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Sunday School on Apostacy

Rainbow by Jessawhy

Twice a month I teach the 13/14 year old Sunday School class in our ward. It’s a difficult calling for me, made much easier recently by my discovering this helpful site.  Lesson 24 on avoiding apostasy has been a real struggle for me. The suggestions in the lesson that identify apostasy in the early church involve stories about a cup of cream, a misspelled name, and too few seats at the Kirtland Temple dedication.

While I don’t deny that these stories led to apostasy, I’m bothered that they’re sited at the exclusion some of more serious issues with which the early saints struggled.  By no means am I a church history scholar, but I’ve read enough books to know that the early church era was very colorful and that the Mormons went through difficult growing pains. Two examples that came immediately to mind were the Kirtland bank failure, where many saints lost most or all of their money, and polygamy/polyandry practiced by Joseph and hidden from Emma for many years. It seems to me that a lot more apostasy in the early church was caused by these issues (and probably more) than by a cup of cream or a misspelled name.

As I’m preparing the lesson, I cannot bring myself to teach these trivial stories of apostasy when what I want to ask them is, “What would you do if the prophet (or stake president) called your dad tonight and asked him if he could marry you (or your mother)?” Now many people have faith promoting stories surrounding polygamy, and this isn’t really a post about the difficulties surrounding plural marriage.  I only want to point out that when people get offended and leave the church it isn’t always about something trivial that we can pat ourselves on the back and say, “I would never have left the church for that.”  My attempt to air out some of the early church’s dirty laundry may be an attempt to inoculate my students against future attacks by detractors.  Or, perhaps it is my desire to be subversive.  Either way, I don’t know if it is my place to explain some of these faith-challenging bits of church history to an age group that is just beginning to form grasp church doctrine and history.

What I want to teach is that the path to apostasy isn’t marked by roadsigns or a map, it actually lies side by side with the path to leading a life in direct connection with God, the kind of life where I seek spiritual confirmation of the commandments that come from church leaders.  Perhaps these paths cross over in some places and diverge in others. In the end, my struggle with the lesson on apostasy stems from my concerns in a centralized church structure where our allegiance is not foremost to God, it is foremost to an institution run by men, who like Joseph, were sometimes moved upon by the Spirit. What I’d like to see more focus on is how we can discern between when these men represent God and when they do not.

In this matter, history is a great teacher. Like all of us, Joesph was a fallible human and even though he was called of God, sometimes he made mistakes that hurt people.  And if we don’t study those mistakes (alongside the successes)  in our history, we may be destined to repeat them.

I wrote this Saturday night while struggling with my lesson. Sunday came and because of small class sizes, our class combined with another class and the other teacher taught them a previous lesson. All in all, an answer to my prayers.


Jessawhy is a wife, mother, community volunteer, activist and student. She is currently working towards a Physician Assistant degree.

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29 Responses

  1. Kaylana says:

    I completely agree. We should teach the good with the bad and let them know that we as humans whether called as a prophet or apostle or whatever are still fallible and it’s up to us to discern with the Spirit. Great post!

  2. Alisa says:

    I think your feelings that things are more complicated than they seem have merit. BCC did a great post on this a couple of weeks ago: http://bycommonconsent.com/2009/07/01/the-milk-strippings-story-thomas-b-marsh-and-brigham-young/

    Glad you didn’t have to teach this lesson, esp. when it made you uncomfortable.

  3. Mindy says:

    My husband and I were just discussing this sort of thing yesterday. I think we need to find a way to have positive discussions about some of the controversial events and practices in our church history. Not talking about these things like they didn’t happen or brushing over them seems to create opportunities for people to feel their faith bulldozed when they hear about it (usually from sources outside the church).

    I don’t understand why we can’t teach and say such and such happened and it was a mistake, or such and such happened because of a certain social/historical context. We don’t claim our prophets and leaders to be infallible, so why are we so scared to discuss when they show their humanity?

  4. aerin says:

    It may not be manual – based, but I think the message that everyone is human and has different motivations is an important one. And the message that only God/Christ can judge, which is definitely biblical.

    It’s easy to make assumptions, it’s much more difficult to accept that each person has their own path.

