LDS Church Publications: A Reality Check

Manuolatry: A Reality Check

Recently I’ve been reminded that some people hold LDS church manuals in the same esteem as the pronouncements of living prophets and the scriptures themselves. One person asserted, for example, that “doctrine is more important that scripture … because we are not qualified to interpet scripture whereas the prophets are.” Doctrine, he tells us, is “enshrined” in “official publication[s]” of the LDS church. By this logic, then, Church manuals are more authoritative than the scriptures themselves because manuals have been vetted and approved as official doctrinal statements by the apostles and prophets.

This rather strange elevation of Church manuals stems from a misinterpretation of a 2007 Church statement intended, ironically, to clarify what constitutes doctrine. The key passage in this statement and the one that seems to cause the most confusion is this one:

“With divine inspiration, the First Presidency … and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles … counsel together to establish doctrine that is consistently proclaimed in official Church publications. This doctrine resides in the four “standard works” of scripture (the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price), official declarations and proclamations, and the Articles of Faith.”

Let’s summarize:

1. The First Presidency and the Twelve Apostles “establish doctrine.”
2. This doctrine “is consistently proclaimed in official Church publications.”
3. The doctrine “resides” in the standard works of scripture, official declarations and proclamations, and the Articles of Faith. (Technically, the Articles of Faith are part of the standard works because they are published as part of the Pearl of Great Price, but to point out this error would evince a spirit of apostasy, so never mind.)

We could argue about the distinction between “establish,” “proclaim,” and “reside,” but that’s not the point of this post. We will better understand what doctrine is by examining how the Church proclaims its doctrines in practice. I will simply mention in passing that, when I worked at the Church Office Building, we were told that a Church publication that had been through the Correlation process and published under a Church copyright was considered “consistent” with doctrine, which resided in the scriptures. This was an important distinction because it acknowledged that Church publications may at times be incorrect doctrinally and thus need revision or correction. The scriptures, or where the doctrine “resides,” are never incorrect doctrinally and are thus not subject to revision or correction (except for, obviously, printing mistakes such as typographical errors; the infamous “ano” passage in El Libro de Mormon comes to mind).

I don’t think we need to discuss the doctrinal authority of “the four ‘standard works’ of scripture (the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price), official declarations and proclamations, and the Articles of Faith.” Rather, I wanted to focus on the Church’s publication process and how it guarantees doctrinal consistency.

A short history lesson might help. Before 1971, Church priesthood and auxiliary organizations published their own manuals, magazines, and other materials without central oversight from Church authorities: “As the programs and activities of Church organizations expanded in number and complexity, they came to have their own general and local officers, curricula, reporting systems, meetings, magazines, funding, and lines of communications” (Encyclopedia of Mormonism). Without central oversight, these various magazines published what they wanted, which often resulted in consternation and dismay from the leadership. It’s not surprising that many of the strange statements alleged by critics to be “doctrine” have been quote-mined from these un-Correlated publications; thus one reads about Quakers with tall hats living on the moon and the statement “when the prophet has spoken, the thinking has been done” in such publications.

Efforts to exert central “correlation” control over the various organizations began in 1907, but the current Correlation program was not fully in place until 1971. So, the first thing to consider about “official” Church publications is the date. Anything published before 1971 has not been through the Correlation process and thus would not qualify as consistent with Church doctrine. Consequently, the Church’s official web site does not contain any official publications with a copyright date earlier than 1971. Church magazines, for example, can be searched only as far back as January 1971. True, works both in and out of the church from earlier dates are cited often, but the inclusion of excerpts from such publications indicates that the teachings cited have passed a Correlation review, not that the entire work being cited reflects doctrine. In short, the Church does not consider pre-1971 publications to consistently proclaim its doctrines.

But what of current publications? Do they consistently proclaim church doctrine? Yes, so far as the Correlation committee is concerned, as they have been delegated the responsibility to evaluate Church publications against the established doctrines of the Church.

