Latter-day Saints enjoy a legacy of learning that is deeply rooted in a belief that God’s children cannot be saved in ignorance. Joseph Smith received divine instruction regarding acquiring knowledge, especially that which pertains to true religion. Those early revelations were the seeds that would grow and flourish over the years and eventually bear fruit in the form of weekday religious education for the youth of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
A few years after the founding of the restored Church of Christ in 1830, Joseph Smith was told through revelation that “if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come.”1 The Prophet declared that Latter-day Saints were to “be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel,” as well as in “things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms.”2 The Lord charged the members of His Church to “teach one another words of wisdom … out of the best books” and to “seek learning, even by study and also by faith.”3
From its very beginning, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has emphasized education, both secular and spiritual. The first issue of the Church newspaper titled the Evening and Morning Star admonished parents that “it is all important that children, to become good should be taught so.”4 In June 1831 Joseph Smith received a revelation directing Oliver Cowdery and new convert W. W. Phelps to “do the work of printing, and of selecting and writing books for schools in this church, that little children also may receive instruction before me as is pleasing unto me.”5
When the Latter-day Saints moved to Ohio in 1831, the state did not provide any financial assistance for education. Colleges and elementary schools, for the most part, were sponsored by religious societies. Teaching was also done in private or family schools. Joseph and Emma Smith sponsored such a school in their home and hired Eliza R. Snow to teach it.
As more Saints gathered, it became possible to expand education efforts beyond individual homes. The Church’s first official educational institution, the School of the Prophets, was organized in January of 1833 in Kirtland, Ohio, primarily as a school to prepare missionaries. The school originally met in an upper room of the Newel K. Whitney Store. This school was based on a revelation received December 27, 1832, called the Olive Leaf, and was a place where students experienced spiritual gifts and received blessings.6 A School for the Elders was established in Kirtland, Ohio, in November 1834. This school was originally conducted in the room below the printing shop in Kirtland but was later moved to the third floor of the Kirtland Temple.7
To the early Saints, who were taught by the Lord that “the glory of God is intelligence,”8 education and worship went hand in hand. During the Kirtland period, the temple filled its purpose as “a house of learning,”9 serving as a home to numerous schools sponsored by the Church.
Beginning in 1834, students of all ages in need of a general education were invited to attend the Kirtland High School, later referred to as the Kirtland School, which was held in the winter months and provided instruction in grammar, geography, and mathematics. The History of the Church notes the following: “During the week the Kirtland High School is taught in the attic story [of the Kirtland Temple], by H. M. Hawes, Esq., professor of the Greek and Latin languages. The school numbers from one hundred and thirty-five to one hundred and forty students, divided into three departments—the classic, where the languages only are taught; the English department, where mathematics, common arithmetic, geography, English grammar, writing, and reading are taught; and the juvenile department.”10
In an effort to assist Latter-day Saints in their study of the scriptures and to help them become better missionaries, the Prophet decided to sponsor a Hebrew school that began in January of 1836. So many students attended that it was necessary to divide them into four classes.
John Corrill, who visited Kirtland in 1835, said that the Latter-day Saints had “an extravagant thirst after knowledge,” and James H. Eells, who was no friend of the Mormons, wrote in 1836, “The Mormons appear very eager to acquire education. … They are by no means, as a class, men of weak minds.”11
While Latter-day Saints in Kirtland enjoyed numerous and varied educational opportunities, those who settled in Missouri sought the same blessings, although evidence suggests that the schools in Missouri were only attended by children, not adults. As early as 1831 Oliver Cowdery was teaching school in Independence and using his salary to support himself and his missionary companions. Soon a group of Latter-day Saints from Colesville, New York, arrived and constructed a log building to be used as both a school and a church. This was the first school erected within the borders of present-day Kansas City, Missouri.12
When persecution forced the Saints to resettle in northern Missouri, they founded a new community called Far West. Many teachers contributed to the schooling efforts in the new community. Mary Lightner taught reading, spelling, writing, and geography. John Murdock taught spelling classes. Other private schools were opened in the city as well. Joseph Holbrook constructed a school three miles west of Far West, and Mary Ann Duty reportedly instructed students in a log cabin school on Long Creek in Kingston Township. There were also Latter-day Saint schools in Mirable Township and in Caldwell County.13
One of the factors compelling the Saints to continue to settle together was the desire to gain more knowledge. The Elders’ Journal, a Church periodical from the time, declared, “As intelligence is the great object of our holy religion, it is of all things important, that we should place ourselves in the best situation possible to obtain it. And … to obtain all the knowledge which the circumstances of man will admit of, is one of the principle objects the saints have in gathering together. Intelligence is the result of education, and education can only be obtained by living in compact society.”14
In the late fall of 1838, the Latter-day Saints were forced to leave Missouri under very difficult circumstances and became exiles. As soon as they were settled in Nauvoo, Illinois, they once again focused some of their attention on education.
