Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Who or What Are We Teaching?

Who or What Are We Teaching?

By: Ardis E. Parshall - August 20, 2008

I’ve been reading old church lesson manuals, partly because the slightly quaint flavor of the writing shows the topics in a new light, and partly in search of that mythic golden age of manuals written by the likes of B.H. Roberts and James Talmage, when the lessons were always challenging and meaty, with nary a rote question in sight, when all the teachers were well above average … you know, the time when Sunday School hours were not the tedious wastelands they are today, useful only for getting in a practice nap before the hardcore sleeping to be done during the Stake High Guy’s talk in Sacrament Meeting.

I haven’t found that golden age yet. What I have found, though, is a difference in the lengths the Sunday School used to go to in teaching the teachers to teach. At least, it seems different in my experience.

Take this lesson, for example, to be given to the 15/16-year-olds in Sunday School on April 22, 1934.

Lesson 13. The Shepherd who Became King.

The assigned text was I Samuel 16:1-13, the story of Samuel’s visit to Jesse’s household, where the prophet passes by seven seemingly suitable candidates, to anoint the youngest son, the shepherd David, as Israel’s future king.

On one level, the lesson intends the teens to become familiar with the facts of the scriptural story. The teacher tells the story, and there are the familiar catechism-like questions: “Where is Bethlehem? Why was Samuel sent there? Tell about Samuel’s visit to the house of Jesse.”

On a second level, the lesson applies the scriptural story to a real-life problem from the students’ world, albeit one that students can do nothing about until they are at least five years older.

The great thing for us to remember in this lesson is God’s requirements of leadership. His judgment is very different than ours. Even Samuel supposed that Eliab was the man for him to anoint. He made the great mistake of saying: “Surely the Lord’s anointed is before me.” Most of us make that same mistake. People nominate and vote for men at every election who are unfit to hold the office they receive. They are elected because of their outward appearance and false promises. No attention is paid their spiritual ideals. They are elected without the voters examining or paying any attention to their real characters. David was chosen to be king of Israel because God looked at his heart.

If ever there was a time in our country when this example should be followed it is today. Men should be chosen for office whose hearts are right. And above all, religious leaders should be of that type. Many of our leaders have no interest in the people. They make pretenses of loyalty and patriotism when they have only their own selfish interests at heart. Selfishness is our besetting sin. Men are elected to office who have no interest in the people’s welfare. The students in our Old Testament classes will soon be our Samuels, to choose the future leaders of our country. Before them will pass [the] Eliabs, the Abinadabs, the Shammaths and others like them, and these are likely to be chosen rulers, while the Davids are attending their fathers’ flocks. When this happens our students should remember Samuel’s words: “Are these all?” Always there can be found those who are fit to rule. It is for us to say: “We will not sit down till they come hither.”

On a third level, this lesson primes teachers, rather than students, to see the students in a new way. Look at the additional material published in the Instructor (the Sunday School teachers’ magazine) a few weeks before this lesson was to be taught:

As you conduct your lesson today, take a good look at every student in the class. Size up each member one by one. Consider the ability and faults of each. You know them all, the good and the bad, the enthusiastic and the indifferent, the attractive and those who have nothing about them that appeals to you. Consider the homes they come from, their parents, and the amount of money each one has to spend. Note that some few of them are “A” students and there may be some that always get a low mark. Some of them are always present, others are very irregular in their attendance.

After you have checked up on all of them, and rated their possibilities of success in life, then look ahead thirty years and predict where each of them will stand at that time. Pick out if you can the student who is to stand at the top, the one who has achieved the greatest distinction. Select also the one who will stand at the bottom, the one who has made a failure in life. Single out the one who has become a leader in the Church, and holds a position of honor among the Saints. Who is it that has filled the most successful mission and made the greatest number of converts? Who has made the most money and lives in the best house? And who has the greatest number of friends?

There isn’t a single student in the class whose position can be selected thirty years from now. Every teacher will admit the helplessness of attempting such a task. But this much can be said with considerable certainty, that it will depend largely upon their own aims and ideals, rather than upon their ability. “A” students may fail while “C” and even “D” students in many of their subjects may reach the top. What are they thinking about when they are alone? What are their hopes and aspirations, their dreams and their longings? Who are their friends, and what do they do when they have nothing to do? What is the nature of their prayers and the books they read? These are the elements that will shape their future. It is the background that they are constructing today that will measure the heights they reach. It is that which will determine whether they will become men “after God’s own heart,” or men whom he cannot use.

