SALT LAKE CITY — Most Mormons haven't read the 11 clear-eyed essays published by their church on 11 complex topics in the faith's history and doctrine, like polygamy and the differing versions of the First Vision.
Many haven't even heard about them, but that's about to change, beginning in January with additions to the Sunday School lessons in 20,000 congregations in North and South America.
Mormon leaders drew widespread praise for what are known as the Gospel Topics essays soon after they first appeared in November 2013. But some in and out of the church who appreciated them felt their potential positive impact on congregational conversations about, say, the former ban on blacks holding the priesthood, was blunted by the way the essays rolled out one or two at a time without fanfare amid a maze of other content on lds.org.
What the official Church Historian and Recorder, Elder Steven E. Snow, described as a "soft launch" left room for a small group to question whether the essays were official — each was approved by the First Presidency, the faith's highest governing body — while the majority of Mormons in the pews didn't know they existed.
The soft launch was deliberate. The essays had a practical purpose, leaders said. They intended the essays to help people find official answers to questions they might have when researching a specific topic online. And they were also meant to be widely used over time.
The new materials will now be integrated into everyday church teachings for teenagers, at the faith's colleges and in Sunday classes.
"We are making extraordinary efforts to provide accurate context and understanding of the teachings of the Restoration," said Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in a February appearance that sparked the additions to the Sunday School curriculum.
For more than a year now the essays have been part of new courses for 375,000 teenage seminary students and a new class, Foundations of the Restoration, for a similar number of college-age students in Institute courses at colleges and universities or in classes at the church's three Brigham Young University campuses.
Many Mormon parents, in fact, have been introduced to the Gospel Topics essays as their teens and young adults come home or call home to talk about how Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon using not just the more familiar Urim and Thummim instrument, but by also using a seer stone at times to translate the golden plates he was intrusted with.
Church leaders intend the essays and the course materials to provide scholarship, historical perspectives and outside resources that increase member understanding of complicated events in church history and complex doctrines.
On May 1, the church noted in a new manual for every teacher in the lay church, "Teaching in the Savior's Way," that "the church has published Gospel Topics essays to help answer questions about church history and controversial issues. Become familiar with official church resources, and encourage those who have questions to study them as well."
At the same time, the church grouped the essays together in one place for the first time in its popular Gospel Library app, used actively by more than 3 million members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The essays also are easier to find on lds.org, which asks teachers to "encourage members to study the Gospel Topics essays."
And in January, the essays will be introduced in LDS adult Sunday School classes as a part of some small alterations to the manual for study of the Doctrine and Covenants, one of four standard works of scripture in the church.
"We're using essentially the same manual with some additional links to supporting materials to help students and teachers answer questions," said Matthew McBride, web content manager for the Church History Department.
But that's not all.
A new book
The church released an updated version of the Gospel Library app last week. Under the Church History tab, users can find a Gospel Topics tab with links to all 11 essays. Next to that tab is a new book edited by McBride, "Revelations in Context," with over 50 short articles by Church History Department staff members, including the Joseph Smith Papers team.
The signed articles each provide a backstory about a revelation in the Doctrine and Covenants, McBride said.
"Our other scriptures are couched in narrative, and that helps you understand and interpret a teaching and see how it was provided," McBride said. "The Doctrine and Covenants is often one part of a two-part conversation. All we have are the responses. It's helpful to understand the circumstances that gave rise to the questions the early Latter-day Saint asked and subsequently the revelations given in answer.
"We think 'Revelations in Context will help makes reading the Doctrine and Covenants a fresh experience."
The book will be available in print, too.
The supplemental Sunday School materials also include some short videos from the lives of past church presidents central to the Dctrine and Covenants.
Next to the "Revelations in Context" tab in the app is one titled "Joseph Smith's Accounts of the First Vision" with links to the four main versions.
"We've singled them out," McBride said. "They are really very, very important, foundational accounts from Joseph Smith himself. We felt it was important to call them out and make them available in a more visible way."
In May, Elder Richard J. Maynes of the Presidency of the Seventy used the Gospel Topics essay on the accounts of the First Vision as he spoke to a worldwide audience of Mormon young adults.
"It is a blessing to have these records," he said. "They make Joseph’s First Vision the best-documented vision in history. I encourage you to visit history.lds.org to learn more about the accounts and see how they work together to paint a more complete picture."
That talk and the changes to the app and the Sunday School course were made after Elder Ballard, a senior church leader, charged teachers in the seminary and institute programs "to know the content in these essays like you know the back of your hand" so they can provide "thoughtful, careful and inspired answers to your students’ questions."