When the Latter-day Saints arrived in Nauvoo, only one child in six in the state received a public school education. Many people on the western frontier opposed public education because “the need for making a living was too pressing to allow children the luxury of ‘idle’ hours at school.”15 Church members, however, brought to Illinois a conviction that gaining knowledge, both secular and sacred, was a noble pursuit.16
On February 3, 1841, the Nauvoo City Council established the University of the City of Nauvoo. The university was a self-governing entity that provided educational opportunities for adults as well as children.
In the December 15, 1841, issue of the Times and Seasons, Nauvoo’s citizens were informed that “the school Wardens of the University for Common Schools are desired to organize the schools in their respective wards.”17 There were also a number of private schools in the city supported by fees paid by the students’ parents—no public funds were involved.18 Joseph Cole and his daughter Adelia ran the Nauvoo Seminary (referring to an institution of education, not necessarily one of religious training) and taught classes in English, grammar, geography, natural philosophy, reading, writing, chemistry, spelling, and astronomy in the large room above Joseph Smith’s Red Brick Store. Other teachers, most notably Eliza R. Snow, also taught school in the store.
Joseph Smith III, son of the Prophet, was in Joseph Cole’s class and remembered Brother Cole as “a very strict disciplinarian and at other times very lax.” The young boy also remembered being sent by Brother Cole to the half-frozen Mississippi River to fill a pail with water. Young Joseph, contrary to his parent’s warnings, decided to engage in “a little sliding” on the partially frozen ice before he returned to school, an action earning a severe reprimand from his parents.19
Nauvoo’s public school teachers taught classes in the Seventies Hall, in a schoolhouse on Warsaw Street, in the Masonic Hall, and in a schoolhouse on Parley Street, among other locations. The city’s teachers sometimes met to discuss establishing uniformity in their textbooks and talked of ways the teachers could work together to promote education in the city. They also debated the merits of hiring more female teachers, whose pay was one-half to two-thirds the salary of male teachers for teaching the same classes. This increased “feminization of the teaching force” provided more teachers at an affordable rate and thus allowed more young people to have educational opportunities. Still, many of the city’s children were not able to secure an education because they were either deficient in funds or lacking in interest.20
Conspicuously absent from the curricula of all of Nauvoo’s public and private schools were classes on religion. Illinois law clearly stated that “no literary institution or school shall have a religion department.”21 But Church leaders did not neglect religious and moral training in the absence of formal classes. The Prophet taught doctrine, interpreted scripture, and gave insights into humankind’s relationship with God as well as what men and women could achieve with divine assistance.
As the Latter-day Saints prepared to act on Brigham Young’s announced exodus from Nauvoo in the spring of 1846, they would carry with them across the plains a legacy of learning. At the October 1845 general conference, Elder Heber C. Kimball of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said, “There is yet another piece of business of great importance to all who have families; that is, to have some school books printed for the education of our children.”22 W. W. Phelps elaborated on what Elder Kimball said: “We are preparing to go out from among the people, where we can serve God in righteousness; and the first thing is, to teach our children; for they are as the Israel of old. It is our children who will take the kingdom and bear it off to all the world.” Brother Phelps closed his remarks with the words, “We will instruct our children in the paths of righteousness; and we want that instruction compiled in a book.” The motion was seconded and carried “that W. W. Phelps write some school books for the use of children.”23
While mobs, persecution, and some Saints’ disobedience had not allowed the Church to fully implement the true concept of Zion, which included communities and a complete educational system, the foundation had been laid.
After slowly making their way across Iowa, the Latter-day Saints arrived at the Missouri River too late in the season to travel farther west. On both sides of the river they settled in to wait out the winter, establishing the communities of Winter Quarters and Kanesville.
Even in these temporary settlements, the high council, following President Brigham Young’s instructions, encouraged the establishment of schools so children could receive education during the coming winter. As snow and cold descended on the exiles, Church Historian Elder Willard Richards of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles reported, “Several schools for children have been started in camp within the last ten days.”24
Life was difficult in Winter Quarters. Disease and death, like unwelcome visitors, called frequently. Bitter cold, harsh wind, and fear of starvation only deepened the anguish many families felt, but dancing, singing, worship services, and schools diverted their attention from the hardships they faced. It is somewhat remarkable that Church members, even in the worst of times, did not forget their commitment to education.