David was not selected for his high position by chance. He was chosen because of his background. God knew what he would do because of what he had already done. As he was guarding his flocks by night, and caring for them by day, he was also searching out the secrets of heaven. Alone under the stars he discovered that “The Lord was his shepherd, he leadeth him beside the still waters, he restoreth his soul.” Eliab, fine as he was in appearance, had never discovered that great truth. He could not say as David did: “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.” (Psalms 42:1) It was that searching for God that led him to the throne.

Joseph Smith did not discover God in his glorious vision because of his simple prayer. He had been reading the scripture and inquiring about the true religion long before that. His heart was searching for God, for weeks and months before he found him, or he would never have been selected as God’s prophet to establish his church. Such a selection is not made before a person has a rich background of spiritual life. The case of Joseph Smith is so wonderful because of his youth at the time he was called. Imagine a boy of his age, a sincere student of the Bible, and a companion of the learned preachers of his day. We don’t know the age of David when he was called, but Joseph Smith was only fourteen years old when God selected him. In respect of age, he stands the greatest example of what a boy can attain in spirituality of any person in history.

The members of every Old Testament class in the Church should be made to sense their great opportunity of finding God in their youth, by the wonderful experience of our great modern prophet. But the teacher must give them to understand that they can never find him without first establishing by prayer and research a rich spiritual background.

Both David and Joseph Smith had that. But in David’s case, even his own father did not know it, and Samuel was ready to anoint Eliab because he did not see his heart. Neither could the ministers see Joseph’s heart, but were ready to condemn him when he told them of his religious experience.

Let Sunday School teachers stress the great truth to their students that if God ever calls them, it will be because they have laid a spiritual foundation upon which they can stand. A rich spiritual background must be built before they can become “men after God’s own heart.” And if that is done, their teachers may with perfect safety predict their future achievements, at least as far as God’s church is concerned.

The Instructor, February 1934, 94-95.

In summary, the first teaching level teaches facts; the second level teaches lessons; the third level teaches Saints. I need to remember that as I finish preparation for my Relief Society lesson this week.



  1. Sunday School? Is that what people do with that annoying lag between Sacrament Meeting and the Priesthood/Relief Society meeting?

    Seriously, the Bishop gets me to go by giving me a teaching responsibilty. I have noticed the decline in the quality of the manuals. The Joseph Smith Manual is surprizingly dry. I mean, it is Joseph Smith. It takes effort to make him dry!! I have a hard time getting through the lessons and I love this stuff. How is it for those who have no interest in history?

    Comment by BruceC — August 20, 2008 @ 8:18 am

  2. Oh, if today’s lesson manuals could be thorough! Perhaps such an approach could be incorporated into teacher in-service lessons.

    Very interesting post, as usual.

    Comment by Steve C. — August 20, 2008 @ 8:20 am

  3. Put me down as being in favor of very sparse, very minimal lesson outlines. A lesson outline that gives lots of detail probably won’t translate well to other cultures. In my opinion, the thinner the manual, the better. Notice how we went from detailed, memorized, word for word missionary discussions to the current approach. This trend is inevitable as the church grows, I think.

    Comment by Mark IV — August 20, 2008 @ 8:34 am

  4. I kind of agree with all of you. The JS manual *is* dry, I think in large part because the history in which the sermonettes are set is so lacking in color or interest — you get only the surface who’s and when’s, and none of the more engaging how’s and why’s.

    And when teaching, I do like the minimalist lesson outlines. In fact, I really enjoy teaching the lessons based on assigned recent conference talks, where there is no outline at all. That forces me to consider what the apostle (or whoever) really was teaching, and how to present it, or which parts to present, to my atypical ward.

    On the other hand, I may have an easier time doing that than many would because of the many, many explicit lessons on teaching that my mother taught me (beginning when I was still in Primary, she would explain to me what she was doing as she prepared her own lessons, took me with her to observe her teaching, then debriefed me about what had worked, or hadn’t worked, and why; then began assigning me small pieces of her lessons to prepare and teach myself, with her advice, help, and critique. She was a master teacher, so whatever I absorbed from her put me ahead of the game). The how-to-teach lessons from the Instructor would be useful to inexperienced teachers, possibly just clutter to others. Those techniques should be part of the inservice program — is there such a thing anymore? Until a year or so ago, our ward had such meetings twice a year in connection with stake conference; then there was some announcement about their cancellation.

