Religious Education in the Church–It’s no School of the Prophets!

Bored in Vernal church, education, religion, theology 27 Comments

On January 23, 1833 in Kirtland Ohio, Joseph Smith met for the first time with a select group of members in what he termed the “School of the Prophets.” It was an attempt to improve both theological and secular learning and included such teachings as the Lectures on Faith and Hebrew lessons by a paid Jewish scholar. There was another branch of this school in Independence, MO under the direction of Parley P. Pratt, and several schools of the Prophets were organized by Brigham Young during the time that he was President of the Church. These were held in Salt Lake City, Provo, Logan, Brigham City, Spanish Fork, Nephi, Ephraim, American Fork, and Ogden.

It’s extremely unfortunate that this early emphasis on theological study was discontinued in the Church. Latter-day Saints are quick to brag that they have no paid ministry, but they have no trained ministry, either. Let us take a quick look at the opportunities for religious education offered by the Church.

  1. College-level classes
    Basic religion classes are offered at BYU, but no degree is offered in religious studies. Institute classes are held haphazardly Church-wide, taught by those with varying degrees of inexpertise.
  2. Seminary
    The seminary program in the Church is taught to high-school aged students and focuses on a very basic understanding of the four major works of scripture and how they relate to praxis. Most Seminary classes are taught by teachers with no training in theology.
  3. Missionary Training
    Those called on missions for the Church are given an intensive course of study to prepare them to preach the gospel. Unfortunately, the emphasis is on language and culture study, memorization of a few key facts and scriptures relating to the Restoration, and indoctrination techniques.
  4. Sunday School
    Sunday religious classes are held for all age groups and are taught by members who have no theological training out of manuals which are very basic and broad.

Today’s religious education in the Church has maintained a distance from the “School of the Prophets” approach and instead emphasized giving all members a very small amount of Christian understanding. The teaching is offered to the lowest common denominator, which is a safe approach for a people who are not experienced in scriptural understanding and who have not learned discernment.

But is it fair to require the entire membership to stay at the gospel essentials level? This spiritual environment can only be described as “stagnant.” In every ward that I have been in, the gospel essentials class could handle very well any new, returning, or less able members with the current curriculum blended with our 4-year cycle of Gospel Doctrine studies. This group of people often consists of less than two percent of the ward, even in developing countries. Such a course would allow the remaining members options to continue their religious education in ways that would not be boring or repetitive.

Our Church has ample intellectual talent which could be called upon to develop fresh, timely curriculum each year for general study. I contend that without a “School of the Prophets” to help train and develop our members, we will not have sons and daughters who prophesy, old men who dream dreams, or youth who see visions. (Joel 2:28)

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  2. Thanks for pointing out something so obvious. I often feel as if I am intellectually starving. I am watching more and more youth in my neighborhood opting out of seminary in favor of concurrent college classes in comparative religion. I think they are hungry too. While, perhaps, Sunday School will never be a place where we divide ourselves by intelligence, isn’t there someplace that we can interact with each other and ponder the big questions? (Thank goodness for the bloggernacle!)

  3. Many of my blog posts here are the sort of things I think should be taught. Been a long time since I looked at a Strong’s Concordance. Too often people do not even get to the material in the current lessons. If we only did, then we would be ready to go to the next step.

    A ward could well have three or four Sunday School classes, of twelve to twenty people each, covering the same material, though in different ways and at different levels.

    Note that ” The demonstrative verb formed out of אלף (eleph) is אלף (A.L.Ph, Strong’s #503) meaning to “give a thousand.” ” should be read in context with things like the Roman word for “ten thousand” a military unit that often had only four to six thousand people in it (much like Century — means 100 but often meant, in practice 40 to 60 men, as when units of 60 spearmen were sent to escort Paul).

    Suddenly there are lots of things to be read in that context.

  4. Bored you are spot on. Correlation was developed because there were so many wing nuts that were way off topic and it was out of control. My parents who lived in Manhattan in the 1950’s said there was a considerable amount of strange doctrine being taught at all levels.