Church leaders encouraged the establishment of schools, and the Saints obeyed, but there was no formal standardized educational program on either side of the river where the Latter-day Saints settled.25 At least one schoolhouse was constructed in Kanesville, but most classes were conducted in homes or, weather permitting, under a bowery.26 Teachers often organized their own classes or accepted a Church assignment to tutor the community’s children. It appears that instructors “were chosen according to disposition, availability, and presumably because of their ability to read and write.”27 For example, 19-year-old George Q. Cannon opened a school with the credentials of being comparatively well educated,28 and Ellen McGary “had a bower built in front of her sod cave where she taught twenty pupils.”29
Classes were often held during the summer months. The editor of the local newspaper, the Frontier Guardian, wrote with some enthusiasm on June 13, 1849, that he was glad a “tried schoolmaster,” a Mr. Grant, was going to start teaching; he noted, “The way he tutors his scholars is the right way. He does not whip much, but makes them mind—makes them learn, and keeps them in order.”30 As the 1849 summer ended, three teachers, including Mr. Grant, joined together and held a grand Saturday graduation ceremony that included band music, a parade, “beautiful banners,” a dinner, and “several short, but most happy orations.” The “whole school [sang] off the names, boundaries and capitols of every country on the globe in regular time.” Many in the audience wept for joy. The editor also asserted that “your money can never be more profitably spent than when paid to good teachers for the education of the youth.”31
The office of the Frontier Guardian housed an extensive assortment of schoolbooks, including McGuffey’s first five eclectic readers, elementary spelling books, Adams’s and Colburn’s arithmetic, Browns’s grammar, Olney’s geography and atlas, and penmanship texts.32 Speaking for Latter-day Saint officials on both the east and the west sides of the Missouri River, the Guardian in 1850 urged the people in the more than two dozen communities in the area to establish schools. Editor Orson Hyde admonished the Latter-day Saints to “lay in a stock of books, in case that when they get to the end of their journey [to the valley of the Great Salt Lake or to California] the books may be wanted; but to obtain them may be rather difficult.”33
Even though the Latter-day Saints always considered Winter Quarters a temporary way station, they built homes and created a wide variety of educational opportunities, including an academy and a select school that offered classes in reading, geography, arithmetic, philosophy, chemistry, algebra, astronomy, Latin, and Greek. As they looked west, many Saints hoped that in the new home God had prepared for them they would be better able to follow the divine instruction to gain knowledge.
The Saints were committed to education on all levels and only needed time, relative peace, and financial resources to blossom. Once they were settled in the Salt Lake Valley, Church leaders’ thoughts turned to providing educational opportunities for both children and adults. From the first, leaders envisioned schools that taught not only the basics of education but also the basics of religious belief, using the standard works of the Church to ensure that correct principles, truth, and righteousness nurtured young people in the ways of God.
The first school in the Great Basin opened in October 1847, just three months after the first pioneer group arrived. It was held in an old circular military tent in Salt Lake City and was taught by 17-year-old Mary Jane Dilworth, who had been set apart as a teacher by Brigham Young. Her sister, Maria Dilworth, described the first day of school: “One of the brethren came in, and opened the school with prayer,” asking God that the students would be good children and that “the school would be so blessed that we all should have his holy light to guide us into all truth.” The lesson that first day was the 23rd Psalm, and the students “sang much, and played more.”34 The school epitomized Church leaders’ hopes for education—blessed by the priesthood, guided by gospel principles, and taught from the scriptures.
Such humble schools were typical of almost every settlement’s beginnings. After homes were established, one of the first buildings constructed was a combination school, church, town hall, and social hall. These multipurpose structures were usually constructed of logs and sometimes whitewashed inside, and seats were commonly rustic benches made of logs split in half and affixed with legs. The first school in Cedar City, Utah, began in a tent in 1861. Later it moved to a willow schoolhouse supported by a post placed on a flat rock. The rock also served as a desk when writing materials were available.35
Pleased with the Saints’ early efforts, the First Presidency wrote to the Church on April 7, 1851, “School houses have been built in most of the wards, both in the city and country, and schools have been sustained therein the past winter, and we joyfully anticipate that the time has arrived when our children may be partakers of the blessings of constantly continued schools in their several wards.”36
In March of 1848 the Millennial Star quoted Church leaders urging the Saints to “improve every opportunity” for obtaining educational materials that would “gain the attention of children, and cause them to love to learn to read.” Suggested teaching aids included “every book, map, chart, or diagram that may contain interesting, useful, and attractive matter … and, also every historical, mathematical, philosophical, geographical, geological, astronomical, scientific, practical, and all other variety of useful and interesting writings, maps, etc.”37
In this early period, emphasis was placed on basics like reading, writing, arithmetic, and, of course, religion. Brigham Young also promoted utilitarian subjects such as agriculture, manufacturing, and manual training to enable individuals to help build and contribute to their communities. The territorial legislature passed several measures to upgrade education through the years. In 1850 a law empowered city councils to establish superintendents to regulate the common schools. LDS leaders continually encouraged education as they encouraged local leaders “to see that children and young people … are collected together, and that they be taught to pray and to speak, and be instructed in all things that are necessary.”38
As the number of people of other faiths grew in the Great Basin, so did the demand for schools that would cater to their viewpoints. Many families moved to the area attracted by the mining industry and other pursuits, but parents in these families worried about the use of Latter-day Saint scriptures and teachings in the territorial schools. They supported the establishment of denominational schools where their children could receive an education free from Mormon influence.
