Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Mormon Catechisms?

Mormon Catechisms?

By: Ardis E. Parshall - March 05, 2010

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.

He continued,

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.



  1. Great post! Those kids were certainly more educated on Church history than today! I have also come across at least one reference to catechism cards in my research and didn’t have the context for them, so thank you.

    As it relates it catechismal instruction, I tend to think that it was fairly common to have the youth memorize. I once posted on early catechisms and found that Heber J. Grant apparently memorized the first five chapters of Jaques’ catechism and and Joseph Fielding Smith memorized much of it.

    I think this affinity for memorization is why the primary at this time didn’t have any problem with repeating the Lord’s Prayer.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 5, 2010 @ 9:44 am

  2. Thanks for this. I read that Mormon Times article with great interest, so I really appreciate this follow-up. My comment is long — bear with me.

    While I favor a collaborative education model (the one alluded to by Elder Talmage in the Mormon Times article in favor of “class discussion and thinking skills”), still, I believe that a certain basic level of understanding of the principal doctrines and historical facts of the Church has to be learned somehow. And sometimes that might just mean basic input of an idea or a fact; call it memorization, even.

    For example, I believe that memorizing the Articles of Faith as a youth had great value to me. From there, I could move into discussions, deeper comprehension, application, etc. But I had to at some point learn/memorize the doctrines in the Articles of Faith first. (I mean, how else would I have learned the wonderfully complex phrase “paradisiacal glory”?!)

    I guess I ask, as we reject the idea of the mindless repetition of insignificant facts, that we not throw the baby out with the bath water. Our kids still need to commit to memory an awful lot of important facts and doctrines in order make their way in the Church and in the larger world. Drill, baby, drill!

    Comment by Hunter — March 5, 2010 @ 9:50 am

  3. I was planning to be shorter than Hunter (but I think I failed), but will make a plug for more scripture memorization for the young. Since it is absolutely certain that the middle-aged and elderly will have a much harder time memorizing anything, and, if my experience is a guide, will promptly forget nearly anything they do succeed in memorizing, it has to be the young.

    How much better to have people say the actual words of the scriptures than the paraphrases that we hear so often (which do violence both to the scriptures and to the doctrines of the gospel).

    If we had a substantial store of memorized scriptures in our minds, perhaps we could avoid things like “God never said it would be easy. But He said it would be worth it” Or “God helps those who help themselves.”

    And, for rhetorical purposes, our preaching (and our listening) are both improved as speakers use scriptural phrases–not long passages, but just appropriate snippets–in the midst of their own words, and as listeners recognize those passages, and import into their comprehension all the allusions those passages bring to mind.

    Comment by Mark B. — March 5, 2010 @ 10:10 am

  4. Great stuff, Ardis. Thanks

    Comment by Christopher — March 5, 2010 @ 10:10 am

  5. I agree that a basic battery of facts is essential to understanding any field – if you can’t instantly divide 9 into 81, you can’t get very far in anything requiring mathematics; if you don’t know that the American Revolution occurred before the American Civil War, you can’t get much of a grasp on any of the issues of American history or its present. And sometimes brute memorization is the only, or most efficient, way to get that basic core.

    In church teaching, people need to memorize (with the help of games or songs, maybe, to make it more pleasant) such basic facts as the names and order of books within the scriptures, and the names and order of church presidents. And, J., I agree that it’s of enormous value to memorize, word for word, key texts — the Articles of Faith, the Lord’s Prayer, the 23rd Psalm, key doctrinal scriptures (preferably in bigger chunks than the proof-texting verses taught in seminary), the Sacrament prayers, and potentially many others.

    And I suppose those can be taught in a catechistic way: wash-rinse-repeat.

    The difference between that and what GQCannon (and I) are advocating, though, is that while names and dates need to be memorized, and key texts should be memorized, it isn’t necessary — may be harmful — to insist on the memorization and verbatim recitation of secondary material. It should be enough for a child to be able to retell in coherent fashion and sufficient detail the story of Noah and the Ark or the events of the Resurrection, for instance, and not repeat word-for-word the modern English version of the story that appears in a lesson manual or The Friend or any other source.

    But I wouldn’t throw out memorization of ALL kinds just because GCQ didn’t expect his Questions and Answers to be memorized and parroted.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 5, 2010 @ 10:13 am

  6. Yes, I agree, Mark (we cross-posted). Memorization of key texts — primary ones (although I realize that “primary” may not be the right term for our translated scriptures) — would improve our understanding, and certainly our speaking and teaching ability and our listening pleasure and benefit.

    That, however, wouldn’t really be a catechism, unless the questions were simply prompts: “And then how does the Lord answer Moses in the next verse?”

