Susan Easton Black: My Most Influential Teacher

Contributed By Susan Easton Black, author and former professor of Church history and doctrine at BYU

  • 7 December 2016

The Ernest L. Wilkinson Center, circa 1965.  Photo courtesy of L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

Article Highlights

  • Professor Milton V. Backman Jr. bore his testimony of Joseph Smith on the first day of class.
  • He encouraged his students to thoroughly search for the answers to their questions.

The first day of class began much the same as any other at Brigham Young University—students hurried into the classroom to find a seat and meet their friends. As usual I took a seat in the back of the class. Professor Milton V. Backman Jr. entered a few minutes later. He was a tall, gangly man wearing a checkered coat that had gone out of style at least a decade before. He began his lecture with something about grades determined by tests and a term paper. I looked around the classroom to see other students taking notes as if they had heard something new. It was nothing new, just a typical first day at the university.

“Now that the mechanics of our class are out of the way,” Professor Backman said, “I would like to introduce myself.” He told of his academic preparation and then paused for the longest time. His pause caused me to look up. Professor Backman then said with unexplainable power, “Of all of my schooling and hours of studying there is nothing I have learned of greater value to me than what I am about to teach you. Please pray for me that I can teach you of the life of Joseph Smith. From his first youthful utterances in the Palmyra woods to his manly cry at Carthage, Joseph was the ‘choice seer’ whom the Lord raised up to bring forth the word of God. I ask the Spirit of the Lord to be with me so that you will know what I am saying is true. Joseph Smith was a prophet of God.”

I hadn’t come to class with that in mind. This class was supposed to just fill in my class schedule. It was supposed to be lectures, tests, a grade—nothing more.

Susan Easton Black. Photo provided by BYU Religious Studies Center.

On the second day of class Professor Backman had come early. He was at the door shaking hands with each student. It was such a simple gesture, but I remember feeling it a privilege to shake his hand. I took a seat in the front of the class; maybe it was because I had read chapter one and felt prepared to listen to his lecture. That day in class Professor Backman took Joseph Smith off the page of the chapter and dropped him right in the middle of my heart. I couldn’t write fast enough to keep up with the details he shared about the life of Joseph Smith.

At the conclusion of class Professor Backman asked, “What did you learn about Joseph that I didn’t say or you didn’t read in the text?” I think it was his way of wanting to make sure the Spirit was present in the classroom.

“He wasn’t a quitter,” one student said. “He was forgiving even in the worst of circumstances,” another shouted out. Then Professor Backman asked, “What about you? Are you a quitter? Are you forgiving?”

“What about me?” was the question I needed to answer, for I had concerns about historical issues in the life of Joseph Smith. Feeling that Professor Backman wouldn’t look at me askance, I made an appointment to visit with him in his office.

As I recall the walls of his office were lined with books, and books were strewn across his desk. He was sitting in a chair behind the desk reading scriptures as I entered his office. In what was an informal interview I explained to him my concerns. I was surprised that what I had seen as stumbling blocks to my faith, he had wrestled with also and found answers that fortified his faith. He told me of articles, books, and scriptures to read. Then without hesitation Professor Backman bore his testimony. His testimony wasn’t filled with the details he presented in class; it was simple: “Heavenly Father lives, Jesus is the Christ, and you are a child of God. You will find the needed answers to keep the faith and bless your life.”

“How are your classes going?” my mother asked. Instead of talking about grades I shared with her my experience in the office of Professor Backman. My mother started to cry. She said, “Whatever it cost us in tuition, it’s sure worth it this semester. That man is a master teacher like the Savior.”

As my mother and I talked again and again, her first question was always, “What did Professor Backman teach you this week?” Unknowingly I moved from student to teacher with my mother as my first student, followed by my roommates, friends, and acquaintances.

How do you thank such a teacher? Through the decades that followed, Professor Milton V. Backman Jr. and I became friends and colleagues at the university. Professor Backman died on February 6, 2016. I miss him. To me, he will always be the epitome of a master teacher.