David M. Ross was both a public school teacher and a Sunday School teacher when he wrote to George Q. Cannon in 1887 expressing his concerns about a practice he was seeing among his fellow Sunday School teachers. In his complicated, tangled roles as head of the Sunday Schools as well as private publisher of the Juvenile Instructor and producer/printer/publisher of other commercial materials, Cannon was publishing and distributing a set of “Question and Answer Cards” for use by the Sunday Schools, covering scriptural stories from both the Bible and Book of Mormon, and church history, and Ross was worried about how those cards were being used.
An extract from Cannon’s questions and answers follows – please don’t be turned off by the length of this sample or get bogged down in reading it. This is only an illustration of the detail and potential tediousness of the material covered by these cards.
How long after he certified to Joseph and others that he would not molest the Saints did Adam Black begin again to harass and persecute them? A. Twenty days.
How did he proceed? A. He made an affidavit that he had been threatened with death by an armed force of one hundred and fifty men, if he did not sign that document binding himself not to molest the “Mormons.” He also swore that the lives of others were threatened.
What action did Wm. P. Peniston, who was candidate at the election, take? A. He went into Ray County and swore before Judge A.A. King to a statement similar to that of Black, and declared also that they threatened to kill him (Peniston) on sight, and to drive all the citizens from Daviess Co. and take possession of their property.
Whom did he say were the leaders of this body of men? A. Joseph Smith and Lyman Wight.
What was the result of these base and infamous lies sworn to by these mobocrats? A. A writ was issued from the court to Judge King for the Arrest of the Prophet Joseph.
Why did the sheriff decline to serve this write upon Joseph? A. He told the sheriff that he always intended to submit to the laws of the land, but that he wished to be tried in his own county as there was too much feeling and excitement in Daviess for him to have any hope of justice there.
What false report was circulated, after Joseph’s conversation with the sheriff, to create an excitement and prejudice the people? A. That Joseph and Lyman Wight had resisted the officer.
What action did the enemies of the Saints take on hearing these lying statements? A. A mob began to collect from all upper Missouri into Daviess Co., for the purpose as they said of helping to take Joseph and Lyman Wight.
When was Joseph and Lyman Wight put on trial before Judge King? A. September 7th, 1838.
What was the result of the trial? A. There was no proof against them, notwithstanding they were, in order to pacify the mobbers and their leaders, bound over in a five hundred dollar bond.
Upon the retreat of the mob from Daviess County, where did Joseph return to? A. Far West, Caldwell County.
What information did he receive immediately upon his arrival in Far West? A. That a mob had commenced their mischief on the borders of Caldwell County.
What caused this re-awakening among the enemy? A. Lies circulated by the Presbyterian preacher, Woods, and others of the mob.
What was the nature of these false reports? A. That a Methodist preacher named Bogart and fifty or sixty of his men were massacred by the “Mormons,” that they had cannon in their possession and they knew not what moment they would be slain and their town laid in ashes.
What was the true version of the circumstance upon which these lies were founded? A. This Bogart with thirty or forty men called at Brother Theret Parsons’ home and warned him to be gone before ten the next morning.
What did he say further? A. That he would give Far West thunder and lightning before next day noon.
What action did Brother parsons take after hearing this? A. He despatched a messenger with the news to Far West, and he himself followed Bogart, to watch his movements.
What word did two of the brethren who had been out watching the movements of the Mob report to Far West? A. That eight armed mobbers had attacked the house of Brother Pinkham; taken three of the brethren prisoners, and taken horses and other property.
When this news reached Far West what did the Saints do to defend themselves? A. They raised a company of men to act under the command of Apostle David W. Patten, who started immediately to endeavor to retake the brethren and scatter Bogart’s band.
