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.