The Fine Art of Spiritual Vaccines

I was recently called as my ward’s early-morning seminary teacher. I’ll pause to let you all wince.

There are many challenges to this calling, but, to my surprise, waking up at 5:15 AM is not the greatest challenge. (This isn’t to say it’s the smallest challenge, either; I’m not a morning person, at all, and I freely admit to having some very un-Christian feelings in my heart–and words in my mouth–when that alarm goes off.)

No, the greatest challenge for me so far is walking the line between true and useful, as Boyd K. Packer would put it. We’re studying the D&C and church history this year, and I’m a total church history hobbyist: though by no means a professional historian, I’ve spent the past few years reading through “best of” lists of church history books (guided in part by the Bloggernacle; thank you, everyone!), and I’d like to think I’m a little more educated than the average bear, for good or ill. While this has its obvious benefits for seminary teaching—I spend a lot less time on preparation than I might otherwise–it also brings up a huge question: how much of this fancy book-larnin’ should I share with my students?

A big part of me wants to answer that with “all of it.” I, as a high schooler, would have loved to hear about the warts of church history; I’ve always struggled with being bored in Church, and the sleepiness of early-morning seminary didn’t help. Information about, say, Joseph Smith practicing polygamy would have at least kept me awake and paying attention. Furthermore, somewhat paradoxically, I think my recent reading in church history has been great for my own testimony and commitment to the Church; encountering the historical challenges found in the best books brought me away from the boredom I had been feeling and to an appreciation of some of the thorny intellectual problems posed by a commitment to Mormonism. But, of course, I’ve heard enough stories, both on the internet and in real life, to know that this isn’t the case for everyone.

I’m aware of this, and I’m trying to be sensitive to it, really I am. And yet it seems like every other day in seminary I open my mouth and something tumbles out; so far this year I’ve touched on Joseph Smith and polygamy (Mary Elizabeth Rollins, Fanny Alger, Patty Sessions, Zina Huntington Young, Helen Mar Kimball, Eliza R. Snow, and Agnes Coolbrith have all been mentioned by name), peep stones and treasure-hunting, Helmuth Hubener’s excommunication, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the Dixie Wine Mission and the changing Word of Wisdom standards, the priesthood ban, the Kirtland bank failures, and probably some other topics that I’m forgetting right now. And I only teach every other day.

Clearly, if “true” and “useful” are really dichotomous, I’ve opted for “true.”  But of course I don’t think they are, and in choosing to bring these topics up in seminary, I feel that I’m just practicing good spiritual medicine by giving my students a little inoculation.  The way information spreads these days, it’s hard to imagine any of my students living their entire lives without learning about these issues, and wouldn’t it better to at least hear it taught by a faithful member, in a faithful context? Wouldn’t it be better if they could see, every other day, a model of a member who knows about difficult X, controversial Y, and faith-challenging Z, and stays in the Church anyway? Or, more realistically, wouldn’t it be better if, when they stumble on this information later in life, they can say to themselves, “Oh yeah, I think my seminary teacher mentioned that once!”?

That is the most important point to me: I don’t want my students to ever feel like they have been lied to. A few years ago, I got into an intense church-bathroom conversation with a fellow ward member, a college junior first working her way towards feminism.  The topic of polygamy came up, and she was quick to decry it, to say how disturbing it was to her.  “But,” she said, “I take comfort in the fact that at least Joseph Smith never practiced it. He said he could never hurt Emma in that way.” Who had taught her this? A well-meaning seminary or Sunday School teacher, probably, hoping to protect her by withholding or sugar-coating information; instead, the approach backfired, as it meant her already-fragile testimony rested partly on a patch of sand.

Inoculation has its dangers, of course; to continue the medical metaphor, overdo inoculation and you can end up with infection, an entire class of seminary students disillusioned and troubled about the Church and its history. I’m trying to practice it responsibly; most days, we focus only on big-picture gospel principles or fun object lessons, and when I do bring up controversial topics, I try hard to present an apologist’s viewpoint as well. Plus, my students have reacted very well, so far; they’re either smart enough or sleepy enough not to seem especially bothered, in most cases. (I did get some wide eyes when I brought up Joseph Smith’s 27 wives, though I think they were more surprised by the number than the concept itself.) Yet I know mine is not the standard approach; I certainly never got any of these discussions in seminary, and judging by the manual’s curriculum, most other people aren’t either.

