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No more baptism bathing caps? 5 intriguing changes to early Church handbooks

A side by side comparison of the old and new Church Handbooks
Church handbooks have gone through quite a transformation since the first one was published in 1899.
Wikimedia and ChurchofJesusChrist.org

Editors note: This article was originally published in September 2021.

The Church recently announced that several chapters of the new handbook of instructions have been translated into several additional languages. It’s the latest development in a groundbreaking initiative to overhaul the manual in stages to meet the currents needs of the Church. Vaccinations, prejudice, medical marijuana, professional counseling and therapy, refugees, immigrants, and sexual assault are all examples of topics that have been addressed in updates released since last year.

Handbooks of the Past

The new handbook is publicly available to Church members and others, a major departure from past practice. For most of its existence, the entire Church handbook was considered highly confidential, and only certain priesthood leaders were to have access to it. Underscoring its privileged nature, for example, the 1970s handbook carried this admonition: “CONTENTS OF THIS HANDBOOK SHOULD NOT BE REPRODUCED.”1

Other major changes have taken place since the very first edition of the Church handbook was published in 1899. According to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, the original one was a booklet small enough to fit in a shirt pocket, and its content was limited to instructions for Church leaders on accepting and processing members’ tithing, which at that time was usually received in the form of farm produce and livestock.

After the turn of the century, that humble handbook started growing, with revisions at least every five years, and it quickly began incorporating new content to meet the needs of a growing Church with lay leaders seeking guidance on a host of topics. World events like the Great Depression, the World Wars, and emerging sensitive social issues prompted revisions.

Drawing from an article from the Journal of Mormon History, here’s a quick look at some of the interesting topics that handbooks of the past have covered:

1. Terms for Church callings
Although today it seems completely normal to talk about receiving a Church “calling,” that term is relatively new. Until 1976, the handbook spoke of “appointments” instead.

2. Baptismal Clothing
Two handbook editions in the 1940s contained a policy stating that it was “improper” for someone performing a baptism to wear “waders or hip boots” in order “to avoid wetting the clothing or keep the water from coming in contact with the body.” The handbook prohibited the “wearing of bathing caps by women who are to be baptized.”

3. Tithing Settlement
For decades the handbook required that the entire bishopric be present at tithing settlement. This changed in the 1940s so that only the bishop was supposed to be present—likely because of concerns for Church members’ privacy.

4. Hypnosis
In 1989, the handbook approved hypnosis for medical purposes when administered by competent medical professionals in treating “diseases or mental disorders.” But Church members were advised to “not participate in hypnosis demonstrations” for entertainment.

The current handbook echos a similar statement: "For some people, hypnosis can compromise agency. Members are discouraged from participating in hypnosis for purposes of demonstration or entertainment."

5. Membership Records
Early 20-century handbooks provided guidance on how to keep track of members who were moving from once ward or stake to another. Bishops were asked to give members leaving their ward a “recommend,” which included a complete genealogy, to deliver by hand to their next bishop.

Handbooks of the Future

Once all chapters of the new General Handbook have been published, the previous Handbook 1 (written for stake presidents and bishops) and Handbook 2 (written for all leaders) will be retired from the Gospel Library app. Eventually the new handbook will be available in 51 languages.

While the handbook will continue to offer guidance on Church administration, including how to run meetings, extend callings, keep records, manage finances, and follow policy, it is also intended to foster personal revelation and encourage ministering.

“What you’ll find in this new handbook version is that it’s more about principles, rather than practices, and more about ministering, rather than administering a program. It’s really about helping us as individuals learn how to reach out and minister to those in need,” Bishop L. Todd Budge, Second Counselor in the Presiding Bishopric, told Church News.

In fact, significant changes have been made to the wording in the new handbook to create a more ministerial voice. Church News writes that while previous handbooks had a more administrative, procedural voice for Church leaders, the new one has been carefully reworded to be more principle based.

Here are few interesting examples of rewrites with a more ministerial focus:

  • The wording “caring for the poor and needy” has been replaced with “caring for those in need.” Elder Anthony D. Perkins, General Authority Seventy and executive director of the Church’s Correlation Department explained, “We’re not labeling them as poor; we’re not labeling them as needy. We’re calling them ‘a person in need,’ and that need can be anything.”
  • The term “excommunication” has been replaced with “withdrawal of membership.”
  • The phrase “I challenge you. . .” has been replaced by “I invite you. . .” when encouraging others to repent.
  • “Disfellowship” has been replaced by “formal membership restrictions.” Church News notes that “disfellowship” connotes shunning and is contrary to the intent of the action.
  • “Disciplinary council” is now called “membership council,” as “disciplinary” presumed there was a need for discipline before the council was even held.

For more examples of how the wording in the handbook has been updated, see the Church News article “Why some words and phrases are no longer used in the Church’s General Handbook.”

The entire handbook is expected to be updated in English by the end of this year. You can find the current handbook online: General Handbook: Serving in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. You can also find a summary of updates on the Church’s website or in the links below.

1. See The Journal of Mormon History Volume 38, No. 4, Fall 2012, page 206.

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