The Blessings of Education
In 1833, the Lord declared through His prophet, Joseph Smith, Jr, that “the glory of God is intelligence” (D&C 93:36). A decade later, he explained that “whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life... will rise with us in the resurrection [a]nd [that] if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come” (D&C 130:18-19).
More than 150 years later, President Gordon B. Hinckley said this to a worldwide audience of youth and young adults: “The Lord wants you to educate your minds and hands, whatever your chosen field. Whether it be repairing refrigerators, or the work of a skilled surgeon, you must train yourselves. Seek for the best schooling available. Become a workman of integrity in the world that lies ahead of you. I repeat, you will bring honor to the Church and you will be generously blessed because of that training” (A Prophet’s Counsel and Prayer for Youth, Liahona, April 2001, 30–41).
A couple of years after President Hinckley’s address to the youth, the church announced a restructuring of its welfare services through an emphasis on provident living. Provident living, or self-reliance, encompasses six core components: education, physical, mental, and emotional health, employment, home storage, finances, and spiritual strength. This morning I will focus on education. There are many types of education and many ways to become educated. I would like to talk about just two broad categories of education: secular and spiritual. In discussing these, I will examine them from both the formal and informal approaches to learning.
Many of us are familiar with secular education: reading, writing, arithmetic, science, history, art, music, languages. For some, our formal secular education started in a public school when we were five or six years old and continued until high school graduation. Others experienced this education at home. Some graduate high school and go directly into the workforce while others attend a college, university, or trade school for advanced training and study. Educators and philosophers have argued and debated for years about what should and should not be included in this education. In the late 1890s, a committee of ten educators and business leaders met and developed a sequence of formal public education that is still largely in place today. Roughly one hundred years later, American educator E.D. Hirsch wrote a book called “Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know.” The standards movement in EC-12 education across the world has been an attempt by educators in different states, provinces, or even entire countries to come to a consensus on what matters most when it comes to learning. While there is disagreement about what we ought to know and when we ought to learn it, there is agreement that we ought to have things we all know: how to read, how to communicate in writing and in speaking, how to use mathematics, how to understand the world around us. As Latter-day Saints, we have been commanded to “seek… out of the best books words of wisdom” and to “seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118).
In 1847, as the Latter-day Saints were preparing to leave Winter Quarters to begin the long trek across the Great Basin, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles issued this proclamation:
“It is very desirable that all the Saints should improve every opportunity of securing at least a copy of every valuable treatise on education—every book, map, chart, or diagram that may contain interesting, useful, and attractive matter, to gain the attention of children, and cause them to love to learn to read; and, also every historical, mathematical, philosophical, geographical, geological, astronomical, scientific, practical, and all other variety of useful and interesting writings, maps, etc... from which important and interesting matter may be gleaned to compile the most valuable works, on every science and subject, for the benefit of the rising generation” (see Messages of the First Presidency, 1:331).
While I have been sharing examples of formal secular education, this quote shares many examples of informal ways of learning. My father was one of the most educated people I knew, yet his highest level of education was a couple of years of college. (Due to a car accident, he never finished his degree program.) Instead of formal education, he learned through books. For many years, he had a job that had him on the road for long periods of time and he used that time to listen to audiobooks on a wide variety of topics. Today we have many other ways to expand our knowledge and understanding of the world around us: documentaries, YouTube videos, podcasts, TED talks, lectures at the library or other public forums, and many others.
The Lord wants His children to be skilled, competent, and well-educated members of society. As Elder John A. Widstoe wrote in 1938, “Among Latter-day Saints, education becomes a life-long process. Young and old alike must be engaged in the development of their natural endowments. In fact, it is expected of the members of the Church that they continue their education throughout life” (Program of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, p. 45).
But the Lord also wants us to be knowledgeable of spiritual things. This, too, requires mental effort and dedicated study. As Elder B. H. Roberts wrote, ““It requires striving—intellectual and spiritual—to comprehend the things of God—even the revealed things of God. In no department of human endeavor is the aphorism ‘no excellence without labor’—more in force than in acquiring knowledge of the things of God. The Lord has placed no premium upon idleness or indifference here… Mental laziness is the vice of men, especially with reference to divine things. Men seem to think that because inspiration and revelation are factors in connection with the things of God, therefore the pain and stress of mental effort are not required” (Seventy’s Course in Theology, Fifth Year, pp. IV–V)
How do we become students of the Gospel?