The process of Church publication is not all that complicated. Generally speaking, the organization involved (the Priesthood Department or the Curriculum Department, for example) proposes a new publication to the General Authority (a Seventy) who oversees that department. Depending on the publication, the proposal may have to be sent to the Twelve for approval, but I didn’t see this happen very often. Upon approval, the department creates a writing committee, composed of COB staff and volunteers. The committee follows the general instructions (sometimes a topical outline) and writes the publication. When the department has approved the document, it goes to the Curriculum Department for editing. Curriculum editors have a great deal of freedom to revise and often rewrite the contents of publications, and sometimes this was necessary. When the department has approved the edits, the publication is sent to the Graphics Department for layout and illustration, and then it goes back to the department for final approval. The last step is the Correlation report. Staffers in Correlation review the publication and return a report suggesting changes (ranging from typographical errors to doctrinal issues). After the changes have been made and the originating department, the editor, and the Correlation committee sign off on the publication, it is sent to the press for printing.

“For the Strength of Youth” is a good example of the process. Hoyt Brewster, then director of the Priesthood Department, proposed updating a pamphlet from the 1960s to meet the needs of the youth of the church today. He submitted the proposal, which was approved, and then a committee worked with Brother Brewster’s original draft and then sent a draft to Curriculum for editing. Two editors (one of whom was me) went through the draft, made changes, and then sent the document on for layout and formatting. This was only one of two times while I worked there that I knew of the Twelve being involved in any project (the other being a leadership handbook I worked on). The completed draft came back with changes initialed by the requesting apostle (most were marked “BKP”). We made the changes, got final approval, and sent it out to be published.

Most of the time, however, publications were proposed and produced by the organizations and their professional staff. We all understood that what we had published was not infallible or beyond questioning. That is why church publications usually include a request for comments and corrections. In short, Church publications are not scripture; they are subject to change, revision, and deletion; they reflect the understanding of those who produce and review them, but they do not enshrine established doctrine. One document I revised had at its original publication stated that the male sex drive was given to us because otherwise men would not want to stay with their families. That isn’t doctrine, but it was published in a post-Correlation manual. Similarly, another publication defined “visual contact” as constituting sexual harassment. Is that doctrine, or not?

It’s strange that in a religion that allows for translation errors and doctrinal issues with scripture (at least the Bible), some cling to Church publications as some sort of doctrinal pillar of truth. We never thought of them that way, and I never heard any General Authorities refer to them that way; in fact, Elder Gene Cook lamented quite often that instructors had become “slaves” to the manuals, and he wished people would open up a little and do their homework. Thus, in 1989, the Church revised its Sunday School curriculum to focus on the scriptures, not the manuals, as stated by Joseph Wirthlin: “Rather than use so much of the material supplementary to this unique book of scripture, our teachers are being encouraged to concentrate on teaching directly from the text of the Doctrine and Covenants itself…. These questions are also designed to be answered from the scriptural text instead of from resource materials in a manual. We feel this direction will turn the teacher and the students more to the Spirit, to the scriptures, and to prayer for understanding” (Ensign, Jan. 1989, 12). If the manuals were considered “more important” than the scriptures, Elder Wirthlin’s concern that the “supplementary” material from the manuals were distracting from the scriptures would have been nonsensical. The manuals were reduced in size and content precisely because they were and are considered less important than the scriptures.

Perhaps the best indicator of the Church’s attitude toward the manuals is how often they are cited by the Brethren in their writings and conference addresses. They aren’t. They quote scriptures and prophets, and even bad poetry on occasion. But it is rare for any Church leader to refer to Church publications, except on those occasions when a new publication is being introduced.

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13 Responses to LDS Church Publications: A Reality Check

  1. runtu says:

    I take it you’re not interested in the history and practices of your religion. I’m sure it’s more fun hating on the haters. 🙂

  2. shematwater says:

    I thuroughly enjoyed this. The history if correlation was fascinating, and definitely helpful in future descussions (such as quakers on the moon).

    Thank you for the insight.

    PS I never thought the manuels to be more authroritative, or even equal to the scriptures. Just wanted you to know that.
    I actually prefer the Old Testiment for a doctrinal source than any other book (when possible of course).

  3. mcarp says:

    Runtu, any insights into why the Aaronic Priesthood manuals are so old and outdated? I think they were published in the early 80’s and they still contain quotes about not marrying outside your race; even though over half of our ward’s youth are products of mixed race marriage.

