Lately there’s been some excitement online about the Church History Topic “Masonry” and the Gospel Topic “Book of Mormon Geography”  (I wrote on the latter last week). In those discussions, I’ve noticed some confusion about what those entries are and where to find them. Both were sometimes incorrectly described as Gospel Topics Essays, which got people scratching their heads when they couldn’t find them in that section. I decided to put together some background on these three very important, and very different, topical resources. Since the Church has a proclivity to change things online without notice[1], I’m going into detail for the benefit of future readers (for a quicker read, skip the bullet points).

GOSPEL TOPICS

Note: for clarity, I’m going to refer to the shorter essays in the Gospel Topics section as entries to avoid confusion with the official Gospel Topics Essays.

The online Gospel Topics section first appeared with a major overhaul of the LDS.org website in January 2007 (the beta version was available six months earlier). Bloggers at the time (including our own Dave B) noted that entries in the Gospel Topics section were pulled directly from the 2004 publication True to the Faith: A Gospel Reference. The tiny True to the Faith handbook was published by the Church with little fanfare and immediately incorporated into the “approved missionary library.” (It was listed in Preach My Gospel, another significant publication released in 2004). True to the Faith contained 170 topical entries arranged alphabetically from Aaronic Priesthood to Zion.

Before the Gospel Topics website was ever created, the contents of True to the Faith received special attention in the bloggernacle due to Lavina Fielding Anderson’s presentation at the 2005 Sunstone Conference and an article in the Winter 2006 volume of Dialogue. She noted that in contrast with Elder Bruce R. McConkie’s unauthorized Mormon Doctrine or the restricted Church Handbook of Instructions, True to the Faith made “available an authoritative, correlated source upon which members [could] draw with complete reliance that ‘this is what we believe.'” The publication represented a “snapshot of authorized Mormon beliefs and behaviors…” The Gospel Topics section on LDS.org carries the same authoritative weight.

When the Gospel Topics website first went live, it included several new entries in addition to the original 170 True to the Faith topics. As of February 2007 (per the Internet’s Wayback Machine), they added:

  • Baptisms for the Dead;
  • Christ; Church Finances–Commercial Businesses[2]; Communication;
  • Dating and Courtship;
  • Food Storage;
  • Grief;
  • Internet;
  • Media; Miracles; Movies and Television; Music;
  • Ordination to the Priesthood;
  • Parenting;
  • Single Members of the Church; Single-Parent Families; Spiritual Experiences;
  • Trials;
  • Women in the Church.

In the intervening years, the Gospel Topics Section has significantly expanded. Topics added since 2007 (Gospel Topics Essays are noted in red):

  • Accounts of the First Vision (See First Vision Accounts); Answering Gospel Questions; Apostate (See Church Disciplinary Councils); Are Mormons Christian?;
  • Becoming Like God; Bible, Inerrancy of; Book of Abraham (See Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham); Book of Mormon and DNA Studies; Book of Mormon Geography[3]; Book of Mormon Translation;
  • Christian (See Are Mormons Christian?); Christmas;
  • Daughters in My Kingdom; Deification (See Becoming Like God); Disability; Dispensations; Diversity and Unity in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; DNA and the Book of Mormon (See Book of Mormon and DNA Studies);
  • Easter; Emergency Preparedness; Emergency Response; Employment; Environmental Stewardship and Conservation; Excommunication (See Church Disciplinary Councils),
  • Family Finances; Family Proclamation (See The Family: A Proclamation to the World); First Vision; First Vision Accounts;
  • Gardening; Gay (See Same-Sex Attraction); Genealogy (See Family History); Gold Plates;
  • Health; Heavenly Mother (See Mother in Heaven); High Council; High Priest; Humanitarian Service;
  • Immortality; Inspiration;
  • Jesus Christ Chosen as Savior; Joseph Smith’s Teachings about Priesthood, Temple, Women; Journal of Discourses;
  • Latter-day Saints (See Are Mormons Christian?);
  • Missionary Preparation; Missionary Training Centers; Mormon Church; Mormonism; Mormons; Mormons and Christianity (See Are Mormons Christian?); Mortality; Mother in Heaven; Mountain Meadows Massacre;
  • New Testament; Noah;
  • Old Testament;
  • Patriarch; Peace and Violence among 19th-Century Latter-day Saints; Peer Pressure; PEF Self-Reliance; Physical Death (See Death, Physical); Plural Marriage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; Polygamy (See Plural Marriage in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints); Postmortality; Pre-Earth Life (See Premortality); Premortality; Priesthood and Race (See Race and the Priesthood); Priesthood Blessing; Primary; Proxy Baptism;
  • Race and the Priesthood; Religious Freedom;
  • Same-Sex Attraction; Same-Sex Marriage; Sealing; Self-Reliance; Spaulding Manuscript; Spirit Children of Heavenly Parents; Spirit World; Stewardship; Study (See Answering Gospel Questions); Suicide;
  • The Family: A Proclamation to the World; Transgression; Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham;
  • Unwed Pregnancy; Urim and Thummim;
  • Vicarious Work; Virtue;
  • War in Heaven.

Topics deleted since 2007:

  • Area Authority Seventy (see Church Administration);
  • Body Piercing;
  • Hot Drinks (See Word of Wisdom);
  • Ordination to the Priesthood.

