We have looked at how people can use Mormon jargon confidently without having a firm grasp on what Mormonism teaches or of the Christianity they too readily reject. We have studied The Missionary’s Purpose and The Role of the Book of Mormon.
Preach my Gospel
An October 2004 satellite broadcast introduced the Mormon Church worldwide to the revised missionary lessons Preach my Gospel. It is part of the most ambitious plan to date to simplify, standardise and centralise the way that Mormonism is both taught inside the church and presented to the world. Such efforts at correlation began in 1961 with the creation of the Correlation Committee under the presidency of Harold B Lee and have continued through the Correlation Department set up in 1987 to approve all church publications and programmes.
As part of this new programme Preach my Gospel is not confined to use by missionaries. Members and leaders are encouraged to use it where appropriate in the home, leadership meetings etc. along with the new church training manuals for Sunday school, priesthood quorums, Relief Society and so forth. This correlation of church teaching materials is said to be an attempt to police and promote orthodoxy using strategies drawn from the world of business.
Anyone who has discoursed with Mormons in recent years might feel grateful for such efforts since, in the experience of many, it seems harder than ever to get a clear picture from the ordinary Mormon “in the pew” of what Mormons are supposed to believe. Conversely, it is not encouraging to witness the strengthening of the controlling hand of Salt Lake City on the lives and thoughts of ordinary members.
The missionary “discussions” have been integral to Mormon outreach for so long it is hard to imagine that it might have been any different. However, Mormon missionary work has developed and changed markedly over the short life of the Mormon Church and it would be well to be aware of those developments and changes.
A Potted History of Mormon Mission
The first Mormon converts were simply people who had converted to Mormonism through personal contact with the key players most closely involved in founding the Mormon Church. They went on to talk to their families and friends about their new-found faith and so on. In those days the Book of Mormon wasn’t given away as readily as it is today. Early missionaries made circuit tours to preach the Mormon message and sell the Book of Mormon, although they did give away copies too. Their message was the story of Joseph Smith, the first vision, the visit of angels and the gold plates.
By the turn of the 20th century church leaders decided that missionaries needed to be better prepared for service. Training courses were established where prospective missionaries were taught theology, religious history and teaching methods over a period of six months. In 1925 a missionary training centre was established in Salt Lake City where missionaries received intensive instruction, over two weeks, in manners, punctuality, missionary methods and Mormon gospel principles. Their message also was the story of Joseph Smith, the first vision, the visit of angels and the gold plates.
At this time there was no church-wide system of missionary lessons and individual mission presidents made their own arrangements. It was around 1925 that elder Gustive O Larson produced a series of illustrated lectures which he used with his mission president’s approval. The lectures had three themes: ancient American civilisation (you won’t see that today), Mormon history and temples and temple work. Meanwhile the president of the Eastern States Mission, B H Roberts, trained his missionaries to organise their message sequentially concentrating on the Book of Mormon.
In 1937 the president of the Southern States Mission, LeGrand Richards, produced The Message of Mormonism, twenty- four weekly presentations of Mormon topics. This eventually was published as A Marvellous Work and a Wonder and became very popular for the basis of subsequent mission plans as well as with Mormons in general. It is still a good primer for anyone trying to organise their thinking about Mormonism. The Message of Mormonism covered apostasy, the story of Joseph Smith, the first vision, the Book of Mormon and its evidences etc; very much the classic Mormon message.
In the late 1940’s something called the Anderson Plan was introduced by missionary Richard L Anderson. It is said that eleven thousand copies of the plan were sold to missionaries around the world. LeGrand Richards expected investigators to receive weekly discussions for at least six months and, where Richards’ plan covered twenty-four weekly lessons the Anderson Plan contained twenty-eight lesson topics.
The first official missionary lessons coming from the Mormon Church appeared in 1952. A Systematic Programme for Teaching the Gospel was created under the direction of Gordon B Hinckley and, although it was published by the church it was still optional. It had only seven lessons and that is a dramatic reduction. I am reminded of the words of the Mock Turtle who explained to Alice, “They are called lessons because they lessen and lessen.” They took the form of dialogues between missionaries and a hypothetical investigator named Mr Brady and concentrated on logic and proof texts.
