Why I Like the Correlation Committee

RussellMormon 29 Comments

I am going to state what is bound to be a wildly unpopular opinion: I really like the Correlation Committee. 

For example, if one is to believe in prophecy, then what is one to make of the vast numbers of prophets that existed at the time of, say, Lehi?  Prophethood was hardly monolithic–there were other prophets of the Old Testament wandering the valleys preaching the word.  But which word was binding?  The one in your vicinity?  What if you liked Jeremiah imagery more than Habbakuk’s?  Furthermore, which metaphor was more revelatory?  As long as we say that they’re all prophets (and equal ones…the minor/major distinction is an artificial one imposed by scholars), then we must reckon with whose word was “the” word.

Then, with more recent LDS history, we have the vexing questions surrounding *insert ominous voice* The Journal of Discourses.  When they say “In the Name of the Lord,” or “If the Lord’s Prophet hasn’t spoken it before, I’ll speak it now,” and so forth, how literally must we take such statements?  Did God view their words in the same we he views the words of the Conference Report?  How could he, given that the J of D only reached a limited circulation?  The conference report similarly not distributed widely on anything like the scale of our publications now.  Given such limited distribution, can we really view it as representative of doctrine?  As a former researcher at the BYU library whose duty was to formulate short abstracts of numerous pioneer diaries, I can say that one thing notably absent from these journal were the high-flung speculations that make up the meat of anti-Mormon pamphlets.  I saw one reference to Adam-God, but that was in the Abraham Smoot journal (a fascinating read, incidentally), an apostle who was privy to all manner of meandering doctrinal discussions, discussions that at most seeped into an occasional sermon. Even Brigham Young would later soften the edge on his Adam-God speculations by saying he didn’t “care a thing about it.” Furthermore, these issues (Adam-God, the conception of Jesus, etc.) never made it into the temple recommend interview.  Indeed, such speculations never made it into the endowment ceremony for any lasting period of time.  Brigham Young began to do so in 1877 but soon passed away in time for John Taylor to refine the endowment more in accordance with our modern understanding of the creation.  Whatever the Mormon leadership was saying, Mormon society stayed rather isolated from it.  To resort to anecdotal evidence, I might point to my mother who has literally not spent more than a few total months outside of the Mormon corridor.  Yet she balks at even the slightest hint of these distinctively Mormon speculations.

Is it possible that our concept of prophecy now might just be more refined and more in-tune with the will of heaven than the concept of prophecy in early church?  It’s a tad Whiggish as far as history goes–and that’ far from popular these days amongst historians.  Yet I have found that history is far too important to be entrusted to historians 😉

Given how much individuals “prophesied” about various things, I tend to think that we simply cannot impose the traditional “foretelling” model on it.  Perhaps it was free-wheeling exhortation through which they anticipated they would eventually come to the truth, Prophecy, it seems, was more of a process than a product. While the free-wheeler in me likes the idea, the adherent in me is grateful for the bureaucracy of translation committees, general conferences, and publications, also known as Correlation. And thank heavens for that…at least when we have a class, we can ask the instructor ‘where we are in the lesson,” rather than just sit back and wait for our nauseating roller-coaster ride towards Kolob to end.

Comments 29

  1. Juicy! I love a good contrarian point of view. You made some very good points. I know many of us get all tied up in knots thinking about correlation. It is stifling at times, but you are right. There really is a need for a guidepost — a border to stray from.

    The first step many of us go through is realizing how less-than-concrete and perfect, in the absolute sense of “truth,” our highest leaders’ opinions were. The next step is to realize how a correlation committee is equally lacking. It is really up to us individually to seek out wisdom and valuable spiritual enlightenment. As an institution though, there probably is a need for some form of drawing boundaries. It would be nice if members and leaders were more comfortable about wandering around exploring this amazing world (stepping near or past the comfort zones). It seems like they were much more comfortable about it all in the early days of the Church. They were more prone to say things, but far less attached to what they said. It seems like that allows for a lot more diversity.

