Friday, January 8, 2016

Who, Why, and What is Church Correlation?

By Dennis B. Horne (guest blogger)

            Among the many subjects that a “bloggernacle” surfer occasionally finds being discussed, usually from a negative standpoint, is Church Correlation. It seems that Correlation’s purpose is not well understood and has become something of a boogeyman to those who have only sketchy knowledge of what it is for or that disagree with what it does. Some bloggers speak of it as something of a secret guardian that bars the interesting subjects and deep doctrines from being discussed in Sunday School and priesthood or Relief Society. If they think the approved curriculum is boring or lacking in sophistication or scholarly depth, they opine that “Correlation” is likely at fault. Since Correlation does not represent a single individual, it seems safer and less disloyal to criticize it than, say, the current prophet or an apostle.

            So what exactly is Church Correlation? What we know as Correlation today began to take formal and organized shape and wield great influence during the administrations of Presidents Harold B. Lee and Spencer W. Kimball. The main objectives were to unify church departments, eliminate duplication of work, reduce and simplify curriculum, and ensure doctrinal purity in all printed matter. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism contains an excellent overview of the history and development of correlation up to the 1990s.[1]

Correlation largely traces its roots to special reading committees, made up mostly of general authorities, organized to review manuscripts proposed for use as church study manuals. Eventually Correlation became its own church department with specific responsibilities to evaluate and approve all Church produced materials (today that includes church websites). It is what the Correlation Department supposedly does with the doctrinal and historical content of Church manuals that raises the ire of some and gives rise to repeated frustrated discussion by some bloggers. Evidently, further education and understanding is in order.

            Having noticed the occasional online comment and complaining, we ask—who are the members of the targeted “Correlation Committee”? By way of answer, Elder Boyd K. Packer noted, “The Council of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles is the Correlation Committee, with the President of the Twelve and the two senior members acting as the executive committee.”[2] Some voices may be surprised and perhaps even a little embarrassed to learn that makeup.

When correlation first began (in 1961) there were Adult, Youth, and Child committees. Today those are combined as the Materials Evaluation Committee. Twelve people serve with general board callings from the First Presidency and Twelve. The names of those serving are confidential. (I would imagine that many more than one BYU religious educator or CES instructor has served thereon over the decades.) The staff of the Evaluation Division of the Correlation Department oversee and review the work of the Materials Evaluation Committee. They also provide support to the general authorities assigned to the Correlation work from the Twelve and the Seventy. In addition, they serve as members of and secretaries to a number of general authority committees.

            These organizational parameters have evolved over time to become what they are now, but were announced by letter from the First Presidency (Spencer W. Kimball, N. Eldon Tanner, and Marion G. Romney) in 1976. The letter explained:

            The First Presidency has appointed a Correlation Executive Committee in the Council of the Twelve and has organized the Correlation Department of the Church to ensure more effective correlation of all activities and programs of the various priesthood and auxiliary organizations and Church departments without exception.

            The Correlation Executive Committee consists of. . .[All names have changed since the letter was sent almost forty years ago].

 This department has been given the responsibility to review and evaluate all proposed activities, programs, policies, procedures, practices, plans, terminology, and other materials intended for use throughout the Church. Thus, all such proposed items prepared by general Church departments and organizations should be sent to the Correlation Department for evaluation.[3] 

            The letter then made this important point about the role of Church Correlation in relation to all other church departments, one that bloggers, journalists, and commentators would be wise to understand: “The Correlation Department will not establish any policies whatsoever but will ensure that the policies approved by the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve are consistently and uniformly applied.” The First Presidency further clarified these delegated responsibilities in a June 1978 letter (dated very close to the time that the revelation on the priesthood was announced). The wording is deliberate and precise in describing Correlation’s purview:

The Correlation Department has been given responsibility to ensure more effective correlation of activities and programs of the various priesthood and auxiliary organizations and church departments.

            This department is responsible to review proposed activities, programs, handbooks, curricula, policies, procedures, practices, plans, terminology, training and leadership materials, and other materials intended for use throughout the Church for content, doctrine, and correlation.  Thus, such proposed items prepared by general Church departments and organizations should be submitted to the Correlation Department for review.

