A new -- or is it old? -- manual for Mormons

Published December 31, 2009 11:25 am
Religion » Adults get back to basics in Sunday studies.
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After a decade of going back to Brigham, back to Joseph and back to Wilford, Mormons are going back to basics.

Starting this month, adult Latter-day Saints will shelve their study of past Mormon prophets and return to fundamentals of their faith as spelled out in a 30-year-old book called Gospel Principles .

Twice a month, Mormon men in their Sunday priesthood meetings and women in their Relief Society sessions will consider a different chapter in the book, originally published in 1978, which discusses everything from the nature of God and Christ's atoning sacrifice to the need for baptism and temple rituals.

Until now, the book largely has been used as a primer for new converts to the 13.5 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

But church officials believe it can enhance worship for longtime members as well.

"The more we reflect on the principles and doctrines, the greater our understanding becomes," Elder Kenneth Johnson of the Seventy, who oversaw the revision of the manual, said in the Ensign , the church's official magazine. "They never grow old, and our understanding of them is increased and enhanced. The truth is not just an intellectual truth, but more of an understanding as the Spirit is present."

The revised edition of Gospel Principles is about 90 percent the same, says Matthew Witten, a business analyst in San Antonio who has compared the two. "The changes are not a big deal."

One intriguing change, Witten says, is that all references to late apostle Bruce R. McConkie's quasi-authoritative book, Mormon Doctrine , have been excised.

"Quotes were updated to reference materials that are more accessible to members of the LDS Church worldwide," church spokeswoman Kim Farah explains. "For example, the series, Teachings of Presidents of the Church , is referenced because it is available in 28 languages, while Mormon Doctrine is only available in a few."

Members seem to have mixed feelings about the changing curriculum.

"Over the years, I've heard many, many people express that the Teachings of the Prophets books were very difficult to teach from, so I'm sensing some relief with the shift to the new manuals," says Julie M. Smith, a stay-at-home mom with a degree in biblical studies. "At the same time, there is a new concern: How does a teacher make a lesson on a very basic topic interesting and relevant to the class?"

The change will directly affect Smith, who teaches at the LDS Institute of Religion as well as in her ward's Relief Society in Austin, Texas.

"As I began to prepare my first lesson from the Gospel Principles manual, I noticed -- and appreciated -- the tips to the teacher that are included in each lesson," Smith wrote in an e-mail. "These lessons are very, very short and extremely basic, and it will be interesting to see what directions various teachers take with the material."

She does wish, however, that "more penetrating, thought-provoking questions had been included."

Steve Evans, a Seattle attorney, has a similar feeling about the move.

"It makes me wonder what happened to the prior approach of viewing principles through the eyes of a particular prophet and cultivating a quasi-historical library," says the father of four. "While the prophets we've studied have been great, there are several more I'd like to hear from."

On top of that, Evans doesn't see the revised Gospel Principles manual as "a cure for the problem of boredom, but maybe no manual can cure that."

There's no substitute for "an engaged and prepared teacher in front of a engaged class," Evans says. "A book won't replace that."

On the other hand, Witten thinks the manual may foster better classroom discussions.

"I am hoping that the lessons will actually improve," he says, "because people won't feel the need to read long general-authority quotes, but [will be] more free to just speak for themselves."

Church leaders say the Teachings of the Presidents will return in 2012.

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