The discussion below under Utah Mormons has rekindled a longstanding question for me: why do we have a Gospel Doctrine class? Elder Harold G. Hillam offered a very interesting history of the Sunday School Program of the Church in the August 1999 Ensign with an article entitled, “Sunday School: Oil for Our Lamps.” The Sunday School program of the Church dates back to the mid-1800s, when the focus was on teaching children the Gospel. Gradually the target age range for Sunday School lessons expanded to the system that we have today.
Elder Hillam quotes several sources on the purpose of Sunday School. Here are two notable statements:
* A letter in a time capsule from the general Sunday School presidency and board of 1899, which included President Joseph F. Smith and Elder Heber J. Grant of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. to the “general Sunday School Authorities of A.D. 1949”:
This Sunday School work has been to us a labor of love and our interest does not merely exist for today, but extends into the future.… We beseech you … that you never forget for an instant the object of the great Sunday School work, [namely]: To teach the children the principles of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; to make Latter-day Saints of them.
* Elder Robert L. Simpson, then Sunday School President of the Church, in 1987: “[Its] only function is to teach the scriptures and to improve testimonies throughout the Church. [It has] no other purpose in being, and we take that charge and responsibility very seriously.”
This second quotation is the more interesting to me. If the purpose of Sunday School is “to teach the scriptures and to improve testimonies,” is it succeeding? In my experience, the quality of the teaching in Gospel Doctrine class is wildly uneven, though generally quite low. (Note that I have never had Jim Faulconer as a Gospel Doctrine instructor, much to my detriment.) If the Church were primarily interested in conveying official statements of doctrine, therefore, it would be well advised to produce a series of videos to be shown each week during the Gospel Doctrine class. This would remove all local idiosyncracies, as well as unapproved representations of Church doctrine.
You can probably tell where I am headed with this: I do not think that the principal purpose of Gospel Doctrine class is to convey official statements of doctrine. Rather the principal purpose is to provide a weekly opportunity for local members to discuss the scriptures. The discussion is the critical event. We share our understandings about the Gospel and in doing so, we learn about each other. We become more of a community, and we build our testimonies by hearing the experiences and testimonies of others. This is a little piece of the Zion-building puzzle.
By the way, from time to time, I have heard rumors that the Church was contemplating disbanding the Sunday School program. I don’t know how these rumors get started or whether there is any validity to them. Those who perpetuate them sometimes note that Sacrament Meeting and Priesthood/Relief Society are the only meetings mentioned by name in the temple recommend interview (“Do you earnestly strive … to attend your sacrament, priesthood, and other meetings…?”) In any event, I have the sense that Sunday School is the least important of the three Sunday meetings from an institutional standpoint, even if it has the salutary role that I describe above.