The first denominational school to open in Salt Lake City was Saint Mark’s Episcopal School in 1867. It was followed by the Methodist Rocky Mountain Seminary in 1870, and the Presbyterian Church established Westminster in 1875. By 1884 at least six different Christian denominations had established 79 schools throughout the Utah territory, with 4,431 students in attendance.39 Protestant ministers were seemingly determined to use their own schools to attract Mormon young people.40 However, these schools did not make much headway in converting Latter-day Saint youth. C. C. Hammond, “an influential … figure in Utah Congregationalist education,” observed, “The major result of the Utah Christian schools appears to be that we are training Mormons to serve as Sunday School teachers, young folk leaders and bishoprics in the Mormon Church. They take our preferred education, but not our religion, and use it to strengthen their own institutions.”41
As many denominational schools vied for the enrollment of their youth, LDS Church leaders felt compelled to establish a separate system of schools where, in conjunction with secular learning, gospel principles could be freely taught using the Church’s standard works.
In 1850 the legislative assembly chartered the University of Deseret, with Orson Spencer directing the school. Forty students enrolled for the first term, paying 80 cents per week in tuition, in what was then known as the “Parent School.” This name had two meanings: first, “parents were encouraged to enroll,” and second, “the school was to act as a parent or supervisory institution in charge of primary schools.”42 But the institution lacked a permanent location and the funds necessary to remain in operation after the spring of 1852, so for the next 15 years “the University had no department of instruction.”43 Even though classes were held intermittently in various Salt Lake City locations, the school did not officially reopen until 1867. In 1875, 14 students received first-year certificates, “but another decade passed before the first bachelor degrees were granted.” The name of this school was changed to the University of Utah in 1892.44
In February 1860, Latter-day Saint officials announced in the Deseret News that a new Church school, named the Union Academy, would be constructed in Salt Lake City from general Church funds. Students of all faiths were welcome at this free public school. Tithing, not taxes, would be used to support it, and the curriculum was to follow the Latter-day Saint philosophy of spiritual-temporal education. This was a Church-financed public school, and though the Union Academy was short-lived, it did establish “a pattern that was followed fifteen years later when Brigham Young Academy was founded.”45
Church leaders continued to work on creating the ideal educational system that would combine secular learning with religious instruction. Beginning in the 1880s the Church established several schools in various Latter-day Saint communities to give the young people of the territory learning beyond the primary and secondary level. This new effort was another stepping-stone that would influence Church education far into the future.