    Often, I think it is too easy to dismiss reasons that people leave the LDS church, when in reality it’s probably pretty complicated, as you suggest.

  5. EBrown says:

    I have a question about vocabulary. Why do Mormons use the archaic “of” as in “called of God.” Is this the same as “by” as in “called by God?” Or does it have a different meaning?

  6. mr.mraynes says:

    Great points, here, Jessawhy.

    I’m kind of sad to hear you didn’t get to teach the lesson. I know you would have done an excellent job and the kids would have been better off for it. Never shy away from speaking good sense, and it is good sense to acknowledge that some people leave the Church for trivial reasons, but many others have more valid (or substantial) concerns.


    I’m no expert in the field of Mormonspeak, but what you refer to here in my opinion is just another example of members repeating phrases that get said over and over. A self-propogating anachronism, if you will. One that often makes me cringe is the awkward use of “even” as in “He who is…even Jesus the Christ.” We love our flowery language!

  7. Jessawhy says:

    Thanks for the comments! I wrote this when I was practically in tears Saturday night and wondered if it would sound at all rational come Monday morning.

    Kaylana (beautiful name, btw),
    FWIW, I’ve heard some people say that with our new prophet there has been more of an emphasis to follow the Spirit and less on “Follow the Prophet (blindly).”
    I hope that’s true.

    Thanks for that link to BCC. This is exactly what I’m talking about. It’s really sad how Brigham Young welcomed him back into the church, insulting his attractiveness after he’d had a stroke!
    I’m still debating about giving the lesson, as I have to teach next week, and it’s either apostasy, or the priesthood. Both difficult subjects for me.

    I’m with you on this. My husband and I discussed this after church as well. Considering we’re essentially spending two-thirds of church discussing Joseph Smith for an entire year, you’d think we could get a very developed, well-rounded understanding of him. But, no, it has to be the white-washed version, only what sounds holy to our modern senses.
    For me the biggest problem comes from how we teach that leaders are fallible. I’d always grown up thinking (and some still do) that leaders can make mistakes, but they will never err in church leadership decisions, just in their normal behavior (ei: cutting off someone in traffic). This allows church members to believe that church leaders are perfect in their callings, while still potentially fallible in other areas. Even in the D&C sections I came across, there is one verse that says if a church leader is no longer called of God, the only power he will have left is to call someone to replace him. Now, who monitors that?

    When you say it like that, I have no problem teaching the lesson from a more open perspective. In fact I probably should, because chances are that they’ll get the regular lesson for the rest of their church experience.

    Yes, “Called of God” does mean “Called by God.”
    I don’t know why we say it that way. It’s a little embarrassing that you pointed it out, I’d never thought about it 🙂

    Thanks for the vote of confidence, I may end up teaching the lesson anyway. With the comments on this thread, I will feel more at ease. The parents of my students are pretty TBM, and my deviating at all from the lesson is probably not what they want their kids exposed to. So, I know it’s a fine line to walk and I’m not sure I can do that kind of balancing act (faith-promoting mixed with open-mindedness). I failed at it during my Word of Wisdom lesson, luckily I brought WoW snacks for the next week, which they did not appreciate (don’t we all like celery, carrots, and broccoli?)

  8. suzann says:

    You could teach this lesson by asking the children what makes them angry at friends, or situations that cause them to flee, never wanting to return. I think the children would probably come up with ideas that would help then develop understanding for themselves and others when difficulties arise.

    You could tell one of the stories about apostasy in the lesson, then ask the students what they would do if they were faced with the same situations. Get the students into the stories and use them to teach compassion, and what happens when we run away with hurt and anger.

  9. lyn says:

    I’ve recently been called into Primary – and I was grateful for the break from adult Sunday School. Until I realized that I’m teaching D&C to the 9/10 year olds – it isn’t the same manual you’re teaching from, but similar. The first week was WoW… that went relatively well. But I’m not looking forward to many of the future lessons because of the white-washing of the stories/events. Ugh. No words of advice here, just another person feeling “your pain” 🙂

  10. Kaimi says:

    I’m glad your prayer was answered, Jess.

    Alisa already linked the recent BCC discussion of milk and cream. Bored in Vernal recently posted a discussion of the Symonds Ryder story, and that one may be more complicated than the lesson manual portrays, too. See http://said-he-she.blogspot.com/2009/07/she-said-symonds-ryder-and-crisis-of.html .