Ross’s 1887 concerns centered on the expectation that Sunday School children were to be drilled on these questions and answers as if they were a formal catechism. If these drills were compulsory, he said, the practice was “very hurtful.” It “dwarfed the mind” and “injured the memory,” taking the children’s minds away from the meaning of what they were learning and focusing it instead on the mere memorization of words. The question-and-answer cards were so densely packed with tedious detail that “even teachers are incapable of recollecting the exact words.” Ross produced “many quotations from the writings of experienced teachers” to support his statements.
Ross objected, in other words, to the use of a catechism as a method of instructing children in their religious beliefs and duties.
The recent BYU Church History Symposium featured associate professor Kenneth L. Afford speaking about catechisms used in the Mormon past and present. His talk was reported in Mormon Times here. I wasn’t able to attend the symposium and this isn’t one of the presentations to be covered, apparently, by those inveterate conference attenders and reporters at Juvenile Instructor or Life on Gold Plates, so I’m entirely dependent on the Mormon Times report for a description of that paper.
The Mormon Times report included this paragraph:
Q. How is a catechism used?
A. Alford explained that they were read out loud. A teacher would read the question; another teacher may read the answer. Then the students would try repeating the answer. This would go on in wash-rinse-repeat style until the students could recite the answer correctly.
That is the stereotypical description of a catechism, of course, one used in some Christian churches to inculcate basic creedal information before First Communion or Confirmation. It seems to be the model Ross objected to in 1887. If the sample questions and answers reproduced above were to be taught in such a “wash-rinse-repeat” fashion, I think we would agree with everything Ross said.
So would George Q. Cannon.
In response to Ross’s dismay, Cannon wrote that anyone who “had any experience in teaching children must be aware of the truth of” those statements. Forcing children through such drills “is to reduce them to mere machines.”
That was not, he insisted, the intention behind printing the question and answer lists for the Sunday Schools, and he hoped that the catechism method of memorization drill was not widespread among Latter-day Saint Sunday School teachers.
The object in putting answers to these questions is to give the children, as well as the teacher, some idea of the subject and the proper manner of answering such questions as are asked. But no judicious teacher will make parrots of his pupils, to have them repeat by rote replies that may be framed in this manner. He will endeavor to awaken the intelligence of the child and explain the subject in such a simple manner to its understanding that it will be able to grasp the question and the subject referred to and answer with the understanding.
Any system of teaching that does not accomplish this is a failure, and the children who are not taught in this way do not turn out intelligent students.
Our experience has taught us that in order to develop children’s minds and to have them properly understand any subject that may be presented to them, it should be explained to them in the most simple language, and they should be encouraged to give their own explanations, so that the teacher may be able to gather from them whether they grasp the idea properly or not. questions, therefore, should be accompanied by explanations; for there is scarcely any question that will embody the whole idea that ought to be presented to the child’s mind; and when the subject is once understood by the child it will have no difficulty in making proper replies, though these replies may not be in the language of the printed answer, and, in fact, might be entirely different from it, so far as the words themselves are concerned.
The intention of the Sunday School Union was not, he concluded, “to teach them as parrots are taught.” The questions and answers “are merely furnished as guide-boards for the use of teachers, and of the people also,” presenting them with correct information and an indication of the close reading they should be giving to scripture and church history, but “to have the pupils required to memorize them and to answer exactly as the words are written is to tax the memory unnecessarily and to prevent the exercise of the children’s minds.”
This also seems to have been the intention behind John Jaques’ immensely popular 1854 Catechism for Children. Some teachers may very well have drilled children in the rote memorization of that book as if it represented a formal Mormon creed, but my impression is that such drills were not widespread. Mormondom may very well have a weak sort of catechism where it is necessary to recite the expected answers to achieve the goal – it is necessary, for instance, to be able to answer “yes” and “no” appropriately to successfully negotiate a temple recommend interview, and older children have usually been encouraged to recite verbatim the Articles of Faith and a limited number of scripture verses to graduate from Primary. But an extensive use of rote memorization with an emphasis of correct form over internal understanding has not commonly been a pedagogical method used in Mormon children’s classes.