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On Teaching, Speculation, Debate, Heterodoxy, Ignorance

By: Ardis E. Parshall - May 06, 2011

This counsel, published by Joseph F. Smith as “Accuracy Demanded,” Juvenile Instructor, 1 February 1906, 80-81, touches on so many themes that are frequently discussed (or present!) in the Bloggernacle in such a simple, direct way that I thought it might help someone besides me to clarify ideas or understand our personal reactions to some of what is discussed. — Ardis)

On many occasions heretofore, through these columns and through the medium of other Church publications, attention has been directed to the scrupulous care required of our teachers and preachers in the matter of presenting only authentic and authorized doctrines as tenets of the church. While every person has a right to his own opinion in matters theological as in all else, and while he is at liberty to proclaim and defend that opinion in a proper way and at appropriate times and places, no one can justly claim the right to promulgate his individual belief and personal conceptions as doctrines of the Church unless the same be in strict accord with the authorized standards.

Sunday School classes, Improvement Associations, ward meetings and such gatherings as are appointed for instruction and worship, are certainly not appropriate in purpose, time or place, for the promulgation of unproved theory or the preaching of unaccepted and debatable doctrine. The regularly appointed meetings under Church auspices are not to be devoted to polemic discussion; Sunday School classes, Improvement Associations, quorums or other organizations of the kind are in no sense to be regarded or operated as debating societies.

Debate strives for triumph, true investigation seeks for truth. However strong a man’s conviction may be that his view on any subject is the correct one, he must ever remember that the teachings and tenets of the Church are set forth in the duly accepted standard works, and by these standards his opinions may be tested as to agreement with or dissent from the authorized precepts. Friendly discussion having for its purpose the search for truth, is distinct from hurtful debate, though transition from one to the other is easy. Honest competition is essentially distinct from hateful rivalry. But in an inquiry as to what are the teachings of the Church concerning any specific subject, there is no occasion or excuse for dissension; the standard works have been adopted as our guides in matters of doctrine and practice.

The ill effects of confusing individual opinions with authenticated teachings are often far-reaching and lasting. Error may thus be planted in many an immature mind, and the seeds of skepticism and doubt find a rich soil for their rank growth.

But the desire to uphold some favorite belief or to sustain a pet theory is not the incentive to the teaching of error and the inculcation of false doctrine. Ignorance, in many cases inexcusable, is not infrequently exhibited by those who undertake to teach others. Sunday School teachers and instructors in general must learn to be accurate in their statements, or to remain silent respecting subjects unstudied and problems unsolved by them. Not only in doctrinal matters is this defect among our instructors demonstrated; in the teaching of Church history, for example, too little attention is given to details of dates, places and persons, and thus is error spread.

It is decidedly better for the teacher to be silent on subjects unknown to him, or to frankly acknowledge his ignorance if the topic is brought up in class, than to give incorrect answers or otherwise mislead. The instructor, unprepared through neglect of previous study, may not himself be aware of the mistakes he makes, this however goes to prove his incompetency. The preparation required of our teachers today involves effort and imposes labor; the slothful have no place among us.

Teachers, go before your classes with the consciousness that you have at least tried to prepare yourself for the duty of the hour, then with confidence may you expect the aid of inspiration from the divine source.

– Joseph F. Smith



22 Comments »

  1. Thanks for posting this, Ardis. I look forward to the comments.

    Comment by Ray — May 6, 2011 @ 8:11 am

  2. This is a nice quote that could help guide my online behavior. I already behave well in church.

    1) Ardis, can you answer the following question? This statement seems to me to be essentially fundamentalist, i.e. the answers to truth questions can be found in the standard works. At least that is what I think the essence of fundamentalism is, the idea that all the important answers about reality are in a religious library. I see Joseph Fielding Smith continuing down this path with his “Answers to Gospel Questions”, which mined the standard works for the most part. Did Presidents of the Church before him make the same kinds of statements about the standard works, or is his presidency when this started? I don’t see Joseph Smith or Brigham giving the same kinds of statements about the standard works.

