As current and former Sunday School general officers from the past four decades reunited at the Church Office Building April 8, a Greg Olsen painting on display seemed to set the tone for the evening. The painting depicts a teacher, scriptures in hand, standing before a class of adults. On a chalkboard next to him are the written words from Doctrine and Covenants 43:15, “Teach the children of men … by the power of my Spirit.”
Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve, who was Sunday School general president from 1971 to 1979, gave remarks to the gathering, which included several currently serving and emeritus General Authorities who have served in Sunday School general presidencies.
“We all stand tall on the shoulders of those who went before us,” Elder Nelson said, citing John 4:37-38, “And herein is that saying true, One soweth, and another reapeth. I sent you to reap that whereon ye bestowed no labour: other men laboured, and ye are entered into their labours.”
“Many, many people have made possible what we enjoy now, and we’re very grateful for them,” he said.
Elder Nelson introduced the newly sustained Sunday School general presidency, Russell T. Osguthorpe, David M. McConkie and Matthew O. Richardson. “They were set apart this morning in the Council Room of the First Presidency,” he said. “It was a deeply moving experience. Their sweet companions were there to symbolize the partnership concept. We’re here to teach the gospel, yes, to build faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, yes. But we’re also here to build and strengthen families.”
Speaking extemporaneously, Elder Nelson touched on comments that had been made earlier in a discussion led by A. Roger Merrill, released at the recent general conference as Sunday School general president.
“Our Sunday Schools will be better if our people are worshiping in the temple,” Elder Nelson said, “not just attending the temple but going for their own relatives and having that opportunity to be instructed by the Holy Ghost in the temple.”
Pertaining to teaching by the Spirit, Elder Nelson said he sets for himself a deadline to have the first draft of his talk for April general conference finished by Jan. 24 and for October conference by July 24. “Why? Because I don’t get any help from heaven until that first draft is finished. Once I’m immersed and I know where I’m going, then the Lord gives me help.” He said those who teach the gospel are guided by the Spirit once they are “invested” in teaching the message.
Demonstrating a virtually encyclopedic knowledge of the history of Sunday School, Elder Nelson noted that Richard Ballantyne began the first Sunday School in December 1849 at a location marked by a monument in Salt Lake City at what is now the intersection of 200 West and 300 South. Sunday schools that emerged after that were somewhat autonomous until they were unified in 1867 with apostle George Q. Cannon as the general superintendent of what was named the Deseret Sunday School Union.
Elder Cannon privately financed the first Sunday School magazine, called the Juvenile Instructor, later called the Instructor, Elder Nelson said.
The sacrament was introduced into the Sunday School in 1877, and it continued until 1980, Elder Nelson said, adding that it was discontinued with the inauguration of the three-hour Sunday meeting block schedule that was instituted twhat year.
Elder Nelson reminisced about his own service as a Sunday School general president, saying that a week after he was called, he went to President Harold B. Lee and showed him a newspaper article with the headline “New Union Head called.”
“I said, ‘President Lee, do you really want me to be called a union leader?'” Shortly afterward, the name Deseret Sunday School Union was shortened to Sunday School, and the position of superintendent became president.
Elder Nelson said there were no manuals prepared for the following year at the time he was called, so the Sunday School general board worked overtime to meet a deadline.
“We thought, why is it necessary for us to have this kind of photo finish every year, when we know there’s going to be a need for new manuals?” Changes thereafter brought the establishment of the Curriculum Department of the Church, which was given the responsibility for the writing of new manuals, planning four years in advance rather than four months.
Elder Nelson noted that for 63 years from 1867 to 1934, the general Sunday School was under General Authority leadership. Then there was a 45-year span of leadership under non-General Authorities, concluding with his own presidency, which lasted until 1979. That year, Elder Hugh W. Pinnock of the Seventy was called to preside over the Sunday School, leading to a 25-year period of General Authority leadership, ending with the call of the recently released presidency of A. Roger Merrill, Daniel K. Judd and William D. Oswald.
Brother Oswald actually served twice in the presidency, Elder Nelson noted, the first time when Elder Nelson was Sunday School president. “What a special record has been made by William D. Oswald, to think he would come back, 30 years later in the Sunday School presidency,” Elder Nelson quipped.
During the discussion led by Brother Merrill on the theme “Forty Years of Sunday School Leadership: Legacy of the Past— Opportunities for the Future,” he asked some of the former officers to express any advice they might give to the new presidency.
Elder John H. Groberg, an emeritus General Authority who served under two Sunday School presidents from 2001 to 2004, noted a tendency of some teachers to end a good discussion just to “finish the material.”
“The material that has to be finished, of course, is to get the principles into the hearts of the people.”
Elder Joe J. Christensen, another emeritus General Authority who served as a counselor under Elder Nelson in the Sunday School presidency, asked Brother Merrill to tell what his presidency did under the current arrangement. Brother Merrill said their focus had less to do with organizing and running the program and more to do with teaching and learning in a gospel sense. He contrasted teaching patterns in the world at large, which focus on conveying information, with gospel teaching patterns, which focus on “the Spirit and the scriptures and the core doctrines.”
Prompted by Elder Nelson, Brother Merrill said Sunday School has been given a role that he characterized as “auxiliary to the auxiliaries.” In effect, Sunday School officers have become “teaching specialists” to support auxiliary organizations and priesthood groups in their efforts to improve gospel teaching.