    “Either way, I don’t know if it is my place to explain some of these faith-challenging bits of church history to an age group that is just beginning to form grasp church doctrine and history.”

    It sounds like you’re doing the best that you can, and I like the way that you’ve articulated your goals and desires. It’s true that the correlated lesson manual gives an incomplete picture, that is misleading in someways. It’s possible to be misleading in other ways as well — it would be a disservice to just stand up and yell “polygamy!” all the time. The realities of history are complicated and involve fallible people trying to commune with God. That’s a hard lesson to teach, especially to 13 year olds. I don’t know that there’s a right way to do it, but awareness of the concerns is the right place to start, so you are absolutely on the right track. 🙂

    And just think, your analysis of these issues now gives you lots of practice and preparations for when the Jessawhy boys hit their teenage years.

  11. ThomasB says:


    Personally I appreciate that you are concerned about this and as the teacher I believe you have been called for a purpose which is to impart the gospel to 13 & 14 year olds.

    I little prayer and meditation while studying the topic during the week goes a long way. The Kirtland bank failure is an incredible story to relate to these kids. There are so many principles that can be taught using this example and if a parent would have problem with that then it is just plain ignorant.

    The whole Kirtland period is fascinating and is full of things that could really grab a the attention of that age group.

    Think about relating John Taylors first few nights in Kirtland just moving his family from Canada escorted by Parley Pratt. Weapons are drawn and fired in the Kirtland Temple. Parley Pratt is beside himself because he has lost nearly everything because of the bank failure and is definitely “speaking evil” of the prophet to JT. This is low hanging fruit and lends itself for increasing testimonies in my mind. Leave the cookie cutter stuff to a mindless teacher.

    I am not sure who said it but the Joseph Smith manual is hardly white washed. If you look at the references and go to the sources it is amazing what is there. The King Follett discourse was quoted and used as reference for about the first 15 lessons. This is a huge step in the right direction. If you still continue to get your weekly dose of Mormon Pap then your teacher is likely just plain lazy.

    All that being said Jess remember these are 13/14 year olds and they will only retain 35% of what you say and that will be the controversial material you bring up. Would I bring up JS polyandry with 13-14 year olds? Not likely. Would I with 16-18 year olds? In a heart beat.

  12. EBrown says:

    Thanks for the info. You can take the girl out of the English class, but you can’t take the English class out of the girl. 🙂

    (I will ALWAYS be an English Major, whatever else I am.)

  13. Andrea says:

    EBrown: As you know, “Called of God” is biblical – King James. The phrase was forever ingrained in Mormon lingo by Joseph Smith in the 5th Article of Faith, which all the children memorize.

    Jessawhy: I wish you had taught your lesson. I have many friends leaving the church. Perhaps some more thoughtful apostacy lessons would’ve encouraged them to stick with it, in spite of church and leadership failings.

    Hope you get the chance to teach it.

  14. chelseaw says:

    Like Lyn, I was recently called to teach the 9/10 year olds in Primary and I’m having some of the same concerns. It’s hard to know how much to share. As a participant in the adult Gospel Doctrine class I would often throw out comments about some of the troubling history and nearly every time the response from the class and teacher was thoughtful and positive. With children/teens who are completely unfamiliar with it, the strategy needs to be a bit different, but I haven’t figured it out yet.

  15. YvonneS says:

    My manual said the part about the cream, the misspelled name and the seating at the temple dedication were a suggested attention activity. Teaching them wasn’t mandatory. I wouldn’t have used them because they are so well known among the adults that I teach that the idea that they would get attention isn’t valid.

  16. HeathL says:

    At 13/14 years old, I think it’s the more personal things that they worry about (backbiting friends, fashions, fitting in) which may be why those who wrote the manual used those examples — more personal, easier to relate to than financial fall-out.
    Another thought, perhaps the apostacy that happened didn’t start with financial fall-out, but began with little things. Thus we should learn not to let little things shake our faith, so our foundation is solid when bigger challenges come.