    2) “in the teaching of Church history, for example, too little attention is given to details of dates, places and persons, and thus is error spread.” This is a very nice prophetic sentiment. I bet he would be surprised that he is now portrayed as a monogamist by his successors! Quotation and source below:

    ‘He constantly tended to the temporal and spiritual needs of his family and made his presence felt whether he was at home or away. In notes, letters, and poems, he expressed his abiding affection for his loved ones. “My Dear Companion,” he wrote to his wife on her 39th birthday, “I think better of you, prize you higher, you are nearer to me and I love you more today than I did … twenty years ago. Every hour, week, month and year, strengthens the bond of our union and each child cements it with an eternal seal.”
    “The Ministry of Joseph F. Smith,” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith, (1998)

    Comment by Paul 2 — May 6, 2011 @ 9:25 am

  3. I wonder by what criteria Smith determined “the authorized standards” or “authentic and authorized doctrines as tenets of the church”.

    Comment by Ben S — May 6, 2011 @ 10:01 am

  4. He invokes the standard works twice as the definitive authorized standard.

    he must ever remember that the teachings and tenets of the Church are set forth in the duly accepted standard works

    the standard works have been adopted as our guides in matters of doctrine and practice.

    I assume by this he means canonized scripture, THE standard works. Which is interesting, because by that standard, the Proclamation is left out in the cold, with all the rest of the speculative opinions.

    Comment by Mark Brown — May 6, 2011 @ 10:22 am

  5. Paul, that’s an entirely new question to me. Recognizing that I’ve given it all of 15 minutes thought now as I puttered around the house, here’s my stab at a response:

    I think JFS and JFSjr are vastly different in their approach to scripture and theology. While “fundamentalist” might be appropriate to JFSjr (there may be terms-of-art aspects that would make it inappropriate), I wouldn’t apply that label to JFS.

    JFS could certainly be dogmatic (“thou shalt not play with face cards” and “thou shalt not raffle” come to mind), but overall my impression is that he was far too philosophic to be a fundamentalist. His Gospel Doctrine often explores the implications of proposed theology. His confidence that the answers could be found in the scriptures is, I think, more a faith in principles and personal revelation than in explicit facts that will answer a question once and for all time.

    JFSjr, on the other hand, used the scriptures in a much different way, IMO. He seemed to arrive at a dogmatic answer first, and only then turn to the scriptures to find proof texts to support his conclusions. JFSjr was like the modern historian who declares “Joseph Smith couldn’t have practiced polygamy because that violates the law of chastity” or “Joseph Smith was an immoral fraud because he practiced polygamy,” and then goes about cherry-picking historical details to support the conclusion. He certainly seems to have followed that backwards route when he wrote about Creation, or when he declared that man would never walk on the moon.

    Two different temperaments, two different approaches to scripture and doctrine. We have both in the church today, don’t we?

    Ben S, at the very least, we know he didn’t turn to Mormon Doctrine for those tenets…

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 6, 2011 @ 10:28 am

  6. Mark, while that may be a logically consistent expectation, I certainly wouldn’t state it as a foregone conclusion. You’d have to make the same statement about any current member of the First Presidency or Quorum of the Twelve who ever directed church members to search for answers to their questions in the scriptures, and I see no sign of that being the case.

    Fundamentalists can come from the left as well as the right, you know.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 6, 2011 @ 10:32 am

  7. The difference that I see is that in the 19th century, we did a lot of work trying to ground our doctrine of the family (polygamy) in the scriptures. Apostles debated with gentiles on the topic of whether polygamy was justified by the bible. Today we appear to be much more confident in just giving scripture a passing nod in our explanations of the Proclamation. We view it much more as a self-evident assertion of truth which doesn’t need scriptural justification.

