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Landmark talk by President J. Reuben Clark set standard for church education

Published: Thursday, Feb. 9 2012 5:00 a.m. MST

Thoughts on the Charted Course

After working for a year as a substitute, Brad Howell was hired as a full-time LDS seminary teacher in 1987. During summer training, he was introduced to President J. Reuben Clark’s classic 1938 address, “The Charted Course of the Church in Education,” which charged teachers to take students into the scriptures every day.

Initially, Howell balked. It sounded good on paper, but he had his doubts.

“I remember reading it for the first time and checking the date. When I saw 1938, I said, ‘This is out of date. This has no relevancy. These aren’t the kids in my classes,’” a smiling Howell said. “I just didn’t believe that the students would really want to involve themselves in the scriptures every day. I thought, ‘You don’t understand kids.’”

To prove his theory, Howell obtained permission to survey nearly 400 students at Layton High to find out if they were really hungry for the things of the spirit. When the results came back, not only was the young teacher proved wrong, but he was utterly flabbergasted.

While The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints commemorates 100 years of seminary, it’s also been almost 75 years since President J. Reuben Clark, then a member of the LDS Church’s First Presidency, delivered an address that became the standard blueprint for education in the church. The talk came at a time when the church needed a definitive battle plan for religious education. Over the decades, prophets and apostles have quoted from "The Charted Course” again and again. All seminary and institute teachers are advised to study the document each year and incorporate its principles in the classroom.

“Though he gave this message before I was born, it is still fresh, powerful and profound today,” said President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, second counselor in the First Presidency in his January 2011 talk, "A Teacher of God's Children" (LDS account required). “We should regularly recheck our position on that charted course and make sure that we are not slowly drifting off course.”

The backstory

What sparked such a significant address in religious education?

Scott C. Esplin, an assistant professor in BYU’s church history department, researched the topic and presented his findings in a 2006 article published in a campus magazine, “The Religious Educator.” According to the article, the First Presidency was concerned about the influence of secularization in religious education. President Clark, the first member of the presidency to have a graduate degree, conducted a review of seminary and institute curriculum and found questionable terms that “in his opinion, … asserted that the teachings of Jesus were purely ethical and not divine.”

With those concerns in mind, President Clark accepted an invitation to speak to more than 90 seminary, institute and BYU religion faculty members and their spouses in Provo Canyon at Aspen Grove on Aug. 8, 1938. The group represented the majority of church educators at the time.

President Clark told the gathering there were “two prime things that should never be overlooked, forgotten, shaded or discarded … First, Jesus Christ is the Son of God … Second, the Father and the Son actually and in truth and very deed appeared to the Prophet Joseph Smith in a vision in the woods.” He said any individual who doesn’t accept these doctrines is not a Latter-day Saint.

President Clark’s remarks also offered keen insight into understanding students. “The youth of the church are hungry for the things of the Spirit; they are eager to learn the gospel, and they want it straight, undiluted,” President Clark said. “They want to know about the fundamentals.” He directed them to teach the gospel using the standard works and modern teachings of the church leaders as primary sources.

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