Author’s note: This post is a modified version of the original presentation.
Most content analysis in Mormon studies relies on General Conference talks. This is primarily due to accessibility. Various tools such as the General Conference corpus and WordCruncher are available through BYU. Talks since 1971 are on the Church website.
A significantly underutilized source for content analysis are Sunday School manuals. While manuals prior to 1972 have received some attention, the standardized Gospel Doctrine manuals have been largely ignored in Mormon studies.
Sunday School manuals are used by nearly all church members, and have the effect of codifying, disseminating, and reinforcing doctrine. Church doctrine is most thoroughly provided within Sunday School manuals. Although manuals aren’t canonized, they do constitute some level of official church doctrinal position.
Manuals can be used to steer the direction of doctrinal emphasis. The two major curricular adjustments in the last century were accompanied by a concern that families needed to be strengthened in the “fight against the adversary.”
In 2018, President Russell M. Nelson announced the new “home-centered, church supported” Come, Follow Me program. He explained, “The adversary is increasing his attacks on faith and upon us and our families at an exponential rate. To survive spiritually, we need counterstrategies and proactive plans.”1 Nelson concluded the conference with a promise that use of the new curriculum would decrease the influence of the adversary in the lives of individuals and their families.2
As part of the massive organizational changes in the 1960s, Elder Marion G. Romney explained that they were “developing a home-centered, Priesthood correlated program.”3 Encouraging a sense of urgency, President Joseph Fielding Smith stated that, “These are the last days…they are days when Satan dwells in the hearts of ungodly men…And there is no cure for the ills of the world except the gospel of Jesus Christ.”4 Similarly, President Harold B. Lee “called for a strengthening of Church doctrine…to insulate members from the evils of the outside world.”5
In fact, reflecting on the changes thirty years later, Elder Boyd K. Packer said, “…the Brethren warned us of the disintegration of the family and told us to prepare… While the doctrines and revealed organization remain unchanged, all agencies of the church have been reshaped in their relationship to one another and to the home. So sweeping were those changes that the entire curriculum of the church was overhauled—based on scriptures, with excellent manuals for each course. …We can only imagine where we would be if we were just now reacting to this terrible redefinition of the family. But that is not the case. We are not casting frantically about trying to decide what to do. We know what to do and what to teach.”6
For this research specifically, I selected a very small subset of manuals from the greater corpus of manuals between 1972 and the present:
- the 1972-1973 teacher’s manual “In the Beginning”
- the 1973-1974 teacher’s manual “Old Testament: Exodus to Malachi”
- the 2022 teacher’s manual “Come, Follow Me—For Sunday School”
Published at the beginning of curricular changes, these manuals were created with the clearest overarching purposes in mind.
Additionally, I focused on the teacher’s manuals, since no student guide of any sort was published alongside the 1970s manuals. The Primary lessons were not standardized alongside Sunday School classes until the 1990s.
The first iteration of the 1972 curriculum changes gave two years for each standard work. As these years were based on calendar years, instruction paused for at least three months of each year. The current Sunday School program gives one calendar year for each standard work, dividing out scriptures across specific calendar weeks.
The purpose of both new curricula was to increase familial (and, to a lesser degree, individual) strength. Inclusion and exclusion of particular stories can provide insight into how leaders believed families could be strengthened—and what they need to be defending against. This can be accomplished, in part, by examining which verses and stories were included, and which were left out. Scriptural subcanon is created by the usage of some scriptures to the exclusion of others. Those used more frequently have a greater weight in doctrinal interpretation.7 Given the size of the Old Testament and the time limitations of the curricular year, it’s inevitable that some stories will be left out to a greater degree than other standard works.
General Content Analysis
Genesis, Moses, and Abraham
There are 63 chapters combined in Genesis and the overlapping books of Moses and Abraham in LDS canon. The Bible contains over 900 chapters. Genesis, Moses, and Abraham make up less than 7% of the total number of chapters. Despite this, the 1970s manuals devote 50% of its lessons to those chapters.
An increased focus in Genesis makes sense, given the number of stories it contains. (Proverbs, for example, contains no stories.) A list of Bible stories puts the number of stories found in Genesis at just over 17%. The 2022 manual comes close to that, spending about 23% of the lessons in Genesis/Moses/Abraham.
The introduction to the 1972 manual (which only covers Genesis/Moses/Abraham) justifies the disparity. It explains, “These books contain case histories of the struggles of the first human families to emulate the divine pattern. Our efforts to strengthen our families today will be advanced by this course of study.”