    I do agree with you because we have come full circle and we are stagnant at all levels of teaching. I am most concerned with our youth because they are just a great deal more savvy and street wise. They are bombarded with electronic media and you have to be on your toes to keep their attention.

    We could develop a “School of the Prophets” but it would require us to first get in touch with developing spiritual gifts that would give us greater insight. This is something else which has, in my opinion, waned since Kirtland and Nauvoo.

  5. Excellent post, BIV. I think the question is whether there is some consensus among the brethren about the dangers of religious education that goes too deep. Boyd K. Packer has articulated what kind of reasoning might go into the choice to correlate a high-lactose diet of religious ed.

    We encourage people to get all the education they can. We’re not afraid of it. […] But if you get hung up and involved and intellectually lose your way — and some do leave — they’re questioning everything. But their questions don’t have a productive insight. The mind is the source of inspiration, but if you get wandering too far the inspiration will stop.

    I does seem to say something that BYU does not have a degree in religious studies.

  6. BIV said: I contend that without a “School of the Prophets” to help train and develop our members, we will not have sons and daughters who prophesy, old men who dream dreams, or youth who see visions. (Joel 2:28)

    I think this is the wrong approach to accomplish the goal of having, “sons and daughters who prophesy, old men who dream dreams, or youth who see visions.”

    Gospel education as we have it today is fine. Yes, it could be improved, but the goal of Joel 2:28 won’t be realized in the class room.

    I know by own experience how the gifts of the Spirit are obtained. For nearly a year I have been in the bloggernacle testifying about my experiences. I’ve started a blog and included my testimony. I’ve tried to find others who enjoy the same gifts. For the most part I have been politely marginalized.

    So the question is: how do we as individuals, and as a people realize the promise of Joel 2:28?

    The Book of Mormon explains this over and over. Nephi didn’t attend school. He went to the Lord. Nephi’s brother, Jacob, he didn’t go to school, he went to the Lord. The same with Jacob’s son Enos. Did any of the prophets in the Book of Mormon go to school to obtain the gifts of the Spirit?

    Based on my experience, and from what I have learned from a few others, there needs to be some sort of crisis in our lives before we turn to the Lord with sufficient “faith” to access the Spirit and receive a remission of sins. When one has received a remission of their sins they are born again and become a son or daughter of Christ. This is where the scripture in Joel is fulfilled.

    This is all explained in 2 Nephi 31. Elder Packer gave a very revealing talk on this subject. It can be found in the Aug 2006 Ensign, page 46.

    When we’re baptized and confirmed we’re told to “receive the Holy Ghost”. A complete baptism has two parts: water and then fire and the Holy Ghost.

    For those reading my comment, how many have sought diligently for the baptism of the Spirit? I doubt one in 100,000 church members have. In my case I sought for forgiveness of my sins not entirely understanding the doctrine of Christ, but I still received it. Later on I learned the more about the doctrine.

    From my observation over the last 40 years I’ve learned that when a crisis comes into the life of church members they turn to their family, friends and church leaders for help. That’s fine. I did too, but it seems most fail to turn to the Lord with sufficient faith to realize the blessings that can be had.

    The Lord is no respecter of persons.

    We must ask the Lord with faith and diligence if we want to obtain. Joseph Smith said:

    The best way to obtain truth and wisdom is not to ask it from books, but to go to God in prayer, and obtain divine teaching. TPJS, p. 191.

  7. I, for one, am looking forward to next year, the first Doctrine and Covenants / Church History year since the publication of Rough Stone Rolling. “If I go there will be trouble…if I stay there will be double.”

  8. BIV,

    Did the school of the prophets reach down to the level of common members or was is geared more toward leaders? Were women invited? Do you have any idea about what the present day leaders of the Church (GAs) study? Do they study in a group? If so, do they keep it basic? I have a hard time seeing the apostles discuss gospel concepts at the level of the Sunday School manual but who knows. Do they allow themselves the latitude to study collectively at an appropriately advanced level?

  9. BiV, Sunday School (and priesthood) is moldy and stale. I would welcome some creative lesson manuals as you suggest, and 3 or 4 different Sunday School classes would be wonderful.

