What You Will Read About in the New Institute Manual on Early Church History

Some time ago I blogged about a new seminary manual on the Doctrine and Covenants released by the Church. The manual is significant because it includes discussions of sensitive topics related to Church history, such as the multiple accounts of the First Vision, the Mountain Meadows Massacre and the Utah War, the history of plural marriage, and the history of the priesthood ban. It appears that by including these topics the Church is taking steps towards more transparency when it comes to its history and “inoculating” its young members who are likely to encounter antagonistic websites that can easily blindside them with these issues if they aren’t prepared.

My friend Neal Rappleye has called my attention to a new manual released this year for seminary and institute students [technically, for Institute teachers]. The manual, Foundations of the Restoration, covers early Church history and corresponding sections of the Doctrine and Covenants. “This course,” the introduction reads, “gives students the opportunity to study the foundational revelations, doctrine, historical events, and people relevant to the unfolding of the Restoration of the Church of Jesus Christ as found in the standard works, the teachings of latter-day prophets, and Church history” (v). Each lesson is divided into an introduction, background reading, suggestions for teaching, and student readings. In order to receive credit for the class (Religion 225), students “are required to read the scripture passages, general conference talks, and other materials listed in the Student Readings section of each lesson. Students must also meet attendance requirements and demonstrate competency with course material” (vi).

There are many remarkable things about the new manual, including three things that I believe are significant in light of the Church’s efforts to be transparent and proactive in discussing sensitive issues in Church history. First, the manual copiously draws from the much-discussed Gospel Topics essays. Second, the manual employs the work of the Joseph Smith Papers Project and directs students to the project’s website. Third, the manual includes statements from Church leaders on confronting doubts and questions about Church history.

I. Gospel Topics

The manual directly recommends students read all but one of the Gospel Topics essays posted on the Church’s website. “Suggested Readings” for students include one of the essays dealing with the topic of the lesson (ix–xii, 138–139). As such, students are recommended to read the following essays in conjunction with the following lessons:

The two essays that are not included as “suggested readings” are “Are Mormons Christian?” and “Book of Mormon and DNA Studies.” However, “Book of Mormon and DNA Studies” is recommended as “background reading” for lesson 4 (“The Book of Mormon—Keystone of Our Religion,” 14–18), and the manual specifically instructs the teacher, “You may want to explain that one way modern enemies of the Church attempt to discredit the Book of Mormon is by using DNA evidence to try to discredit any link between Book of Mormon peoples and Native Americans. If students have questions about this issue, encourage them to read the Gospel Topics article ‘Book of
Mormon and DNA Studies,’ which can be found at lds.org/topics” (17).
What’s more, in addition to the manual explicitly recommending all but one of the essays to students as readings, passages from some of the essays are reprinted in the manual verbatim. This includes excerpts from “Book of Mormon Translation” (10), “First Vision Accounts” (6), “Plural Marriage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (92–94), and “Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham” (53). Interestingly, of all of the Gospel Topics essays cited, the series of essays on the history of plural marriage, including Joseph Smith’s practice of plural marriage, receive the most extensive citations (92–94).




At the back of the manual are included unpaginated handouts for students. One of the handouts, “Understanding Plural Marriage,” is essentially a reprinting of excerpts from the Gospel Topics essays on plural marriage. The manual reprints the part of the essay “The Beginnings of Plural Marriage in the Church” that mentions Joseph Smith’s sealings to Helen Mar Kimball “several months before her 15th birthday” and “to a number of women who were already married.” Post-Manifesto plural marriages and the “Second Manifesto” are likewise noted.

In addition to the subjects discussed in the Gospel Topics essays, students will read about the failure of the Kirtland Safety Society (67), the nature of the Joseph Smith Translation, which is deemed “more of an inspired revision than a traditional translation” (51–53), Danites and the Mormon War (67–68), the events leading up to the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, including the details of the suppression of the Nauvoo Expositor and Joseph’s use of a firearm to defend himself in Carthage Jail (100–103), the succession crisis (104–109), and the role of women in the Church historically and today, including the relationship between women and the priesthood (79–83).

As can be seen, the new manual liberally employs the Gospel Topics essays as it discusses these and other sensitive issues that students are likely to encounter as they study Church history.

II. The Joseph Smith Papers

The new manual cites both the print and online versions of the Joseph Smith Papers 4 different times (12, 28, 39, 80). In the lesson on the history and importance of the Relief Society, students are encouraged to “read the minutes of early Relief Society meetings at josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/Nauvoo-relief-society-minutebook.”


