Sunday School Manual: Supplementary Materials

Sunday School Manual: Supplementary Materials October 18, 2010

The manuals of the church include a section at the beginning instructing readers how the manual is to be used. These instructions general advise such things as the use of the Spirit in study and teaching, how to focus on discussion, and how to prepare to teach. One of the features included in these manuals is an advisory about the use of supplemental sources.

Interestingly, there is no set phrase on the advisory against supplemental texts. I offer a small sample below from a few of the manuals that I have lying around:

Old Testament Gospel Doctrine Teacher’s Manual, (2001)

“This manual is a tool to help you teach the scriptures….Be judicious in your use of commentaries and other nonscriptural sources of information. Class members should be taught to seek knowledge and inspiration from the scriptures and the words of the latter-day prophets.”

This version is interesting because it seems to divide preparation from teaching as two distinct categories. It suggests that one should be “judicious” in using non-scriptural sources and other commentaries, but it does not prohibit the use of other materials. It suggests a pedagogical goal of teaching about the scriptures and latter-day prophets, but does not exclude other ways of learning or teaching.

Gospel Principles Manual (2009)

If you have been called to teach a quorum or class using this book, do not substitute outside materials, however interesting they may be. Stay true to the scriptures and the words in the book.

This manual contains a more explicit prohibition on “outside materials,” presumably meaning anything that is “outside” the manual. It also warns to never speculate about doctrine. Though this text is used for Priesthood and Relief Society meetings now, it is primarily intended to introduce students to the basics of the church, so understandably it has a strong stance on limiting teachers to no more than is provided.

Book of Mormon Gospel Doctrine Teacher’s Manual, 1999

“Elder M. Russell Ballard said: ‘Teachers would be well advised to study carefully the scriptures and their manuals before reaching out for supplemental materials. Far too many teachers seem to stray from the approved curriculum materials without fully reviewing them. If teachers feel the need to use some good supplemental resources beyond the scriptures and manuals in presenting a lesson, they should first consider the use of the Church magazines.” (Ensign, May 1983, 68)

This version quotes Elder Ballard, who suggests that in general teachers are straying from the curriculum without having first fully reviewed it. It suggests that the use of other sources may be felt to be needed, and suggests that “first” Church magazines be used. It does not, however, prohibit teachers from going beyond these sources as well.

Teaching, No Greater Call, (1999)

“Sometimes it is also helpful to study the political, social, or economic history of the times in which a scripture was given….The Bible Dictionary can be an excellent source for this and other background information on passages in the Bible….In providing context, it is essential not to lose sight of its purpose, which is to contribute to a better understanding of a particular scripture passage. Be careful not to turn context–such as history, politics, economics, or language of the people in the scriptures–into the main focus of a lesson.” (55)

This version is among the most permissive statements. Though it does not address specifically the use of other materials beyond the manual, it does suggest that information not contained in the manual may be particular helpful in understanding the scriptures. Specifically, it suggests that history, politics, economics, and even language can illuminate context, so long as the lesson’s “focus” not be exclusively on these points.

Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith (2007)

The Lord has commanded that we teach “none other things than that which the prophets and apostles have written, and that which is taught [us] by the Comforter through the prayer of faith” (D&C 52:9)….Your assignment is to help others understand the Prophet Joseph Smith’s teachings and the scriptures. Do not set this book aside or prepare lessons from other materials. Dedicate a significant portion of the lesson to reading Joseph Smith’s teachings in this book and discussing their meaning and application.” (viii)

This prohibtion “Do not…prepare lessons from other materials” is among the strongest of any statements on this issue, much stronger than other PotC manuals I reviewed. Perhaps it is because Joseph Smith is among the most controversial figures that the prohibition against seeking outside information is so strongly stated.

Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: David O. McKay (2003)

“Teachers should focus on the content of the text and related scriptures and should apply these teachings to circumstances with which class members will be familiar….It is not necessary or recommended that members purchase additional commentaries or reference texts to supplement the material in this book.” (vi)

This version emphasizes the limitation to the material in the manual, but offers a pedagogical focus for how the lesson is to be taught. The emphasis is on pratical knowledge rather than historical context. The statement that it is not necessary to purchase additional materials makes sense, but the added statement that it is “not recommended” to do so comes off as a little strong.