Anne Osborn Poelman, a former Sunday School general board member and the wife of Ronald E. Poelman, emeritus General Authority and former counselor in a Sunday School general presidency, suggested that instruction in Sunday School be regarded not so much as “teaching a lesson,” but rather, “building a lesson.”
“What you’re building may not be the blueprint you started out with,” she said, adding that the discussion can be constructed around the feedback given by class members.
Elder Harold G. Hillam, emeritus General Authority who was Sunday School General President from 1995 to 2000, said, “My experience is that around the Church, we really need to have people who understand the doctrine. When there is a discussion, that’s great, as long as we’re teaching the doctrine and we’re teaching it with the Spirit.”
He added that the experience of attending the temple helps Church members to recognize the Spirit. “I think that would prepare our teachers about as much as anything we could do, if they know that’s what we are expecting of them,” he said.
Elder Charles Didier, an emeritus General Authority who was Sunday School general president in 1994-95, said leaders should acquaint themselves with the expectations and suggestions of the learners who come to Sunday School.
Elder Rulon G. Craven, an emeritus General Authority and former counselor in a Sunday School general presidency, said, “I have learned that teaching by the Spirit is to plan your lesson at least a week ahead of time; then you give the Spirit time to teach you.”
SELECTED DATES IN SUNDAY SCHOOL HISTORY
1849: Richard Ballantyne holds the first Sunday School in the Salt Lake Valley with 29 children present.
1867: The Deseret Sunday School Union is organized.
1877: The sacrament is instituted as part of Sunday School.
1898: The first general Sunday School conference is held.
1899: The jubilee box is sealed, with the request that it be opened in 1949.
1900: The Deseret Sunday School Union purchases the Juvenile Instructor from the George Q. Cannon family.
1902: Infant, Primary, Intermediate, and Theological classes are instituted.
1904: Adult classes become an integral part of Sunday School.
1910: The “sacrament gem” is instituted.
1915: Teacher training work begins in earnest.
1916: Sunday School lesson manuals are first used.
1917: “Nickel Sunday” becomes “Dime Sunday.”
1930: The Juvenile Instructor becomes the Instructor.
1934: Junior Sunday Schools are officially recognized.
1936: The two-and-one-half-minute talk is instituted.
1949: The centennial year of Sunday School is celebrated.
1949: The centennial box is sealed, with the request that it be opened in 1999.
1950: A family relations department is instituted.
1952: An investigator’s department is instituted.
1971: Superintendents and assistants are renamed as presidents and counselors, respectively.
1974: The standard works are named as the text for the adult course of study.
1979: Members of the Seventy begin serving as Sunday School general presidencies.
1980: The Sunday consolidated meeting schedule is instituted.
1995: A new, simplified curriculum begins worldwide.
2004: After many years general officers again are called to serve in the Sunday School general presidency.
2009: Sunday School has 12.2 million members.
First Sunday School “Sacrament Gem,” January 1910:
While of these emblems we partake,
In Jesus’ name and for his sake,
Let us remember and be sure
Our hearts and hands are clean and pure.
General Sunday School officers over the past 40 years:
President: Russell M. Nelson, 1971-1979
First counselors: Joseph B. Wirthlin, B. Lloyd Poelman, Joe J. Christensen, William D. Oswald
Second counselors: Richard L. Warner, Joe J. Christensen, William D. Owald, J. Hugh Baird
President: Hugh W. Pinnock, 1979-1986
First counselors: Ronald E. Poelman, Robert D. Hales, Adney Y. Komatsu
Second counselors: Jack H Goaslind Jr., James M. Paramore, Loren C. Dunn, Ronald E. Poelman
President: Robert L. Simpson, 1986-1989
First counselors: Adney Y. Komatsu, Devere Harris
Second counselors: A Theodore Tuttle, Devere Harris, Phillip T. Sonntag, Derek A. Cuthbert
President: Hugh W. Pinnock, 1989-1992
First counselors: Derek A. Cuthbert, H. Verlan Andersen, Hartman Rector Jr.
Second counselors: Ted E. Brewerton, H. Verlan Andersen, Rulon G. Craven, Clinton L. Cutler
President: Merlin R. Lybbert, 1992-1994
First counselor: Clinton L. Cutler
Second counselor: Ronald E. Poelman
President: Charles Didier, 1994-1995
First counselor: J. Ballard Washburn
Second counselor: F. Burton Howard
President: Harold G. Hillam, 1995-2000
First counselors: F. Burton Howard, Glenn L. Pace, Neil L. Andersen
Second counselors: Glenn L. Pace, Neil L. Andersen, John H. Groberg
President: Marlin K. Jensen, 2000-2001
First counselor: Neil L. Andersen
Second counselor: John H. Groberg
President: Cecil O. Samuelson, 2001-2003
First counselor: John H. Groberg
Second counselors: Richard J. Maynes, Val R. Christensen
President: Merrill J. Bateman, 2003-2004
First counselor: John H. Groberg
Second counselor: Val R. Christensen
President: A. Roger Merrill, 2004-2009
First counselor: Daniel K. Judd
Second counselor: William D. Oswald
President: Russell T. Osguthorpe, 2009-
First counselor: David M. McConkie
Second counselor: Matthew O. Richardson