    “As a former researcher at the BYU library whose duty was to formulate short abstracts of numerous pioneer diaries, I can say that one thing notably absent from these journal were the high-flung speculations that make up the meat of anti-Mormon pamphlets.”

    Thanks for that reminder!

  2. Russell,

    Nice approach to the topic.

    Two main problems I see with the Correlation Committee, despite it’s very existence (cough), is that

    (1) membership on it is a calling, anonymous and unsustained by the body of the church. They are as faceless and unaccountable as the articles they homogenize.

    (2) the members have apparently little secular qualifications to decide what is and what is not doctrinal. While some members may be BYU professors, as I have heard, they may not all be competent in matters of church history or theology. I have also spoken with church employees whose work is edited by the committee who remarked that the changes they “suggest” are often trivial, having to do with photographs used or bad words like”diversity” and “nuance”.

  3. I actually agree that the correlation committee serves a valuable function and I am glad the FP and 12 have been careful, individually, not to take “pre-emptive” stands on issues like some of their predecessors did. Once a high Church authority stakes out a position, even if it was not agreed upon with others, in a book about, say, what is and is not Mormon doctrine or a book about the repentance process, it is difficult for those of the Brethren who disagree to do so publicly. The outlier position thus becomes implicitly quasi-official doctrine (at least there is usually no public disavowal of it). The care the Brethren follow in avoiding this is much appreciated, and the care the correlation committee uses in being sure that was is reprinted of earlier statements represent consensus and inspired teaching is also welcome.

    I also think the anonymity and the rank and file nature of the lower level correlation committees also serves a sort of valuable “democratization” function (like a jury of peers in the legal system), so that there is some connection between what is official and what people “on the ground” think. My sense, though, is that most of those committee members are from the Wasatch front, and I think it might be helpful if there were a wider variety of individuals and of different backgrounds and origins and countries on those committees (if the Church is not already moving in that direction).

  4. Excellent post, Russell. I don’t have anything of substance to add, particularly given the good comments, but I will add that I also am grateful for correlation. I’d rather discuss general concepts deeply and learn from varying perceptions than to have a church class dedicated to speculation – the roller coaster ride to Kolob. I really like that description.

  5. Ok, time for a contrarian point of view. While I understand, and somewhat agree, that correlation can be a good thing, certainly I am not the only one who believes the current correlated manuals are quite boring. It seems to me the church loves the boring stuff because it is not controversial. It is not spiritually or intellectually stimulating either.

  6. #5 while I respect and see where you’re coming from, I tend to think that the manuals are a starting place, and if the lessons are boring, it is usually the fault of both the teacher and the students. Any simple gospel principle can be expounded upon in myriad ways, and the discussion among willing students vital and interesting. However, if the participants choose not to engage, then it is not necessarily the fault of those involved in correlation. The manuals are a starting point, and by necessity, they are highly generalized and simple for all to understand.

  7. “It is not spiritually or intellectually stimulating either.”

    It can be if taught well with lots of input from people with slightly different perspectives. I’m fortunate to live in a ward where that happens regularly.

    The strength AND the weakness of the Church is in its local congregations.

  8. The dear Methodist lady who is often acknowledged as the authority on Mormons has said very positive things about correlation and how it kept the LDS faith one faith instead of a fragmented mess.

    Ever since I started reading The Journal of Discourses and realized it had jury arguments, non-LDS judge’s instructions to the juries and other things, I’ve had a different view of it.

    I’m also impressed by how Brigham Young responded when questioned about something he was preaching how it was purely the result of his reckoning or logic, not inspiration. Everyone knows how I feel about logic and extrapolations …

  9. I tend to agree that the current lesson manuals are not terribly stimulating, on thier own. Like Jana, I think they are a starting point. I use them for the scriptural material (of course) and to see what topics I might want to cover. Often, there is a quote or two from a Church leader that is interesting. Like Ray, I think it is the class discussion that makes or breaks the lesson. For that reason, I tend to ignore the discussion questions in the manual, and spend a lot of time thinking about questions that will spawn a discssion that interests me. Selfish, huh?