    Comment by Mark Brown — May 6, 2011 @ 10:47 am

  8. I think that the first paragraph is clear, at least in my mind, of what he is stating. We are all entitled to our opinion on, well, anything

    However, when it comes to church doctrine or tenets, those must be only from the living prophet at whatever time he is THE prophet…and in my opinion, that doesn’t necessarily include statements made by someone before they were prophets. And he is including, of course, the canonized scriptures as well as living scriptures.

    I love reading all kinds of religious texts via blogs, papers, or however they are “printed” as they give me new insights with which to ponder, and those insights may help me better understand some doctrinal point in a way I never did prior but I still have to take my then reasoned out understandings to the Lord for personal revelation if it is correct or not.

    Am I missing something that you wished to presents to us Ardis?

    Comment by Cliff — May 6, 2011 @ 10:47 am

  9. No, Cliff, it’s just that when I ran across this JFS editorial, it struck me as addressing some of the general ideas that keep coming up on the Bloggernacle, and recently on Keepa as I’ve had a cluster of posts about teaching in the church. I didn’t mean it to refer to any specific discussion.

    I like your summary.

    It’s hard to accept that other people reach different conclusions than I do on specific matters, even using that same process, you describe, but obviously they do. I actually like it that way. Stretching toward the truth is, I think, better for us than having the answers neatly and unambiguously available on the printed page.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 6, 2011 @ 11:01 am

  10. This statement shows a trend away from the ultra-primacy of “Prophets” to the canonized literature as primary guide and it marked the JFS era. The mantra that “all answers are found in the standard works” is very much 19th century Protestant speech about the Bible and this is on the ground floor of the LDS version of “sola scriptura.” Couple of posts coming elsewhere on this eventually. You’re the bomb, Ardis.

    Comment by WVS — May 6, 2011 @ 11:19 am

  11. This is a great reminder for all of us. An old quote came to mind while reading the part about strong opinions:

    “Often wrong, but never in doubt.”

    Comment by MMM — May 6, 2011 @ 11:25 am

  12. Very interesting article. My first read through came across as very reasoned, and sensible. My second reading raised some of the questions discussed here. I took note of this particular statement:

    …the standard works have been adopted as our guides in matters of doctrine and practice.

    The pairing of doctrine and practice was interesting, as we currently in the church have a similar but three tiered view of doctrine, which is “Doctrine, principle, policy”, where the following terms derive from the previous. I think this is important, because as we have seen, doctrines can be misinterpreted, leading to incorrect principles and policies. Policies are easier to change, principles are somewhat more durable, but doctrine, it would seem, is timeless and enduring.

    Therefore, it is easier to now say that women can offer opening and closing prayers in Sacrament meeting, as that was just a policy, albeit based on some improperly derived principles. It’s also true that we view doctrine through the lens of the principles and policies that are derived from them. Thus we have Bruce McConkie saying “Forget anything I or anyone else has ever taught about the subject,” once he knew that the doctrine had been misunderstood, and incorrect principles derived from that. As much as BRM is demonized for Mormon Doctrine, it was a pretty humbling leap for him, the son in law and scriptural fundamentalist heir to his father in law Joseph Fielding Smith, to take.

    Comment by kevinf — May 6, 2011 @ 11:52 am

  13. To clarify, I meant to say that I admire BRM for humbling himself to make that comment. I suspect that in May and June of 1978, he spent more than a few sleepless hours and nights, rereading and considering scriptures in the light of Pres. Kimball’s questions, and then the ultimate revelation that came.

    Comment by kevinf — May 6, 2011 @ 11:55 am

  14. kevinf, I wrote the biographical essay on Bruce R. McConkie for the historical encyclopedia that Paul Reeve and I published last year. We chose BRM for one of our limited slots so that we could give coverage to the Mormon Doctrine controversy, because it has played such an important role in 20th century Mormon history. But at the same time, I gave him credit for making the same “forget everything” statement that you refer to, and also quoted from his final conference talk to show his intense spiritual and emotional side. I was pleased that our first reviewer picked up on all those aspects of the short biography.

