LDS General Handbook of Instructions has evolved over a century-plus

(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here.) The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints General Handbook of Instructions, or at least the section that’s for all inquiring eyes, are eagerly awaited as much by members as historians, reporters, and activists. A new release can be a quiet way for the church leadership to make a policy or priority change. Mormon historian and author Michael Harold Paulos has prepared an article on the history of the LDS General Handbook of Instructions, which includes its evolution, changes as well as information on leaders who had an impact its evolution. Paulos’ essay is in the current Journal of Mormon History.

It’s interesting to note that the first dozen-plus handbooks were mostly thin pamphlets “approximately 50 pages each.” The first handbook, in 1899, was only 14 pages. It appears that a love for detail — and the growth and details-oriented obsession that comes with bureaucracy — contributed to the gradual growth of the LDS handbook. The 17th church handbook, published in 1944, was the largest ever at 274 pages. Paulos attributes the larger edition, with its many changes, to the efforts and influence of J. Reuben Clark, the first counselor to then-church President Heber J. Grant.

From 1940 to 1944, Paulos explains, Clark was often the only leader in the First Presidency’s office for long stretches of time. Paulos writes, “Over this … period, Clark shrewdly used his administrative acumen to propose innovative ways to streamline auxiliary programs and instruction manuals. … his ideas later served as the inspiration behind the formation of Church Correlation.”

As Paulos mentions, the 1944 handbook enjoyed a tenure of 16 years. One problem with that length, he recounts, is that handbooks became scarce, and leaders could not find copies to consult.

The scarcity underscores the tension over how much impact the handbook should have. Church leaders traditionally intend the handbooks as sources for leaders to consult. They don’t want, at least publicly, to have the handbook supersede the spiritual guidance that a local church leader is supposed to possess. In fact, the first 11 handbooks were primarily concerned with tithing administration, rather than other functions. But, as Paulos notes, from the 12th edition on, the handbook “includes a large variety of instructions on general church policies and procedures for many topics …”

While the reason for specific changes in handbooks instruction can only be surmised, Paulos writes, “… it is my conclusion that most of the textual changes in the handbooks have been precipitated by membership growth or geographic expansion, societal and cultural changes both in an outside the United States, and technological advancements and innovations.

I (the author of this blog) speculate that any changes in the handbook, particularly on issues that might be described as controversial, such as how leaders are told to deal with gay members or discipline activities such as abortion, are influenced by the balance of control within hierarchies. Such issues’s stances have likely evolved in the non-public “blue” church handbook available to limited ecclesiastical leaders. That “blue” handbook, also includes a substantial portion on how to assist church members seeking repentance and guidance on LDS disciplinary procedures.

The handbooks’ importance to leaders cannot be underestimated. Paulos writes, “Because handbooks are the de facto training guide for Church leadership, lay leaders are encouraged to become intimately acquaintanted with the current handbook.” As mentioned, however, church leaders have stressed that the handbooks are not designed to answer every question or dilemma that a church leader will encounter, Paulos adds.

This “contradiction” underscores how important the teaching of personal revelation — as well as a leader’s specific revelation as it pertains to his or her ecclesiastical calling — is within LDS culture. The LDS faith may be associated as a mostly politically “conservative” religion, but its roots are very progressive. Members are still encouraged to seek guidance from God, following Joseph Smith’s reaction to reading James 1:5 as a young teenager..

As for the evolution of terms in the handbook, Paulos notes interesting changes, such as the gradual switch from the more elitist term of “grades” to determine what is now regarded as degrees of the LDS priesthood.

As Paulos relates, the LDS handbook has an interesting history. It has evolved to a point that the Mormon church’s stances on social issues are publicly disclosed within its pages. That candor guarantees that future revisions will always be greeted with keen interest from many diverse sources.

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3 Responses to LDS General Handbook of Instructions has evolved over a century-plus

  1. E B says:

    Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the balance that Church leaders seek between faith and revelation versus versus operating strictly by standard Church procedures (as outlined in the handbook), as well as the many kinds of leaders there are – as many as there are people. Having been a leader, I am SO grateful for the handbook that reiterates the principles of the gospel within the context of the various auxiliaries and their functions. The overarching focus on bringing people to Jesus Christ should never be lost by misguided leaders IF leaders are intimate with the handbook as directed. As in many other areas in life, revelation comes more readily when we are already familiar with the scriptures – or the handbook, in this case.

  2. Rex Whitmer says:

    At present there is an assortment of handbooks distributed to members of various callings (or assignments). Generally speaking the books are intended as a guidebook. Every member can expect to recieve revelation as to how strictly he or she follows the topics discussed. For instance, if I’m teaching a class, there are several formats generally laid out to help bring the lesson alive to the class, however, I may choose a different method of presenting the lesson. A Bishop has a much expanded book giving him accepted ways and limitations on what he can or what he must do. A stake President (presides over several congregations and their Bishops) has a similar book and so on I would suppose, to the President and Quorum of the Twelve. There is at least communication and oversight over the sub leadership and I can’t tell you for certain there because I have had no experience there.

  3. Bro. Brig says:

    Just in case members struggle with this:

    It is time for the saints to put away childish things. It is absolutely dangerous to have a rose-filtered view of the apostles, prophets, and scriptures. Good luck!

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