My Kingdom and The First Fifty Years of Relief Society. Perspectives of church history from members outside the United States (19th through 21st centuries) are provided with Pioneers in Every Land.

Additional paragraphs to the “Teach from the Scriptures” section in the “Helps” chapter explain that changes made to the Doctrine and Covenants in the 2013 edition of the standard works were largely due to research from the Joseph Smith Papers . Links are provided if teachers want more information about those adjustments (I hadn’t seen much of the published explanations of the changes, so I found it interesting).

Two new sections were also added to the “Helps” chapter: “Guidelines for Learning about Church History” and “Answering Difficult Questions.” Rather than summarize, here they are in full:

Guidelines for Learning about Church History

Keep the following guidelines in mind as you study and teach Church history:

1. Help class members focus on the gospel principles taught in the Doctrine and Covenants using accounts in Church history to give context to those principles.

2. Recognize that the past is different from the present, and it is important to remember that many attitudes and beliefs that we take for granted today were very different in previous decades and centuries.

3. Be aware that available records of the past are incomplete and open to interpretation, and some stories are more reliable and accurate than others.

Answering Difficult Questions

As you teach, class members may ask questions about difficult historical or doctrinal topics. Do not avoid or dismiss any sincere question. Rather, acknowledge the question, answer it to the best of your ability, and direct class members to official Church resources. For example, the Church has published Gospel Topics Essays to answer questions about Church history (see lds.org/topics). While it is natural to want to answer every question, it is better to acknowledge when you don’t know an answer and point students to appropriate resources rather than to speculate or pass along your own opinions as Church doctrine or history.

The church history guidelines are well-written and make a lot of sense. The instruction towards difficult questions is consistent with the tone the church has recently taken (e.g. Teaching in the Savior’s Way). I appreciate that the church is pushing people to take questions seriously and help people find good answers.

Good and/or Bad News

They still really don’t want you to talk about polygamy, but at least they give you good resources if you do. The original teacher’s manual contained very little information about the church’s history with plural marriage, just a few paragraphs at the end of the “Additional Teaching Ideas” section of Lesson 31 about eternal marriage (with specific instruction that plural marriage should NOT be the focus of the lesson). The new manual still doesn’t want you to put plural marriage front and center, but they’ve made some modifications to what you are allowed to say (this is the only place in the manual I’ve found where lesson content has changed).

First, they start out with Jacob’s encouragement of monogamy. That wasn’t there before, so I’m noting it and calling this a good thing.

Second, the paragraph describing early church leaders practicing polygamy is essentially unchanged, but after the paragraph are direct links to three good resources:

  • Plural Marriage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – this is merely an overview, summarizing the other plural marriage Gospel Topics essays (Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo, Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah, and The Manifesto and the End of Plural Marriage). Some might contend the church is still cheating a bit by nesting the essays this way, but if you’re not wanting it the focus of the lesson, it makes sense.
  • Mercy Thompson and the Revelation on Marriage – Jed Woodworth’s Revelations in Context essay on D&C 132. This essay goes into Mercy Fielding Thompson Smith’s experiences with plural marriage. Notably, there is zero focus on “raising up seed” argument for polygamy. Hyrum taking on Mercy as a plural wife was more a “taking care of widows” thing, though Hyrum’s personal conversion to polygamy was based on being with both his deceased first wife and his second wife in the eternities. (If you’re wondering how that is supposed to explain Joseph’s practice of polygamy to the average church member, I’m right there with you.)
  • The Messenger and the Manifesto – Jed Woodworth’s Revelations in Context essay on Official Declaration 1. This details President George Q. Cannon’s thoughts of the Manifesto and ardent defense when it was presented to church members. Interestingly, the essay relates Woodruff explaining his decision to Cannon of ending polygamy in late 1889.

Third, a new paragraph was added addressing the question of plural marriage in the eternities. This is a topic that causes many people angst, so I’m glad to see the church address it. But… whether or not it’s a good thing will depend on your viewpoint:

Latter-day Saints today do not practice polygamy. However, because temple marriage covenants are eternal in nature, some Saints may have questions about plural marriage in the eternities. Elder Dallin H. Oaks, who remarried after his first wife died, explained that although we do not know everything about the eternities, we do know that if we are faithful, our temple marriage covenants are eternal in nature: “There are a lot of people that live on this earth that have been married to more than one person. Sometimes those marriages have ended with death; sometimes they’ve ended with divorce. … For people who live in the belief, as I do, that marriage relations can be for eternity, then you must say, ‘What will life be in the next life, when you’re married to more than one wife for eternity?’ I have to say I don’t know. But I know that I’ve made those covenants, and I believe if I am true to the covenants that the blessing that’s anticipated here will be realized in the next life”

So, yes, we believe in plural marriage in the eternities. Tracy M summed it up best at By Common Consent, “Until we don’t have modern (right now, sitting in the red chairs) apostles who are sealed to multiple women, this is never going to change.” But, again, this is a very small section (NOT supposed to be the focus) at the end of a large lesson about eternal marriage. The chance of a plural marriage discussion in the average Sunday School class is slim.

Conclusion

It is reasonable to wonder if the average Gospel Doctrine teacher will use any new historical material in class this year. Often you never finish half the lesson material, let alone supplemental tidbits, but I’m hopeful with the minimal changes made so far. It took almost a year from the “soft launch” of the first Gospel Topics essay for the church to suggest local leaders point members with questions towards that resource. Now it’s not just priesthood leaders with the responsibility to lead church members towards answers. CES instructors and Gospel Doctrine teachers are tasked with understanding and addressing tough issues. Even if Gospel Doctrine teachers don’t incorporate the new supporting materials into their lesson plans, expecting them to become familiar with those materials puts them in a much better spot to handle difficult questions when they arise. And that, I think, is the point.

Discuss.