A major — and historic — revision of the Church Handbook of Instructions is complete after an arduous five-year project at the top levels of the Church.
For the first time, priesthood and auxiliary leaders will be guided by a single handbook containing information to carry on the essential work of the Church.
The two-volume handbook places significant emphasis on the family through its instructions to leaders. And its language is more spiritual as it teaches the principles behind the policies in such a way that local priesthood leaders in different parts of the world could carry on even if communication to and from headquarters were interrupted for any reason.
Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve, in a Church News interview, said the handbook "should help leaders be more familiar with the doctrines and principles underlying the rules and directions that govern us. The handbook should also facilitate better cooperation among quorums and auxiliaries and people with different callings."
The new publication contains many changes as it makes obsolete about 30 handbooks and publications now consolidated within its pages. It is a third smaller than the publications it replaces. This provides a significant savings in cost of translation and distribution, as well as in reading time for leaders.
Bishoprics and stake presidencies receive both volumes. The first volume has 160 pages and 18 sections and an index for both volumes. The second volume of 168 pages is given to quorum presidents, group leaders and ward and stake auxiliary presidents. It is divided into 17 sections and has an index for only the second volume. The pages in the two volumes are numbered sequentially.
Most of the sections in the second volume pertaining to a quorum or auxiliary are reprinted separately for counselors and others who do not need the entire book. In addition, the "Gospel Teaching and Leadership," section is printed separately and will be widely distributed among Church leadership.
The English edition has been distributed to priesthood and auxiliary leaders who will begin following its policies Jan. 1, 1999. Non-English editions will be translated and distributed next summer and fall. In the meantime, all stake presidents worldwide have received the English edition.
Because the Church handbook is smaller than the various handbooks it replaces, it can be read in less time and "will therefore be easier to learn, understand and apply," Elder Oaks said.
Also, he explained, having all the information in a single volume will "expand knowledge in a very significant way because one of the most important changes in this handbook is that quorum leaders and auxiliary leaders who previously had no formal access to the handbooks of the other organizations, now have the entire book.
"So a Young Woman president or a Relief Society president or a Primary president knows what the Melchizedek Priesthood leaders and Aaronic Priesthood leaders are being taught and expected to do," continued Elder Oaks. "They also have access to a significant number of Church administrative policies and common principles on gospel teaching and leadership.
"The new handbook emphasizes the family in relation to the Church organizations, and also in relation to parents' obligation to teach the gospel," explained Elder Oaks. The handbook states:
"Parents have the primary responsibility for the welfare of their children. The ishopric and other ward leaders support but do not replace them in this responsibility." (p. 178.)
"That's a key idea on the role of family and Church organizations," continued Elder Oaks. "I think it is also important to note that the main section on gospel teaching and leadership begins with a section on strengthening the family that emphasizes family prayer and scripture study, family home evening, and family councils. The section then goes into the subject of teaching the gospel, which is for the benefit of parents as well as teachers in Church organizations.
"It is very important for us to remember that the Church exists to support the family, not the other way around. This is because the family organization is eternal.
"The Church exists to bring us to eternal life, and eternal life concerns families. The handbook reflects that emphasis throughout. And it also gives us a major new resource for leaders to help parents teach."
The handbook's emphasis on principles is a manifestation of Joseph Smith's statement that members were taught "correct principles [in order to] govern themselves," said Elder Oaks.
"This reminds us that when principles are understood, and when people are well-motivated, the principles are self-enforcing."
"While rules are rarely self-enforcing, rules have their place. For example, tithing is a doctrine. We all need to understand, however, that tithing settlement is held once a year in December. That's a rule. There are many rules in these books, as there has to be to help us conduct a common enterprise in a large worldwide organization.
"We have tried very hard to make clear in this handbook what the underlying doctrines and governing principles are so the rules can be related to the principles. That's the effort."
One intent for the new handbook is to "give local leaders the direction and information they need to carry on the essential work of the Church even in the absence of regular direction or communication from Church headquarters," said Elder Oaks.
"We don't have the kind of instant communication in different parts of the world that we have in North America and Western Europe. If we lose touch with our local leaders, through war or natural disaster or whatever, they would now be better able to carry on."
He said that another concern is that as the Church goes abroad, it must communicate in more and more languages. "It is extremely expensive to be translating 30 different publications into 50 or 60 different languages, and publishing, warehousing and shipping them. And if we cut out 30 different publications, then that's a very large economy."
Learning the contents of the book will take some time, Elder Oaks said. The General Authorities are teaching the information in the book to stake presidencies, who in turn are teaching bishoprics. An outline containing some 180 changes is given to stake presidencies, but this list focuses only on the more important changes and includes only a fraction of the total revisions.
"I think it is not realistic to say, 'Read this in our spare time,' " said Elder Oaks. "We need a regular study plan to become familiar with its contents. Now, bishoprics and stake presidencies, who have both books, have the larger task of reading. But the auxiliary and quorum presidents, who have just the second volume, also have a big task. Counselors to priesthood leaders and counselors to auxiliary presidents, who have only their individual sections, have a lesser task."
Elder Oaks described the effort behind the book.
"It took exactly five years," he said. "The assignment was given in September of 1993, and copies were sent out in September of 1998.
"The general presidencies of all the auxiliaries of the Church could not have been more cooperative in this whole process," Elder Oaks explained. "They immediately saw the advantages of the common handbook in greater accessibility and enhanced cooperation among all Church organizations. They gave enthusiastic and very effective assistance."
First, the proposed text of each chapter was sent to the organization involved for review and revisions. After proposed revisions were incorporated, the organization reviewed the revised chapter. After the additional revisions were incorporated, the entire book, showing how each organization fit into the whole, was sent to the organization for a final review.
"It was a very cooperative and reinforcing relationship," said Elder Oaks. "Along the way we also identified issues that needed to be resolved by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. Discussions of more than 200 policies were held by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve over that period of time. These were partly to resolve inconsistencies and partly to deal with questions that had come up."
He described the project as a "large burden to complete," but one that will be "helpful to everyone in the Church."
"It is an inexpressible relief to have it done," he said with a chuckle.