To Teach or Not to Teach: Three Possible Interpretations of D&C 42:12-14

My paper from the conference at SVU on D&C 42.

This is copied & pasted from a wordperfect document so some of the spacing etc might be off.
Note: There were a few more changes beyond this, and whenever they decide to get it ready for publication then I’ll need to double it and flesh it out a lot. But here you go, in the meanwhile:

To Teach or Not to Teach: Three Possible Interpretations of D&C 42:12-14

I will begin my paper today with a fantastically appropriate quotation from Elder Oaks, given in 1997:

In the 1831 revelation to the Prophet Joseph Smith known as “the law of the Church,” the Lord commanded, “If ye receive not the Spirit ye shall not teach” (D&C 42:14). A few months later, the Prophet received further instructions on this subject that are contained in the 50th section of the Doctrine and Covenants:

“[And] he that receiveth the word by the Spirit of truth receiveth it as it is preached by the Spirit of truth. …

These familiar references portray the essence of all teaching in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They are so familiar they are almost slogans, yet we are in danger of using them without understanding them.

Elder Oaks then goes on to give an explanation of D&C 42:14.

The Lord described the importance of teaching by the Spirit when he said, “If ye receive not the Spirit ye shall not teach” (D&C 42:14). One easy-to-understand illustration of the importance of that direction is to remind ourselves of this fact: When we go out into the world to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, many of the people we teach have much more formal education than we do.

…If we have the Spirit of the Lord to guide us, we can teach any person, no matter how well educated, any place in the world. The Lord knows more than any of us, and if we are his servants, acting under his Spirit, he can deliver his message of salvation to each and every soul.

I use Elder Oaks here as an illustration of the most common interpretation of D&C 42 verse 14. Note that when Elder Oaks discusses this verse, he comments at length on why one should teach with the Spirit, but never comments on this one phrase: “If ye receive not the Spirit, ye shall not teach.” Even though the verse is usually quoted in its entirety, this last part is almost never commented on directly.

This may be understandable when teaching in General Conference or writing an Ensign article: without communicating in person with a teacher, it may serve to discourage a teacher if too much emphasis was placed on when not to teach. Obviously the ultimate goal is to have all teachers teaching with the Spirit, so to focus on how or why to accomplish this makes a great deal of sense.
However, I do find it fascinating that this full half of verse 14 is constantly quoted without commentary. And again, I only use Elder Oaks as an illustration of a general pattern found in talks, manuals, handbooks, pamphlets, etc.

Even as recent as a few weeks ago, the Church News published an article with this commentary:

“One who would be a teacher must first be a learner…. Such learning entails not just a conceptual but a spiritual understanding, as reflected in this passage: And the Spirit shall be given unto you by the prayer of faith; and if ye receive not the Spirit, ye shall not teach (Doctrine and Covenants 42:14).

The period of preparation does not end when one begins to teach but is continual…”

Again note that verse 14 was quoted but not actually commented on. Not even the beginning of the verse was commented on – it was simply used as a common proof-text that the Spirit is important. I echo Elder Oaks’s concern: these words are “so familiar they are almost slogans.”

Today I want to share a much closer look at D&C 42 verses 12-14. Following a verse-by-verse exegesis, I will explore three possible interpretations of these verses and the implications for what it may mean to “Teach by the Spirit.”

So first, a verse-by-verse exegesis.

Verse 12 is directed to the “elders, priests, and teachers.” Since verse 11 right before it is directed to the missionary effort of preaching the gospel, it is tempting to read verses 12-17 as simply talking about the same issue. However, it is important to note that D&C 20 and D&C 84 clearly state that teachers, one of the three groups addressed in verse 12, are to stay with the church and not travel. D&C 20 also explains that all three offices have a responsibility to teach in church meetings. Since at least one of the offices addressed in verse 12 is not assigned any missionary duties, and all three offices do have a responsibility to teach in their church meetings, I will read verse 12 as dealing with teaching specifically in church meeting settings. This will apply to the remainder of the verses surrounding verse 14, all the way to verse 17.

With this setting in mind, verse 12 explains that their sermons should teach the “principles of the gospel” – faith, repentance, baptism, Holy Ghost – with the Bible and Book of Mormon as the source.

Verse 13 commands them to observe the “covenants and church articles.” This was a phrase commonly used to refer to section 20 of the Doctrine and Covenants, which recorded the duties these of elders, priests, and teachers. One of these duties listed in D&C 20 was to “conduct the meetings as […] led by the Holy Ghost.” The remainder of verse 13 echoes this commandment by directing them to teach “as they shall be directed by the Spirit.”

Verse 14 continues the theme and explains this process further: “And the Spirit shall be given unto you by the prayer of faith.” Faith is necessary, as is the process of asking. Yet, verse 14 opens up the possibility that even with this the Spirit might not come. “If ye receive not the Spirit,” it says, “ye shall not teach.” The Spirit cannot be controlled, but it can be invited.

Verse 15, at first, appears to conclude this passage on teaching. It begins by saying, “And all this ye shall observe to do as I have commanded concerning your teaching.” “All this” obviously refers to what was given right before it; namely, the instructions in verses 12-14.