III. Counsel from Church Leaders on Doubt

Finally, the new manual includes several citations from General Authorities on how to confront doubts and questions that may arise in studying Church history or when confronted by antagonistic depictions of Church history. Recent counsel from Elders Jeffrey R. Holland, Neil L. Andersen, Steven E. Snow, and President Dieter F. Uchtdorf on the subject of confronting doubt and seeking truth makes an appearance in the manual (“Lesson 10: Seek the Truth,” 42–46). Handouts are likewise prepared for students with the quotes from these Church leaders that appear in lesson 10 (“Balancing Church History” and “Discerning Truth from Error”).

As such, in addition to directly addressing the issues raised in the Gospel Topics essays, the manual also prepares students to think about how to confront questions and doubt by providing counsel from Church leaders on faith and doubt and on seeking truth.


The publication of Foundations of the Restoration marks further progress towards a more transparent “warts and all” type of history produced by official Church channels. It likewise signals the Church’s institutional efforts to make young Latter-day Saints aware of the issues in Mormon history that are being discussed and debated online and elsewhere. Contrary to what cynical voices on hostile parts of the web might claim, the Church is not “burying” these issues. It is not making mere token gestures of transparency to save face. It is actively striving for genuine openness and disclosure about the sensitive issues in Mormon history. The subjects discussed in the Gospel Topics essays (and, indeed, the essays themselves) are being filtered into the Church’s curriculum intended for broad consumption. The effort is thus undeniably being made by the Church to strive towards a more honest, nuanced, and, ultimately, robust history. (As if the Joseph Smith Papers didn’t already prove that!) Whether this effort (and the long-term impact this effort seems to intend) is adequate can of course be debated. What cannot be debated, however, is that claims made about some sort of institutional dread, paralysis, or conspiracy on the part of the Church when it comes to confronting and examining its history are wholly dubious and strongly contradicted by such empirical signs as the existence of this new manual.

Blog originally posted at Stephen Smoot’s personal blog.

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About Stephen O. Smoot

Stephen O. Smoot graduated cum laude from Brigham Young University with Bachelor of Arts degrees in Ancient Near Eastern Studies and German Studies. His areas of academic interest include the Hebrew Bible, ancient Egyptian history and religion, Mormon studies, and German Romanticism. He blogs on Latter-day Saint and other topics at www.plonialmonimormon.com.

15 thoughts on “What You Will Read About in the New Institute Manual on Early Church History

  1. Just as well. The Church has done a terrible job of hiding this secret information. For example, somewhere in a file I’ve an article from The Improvement Era Magazine from about 1970 discussing seven (8?) different accounts of the First Vision. The fiends! They knew no one reads the long articles if there’re no pictures. If printing articles in the main church publication is not enough to keep a secret than a manual teens use at 6:00 AM will do the trick for sure.

    • I know! My seminary teacher (in the early ’80’s!) suggested I read The Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, in which Pratt admits that his fifth wife was still legally married to her non-Mormon husband. My seminary teacher also had me read the entire Wentworth Letter (I think it was part of the materials for our class) which contains a different version of the First Vision than is in the scriptures. One of my closest friends from Seminary actually has left the Church, partially because she was so “surprised” to find out about Joseph’s (and other early Saints’) plural marriages – some to wives still married to their “other” husbands – and of the different version of the First Vision. That is proof positive that the Church has done a FANTASTIC job of hiding, covering up and possibly lying about “true” Church history for years. I’m just lucky I’m so gullible as to think that maybe our leaders, imperfect as they are, have at least a spark of Godly inspiration – helps me overlook all the Church’s follies.

      • You’re lucky you got to read the entire Wentworth letter. The Curriculum Committee omitted a key portion of it in the manual, Teachings of the Prophets: Joseph Smith. So when Joseph prefaced the letter by asking it be printed in its entirety, it wasn’t newspaper editors in 1842 he needed to worry about; it was the current Curriculum Committee.

  2. I read the Improvement Era’s article on the “seven (8?) different accounts of the First Vision.” None of the accounts contradict each other. Some of the accounts have different details, which is characteristic of how TRUE experiences are told. Rarely does anyone tell the same experience the same way every time. One time you remember a detail that you don’t think of another time, which is not rare but common. The rarity is the telling of the same experience the exact same way every time.

  3. “Contrary to what cynical voices on hostile parts of the web might claim, the Church is not ‘burying’ these issues.”