"More than at any time in our history," he added, "your students also need to be blessed by learning doctrinal or historical content and context by study and faith accompanied by pure testimony so they can experience a mature and lasting conversion to the gospel and a lifelong commitment to Jesus Christ,” he said.
"We felt like, with that charge and mandate that there were some things we could do as a department to help and support that effort," McBride said. "That was the impetus behind making the materials as accessible as we have, under the direction of Elder Snow."
Mormon Studies scholars say the Gospel Topics essays are a step forward for a church that in the past controlled its narrative. A number of people have been troubled by some of these issues and some have left the church, though overall church membership has grown steadily.
The essays show a new maturity and a clear effort by the church to get ahead of issues with transparency and in a context of faith, said Patrick Mason, author of "Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt."
"I think it's a win for transparency and honesty," said Mason, the Howard W. Hunter Chair in Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University. "I think it's a win for the relationship between the church and scholarship. I think it's a win for historical accuracy and the confidence that we can deal with tough issues inside the church."
"Bits and pieces" of grassroots Mormonism have had some confusion about the increased transparency, said Matthew Bowman, author of "The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith," but he believed that the Joseph Smith Papers Project and Elder Ballard's speech will drive a growing acceptance of it.
"Adjusting people's worldview is a tough task," said Bowman, a history professor at Henderson State University. "A lot of people may feel resistant to this because they already have a story. They may feel, 'I don't want information that will make me accept a different story.' The church is gently trying to move people into a different story."
Leaders "want first and foremost to preserve the faith," he added. "They wrote the essays in a way that will inoculate the faith."
The entire project is part of the institutional church's pivot toward a greater historical engagement, Bowman said, a move driven by the growing professionalization of the Church History Department.
Still, many Mormons won't immediately read and incorporate the essays. That may take a long time "because it's a long task," he said.
Kathleen Flake, the chair of Mormon Studies at the University of Virginia, said that's natural, because most people experience their religion as they live it in their day-to-day lives.
"I think the church is inviting them to read these Gospel Topics essays, and that it's part of the general education of the church about these matters," she said.
That really will start their engagement.
"Those are really big questions," she said of the topics. "People write books about those questions. The church's answers don't end the conversation. That's to be expected. The church joined the conversation with those essays. Those conversations will continue."
The first Gospel Topics essays released were "First Vision Accounts," "Are Mormons Christians?" "Race and the Priesthood," "Becoming like God," "Book of Mormon and DNA Studies" and "Book of Mormon Translation."
The other essays are "Peace and Violence among 19th-century Latter-day Saints," "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham," "Plural Marriage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," "Joseph Smith's Teachings about Priesthood, Temple and Women" and "Mother in Heaven."
SALT LAKE CITY — LDS leaders continued their recent effort to address challenging contemporary questions about Mormon practice and doctrine by publishing two new scholarly essays Friday that address the roles and authority of women in the church.
The first, "Joseph Smith's Teachings about Priesthood, Temple and Women," is longer, complex and nuanced. The other is about the longstanding belief in a Mother in Heaven, a distinctive teaching in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Approved by the First Presidency, the essays describe the enormous contributions women have made to gospel ministry since the earliest days of the church. Many LDS women and scholars were encouraged by their publication, calling them important contributions and a step forward.
"First, I was overjoyed to see that essays had been penned on these topics," said Valerie Hudson, co-author of "Women in Eternity, Women in Zion" and the George H.W. Bush Chair of International Affairs at Texas A&M. "Latter-day Saints have needed these topics addressed. ... Second, I was very happy to see that belief in Heavenly Mother has been 'certified' as being doctrinal through the imprimatur of the essay on lds.org."
The priesthood essay stated that both Mormons and others often "mistakenly equate priesthood with religious office and the men who hold it, which obscures the broader Latter-day Saint concept of priesthood."
That concept requires a full understanding of the use of priesthood authority by women in the church, according to the essay, especially in LDS temples, the ultimate form of Mormon worship.
Women and priesthood
The priesthood essay provided historical context for current dialogue about what the essay called "women's ministry." It pointed out that in 1842 — when American women could not vote, own property or earn money without turning it over to their husbands — LDS founder Joseph Smith created the Female Relief Society "in the Order of the Priesthood after the pattern of the church."
While it said that neither he nor any other church leader ordained women to the priesthood, it clearly stated that women do exercise priesthood authority without ordination.
"I think the essays are a tremendous step forward in clarifying the diverse and nuanced definition of what priesthood really is," said Neylan McBaine, author of "Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women's Local Impact." "Not all of our priesthood is gendered, and I think this essay is remarkable in how broadly it defines priesthood."
The idea of a broader concept of priesthood was one of the two most important sentences in the essay, Hudson and McBaine said.
