Joseph Smith’s Home Teacher and Social Roles

I’ve never enjoyed home teaching.

I’m uncomfortable with it for several reasons, such as going into others’ homes in what I’ve often felt (for me at least as a natural introvert) is an artificial and shallow capacity. I am particularly uncomfortable in situations in which the social roles are either only vaugely defined or uncomfortable to me. For example, I do just fine, even quite well in classes, where I am clearly either professor or student. I’ve been both, and I’m comfortable with the mutually-understood roles of both. The student understands that they are there to learn from the professor, who presumably knows more than they do, and that they are in some way subordinate to the prof. The professor, on the other hand, recognizes that their role is to bestow information on the students, to guide, goad, and question.

When it comes to home teaching roles, are the teachers and teachees equals? Or am I a shephard, in the sense that I can inquire into their devotions and testimony? Or are we friends? Do friends question friends? Do the home teachees have a responsibility to respond to them? Do home teachees recognize that we are assigned to them as a shephard?

I have the same discomfort when someone I know personally as a friend is suddenly behind a desk asking me temple recommend questions. The social shift from friend-friend to questioneer-questionee and the changing responsibilities accompanying that shift make me uncomfortable.

However, I have a new strategy. I live in a new Ward in a new Stake where I can re-create myself and my approach to home teaching. When I meet my new families, we’re going to read a journal entry from a teacher in the Aaronic Priesthood.

Recall that “The teacher’s duty is to watch over the church always, and be with and strengthen them; And see that there is no iniquity in the church, neither hardness with each other, neither lying, backbiting, nor evil speaking… They are, however, to warn, expound, exhort, and teach, and invite all to come unto Christ. ( D&C 20:53ff )

In this sense, home teachers have been around from the beginning of the Church. We possess the journal account of William Cahoon, the 18-yr old teacher assigned to watch over Joseph Smith and family. (Reference below)

Being young, only about seventeen years [eighteen] of age, I felt my weakness in visiting the Prophet and his family in the capacity of teacher. I almost felt like shrinking from duty. Finally I went to his door and knocked, and in a minute the Prophet came to the door. I stood there trembling, and said to him, “Brother Joseph, I have come to visit you in the capacity of a teacher, if it is convenient for you.”
He said, “Brother William, come right in, I am glad to see you; sit down in that chair there and I will go and call my family in.” They soon came in and took seats. He then said, “Brother William, I submit myself and family into your hand,” and then took his seat.
“Now Brother William,” said he, “ask all the questions you feel like.”
By this time all my fears and trembling had ceased, and I said, “Brother Joseph, are you trying to live your religion?”
He answered, “Yes.”
“I then said, “Do you pray in your family?”
He said, “Yes.”
“Do you teach your family the principles of the gospel?”
He replied, “Yes, I am trying to do it.”
“Do you ask a blessing on your food?”
He answered, “Yes.”
“Are you trying to live in peace and harmony with all your family?”
He said that he was.
I then turned to Sister Emma, his wife, and said, “Sister Emma, are you trying to live your religion? Do you teach your children to obey their parents? Do you try to teach them to pray?” To all these questions, she answered, “Yes, I am trying to do so.”
I then turned to Joseph and said, “I am now through with my questions as a teacher; and now if you have any instructions to give, I shall be happy to receive them.”
He said, “God bless you, Brother William; and if you are humble and faithful, you shall have power to settle all difficulties that may come before you in the capacity of a teacher.”
I then left my parting blessing upon him and his family, as a teacher, and took my departure.

I like this a good bit, and I feel it establishes things on the right foot. I also find comfort in Emma’s response of “Yes, I am trying to do so.” I have known good home teachers and the good that they can do. I’m just not one of them, yet, but I am trying to do so.

From “Recollections of the Prophet Joseph Smith: Elder William Farrington Cahoon,” Juvenile Instructor 27 (August 15, 1892): 492-3. That was taken from the W. F. Cahoon autobiography in the Church archives, as quoted by William G. Hartley, “From Men to Boys: LDS Aaronic Priesthood Offices, 1829-1996,” Journal of Mormon History 22:1 (1996): 85-86, an excellent article that traces the shift from men being ordained to Aaronic priesthood to our system today.
More on that topic from Splendid Sun.

PS- I have very little internet access lately, so I probably won’t be around to respond or moderate.

9 thoughts on “Joseph Smith’s Home Teacher and Social Roles

  1. “I have the same discomfort when someone I know personally as a friend is suddenly behind a desk asking me temple recommend questions.”

    You would love to live out here in ‘the colonies’, with few members, small branches and stakes. Before your realized, all the friends you used to hang out with when you were young are part of the leadership of the stake/branch/ward. You find yourself preaching to them in training meetings, they are interviewing you for the temple, etc.

    In a way I think we have had to kind of assume your life is public domain in the Church.

  2. I read about Cahoon’s experience a year or two ago, and have since wondered if I should be doing the same in my home teaching. Rather than simply asking how things are going and sharing a message, should I be enquiring as to the worthiness of my home teachee? Should I be making sure that they are fulfilling their duties, paying their tithes, and rendering service unto others? Sure, many of these questions are for the Bishop to ask, I think, but isn’t that why we are there to home teach? To represent the Bishop and be able to report up through the chain to him on how his flock is doing?

  3. Rascal, I don’t live in Utah, though it has been a while since I’ve lived in a branch. As I get older, it happens more and more that my friends are in leadership positions.

  4. Ben, this is a wonderful post. I think this exchange should be read in EQ and HP every so often so people are reminded about humility and duty. Thanks for this.

  5. I rescently had to give a talk on home teaching, and actually passed this quote up as I thought it was too commonly used. From the comments here, I guess maybe I was wrong…

  6. If my home teacher asked me worthiness questions, I’d tell him to stick it where the sun don’t shine. But maybe that’s just me.

  7. Home Teaching is such an important vehicle that the Lord has provided us with which we are able to take the saving principles to each member of the Church. It is the Bishop’s responsibility to visit all members and to ensure that they are taught correct principles. He cannot do this alone. We have an awesome responsibility and opportunity to serve and to represent not only the Bishop but the Savior. We should give thanks for that privilege. Also, as members we do need to follow the example of the Prophet and make ourselves and families ready to be taught.

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