    Kind of off topic, I suppose, but in a thread like this where we’re speaking of the rights and wrongs and goods and bads of scriptural reliance by named individuals, I wanted to reinforce your acknowledgment of BRM’s humility and sincerity in an area that might have been harder for him (for the reasons you state) than for most of us. He was a good man. So was Joseph Fielding Smith, jr., and so was Joseph F. Smith.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 6, 2011 @ 11:58 am

  15. My thing with all of these “look to the standard works” argument is that the more you actually read the scriptures and figure out what each different prophet or story is saying, they often come into direct conflict with each other. The old “Love your enemy” vs. “Kill all the Moabites” debate springs to mind. As Joseph Smith talked about when he was reading the Bible, it’s often so confusing that he was unable to come to certain conclusions. But it did ignite the beginning of the church, too. Before I ramble too much further, I’m not advocating not turning to the standard works, but it seems to me that sometimes they do more to make one confused than clear things up.

    Comment by Jacob M — May 6, 2011 @ 12:39 pm

  16. “Stretching toward the truth is, I think, better for us than having the answers neatly and unambiguously available on the printed page.”

    That’s the thing I liked most about this post – the acknowledgment that it’s fine to disagree personally about anything, as long as what is taught at church is not in opposition to the standard understanding of the time.

    I get that – and it’s no different than a BYU professor being told not to teach that Baptists will make it to heaven and Mormons will end up in Hell (or even vice-versa, if we are being totally consistent with our modern standard understanding) – or a supervisor at a company like UPS (where I worked in college) not teaching employees to load trucks in a different way than the accepted norm – or thousands of similar examples.

    It might not be my own personal ideal, but I understand totally why it can be an organizational ideal – and the explicit statement that it’s OK to craft my own personal perspective is good to read.

    Comment by Ray — May 6, 2011 @ 1:04 pm

  17. I’m with Jacob M. Limiting things to the scriptures is not much of a limitation. I suspect, though, that one of the reasons some GA’s have pushed this interpretation is the assumption of unity and harmony in the scriptures.

    Elder McConkie, one of the great harmonizers, said

    The word of the Lord is truth, and no scripture ever contradicts another, nor is any inspired statement of any person out of harmony with an inspired statement of any other person. Paul and James did not have differing views on faith and works, and everything that Alma said about the Resurrection accords with section 76 in the Doctrine and Covenants. When we find seeming conflicts, it means we have not as yet caught the full vision of whatever points are involved.

    If there appears to be disharmony, it’s because it’s been “translated incorrectly” or we just don’t understand what they’re really saying.

    I discussed this in greater depth and one long example a few months ago.
    http://www.patheos.com/community/mormonportal/2010/11/09/encultured-prophets-and-the-firmament-peter-enns-continued/

    Comment by Ben S — May 6, 2011 @ 1:32 pm

  18. I actually just posted something related to this from Joseph Fielding Smith’s Doctrines of Salvation 3:203 on <self_promotion style=”shameless”>my blog</self_promotion> a couple weeks ago:

    It makes no difference what is written or what anyone has said, if what has been said is in conflict with what the Lord has revealed, we can set it aside. My words, and the teachings of any other member of the Church, high or low, if they do not square with the revelations, we need not accept them. Let us have this matter clear. We have accepted the four standard works as the measuring yardsticks, or balances, by which we measure every man’s doctrine.

    The beauty of this quote, as i pointed out then, is that those Mormons who propagate the meme that the words of the sitting prophet supersede the canon have to deal with the fact that it was a prophet who said otherwise.

    Now of course, as some have pointed out upthread, there‘s the question of who gets to interpret said canon. But still, i think there‘s some value to be gained in trying to figure out what the relationship between canonized and uncanonized revelation really is, rather than falling back on tried and true Sunday school ideas such as that if we had to choose between a living prophet and the canon, we ought to take the prophet every time.

    Comment by David B — May 6, 2011 @ 5:04 pm

  19. My impression of JFS is that he was generous in allowing people their opinions. As just one example, in one of his first General Conferences as President he urged the people to vote their conscience in the sustaining of Church authorities.

