Monday, December 30, 2013

How to Become a Gospel Scholar

President Harold B. Lee
To answer that question, which has been posed to me on numerous occasions, I turn once again to President Harold B. Lee for guidance. He was often asked how he studied the gospel and the scriptures, and I frequently heard him answer this way: "There is no royal road to learning." That answer never fully satisfied anyone, I am sure, because it never directly addressed his method for studying the gospel. It only implied it wasn't easy.

During this Christmas season I got a deeper insight into the "how" part of his answer. My father is now in his 92nd year, and still lives in the home Harold B. Lee purchased from James Moyle (Henry D.'s brother) many years ago located at 1437 Penrose Drive in Salt Lake City. I affectionately refer to Dad sometimes as "the curator of the Harold B. Lee museum." Little has changed in that home since Harold B. Lee's occupancy. Only Dad knows how many Harold B. Lee artifacts he still controls, since as his children we never have seen it all and get rare glimpses when he allows.

While we visited with him recently before Christmas, he surprised me yet again by handing me a black well-worn leather-bound notebook. The book itself is 5.5" wide and 7.75" tall, the pages being 4.25" x 7.25". It's curled down on the edges and has three rings inside, holding 167 pages with writing on both sides of most pages. The handwritten outlines of many speeches Harold B. Lee had given during the years of 1927 to 1940, mostly to wards in the Pioneer Stake it seems, are as timely perhaps today as they were then. He was called to the high council in 1927, and spoke monthly in the various wards of the stake as assigned. In 1930, three years later at age 31, he was called as the stake president in Pioneer Stake. These early outlines supply the evidence of his post-mission attempts to organize his thinking around gospel topics.

As my father handed the notebook to me he said he would "loan" it to me. He said there are two more like it covering Harold B. Lee's subsequent Apostolic periods of time, and he is "loaning" one each to my two brothers Jon and Tim. He requested that each of us pick one of our favorite talks, then come prepared to teach him at a family home evening he wants to hold on his upcoming 92nd birthday on a Sunday night. After that night we will "exchange" the notebooks with each other and do it again and again. It gives me so much joy to turn those pages and see his handwriting. Each time I study his outlines I have felt as though I am having a "visit" with him. It gives me a glimpse of his mind and I found several "echoes" of his later speeches as an Apostle in these original notes.

Harold B. Lee laid out his first notebook in 24 topical headings, with tabs separating each topic. The first page under each tab lists as many scriptural references as he could find, interestingly, taken only from the Doctrine and Covenants. He typed the scriptural references on an old typewriter, as shown at the right. One might find his topical headings interesting. I've presented them here as they appear in order in the notebook:

Book of Mormon
Divinity of Latter-day Work
Apostacy [sic]
Organization of Church
Law of Consecration
Signs of Times
Gathering of Israel
Good Counsel
Sabbath Day
Baptism for the Dead
Outlines for Talks

As I have reviewed the contents over the past few days and shared it with many of our family, I have come to several conclusions I think are worth sharing.

1. There is no "one right way" to study the gospel. The Holy Ghost bears witness to each of us of gospel truth. Books, study courses and many BYU symposia over the years have suggested "how" to go about studying the scriptures. None of them, perhaps, is the one and only way you should do it. Listen to the Spirit. Unwittingly, I started with studying the scriptures topically as the topics came up in classes. I would exhaust one topic to my heart's content, then move on to the next and the next and the next. The gospel is truly inexhaustible.

2. The key to learning gospel topics is consistency and constancy. If anyone were to pick up my copies of the scriptures, they would find a disorganized mess, a colorful array of multi-colored inks, underlinings, circles, arrows, scripture chains, cross references and notes scribbled all over the pages. But each mark suggests a moment in time when the Holy Ghost helped me to make a discovery for myself. Since my mission days I have always preferred the large pulpit-sized editions because it gave me more room for margin notes.

3. I've always done what Grandfather did with his scriptures - inserting quotes from prophets that illuminate and interpret certain passages. You can do it by putting a line of Elmer's glue on a blank sheet of paper and gently touching the edge of your insert onto the line of glue and then inserting it where you want it within the scriptures. It will permanently be part of your scriptures thereafter, and you will find that the bindings bulge and sometimes can't contain the inserts if you have as many as me. But you'll have a way to speak from them spontaneously thereafter at a moment's notice.

4. However you choose to organize your thinking around gospel topics, the key takeaway is this - you gain knowledge on your own terms, at your own speed, and in your own time. This is what it means to have the Holy Ghost with you as a constant companion. You invite His guidance when you open the word routinely. You can't learn it from Harold B. Lee or anyone else. As you teach the principles of the gospel to others, you "own" those principles for yourself. It is the way, the only way, we will come to a "unity of the faith," as spoken of by the prophets. We must anchor our teachings in the scriptures.

Harold B. Lee was my role model in gospel scholarship and teaching. He had a personal standard he used. If he couldn't answer a gospel question from the scriptures, he would often say, "I don't know, and you can quote me on that." He would only cite quotes from presidents of the Church during the time they were serving as president. I wasn't sure until this week "how" he studied the scriptures, I only knew he had paid a deeply personal price for what he knew. I came to realize I could do the same for myself without having to follow precisely in his footsteps. It didn't matter that I have the precise inserts he used in his scriptures. That way I owned my own testimony and could be independent from his testimony. That was important to me. I never wanted to be his lap dog just because he was my grandfather.

It would perhaps be audacious for me to claim I knew as much as Harold B. Lee. But it is not arrogant to assert my gospel knowledge is the same as his because today I am intimately familiar with all the references he has cited under his topic headings starting back in 1927. I can say that at least Harold B. Lee and I have come to a unity of the faith in the same conclusions, but our paths might not have been identical.

That discovery gives me the assurance that someday we may all begin speaking the same scriptural language in the Church.


  1. This is a priceless post! I have wrestled with my feelings for my digital scriptures on my iPad. I love so many things about them and yet miss so many things (notes, markings, cross-references, familiarity) from my old scriptures. I agree, that in the end, what matters is that whichever version we are studying at that moment that we document the insights we gain through the Holy Ghost. Harold B. Lee's writings will always be special in our family, but I for one am just as interested in one day getting my hands on your scriptures and dissecting them the same way you are with Grandfather Lee's.

  2. Let me amend my last post. I've now been called to teach the 14-15 year olds in Sunday School. All the lesson outlines are online at the Church's website. Now I am teaching from my iPad. I think the world is changing. When we were with Merilee in Virginia we attended her last transfer meeting where they announced all the missionaries in her mission would be receiving their own iPads. It is clear the Church is encouraging the youth to embrace the online technology, and I will be teaching these young people how to easily navigate through the new tools available to them. Change is upon us and change we must ;-)