Core Curriculum in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

John Hilton. Religious Education. Volume 110, Issue 1, 2015.

The purpose of this article is to provide insights into the core curriculum of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly known as “The Mormon Church,” and herein referred to as the LDS church). Members of the church “believe in God the Eternal Father, and in his son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost” (Pearl of Great Price 2013, 60). The LDS church was founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith, a man that Latter-day Saints believe was a modern prophet. After the death of Joseph Smith, a new prophet was called, with a line of successors continuing to the present day. Latter-day Saints refer to the leader of the church as “the prophet” or “the president” of the church. Assisting this individual are two counselors and 12 apostles. This background is important for the discussion that follows in that these 15 individuals speak authoritatively for the church, and I will be quoting from several of their published speeches and writings. I will refer to all such individuals as “senior church leaders.”

The LDS church has approximately fifteen million members in countries from Albania to Zimbabwe; more than half of the members of the church reside outside of the United States (for additional information about the history of the LDS church, see Whittaker 2010). Given the global scope of the LDS church, and the variety of perspectives shared by its members, there is perhaps no single view on what the core curriculum of the LDS church is or should be. Defining core curriculum is ultimately the responsibility of senior church leaders; while I do not speak for them, I will attempt to provide a reasoned picture based on my understanding of their words. In addition, I point out that while LDS scripture encourages learning of many types (e.g., history, geography, and so forth; see Doctrine and Covenants 2013, 88:78-80), I will focus on core curriculum in terms of spiritual knowledge and understanding.

Core Outcomes

In the United States much is currently being said about the importance (or unimportance) of a “Core Curriculum.” At the heart of the idea of a core curriculum is that there are certain topics or concepts that need to be covered, presumably with the intention of obtaining uniform and/or important outcomes. Thus, a discussion regarding core curriculum must, at least initially, focus on the intended results. At least some of the debate regarding core curriculum at the elementary and secondary levels in the United States centers on disagreement regarding the outcomes that should be produced by such an education. Is the core purpose of a high school education in America to produce students who have the skills and capacity to earn money? Is it to inculcate in students a desire to make the world a better place? While answers to these and similar questions are not necessarily mutually exclusive, they illustrate the challenge of identifying core content prior to a shared understanding of core outcomes.

Within the context of religious education there may also be a variety of core outcomes within different religious traditions (Schippe and Stetson 2006; Freathy and Parker 2010; Hella and Wright 2009; Loving 2011). In the LDS church there is a core underlying purpose in all its efforts with regard to religious education, namely to assist students in the process of becoming converted to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Thomas S. Monson, currently the president of the LDS church, taught “The goal of gospel teaching… is not to ‘pour information’ into the minds of class members… The aim is to inspire the individual to think about, feel about, and then do something about living gospel principles” (1970, 107).

Thus, while helping students understand basic storylines, or learn facts and figures about a particular section of scripture is valued, the core desired outcome is conversion. Senior church leader David Bednar defined conversion as follows: “True conversion brings a change in one’s beliefs, heart, and life to accept and conform to the will of God and includes a conscious commitment to become a disciple of Christ.  …  It is the result of revelation from God, accompanied by individual repentance, obedience, and diligence” (Bednar 2012, 107, internal references omitted). This is the core religious educational outcome driving curricular decisions in the LDS church.

Core Content

In a landmark address given in 1938 to LDS religious educators, senior church leader J. Reuben Clark provided two core principles that guide the content of what is taught in the LDS church. Terming these principles as “the latitude and longitude” of religious education, he defined them as follows:

First: That Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Only Begotten of the Father in the flesh, the Creator of the world, the Lamb of God, the Sacrifice for the sins of the world, the Atoner for Adam’s transgression; that He was crucified; that His spirit left His body; that He died; that He was laid away in the tomb; that on the third day His spirit was reunited with His body, which again became a living being; that He was raised from the tomb a resurrected being.  …  These positive facts, and all other facts necessarily implied therein, must all be honestly believed, in full faith, by every member of the Church.

