There has been a significant amount of research done on Sunday School manuals for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) prior to 1972. While I’m not entirely sure why research hasn’t been pursued after the major shift from the Deseret Sunday School Union to simply Sunday School and the subsequent correlation of manuals, the inaccessibility of the manuals is probably one of the biggest inhibitors.
To that end, my goal is to make the manuals available in corpus form, searchable on this website. While that’s still in progress, I do want to provide a complete timeline of manuals used between 1972 and 2023. Most of them are currently digitized through the Church History Library (under the call number M257.36 S957gd) or available digitally on the Church’s website.
Manuals do not always have the same publication year as the year they were used. Most notably, the Old Testament manual used in 1982 was published in 1980, before the first half of the manual was published and used in 1981.1 They often have approval/version years that are earlier than the copyright date.
Initially, the plan for Sunday School was an eight year rotation, focusing two years on each standard work—Old Testament, New Testament, Book of Mormon, and Doctrine & Covenants (and Church History). In 1983, that pattern was changed to a four year rotation after the eight-year rotation had already restarted, meaning the Old Testament was taught for two years, following which the New Testament was taught for just one year.
Truman G. Madsen spent time on the General Board of the Sunday School and participated in the rewriting of the manuals beginning in the early 1970s. He suggests this reasoning for the change to a four-year rotation:
“Because of the great number of new converts, the urgent need for scripturally informed leaders, and the high mobility of Church membership, we now do it in four.”
Richard Cowan, a professor in the Church History Department at BYU explained in an interview:
“…the specific reason that was given [for the change] was that the leaders didn’t want the saints to go eight years between the time they studied the Book of Mormon. So I think it was specifically concern about the Book of Mormon that dictated that change.”2
Another significant change that occurred in 1982 was the transition from a curriculum year based on local school years to a curriculum year based on the calendar year. This was announced in an Ensign article from January 1981, citing a number of reasons for the shift, including ease of shipping necessary materials.
Youth Sunday School and Primary manuals for a time were separate from the yearly rotation of the adult Sunday School classes. At some point, youth Sunday School classes began using the same manuals as the adult classes, and in 1995, Primary manuals began to be released to align with the rotation.3
From 1972 – 1986, the scriptures themselves were to be the student manuals, while teachers taught from church provided manuals. This changed in 1987, when study guides began to be available for class members in addition to the teacher’s manuals. A few print resources were provided to support the Doctrine and Covenants years; they are listed among the manuals, as they were intended to be used as a supplementary text.
With the advent of Come, Follow Me—the significantly revised Sunday School program—a more substantial guide for “Individuals and Families” was created. The Sunday School manuals are still written from a teaching perspective, as are the Primary version of the manuals.
The standard work corresponding to each work was determined partially by resources such as: a list created for Noel B. Reynolds’ article on Book of Mormon use, “Instructions for Curriculum” documents created by the Church, and Ensign articles where the year’s course of study was discussed. In absence of any firm sourcing for a given year, it is relatively easy to fill in the gaps, given that it’s generally a predictable four year cycle.
I looked at the church’s website via Wayback Machine, and found no differences in online editions of the manuals until the 2017 D&C manual. The lesson plans included references to the Gospel Topics essays that had been released starting in 2013. It does not appear that the student guide was updated with these changes, even digitally.
Although I don’t have sourcing for why there were no new print editions of the manuals released between 2006 and 2018, I do have some ideas.
In 1998, the Church began publishing “Teachings of Presidents of the Church” manuals to be used in Elders Quorum and Relief Society meetings. These were published yearly, each focusing on a new Church president, beginning with Brigham Young.
A Church Newsroom article from 2008 explains:
“On average it takes the Curriculum Department one and a half years to plan and write a lesson manual. All material is correlated to scripture and the teachings of the prophets.
“If the lesson material needs to be translated from English into one of the 170 languages currently used by the Church, the process can take months more. Factoring in printing and distribution, a non-English manual can take a total of two and a half years to produce.”
This burden of creation and printing took time away from releasing new editions of the Gospel Doctrine and Primary manuals.
Additionally, prior to 2013, there was a focus on creating a curriculum for youth to use in their Young Men’s and Young Women’s classes, which may have also taken priority over new editions of Gospel Doctrine or Primary manuals.
It seems likely that new editions will continue to be released yearly for Come, Follow Me, as the Church has announced the intention to prioritize digital usage over physical copies, minimizing the amount of work that needs to be done for updated versions.
This post was updated in February 2023
1. Years where a previous manual was used are noted. Copyright years are provided in the chart, while approval/version years are not.
2. There are a number of papers that discuss a similar idea to Cowan’s, but don’t provide any sourcing for the statement that the leadership, particularly President Ezra Taft Benson, wanted to decrease the number of years between Book of Mormon studies. These interviews represent the most accurate sourcing I’ve found as to reasoning for the change.
3. Since my research is specifically focusing on the changes in what scriptures were used and how they were used in discussing the standard works, both youth and Primary manuals are not included on this chart until they align with the yearly rotation. Youth Sunday School classes in 1986 still used separate manuals, and it’s my guess that the youth switched when the Gospel Doctrine manuals went through the final set of editions that were used until Come, Follow Me.