I have a confession. I am an Elders’ Quorum instructor and I like the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church manuals. Really. From time to time, I hear people pine about the glory days when we had the old manuals with clearly designed lesson plans. All I can say is good riddance! Don’t get me wrong. There are things about the new manuals that I dislike. I wish we had a bit more historical information. I wish that the manuals would at least mention that Brigham Young was, you know, a polygamist. On the other hand, I really like teaching from the manuals. The reason is freedom.
Under the old system, I felt like I was put in a strait jacket by the manual. Now all that I am given is a set of texts that I am encouraged to discuss in light of appropriate scriptures (which I get to choose). It makes it much easier to set up discussions. Generally speaking, I try to set up my lesson around a set of apparent contradictions. I find passages in the text that seem inconsistent, or I find scriptures that seem inconsistent with passages in the manual. Then I ask the class how they would reconcile the contradictions. What we usually get are lively discussions about the meaning and relationship of various gospel concepts.
If I was to suggest changes to the manuals it would be that they become more like themselves. We are still too attached to the model of John A. Widtsoe’s Discourses of Brigham Young, which cut up Brigham’s sermons to arrange them topically. Widtsoe was a rationalist who wanted to make Brigham into a clearly organized writer and thinker, which he clearly was not. The result is that in the Discourse of Brigham Young we get a distorted view of Brigham’s voice and not simply because the bits about Adam-God and avenging the blood of the martyred saints are left out. The manuals follow Widtsoe’s example, and the result is that we have too much of the faceless editing committee and not enough of the prophets within their pages. Yet it seems to me that the move from the old manuals to the new was in large part a move to down-play the voice of the faceless editing committee, which used to give you detailed instructions on how to teach your class, and place the words of the prophets in the foreground. It would be nice if we kept going in that direction, and got more complete sermons. Give us our prophets strait in all of their organizational and rhetorical messiness.