So this is my struggle, every other morning at 6:15 AM: where do I draw the line? When do my attempts at inoculation go overboard and result in infection? Should I just shut up about my stupid meat and teach the milk already? Or should I assume that the students are already getting plenty of milk in their other classes on Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday and focus on deeper discussions of history?

What is the ideal, do you think? What have your experiences been when dealing with this issue in Church instruction, as either a student or teacher?


  1. Petra, I would have loved to have you as my seminary teacher. In fact, I still would. Maybe I should commute to your class three times a week so I can learn everything about church history that I didn’t from the CES-approved version. (Maybe I should also finally read “Rough Stone Rolling”, which sat on my shelf for six months barely cracked, because I kept checking out more exciting-looking books from the library.)

    My experience in seminary (released time, in the heart of Utah Valley) was that learning wasn’t really the point so much as pep-rallying for the church, and that any honest questions I raised were inevitably met with “You just need to have more faith.” Granted I was trying my best to be an atheist by the time I was sixteen, and dropped out of seminary entirely at seventeen, so my questions probably came off a bit aggressive; nonetheless, I’m convinced that a seminary teacher willing to be honest with me would have done a world of good.

    I say it’s better to err on the side of truth — obviously you don’t need to go out of your way to bring up exciting scandalous things (“And speaking of tithing, this is what a peep stone looks like!”) but it seems better not to shy away from them either. (Not, Petra, that I imagine teacherly-you shying away from anything. :)) Information about church history is only going to be more and more easily available, and I agree wholeheartedly with this:

    Wouldn’t it be better if they could see, every other day, a model of a member who knows about difficult X, controversial Y, and faith-challenging Z, and stays in the Church anyway? Or, more realistically, wouldn’t it be better if, when they stumble on this information later in life, they can say to themselves, “Oh yeah, I think my seminary teacher mentioned that once!”?

  2. Everything you mention, and a lot more, can be addressed in seminary (all but Hubener, I think, were at least mentioned in my own church history home study seminary year of 1974-75). If not in seminary and institute, then when and where?

    My only hesitations in endorsing the teaching of those topics if they are NOT an outlined part of the curriculum are:

    1. The teacher really ought to know what she’s talking about and not introduce myths and misunderstandings of her own through a half-baked rumor-mongering bloggernacle-based version of church history. (That isn’t meant to be personal — I don’t know you or your knowledge at all. I just mean that introducing false “history” just because a teacher wants to show warts, for whatever reason, can be more harmful than leaving something out entirely.)

    2. These topics should be presented as matter-of-factly and with the same spirit as any other parts of church history, not with the attitude that a teacher is telling things that the church wouldn’t want the students to know or that the teacher will tell the truth when everybody else has lied.

    I say I have concerns about introducing topics that aren’t part of the curriculum not because I think the kids shouldn’t know and can’t handle the material, but because if it isn’t part of the curriculum then the teacher has no model or guidance in what to teach or how to present it. Doing it wrong, with a sensationalist approach or an “I’m telling you something you shouldn’t know” attitude would be worse than not mentioning it at all. You should genuinely understand *why* you are teaching those topics before you do it, just the same as you ought to understand why there are lessons on the First Vision or tithing or anything else before you try to teach them.

  3. .

    I’m a big fan of inoculation and I think the teen years are the best time to do it. And I think seminary is better than Sunday School. It’s “supposed to be” intellectual and academic and so it can handle the weight of this and that. Plus, the idea of secret-because-confusing is dangerous to testimony, imho. Matter-of-fact recognition of strange/uncomfortable facts robs them of their power to shock.

    So keep at it.

  4. Those are some good points, Ardis; thanks for weighing in. I should clarify, for anyone worried, that when I say my studies in church history were influenced by the Bloggernacle, that means that I’ve studiously followed the Bloggernacle’s recommendations for the best books to read,. My discussions of Joseph Smith and polygamy are mostly drawn from a combination of In Sacred Loneliness, Rough Stone Rolling, and Mormon Enigma, plus some Dialogue articles, instead of Bloggernacle posts. (Though I will admit to drawing on Bloggernacle sources occasionally; I’ve referred to your own blog several times while lesson planning.)

    I’d also like to think that I’m not just bringing up these topics for the sake of being shocking; most of them, perhaps surprisingly, have come up naturally in the course of the lesson, either brought up by the students themselves (two students got into a heated discussion about peep stones, for instance) or as part of an answer to a student’s question.

    And I fully agree with your question, “If not seminary and institute, then when and where?” I think that’s part of the point that I’m trying to make here: presenting controversial topics in the context of a church lesson, where they’re germane, can be better than shying away from them for fear that people’s testimonies will be challenged.