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 5, 2010 @ 10:16 am

  7. Actually, I am in complete agreement with you, Ardis. I’m no personal fan of memorization. I think it can be helpful and in certain cases can be powerful (like in a sermon at church), but generally, I favor a critical pedagogy.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 5, 2010 @ 10:30 am

  8. Great post! Those kids were certainly more educated on Church history than today!

    Well, they had less to have to know than our kids do now… :)

    Comment by queuno — March 5, 2010 @ 10:41 am

  9. What a fun and thought-provoking post. I remember years ago at a conference a newly returned missionary got up to speak. He stood there and recited the PofGP account of the First Vision and then sat down. It was, I guess, a feat that he was able to memorize it, but he didn’t teach any doctrine or bear any testimony. Isn’t the issues of rote memorization the reason they got rid of the old “Rainbow” missionary discussions?

    I agree that memorization of the basic ideas, principles and tenents of the Church is vital, but not for memorization’s sake. Understanding the concepts is what is necessary.

    Comment by Steve C. — March 5, 2010 @ 11:43 am

  10. Maybe children’s minds- or attention spans- have changed over the years. About 12 years ago I was called to teach the 10-11 year olds in Primary, and quickly realised none of them had ever been challenged to learn their Articles of Faith, which were required for an award (?was it Gospel In Action? They were awarded a tie pin or a pendant). Memorising was utterly beyond them. In the end we learned to sing the Articles of Faith and they all passed, me too :-)

    A little bit of memorisation is a useful habit, I think. Is it true seminary students don’t need to memorise the seminary scriptures anymore? One of my friends in seminary managed to recite the entire First Vision during a scripture chase final once. I was so deeply impressed.

    Comment by Anne (U.K) — March 5, 2010 @ 12:23 pm

  11. I actually was impressed by the Jacques catechism, at least as far as I read. Doctrines explained in reasonably simple terms, and with scripture references. Memorization of all that, though, would be a non-trivial task.

    I didn’t memorize a lot of scriptures when young, but I still remember several of the old Mutual themes from the mid to late 60’s that were direct scriptural quotations. I did memorize the AoF, which along with the scripture mastery scriptures in seminary, seem to be the extent that we push memorization these days, which seems about right.

    I compare this with my wife teaching math to junior high school kids. They need to memorize their multiplication tables in elementary, but the emphasis on algebra and geometry is in real world application and context, not just “skill & drill”. As she puts it, she hates just seeing kids sit down and factor pages of polynomials (I hope I am saying that right), but loves to see them work together and solve contextual problems (ie, the dreaded story problems of our youth). Being able to apply doctrinal concepts is better than just memorizing names and dates.

    Last thought, though, about scripture memorization (seems to be the day for longer comments). I am pretty good at remembering where particular scriptures are, and my own eclectic marking system helps me find them, but I dread losing my 1979 copy of the Old & New Testaments, and all the work I have invested in it. I have a newer Triple, but it is similarly marked and filled with notes. I’d hardly be as scripturally literate without those copies, even though I also have the scriptures on my smartphone.

    Comment by kevinf — March 5, 2010 @ 1:06 pm

  12. The method of teaching young children the songs in Primary is basically memorizing catechism to music. The song leader may explain what the song means, but learning it requires the song leader to break it down into small units and sing and repeat until the song is memorized.

    Comment by Maurine — March 5, 2010 @ 11:28 pm

  13. Seminary students and missionaries-to-be are still encouraged to memorize 100 scriptures. 25 each from

    You can buy the Scripture Mastery card sets at

    Comment by Bookslinger — March 6, 2010 @ 8:54 pm

  14. As I recall the trouble I had memorizing the 12 sentences of the Scout Law (“A Scout is trustworthy. A Scout is …”) which differ only in one word, I marvel at my 10 year-old’s ability to memorize the Articles of Faith. She has them down cold. In other cultures such memorization is is taken to an amazing level, with some Moslems having memorized the entire Quran, a hold over from pre-literate days, I suppose. I wish I had a similar level of ability, but that will never be.

    Comment by Eric Boysen — March 7, 2010 @ 8:34 am

  15. Don’t forget the catechism style Q-and-A that appears at the end of every chapter in Lectures on Faith.

    I think to a certain extent, catechism is still widely used in Primary and Sunday school. Only today,it’s much easier because regardless of the question asked, the answer is always the same “pray, read your scriptures, go to church…”

    Comment by Clark — March 7, 2010 @ 5:34 pm

  16. That reminds me of the talking dog story: “Rough,” “Roof,” “Ruth” … “I should have said DiMaggio.” Now what were the questions?

    Comment by Eric Boysen — March 8, 2010 @ 8:48 am

  17. I’ve been wanting to come back and say that I think Ardis said it best above when she argued for a distinction between memorizing (yes, memorizing) principal matters versus tedious, secondary stuff:

    “[W]hile names and dates need to be memorized, and key texts should be memorized, it isn’t necessary — may be harmful — to insist on the memorization and verbatim recitation of secondary material. It should be enough for a child to be able to retell in coherent fashion and sufficient detail the story of Noah and the Ark or the events of the Resurrection, for instance, and not repeat word-for-word the modern English version of the story that appears in a lesson manual or The Friend or any other source.”

    Amen, sistah!

    Comment by Hunter — March 8, 2010 @ 9:12 am

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