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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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)