I think in this day and age it's become apparent that we really do need to provide a series of answers that will help our members better understand these chapters of our history. —Elder Snow

SALT LAKE CITY — The LDS Church has updated and enhanced several pages on its website dealing with a wide range of gospel topics, including some of the more delicate issues of church history.

The improvements are part of a larger, long-term effort to help families improve personal and family gospel study, church leaders said.

The improved "Gospel Topics" pages are found under the "Teachings" tab at the top of LDS.org. The enhanced page on "Race and the Priesthood" was posted last week, following publication of "First Vision Accounts" and "Are Mormons Christian?" The improved pages are intended to use scholarship, historical perspectives and outside resources transparently to help parents answer questions children might come across online, church leaders said.

The use of outside resources is a first.

"For the first time, we're linking away from LDS.org resources," said Elder Paul B. Pieper, executive director of the Priesthood Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "That's new. We've never permitted anyone on LDS.org to link to sites off LDS.org. If you look at the bottom of these pages, you'll see we link to the BYU scripture citation index and the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, for example."

"It's really a new day for LDS.org," he added.

Church members are cheering the enhanced pages, especially the one on race and the priesthood, which plainly "disavows" theories some critics have claimed were church doctrine and the basis for a ban on blacks holding the priesthood, a ban lifted by revelation in 1978.

"It's extremely valuable," said Roger Nicholson, a church member in Union City, Calif. "Now we can point directly to LDS.org and show people we don't teach that."

Study and faith

The topics pages are a piece of the major effort to enhance the church's curriculum with new digital tools and an improved website. Those initiatives began last year with the launch of a new youth curriculum program that pushed study and lesson planning for teenage Mormons to LDS.org and its new interactive learning and teaching tools.

The process of creating the new youth curriculum, combined with the overall digital revolution, led some church leaders and staff to consider how LDS.org could be used to design all church instruction for the home and families first, with Sunday instruction as a supplement, Elder Pieper said.

"This shifted our thinking completely," he added, "and we've been working on that for a year."

The changes will continue for another couple of years with similar enhancements to curriculum for adults and children, as well as continued improvements to LDS.org.

Improvements to the Gospel Topics section are also critical as the church grows, Elder Pieper said.

"It really comes from looking at a worldwide church and saying, 'What do we do when we have 20 million members or 50 million members? We've got to have a simple core we can build around. When we take the gospel into a new country, we take a copy of 'Gospel Principles' and the scriptures. Now we can take the scriptures and Gospel Topics."

For decades, church leaders have emphasized better teaching, Elder Pieper said. The overarching goal of the improvements to LDS.org is an emerging new emphasis to help church members, wherever they may be, become better learners. Each of the three enriched Gospel Topic pages includes multiple resources down the right side of the page, but the first resource in each case is a link to a page titled "Seek learning, even by study and also by faith," a phrase from LDS scripture. That page says the desire to ask questions comes from God and should involve reason.

"In our search for truth, we read, ponder and analyze information and weigh its reliability," the page says.

"We have to ask ourselves hard questions when we seek learning by study," Elder Pieper said. "What are the assumptions? What are the intents? How accurate is this? Is it good scholarship? Isn't it? How does it fit with my faith experience? How does it fit with other things? There are a lot of things you have to question about that, and I think most people with the Internet take something at face value and don't search a lot beyond."

Learning by faith comes via scripture and prayer, Elder Pieper said. "The ultimate source of all truth and of all context and of all understanding is the Lord."

Hot topics

As the church's Communications Services Committee considered the implications of the augmented youth curriculum and upgraded the search capabilities and home page at LDS.org, Elder Pieper said questions arose about where it should provide information on the hottest online topics about the church.

Those hot topics sometimes become "sensationalized" attacks on the church's doctrine or history, said Church Historian Steven E. Snow. He said church leaders wanted to help members study those topics and provide them with the best information available.

"The young people, particularly, they'll get on one site, and they'll say, 'Well, I didn't ever hear that,'" Elder Snow said. "And then that'll lead them to another. And they just keep going. And then there's this credibility issue that begins about, 'What else is the church hiding?' Well, we're not hiding anything. ... I think in this day and age it's become apparent that we really do need to provide a series of answers that will help our members better understand these chapters of our history."

That effort dovetailed with the decision to make the Gospel Topics section of LDS.org a focus of church study.

"With what we're facing, it's important that we all learn how to learn, as well as how to teach," Elder Pieper said. "So what this is designed to do is to be a resource that anyone can come on and learn the gospel and strengthen their testimony and deepen their conversion. That's really what Gospel Topics is for. It's a learning site, not a teaching site."

