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.”
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.