    I’m to the point where I don’t teach from the manual at all. I’m not the weekly teacher, but when I do teach, I just take the subject and do two things. First, I give my view of what the subject means, including any scriptures. Second, I try to get the deacons to think about what it means to them. (I know, that’s a laugh, getting the deacons to think.)

    Yes, there is the supplemental materials guide with more up-to-date conference talks, but you end up reading 4-5 conference talks just to replace the 3-4 outdated quotes.

    To me, the supplemental materials guide is a recognition that the manuals are out of date. So, why not just replace them?

    Same goes for YW manuals, although I’m not as familiar with them.

  4. What about the part where Joseph reached into the ground and pulled out them golden plates baby!

  5. Odell says:

    Interesting information. Thanks for sharing. As for Screaming Nephite’s question, “what about it?” And how much do you understand about the various histories regarding the writing of the Book of Mormon? And what about Smith’s attempts to sell the copyright in Canada, etc?

  6. Odell, I have read Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, if it aint in there, it aint squat. I have also read every conceivable theory on the “REAL” author of the Book of Mormon: Smith, Smith, Rigdon, Cowdery, Spaulding etc etc etc etc etc etc. Where is the rough draft in another person’s handwriting? Where is ANY real concrete evidence that someone else besides Joseph Smith wrote this? And if Joseph Smith did write the Book of Mormon, how? He was 23 years old. Have you ever been to Palmyra? I have, there is nothing there. How did he know so much about the Arabian penninsula, Chiasmus and Hebrew? I don’t think Runtu wants us chatting in here. Please visit my blog, ding ding, LET”S GET IT ON!

  7. Odell says:

    I guess when you want to believe, you believe.

  8. Odell says:

    To SN:

    Concrete evidence??

    What concrete evidence do you have a of a dead American prophet named Moroni (or maybe Nephi), who was allegedly of Hebrew descent, who was a head of a vast American empire, appearing to a young boy who was stealing people’s money by using a rock in a hat to search for buried treasure?

    And by the way, there is no evidence of Mormon, his alleged empire and of any civilization whose history he allegedly compiled and edited. None of the boy’s brothers who ahared the room witnessed the alleged visitation and just for fun, the history was written on gold plates, which would have made them two heavy for Smith to have hauled. What a fantastic tale.

    The burden is on you to find concrete evidence to support such a far reaching and irrational hypothesis.

  9. Runtu, do you mind if Odell and I continue this conversation in here? I can’t seem to get Odell to come to my glorius blog. Even after I created a post for the two of us to discuss.

  10. shematwater says:

    ODELL

    First, the gold plates would not have been too heavy for Joseph Smith. A few notes: They were plates, it was not a single block of gold. Also, they had writting carved into them, so large pieces of the “whole” were missing. Lastly, Joseph Smith was always noted for his great strength, and even he records them as being difficult to carry around. so this point is actually pointless.

    Second, do you believe in the Bible. If you do please show me any evidence for the great civilizations that existed before the flood. Also, would you mind giving concrete evidence of Shem, Ham, or Japheth? What about Melckezidek?
    No, if you are not of the Christian persuasion, please give evidence of your faith.
    If you are an Aithiest, please show us the proof that God does not exist.
    Everyone acts on faith in their lives.

    As to evidence of the great nations of the Book of Mormon, please look at the many ruins in South and Central America, as well as the great evidence in Norht America (the mounds). As to evidence of specific people, please consider the fact that no one today knows how to pernounce the languages of these American nations, and we may have the record and not even know it.

    Lastly, your accusation of stealing money by locking for buried treasure in a hat is blending of about five fairly unrelated stories, many of which have been proven false (like the “trying to steal money”). If this is the understanding you have the history of Joseph Smith we can conclude that it is very poor and thus not very convincing in an argument.

    Now, as to Screaming Nephites point of the Gold plates in regards to this thread, it is a valid point. However, it does not take into account the fact that them golden plates are canonized scripture, along with a lot of Joseph Smith’s revelations. As such it is not subject to the regulations that we have been informed were instituted in the 70’s. Thus, when things are being correlated them golden plates are part of the standard that they are being correlated to.

  11. shematwater says:

    RUNTU

    sorry if you didn’t want this here.

    • runtu says:

      It’s no problem. I figure it’s a good sign that my blog is getting some people to think about and discuss certain issues. Have at it. I’m enjoying reading your exchanges.

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