Throughout these early efforts toward Church education, the demand for good teachers outpaced the supply. With all of the building of schools that the early Saints did, they still had not established any teacher-training institutions, which were called “normal schools.” President Brigham Young grew concerned that very few members were preparing to be teachers and too many nonmembers were being allowed to teach. He declared that he was “ashamed of our bishops, who can not have anybody but a stranger for a school teacher.”46
In 1870 the University of Deseret organized a “normal [or teacher training] department” dedicated to training teachers. When Brigham Young Academy was organized in 1875, “the need for qualified teachers was particularly addressed.” Even with both schools training teachers, there remained a high demand for trained teachers “throughout Utah’s territorial period.”47
Across the ocean in Germany, Karl G. Maeser had been divinely prepared to help the Saints address the need for trained teachers. Brother Maeser could not remember a time when books and study did not draw his interest. Reaching school age, he was taught privately at the Gymnasium Kreuz Schule in Dresden and then entered the normal school at Fredrichstadt to study teaching. Advanced studies drew him back to Dresden, where he pursued a teacher’s life.48 While serving as assistant director of the Budich Institute in Dresden, Karl Maeser became interested in a new American religion as he read Moritz Busch’s book Wanderungen zwischen Hudson und Mississippi, 1851–1852 (Travels Between the Hudson and the Mississippi), which in chapter 10 “examines the history and development of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”49 At Brother Maeser’s request for more information about the Church, Elder William Budge went to Dresden. Elder Budge taught him the gospel, and Brother Maeser was baptized on October 14, 1855.50
After serving a short mission in England and then teaching school in Virginia, Brother Maeser made the trek to Utah with his wife and children, arriving in the Salt Lake Valley on September 1, 1860.51 A month after his arrival in the territory, he announced his intention to open a school in the 20th ward. He also tutored some of Brigham Young’s children and, after serving a mission to Europe in 1867, received an appointment to teach at the University of Deseret. However, after only a few months he again opened his own school. On April 5, 1876, an explosion on Arsenal Hill damaged his schoolhouse, and he told Brigham Young he “would not be able to teach in the school until it was repaired.” “That is just right,” President Young responded. “I want to give you a mission to teach in the Brigham Young Academy in Provo.”52 The prophet gave him only one piece of instruction: “You ought not to teach even the alphabet or the multiplication tables without the Spirit of God.” Brother Maeser also learned that the school’s deed of trust clearly stated that “the Bible, and other standard works of the Church shall be among the regular textbooks, and that nothing shall be taught in any way conflicting with the principles of the Gospel.”53 Following a meeting with the school’s trustees, Professor Maeser moved to Provo with his salary set at $1,200 a year. Within just a few months he turned a discouraging situation into a school that the Deseret News later described as an “unqualified success.”54
Through his teaching at Brigham Young Academy, Brother Maeser soon became a beloved teacher. Decades after Maeser’s death, his students still fondly remembered the way he interacted with them. One student, George Sutherland, who studied under Brother Maeser at the academy, became a justice of the United States Supreme Court. Sutherland, who never joined the Church, remembered some of the other students at the academy teasing him because he did not want to take a Book of Mormon course. Their taunting angered him and he swore at them, which was a violation of academy rules. The next morning he expected to hear his name called out for some kind of punishment. Instead, Brother Maeser stood up and quoted the eleventh article of faith: “We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.” Brother Maeser then proceeded to rebuke the boys who had teased young Sutherland, saying, “What is the good of your coming to this school if you cannot even learn to live the Articles of Faith?” Brother Maeser threatened to expel the boys if they persisted in their persecution. Upon hearing such a defense, the future justice Sutherland was so moved that he rushed to Brother Maeser after the meeting and promised to enroll in the Book of Mormon class and “do well in it.”55
Karl G. Maeser believed strongly that every student held gifts “placed there by an all-wise Creator, for the working out of each one’s individual mission upon the earth.” Seeing the possibilities in his students, he once declared, “Every human being is a world in miniature. It has its own centre of observation, its own way of forming concepts and of arriving at conclusions, its own degree of sensibility, its own life’s work to do, and its own destiny to reach.”56 Another of Brother Maeser’s former students remembered, “He also impressed me with the fact that I should not only be good, but be ‘good for something.’”57
While Karl G. Maeser and the Board of Trustees devoted their time, energy, and knowledge to making Brigham Young Academy a success, the Latter-day Saints in Cache Valley pursued educational endeavors of their own. As early as 1874, while visiting a Church farm near Logan, Utah, President Brigham Young had discussed endowing a college there that would accommodate 500 to 1,000 students. “True theology,” President Young said, “must be taught and practiced by all, both students and teachers.”58
On July 24, 1877, only a month before his death, President Brigham Young deeded almost 10,000 acres of land in Cache Valley “to the trustees and their duly appointed successors of Brigham Young College as an endowment to help maintain Brigham Young College.”59