Using a list of Bible stories allows us to compare the stories used or not used in the manuals. For example, both eras shy away from stories regarding David’s family found in the books of Samuel and Kings. Although they discuss complicated family dynamics similar to those addressed in other stories, these are less familiar. The lack of familiarity would require much more background explanation before application of gospel principles. The 2022 manual left out even more stories of David than the 1970s manuals did, with one exception. It includes the story of Saul’s disobedience to teach that obedience to the Lord should take priority over other commandments.
Neither manual adequately addresses sexual assault, an unfortunately frequent occurence throughout this text in particular. The story of Dinah in the 1970s manual implicitly blames her, while the 2022 manual leaves it out altogether. In both manuals, David and Joseph—despite the former being an aggressor while the latter is a victim—are used as examples in resisting temptation. Bathsheba and Potiphar’s wife share similar amounts of blame in ‘tempting’ the men.
There are many accounts of named (and unnamed) women throughout the text covered in assigned reading. Most lessons don’t use those stories to discuss gospel principles. If women are discussed, it is usually to highlight their responses to adversity in their role as wife or mother. In fact, of the seven prophetesses of Hebrew Biblical tradition, Miriam, Abigail, and Huldah are never mentioned; Deborah is briefly mentioned in a 1973 lesson on Psalms, and though she’s upheld for her spiritual leadership in 2022, she is not described as a prophetess. (The other three, Sarah, Hannah, and Esther, are discussed in both eras.)
The 1973 manual’s introduction explicitly communicates an increased emphasis on familial interactions. “The Church has recently emphasized the theme, The Church Hath Need of Every Member, and a major Sunday School objective is to help strengthen the family. It is appropriate, therefore, to introduce and discuss the personalities, characters, and events of the Old Testament in family terms.”
The 2022 manual seems to uphold that theme better than the 1970s manuals, as it doesn’t focus nearly as much on familial roles when applying gospel principles. Scriptures referenced only in 2022 focus primarily on Christ’s role in an individual’s life. There is more emphasis on open-ended interpretations. However, there are also a number of lessons that reinforce the “covenant path” and the need to stay faithful to the Church.
When it comes to descriptions of Satan, the adversary, or opposition, the 2022 manual is generally vague. The few exceptions are the temptation of sexual sin, opposition to the doctrine of heterosexual marriage, and speaking against the Church or God’s prophets. The adversary is referred to as “the rising tide of evil” or “weakening values and declining moral standards.”
The 1970s manuals teach that Satan is an actual entity with a more direct and active role in the lives of humans. Still, the main sins explicitly discussed in the 1970s manuals are sexual ones.
Many of these observations rely on reading the lessons themselves to discern patterns. Corpus linguistics uses computers to analyze large bodies of text to test things that seem anecdotally true. It can provide insight into patterns that normally go unnoticed. These patterns can provide statistical evidence without hand-classifying every sentence.
One of the simplest ways to examine difference between texts is keyword analysis. Keyword analysis focuses on which words occur with greater frequency in one manual than the other.
In the 1970s manuals, the keywords include:
In the 2022 manuals, the keywords include:
Chalkboard vs board highlights the changes to physical spaces over the years. The usage of d&c vs talk contrasts the types of non-Biblical citations used in lessons.
The juxtaposition of law, should, and obedience in the 1970s to could in 2022 demonstrates an interesting shift. Many of the questions found in the 1970s manuals came with particular answers that students should give.
Collocates are words that occur significantly more frequently with a given word than they occur with other words. In the 1970s manuals, Jesus Christ was most often used in conjunction with the name of the church. In 2022, Jesus Christ was associated the most strongly with atone, atonement, strengthen, faith, gospel, Isaiah, us, and Heavenly Father.
Many of the questions asked of the General Conference corpus can also be asked of Sunday School manuals. This analysis can potentially provide new insights into the doctrinal trends of LDS teachings.
- Nelson, Russell M. “Opening Remarks.” Ensign, 2018.
- Nelson, Russell M. “Becoming Exemplary Latter-Day Saints.” Ensign, October 2018.
- Rose, Jerry. “The Correlation Program of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints During the Twentieth Century.” Brigham Young University, 1973.
- Wiley, Peter. “The Lee Revolution and the Rise of Correlation.” Sunstone, 1984.
- Packer, Boyd K. “The Father and the Family.” Ensign, May 1994.
- Anderson, Christian N. K. “Do We Have to Believe That? Canon and Extra-Canonical Sources of LDS Belief.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 50, no. 1 (2017): 79–138.