    How do young people, converts, and other new church teachers learn how to teach now?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 20, 2008 @ 8:43 am

  5. Teaching seems to be considered an innate spiritual ability anymore, as the whole concept of teacher training or inservice has mostly gone by the wayside, and by official direction. No more teacher development classes, no more quarterly inservice meetings.

    We still have good teachers, but they need to learn it elsewhere. The materials you just showed us are typical of what I believe is needed. While I like the current Joseph Smith manual for PH and RS as much better than its predecessors, I think it poses big problems for novice teachers, both in terms of historical context, and helping teachers to develop lesson plans.

    Thanks for reminding us of a good part of our heritage that we don’t see much of anymore.

    Comment by kevinf — August 20, 2008 @ 9:34 am

  6. The statement about “A” students reminded me of the old advice to a university to be kind to your “C” students because they’re going to be the ones coming back to donate money to the school.

    It’s certainly true; my Academic Decathlon coach and AP English teacher in high school used to pull her hair out over one of the kids in the class who was “so lazy” and now he’s one of the head of the school board on his reservation, an extremely wealthy land developer, and donating money to various causes. I’ve always been glad that I got along well with him, because if I ever need a job in a hurry, I can undoubtedly call this former schoolmate, “C” grades in high school, funny clothes, and all.

    Are there really no longer Teacher Development classes? I guess they haven’t held them in our ward and we’ve been here four years.

    I know my parents were involved in the program when it came out back in the 1970s and they both spoke very highly of the program, still had the manuals years later, applied its principles, and both have reputations as good teachers.

    If teaching is an innate spiritual ability, it is a gift that is granted to few. The rest of the population of the church, me included, needs to work on it and not just go in to a class with an ego and maybe the lesson manual. (Thinking in particular of two teachers I knew a few wards back.)

    Comment by Researcher — August 20, 2008 @ 10:33 am

  7. Researcher,

    Teacher Development has ceased to be, and the responsibility for training teachers now resides with quorum and auxiliary presidencies, but no formal programs are in place anymore. There are just some pretty short general booklets, and hardly any active training.

    It seems to follow the model of having HC members referee basketball games because they are honest and obedient. Oh wait, there are rules for this?

    Comment by kevinf — August 20, 2008 @ 11:27 am

  8. It has been a while since we had a discussion about gospel teaching in the bloggernacle (and I’ll let Ardis decide if this is the time and place to have another one), but I think it is far from settled whether or not someone can be taught to be a good teacher. Somebody can master the techniques and methodologies and still be a very mediocre teacher. And somebody with an enthusiasm for the material and a love for the students in her class can be a great teacher, even if she has had no formal training.

    Comment by Mark IV — August 20, 2008 @ 11:42 am

  9. Seems right on topic to me, Mark IV.

    Even “born teachers,” if there is such a thing (I think there is, same as I think there are naturals at just about any skill), should be able to improve by being made conscious of techniques they use by instinct and learning new ones. Even if they can’t, certainly we’ve all seen enough dreadful “teaching” to know that “born teachers” are as rare as plug tobacco in Relief Society. I’m for just about anything that teaches teachers to teach, or that teaches Sacrament Meeting speakers to speak.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 20, 2008 @ 12:30 pm

  10. Regarding the earlier comments about lessons needing to be more flexible. I agree that lessons can be quite rigid and uniform. I also agree that more flexibility is needed to meet cultural and individual needs. I have taught Aaronic Priesthood for the past several years in a small unit. We laugh at the lesson manual when it calls for having the class divide into several groups. When we might only have one or two young men in class this seems quite humorous. Needless to say, we improvised a lot.

    There is a downside to the flexibility, though. That is when a teacher goed off on a tangent. I have had a Sunday School that did that quit a bit. He threw in political comments (usually extreme right-wing ideas). He also bashed other religions and gays. Many times these comments had no baring on the lesson. This is something I think the Church could address if it still had in-service.

    But as long as a lesson is doctrinally sound, I have no trouble with allowing the teacher latitude in how they present the lesson.

    Comment by Steve C. — August 20, 2008 @ 4:10 pm

  11. The worst lesson manuals are those from the late 60’s and 70’s. Oooo-weee they were bad.

    Comment by Clark — August 20, 2008 @ 10:40 pm

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