    What I really wish, though, that I didn’t articulate strongly in the post, is that some of these topics were included in the curriculum. While the seminary manual does, to its credit, mention that Joseph Smith revealed polygamy, it is remarkably short of details on the matter. I realize that there’s already a lot to teach, but it would be nice to get some further guidance on these topics for teachers who might not be comfortable on their own, and furthermore, it would help dispel the impression that the Church is secretive about the darker parts of its past, plus clear up misunderstandings like those of my acquaintance described in the post.

  5. Th., this goes for your comment too: what would you think about some of these topics being included in the standard seminary curriculum, if it is supposed to be intellectual and academic?

    And Melyngoch, you can commute to my seminary class anytime. I have the feeling you’d liven up my object lessons quite a bit.

  6. If you haven’t heard back from any parents yet, my guess is that you’re doing just fine. (Although, maybe you just haven’t been at it long enough.)
    If you’ve been in your ward/stake long enough for people to hear you speak in Sacrament meeting, teach, and make comments in, RS or GD, the person issuing the call knows you have an academic/historical interest in the topic and probably is thrilled to have someone who will teach with passion for the subject at hand.
    I think having more adults in my life at that age who could live a thoughtful faith, openly, would have saved my wandering in the wilderness for a good 15 years.

  7. I’m not surprised these questions come up naturally — they should. “Where did that come from?” or “Why did they do that?!” mean that your kids are thinking of the past as something that really happened and that should make as much sense as the present. It should be just as natural to provide the answers and introduce the usually neglected topics.

    Just want to repeat that my hesitations had nothing to do with you personally. Everything you’ve said makes me think I’d be glad to have you teach any kid I cared about. But you probably have noticed the same thing I have in some bloggernacle discussions, where somebody seems to have found a wart that delights him simply because it *is* a wart, and he distorts it while he gloats over making sure everybody on the thread knows how big a wart he thinks it is. I’d hate someone like that to present the difficult issues if they aren’t part of the formal curriculum, because the kids have nothing to read as a reality check. They *should* be part of the formal curriculum, and as I said, I’m pretty sure they were, for the most part, in my own seminary career. That was a far more liberal era, though.

  8. Rock on. You are asking wise questions and are taking a temperate approach. As you hinted, seminary lite can lead to disastrous consequences for students’ faith in their adult futures. Seminary and other church education forums need to be about teaching students to begin to reason through tough historical and theological questions for themselves. They are given ample tools for belief in Sunday School. Seminary should be about supplying students with tools for thoughtful faith. I wish you would write a book about this.

  9. I have a similar academic background to yours and for five years taught early morning seminary with a similar understanding.

    It seemed to work fine. The students and I both learned much and were wiser and better for it.

    The biggest challenge for me was getting my ego out of the way so that I was teaching what I knew in ways that enlightened my students rather than in ways that simply gave me satisfaction about transferring knowledge.

    The key of course is to pray mightily over your lesson preparation and follow the inspiration that comes. Teaching by the Spirit (and by that I mean divine truth and enlightenment geared specifically for the needs of your students, not emotional heartstring tugging or painting glorious mental pictures) is powerful teaching.

    Students learn much from knowledge-seeking teachers who love them and love God and have faith in him AND are open and truthful about what they do and do not know about history and the scriptures AND who know how to recognize divine promptings in their lesson preparations. I suspect you do all three.

  10. When I was in seminary we had a whole class devoted to Mountain Meadows. Four adults worked together on the lesson which they dived up into parts. I thought it was well done, even though now I have learned that they got several parts wrong. I’m OK with that because they were working with what they had.

  11. As someone whose seminary experience consisted mostly of the boys and girls in the class getting into huge gender wars, I think your approach would have been infinitely preferable (especially with the published resources now available that weren’t out when I was in high school).

  12. I love your approach, Petra. It seems infinitely preferable to present challenging stuff matter-of-factly, as it sounds like you are, than to ignore it, as seems the more common approach. (At least the ignoring approach is what I got in released time seminary.)

  13. I think merely bringing up things shows to them that you may know more then what you are letting on and if they have questions years from now you could be a resource

  14. I wish I had had an experience like this in my seminary class. Or even in my BYU classes. I feel like we spend so much time hiding our history. Even at the college level, it seems like we can’t just get real and talk about actual history.

    I don’t know if you watched the RS General Broadcast, but part of it was talking about how important it is to remember our history and talk about the RS’s history–I really do wonder how much of the history we’re going to bring out–only the most flattering?


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