            The Correlation Department is not an origination nor implementing organization, but it will ensure that the policies approved by the First Presidency and the Twelve are consistently and uniformly applied.

            It becomes clear that one cannot blame the Correlation Department for simply implementing the policies of the First Presidency and the Twelve. One might also be wise to consider carefully before blaming the Brethren for enacting such policies.

In an attached document are found some specific guidelines that will be of interest to those wondering how the evaluation process takes place and what its standards are. Guiding principles related to determining church doctrine and the sources of doctrinal authority are explained:

Explanation of the Major Categories used by Correlation Review Committees.

            1. CORRELATION in a broad sense includes matters pertaining to (1) doctrine; (2) Church policies, procedures, and practices, and (3) factual accuracy. Thus, items listed in an evaluation report in this category include:

a. Doctrine of the Church, consisting of (1) the teachings of the scriptures; (2) the clearly defined interpretations placed on the scriptures by the prophets, seers, and revelators of this dispensation; and (3) the exact and appropriate rendering of scriptural references.

b. Policies, procedures, and practices of the Church, involving correctness of a proposed statement as compared with the statement approved by the General Authorities on such matters as policies, procedures, practices, organizational structure, and the content of handbooks and guidelines.

c. Factual accuracy, including such items as correctness of dates, names, places, historical events, etc.

            2. INTERPRETATION pertains to problems in one of the following categories:

a. Items not clearly defined nor determined by the General Authorities.

b. Items containing assumptions, inferences, or implications relating to doctrine or to principles of correlation.

c. Items which might cause misunderstanding or confusion among different national, cultural, or ethnic groups.

d. Items which might contain material that might be questionable in such areas as (1) appropriateness of content, graphic design or art, (2) length, (3) level of audience, (4) method of presentation, and (5) cost of production.

            Beyond these directions and explanations, Correlation is provided with further written guidelines on doctrine and policy by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve; these are confidential. They are made available to specific internal individuals on a need to know basis. Correlation staff meet regularly with the Correlation Executive Committee, so any questions of a doctrinal nature that arise and need settling can be resolved.

            The First Presidency and the Twelve take their responsibility to keep the doctrine of the Church pure very seriously and Correlation is the main method available; General Conference is another. Few mistakes are made and Mormons know they can trust Church produced materials. Elder Dallin H. Oaks explained:

Of course, the Church does have a responsibility to point out what is the voice of the Church and what is not. This is especially necessary when some alternate voice, deliberately or inadvertently, communicates a message in a way that implies Church sponsorship or acquiescence.

            For the same reason, the Church does approve or disapprove those publications that are to be published or used in the official activities of the Church, general or local. For example, we have procedures to ensure approved content for materials published in the name of the Church or used for instruction in its classes. These procedures can be somewhat slow and cumbersome, but they have an important benefit. They provide a spiritual quality control that allows members to rely on the truth of what is said.  Members who listen to the voice of the Church need not be on guard against being misled. They have no such assurance for what they hear from alternate voices.[4]

This understanding brings us to another popular issue frequently debated in the “bloggernacle”—that of exactly what constitutes Church doctrine.[5] The Church has published an excellent booklet (that has been approved by Correlation) on the subject entitled Teachings of the Living Prophets[6], and has also posted a fine summary piece on their Newsroom webpage.[7]

Since we are examining Church Correlation processes, which originate with and are directed by the First Presidency, their own written guidelines (even if a little dated) can be very helpful in explaining the sources and parameters of settled church doctrine. In an official letter directed to a former Church Commissioner of Education, the First Presidency (Heber J. Grant, J. Reuben Clark, and David O. McKay) wrote:

As forecast by President [J. Reuben] Clark, speaking for the First Presidency at Aspen Grove on August 8, 1938, the First Presidency has, after careful and mature deliberations, reached the following conclusions.