However, verses 16 and 17 also deal with teaching after this conclusion in verse 15 has been given. Because of their location after verse 15, they are naturally cut off from verses 12-14 and form a separate, unique group.

Seeing this separation allows us to use verses 12-14 and 16-17 as two distinct, parallel groups.

Once this separation is noted, we see that verses 16-17 have a very different model of teaching by the Spirit. Verses 12-14 consistently talk of the Holy Ghost with the word “Spirit” (3 times) but verses 16-17 only use the word “Comforter” (2 times). Though there are a few times in the Doctrine and Covenants where these two titles are equated, they are usually given sequentially in a list, whereas here, they are decisively separated by verse 15 and each word is used several times in its respective section.

Though it may or may not be the case elsewhere, in D&C 42 the roles of “Spirit” and “Comforter” are presented as distinct from each other. Verses 16-17, using the word “Comforter,” open up teaching to prophecies and any words God might give to the teacher. In verses 12-14, on the other hand, teaching by the “Spirit” is restricted to observing order and using scripture.

Because of the consistent use of the word Spirit in verses 12-14, I have chosen to limit my discussion of “Teaching by the Spirit” to these three verses.

So now, the three interpretations.

Interpretation #1: The Spirit “directs”

Verse 13 explains that teaching is to be done “as they shall be directed by the Spirit.” The word “directed” calls to mind the image of a director of a play. My first interpretation will take up this metaphor at length and see how it might bear on the Spirit’s role in teaching.

A director, wanting to present a play, will consider several things. For example, the director has in hand a script that outlines a particular story. This script will have words, plot, and stage directions already provided, but it is the director’s job to decide how to use them. A director will also consider the actors in the play, who have personalities and abilities which they bring to the part. A director “directs” precisely by seeing in these and other factors a variety of possibilities, and then choosing how to present a play for performance.

Verse 12, as noted earlier, restricts teaching to the principles of the gospel as found in the Bible and Book of Mormon. The scriptures become a sort of “script”for teaching these principles, with certain words, stories, ideas, phrases that are ready to be used. The Spirit, as a director, uses these words to create a particular presentation of the principles of the gospel.

The Spirit will also decide how to direct the people who will be teaching. Just like actors in a play, each person who comes to teach will have their own abilities and experience that makes them unique as a performer. The Spirit knows each person and will decide how to use these characteristics in a teaching situation.

Therefore, the role of a teacher to the Spirit, matches up with the role of an actor to a director. A teacher must be willing to follow the Spirit’s directions. The teacher must prepare, but be willing to see where the Spirit wants to take the lesson. It is the director’s job to see the possibilities and direct the overall performance.

Many have interpreted the phrase “teaching by the Spirit” to mean a teacher comes with no preparation whatsoever. But if we compare a teacher to an actor, we get a very different picture. No good actor would come to a practice with out having studying the script. A good actor will not only memorize the words, but will study out the possible ways of delivering those words. She will also know the overall plot, the other characters, and the stage directions. A good actor will know the part so well, that when she comes to perform it the Director can give directions and she will be ready to follow them.

Likewise, a good teacher will study the scriptures, the lesson manual, the talks, or whatever material has been assigned and know them well. Then she can come ready to follow the Spirit in whatever direction He chooses to go. It is the Spirit’s job to see the potential uses of the material in presenting whatever needs to be taught that day.

This interpretation of Teaching by the Spirit matches up with other verses in the Doctrine and Covenants. My favorite of these is D&C 84:85, “Neither take ye thought beforehand what ye shall say; but treasure up in your minds continually the words of life, and it shall be given you in the very hour that portion that shall be meted unto every man.”

You may have noticed that so far, I like Elder Oaks, have only addressed “why” and “how” questions and left out the second have of verse 14 Not to worry, I will now flesh out how this metaphor relates to the rest of verse 14.

Imagine an actor who decides not to listen to the director. This actor practices diligently and knows every line perfectly. She plans her voice inflections and volume and tries various motions of her hands and facial expressions. She believes she knows her part better than anyone else in the history of the theater. When she comes to the stage, ready to perform, she doesn’t see much reason to following the directors “suggestions.” She is the master of her performance.

Such an actor will very soon find herself at odds with the director. In fact, she will likely find herself cut from the play. To rework verse 14, we could say: “And if ye receive not direction, then ye shall not act in the performance.”
We could also say that a teacher unwilling to listen to the Spirit’s directions will be at odds with the Spirit. If a teacher is not able to pray in faith and will not receive the Spirit, then perhaps they ought to repent before they attempt to teach.