  10. Re 5,

    i was going to say something like Jana said in 6 (and in fact, I think The Teacher is following me [or in fact, I’m following The Teacher, since now I’m posting after…])…I was reading another article that I think had some good ideas on how members could teach in a more engaging way — it’s not necessarily the material. Beyond the Sunday School Answers

  11. OK, time to dig out not one but two Saintspeak definitions:

    correlate – To censor. “I thought when I wrote it that my poem was inspired; now that it’s been correlated, it has achieved something finer: it’s inoffensive.

    Journal of Discourses — A mammoth collection of speeches by General Authorities in the nineteenth century, containing many doctrines that were never taught by the Church. As a safety measure, it was once suppressed by the Church, for several once-bright people had gone mad trying to make all the old-time apostles’ statements fit within the same gospel. Today, however, there is no fear of ill effects from publishing the Journal of Discourses, for only Fundamentalists, anti-Mormons, and historians ever read it.

    — Orson Scott Card, Saintspeak: A Mormon Dictionary (Orion Books, 1981)

    Heh. ..bruce..

  12. Jana and Ray,

    How do you handle the people in class who answer every question, monopolize the lesson, or go off on weird tangents, especially when you’re a class member and not the teacher? Maybe you’re lucky enough to be in a good ward, but what do you do when you’re in a bad ward?

    Having said that, I have been helping my wife prepare for some of her RS lessons. I have found some lessons quite interesting–especially the one dealing with the original meeting of the church on April 6, 1830. I will say that the lesson contained information I did not know before, which was a welcome relief. (My wife hated it, because it focused on facts an figures. I liked it, she didn’t, but I did help her come up with some fresh ideas, and even agreed with some of the questions in the manual.)

    On the other hand, the lesson on parables (in the exact same manual) was no different than any of the ones I’ve heard before. I didn’t have any suggestions to “spice it up”, and just said, “I’m sorry, that’s a tough one.” Several of her class members commented how tough that material was to present in a new, enlightening way. The manual was not very helpful. It has been my experience that most lessons fit into this second category more often that the first category.

  13. “How do you handle the people in class who answer every question, monopolize the lesson, or go off on weird tangents, especially when you’re a class member and not the teacher?”

    I’ve never been shy. 🙂 I talk with the teacher, the SS Pres. and/or the bishopric member in charge of SS and express my concern. Unfortunately, my calling helps, but it shouldn’t.

    I did the same thing in the ward I visit regularly as part of my calling. A teacher runs very late continually, so I talked with the bishopric member over that auxiliary and suggested he have the SS Pres. talk with the teacher.

    The key is that I’m never confrontational or emotional or demanding. I recognize that they have to deal with enough crap, so I respect their challenges and simply make suggestions. Whether or not they are able to correct the problem isn’t going to change my overall testimony of the Gospel or lower my respect for them, and they appreciate that recognition.

  14. Ray,

    Let me tell you how it feels to be on the other end of your advice.

    As gospel doctrine teacher, a few years ago I was tasked with teaching Isaiah, which is one of my least favorite tasks. “Study diligently the words of Isaiah”, as we’re told by Nephi (3 Ne. 23:1-3). Frankly, a teacher can point to a scripture in Isaiah, ask a class member to read it, then ask them to explain it, and usually you’ll get a “deer in the headlights” look. Isaiah is not at all easy to understand. I was determined to teach/learn something from Isaiah.

    In consulting various books on Isaiah, I came across some material where Joseph Smith related that he had been studying a German Bible, as well as some other bibles to gain a better understanding of certain scriptures. So, I referred to the NIV and NLT bibles in my lesson. Apparently, it offended someone(s) in the class, who told the bishop that I was not teaching the correlated lesson. Never mind the fact that the KJV Isaiah is terrible to read. Never mind the fact that Joseph Smith read other bibles. Never mind the fact that some people actually might have learned something about Isaiah that day in class.