Lay Hold Upon the Word of God: Melchizedek Priesthood Personal Study Guide (1988)

“If a particular need exists that is not covered in the current manual, you may use previous study guides, conference addresses, and scriptures.” (x)

In the former iterations of Priesthood and Relief Society manuals, there was more flexibility given to local teachers to determine what needed to be focused on. Lessons could be taught out of order if needed, and some could be skipped in favor of a conference talk. Here, materials are limited to conference talks and scriptures, but also prior manuals.

Bible Dictionary

“[The Bible Dictionary] is not intended as an official or revealed endorsement by the Church of doctrinal, historical cultural, and other matters set forth. Many of the items have been drawn from the best available scholarship of the world and are subject to reevaluation based on new research and discoveries or on new revelation….If an elaborative discussion is desired, the student should consult a more exhaustive dictionary.” (599).

This important prefatory remark not only suggests that the “best available scholarship” is the source for the BD, but also admits that it is subject to revision. This caveat on the BD itself, and source of its authority, set important parameters on what can be taken as definitive on any given topic. Further, research is explicitly valued. The text even encourages students to consult other Bible dictionaries. Given the provisionality of the text, it seems to require that we continue to seek the best scholarship in the world.

Concluding Remarks

The advisory about the use of outside sources seems to function variously as a limitation and as a starting point. That is, in some versions outside sources are prohibited, in others merely discouraged as unncessary, and in others the text seems to understand itself as a beginning point, and encourages other materials, especially those in official Church publications. Indeed, the extent to which other official Church publications are encouraged or not also poses an interesting point of comparison beyond the issue of outside materials. Only the Bible Dictionary actually encourages the use of publications not offered by the Church.

One must suspect that part of the reason for the limitations on outside materials represents not simply a suppression of “outside” scholarship, but also a suppression of semi-authoritative LDS writings and speculation. For instance, the works of Cleon Skousen on scriptural matters are equally prohibited as are the works of Michael Coogan. The controls placed on these materials cuts against certain modes of inquiry, but also works to unseat non-official LDS “scholarship.”

Regardless of how careful the wording actually is in the manuals about “judicious” use of outside materials, a serious cultural trend has been to see the manual as not only the sole source of scriptural knowledge, but often to take the place of the scriptures themselves. The manual becomes an exhaustive guide to the scriptures, so that reading scriptures which are not taught in the manual itself risks reading materials beyond what the manual approves. One risk is that the scriptures are simply props in the “lesson,” and the scriptures themselves are never really investigated, understood, or allowed to speak on their own, sometimes troubling, terms.

A final problem for thinking about the limitation of approved sources is that such sources are not a closed loop. This is the problem of citationality. The manuals draw upon texts, sources, scholarship, and cultural locations that extend beyond the pages of the manual. The Bible Dictionary acknowledges its dependance on “outside” scholarship. The Institute Manuals, for instance, rely heavily on non-LDS biblical commentaries. The manuals are not delivered by revelation, but by study and by faith. Those who produce them seek information from “outside” and even cite it on occasion. The manuals already occupy a space in between the inside and outside and act as a mediating point for discipling both.

To stay within the closed walls of the manual as entirely sufficient produces an untenable contradiction, since the manuals themselves already rely on the “outside.” The fiction of a pure inside and pure outside cannot be seriously sustained. Even if one limits oneself to the teachings of the leaders of the church, they frequently draw upon “outside” materials such as poetry, scholarship, and cultural trends which they freely cite in their addresses. And how would it be possible to never read or reflect on anything except that which was “inside,” which is always already “outside” too? Surely Mormon culture cannot survive if those who are trusted to translate “outside” materials for Mormon audience are LDS leaders alone. If we become so self-referential that only that which is “inside” is appropriate for thought and discussion in our teaching and learning, we would create a closed loop and no progress could ever occur.

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