As a child, I often heard others jokingly refer to “the Sunday School” or “Primary” answers: go to church, read your scriptures, and pray. The suggestion in this tongue-in-cheek comment was that if you were in a church class and you weren’t sure of the answer, one of these three would almost certainly w. While I do not think this is particularly true, I do think that these three things are some of the most important things we can do to grow in our Gospel knowledge. What better way to learn about the Lord and His great plan of salvation for the children of men than by studying the Scriptures?
Last year, every member of the church was invited to read, study, and discuss The Book of Mormon, as individuals, as families, and as Sunday School classes. In this sacred book, we learn of the Lord’s covenants with a branch of the House of Israel here upon the American continent and have revealed many of the “plain and precious things” that were lost from the Bible through years of translation, mistranslation, omission, and addition. This year we are studying The Doctrine And Covenants Of The Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter-day Saints, Containing Revelations Given To Joseph Smith, The Prophet, With Some Additions By His Successors In The Presidency Of The Church. (Is it any wonder that we often refer to this book by its abbreviated name, “The Doctrine and Covenants”?) Next year we will be studying the Old Testament, in which Jehovah’s covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is recorded, along with the history, poetry, and prophecies of the children of Israel. And in the year after that, we will study the New Testament, containing the words of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world, and the teachings of His apostles. We would not know any of these things if we did not prayerfully study the Scriptures and attend our classes to learn with and from others.
The youth of the Church have additional opportunities to study the scriptures and grow in their Gospel knowledge by attending seminary. Yes, it is a sacrifice for them to wake up early each morning to attend class each day, but in that sacrifice comes the blessings of being spiritually fortified each and every day. I cannot think of a better way to start the morning than by drinking deeply from the “well of living water” that the Lord has given us through His revealed word! Young adults are able to continue their Gospel learning by attending Institute classes. (If you are not sure how to sign up for Institute, simply go to institutemidwest.org.)
Just as with our secular education, we live in an age in which we can continue our Gospel study through informal means, as well. There are many wonderful podcasts available that allow us to learn from one another. The church’s websites are a treasure trove of Gospel resources, from digital editions of the Scriptures to General Conference talks, from church magazines to articles on nearly every Gospel topic imaginable. (There is even an article on education, which I referred to as I was preparing this talk!) There are podcasts and YouTube channels with content created and shared by faithful members of the Church that invite us to join with them in their learning. There are books and even research journals that share the latest scholarship on church history and doctrines.
A word of warning: Not everything you find in a book or on a website is going to be true, reliable, or accurate. There are some things that are shared that may look and sound appealing but they may contain falsehoods, half-truths, or misrepresentations. In his Sunday morning General Conference address last April, President Russell M. Nelson warned against lazy learning and lax discipleship (see Christ Is Risen; Faith in Him Will Move Mountains, General Conference, April 2021). One example of “lazy learning” is to take something you read on the Internet at face value, whether it is a report of gold plates with Egyptian script found in Panama or supposed proof that the Nephite civilisation was located in the heart of North America. (The report of Panamanian plates was revealed to be a hoax; the church has repeatedly issued statements of neutrality regarding the specific geographic location of Book of Mormon events.)
In the 9th section of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord revealed to Oliver Cowdery and, by extension, all of us, one formula for knowing the truth of a thing: “you must study it out in your mind; then you must cask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your dbosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right” (D&C 9:8).
In the 1999 Disney animated film “Tarzan,” singer-songwriter Phil Collins included this line in his song “Son of Man”: “In learning you will teach, and in teaching you will learn.” With this in mind, I would like to talk briefly about the power of teaching to help us learn.
It has become something of a joke within our church that someone who is asked to speak will declare that they learned more from preparing their talk than their listeners will. However, this is true. When we are teaching, we often go far beyond the topic itself. I have learned this from my 25 years of gospel teaching. (And yes, for those who know that I am 38 and are quickly doing the math, I started teaching in Sunday School when I was 13.) Once upon a time, it seemed that there was a strong push to “teach what is in the manual” and to not use any other sources.