  17. Alisa says:

    In the Church we most often talk about extremely small apostate experiences (like getting a tattoo or having something pierced) as the root cause leading to greater apostacy. I question that.

    I often wonder if apostacy often starts with big things that the person keeps private, and these big things slowly become manifest to others in smaller things. And it’s those smaller things that people notice, that leads them to judge, so they often think those smaller things are the root since they can’t view the larger issues in the person’s heart. Because friends and family may approach the individual about these small visible things, and the individual has way deeper issues than whether or not they wear earings, etc., there is little chance for really hearing each other and reaching understanding. I would bet the individual would see being approached on these little things as a petty thing, reinforcing their sense of isolation over the larger issues they privately are working through.

    It would really surprise me that someone who feels they “know beyond a shadow of a doubt” would start drinking coffee and decide they like it so much that they throw the rest of their firm testimony away on that one little thing. It seems much more likely that they might find more major disagreements in other areas (like polygamy in the Church’s past, present, and doctrine for the future), and one of the ways they show their departure is to do a small rebellious thing, like drinking the occasional latte. But the small rebellious thing is more of the symptom than the root cause. Chastising the person for drinking coffee without addressing their concerns over polygamy will hardly help that person stay in the fold.

    In that case, I believe it’s a disservice to teach that it stems from these small things. That just fuels judgment and misunderstanding of how complicated one’s religious journey can be.

  18. Jessawhy says:

    Thanks for that good advice. I need more ideas about how to encourage the students to participate and find answers for themselves. The best teachers I had were able to let me think I was teaching the lesson to myself.

    Good luck with your class. Feel free to update us on how it’s going. That’s one thing I love about Exponent: it’s nice to hear that someone feels the same way you do.

    Good points. Especially about not bringing everything back to polygamy (although after reading Mormon Enigma, I think it was more central than most people do).
    It sounds like what I really need to do is to study child development for 13 year olds (I’m an expert on 5 and under). I’m actually not as worried about my boys hitting their teen years as I imagine most Mormon parents are. Perhaps it’s because I’m not as worried about appearances (I just gave all three of my boys mohawks, for heaven’s sake!) and if they get a tattoo, or don’t go on a mission, or {gasp} end up as homosexuals, I’m not going to be that stressed. (especially if the tattoo says, “I love Mom.”)

    Thanks for the encouragement. I would like to learn more about Kirtland, I understand a little about the era, but obviously not in as much detail as you do. As far as the Joseph Smith manual being white-washed, I must say I don’t know. I haven’t been as involved in that manual since I just sent my baby to nursery (so the last 18 months I’ve been MIA from RS). But, I have heard pretty good things about it. The manual I teach from is the D&C, and that’s what I’ve been struggling with.

    I appreciate your comment. I don’t know if any lessons can prevent people from leaving when they’re ready. I’m starting to believe that the LDS church isn’t really the best place for everyone. For some people it can be hurtful. For others, perhaps its just too hard, but either way, I just wish those who chose to leave the best in their spiritual path.
    Perhaps I will get to teach the lesson. Some of my instinct is against the idea that in order to avoid apostasy, we have to engage in groupthink and exercise blind faith. Also, I want to emphasize that even those who might be considered apostate by the definition in the manual are still children of God and we should love and serve them like anyone else, actually more according to Jesus.

  19. Jessawhy says:

    Good luck with your class. Let me know how it turns out. I agree, it is more difficult to teach younger children than adults. Even with diverging opinions, you can still have a productive conversation. Children are just different. Let me know if you figure it out.

    Yes, attention activities that don’t get attention aren’t worth much. It was the same for my manual, but it still seems silly for these kids. Our GD teacher used an interesting attention getter (she focused on not being offended, rather than apostasy in general). She called on someone to read something, but mispronounced her name. The woman replied, “I would have, but you said my name wrong.” It was really awkward, and I was confused. But, it ended up being something that she prepared to illustrate how people get offended. I might use that with my class.

    Good point about what 13/14 year olds think about. Ziff suggested that when teaching this age group I give them a few minutes to talk about things going on in their lives. It sounds like a good idea.