The second of the two things to which we must all give full faith is: That the Father and Son actually and in truth and very deed appeared to the Prophet Joseph in a vision in the woods; that other heavenly visions followed to Joseph and to others  …  that the Prophet’s successors, likewise called of God, have received revelations as the needs of the Church have required, and that they will continue to receive revelations as the Church and its members, living the truth they already have, shall stand in need of more.  …  Without these two great beliefs the Church would cease to be the Church. (Clark 1938, see also Esplin 2006 and Griffiths 2010)

Thus, one way to approach the core content of religious education in the LDS church is that which promotes the principles of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and continuing revelation in the modern day. The primary way that the LDS church teaches these principles is by facilitating multiple opportunities for its members to carefully study its canon, which is collectively referred to as scripture. Latter-day Saint canon includes four books: the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. I next briefly discuss each of these books, and what makes them an important part of the core curriculum for Latter-day Saints.

The Bible is a book that many are familiar with; members of the LDS church believe both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament contain the words of God. M. Russell Ballard, one of the senior leaders of the LDS church, taught, “We love the Bible.  …  That may be surprising to some who may not be aware of our belief in the Bible as the revealed word of God. It is one of the pillars of our faith.  …  The more we read and study the Bible and its teachings, the more clearly we see the doctrinal underpinnings of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ” (Ballard 2007, 82).

The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ “is a volume of holy scripture comparable to the Bible. It is a record of God’s dealings with ancient inhabitants of the Americas and contains the fulness of the everlasting gospel” (Book of Mormon 2013, 2). Ezra Taft Benson, the president of the LDS Church, prior to his passing in 1994, stated that “The Book of Mormon is the keystone in our witness of Jesus Christ, who is Himself the cornerstone of everything we do. It bears witness of His reality with power and clarity.  …  [Many people] reject the divinity of the Savior. They question His miraculous birth, His perfect life, and the reality of His glorious resurrection. The Book of Mormon teaches in plain and unmistakable terms about the truth of all of those” (Benson 1986, 5). A key intent of the Book of Mormon is to persuade people to believe in the Bible (see 7:8-9).

The Doctrine and Covenants contains a series of revelations, given primarily to Joseph Smith and his successors. It is shorter in length than the Book of Mormon (the Book of Mormon contain 531 pages, the Doctrine and Covenants, 298). Many important topics to Latter-day Saints (such as church organization, the purpose of temples, life after death, and so forth) are explained in the Doctrine and Covenants (see Hinckley 1989; Benson 1987).

The Pearl of Great Price is smaller yet (just 61 pages) and “is a selection of choice materials touching many significant aspects of the faith and doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. These items were translated and produced by the Prophet Joseph Smith, and most were published in the Church periodicals of his day” (Pearl of Great Price 2013, 1). This book is typically not taught by itself, but rather its constituent parts are taught alongside the larger books of scripture.

As stated previously, scripture is at the core of Latter-day Saint curriculum. An injunction in the Doctrine and Covenants proscribes the careful teaching of scripture: “And again, the elders, priests and teachers of this church shall teach the principles of my gospel, which are in the Bible and the Book of Mormon, in the which is the fulness of the gospel. And they shall observe the covenants and church articles to do them, and these shall be their teachings, as they shall be directed by the Spirit” (42:12-13).

As will be discussed further below, children ages 8-11 study a different book of scripture each year (one year each for the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, and the Doctrine and Covenants), as do high school students ages 14-18 in a program called seminary. Adult Sunday School lessons also follow a four-year rotation of these same books. Not all instructional settings in the LDS church examine the scriptures in a sequential fashion. For example, Sunday classes for youth ages 12-18 focus on “nine key doctrines [as] the core content” (Richardson 2014, 36). These doctrines are as follows: (1) Godhead, (2) Plan of Salvation, (3) Atonement of Jesus Christ, (4) Dispensation, Apostasy, and Restoration, (5) Prophets and Revelation, (6) Priesthood and Priesthood keys, (7) Ordinances and Covenants, (8) Marriage and Family, and (9) Commandments. Children under the age of eight likewise have Sunday classes that focus on key gospel topics. While scriptures are not explicitly at the center of these classes, they, along with teachings of modern prophets, provide the foundation for the class materials and the doctrines taught.

