The Lord’s University
by Bryan Waterman and Brian Kagel
The Uses of Mormon Education
[p.1]Twice a day at Brigham Young University the campus stands still while the American flag is raised or lowered, the national anthem ringing out from loudspeakers mounted atop campus buildings. The patriotic display is, typically, the only disruption at the Mormon church-owned school—rated “Most Nostalgic for the Reagan Era” by the Princeton Review1—whose sprawling grounds are nestled against the Wasatch Front of the Rocky Mountains. A single student refusing to stop for the flag ceremony can generate a mild stream of protest letters to the official campus newspaper, the Daily Universe. During an average year, the university’s more than 30,000 students face few additional controversies, these often involving rather mundane issues: a lack of sufficient student parking, dress and grooming standards that require clean-shaven, short-haired men and “modestly dressed” women, or an occasional debate over whether the campus theater should show PG-13 versions of R-rated movies. On a summer afternoon in 1993, then, when a small nucleus of student activists dragged stacks of placards and unrolled banners on the main quad to stage the first open protest over academic freedom at “the Lord’s university” since 1911, something unusual was in the air.
The student protest came in response to morning headlines announcing the firings of two controversial but popular faculty members: Cecilia Konchar Farr, an English professor who had reportedly upset church leaders and much of the BYU community with her public pro-choice activism, and David Knowlton, an anthropology professor specializing in Latin American studies, who had critiqued the LDS church’s American image in South America, pointing out reasons the church’s full-time proselytizing missionaries—most of whom come from the United States—were common targets for terrorists. When Knowlton’s research apparently raised some hackles, he launched a months’ long defense of his academic freedom which, in the end, proved more problematic than the original controversy. Following the firings, BYU found itself caught in a quagmire of debates involving the relationship of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to the school it supported and the problems and possibilities of church-spon-[p.2]sored education. The school claimed the professors were being fired for poor scholarship at the end of routine tenure reviews. The teachers claimed the school’s motivations were religious and political, and that their academic freedom was being violated. The denial of tenure decisions in Farr’s and Knowlton’s cases were announced well over a month late: many who were waiting to see what fates awaited the controversial junior faculty members believed that the rulings had been deliberately withheld until the summer terms, when the campus population had dwindled and protest would be harder to mount.
Still the publicity attending the firings left administrators scrambling for explanations and faculty and students divided between a protesting minority and an orthodox, defensive majority, all under the scrutiny of the national media. CNN televised footage of students with banners reading “Stop Academic Terrorism,” and a few weeks later the Chronicle of Higher Education summarized the split between a “conservative” university and a “small but growing movement for change” as not only a contest over the school’s mission or the integrity of its academic reputation, but the future of the LDS church as well.2 An article published in the Economist was less dispassionate joking that “[o]n the BYU campus, … most people’s idea of a free thinker is someone who wears shorts cut away at the thigh.”3 Both articles pointed out the unusual nature of the campus demonstrations, which included not only public protests, but also spray-painted graffiti (“Farr should teach here” was scrawled across a south campus stairwell) and a large swastika burned into the administration building’s carefully manicured lawn. (Student organizers denied responsibility.)
