I Have a Question


Questions of general gospel interest answered for guidance, not as official statements of Church policy.

What should be the main approach and emphasis in teaching the scriptures—historical, doctrinal, or practical?

Hoyt W. Brewster, Jr., manager of adult curriculum, Church Curriculum Planning and Development Section. Our objective in studying the gospel is to perfect our lives. For this reason the scriptures are given to us “to make [us] wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” (2 Tim. 3:15.) In gospel instruction, each approach—historical, doctrinal, and practical—has an appropriate place. Teachers need to identify the intended purpose for their particular class.

According to the Church’s master curriculum plan, adult members are to receive a different scriptural emphasis in each organization. Gospel Doctrine lessons in Sunday School present the unfolding drama of the scriptures; here the standard works are studied in their historical context. A knowledge of the historical setting in which the scriptures were revealed and recorded can improve one’s comprehension of their meaning. Brigham Young noted that the scriptures should be read “as though you stood in the place of the men who wrote them.” (In Journal of Discourses, 7:333.) Joseph Smith said, “I have a key by which I understand the scriptures. I enquire, what was the question which drew out the answer or caused Jesus to utter the parable?” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1938, pp, 276–77.)

Yet Sunday School’s emphasis upon the historical setting of the scriptures shouldn’t discourage discussions of doctrines or principles in the Gospel Doctrine class. However, the correlated curriculum plan calls for Melchizedek Priesthood and Relief Society classes to stress doctrine as it is revealed in the scriptures and the words of the living prophets. In studying the doctrines of the Church, it becomes clear how these approaches build on each other.

And, fundamentally, in all gospel instruction there should be a concern about the practical application of the knowledge obtained. In teaching his people, Nephi said, “I did liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning.” (1 Ne. 19:23.) Gospel students might also consider the admonition of James to be “doers of the word, and not hearers only.” (James 1:22.)

Beyond reviewing the need for each type of emphasis in a lesson, every gospel teacher should carefully consider another dimension of teaching: teaching by the Spirit and being one with the mind of God. A teacher’s prayerful preparation should include the earnest desire to present the subject matter in the manner that would most please the Lord.

One of the master teachers in the Church, Elder Boyd K. Packer, has observed: “The gift to teach with the Spirit is a gift worth praying for. A teacher can be inept, inadequate, perhaps even clumsy, but if the Spirit is powerful, messages of eternal importance can be taught.

“We can become teachers, very good ones, but we cannot teach moral and spiritual values with only an academic approach. There must be Spirit in it.” (Teach Ye Diligently, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1975, p. 276.)

Thus, the most important thing a teacher can do in teaching the scriptures is to obtain the Spirit. Any approach that is devoid of the Spirit is form without substance. Class members suffer spiritual hunger if they are filled with facts only.

The Lord counseled early missionaries of the Church to “preach my gospel by the Spirit. … And if it be by some other way it is not of God.” (D&C 50:14, 18.) Elder Bruce R. McConkie has noted that “even though what we teach is true, it is not of God unless it is taught by the power of the Spirit.” (Ensign, Apr. 1979, p. 24.) Similarly, at the conclusion of a general conference, President Harold B. Lee said: “I am not concerned about how much you remember in words of what has been said here. I am concerned about how it has made you feel. What are you going to take back with you when you go?” (Ensign, Jan. 1973, p. 134.)

Perhaps at the conclusion of each lesson, a teacher could ask himself: “How have I made my class feel? Did I present the material in the way the Lord would want? Has it brought the members of my class closer to him?”

Is President Lorenzo Snow’s oft-repeated statement—“As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may be”—accepted as official doctrine by the Church?

Gerald N. Lund, Teacher Support Consultant for the Church Education System. To my knowledge there has been no “official” pronouncement by the First Presidency declaring that President Snow’s couplet is to be accepted as doctrine. But that is not a valid criteria for determining whether or not it is doctrine.

Generally, the First Presidency issues official doctrinal declarations when there is a general misunderstanding of the doctrine on the part of many people. Therefore, the Church teaches many principles which are accepted as doctrines but which the First Presidency has seen no need to declare in an official pronouncement. This particular doctrine has been taught not only by Lorenzo Snow, fifth President of the Church, but also by others of the Brethren before and since that time.

In her biography of her brother, Eliza R. Snow explains the circumstances which led Lorenzo Snow to pen the famous couplet: “Being present at a ‘Blessing Meeting,’ in the Temple, previous to his baptism into the Church; after listening to several patriarchal blessings pronounced upon the heads of different individuals with whose history he was acquainted, and of whom he knew the Patriarch was entirely ignorant; he was struck with astonishment to hear the peculiarities of those persons positively and plainly referred to in their blessings. And, as he afterwards expressed, he was convinced that an influence, superior to human prescience, dictated the words of the one who officiated.