    As to the primacy of the scriptures, this may reflect my own interests, but I’ve tended to see the movement toward that position in the early 20th century as a defensive reaction against 19th century speculative teachings (such as Adam-God) that came back to haunt us. Rather than confront the teachings head-on, and to avoid throwing former prophets under the bus, it was easier to focus attention on the scriptures.

    Comment by Jared* — May 6, 2011 @ 5:23 pm

  20. “My thing with all of these “look to the standard works” argument is that the more you actually read the scriptures and figure out what each different prophet or story is saying, they often come into direct conflict with each other.”

    I believe one of the offices of a prophet is to “open the scriptures” and teach correct principles out of them, for just the reason you give.

    Luke 24: 45
    Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures

    In the Latter Day we have more than just “the scriptures” given to us, we also have the interpretations thereof.

    Maybe you struggle to jive that with JFS’s statement above about relying on just the scriptures, but it doesn’t really bother me. When he talks about relying on the standard works for teaching, I take it as implicit that he means not just the scriptures but the interpretations thereof given us through modern prophecy.

    The teachers are, after all, teaching us THE SCRIPTURES, just as the Savior did when he opened the understanding of his closest followers. They knew “the scriptures” already, as faithful Jews and long-time followers of the Savior. And yet even after all that they needed to understand the scriptures. Ideally a teacher should have their understanding of the scriptures opened to them by the voice of prophecy and close reading, and they pass it on to their students, and all are edified.

    Also, this idea did not originate with JFS:

    Mosiah 18:19
    And he commanded them that they should teach nothing save it were the things which he had taught, and which had been spoken by the mouth of the holy prophets.

    Sorry for such a long comment. I did not have time to write a shorter one.

    Comment by Tertium Squid — May 6, 2011 @ 5:43 pm

  21. I don’t have all the erudition (but I can use at least one big word) or mental capacity to follow all the arguments on this. And that’s exactly why I do two things:

    1) stick as closely to basic principles when I teach. I don’t know anybody in the church who doesn’t need more faith, repentance, charity, and following the Holy Ghost. And I think the faith part has to stick to true facts like President F.Smith said here. Nothing bothers me more than faith promoting rumors (no offense intended to the great bloggers of that name). And basic principles should, of course, be scripture-centered.

    But scriptures are subject to interpretation and so easily manipulated by weak, creative or deceitful minds. That’s why we have so many Protestant churches – and so many different kinds of Mormon Fundamentalists. Leading me to:

    2) I stick pretty close to authorized church leaders for instruction and interpretation on up the chain. It is in no way blind obedience because I somehow maintain a cautious, skeptical view of pretty much everything I hear. And there’s a lot of church leaders I don’t get along with. But I don’t fight them trying patiently to leave it in the Lord’s hands. I have my little rebellions, but I just quietly ignore things that I just don’t feel right about (no spiritual confirmation?) One example: Many years ago as an Elders Quorum Pres., I basically ignored an assignment from the bishop that he gave to me and the HP Group leader to “spy” on a brother suspected of adultery. The funny part was I think the HP Group leader had the same reservations I did as we never spoke about it to pursue the assignment. The family of the alleged was falling apart anyway and dealing with church leaders so I understand that the couple eventually separated and the adultery came out.

    And there are a few other little general practices, policies, whatever, I quietly rebel against. (No list here as I don’t want to corrupt anyone).

    But the big thing I believe in, that makes this church unique, is that we do have “authorized messengers from our Father” as all of us are pursuant to our callings. And on up the chain of priesthood authority, we have checks through the system.

    So, if I can balance on this tightrope, I don’t want to be a law unto myself on interpreting truth at the same time I have to be ultimately responsible to the Lord for what I decide to believe and do regardless of where I hear it.

    Comment by Grant — May 6, 2011 @ 5:50 pm

  22. Ardis and WVS and Jared* I appreciate your perspectives on my question. There are many nice comments.

    Comment by Paul 2 — May 6, 2011 @ 10:36 pm

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