In February 2016, then-Elder M. Russell Ballard gave a talk to religious educators in which he issued this profound challenge:
“Gone are the days when a student asked an honest question and a teacher responded, ‘Don’t worry about it!’ Gone are the days when a student raised a sincere concern and a teacher bore his or her testimony as a response intended to avoid the issue…
“... [W]hat are your opportunities and responsibilities as [gospel] teachers in the 21st century? Obviously, you must love the Lord, His Church, and your students. You must also bear pure testimony sincerely and often. Additionally, more than at any time in our history, your students also need to be blessed by learning doctrinal or historical content and context by study and faith accompanied by pure testimony so they can experience a mature and lasting conversion to the gospel and a lifelong commitment to Jesus Christ. Mature and lasting conversion means they will ‘stay in the boat and hold on’ throughout their entire lives…
“Through your diligent efforts to learn by study and faith, you will be able to help your students learn the skills and attitudes necessary to distinguish between reliable information that will lift them up and the half-truths and incorrect interpretations of doctrine, history, and practices that will bring them down.
“Teach them about the challenges they face when relying upon the Internet to answer questions of eternal significance. Remind them that James did not say, ‘If any of you lack wisdom, let him Google!’” (An Evening with Elder M. Russell Ballard, February 26, 2016).
I would like to share three accounts about how others have been blessed, spiritually and temporally, by heeding the Lord’s counsel to be educated:
My mother graduated high school in 1969 and attended Gannon College in Erie, Pennsylvania until she and my dad got married in 1970. She dropped out of school to become a full-time stay-at-home mom while my dad continued his education. In 1974, my parents moved to Davenport, Iowa, so that my dad could enroll at Palmer College to study chiropractics. As mentioned earlier, he was unable to continue his studies due to a car accident and yet he continued to learn. My mum, too, continued to learn informally. After a job transfer brought my parents to central Illinois, she took a substitute janitorial job at the Libby’s pumpkin plant in Morton. Over the next 37 years, she went on to become a full-time janitor, then a cook room worker, then a cook room supervisor, before taking the role of water and sanitation specialist, which she did until retiring in 2020. At the age of 78, two years before retiring, she was invited to enroll in BYU Pathway Worldwide program. Pathway is a church program that provides “access to spiritually based, online affordable higher education” (see byupathway.org).
Now 70 years old, my retired mother is currently enrolled in a four-year degree program with BYU-Idaho. I recently asked her how Pathway has spiritually strengthened her. With her permission, here is what she said: “Pathway has helped me to expand my own horizons. I am a better person because of my associations with others in the program. I expect more of myself as I have become aware of Gospel teachings in learning about the world and everything around me.”
My sister, Amanda, had a long and winding road toward reaching her goal to become trained and certified as an interpreter for the deaf. Along the way, she attended half a dozen colleges and universities, served a mission, got married, and had four children. She recently completed her certification and has been able to work from home, providing interpreting services during video relay calls. Around the same time, she and her husband, Cameron, realised that he needed to change careers. This career change required going back to a trade school to begin an apprenticeship as an electrician. Even though his prior degree means that he was paid slightly more than other apprentices, they knew that this career change would have meant lower income. However, my sister’s education and training have allowed her to work and make up the difference. While talking about this last night, she shared that her education has allowed them to have more financial stability in their home, which has led to more peace. More peace in their daily lives has allowed them to serve others and find joy in the Lord.
Gretch is also enrolled in an online degree program through BYU-Idaho, having finished the Pathway program last year. This semester, she is taking four classes: one on the Book of Mormon and three related to her genealogy professional certificate. Her genealogy classes have helped her grow closer to her father, her grandmother, and her great-aunt as they have explored family history together. Her Book of Mormon class has helped her gain a deeper understanding of the Gospel. As we have gone on walks together, we often discuss her studies. Some of the best conversations have been when she was grappling with a difficult passage, such as the words of Isaiah quoted by Abinadi. While Gretch will likely never become a professional genealogist, her classes have helped both of us in our family history research, bringing to light the promise of Malachi of the hearts of the children turning to the fathers (see Malachi 4:5-6).
Truly, the glory of God is intelligence; our Father in Heaven wants His children to be skilled, knowledgeable, intelligent beings. We have been blessed to live in a day and age with greater access to information than ever before. As we use the gift of the Holy Ghost to help us discern between right and wrong, to seek out words of wisdom, we will be blessed in our efforts and will be given opportunities to bless the lives of those around us.
[NOTE: This is the text of a talk given in Sacrament meeting in the Freeport Ward, Rockford Stake, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, on 18 July 2021.]