    There is possibly one problem, however. In my ward, we barely have enough classrooms as it is. Classes meet in the Bishop’s office, the Kitchen, and we just don’t have room for other classes. Our stake clerk noticed we have over 600 members (400 attended), and said the stake president won’t even think about splitting us until we reach 700. (40% of the ward is under 12.) The last time we split, we actually reached about 950.

  10. I suggest that most church manuals and lesson material is suited to the level of most members.

    Most members (whether they are new converts or Bishop material)are still working with a “first year” scriptural knowledge.

    As a Gospel Doctrine teacher and an Institute teacher, I RARELY have found anybody that has actually READ the entire Bible from cover to cover, never mind ALL of the Standard Works. Just getting through the Book of Mormon is a major accomplishment for most folks!

    People love to read books ABOUT the scriptures, but most simple can’t dedicate themselves to the effort it takes to read the scriptures themselves.

    As long as Church members don’t read the scriptures, lesson material almost of necessity has to be at a very basic level.

  11. True, but what should we have, a gifted class? A lot of things can be learned bit by bit with personal study, but I really do miss my institute classes where the teachers really knew their stuff and brought up new things that I wouldn’t have heard in any Sunday School at any age.

  12. You can have institute classes for adults. They are part of the program, and you can even have custom curriculum.

    But, what it requires for finding the Spirit is to seek Christ, to give service, with love and patience.

  13. I think that a lot of people want the Church to step in and do something that pretty much isn’t in the program and this is one of them. The church has a very focused mission nowadays, and back when the school of the prophets was in effect, that program hadn’t been clearly defined.

    If you want light and knowledge, you must seek after it yourself. You must get your own light and not stand and wait for the Church to do it. The temple is a house of revelation for certain mysteries. Those who aren’t taking advantage of the revelation they can get at the temple aren’t taking advantage of what is already offered.

  14. I believe I remember reading somewhere that gospel instruction during our Sunday meetings is meant to supplement rather than replace the gospel instruction at home. I would like to propose some additions to your list of opportunities for religious education that we find explicitly in the Church.

    1) Family Home Evening
    2) Personal Scripture Study
    3) Family Scripture Study
    4) Home and Visiting Teaching
    5) Presidency and Council Meetings (the Handbook of Instructions indicates these are teaching and training times as well as times to counsel with each other).
    6) World Wide Leadership Training Satellite Broadcasts
    7) General Conference
    8) Stake and Ward Training Meetings
    9) Temple Worship

    Add to this the ever increasing resources available on lds.org as official supplements to our gospel curriculum.

    That being said, I think we are seeing an evolution in Church curriculum materials beginning with Preach My Gospel and followed by the “Behold Your Little Ones” nursery manual that I feel both simplifies and enriches education in the Church at the same time.

  15. I agree. having a gifted class would be inappropriate. However, there are a few things I’ve noticed… It would seem that over the last few years the church has been making a big push to make us more and more mainstream.

    I’ve recently been doing a bit of personal study into the Journal of Discourses. Growing up in the South, I got hammered from time to time with quotes from the Journal of Discourses (taken grossly out of context, of course). So I decieded to do a little personal study of my own and via prayer, fasting, and reading, have learned quite alot and many of the quesions I’ve had have been answered.

    There are so many parts of our doctrine that are true, were openly known when the saints went west, but are not spoken of today. I have always wondered why. I’ve asked my “leaders” why that is, and have been met with the standard “have faith” answers. It is almost as if we have gone backwards in terms of spiritual knowlege.

    Also, what is being taught is from a different point of view that what was taught in the early days of the church. For example, a couple of Sundays ago, we were taught to follow the prophet without thought or question. Brigham young had issues with blind faith and people entrusting their salvation to another. Pretty much not knowing wheather or not they are being correctly led. Not a word was said about this. This didn’t make sense to me. One would think that having a testimonly of a prophet would simply reenforce following him.

    I’ve always wondered why.

  16. Jared, I agree with you and would suggest that both theological teaching and prophetic gifts are somewhat lacking in the Church as a whole. How shall we learn except we are taught?