I should emphasize that the LDS concept of studying scripture, attending classes, and learning gospel doctrine is viewed as a means to conversion, not as an end in itself. Latter-day Saints believe scripture is a potent tool for changing hearts and inviting renewed commitment to the Lord. Latter-day Saints believe that as the doctrines found in the scriptures sink deep into people’s hearts, they are motivated to act, further deepening the conversion process (Eyring 2001).

Core Instructional Opportunities

A foundational belief in the LDS church is that the gospel precepts found in its canon need to be taught frequently (see Deuteronomy 6:6-7). The most important core instructional opportunities within the LDS church are found in the home. Latter-day Saints have been continually instructed to take advantage of multiple opportunities to teach the gospel in the homes. Methods in which this is done include positive role-modeling, daily family prayer, reading the scriptures together as a family (as well as modeling and encouraging personal scripture study), utilizing the Sabbath for gospel instruction, and a program known as “Family Home Evening,” in which on one weekday evening there is both study and wholesome recreation. Senior church leader Henry B. Eyring instructed parents on the necessity of their taking advantage of these and other opportunities to teach religious precepts to their children:

A wise parent would never miss a chance to gather children together to learn of the doctrine of Jesus Christ. Such moments are so rare in comparison with the efforts of the enemy. For every hour the power of doctrine is introduced into a child’s life, there may be hundreds of hours of messages and images denying or ignoring the saving truths. The question should not be whether we are too tired to prepare to teach doctrine or whether it wouldn’t be better to draw a child closer by just having fun or whether the child isn’t beginning to think that we preach too much. The question must be, “With so little time and so few opportunities, what words of doctrine from me will fortify them against the attacks on their faith which are sure to come?” The words you speak today may be the ones they remember. And today will soon be gone. (Eyring 1999, 74)

In addition to the core location of the home, the LDS church utilizes many other settings for teaching its core content. LDS church members attend three hours of Sunday services each week, including opportunities for the congregation to worship together, as well as age-appropriate classroom instruction.

In addition to Sunday instruction, students in grades 9-12 participate in a course called seminary, a program sufficiently rigorous that Dean (2013) referred to it as part of their “conditioning for an eternal goal with an intensity that requires sacrifice, discipline, and energy” (51). Most often, seminary students meet daily (Monday-Friday) before school begins, often at a church building or in a member’s home. A typical seminary class is approximately forty-five minutes (perhaps from 6:00-6:45 AM) and focuses on a sequential study of scripture, that is to say student study each book of scripture from start to finish (e.g., Genesis-Malachi, for additional information see Griffiths 2012). Similarly, young adults between the ages of 18-30 are encouraged to participate in additional opportunities for instruction, typically at a deeper level than the seminary program, aimed at meeting the needs of college students and other young adults. These instructional settings provide the church with the opportunity to help individuals connect with scripture and achieve the overarching outcome of conversion to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Conclusion

In this article I have focused on core curriculum in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as seen in its core outcomes, content, and instructional opportunities. An additional important aspect of the core curriculum is pedagogical approaches, a subject that has been discussed by Morgan (2014). For example, the principle having high expectations of learners is vital to the realization of the core outcomes outlined in this article.

One of the challenges with developing a core curriculum is that in many ways it can be a moving target. New technologies will provide different pedagogical pitfalls and opportunities. Moreover, the specific content of what is taught or the instructional opportunities that are utilized may shift over time in response to changing circumstances.

Ultimately, the core outcome of teaching in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is to assist individuals in deepening their conversion to the gospel of Jesus Christ. While debate has and will occur regarding the specifics of how this outcome is best achieved, I believe that it will remain the key goal of the LDS educational context. Latter-day Saints place a premium on learning; their scripture states that “The glory of God is intelligence” (Doctrine and Covenants 93:36) and that “if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come” (Doctrine and Covenants 130:19). For Latter-day Saints, working toward the core outcome of becoming converted to Jesus Christ is a vital aspect, not only of mortal life, but also eternity.