1. Institutes and Seminaries will hereafter confine themselves exclusively to the following work. . . .

Teaching the principles of the Gospel as set out in the doctrines of the Church.

In this work the teachers will use—The Old and New Testaments; The Book of Mormon; The Doctrine and Covenants; The Pearl of Great Price.

These four constitute the 'Standard Works of the Church' and are the ultimate authority on all matters of doctrine, save where the Lord shall have given or shall give further revelation through the prescribed source for such, the President of the Church.

Teachers will do well to give up indoctrinating themselves in the Sectarianisms of the new Divinity School Theology. . . .

In their teaching, the teachers will use verbiage and terminology which have become classic in the Church. . . .

Furthermore, teachers will not advance their own theories about the Gospel or Gospel principles.

Profane [secular] history may be used when necessary and contributive, but when used it should be obtained from reputable and recognized authorities, not from propaganda sources….

One need not be a rocket scientist to discover that the scriptures themselves, as interpreted by modern prophets and apostles where needed, are the source of church doctrine and that only direct revelation from the President of the Church can modify that doctrine (see Official Declarations 1 and 2 for examples).

Another letter from the same First Presidency is concerned with maintaining doctrinal uniformity and purity in gospel teaching in the church. It was written to four apostles that had been assigned to be members of a reading committee. It is a longer letter, but is valuable because it gives a feel for how principles of correlation work. The First Presidency wrote, in part:

 To meet the required standards for use by Church organizations, such materials must:

1. Clearly set forth or be fully consistent with the principles of the Restored Gospel.

2. Be wholly free from any taint of sectarianism and also of all theories and conclusions destructive of faith in the simple truths of the Restored Gospel, and especially be free from the teachings of the so-called "higher criticism." Worldly knowledge and speculation have their place; but they must yield to revealed truth.

3. Be so framed and written as affirmatively to breed faith and not to raise doubts. “Rationalizing” may be most destructive of faith. That the Finite cannot fully explain the Infinite casts no doubt upon the Infinite. Truth, not error, must be stressed.

4. Be so built in form and substance as to lead to definite conclusions that accord with the principles of the Restored Gospel, which conclusions must be expressed and not left to possible deduction by the students. When truth is involved there is no place for student preference or choice. Youth must be taught that truth cannot be blinked or put aside; it must be accepted.

5. Be filled with a spirit of deepest reverence. They should give no place for the slightest levity. They [manuals] should be so written that those who teach from them will so understand.

6. Be so organized and written that the matter may be effectively taught by men and women untrained in teaching and without the background equipment given by such fields of learning as psychology, pedagogy, philosophy, and ethics. The great bulk of our teachers are in this untrained group.

Courses on "comparative religion" have no place otherwise than in the Post-Graduate School to be established at the Brigham Young University and there only for the purpose of developing and demonstrating the truth of the Restored Gospel and the falsity of the other religions of the world, and thereby build the faith and knowledge of post-graduate scholars. The subject is one for careful, prayerful study by the mature mind, not for the framing of the thought and belief of the youthful mind.

The work of all these Church organizations must have as their purpose the building up of firm testimonies in the minds and hearts of the Saints, particularly of the youth,—testimonies of the truth of the Restored Gospel, of the Messiahship of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the divinity of the mission of the Prophet Joseph Smith, of the divine origin of this Church established by God and His Son by and through the Prophet, and of the fact that this is and always will be the Church of Jesus Christ with all that this connotes—all to the end that the Saints may have and enjoy these testimonies, that they may live in keeping with the commandments of the Lord, that they may constantly increase their knowledge of the Truth, thus enabling them so to live that salvation, exaltation, and eternal happiness in the Celestial Kingdom may come to them, and lastly that they in turn may lead others of the world to a knowledge and testimony of the Truth both by their precept and by their example, so bringing to them these same blessings. . . .

In the preparation of all these materials prime consideration should be given, by those undertaking it, to our own Church history and doctrinal literature. In the rather recent past these sources have been too little considered. Sectarian views and doctrines have had too large a place and consideration; the paganistic theories and tenets of the so-called “higher criticism” have not been without their influence; none of these have a place in our Church. They should be wholly eliminated from our literature.

