What Do The Latter-day Saints Think About Knowledge and Education?

September 13, 2011

A number of years ago while I was still living in Ketchikan, Alaska, I taught early morning seminary for three years.  It was perhaps the most richly rewarding service I ever did in the Church.  During those years, I read a statement by President Spencer W. Kimball which I cannot quote verbatim because to date I have been unable to find it.  Basically he said that education was among the most important of all human activities, and the most important education was gospel education.  I was deeply impressed by this. In looking for that passage I happened upon something said by Joseph Smith on the same topic of education and knowledge and its importance.

Spiritual knowledge is the knowledge that saves.

The Prophet Joseph Smith said, “The principle of knowledge is the principle of salvation. This principle can be comprehended by the faithful and diligent; and every one that does not obtain knowledge sufficient to be saved will be condemned. Salvation is nothing more nor less than to triumph over all our enemies and put them under our feet. And when we have power to put all enemies under our feet in this world, and a knowledge to triumph over all evil spirits in the world to come, then we are saved.” (History of the Church 5:387.)

I’ve been a member of the Church for nearly fifty years since I joined from a Baptist background in the early 1960s.  It was the Book of Mormon and the teachings of the prophets that first gave me my  testimony.  I am not one who fits well into groups, and I only have a very small number of very close friends.  So it was not the cultural or social aspects of the gospel that drew me into the fold of Christ.  In the early 1960s the main doctrinal works were Jesus the Christ and The Articles of Faith by James E. Talmage.  There was also a huge appetite in the Church in those days for the writings of Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie, my personal heroes.  I gorged myself on Talmage, Smith and McConkie.  I loved the teachings, teachings primarily bringing to light the sermons and ideas of Joseph Smith.

Today I am alarmed to see there is not as much interest in doctrine as there was then.  And from my perspective it seems like there is a greater number of saints who can be described as cultural or social Mormons, those whose interest in gospel is more about the Church than about what the prophets teach.  Obviously this is just a perception that I have.  It could be completely wrong.  But from where I stand this is what I see.

Of course, the best source of doctrine is the scriptures themselves, the standard works.  But I really miss the interest in doctrine of my early days in the Church.  The scriptures themselves tell us that anything a man speaks by the power of the Holy Ghost is scripture.  Many saints including myself consider the conference talks to be scripture when the Holy Ghost testifies to us that what we are hearing is true and from God.  I wonder, did LeGrand Richards write Marvelous Work and a Wonder while under the influence of the Holy Ghost?  I hope so.  That book was the manual for the Gospel Essentials class for many years.  How about the writings of Talmage, Smith and McConkie?  Were they writing under the influence of the Holy Ghost?  If so, then their works contain scripture as well.  Are there errors and personal opinion included?  I imagine that is a possibility.  But a great deal of their writing they wrote as moved upon  by  the Holy Ghost, ie. scripture.

Now I am fairly certain that today a decision has been made to focus on the standard works and discourage the publishing and reading of doctrinal works by individual apostles.  We are encouraged to get our doctrine straight from the standard works themselves.  I believe this is from God through his true prophets.  But it brings with it some unique problems.  First, is reading level.  Many of the scriptures are very hard to understand even if one has a huge vocabulary and highly developed reading skills.  Normally this would not be a problem if an honest seeker of the truth is prepared to receive personal revelation as he reads the scriptures.  But the second problem is this: People with inadequate reading skills will have a more difficult time enjoying the study of the scriptures, and as all of us have a tendency to intellectual laziness, this will discourage many from reading the scriptures.  I may be completely wrong, but it seems to me that average reading skills are declining in our society because of television, movies, DVDs, surfing the Web, computer and video games, etc.  Reading is no longer a highly popular form of entertainment as it once was.  And since reading is a skill that improves with practice, if people read less, over time they will not read as well.

I may be wrong, but it seems to me that there are far more Sacrament talks today than ever before which do not include any scriptural references, and even fewer that are focused on the scriptures.  Many of the talks I hear in Sacrament don’t seem to have anything to do with the gospel at all.  Telling temple stories, BYU stories, mission stories, and other Church stories can include some aspects of faith in Jesus Christ, repentance, baptism by immersion for the remission of sins, and receiving the Gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands.  But often they don’t.  If a Sacrament talk does not include any of the doctrines, scriptures or principles of the gospel, in what sense is it a gospel talk?  Such a talk would be more appropriate for a weekly meeting of the local Toastmaster’s Club.

I was recently in a Gospel Doctrine class when to my horror I heard the teacher say that knowledge of the gospel was not necessary to have a powerful testimony.  Perhaps he meant that being a gospel scholar such as Elder McConkie was not a prerequisite, but it didn’t come out that way.  He seemed to be saying that a deep understanding of the gospel was not needed.

I immediately raised my hand and said, “That can’t be true.  If gospel knowledge is not important, how do we account for the passage in the Doctrine and Covenants that says, “It is impossible for a man to be saved in ignorance.” (D&C 131:6)  This is possibly among the favorite scriptures of Elder Bruce R. McConkie and he quoted it often.  I also mentioned the fact that a person cannot study the scriptures without gaining knowledge.  And our prophets are continually asking us to study the scriptures.  If a person does not know the scriptures and hence the doctrines, it means he hasn’t been studying the scriptures.

Unfortunately, I was fairly new in the branch, and the Branch President was in the class.  Perhaps he thought my class comment was contentious.   I don’t know.  Be he called me into his office after the meeting and chastised me.  From that moment on I did my best not to say anything in class.  And a few weeks later he was released.

How important is gospel knowledge? How can we get it unless we search the scriptures?  If we do not use our knowledge of the scriptures in the talks and lessons we give, is that not a fairly good indication that we are not studying the scriptures as we should?  Perhaps I am being judgemental, but when I hear a talk in Sacrament that includes no scriptural references or does not focus on a scriptural theme, I just assume the speaker doesn’t know his scriptures very well because he is violating the commandment we have all received from Jesus Christ to “search the scriptures.”

It grieves me to see an interest in doctrine decline in the Church if that is in fact happening.  I hope I’m wrong about this, but it really frustrates me to attend Church week after week and hear many stories told in Sacrament meeting without hearing any of the parables of Jesus or other stories from the Bible and Book of Mormon.  Often the youngest speakers fresh out of Primary do a better job of sticking to the gospel in their talks than the adults do.

Have you ever heard a conference talk that did not include the scriptures?  I don’t think I have.  We need to follow the example of our prophet-leaders, not just their counsel.