Media coverage of the summer’s events rested on an underlying presumption linking the school’s peculiar religious identity and notoriety for conservative politics with limited inquiry and, hence, inferior academics. The national honor society Phi Beta Kappa was more forceful in its accusation: it had, the previous year, denied BYU’s third attempt for a campus chapter, arguing that the school’s religious goals, specifically its aim to promote the acknowledgment of Jesus as universal savior, were “not quite …what Phi Beta Kappa exists to promote.”4
In contrast to these evaluations of Mormonism’s attitude toward education, the LDS church has long promoted a public image of followers as eager advocates of higher education. The school’s official history claims “the obligation of the Church to provide education for its members was established by revelation,” and cites the efficiency with which Mormons constructed educational facilities each time they began communities in new regions.5 The 1992 MacMillan publication of the church-produced five-volume Encyclopedia of Mormonism contains multiple references to the church’s support of its members’ education, all agreeing that LDS “theology places great importance on the acquiring of knowledge … includ[ing] … the sci-[p.3]ences, arts, and humanities,” as well as religion, and that “intellectual activity can be a form of worship.”6
The Mormon tradition of celebrating the church’s educational endeavors has some roots in pre-Utah Mormon history, but dates most certainly from turn-of-the-century debates over public schooling in Utah territory. When church leaders realized that the non-Mormons among them had enough political power to make public schooling inevitable, they threw their weight into the public school movement and launched a public relations campaign to portray Mormons as “friends of education.” In the early 1890s, following the church’s disavowal of polygamy, leaders invited a number of prominent American educators, such as Harvard president Charles Eliot, to Utah to see for themselves if Mormonism’s success depended on ignorant masses, as newspapers of the day claimed. Forgetting that Utah’s public schools would not have existed without “gentile” (non-Mormon) prodding, church leaders welcomed the praise the state’s schools received during a 1913 National Education Association conference in Salt Lake City. In 1915 Mormons marked the entrance to Utah’s exhibit at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco with Brigham Young’s aphorism: “Education is the power to think clearly; the power to act well in the world’s work, and the power to appreciate life.” The church’s reputation also benefitted from attention given to the “Utah Plan,” a model educational system (“social uplift with a vengeance,” in one historian’s view) for the national Progressive Education movement in the 1920s.7 By the 1947 centennial of the Mormon pioneers’ entry into the Salt Lake Valley, high claims for Mormon education (or Utah education) were commonplace among church members; mid-twentieth-century Mormon leaders pointed to LDS and Utah educational success as a sign of the church’s divine nature, claiming that “the Latter-day Saints present a picture of educational achievement second to none in America or in the world.”8
If mid-century declarations seem a bit overstated, the statistics that prompted them continue to inspire Mormons and their leaders to take pride in high rates of high school and college graduation. Mormons have made scientific achievements, such as the development of television, stereophonic sound, and leading computer software. Mormons also note the prominence of their co-religionists in the academy, such as David Gardner, former president of the University of California system, or prominent historians such as Richard Bushman of Columbia University or Pulitzer Prizewinner Laurel Thatcher Ulrich of Harvard. BYU law school founding dean and future university president Rex Lee served as solicitor general under U.S. president Ronald Reagan. Some Mormons even claim the success of less orthodox Latter-day Saints, such as maverick philosopher Sterling McMurrin, who was Commissioner of Education under John F. Kennedy; Wayne Booth, influential University of Chicago literary critic; or Esther Eggerston Peterson, prominent in the labor movement and in government or-[p.4]ganizations under presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Jimmy Carter. Both Booth and Peterson are BYU graduates. Defenders of the faith also point to a study reporting that contrary to national norms, Mormons increase in religious activity in proportion to increased education.9 Statements from church leaders regarding education have led one Mormon researcher to claim that “the pursuit of secular education is a part of one’s religious commitment in Mormonism. It is a theological doctrine, a tenet of the faith.”10 A related assertion is also common at BYU, and came to play frequently during recent academic freedom controversies, that BYU, by allowing religious perspectives in the classroom, actually affords a greater amount of academic freedom than that found at secular universities.11
In contrast to those who dismiss the possibility of nationally competitive Mormon education, as well as those who claim that Mormon education is superior to national standards, a third party works toward maintaining a uniquely Mormon education while simultaneously arguing for free inquiry and academic freedom for BYU professors. Often basing their arguments on statements by nineteenth-century Mormon leaders, this group occasionally seems to long for a return to a time when LDS apostles and prophets ostensibly allowed and even encouraged free thought and expression.12 Washington State University sociologist Armand Mauss remembers a mid-twentieth-century Mormonism in which “everyone, even the occasional maverick, found acceptance,” in which “new ideas seemed welcome, learning and achievement were praised, and the rare intellectual (always self-made) was respected.” Mauss contrasts this memory to the “more smug, complacent, parochial, rigid, and intolerant” world of Utah Mormonism, past and present.13 Another sociologist of religion, Kendall White, suggests that twentieth-century Mormonism’s assimilation of mainstream Protestant values has pushed the church toward Evangelical fundamentalism, bringing, along with non-Mormon notions of human depravity, a rise in anti-intellectualism. White, like Mauss, looks back to a “traditional” Mormonism more friendly to academic pursuit and freedom of expression, to a “sacralizing of the secular” resulting from the Mormon “propensity to deny the distinction between sacred and secular.”14
