Doctrine and Covenants: “The Handbook for Building Zion”

  By R. Scott Lloyd, Church News staff writer

  • 31 December 2012

Brother Russell T. Osguthorpe, Sunday School general president, center, and his counselors, Brother David M. McConkie, left, and Brother Matthew O. Richardson.  Photo by Tom Smart, Deseret News.

Article Highlights

  • The Doctrine and Covenants is the handbook for building Zion, and the revelations are as timely and applicable today as in the past.
  • Sunday School leaders should encourage teachers to focus on doctrines that class members need to understand and apply not just historical events.
  • They invite class members to “personally engage themselves in searching these commandments to see what’s there for them.”

“If there is one motto that I would put on my refrigerator, were I teaching the Doctrine and Covenants, it would be, ‘Let all be edified of all.’ ” —Brother Russell T. Osguthorpe, Sunday School general president

The Doctrine and Covenants is the handbook for building Zion, and the revelations recorded therein are as timely and applicable in the current day as they were when Jesus Christ gave them to the Prophet Joseph Smith and others.

That is the capsulized sentiment expressed by the members of the Sunday School general presidency in a recent conversation. In keeping with a custom of the past several years, Brother Russell T. Osguthorpe and his counselors, Brother David M. McConkie and Brother Matthew O. Richardson, discussed with the Church News the upcoming Gospel Doctrine course of study in wards and branches throughout the Church on the Doctrine and Covenants and Church History.

“Almost every section in the Doctrine and Covenants came about because of a question that Joseph asked,” Brother Osguthorpe noted. “Look at section 89, for example, about the Word of Wisdom. He was asking questions about what the Saints should be doing. Should we be consuming these things or should we not?”

“This is the story of the Doctrine and Covenants: the Lord expected great things and still does expect great things,” said Brother Richardson. “The whole Doctrine and Covenants, in my opinion, is really the handbook for building Zion, whether it’s in your heart or in your home or a ward, a stake, or the Church. That is a great expectation, but I think the Lord is saying, ‘You can do this, and I actually expect you to do this, or I wouldn’t ask it of you.’ ”

Brother Osguthorpe observed that one of the worries teachers have when they approach the Doctrine and Covenants and Church History course in Sunday School is, “Am I going to get every historical fact correct?” Or they might be tempted to spend inordinate time on the historical background of a particular Doctrine and Covenants section.

“Now, the history is powerful,” he acknowledged. “However, we have to keep it quite contained so that we can get to the doctrine. This, after all, is a book of revelatory doctrine.”

He said his hope would be that a student leaving a Sunday School class would have no trouble identifying the doctrine that was the focus of that class.

“And I would hope we don’t try and focus on a number of doctrines,” he added. “It’s too much in one class period. We need to focus on a doctrine and really get into the power of that doctrine.”

Brother Richardson remarked, “Perhaps the most important doctrine is that doctrine that the learners need at a particular time. That’s the doctrine.”

He said he hopes the teachers will actually teach the Doctrine and Covenants and avoid the impulse to stray off into other material. 

“There is great power in this volume of scripture,” he said. “The text contained in the revelations spoke to the Saints when they were given, but I believe it still speaks to the Saints today.”

Regarding that, Brother McConkie remarked: “It seems to me that the magnificent message, beginning from the day that Joseph went into that grove of trees is that God speaks. That is so unique to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. God speaks. Some people don’t believe that. We might take it for granted as members of the Church, but we are so unique in understanding that God speaks today. If we can help the world understand that, then lives will be touched and changed. That message alone is so significant that it can’t be overstated.”

Brother Osguthorpe said he had recently reread section 89 dealing with the Word of Wisdom and was impressed at how a revelation given so long ago can have so much relevance to the lives of people today regarding what may be consumed that is most beneficial to the body.

Brother Richardson cited section 1, which the Lord called His preface to the book. “It was a revelation that was given when they were getting ready to print the book, and the Lord intended it to be a kind of overview of what’s going to be happening,” he explained. “He does testify in there that in this book and in the revelations we will see that God fulfills His promises. So the Doctrine and Covenants, in my opinion, lays a critical foundation for us to have confidence that God still fulfills His promises through His living prophets. If He did it back then, He will continue to do it. So it brings past, present, and future together in this wonderful assurance that the Lord does speak.”

