New scholarship coming to Mormon lessons, but will instructors really teach it?

The Salt Lake Tribune/December 1, 2016

By Peggy Fletcher Stack

For more than a century, Mormons have been telling a straightforward story of their movement's miraculous founding, prophetic leadership and heroic believers.

During the past few years, however, they have been confronted with a dramatic, almost revolutionary, retelling, with fresh details, context and examples of human foibles fleshing out — and sometimes debunking — the familiar facts they have always believed.

By these new accounts — spelled out in 11 scholarly essays posted on the church's website — the first LDS prophet, Joseph Smith, used a "seer stone" in a hat, not gold plates on the table, to translate the Book of Mormon, the faith's signature scripture. The church's long-standing ban on blacks in the priesthood was born more from societal racism than divine revelation. Plural marriage was messier and more painful than the typical tale of jealousy-free "sister" wives.

Beginning in January, as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints embark on a yearlong study of their history, the task will be to bring this retelling to the rank and file without undermining their faith in the story's fundamentals.

It will be complicated.

Rather than redo the Sunday school manual — a curriculum guide for lay teachers to explore the text and themes in the compilation of revelations, mostly to Smith, called the Doctrine & Covenants (D&C) — Mormon leaders chose simply to add the new material to the end of existing lesson plans as they appear online.

Each lesson will begin with an introduction directing teachers to the resource writings at the conclusion, says Matthew McBride, editor in chief of oversees the publication of the essays on that site.

Of particular relevance to the D&C is a series of articles, "Revelations in Context," which provides stories behind specific sections, McBride says, as well as insights gleaned from the landmark multiyear, multivolume Joseph Smith Papers Project.

"We were trying to take a different approach to D&C studies," McBride says, "offering a narrative [about a section] from a single individual's point of view, sometimes Joseph Smith but often a lesser-known Mormon figure."

The extra resources also will include various descriptions of Smith's "First Vision," which Latter-day Saints believe was an actual exchange with God and Jesus but which the founding Mormon prophet described differently on separate occasions.

Then there are the groundbreaking Gospel Topics essays — ranging from priesthood and polygamy to the nature of God and Mormon belief in a Heavenly Mother.

Most of these supplements will be available in 10 languages online starting next week and then printed and available in LDS distribution centers by year's end.

It is "a good-faith effort on the part of church leaders" — including Mormon apostle M. Russell Ballard's "strongly worded charge" for teachers and members to become familiar with the essays, McBride says. "We think this will really move the needle."

He acknowledges there is no mandate from top Mormon leaders for teachers to use these materials.

"We put it out there and hope that people will find it and use it," he says, with a further wish that "as these resources become more available, there will be more nuance in the way we talk about our history."

Some LDS scholars, though, worry such an approach will create more confusion for members rather than enlarge their understanding.

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