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."
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints published an essay on its website last month, acknowledging its founder practiced polygamy. George Frey /AFP/Getty Images hide caption
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints published an essay on its website last month, acknowledging its founder practiced polygamy.George Frey /AFP/Getty Images
Brigham Young publicly acknowledged what Mormons call "plural marriage" after the church became established in Utah in 1852.
But an article posted last month on LDS.org, the official website of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, says the practice of polygamy originated with its founding prophet, Joseph Smith.
Historians and others in the Mormon community have welcomed the article as a sign the church is becoming more open about its own history.
Mormon historian Todd Compton, who's written a book on Smith's polygamy, says there's good evidence Smith married at least 33 women by the time he was murdered by a mob in 1844. Other scholars put the number as high as 40 or 50. Compton says some of them were already married to other men.
"That was a really remarkable fact when I started researching and documenting these marriages," Compton says. "These women continued to live with their first husbands who they were civilly married to."
Several of Smith's wives were teenagers when they were married, or "sealed" to him for eternity, as the Mormon practice is called. One, and possibly two, were just 14 years old. The church article says not every marriage involved a sexual relationship.
Compton calls the article a good first step in what appears to be a new openness by the church to controversial topics in its own history.
"It's great that people who have brought up Joseph Smith's polygamy in the past, and mentioned it to conservative family members and the family members have just said, 'Oh, no, that didn't happen, it's all the work of anti-Mormons,' they can now point to these articles and say, 'No, it occurred,' " he says.
The church officially discontinued the practice of polygamy in 1890, though another article on the church website acknowledges that it continued as something of an open secret for some time after that. Today, Mormons who affiliate with offshoot groups that still practice polygamy risk excommunication.
Some Mormons argue the doctrine of polygamy Smith avowed is still part of Latter-day Saint teaching. Feminist Mormon activist April Young Bennett points out that men who are widowed or divorced can still be sealed in Mormon temples to a second or a third wife — something critics call spiritual polygamy. Women don't have the same privilege.
"This is a theological problem that needs to be resolved at the highest levels of church governance," she says. "And I really don't think it will be resolved until women are part of that highest level of church governance."
Bennett is a leader of the group, Ordain Women, which has been urging church leaders to consider allowing women to receive the LDS priesthood.
The website Mormon Women Stand is more traditional and supportive of church leadership. Jelaire Richardson is a blogger on the site. She says her faith in Smith is broader than just one controversial topic.
"I don't know of any other woman, personally, who's ever been asked to be OK or be at peace with polygamy, 'cause it's a hard thing," she says. "But personally, when I've prayed about Joseph Smith, that's how I feel I got my answer."
The church's public relations department declined an interview for this story, but it did issue a statement this week pointing out that the material in the articles on polygamy has been available from other published sources for a long time. It says the new articles are meant to be a resource for members and to counter misinformation about Mormon beliefs and practices.