“And not just to the President of the Church,” Brother Osguthorpe added. “One of my favorite verses in all of the Doctrine and Covenants is in section 121, where it says, ‘How long can rolling waters remain impure? What power shall stay the heavens? As well might man stretch forth his puny arm to stop the Missouri river in its decreed course, or to turn it up stream, as to hinder the Almighty from pouring down knowledge from heaven upon the heads of the Latter-day Saints’ (verse 33). This is a scripture that says every person in this Church can receive revelation. Do we forget sometimes? Do we sell ourselves short and think ‘Not me’?” 

Brother Osguthorpe sees significance in the question, “How long can rolling waters remain impure?” and draws from it this understanding: “When we’re not doing what we ought to do, then we cannot receive inspiration from heaven, and when we do what we ought, the message is that then the Lord will inspire us to do what we need to do with our lives.”

“And it’s important,” Brother McConkie added, “that the Saints understand that it’s not just their showing up in Gospel Doctrine class to listen to what the teacher is going to be teaching that day. The Lord said in the first section, ‘Search these commandments, for they are true and faithful (verse 37). That’s the direction given to all of us. And so we would hope that the New Year’s resolution for every member of the Church would be to personally engage themselves in searching these commandments to see what’s there for them.”

Brother Osguthorpe remarked that Church members sometimes have “role confusion”—the mindset that the role of the teacher is to do all the talking and the role of the learner is to do all of the listening.

“Maybe we should flip that and say your role as a teacher is to listen so that you can understand what the needs of the learners are and observe, then draw upon the Lord’s inspiration so that you know what to say.”

He added that the Savior taught in this manner, by fulfilling the needs of individual learners when occasion required it. 

“It’s in this interchange, this amazing conversation that ought to happen whenever we teach, that occurs in every section of the Doctrine and Covenants,” he said, citing the example of Joseph Smith asking about the mode of baptism, a question that led to the restoration of the priesthood.

“And that’s a critical point,” Brother Richardson added. “It’s not just content delivered and content received. You have this interchange going on between teacher and learner, whether that be the Lord to Joseph, Joseph to others. Then there is a call to action, to go and do something, and then they receive that deep converting testimony because they do something with the knowledge and they come to know it is true.”

Drawing upon counsel from President Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve, Brother McConkie said it is important for teachers, as they prepare lessons, to ask themselves the question, “Therefore, what?”

“From the things I’m going to be talking about today, what do I hope will happen in the lives of those students?” he explained. “A teacher can be such a wonderful guide in helping that process if they will have in mind what their conclusion is going to be.”

“The other part of that,” Brother Osguthorpe said, “is that as the teacher is preparing the lesson, the teacher for his or her own life can say, ‘Therefore, what for me? How am I going to start living these principles before I ever stand before those learners?’ ”

The teacher can thus teach with authenticity, having applied the doctrine in his or her own life and thereby gained a witness of its truthfulness, he said.

“The teacher can stand and be an echo of what others have said, but at some point a teacher, to really teach, has to have something of his or her own to leave on the altar, and that’s that independent witness,” Brother McConkie remarked. “And of course we must acknowledge that the Spirit is the teacher. A teacher can stand and teach a principle that is absolutely true, and at the end of the process, if it’s not taught by the Spirit, the Lord will say, ‘That was not of Me.’ ”

“So a teacher is a learner, and learners are teachers,” Brother Richardson said. “It’s a community of learning and teaching together, or as it is stated in Doctrine and Covenants 88:122, ‘Let one speak at a time and let all listen unto his sayings, that when all have spoken that all may be edified of all, and that every man may have an equal privilege.’ ”

“In fact,” said Brother Osguthorpe, “if there is one motto that I would put on my refrigerator, were I teaching the Doctrine and Covenants, it would be, ‘Let all be edified of all.’ ”