To them, the other vital statement was that "the priesthood authority exercised by Latter-day Saint women in the temple and elsewhere remains largely unrecognized by people outside the church and is sometimes misunderstood or overlooked by those within."
"That's the most remarkable part of the essay," McBaine said. "It's incredible for them to actually draw attention to that. And then to add, 'Women exercise priesthood authority even though they are not ordained to priesthood office' — a reference to a talk by Elder Dallin H. Oaks last year — to have that appear in an official church statement, that women exercise priesthood authority? That's very exciting."
The essay said Joseph Smith taught the temple ordinances to men and women in the final years before his death and promised that they would endow men and women with "power from on high."
"These revelations and ordinances," the essay said, "imparted new understanding of the interdependent relationship of women and men."
Women and authority
LDS women serve in ways that would require ordination in many other religious traditions, the essay stated, such as when they lead Relief Society, Young Women and Primary organizations; preach and pray in congregations; participate in priesthood councils; and serve as missionaries around the world.
In each case, as Oaks said, they are acting with the authority of the priesthood.
"It would be impossible to quantify the impact women have in and on the church," said Sheri Dew, author of "Women and the Priesthood: What One Mormon Woman Believes." "Right now in more than 180 nations, there are literally hundreds of thousands of women serving in presidencies on both local and general levels of church government who provide leadership for the millions of women, young women and children of the church and who sit as standing members of major councils that direct the affairs of the church.
"And that doesn't count all of those who teach, proselytize as full-time missionaries, officiate in priesthood ordinances in the temple, pray in public meetings and expound doctrine. I have been unable to find any other organization, let alone any other church, where as many women have as much bona fide leadership opportunity and influence as in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."
Every Mormon woman who has been to the temple knows that women perform ordinances there, McBaine said, adding that this essay will open up discussion about the meaning of that practice.
The essay provided important factual, historical context to the conversation about women and the priesthood in the church, but while it goes into depth with its 58 footnotes, it isn't exhaustive, Hudson and McBaine said.
Both felt more could have been shared about the 19th-century LDS practice of women giving healing blessings. The essay acknowledged the history but stated that women were seen to have a gift of the spirit without the priesthood. The practice was discontinued by LDS Church President Heber J. Grant in 1926 based on the Biblical directive to "call for the elders."
That explanation didn't satisfy Hudson.
"In short, this is not, and cannot be, the final word on the subject, as the essay seems as conflicted as the present-day membership on these issues," she said.
The church does plan to provide additional scholarly information about the early roles and ministries of Mormon women.
In March 2016, the faith's official Church Historian's Press will publish "The First Fifty Years of Relief Society: Key Documents in Latter-day Saint Women's History," by Jill Mulvay Derr, Carol Cornwall Madsen, Kate Holbrook and Matthew J. Grow.
LDS historians say that's a big deal because it's the first book the press will publish other than those from the multi-volume Joseph Smith Papers project. Known colloquially in the church history department as the Relief Society documents project, it will provide a major resource for learning about the way women preached, taught, worked and acted in their roles and responsibilities in the early church.
The essay on Heavenly Mother added little that was new, experts said, but it was welcomed particularly on the heels of the mention of her in a talk at the faith's general conference earlier this month by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve.
The essay surveyed 171 years of statements about a Mother in Heaven and reiterated that Mormons follow Jesus Christ's teaching to "always pray unto the Father in my name."
The two new pieces are the 12th and 13th in-depth essays about topics of special public interest in church history and doctrine published by the church in The Gospel Topics section of lds.org in the past two years.
The Heavenly Mother essay first appeared online Thursday night after it was leaked to Reddit. The essays had been ready for weeks, church spokeswoman Kristen Howey said, but officials were waiting to post them until they could be translated into other languages.
The church chose to move forward Friday after the leak.
The 13 essays are an effort to provide the most historically accurate information about subjects like polygamy and the past restriction on blacks and the priesthood, according to church officials. They are designed to counter questionable and inaccurate sources with academically rich essays, many of which have dozens of footnotes and are written by historians and scholars.
Each Gospel Topics essay was approved by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
"I think the church history department and the church really have to be commended," said Patrick Mason, the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University. "These essays represent a really significant step forward in terms of transparency, honesty and reckoning with hard questions and contribute a level of confidence and maturity to the discussion."
Gospel Topics pages enhanced or added at LDS.org since November 2013 include "Race and the Priesthood," "Becoming like God," "First Vision Accounts," "Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo," "Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah" and "The Manifesto and the End of Plural Marriage."
The other essays are "Are Mormons Christians?" "Peace and Violence among 19th-century Latter-day Saints," "Book of Mormon and DNA Studies," "Book of Mormon Translation" and "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham."