By: Mormon Heretic
Dumbing Down/Simplifying the Gospel
Correlation often gets a bad name on the bloggernacle. That’s part of the reason why I brought up a quote from Michael Quinn (who is hardly “correlated”) discussing the benefits of Correlation. Yet Correlation can make church extremely boring. A few weeks ago, I discussed with my bishop that I am really bored at church, and tired of poorly prepared lessons. I said I was tired of “the basics”. Joseph Smith didn’t only teach “the basics”; he gave the King Follett sermon publicly at a funeral, for example, and didn’t seem concerned that the theology was more advanced than “the basics”. My bishop responded that we are supposed to follow what the brethren today want us to learn, and not focus on old topics. I disagree, but that’s why I like to talk about this stuff here.
Daymon Smith gave an interview with Andrew Ainsworth on Mormon Stories back in 2010. Smith’s Ph.D. dissertation was on Correlation, and By Common Consent did a 9-part series on the topic. I wanted to quote some parts of the Mormon Stories interview that I found interesting. I think it gives some insights into why the church seems to focus so much on the basics.
Smith, “[church leaders] begin to speculate about the growth of the church in the future, which is of course, what we expect from prophets, seers, and revelators is this kind of speculation, and the speculation is entirely future oriented and statistical, so rather than enunciate how spirit children are conceived and what kinds of carrots they eat, now they’re talking that there will be 12 million members by the year 2000. And so the puzzle here for [Harold B.] Lee is–
Andrew Ainsworth interrupts, “Which ended up being pretty of prophetic in hindsight.”
Smith, “That’s right, and I could go into some of the reasons why they sort of made this true. But what happens is Lee decides in order to keep the church pure, to keep it consistent and whole, he’s going to have to ensure that people in Guatemala have very simplified manuals that they can work from so that the church doesn’t spin off into 100 different churches. Part of the drive for this is the experience of many young apostles like Boyd K. Packer, Harold B. Lee and a few others, Mark E. Peterson, who had spent time on the Indian Reservations on the Utah border, in Arizona and New Mexico. Their experience convinced them that these guys, you know these Native Americans, just didn’t seem to quite get it. They didn’t really seem to understand the doctrine of the priesthood or the atonement or these things that were viewed as being foundational to what every Mormon should know. And they came back from there convinced through their experience with the Church Education System that they needed to simplify, and so you’ve got here three different lines or sort of vectors as it were.
You’ve got these guys from CES who had experiences in non-protestant America, you had speculations about the growth of the church as it moves into new areas, Latin America in particular, and then you’ve got Lee’s concerns over how to make everything efficient, and that was sort of his guiding light was How do we make something efficient? And specifically exercise priesthood authority efficient in the church so that we don’t get a lot of schisms, we don’t get a lot of resistance to a new kind of manual, or a new kind of canning program. So Lee is commissioned by President David O McKay, to an editing committee which David O. McKay had been on the previous time it was instituted in 1920.”
Ainsworth, “And just to keep us on our timeline, is this about 1960 when President McKay asked Harold. B. Lee to review these curriculum manuals?”
Smith, “That’s right, ‘60, ’61 and McKay had been on a similar committee in 1920 and had made recommendations that were viewed as far too radical in terms of how to structure the writing of curriculum, and so McKay gives Lee this commission. It’s a very small thing. Basically go through some of the manuals and kind of reduce redundancy and overlap. Because at this point they’re producing all kinds of manuals. Any of the auxiliaries, the Relief Society, could ask anybody to write a manual for them. They could ask Hugh Nibley, they could ask Sterling McMurrin, they could ask, you know John F. Kennedy. They could ask anybody to write these things, Primary as well, Young Mens/Young Womens as well. Any of these could have their own curriculum writers.
So of course you got a lot of overlap, and Lee’s concern was not necessarily that there was redundancy and overlap was a problem, but that we need to sort of structure the redundancy in a way that is going to ensure the creation of a pure people who are going to be qualified for Zion. And so he really does take what is a very small commission, and an editorial committee and revolutionizes the modern church and really does in some sense create a new kind of Mormonism, which really was a sort of bubbling into some kind of organization up until then. The church was still trying to figure out what it was going to be from 1920, 1930, 1940, and into the 1950s. Harold B. Lee says this is what it’s going to be, and what it’s going to be in some sense is what I’m calling Correlationism. It’s this concern that we are correlated, is in some sense the principle that makes you a Mormon.
Ainsworth, “So in some sense, we’ve got this thing called the Correlation Committee. So how does it go about achieving correlation of doctrine?”
Smith, “Yeah this is one of those things that historically you see a lot of transitions in. In the 1960s the way that they started to do it was really to kind of discern what the foundations of the gospel were. And so this is where they took an empty room and filled it with notecards. They had 72 notecards, and they filled the notecards with phrases or abstract nouns. These were for the most part terms which were broken away from any kind of tent system so it wasn’t like you needed to know when this particular event happened, for example when Elijah came to the Kirtland Temple.
On these notecards, you find things like members need to know about priesthood authority, or they need to know about repentance, or they need to know about obedience. They need to know about the restoration of the Gospel. So they sort of mapped out 72 different terms which they regarded as like ideas. 72 ideas.
Ainsworth, “Do you know why? Where does the number 72 come from? I mean other than 6 times 12 equals 72. Is there some sort of ancient, mystical Hebrew numerology behind 72? I’m joking, I’m joking.”
Smith, “There is actually.” [he chuckles]
Ainsworth, “You’re kidding.”
Smith, “No, No, No. There is.”
Ainsworth, “I’ve just stumbled on one of the mysteries in a Mormon Stories interview. Ok, so what is the magic behind 72?”
Smith, “Well the idea is that they divided the earth up into—the fallen angels had divided the earth into 70 different quadrants, and they were each going to be a god or a steward or a shepherd into each of these 72 segments of the earth, or 70, it sort on depends which ones you’re looking at. There’s also sort of a notion that God has 72 names, so you know I don’t think they were sort of re-enacting a sort of mystical kabbalism, but it was probably that there were 72 notecards in the pack they bought, you know that’s sort of my guess of it. I think what they had gone through, maybe they had taken 100, maybe 150 and then sort of boiled it down into 72 essential ideas.”
Ainsworth, “Ok, each one has a word on it like tithing, restoration, repentance.”
Ainsworth,”This seems to be the sort of the defining—well first of all you’re defining the gospel, you’re defining Mormon Doctrine, you’re creating it seems, I don’t know if it’s the first time, but you’re creating what we now sort of term ‘essential doctrines’, or ‘core’ doctrines or principles. Is that what we have going on?”
Smith, “That’s right. And this is the sort of things they teach converts, the flood of converts that they’re going to be having because they’ve now sort of stumbled on a new kind of financial way of leveraging debt into a missionary system. So this is the work of N. Eldon Tanner, or actually Henry D. Moyle, who had decided that they we’re going to fund the missionary work through deficit spending. And so the problem of course then is that you’re going to have all of these people converting to the gospel on the basis of a financial speculation, a model of financial speculation. How are you going to keep them all in? Of course you can reduce and boil down the gospel to 72 words, that’s a good place to start.
Of course the dilemma is that you can’t really sort of test to see if anybody understands the word repentance just by putting it in a manual. But, you know the concern here was with sort of formal replication, and the principal behind this was that the mind was going to be kind of forced into public scrutiny through this regulation of doctrines that ultimately became Correlation.
You have Lee in the 1960s formulating some basic doctrines that the few manuals that he was going to be editing needed to teach 3 times, when you’re a child, 3 times when you’re an adolescent, and then 3 times when you’re an adult. The idea was that if they taught it 3 times, in these 3 different segments, again sort of Trinitarianism run amok, talk about numerology, then you would have in a sense, the best shot at being a pure religion, sort of creating a foundation for Zion.
I guess I can identify with Lee’s desire to help new converts, but I don’t quite understand the “one size fits all” approach to theology. While I think it is good for converts to focus on the basics, the fact of the matter is that a lifelong Mormon is going to get taught these 72 ideas a LOT more than 3 times. It’s great that we have a good focus on the basics, but it’s also like repeating high school over and over and over. It stunts our growth, and we never become theologically intelligent if we are in essence repeating algebra over and over and over. At some point, if we want to get smarter, it would be good to move on to tougher classes that will expand us more. We don’t have any theological Einsteins in Mormonism precisely because we can never learn anything more than the basics at church.
Correlation is excellent for new converts, but it stunts the growth of long-time members. While I can appreciate the need to learn the basics, especially for new converts as Packer, Brown, and Lee saw this problem up close and personal on the Indian reservations, it seems that Correlation is really dumbing down Mormon theology. I can see it is a difficult concept to teach people of varying knowledge. Do you have any ideas on how to stimulate both new converts and old members? Is “one-size-fits-all” really the best way to handle the problem?