In 1961 Gordon B Hinckley, assistant to the Twelve introduced A Uniform System for Teaching Investigators in the first world-wide seminar for mission presidents. These were the first for mandatory use across the church and the first to be called “discussions”, a misnomer by any intelligent assessment. These were six lessons written in the form of dialogue with the Mr Brown who will be so familiar to a certain generation of Mormons. The cutting edge technology of flannel board images was introduced and ‘Mr Brown’ was led to a place of agreement via a series of questions and answers. It was about this time that church president David O McKay urged members with the slogan “Every Member a Missionary” to actively fellowship potential converts.
These were superseded in 1973 by The Uniform System for Teaching Families, a series of seven discussions accompanied by teaching aids such as suggested Scriptures and ideas for teaching. Flannel boards were replaced with flip charts. These discussions went through revisions to one degree or another in 1978, 1981 and 1982, were simplified and rearranged. 1986 saw the “improved discussions” introduced, twelve lessons, six taught before baptism and six after that more or less went over the same material.
Where did Joe go?
The 1986 discussions rearranged significantly the order and emphasis of the topics. Whereas previous lessons plans had presented the Book of Mormon and the first vision as witness of the Restoration, these introduced them as an additional modern witness of Jesus Christ. Whereas, before, the Restoration was the motive for “joining the church” now it was the desire to follow Jesus. The significance of this change has long been understood by ministries attempting to witness to and about Mormons. It has allowed Mormons to insists “we are Christians too!” while their church is still founded on the story of Joseph Smith and the traditional Mormon story.
This change, it is thought, was prompted by a growing Mormon/Evangelical dialogue which, inevitably, concentrated on salvation by grace and a Christ-centred message that challenged the traditional Joseph-centred story of Restoration. Differences between Mormonism and other churches and the story of apostasy were played down and similarities with the rest of Christendom emphasised. Missionaries were encouraged to find similarities with the beliefs of their contacts. Many will be familiar with the ploy of quoting the Trinity-sounding first Article of Faith to emphasise that Mormons believe in the same God. The church’s claim to exclusive authority and revelation were deemphasised although never lost altogether. The church that always insisted that it was neither Catholic nor Protestant now insisted it was “another Christian denomination.”
I became a Mormon in 1972 when Bruce R McConkie was not yet persona non grata, the apostle Mormons love to hate, when books like A Marvellous Work and a Wonder were still common faire for Mormons trying to understand and share their faith and when the distinctions of Mormonism were very much emphasised; we took pride in our uniqueness. How things have changed. Now I don’t recognise the world of the Mormons with whom I dialogue and find myself explaining what Mormonism is “really about” before refuting it to a Mormon who has little or no idea what I mean. But help is at hand.
The new lessons (they have gone back to being lessons) have reverted to the pre-1986 themes and format and, once again, emphasise Joseph Smith, apostasy and Restoration and the Book of Mormon. That said, they present apostasy against a background of a series of apostasies and restorations, thus playing down the particular apostasy of Christendom, and present Restoration as part of an historical pattern, which it is not. They also continue to press the Book of Mormon as “Another Testament of Jesus Christ” while re-establishing it as witness of the Restoration. Well, that change worked so well they are hardly going to put it back in its box now are they?
To get a flavour of what that pre-1986 world was like here is a quote from The Mormon Story, an admittedly unofficial book written by Rulon S Howells and published by Bookcraft in 1957. Under the title Mormon are Missionary-Minded he writes:
“Mormons...take their religion seriously. They try to practice its principles in their daily lives. One of their endeavours individually and collectively has been and is to share the ‘Restored’ Gospel of Jesus Christ with all people....A Mormon believes it to be his or her responsibility to spread the new concept of life as it has been revealed from Heaven to Joseph Smith and his successors.
This new concept of life, they believe, will, if followed, bring peace, satisfaction and happiness to mankind. Mormonism has what it believes to be the answers to man’s origin, man’s purpose here on earth and man’s destiny in a continued existence as an individual identity after this life.
It is a philosophy that gives the Mormon a purposeful life. Birth into this life is a glorious opportunity. Death loses its horror, and the family is eternal.”
The next time a Mormon tries to say that, of course, they are Christians and believe more or less the same as you remember that, prior to 1986, Mormonism was a philosophy, a concept of life, that Joseph Smith brought a way of living and a hope based on concepts and ideals, lifestyle, purpose and opportunity - gnosis. This is not the Christianity of Jesus, Paul, Peter, of the Bible which teaches not a philosophy but a Saviour, not a lifestyle but a life-giver, not hope in action but hope in Christ, not a sense of purpose but a sense of sin and repentance, not opportunity but rescue and redemption. After all, isn’t that why we witness to Mormons, why we obey Christ’s injunction to “Preach my Gospel?”