"It's about teaching in the home and resources for parents," he added, "and by the way, here are resources for questions parents may get."

Race and priesthood

Those questions may include the church's position on blacks and the priesthood prior to 1978, when then-church President Spencer W. Kimball received a revelation lifting the ban.

The race and the priesthood topic page says the church's doctrine is that God loves everyone equally and makes salvation available to all. It also states that the church's structure and organization encourages racial integration.

"The church was established in 1830, during an era of great racial division in the United States," the page says. Church founder Joseph Smith openly opposed slavery and allowed the ordination of a few black men, one of whom participated in temple ceremonies.

In 1852, President Smith's successor, President Brigham Young, "publicly announced that men of black African descent could no longer be ordained to the priesthood. ..." He also said that year that in the future black church members would "have (all) the privilege and more" enjoyed by other members.

"We've really tried to understand our history and why that policy occurred," Elder Snow said, "and what led up to the revelation of President Kimball in 1978."

That effort included increased attention from historians.

"We've enlisted the aid of historians, church historians, scholars, church leaders as well as others to work carefully on these matters to make certain we have the facts as right as we know them today," Elder Snow said, "and then to help our members understand them in the context of the time in our history and the time in American history, what was going in the world at the time.

"It's been a very interesting few months of research and scholarly pursuit as we've been able to clearly research some of these issues and chapters."

The race and the priesthood page includes videos of black church members talking about their perspectives.

"It's one of those things you remember where you were and how you felt and what you did next," Darius Gray said in one video about the 1978 priesthood revelation. "It was a remarkable moment. The world had changed in ways that many don't even recognize."

Other topics

Roger Nicholson is a Mormon with relatives who left the church after being affected by materials they found on the Internet. A software quality assurance manager with a Silicon Valley firm by day, Nicholson helps produce content on the side for FairMormon.org, which counters Internet questions about the church with scholarly answers.

Nicholson has spent years searching lds.org for information provided about some of these topics by church leaders and historians in talks and church publications.

"On the First Vision, the church has had something on the website for years," Nicholson said. "They replaced it with 'First Vision Accounts,' which is much better, but all the information has been in 'The Ensign' (a church magazine) and even its predecessor, 'The Improvement Era,' before. But when it's talked about once in a 10- or 20-year period, it's hard to know or find easily.

"Gathering the best information in easy-to-find topic pages on LDS.org is the missing piece in the gap between all the church has provided through the years and finding it easily."

Joseph Smith recorded that God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to him in 1820 in four handwritten accounts, in 1832, 1835, 1838 and 1842. The First Vision accounts page provides direct links to the handwritten accounts at the Joseph Smith Papers Project website.

"I don't see how you could make it any easier to access this information," Nicholson said.

That is the idea, Elder Pieper and Elder Snow said.

"We're not trying to cover anything," Elder Pieper said, "we're trying to open up the fullest possibility of everything for people to get in and get their arms around it, but do it with their faith there."

The church's First Presidency approves each of the enhanced topic pages.

"The First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve both have been very supportive of this process," Elder Snow said. "I think they sense the need to provide accurate information to our members to counter a lot of sensationalism that tends to come about online or on the Internet over some of these historical topics."

"We want them to be able to go to a place where they can read accurate information and be able to seek to understand those historical chapters in the context of time and place and understand these answers have been approved by the presiding Brethren of the church. I think that will give many of our members confidence that they can rely on those answers."

Nicholson said he will enjoy watching the project unfold.

"I'm really looking forward to whatever else is coming on Gospel Topics."

Elder Snow said one of the next topic pages to be enhanced will be about the translation of the Book of Mormon.

Digital church

Church leaders are encouraging members to use digital gospel tools where possible. That reduces the costs of printing manuals for the church as well as the need for members to purchase scriptures.

The church published a new set of scriptures this year, updating chapter and section headings, among other things. Those updates were made automatically to apps on phones and tablets, and the church told members not to buy new printed scriptures just because of the updates.

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"I was in a high council meeting on Thursday," Nicholson said, "and the stake president looked up and realized everyone was on a phone or a tablet. There was not a single paper copy of the scriptures in the room."

Elder Pieper said he uses church apps like Gospel Library as he rides the train to work in downtown Salt Lake City each day, but he said many members will need help familiarizing themselves with all the new digital tools on the church's website and apps.

"Part of what we'll do with the new adult curriculum in priesthood and Relief Society is we'll teach more about how to use these tools," he said. "You'll be taught on Sundays about how to do some of this."

Email: twalch@deseretnews.com