“The Patriarch was the father of Joseph, the Prophet. That was the first time Lorenzo had met him. After the services, they were introduced, and Father Smith said to my brother that he would soon be convinced of the truth of the latter-day work, and be baptized; and he said: ‘You will become as great as you can possibly wish—EVEN AS GREAT AS GOD, and you cannot wish to be greater.’” (Eliza R. Snow, Biography and Family Record of Lorenzo Snow, Salt Lake City: Deseret News Co., 1884, pp. 9–10.)

Lorenzo Snow was baptized a short time later and began his service in the Church. In the spring of 1840 he was called to serve a mission in the British Isles. Before his departure he was in the home of a Church member who was preaching a sermon on the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. (See Matt. 20:1–16.) According to Elder Snow, “While attentively listening to his explanation, the Spirit of the Lord rested mightily upon me—the eyes of my understanding were opened, and I saw as clear as the sun at noonday, with wonder and astonishment, the pathway of God and man. I formed the following couplet which expresses the revelation, as it was shown me, and explains Father Smith’s dark saying to me at a blessing meeting in the Kirtland Temple, prior to my baptism. …

“As man now is, God once was:”

“As God now is, man may be.”

“I felt this to be a sacred communication, which I related to no one except my sister Eliza, until I reached England, when in a confidential private conversation with President Brigham Young, in Manchester, I related to him this extraordinary manifestation.” (Eliza R. Snow, pp. 46–47; italics added. Brigham Young was President of the Quorum of the Twelve at the time.)

President Snow’s son LeRoi later told that the Prophet Joseph Smith confirmed the validity of the revelation Elder Snow had received: “Soon after his return from England, in January, 1843, Lorenzo Snow related to the Prophet Joseph Smith his experience in Elder Sherwood’s home. This was in a confidential interview in Nauvoo. The Prophet’s reply was: ‘Brother Snow, that is a true gospel doctrine, and it is a revelation from God to you.’” (LeRoi C. Snow, Improvement Era, June 1919, p. 656.)

The Prophet Joseph Smith himself publicly taught the doctrine the following year, 1844, during a funeral sermon of Elder King Follett: “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens! … It is the first principle of the Gospel to know for a certainty the Character of God, and to know that we may converse with him as one man converses with another, and that he was once a man like us; yea, that God himself, the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth, the same as Jesus Christ himself did.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1938, pp. 345–46.)

Once the Prophet Joseph had taught the doctrine publicly, Elder Snow also felt free to publicly teach it, and it was a common theme of his teachings throughout his life. About ten years before his death, while serving as the President of the Quorum of the Twelve, President Snow incorporated his original couplet into a longer poem. He addressed the poem to the Apostle Paul, who had written the following to the Philippian Saints:

“Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:

“Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God.” (Philip. 2:5–6.)

Part of the poem reads:

The boy, like to his father grown,
Has but attained unto his own;
To grow to sire from state of son,
Is not ’gainst Nature’s course to run.
A son of God, like God to be,
Would not be robbing Deity.

(As cited in LeRoi C. Snow, p. 661.)

Numerous sources could be cited, but one should suffice to show that this doctrine is accepted and taught by the Brethren. In an address in 1971, President Joseph Fielding Smith, then serving as President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said:

“I think I can pay no greater tribute to [President Lorenzo Snow and Elder Erastus Snow] than to preach again that glorious doctrine which they taught and which was one of the favorite themes, particularly of President Lorenzo Snow. …

“We have been promised by the Lord that if we know how to worship, and know what we worship, we may come unto the Father in his name, and in due time receive of his fulness. We have the promise that if we keep his commandments, we shall receive of his fulness and be glorified in him as he is in the Father.

“This is a doctrine which delighted President Snow, as it does all of us. Early in his ministry he received by direct, personal revelation the knowledge that (in the Prophet Joseph Smith’s language), ‘God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens,’ and that men ‘have got to learn how to be Gods … the same as all Gods have done before.’

“After this doctrine had been taught by the Prophet, President Snow felt free to teach it also, and he summarized it in one of the best known couplets in the Church. …

“This same doctrine has of course been known to the prophets of all the ages, and President Snow wrote an excellent poetic summary of it.” (Address on Snow Day, given at Snow College, 14 May 1971, pp. 1, 3–4; italics added.)

It is clear that the teaching of President Lorenzo Snow is both acceptable and accepted doctrine in the Church today.