    I was called into the bishop’s office and told to only use the KJV Bible. Yes, the bishop understood what I was trying to do, but somebody complained, and the bishop just doesn’t want to deal with controversy. I felt that the member was incredibly petty, and frankly pharisaical. This is where correlation chokes the spirit of the law, and I can’t tell you how distasteful that experience was to me. I was released soon after, and it still bothers me that members such as yourself can be so petty, and fail to grasp the bigger picture of actually being able to read AND UNDERSTAND Isaiah.

    So, while you may think you were “never confrontational or emotional or demanding”, I can tell you that it really hurt me as being incredibly petty. I’m sure the bishop didn’t go back to the member and tell him/her how upset I was, and the member I’m sure felt justified in complaining to the bishop. So I don’t think your situation is all roses as you make it out to be.

  15. MH, that’s painful, but there is a difference between correlation and stupidity. The person who complained in your example was ignorant, at best – and very possibly other things I won’t list.

    My advice was about class members who monopolize and constantly go off tangent, not teachers who supplement the material with excellent resources. I have no problem at all with that. However, the voice of authority too often is the only option for class members who are blowhards and/or don’t understand the Gospel.

    Oh, and your bishop was wrong in that case, imo. Fwiw, I’m glad I wasn’t you in that scenario. I would have gone along with it, but I would not have been happy.

  16. I know it is self-serving to say I agree with you Ray, but I’m going to say it anyway. 🙂

    However, I do want to point out that as tactfully as we all think we are, it is still tough for members of the bishopric to admonish the monopolizers, people who go on a tangent, etc. It really puts the bishop in a difficult position, just as it would be for us to directly approach these people and ask them to quit taking the class on tangents, or whatever the problem is.

    I can remember a convert who used to get up every testimony meeting and say the same testimony every month. “I waz on drugs, and al-kee-hall, and the missionaries come to my door, and I let ’em in.” In her mind this was a wonderful conversion story and she wanted to share it. But after I and the other ward members had heard it over-and-over, it was a real “vain repetition.” Since she happened to be a ward missionary, I took it upon myself as a full-time missionary to tell her that she should mix it up a little, and not say the same thing over and over, and to remember that the ward members had heard it literally for years.

    It didn’t go so well. The next month, she got up and railed against the people who took exception to her testimony. So much for trying–and I thought I was being really tactful…. I can still remember the ward members who came up to me after the meeting asking who had said something to her…. Many thanked me for trying, but she still got up every month.

  17. That *is* unfortunate, Mormon Heretic. I have served as Gospel Doctrine instructor at a BYU ward…and boy, if simply referencing the NIV bible was a sin, I was a raging apostate. I was using Chesterton quotes, Saturday Evening post quotes. While they did give me some general guidance to think more about “feeding the sheep” than gorging than the sheep, I was given a fair amount of leeway given. I once even told the bishop that I would rein in my sources more, and he cautioned me not to go overboard in my self-censoring, saying: “well, we’re not saying that you shouldn’t bring your own insights to the table.” I did make a genuine effort to stay to the *topic* of the lesson, so that may have helped. THink of how many “uncorrelated” stories we share about ourselves? Technically, our life stories have not been examined by the brethren–why are we exposing each other to them?

    I have since learned that following the ebb and flow of the lesson manual won’t keep you from having a good lesson, provided that the “uncorrelated” information is given as asides rather than as talking points.

  18. I favor a more bottom-up view of revelation and correlation. As far as the lessons go, as a Gospel Doctrine teacher who just finished a year of the Book of Mormon, I definitely discovered over that year that the Gospel Doctrine manual seems to just be a framework, and for good reason. I found that when I taught the stories of the Book of Mormon, the class did an excellent job of finding the “moral of the story” themselves. Often each class member found a different moral that applied to them. The Scriptures are powerful enough without having to add that much more to them. When I taught the story of, for instance, Ammon, it encouraged the class to understand the STORY more, and therefore they got their OWN revelation as far as the meaning. All I taught was the Scriptures. The lesson manual got things going, and then it’s just job to allow the class to come to their own conclusions.