Members may have noticed that the Gospel Topics section on the LDS.org website doesn’t currently match the Gospel Topics section in the Gospel Library app. For one thing, none of the Gospel Topics Essays appear in the app’s Gospel Topics section (although a link is available in the Gospel Topics introduction). The essays have their own section in the Gospel Library app.

The vast majority of Gospel Topics entry deletions in the app are minor, usually the alternate wording associated with the paranthetical “See XYZ.” The topics of Home Teaching and Visiting Teaching understandably got the axe. Other entry omissions are not as easily explained (Church Organization, Disability, Family Home Evening, Humanitarian Service, Missionary Preparation, Missionary Training Centers, PEF Self-Reliance, Plan of Salvation, The Family: A Proclamation to the World, and Welfare). Perhaps they figured those topics are accessible in other areas of the app.

GOSPEL TOPICS ESSAYS

We now have better background on the creation of the thirteen Gospel Topics Essays thanks to Lisa Olsen Tait’s August 2018 FairMormon presentation, “Takeaways from the Gospel Topics Essays.” Tait, a Church Historian, was one of many collaborators on the project. She explained that the process “began around 2010 when leaders convened a committee and commissioned them with developing in-depth, accurate, balanced, and faithful answers to questions about difficult issues in church history.”[4] The Church “needed to do better in the Google wars” and topics were selected by the committee based on awareness of what was driving online discussions that could be “very damaging.”[5][6]

“Over the course of the project, historians in the Church History Department worked with a committee of Seventies to develop and write the essays. Scholars from outside the department also participated in the discussions, reviewed manuscripts, and in some cases contributed substantial material.”[7] Tait stressed the involvement of senior leadership in reviewing and approving the essays, including the Quorum of the Twelve and the First Presidency. “The Gospel Topics Essays are church statements.”[8]

Here are the titles and release dates of the thirteen Gospel Topics Essays:

This is the list as it appears in the Gospel Library app. On the Church’s Gospel Topics Essays website, all three plural marriage (polygamy) essays are nested in a single essay Plural Marriage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Tait noted that the essays were originally placed in the Gospel Topics section of LDS.org in order for members to access them easily. Unfortunately, as I covered in a post a couple years ago, the Church didn’t publicize the release of these essays (the last two excepted), and there are still members who are unaware of them. Perhaps the separation of the essays from the rest of the Gospel Topics in the Gospel Library app may help. One of the most exciting details from Tait’s presentation is that the Gospel Topics Essays have now been translated into about 20 languages.

CHURCH HISTORY TOPICS

Many readers are less familiar with this new resource. With the publication of the new narrative church history Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days several months ago, over 110 associated short essays related to church history were published by the Church History Department (released in 14 languages). These essays provide further details on subjects related to the first volume of Saints (I assume more will be added as subsequent volumes are published). Typically the footnotes in Saints alert readers to an associated Church History Topic essay, if available. Matt Grow, director of publications at the Church History Department, explained at a worldwide youth devotional that these essays go more in-depth on events, themes, people and places in Church history, and “they even point you to further reading, things not published by the church, that can help you increase your understanding.”

Like the much-longer Gospel Topics Essays, many of the Church History Topics essays cover subjects long considered controversial or uncomfortable. Generally, these are brief, accessible introductions to the topics with the expectation that readers will consult the recommended reading material if they desire more detail. Some of the Church History topics also include embedded bite-size videos of interviews with Church historians. In a few cases, the Church History topic essay goes more in-depth in a topic only briefly covered in an associated Gospel Topics essay. The Fanny Alger essay, for example, provides a few more details on her plural marriage with Joseph in Kirtland than what is found in the early plural marriage Gospel Topics Essay.

Although these Church History Topics essays were discussed in public venues, individual topics were rarely mentioned. That may be why even readers familiar with the Saints project are unaware of them. Because of that oversight, below is a complete list of all 118 Church History Topics essays currently available in the Gospel Library app and online (some titles of these essays seem to match those in the Gospel Topics section, but these essays are focused on historical context):

ACCESSIBILITY

There are a few different ways to access these different topic resources online. The traditional Gospel Topics website can be accessed from the main menu on LDS.org. Click on “Scriptures and Study” and then “Gospel Topics.” On the main Gospel Topics website, you can scroll down to access the Gospel Topics Essays.

For the Church History Topics, the easiest access is via the Saints website (saints.lds.org). Once you’re there, scroll down and click on “Topics.”

In the Gospel Library App, you can access all three of these resources (Gospel Topics, Gospel Topics Essays, and Church History Topics) via the “Topics” icon.

Both the Gospel Topics Essays and Church History Topics are also available via the “Church History” icon.

[1] For a recent example, see this post about Elijah Able’s ordination record suddenly popping up in a citation at the Joseph Smith Papers website.

[2] This entry about Church’s commercial business ventures may have been related to increased scrutiny around the Church’s involvement in downtown Salt Lake City revitalization efforts (like City Creek Center).

[3] I wrote last week that the “Book of Mormon Geography” entry was NOT available on the regular Gospel Topics website and put up a screenshot as evidence. It now appears to be available, except the link currently takes you to a replica of the Book of Mormon Translation Gospel Topics Essay page. Probably still a work in progress.

[4] About 2:23.

[5] From the Q&A. About 44:50.

[6] I’ve previously written about the November 2010 fireside in Sweden where two members of the Church History Department (including a general authority) were sent to allay widespread concerns about difficult church history topics.

[7] About 2:36.

[8] About 3:28.