    While this may be true today, it was not true in the recent past. Concealing differing accounts of the first version, closing the church archives lest inconvenient truths be exposed, urging members not to listen to “alternate voices” such as Sunstone symposia, and criticizing those who write “non-traditional histories” (i.e., non-homelitic, un-sanitized history) such as “Mormon Enigma”—these and other past attempts at suppression have damaged the church’s credibility. Indeed, the “cynical and hostile parts of the web” to which you refer are the principal reason the church lost control of its narrative and was forced to change its approach to the way it discusses its past.

    Don’t get me wrong—I’m quite pleased with the new essays, and CES has taken some constructive steps (albeit small ones) to improve the quality of its manuals. But let’s be honest about why these changes have occurred and what preceded them.

    • Eric, if you invoke history it would be prudent to invoke even more history. While there was certainly a retrenchment that was a reaction to the “new history,” that had followed a period of openness that was known as a historical Camelot. That was preceded by a very restrictive time, and that was preceded (ultimately) by Joseph who recorded a lot of information and appears to have intended that it be read (at least until some later administrators closed down a few things).

      Organizations change. We are in a great time now that is even better than the Camelot times. Don’t spend too much time focusing on such a short view of history–there is much more to it. In some of the times of most sanitized history, those who wrote it firmly believed in their version of history. Judging the past by our current preferences is unfair to many who lived through that past.

    • “Concealing differing accounts of the first version”

      Except the Church hasn’t done this. Ever. Joseph Fielding Smith (if we believe Stan Larson) may have been uncomfortable with the discovery of the 1832 account, but the details of the First Vision accounts have appeared numerous times in Church publications (Improvement Era, Ensign, etc.), as well as semi-official publications like BYU Studies and the Encyclopedia of Mormonism.

      “urging members not to listen to ‘alternate voices’ such as Sunstone symposia”

      Frankly, I think Elder Oaks was prophetic in 1989 to warn about things like Sunstone. Go ahead and peek at the 2015 Sunstone symposium program and you’ll see what I mean. The blatant pro-gay, pro-Ordain Women, and pro-Mormon Stories agenda of Sunstone these days has largely vindicated Elder Oaks’ concern.

      “criticizing those who write ‘non-traditional histories’ (i.e., non-homelitic, un-sanitized history) such as ‘Mormon Enigma'”

      Well, if you ask me this sort of stuff was a lot more than just “non-traditional.” Much of it was deliberately aimed at casting Joseph Smith and Church history in the worst possible light. So it’s understandable (at least to me) why Church leaders would have had a problem with this stuff, or at least with ostensibly faithful members of the Church promoting it.

      Basically, I agree with my friend Joshua Sears, who wrote this as a guest blogger on my personal blog: “It is true that in past decades the complexities of certain historical issues and the nuances of certain doctrinal topics were not explored in great length in Church magazines and manuals, but this was a matter of emphasis, not a cover up.”

      That’s at least the conclusion I’ve come to as I’ve looked at the intellectual history of Mormon historiography.

      • I laughed when I read the following in chapter 20 of the new manual: “Some authors who write about the Church and its history present information out of context, or they include partial truths that can be misleading.”

        I wonder if there is anyone at CES who grasps the irony in that statement.

  4. I object to the frequent use of the word “transparent” or “transparency” in the essay, it carries a negative and PC connotation which I think is unnecessary. I am glad the Church is doing more to acquaint students with some of the problem areas, but I went to seminary in the late 1950s and early 1960s and I knew about plural marriage. Nobody knew about more than one account of the First Vision then. Times change, needs of the Church change. All in all, I think too many members are overly sensitive (afraid?) and reactive about Church History. It is almost as though we have been persuaded by the critics that the Church intentionally deceives people or has some terrible secret which will expose the whole thing as a fraud they want to hide. I spent my career in the subject, and I don’t buy it. It is appalling to me, however, how ignorant so many members are about Church history when we have so much available that it is hard to keep up. A bibliography on the First Vision alone would fill several pages.

    • This is actually a fair critique. I was hasty in my write-up of this blog post, mainly because I wanted to get it posted and on the web ASAP. I should’ve been more careful with my choice of language. Words like “transparency” and such are rhetorically-laden with all sorts of connotations that I didn’t intend. Basically, what I meant to say is this (from a follow-up guest post on my personal blog): “The reality is that there is no Church conspiracy to keep information from its members. It is true that in past decades the complexities of certain historical issues and the nuances of certain doctrinal topics were not explored in great length in Church magazines and manuals, but this was a matter of emphasis, not a cover up.”

      I tried to communicate basically this in my concluding paragraph, but it looks like I failed.

      In any event, thanks for your comment. I’ll try to be more careful in the future.

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