    I totally agree with you. What is most interesting to me, is why we don’t share the big things. That’s one reason I love Exponent, and the ‘nacle in general. It’s a place to discuss the big things that you may not feel comfortable discussing in church, or among friends.
    The conclusion that I draw from your comment is that if we want to bring these people (apostate coffee drinkers 🙂 into the fold, we should assume that they are struggling with something more difficult (personally or doctrinally) and ask how to support and love them through their problems. That requires nonjudgmental love, commitment, and friendship.

    Thanks for the comments everyone.

  20. Alisa says:

    Yes, Jess, that’s what I mean. The mormonstories podcast on Why People Leave the LDS Church (and How We Can Help) touches on this idea much better than I do. I think that listening to their real concerns without judgment or invalidating them is key.

  21. Kelly says:

    This lesson was taught in my Relief Society on Sunday, and the whole time I sat there with my teeth gritted. The lesson echoed the common saying — that people only leave the church because they are offended over something trivial, or that they are full of unrighteous pride, or that they are sinning. The lesson set up straw man after straw man, and never even considered the possibility that people may have legitimate conflicts of faith. I had to bite my tongue so many times to keep from saying “you know, maybe sometimes people leave because the church glosses over the bumpier parts of its history and then has Sunday school teachers give lessons that send the message that the church never makes mistakes, and if there is ever a problem, it is our fault.” It was an embarrassing thing to sit through and I hope no visitors were present.

  22. Ziff says:

    Jessawhy, I love this post! I’m sorry that your calling is so difficult. I’m sure it’s small comfort, but I would love for my kids to have a teacher like you when they’re teenagers.

    I really like your point about the lesson with stories about people leaving over trivial reasons (Kelly–as you said so well: “straw man after straw man”) coming across as saying we can pat ourselves on the back because we would never leave over such small issues. Of course, as you point out, there actually are bigger issues, not to mention as several others have also said, these small issues were bigger than they may be presented in our manuals.

    I also like where you said this:

    What I want to teach is that the path to apostasy isn’t marked by roadsigns or a map, it actually lies side by side with the path to leading a life in direct connection with God

    I think that’s a really crucial point, and I like how you put it. It’s not as though there are the long-suffering people who would never leave with a bright line between them and the brittle and easily offended who are just waiting for an excuse to leave. The groups, like the paths as you describe them, are far more similar than they are different.

    Also, Alisa, I like your questioning of whether small things (extra earrings) lead to big things (apostasy). I would even take it a step further and say that perhaps lots of people exhibit the small things, but they’re never really noticed until something big happens. It works the same way with crimes. Someone pulls a gun and murders ten people, and then we all go back and look at things in the person’s life and decide they must be causally related. “Oh, he wore black shoes? Wearing black shoes causes you to be a murderer.” Or in the church example, someone leaves the Church so we go back and say, “Oh, she had two pairs of earrings? That was the first step.” When there may be lots of people wearing two pairs of earrings (not to mention black shoes) all around us, but we don’t notice them because nothing terrible has followed.

  23. Kelly Ann says:

    Thank you for this post. I admire your efforts to deliver such a thoughtful lesson to teenagers. My initial response is that for a group of 13 to 14 year olds to stick to the standard lesson plan. I have seen teenagers and adults stop coming to church for entirely trivial things. When I was younger, my mom was in an accident in the church parking lot (the fault of another member) and the Bishop commented he was glad he didn’t have to worry about her leaving the church over it.

    However, my issue is that the simplification continues to be translated to GD classes and even institute and permeates our culture. When I tell people I have stepped back from church activity since prop8, they look at me like – “oh she is one of those who gets offended and throws away her salvation.” It is honestly not that simple for me. So I struggled to hear the story of the milk, Symonds Rider, and have the RS president state in the lesson (remembering I attend a singles ward) that she has seen many question so that they can justify violating the law of chastity. I raised my hand and countered that we need to remember we shouldn’t be so quick to judge others as the factors are usually complex and we should focus on our own motivation. This was particular poignant for me having not been to RS in awhile (although this wasn’t necessarily obvious to those present given my current reputation as a hopper – it is easier than being judged less= or in-active).

    I think we need to be able to speak about all the factors. I was exposed to the Kirtland Bank Failure (which I saw as evidence of the time) but never to all the aspects of polyandry or other hot topics. And while I see that you have to make generalizations before delving into details (and this maybe hard in a class of 13to14 year olds), it should be done with adults.