With more than 200 students taking classes through this college, school officials made plans to construct a permanent building on seven acres of land purchased from the Hezekiah Thatcher family. The dedication of this structure on January 1, 1885, drew two Apostles, the Church’s Presiding Bishop, Brigham Young Academy Principal Karl G. Maeser, and bishops of wards in Cache Valley, as well as students, faculty, and hundreds of citizens. President Wilford Woodruff offered the dedicatory prayer.60
Logan’s new Church educational institution boasted a unique culture. It emphasized “a liberal and scientific education” but also urged every student to learn a trade.61 Courses in Mormon doctrine were a standard part of the curriculum, and students were expected to be model citizens and Latter-day Saints. One early principal of the college required students to sign a pledge that they would not use tobacco; mark or deface college furniture, buildings, fences, or trees; visit places of amusement without permission; be noisy or disorderly in classrooms; or visit a saloon or other place of ill repute. Students also promised to prepare their lessons, set a good example, be clean and tidy, obey teachers, and mind their own business.62 Even though such measures indicated they were to take their studies seriously, students did manage to amuse themselves. George Thomas, who later became president of the University of Utah, related an incident involving his teacher, Mr. Apperly:
Brother Apperly was accustomed to go down into the basement into a little office, to eat his lunch, and as he was going back from lunch he would walk up the stairs. We placed a small amount of this stuff (Nitrogen-Iodine) on each step, and as he placed his foot rather heavily on the first step the compound exploded with a loud report. The same thing followed on the second step, and so on up, the report being so loud that Brother Apperly hastened his speed till he reached the top. We were called in to answer for this mischievous prank and to receive our reprimand and punishment. Brother Apperly, however, had not studied chemistry, and became very much interested in how we brought that about, and when we proceeded to explain the chemical compound and its properties and reactions, he became so thoroughly interested in our explanation that he forgot all about what he had called us for. Presently the bell rang and he had to report to his class, and we heard nothing more about the prank we played.63
While Latter-day Saints enjoyed the freedom to offer both religious and secular learning in the Church’s institutions of higher education, problems were brewing with the intermingling of these subjects in the territory’s district schools. The Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887 abolished the office of territorial superintendent of district schools and replaced it with an appointed commissioner empowered to “prohibit the use in any district school of any book of a sectarian character or otherwise unsuitable.”64 Faced with losing significant influence over public schools, Church leaders countered with a plan to establish schools of their own.65 In 1888 President Wilford Woodruff sent a letter to the stake presidencies of the Church, in which he wrote:
We feel that the time has arrived when the proper education of our children should be taken in hand by us as a people. Religious training is practically excluded from the District Schools. The perusal of books that we value as divine records is forbidden. … The desire is universally expressed by all thinking people in the Church that we should have schools where the Bible, the Book of Mormon and the Book of Doctrine and Covenants can be used as text books, and where the principles of our religion may form a part of the teaching of the schools.66
Accordingly, President Woodruff directed that each stake establish an academy where principles of the gospel could be taught along with other subjects of education. He asked that every stake president create a board of education that would include ward bishops. These stake boards were to have authority to “take charge of and promote the interests of education in the Stake,” to “carry out any suggestions in this direction that may be deemed proper,” to “take into consideration the formation of Church schools and the best method of accomplishing this, and … report [their findings] to the General Board,” and to “use an influence in the collection of funds” for Church schools.67 The response of local leaders “was swift. Within fourteen months, 20 of the 21 stakes in Utah complied,” and “by the end of 1889, all but two of the stakes in the Church had appointed academy principals.”68
With so many separate academies and boards of education operating throughout the Church, a supervising entity was needed. At the 1888 April conference, the general Church Board of Education was created, with Wilford Woodruff, Lorenzo Snow, George Q. Cannon, Karl G. Maeser, Horace S. Eldredge, Willard Young, George W. Thatcher, Anthon H. Lund, and Amos Howe as members. These nine men were charged with establishing and maintaining “a system of Church schools wherein shall be given religious instruction in connection with the subjects usually taught, in the Common Schools and colleges.” The board also supervised all of the schools of the Church and all of the boards of education in the stakes of the Church.69
Karl G. Maeser was soon called to serve as the first superintendent of Latter-day Saint schools. He also retained his title and duties as principal of Brigham Young Academy in Provo, Utah.70 Administrators and teachers alike were urged to “keep in mind that mere knowledge of theological doctrines is not a fundamental part of religious training, but the awakening of a living testimony.”71
Ideas and doctrines of the Church were meant to permeate all facets of the Church’s schools. A theology class was taught daily in each academy, and attendance was required. Academies also sponsored devotional exercises, priesthood meetings, and missionary meetings.
