Why the Aaronic Priesthood Manuals Suck

A commenter asked, “Runtu, any insights into why the Aaronic Priesthood manuals are so old and outdated?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.”

Why, yes, I do have some insights, as I edited the first two of the three Aaronic Priesthood manuals way back in 1993-94 when I worked at the Church Office Building in Salt Lake City.

Some background is probably necessary. Before that time, there were six Aaronic Priesthood manuals, two for each quorum; basically, the idea was that boys would see a different manual each year as they progressed through the priesthood quorums. These manuals were relics of the 1960s, though they had been updated somewhat in the mid-1970s. But as my commenter points out, there were some very strange and outdated teachings in these manuals. For example, besides the counsel against mixed-race marriage, there was a lesson about chastity that taught that without a sex drive, men would be “reluctant” to sustain their families.

In 1993, the Curriculum Department decided to reduce the number of manuals from 6 to 3, adapting the “best” lessons from the previous manuals to create the new manuals. Normally, my job as an editor was to clean up the lessons as needed, whether that meant fixing typos, finding better and more recent quotes, and rewriting portions that didn’t work. So, when I got the text of the manuals, which was just lessons lifted verbatim from the earlier manuals, I was dismayed at how outdated and frankly bizarre some of the material was. So, I asked my managing editor what I should do, and he said, “Just do what we always do: whatever is necessary.” So I did. I removed the weirder quotes and put in more recent and reasonable quotes. For example, I replaced the sex drive quote with two quotes from then-church president Ezra Taft Benson indicating that our sex drive was a divine gift from our Father in Heaven.

One of the later lessons stood out to me because, alone among the 40-something lessons, it was not from the earlier manuals. This lesson was without a doubt the strangest lesson I had ever read. The lesson noted that the scriptures tend to use the same phrases over and over (“how beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of those who publish peace” being an example). This repetition of phrases was an indication of God’s “writing style,” the lesson told us. By studying the scriptures diligently, then, we could learn to recognize God’s writing style and thus recognize in the words of the prophets and apostles those times when God is speaking to us directly.

I tried calling the two Curriculum guys heading up this project, but it was July and they were both on vacation. So I asked my boss, who rolled his eyes and said, “Oh, not that again.” He explained that these two men had been tasked with checking all the footnotes and index references in the scriptures to make sure they were accurate, and while engaged in this work had hit upon this notion of God’s writing style. Since then, they had been attempting, unsuccessfully, to get their ideas into church magazines and manuals. The two of us went upstairs to their supervisor, who told us that we were right to be concerned, that the lesson should not be in the manual. He suggested that I write a more standard scripture study lesson and submit that instead.

Everything went fine until I submitted the manual for approval. I found myself in a conference room with the two Curriculum brethren, one of whom literally screamed at me, and their boss.

“Why did you edit this manual” they asked.

“That’s my job,” I replied.

They told me that I was never supposed to edit anything but simply proofread. “We promised President Monson personally that this would just be a reprint to save money.”

I said it would have been nice if someone had mentioned this to me or the editor who was working simultaneously on the Young Women’s manual.

“You have to put it back the way it was!” they insisted.

I responded that, given that the money savings had already been lost, it would just cost that much more to “put it back the way it was.” Besides, I said, the manual was awful the way it was.

Big mistake.

One of the two men actually got tears in his eyes as he told me how inspired and inspiring each one of those carefully selected lessons were. He knew, because he had written them.

“You put it all back!” he said through tears.

But he didn’t mean all of it. They told me they wanted their “writing style” lesson back in, no questions asked. It didn’t matter that this lesson wasn’t a reprint; it was too important to leave out.

I mentioned that I had discussed this lesson with management–their boss was sitting right there–and that we agreed it was inappropriate.

The one man’s face went red: “I haven’t worked 25 years in Church Education to have some snot-nosed, pissant little editor undo all of my work!”

I turned to their boss for support: “Well, just work with them to get their ideas in the lesson. I think it just might work.”

The two editors involved (a woman and I) spent the next couple of weeks putting most of the garbage back into the manuals, though we quietly left some of the egregiously bad stuff out. Oddly enough, the two guys were more receptive to my suggestions than they were to hers. “That’s because I don’t have a penis,” she said.

The text went to layout, and when it came back, the Aaronic Priesthood manual was in Helvetica, and the Young Women’s was in Palatino. Why the difference? we asked.

“Helvetica is a more masculine font,” the layout guy said.

“Is that because it’s more erect?” asked my coeditor?

At least the cover was nice: a black and white photo of a Latino boy reading his scriptures.

The manual was then submitted to Correlation, and it came back with a 52-page report of mandatory changes (a new record for me).

“This wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t made changes,” one of the Curriculum guys said.

I made the changes, and it went to press, where 50,000 copies were printed and readied for shipment.

Then I got a phone call asking for a copy because “President Monson has heard there are problems with the manual, and he would like to read it.”

A few days later, I was on the bus going home, and I sat next to the Curriculum guy who had screamed at me.

“President Monson said he’s OK with the text, but the covers have to go. So, we’ve hired temps to come in and cut off the covers with razors.”

“What didn’t he like about the covers?” I asked.

“You didn’t hear this from me,” he replied, “but I don’t think there would have been a problem if the boy had been white. But if you ever repeat that, I’ll deny it.”

Honestly, I have no idea if what he said is true, but that was the beginning of the end for me at the Church Office Building. I don’t enjoy being told not to do my job or being screamed at. Neither has happened since I quit working there.

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11 Responses to Why the Aaronic Priesthood Manuals Suck

  1. Andrew S. says:

    Your co-editor is HILARIOUS (although this is probably some kind of schadenfreude I’m experiencing right now). I trust that those are verbatim quotations.

    • runtu says:

      Yes, those are verbatim quotes, and she is indeed hilarious. She had worked there many years and had become a bit cynical about the workings of the corporation.

  2. Andrew S, get that sad look off your face. You send your handsome little self on over to my channel and I will show you Eternal Life!

  3. mcarp says:

    Thanks, Runtu. I don’t think I’ve ever had my comment questions answered so thoroughly.

    I don’t know how long it has been since you were in the COB, but I heard a rumor that sometime around 2005-6 a new edition of the AP manuals was worked on, but cancelled. Any thoughts on that?

  4. So interesting to learn how these awful lesson manuals came to be.

    Why don’t you block comments from offensive people?

    • runtu says:

      Maybe it just takes a lot to offend me. I’ve blocked a few commenters in my time, but I trust my readers (all three of them, LOL) to ignore the idiots. If people want to show their true character by posting garbage, I’m not going to stop them. I really appreciate thoughtful comments like yours. Keep them coming. I think we both know whom to ignore.

  5. Michael says:

    Great story. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Dogzilla says:

    Being an editor sucks sometimes.

    After working in publishing production for a number of years, I really started to tear apart the idea that any scriptures were the words of god. I have never worked on a project that looked and read the same at publication as it did at first draft. There is no way the bible or the book of mormon could be anything except the product of Editing By Committee, which, as your story demonstrates, means that the content within does not remotely resemble whatever was started with. Nobody can resist the powerful siren song of putting their mark on something that will be published! So, the more humans involved, the more the copy will reflect the agenda of the most strident humans.

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