    Your post is timely because I was discussing with my mother some of my issues with the church (which of course have much more to do with than just prop8). I told her about how Emma didn’t know about all of Joseph’s Smith’s plural marriages. Her immediate response with a tone that I cannot convey in words, “have you been reading anti-Mormon literature?”

    I am still of course processing all my doubts and frustrations. While I am no longer hiding, I wish the church provided an environment in which they could be freely discussed without being attacked.

  24. Kelly Ann says:

    And that by discussing, I become a feared “apostate.”

  25. madhousewife says:

    Talk about being saved by the bell.

    I don’t really go to Sunday School anymore, as I’m the ward librarian and usually stuck in the library that hour. (Make that “stuck.” I’m generally not a fan of SS.) I would have been interested to see how this lesson went in our ward.

    What I want to teach is that the path to apostasy isn’t marked by roadsigns or a map, it actually lies side by side with the path to leading a life in direct connection with God

    I enjoyed all of your post, but this part was especially insightful.

    Good luck with your calling. I don’t think I could ever manage it. (Not that I’ll ever need to. The library is kind of where they send people to die.)

  26. James says:

    Been wanting to add an idea, but haven’t checked back on this post for a few days – apologies if this is redundant. I agree that there seems to be a problem with how we generally shy away from the “tough stuff,” but can also realize the fact that these are sensitive issues regardless of how open we are to confronting them.

    As a practical idea, what about using less challenging examples than the bank failure or the murkier aspects of polygamy? The two examples I’m thinking about would be Joseph’s use of seer stones and his extended altercations with Sylvester Smith during Zion’s Camp. To me, these examples fall somewhere between glossing over the topic with trivial issues and beating the class overt the head with the proverbial 800 pound gorilla(s). Milk before meat, so to speak?

  27. Jessawhy says:

    FYI, I did teach the apostasy lesson yesterday. The other team teacher (a married woman in her mid twenties) attended the class as well, which unnerved me a little.

    Despite all my planning, it was a stressful lesson, made worse by the fact that I had a sleeping son on my lap until moments before so I wasn’t able to collect the materials I needed and my lesson book was on the other side of the building. I had to RUN through the church trying to find it. It was amusing.

    Anyway, I really tried to encourage my students to understand why people leave the church and how to navigate their own understanding of difficult doctrine. I drew a line representing a spectrum of why people leave on the board. One end sad, “Individual actions” then “Policy disagreements” and finally “Doctrinal disagreements.” We discussed examples in some of the categories. I’m still trying to understand this age group, but they really gave me a blank stare through most of the lesson. At the beginning we played hangman (I know, not original) to discover the word apostasy. They stared blankly. One girl thought the root word was apostle (which it may be?).

    Anyway, I followed Sue’s advice about asking them what things they’re friends would do that would make them leave the relationship. I tried to apply one of the examples to the church and it fell flat (the equivalent of a friend drinking and doing drugs isn’t the same as the Kirtland bank failure, but I didn’t have the nerve to bring up the polygamy card).

    On the minus side, I did bring up a few disturbing points of doctrine in an effort to give examples of why it’s important for us to think more deeply and pray when we learn about doctrine/history that upset or disturb us. I wish I hadn’t done that because I was not prepared to explain why Joseph Smith translated part of the Book of Mormon through a hat. (although I have no problem with this bit of history, I find it fascinating)

    On the good side, I did emphasize a direct connection with God when and if different teachings become confusing to us. The other teacher gave an example of a BYU prof who taught the Joseph Smith quote about righteous parents have the ability to save their unrighteous children. So, we discussed agency and the opinions of teachers in that context.

    The best part was at the end when we were talking about how to treat people who have left the church and one girl (who never talks, but her dad is not a member) said, “We should just love them and not bother them about it. They don’t want us to get all churchy on them.”

    Amen, sister.

  28. suzann says:


    I am sorry your students presented you with blank looks. I had forgotten how difficult it can be for them to open up.

    Perhaps you would not have been so scattered if we had not been lost on the sofa during RS.

    Aloha to you, have a wonderful time.

  1. July 18, 2009

    […] How do we teach about apostasy? […]

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