Within two years after the creation of the Church Board of Education, 10 new academies were operating: two in Idaho, two in Arizona, and six in Utah. Between 1860 and 1907 the Latter-day Saints established 37 academies, most of which were founded in the three-year period from 1888 to 1891.72
Funding was the major obstacle to the growth of stake academies, which always seemed on the verge of closing down. Adding to the challenges facing Utah academies, the Utah State Legislature passed the Free School Act on February 18, 1890.73 This meant that public schools would be supported by tax revenue. Latter-day Saints who sent their children to Church academies paid tuition and other costs while at the same time being taxed to support public education. Church officials knew that “the cost of supporting two systems of schools would be high but they felt that if prayers and religion were excluded from the schools it would breed infidelity in the children.”74
Staffing the academies was also difficult. Low salaries hampered recruiting efforts, and some candidates were disqualified on religious grounds. The search for adequate teachers received such high priority that some men were released from mission calls to teach. Brother Maeser also expressed concern when teachers took leaves of absence to study in east-coast universities. He once wrote, “Some of our brightest intellects … that have gone East have suffered themselves to be swamped by the influences of worldly education and flinging away their divine inheritance having dangered the faith of their fathers. I hold that all the knowledge and learning that the world can give us,” Brother Maeser believed, “is too dearly paid for the loss of one of these precious souls.”75
All teachers in Church schools attended a summer convention in 1891, where it was decided that every teacher must have a living testimony that he could bear to others. The Church Board of Education “required an annual statement of worthiness from [a teacher’s] bishop as well as a statement of approval from the local board”; teachers also had to pass special system-wide examinations in order to qualify for employment.76 Brother Maeser also worked closely with other members of the Church Board of Education to pass a resolution that all teachers in Church schools must be certified by the board.
With religious education opportunities for youth and young single adults firmly in place at the academies, Church leaders began looking as early as 1890 to provide the same for elementary school children (grades 1–6) and introduced a new religious education program called Religion Classes. The passage of the Free School Act of 1890 had in some respects been an answer to questions about the role of religion in public schools. For some time Latter-day Saints and those not affiliated with the Church had debated the proper place, if any, for religion in the territory’s classrooms. At a convention of the Salt Lake Ministerial Association in the spring of 1888, Methodist pastor C. L. Libby declared, “If the Bible should not be in the public schools … we are no more a Christian nation than we are a Pagan.” Dr. J. F. Millspaugh, principal of the Salt Lake Collegiate Institute, agreed that in public schools there should be moral Christian training based on the Bible.77 Many Latter-day Saints, including Church and education leaders, agreed with what these Protestant ministers were saying, but they took a different direction in teaching moral values to the young people.
On June 1, 1890, in a meeting of the general Church Board of Education, Superintendent Karl G. Maeser suggested that an elementary school system be established. On October 25, 1890, the First Presidency sent a letter to stake presidents and bishops suggesting that “in every ward where a Church school is not established, [a teacher] be called, as on a mission, by the Bishop, after consultation with the President of the Stake, to take charge of a school wherein the principles of the Gospel, Church History and kindred subjects shall be taught. This school [is] to meet for a short time each afternoon after the close of the district school, or for a longer time on the Saturday only.”78
Church members and their leaders quickly implemented the Religion Classes program. These classes were, for the most part, held in public school buildings rented for that purpose either before or after school, and many of the instructors were public school teachers.79 In a few cases, separate buildings were used. These additional stake schools were staffed by full-time Church educators, and they submitted reports to stake academies.80 For example, the Salt Lake Stake sponsored the Central and the 18th ward seminaries as well as the Salt Lake Academy.
Religion classes, like stake academies, functioned under the principles and guidelines established by general Church officers. Local boards of education were instructed that they operate under the direction of the Church Board of Education and that those brethren and sisters who accepted a call to teach will “receive a license from [the General Board] to act in this capacity.”81 They were asked to keep minutes in the classes they taught and to record enrollment, attendance, and tardiness. Teachers could be paid a small stipend, but only after receiving approval from the superintendent’s office. Incidental expenses, fuel, and supplies were to be paid by the local board or the parents of the students whenever possible.82
Soon after he was called as superintendent of Church schools in 1888, Karl G. Maeser was released from his position at Brigham Young Academy so he could use his energy full-time in supervising the academies, the Religion Classes program, and ward elementary schools.83 After prayerful consideration, he developed a six-step procedure for conducting religion classes. President Anthon H. Lund of the First Presidency noted: “Classes are opened by singing. … After the children have sung a hymn, their hearts are attuned for the second step, which is prayer.” Step three required that all students “learn a memory gem, or good thought” by repeating after the teacher short sections of a quotation until they had committed it entirely to memory. “By this method a great many precious thoughts are stored away in the minds of the children that will help them in time to come.” Step four was “the real lesson,” which consisted of “narratives and concrete examples, which the children love to hear.” Bearing testimonies made up the fifth step, and in it children were encouraged to share their own experiences with the goodness of God, parents, and others and with the joy of doing “a good act, an unselfish act to others.” Classes concluded with singing and prayer.84