    Ann, me too!

    Sanford, leaders, no, no, no idea, probably not, me either, I hope so.

    Mormon Heretic and Michelle, Sunday School hour would find me under a tree in the midst of a Utah winter if I could be in the gifted class.

    Mark Stilt, I suggest that most church manuals and lesson material are boring. And I disagree with your characterization of “most Church members.”

    Hakawati, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?

    Shadow, I feel your pain. Ours is not to wonder why, ours is just to do or die.

  17. Shadow (#15) who taught you to have faith without question? That’s hardly in the current curriculum as I know it!

    In fact, I just taught lesson #16 from the Joseph Smith manual, and while he emphasizes the importance of following the leadership of the prophet, he is ALSO fairly adamant about individual inspiration.

    Here’s how I’ve understood things for quite some time now: you get inspiration that person X is called to lead the church. Pray about it, get the confirmation. Okay. Great. Now you have that confirmation. I think the logical next step is to follow their counsel. Not blindly, because you need to know when they are speaking as a prophet. So you simply ask yourself–does this jive with what I know of the gospel? If it sounds just a bit off, then you pray about it again–and get confirmation one way or another. Mostof the time (generally speaking) you’ll find that its inspired–when they are speaking from the pulpit. Sometimes you’ll find it difficult to get an answer–and then you have to ask why. Is it because of their statement or your pride? Once you check on that and then pray again, you’ll almost always find that the answer comes easily.

    When they are NOT speaking from the pulpit, or have prefaced something as opinion rather than doctrine, then it gets trickier, and I’m not going say how that goes. Did Brigham Young (and others) say things that were later seen to be incorrect? Sure. Is this a crisis of faith? Not really.

    Should we follow the prophet? Yes. Blindly? No!

    Should we string up the people that teach that we should? YES! It does us no good to allow that sort of teaching in our meetings and classes.

    NOW! To the question at hand: we need more advanced teaching in the class, but it must remain true to the writings of the prophets and the scriptures. Fair game as text for the class is that which was written or said by any of the prophets. What is NOT permissible is the speculative nonsense that people like Cleon Skousen like to write. It is all well and good to imagine up a theology that precludes a physical body to sons of perdition (I have a paper he wrote where Skousen makes that claim), but when you start writing it and publishing it, then we have a problem.

    Would I allow things like Journal of Book of Mormon Studies? Perhaps. But I think that such a thing would be less appropriate for Sunday teaching and more appropriate for an institute course.

  18. So much depends on who is teaching and who is participating. I agree that most members are ready and hungry for the “meat”, and want to go away well fed. I stubbornly take this as a serious responsibility as a gospel teacher. Generally I come away pleased, but every once in awhile I come away having wanted more. I do agree that blogging has provided an outlet for more in depth thought-sharing and discussion. As my desire to go deeper into theology as grown, I’ve also thought about what a neat challenge it would be to go on and get a doctorate in Religious Studies somewhere; obviously not at a Church sponsored school.

  19. I attend a weekly Institute class and have for a couple years since my mission. We go fairly in-depth with the Scriptures and it definitely gives me a springboard to my own studies and personal revelation.

  20. Arthur, well said, and exactly what I was talking about.

    Bored you are spot on. Correlation was developed because there were so many wing nuts that were way off topic and it was out of control. My parents who lived in Manhattan in the 1950’s said there was a considerable amount of strange doctrine being taught at all levels.

    Isn’t that the truth. The same with the home study groups and the home prayer circles and their own leader who promised them all she was about to be transfigured. That left its mark — and would make a good post for someone who does more Church history.

    I think we can sometimes found groups, I know I did for a while, but keeping them together, sigh, that is harder.

  21. This bothers me more in relief society. WE have a very intellectual ward, since there are so many universities nearby. With the influx and outflux of students we lost all of our relief society teachers. We called new ones from the influx… and I feel like I am intellectually starving. THe classes are boring, based on repetition, there are frequent religious biases introduced into the lesson that have never been in our ward before, and the sisters teach us on such a basic level- I feel like I’m in primary. It’s as if their purpose is to stand in front of us, smile, write on the chalkboard, smile, give us candy, smile, walk around any difficult issue, and SMILE.