The leaders of the Church have from the beginning been men of stalwart spiritual integrity, righteous in their living, virile in their thinking, profound in their knowledge of the Gospel, and with undoubting faith. They have left sermons and writings which in good part are original sources and should be so dealt with. In recent years they have been too little consulted and too infrequently used. Not mere sectarian scholarship, but Church scholarship coupled with unwavering faith and a deep knowledge of the Gospel should be the test of fitness for the preparation of the materials involved in this assignment. As we have already said: worldly knowledge has its place, but it may not be substituted for revealed truth, nor the inspired utterance of God's prophets. Ethics and philosophy are found in the Gospel, but it is far more than these; whenever either or both of these are used, they must be used with great care and caution, and for the sole purpose of indicating that human wisdom, when sound, supports the divine Gospel truths. All secular knowledge used should be so set forth as to support the Gospel truths.

The discussion of mysteries and of doctrines upon which there is not a recognized accepted view, should be avoided. The aim should be to present the simple truths of the Restored Gospel in as plain and understandable a way as possible. Care should be taken that the Gospel teachings are not cast in an ethical mold. Ethics are man-made and vary with man's concepts and development; the Gospel is God's truth and is unchanging through the eternities. Teaching the Gospel as if it were an ethical code will breed questions in the minds of the youth as to the relationship of the Gospel to ethics, to the possible destruction of faith in the divinity of the Gospel.

Setting the question of diplomacy in respect to other faiths aside, it is interesting to note the concern expressed that doubt not be engendered in the youth of the Church. The express purpose of church education and curriculum is to build faith, not doubt, in students. Today, there are some prominent educators that seem to disagree with President Grant and his counselors and they argue that doubt has merit, is good, and should even be celebrated. It is in such a case, when the winds of false doctrine blow around us, that Church Correlation becomes so very necessary. The high value placed in the teachings of modern prophets is also notable, especially in light of current material studied in priesthood and Relief Society classes. It seems the same value is now placed on prophetic teachings as when this letter was sent.

Elder L. Tom Perry emphasized the importance that the First Presidency places on keeping church doctrine pure. The concluding portion of this paragraph that is in quotation marks evidently quotes a letter written by the First Presidency and directed to all general authorities:

The Lord surely understood the need to keep His doctrines pure and to trust its interpretation to only one source. Of course, we are all admonished to study and gain as much knowledge as we can possibly obtain in this life. We are encouraged to discuss and exchange ideas one with another to further our understanding. However, the Lord has only one source for the declaration of His basic fundamental doctrines. Even as General Authorities of the Church, we are instructed: “In order to preserve the uniformity of doctrinal and policy interpretation, you are asked to refer to the Office of the First Presidency for consideration [of] any doctrinal or policy questions which are not clearly defined in the scriptures or in the General Handbook of Instructions.”[8]

            This is, of course, the answer for all of the bloggers, doubters, dissidents, and scholars of many stripes who loudly wonder whether they can “discuss and exchange ideas one with another”—even in a public forum such as the internet. It’s when such discussion and exchange becomes camouflage for personal apostasy that concern arises.

            Church Correlation certainly isn’t perfect, and some of the arguments and criticisms raised about it have merit, but it still fills a great need and provides a safe and solid foundation for spiritual learning.

[1]; see also
[2](“All-Church Coordinating Council Meeting,” 18 May 1993, 3;
[3] This letter and those quoted below are all from, James R. Clark, comp., Messages of the First Presidency (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965-75), volume 6. All volumes are available on Gospelink for subscribers.
[4] “Alternate Voices,” Ensign, May 1989, 28;
[5] The most comprehensive and complete compilation of quotations from church leaders and scholars that exists is my compilation, Determining Doctrine: A Reference Guide for Evaluating Doctrinal Truth, published by Eborn Books in 2005. This volume contains hundreds of organized statements teaching the nuances of where to find doctrinal truth—the living prophets and the scriptures being pre-eminent.

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