As mentioned before, many religion classes were held in public school buildings after classes were dismissed for the day, and many instructors were public school teachers. Questions regarding the propriety of teaching religion in tax-supported school buildings led to a change in instruction from the First Presidency in 1905. Church officials, in an effort to quell the criticism, encouraged that classes be held in locations other than public school buildings, although some wards and stakes did not follow this counsel.85
The Religion Classes program created some organizational overlap and did not always run harmoniously with other Church auxiliaries. Some wards claimed that the classes were “injuring the other organizations.” Some referred to the Religion Classes program as “the fifth wheel,” an unnecessary organization that hindered rather than helped the auxiliary structure of the Church. Those in favor of the classes responded that the program was actually “the most important organization in the Church.”86 While rebutting the criticisms of the program, President Lund exhorted the Saints to support the programs for the good of their children: “I will plead with you, my brethren and sisters, to sustain the movement of our Religion Classes. The children will be built up and encouraged in well-doing, and the time they spend there does not interfere with their other studies.” President Lund recognized the critical importance of weekday religious education in helping youth resist the temptations of the world. He continued, “I hope the time will come when educators in the whole land will be able to devise some plan whereby such religious teaching as the parents desire the children to receive can be given them in the public schools.”87
Following the death of Karl G. Maeser in 1901 and the 1906 resignation of his successor, Joseph Marion Tanner, President Joseph F. Smith called the University of Deseret–trained educator Horace H. Cummings as the leader of the Church’s school system. Earlier in his life Cummings had learned that his “mission and calling on the earth [was] to be a teacher” and that if he “would devote [himself] diligently to that calling that the Lord would magnify [him] and make [him] a great teacher.”88 Still, it came as a great surprise to Brother Cummings when, on the evening of April 26, 1906, President Joseph F. Smith told him that he “had been chosen to be the General Superintendent of Church schools” by “the unanimous choice of the Board. No other name was considered.” With some fear and trepidation, he accepted the call, telling President Smith, “I will do my best. I’m not afraid of work.” He was filled with a fear of injuring the Church schools “by blunders and inefficiency” until he had “a very impressive dream in which [he] was plainly shown the nature of the work [he] would have to do, and the utter impossibility of [his] injuring the great system of Church education.”89
Believing he had received revelation regarding his duties, Superintendent Cummings made several important changes in the Church’s school system. Among the changes was the policy that all schools would receive the same appropriation based on the number of students in preparatory, high school, and college courses. All high school teachers were required to have a college degree, and all instructors attended annual teacher conventions where they received instruction from the Church’s General Authorities. He also standardized theology classes and provided approved outlines for Book of Mormon, Old Testament, New Testament, and Church History courses. “Theology work,” he wrote, “instead of being done according to the notion of each individual teacher, has been carefully systematized and four sets of outlines on the Book of Mormon, Old Testament, New Testament, and Church History and Doctrine, have been prepared by four committees of our best teachers, and this work is calculated to give our high school graduates a thorough knowledge of the scriptures and doctrines of the church.” Local boards, Brother Cummings said, were for the most part holding regular meetings, “and closer relations seem to exist between the boards and the faculty.”90
In looking back on the impact of the Religion Classes program, it seems accurate to point out that the movement not only instructed elementary school children but was also instrumental in the establishment of systematic correlation of institutions within the Church. It fostered the development of an official curriculum as well as goals that teachers were expected to reach, all of which were to be perpetuated in the LDS seminary and institute system.
Remembering his experience with the Religion Classes program as a youth, President Spencer W. Kimball remarked, “I never had the privilege of going to seminary. We had a religion class once a week when I was a little boy, and at four o’clock on school days a sweet sister came in and tried to give us a little spiritual training in connection with our secular work in the school.”91
The Religion Classes program helped change the entire trajectory of the Church’s educational program and began the first steps toward bringing religious education to all the youth of the Church. President Harold B. Lee said, “The beginnings of the weekday religious education actually commenced with religion classes. … The Brethren, in setting up religion classes on a weekday basis, said their purpose was to offset the godless education so common in secular schools.”92 The focus of the religion classes on Church principles and the scriptures, as well as moral training, provided the backdrop for the vast seminary and institute program that developed in the decades to come.
The schools established in Kirtland, Nauvoo, and throughout the West all stood as a testament to the deep commitment of Latter-day Saints to education. Toward the end of the 19th century, the Church academies provided secular and spiritual training for thousands of young Latter-day Saints. Inspired teachers like Karl G. Maeser showed the possibilities in a system where teaching was enlivened by the Spirit of the Lord and where students added the words of the ancient and modern prophets to their studies of more earthbound topics. Where academies could not reach, the Religion Classes program allowed students a chance to study the gospel outside of the regular school day. For the Latter-day Saints, education continued to be not just a wise practice but a divine pursuit.