    It sounds snobby for me to insist there be some educational background for teaching in relief society… and I’ve heard the arguments that Relief society is supposed to be Spiritual, not intellectual. I’ve even heard one sister complain about another sister as being “too intellectual”… is there not room in the church for an intellectual/spiritual understanding in relief society?

    It doesn’t have to be a formal education- i just want to know that the teacher put some thought into the lesson besides what centerpiece to bring. One of the things that has bothered me the most about these lessons is the intolerance of other religions- for example- a recent lesson on an important gospel principle revolved solely on why our church was better than any other church because we are the only ones with this principle. Does that give me a testimony of this principle? Does that give the investigator a testimony of that principle? If there is no intellectual side of the lesson, it is easy to fall into nonintellectual discussion that has no benefit for us.

  22. No teacher can be all things to all people. Two people sitting side by side could totally disagree about the quality of the teaching. This is a tough nut to crack, but probably the best things would be:
    1 – upgraded manuals with more thought-provoking discussion questions (not just the “rote answer” type questions)
    2 – better teacher training, not just the basics that are currently done, but actually “how to facilitate an engaging gospel discussion” and “how to handle tough questions” that come up when you have a deeper discussion.
    3 – more focus on the spiritual experience of teaching & being taught, not just on material

    As for a “gifted” class, the focus seems to be on “no child left behind” instead.

  23. I said “I think we can sometimes found groups” I meant to say I found a group, which would have been “we can sometimes find groups” and do, from times to time, of people who are interested in more. The problem is not the opportunity, it is enough people taking advantage of it.

    hawkgrrrl makes excellent comments.

  24. BIV said: I contend that without a “School of the Prophets” to help train and develop our members, we will not have sons and daughters who prophesy, old men who dream dreams, or youth who see visions.

    I have prophesied, dreamed dreams and seen visions. In fact, just a few days ago the spirit of prophecy came upon me and prophecy came forth. Yet, I’ve never attended a school of the prophets. So, although a school of the prophets would be nice, it is not necessary for members to prophesy, dream dreams and see visions. For that, all we need to do is receive the Holy Ghost, which is the spirit of prophecy and revelation.

    Although I agree that more stimulating religion classes would be great, unless the people are sanctifying themselves by receiving the Spirit, they would do little to further the work of the Lord, just as the current classes do little to further that work. We don’t need better instructors, we already have the best Instructor of all who will show us all things that we should do and reveal the truth of all things to us, etc., but the fact that virtually none of us are prophesying, dreaming dreams and seeing visions indicates that we are skipping this particular Instructor’s class and spending our time in classes of men.

  25. “the fact that virtually none of us are prophesying, dreaming dreams and seeing visions”

    I simply will submit that this statement is not accurate.

  26. There is another issue – the Church is growing so fast we barely have the resources to tach the basic principles much less the doctrine. I grew up in a home where my Father read all the ‘classic’ Mormon books and I read them too. I mean Talmage, Smith (JS, JFS, and Jr) Richards, Pratt, etc. Most memebrs have no clue who these Elders were. I joined FARMS (now renamed) many years ago and most of the time I am truely bored in Sunday School and Preisthood. But I keep reminding myself that most members are new and learning – milk and bread not meat. I study alot and have learned that I know nothing. The more I learn the more I find I do not know.

    The School of the Prophets was that – and look how many came out of it.

    I have taught and I have found that the Spirit is strong. I know when to keep my mouth shut and when to speak. People do dream, and have visions, etc. but it is not broadcast, its private, sacred, and no pearls before swine.

    Remember that callings, like teachers, are not always to teach us they may be called for thier own growth.

    Never fall into the trap that I know it all or they are too new to teach me. I listen with very intent ears in Sacrament. I listen for the new thoughts and ideas, I listen to the Spirit.

    I have begun trying to find all the old Sunday School and Priesthood manuals; the ones written by folks like Nibley. They are heavy reading. But people today are still struggling with basic fundementals. We need inspired members to help members.

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