    Which I think is the purpose of correlation. After our conversation, Russ, I started to think… perhaps all the fire and prophecy of the early church STILL DOES exist today, but it’s within the hearts of each individual member. The General Authorities have toned down the speculation so they can just teach pure, simple doctrines… then it’s up to US to add fire to it. It’s way easier than it sounds. And then when false/folk doctrines get carried away, we can blame members and not General Authorities. It’s all about blame, Russ. It’s all about blame.

    But seriously, it’s like, in the 1800s, the GAs would take seeds, try to germinate them, try to experiment with their growth, feeding them different nutrients, and then hand them to us just before they bear fruit so we can enjoy the fruit. Now they’re just giving us the seeds. Isn’t that more fun anyway?

  19. I like that someone is attempting to separate the wheat from the chaff. I just wish the final product would be something we could all use without causing everyone to fall asleep (e.g., the Gospel Doctrine manuals).

  20. What I find interesting from the responses is that even people who like correlation, emphasize that the manual is a starting point, and that it is ok to bring in outside material to enhance. The problem arises when defining what it appropriate supplementation. Some people think NIV bible is ok, some do not.

    Apparently wards in BYU are more liberal than my ward, which is quite comfortable quoting the manual exactly, word for word, and putting people to sleep in the process. I agree with Andrew–I think the manuals could be much better than they are, and I don’t believe that a(n) NIV bible in Gospel Doctrine class should cause someone to be called into the bishop’s office for teaching uncorrelated materials.

  21. The NIV is in fact considered far more correctly translated by Biblical scolars than the KJV. The problem is that members know the KJV, own the KJV, and it’s the one that has footnotes and our Bible Dictionary as well as the JST. BYU classes, BTW, supplement with various versions such as the NIV.

    The NIV was created by 100 scholars with the mandate to accurately and faithfully translate the original Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic biblical texts into clearly understandable English. It’s really a courtesy to use the KJV because of the church’s investment in it, but supplementing with the NIV is frankly above reproach. The problem, as Ray pointed out, is that some people are dumbasses. (I’m paraphrasing).

    But I’m for correlation if it takes out speculation like Adam-God, blood sacrifice, most of the polygamy discussion, and other things with zero bearing on my life today. I’m against censorship of individuals whether teachers or students for asking well-intentioned questions, raising valid points, or sharing alternate viewpoints. I don’t envy those who have to rein people in, especially since the requests may be valid or may be made by nervous Nellies or people who simply don’t know what they are talking about.

    And Heretic, I hear ya, having been in your shoes (although not over the NIV). But we have to allow for others’ (misguided) perspectives and turn the other cheek, even when those perspectives put us in the line of fire. Besides, you can say whatever you want when you are a class member. Only the teachers get taken to task, IME.

  22. Hawkgrrl,

    Since I got released, I wish I could read bloggernacle posts instead of Sunday School. I wasn’t kidding when I said my replacement reads the lesson straight from the manual. I just posted a message on my blog about online Sunday School. I’ve enjoyed your posts on virtual RS/Priesthood lessons–they’re 1000 times better than anything in my ward. My new job as membership clerk allows me to do some important filing, and updating fast offering routes during sunday school (and often priesthood).

    Anyway, I’m helping out a friend at http:\\ldssundayschool.org, so if anyone wants to contribute, I know he’d appreciate it. Uncorrelated materials are welcome!

  23. MH – flatterer! Thanks, though. I have however been released from teaching RS. Back to cub scouting! So, I don’t think I’ll be doing any more virtual RS/PH for a while. If I get inspired, maybe I’ll shoot a note for use in ldssundayschool.org. Good site, BTW.

  24. BFwebester,

    “Today, however, there is no fear of ill effects from publishing the Journal of Discourses, for only Fundamentalists, anti-Mormons, and historians ever read it.”

    why wouldn’t active LDS members read from this collection of works? What ill effects might there be from reading from them?

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