Other liberal Mormons emphasize future possibilities over past and present limitations. BYU German professors Scott Abbott and Alan Keele, among others, use the personal writings of Mormon church founder Joseph Smith to construct new theologies of free inquiry.15 People in this camp—as diverse as they are—almost all endorse a version of the idea that free inquiry and unique Mormon identity are not mutually exclusive, but that they in fact reinforce one another. As former BYU English professor Gail Turley Houston expresses this philosophy: “Removing the possibility of inhabiting a position of doubt, even antagonistic disbelief, endangers everyone in the community.”16 Although the history of Mormonism does not quite support the idea of an intellectual golden age (though, as Armand Mauss and others [p.5]have suggested, competing forces between liberalism and fundamentalism have ebbed and flowed over time), neither do these Mormon thinkers fall into the stereotype of secularists intent on destroying BYU’s unique identity—a stereotype assigned many of them by some BYU administrators and
The Making of Mormon Education
Mormonism, as defenders of the faith commonly explain, claims its beginnings in one individual’s quest for further knowledge—in the boy Joseph Smith’s 1820 prayer to God for the “wisdom” promised to faithful Christians in James 1:5. Although Smith’s experience does demonstrate a desire for increased knowledge, it also indicates that from its beginnings Mormon education has existed self-consciously as an alternative to prevailing national models and aims to be rooted in the revelatory as much as the rational. A number of recent approaches to early Mormon history emphasize different ways Mormons in fact did spend a large amount of attention on acquiring knowledge, although such attempts were hardly in accordance with liberal concepts of free thinking or contemporary educational models. The earliest Mormons were seekers primarily of religious and mystical truth, which they believed had been removed from the earth by God in response to centuries of unrighteous religious authority.17 The early Mormon quest for knowledge was in part a syncretic blend of primitivist Christian and Masonic traditions. Perhaps more importantly, early Mormons were republican populists, desiring further light and knowledge but antagonistic to New England’s educational elite and their claims to religious and intellectual superiority. Early Mormons rejected mainline Protestant authority, rooted, as they saw it, in wealth beyond their reach. American historian Nathan Hatch demonstrates a populist resistance to educational elites present in Mormon sacred texts, in which learning and wealth often go hand in hand, resulting in the oppression of the poor.18 Reacting to such forces, Mormons set themselves in opposition to “the world” in education, theology, government, economics, and eventually marriage patterns—and their opposition implied a Mormon superiority. The early Mormon approach to education, formulated by men and women who for the most part were uneducated themselves, can perhaps best be summarized by LDS apostle Parley Pratt who in 1837 compared the Mormons’ restored powers of divine revelation with “the low smatterings of education and worldly wisdom, which seem to satisfy the narrow mind of man in our generation.”19 In contrast to popular Enlightenment educational modes, Mormon knowledge came through direct revelation from God through his prophet; the place for “worldly wisdom” was unclear at best.
At the same time, however, Mormonism—and especially its founder Joseph Smith—yearned for recognition and legitimization from the very culture it so fiercely opposed. Early Mormons did attempt to mirror American [p.6]educational institutions, in form if not in spirit. In Kirtland, Ohio, in the church’s earliest years, Mormons founded an adult education “School of the Prophets,” which eventually divided classes between a theological “Elder’s School” and a secular “Kirtland School.” Except for some classes offered in grammar and penmanship, “secular” subjects usually served religious ends, such as the seven-week session in Hebrew taught by Joshua Seixas, a Jewish scholar brought from outside Kirtland, which provided an introduction to scripture in its original languages. Both schools met, at least after 1835, in the Mormon House of the Lord, or temple, further obscuring the division between religious and secular, until the Kirtland School evolved into a local high school in 1837.20 Courses such as Seixas’s, though, point not only to a desire for religious knowledge, but also to a desire for legitimacy in traditional academic modes. As Richard Bushman points out, the Hebrew classes in Kirtland marked a shift in Joseph Smith’s prophetic career from purely prophetic modes of revelation to methods that looked more like “translation” in the traditional sense.21 In the end the School of the Prophets served mostly to train missionaries and future church leaders, as well as creating an environment in which converts “learned” together how to be Mormon.22 But it signified at a deeper level the conflicted impulse to measure revealed and “worldly” learning on the same yardstick—claiming the superiority of revealed learning while asking the established educational authority to recognize one’s legitimacy.
