I just finished Diarmaid MacCulloch’s excellent book The Reformation: A History. It’s dense and long, but I highly recommend it as a one-volume history of the whole sweep of that period (see the link to Amazon in my left sidebar). There was a particular part of the story of the Reformation that stuck out to me as it relates to an experience I recently had teaching Sunday School in our ward.
Prior to and during the period of the Reformation (if not also after), the Roman Catholic Church vigorously suppressed the reading of the Bible in the vernacular languages of Europe by its laity. Pope Paul V, in 1606, said “Do you not know that so much reading of Scripture ruins the Catholic religion?” In Italy, those wishing to read such a Bible had to obtain the permission of their local bishop. Given that access to the Bible was a support, if not a direct impetus, to the evangelism of Protestant and Reformed movements, the Catholic Church’s concern has the benefit of having been practically prophetic. In response to a priest who warned him against publishing scriptures for the common man, William Tyndale said “before very long I shall cause a plough boy to know the scriptures better than you do!” (This quote was cited by Elder D. Todd Christofferson in the April 2010 General Conference, and has been cited in numerous other conference talks and Church publications, primarily because of its appeal as a kind of ironic quasi-prophecy regarding Joseph Smith). Particularly given the generally poor state of education among priests at the time, this prediction has unquestionably come true in our own age.
Now to my experience. I have been teaching Gospel Doctrine in our ward for the past 14 months or so. As part of the first lesson of this year’s New Testament curriculum, which has the purpose of introducing the New Testament and trying to get class members motivated to read and keep up with each week’s lessons, I prepared a short handout. The handout contained a list of extracurricular resources, including alternative translations of the Bible, textbooks, recorded lectures, and study aids, that class members could use as part of their personal study. In explaining the handout, I emphasized at least twice that the handout was in no sense a syllabus for the class and that these resources were purely for personal use as an enrichment to one’s own study of the scriptures. I made such a handout because I have generally found that Church members are interested in knowing more about the scriptures, but do not know where to find good material. I tried to be judicious in creating that list of resources, and chose materials that could be appreciated by non-academics, and that generally reflected whatever scholarly consensus exists regarding the New Testament. As a corollary to this point, with one exception, I did not list materials either published by the Church or by Deseret Book, solely since I assume that most members are familiar with the range of materials available from those sources. At first, there appeared to be no problem. However, immediately following the end of that class, I was pulled aside by the Sunday School President who informed me, citing and pointing to a copy of the Church Handbook of Instructions, that we were to only teach from Church-published or -approved materials, and that he would issue such a clarification to the class the following Sunday.
It may not be readily apparent what this experience has to do with the Reformation, so let me explain– I see a similar idea at work in both. The goal is to achieve total message control. There is no way that the Correlation Committee (the primary drivers behind the emphasis of “only-use-Church-approved-materials”) could ban the use of the scriptures by regular members of the LDS Church, even if they wanted to (which I am not arguing that they do). It is one thing to pull such a feat off in the nascent age of mass printing; it is quite another to do it in the age of the Internet. But the Bible, like any text, does not speak for itself. It must be interpreted. Controlling the interpretation of the text is just as good as controlling the dissemination of the text itself. For Reformation-era Catholics, removing the possibility of direct access to the Bible was a means of preventing the rise of a diversity of opinions or interpretations regarding the meaning of Scripture, or under a still more sinister interpretation of events, to prevent the laity from realizing the weaknesses or errors of their teaching. Modern Mormons are, by contrast, allowed (even strongly encouraged) to read frequently from a personal copy of the scriptures. Nevertheless, there are strong social and institutional norms that pull one’s gaze away from “outside” resources and toward Correlation’s One True Interpretation of the Scriptures (TM). Not least among these norms is an explicit prohibition on using non-approved materials in lessons, which is published not only in the CHI but in every manual produced by Correlation. That the list of approved materials is extremely short and is entirely populated by products of Correlation can render the system a perfect echo chamber. However, my experience emphasized not just the norm that the teachers were not to use or cite from non-approved resources in lessons (I made it clear that I did not), but that regular class members should not be given suggestions as to resources that they could, in their own discretion, choose to utilize as part of their personal scripture study. This is total message control, not just in the chapel, but in the home, just the way the pre-Reformation Catholic hierarchy liked it.
I wish that, as a people, we were trusted more. I wish that there was less fear about what was “non-approved sources” and less simple trust in the contents of the approved ones. I wish that this incident did not feel like a compromise of my personal integrity. Mostly, I wish that questions, disagreements, and doubts could be faced with boldness and hard-won knowledge, instead of shame and fear.