Interpretation #2: The Spirit is “unique”

Three months after D&C 42 was revealed came further instruction regarding the Spirit. Section 50 verses 13-16 read:

“Wherefore, I the Lord ask you this question—unto what were ye ordained?
“To preach my gospel by the Spirit, even the Comforter which was sent forth to teach the truth.
“And then received ye spirits which ye could not understand, and received them to be of God; and in this are ye justified?
“Behold ye shall answer this question yourselves”

An article in the Millennial Star titled “Try the Spirits” explained: “Soon after the gospel was established in Kirtland, and during the absence of the authorities of the church, many false spirits were introduced, many strange visions were seen, and wild enthusiastic notions were entertained…. whereas there is nothing unnatural in the spirit of God.” (Millennial Star July 1842 Vol III no 3)

And all of this has been thoroughly documented in a recent book by Mark Lyman Staker.

“There is nothing unnatural in the spirit of God” says Joseph. The Saints, being eager to have spiritual experiences, hastily received other spirits for the Spirit of Truth. Specifically, they received spirits that they “could not understand.” They could not understand them, and yet they took them to be the Holy Spirit of God. There is something so interesting in that and something so contrary to Joseph’s teachings. If anyone lacks wisdom, he should ask of God.

The same rule applies here: Ask God if it is a true Spirit. D&C 50:31 reads, “Wherefore, it shall come to pass, that if you behold a spirit manifested that you cannot understand, and you receive not that spirit, ye shall ask of the Father in the name of Jesus; and if he give not unto you that spirit, then you may know that it is not of God.”

Note how striking the similarities are between D&C 42:14 and D&C 50:31:

D&C 42:14 —> D&C 50:31
And the Spirit shall be given unto you by the prayer of faith—>ye shall ask of the Father in the name of Jesus
and if ye receive not the Spirit—> and if he give not unto you that spirit
ye shall not teach—>then you may know that it is not of God

If we take up this reading of verse 14, then the lesson would be “it is better to not teach than to teach by the wrong spirit.” The verse becomes a warning to Saints who are eager to teach with the Spirit, but who could mistake other apparent spiritual manifestations for the Spirit.

In 1831, people claimed to be overcome by the spirit and showed that by acting in unnatural ways. For our purposes here, let us explore what a teacher in 2010 might be tempted to take for the Spirit.

For example, a teacher might believe that good stories, object lessons, handouts, emotional stories or tales of miracles in and of themselves create a powerful lesson. To seek after these things, without the Spirit, might constitute receiving other spirits which are not from God. A teacher tearing up does not guarantee that the Spirit is in the classroom, but there is a temptation to always equate those two things. There is a temptation to see the power that these methods bring to a lesson and seek after those powers.

However, all of these things are certainly not off limits The crucial difference is whether or not these tools are used for their own strength, without the Spirit, or are consecrated by the Spirit.

Interpretation #3: The Spirit “selects”

The third reading of verse 14 explores its connection to a verse in the Book of Mormon. Moroni writes,

“And their meetings were conducted by the church after the manner of the workings of the Spirit, and by the power of the Holy Ghost; for as the power of the Holy Ghost led them whether to preach, or to exhort, or to pray, or to supplicate, or to sing, even so it was done” (Moroni 6:9).

D&C section 20 verse 45 says much the same:

“The elders are to conduct the meetings as they are led by the Holy Ghost, according to the commandments and revelations of God.”

When we consider Moroni 6:9 and D&C 20:45, we see the Spirit as conducting an entire meeting and not just the moment of teaching. The “as” in verse 13 becomes a question of “if” or “when” they are directed to teach. When led by the Spirit to teach (as opposed to singing, testifying, etc), then they shall teach the principles of the gospel.

Therefore, in verse 14, if a elder, priest, or teacher desires to teach, and the Spirit does not come, then they are being led to do something else.

Elder Holland, in an April 1998 conference address, said this: “Most people don’t come to church looking merely for a few new gospel facts or to see old friends, though all of that is important.” Taking the inverse of his statement for a moment, we could say that while teaching is the crucial activity in a classroom, “seeing old friends” and learning “a few new gospel facts” are important too. A teacher who is listening to the Spirit may be led to exhort, to sing, to start a conversation with a new member, or allow for extra conversation time after class.


Today I have offered three possible interpretations of D&C 42:14. I realize that these three teaching models have overlapped and also contradicted each other. I am also aware that there are other potential interpretations of these verses.

What I have found common to each of these interpretations is that teaching is a sort of stewardship. Our desires to teach are to be turned over to God so that our efforts can be consecrated. In each model, I see traces of the economic law of consecration we’ve discussed today:

In the first model, we consecrate our researched teaching material, everything we’ve studied and pondered, which then becomes capital that can be put to use. It may or may not be returned to us for use when we stand up to teach.

In the second model, we realize that although others may have received profit by investing in certain teaching methods or spiritual manifestations, for us to invest consecrated time and speculate in these ventures may be risky and not at all of God.

And finally, in the third model, we see that our assigned stewardship of teaching is subordinated to the general whole of Zion.

Our stewardships are always just one among many, and in Zion we all labor for the good of Zion.


One response to “To Teach or Not to Teach: Three Possible Interpretations of D&C 42:12-14

  • Karen

    Note: As of February 2011, I am working through a rewrite of this paper in a series of posts titled “Working on D&C 42.” The content will be much more historically informed, and the scriptural connections much more solid.

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