In the late 1830s Mormons abandoned their communities in Ohio and Missouri, under pressure from dissidents and previous settlers alike, and took refuge along the Mississippi River in Illinois. Here they lived for nearly seven years, where their city, Nauvoo, would grow in size, influence, and controversy as waves of converts migrated from the British Isles and Joseph Smith continued to unfold increasingly unconventional theological and social systems. During the turbulent Nauvoo years, as the Saints worked to build another temple, Smith and his fellows laid plans for a University of the City of Nauvoo with regents appointed from the ranks of church leaders. Even more than in Kirtland, the plans for the university in Nauvoo seemed to model American norms while aiming to outdo the nation’s best efforts. Mormon leaders promised their university would be “one of the great lights to the world”: classes would be offered in arts and sciences, the quickly growing professions, and in practical or technical subjects.23
Although the university never materialized beyond supervising elementary education for children and secondary education for adults, its plans tell us much about the evolving Mormon attitude toward education. For example, of the university’s twenty-three regents, none had studied beyond common schools, and the appointed chancellor, John C. Bennett, had studied only one year at McGill University in Quebec, although he had obtained a medical degree by examination and had served briefly as the president of a small medical college in Virginia, as well as in other capacities in small [p.7]schools throughout the Midwest. Apostle Orson Pratt, whose four months of secondary school exceeded the education of most of his brethren, was slated to teach courses in philosophy and mathematics. He received an honorary M.A. from the proposed school in 1841.24 Notwithstanding this paucity of legitimate academic credentials, the local Mormon newspaper proclaimed that the school’s faculty positions would be “occupied by some of the most able men the nation affords in their respective departments.”25
This overstatement belies a desire for learning, but also, perhaps, an uneducated people’s desire for respectability in the eyes of the American nation, from which they were largely drawn. It illustrates as well the extent to which Mormons valued revelation as equal to or supplanting traditional learning. This seems even more true when the Mormon example is compared to efforts at other Illinois universities. The fledgling school in Jacksonville, for example, was filled with missionary-minded Protestants from Yale, setting up school in order to counteract Western ignorance and the threat of Catholic subversion. Native Westerners resented the elitism and condescension they perceived in invaders from the Northeast. While Mormons shared this resentment of the intellectual establishment, they did not, like their neighbors, mob abolitionist presses and scoff at the idea of university education. Rather, they desired to beat the New England elite at their own game, by proving to the world that their universities could outshine all the rest.26
After Joseph Smith’s murder in 1844, most Mormons, under Brigham Young’s leadership, left Illinois, crossed the Great Plains by wagon train or handcart, and worked to build the Kingdom of God west of the Rocky Mountains. Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, a stream of immigrants from England and Scandinavia followed the original pioneers. In Salt Lake City and other new settlements (the “Mormon corridor” stretches from Alberta, Canada, to northern Mexico), Mormons started elementary and secondary schools, as well as universities, which served to train teachers for the lower grades. Private tuition funded local schools. Young and his successors into the 1890s resisted the idea of tax-supported schooling, which would give the government leeway to exclude Mormon doctrine from the curriculum.27 Young’s numerous statements on education favored practical, utilitarian learning over an excess of bookish knowledge. Arithmetic was useful for bookkeeping; medicine was of course important, and some Mormons were “called” by Young to return East for specialized training. To an 1867 conference of the Saints, Young preached: “In these [practical fields] and all other branches of science and education we should know as much as any people in the world. We have them within our reach, for we have as good teachers as can be found on the face of the earth.”28 While Young aimed to “gather up all the truths in the world pertaining to life and salvation, to the Gospel we preach, to mechanism[s] of every kind, to the sciences, and to philosophy”. and bring it to Zion,” still he frankly admitted [p.8]to be better off for not having been “educated in the devilry and craft of the learned classes of mankind.”29 Like other Americans whose actions were motivated by class-consciousness-and if anything characterized the later decades of the nineteenth-century, it was a growing awareness of class divisions—Young resisted the authority of elite educational institutions. Unlike these others, however, Young did not renounce institutionalized learning altogether; rather, he wanted it done his way, which would ultimately prove, he believed, to be better than the best the world had to offer. While some of Young’s rhetoric sounds intellectually inclusive (“It is your duty to know everything upon the face of the earth, in addition to [the scriptures],” he once told church members30), in practice his stubborn opinion largely decided which truths were worthy of adding to the Mormon world view. For example, he clung in the face of scientific evidence to his belief that the ocean’s tides are the result of the earth’s breathing (the earth being a living organism), and “not by the moon, as some have vainly supposed.”31 Young may have been referring to Apostle Orson Pratt as that “some.” Not one to tolerate dissent, Young derided Pratt’s “philosophy” on more than one occasion, sometimes even threatening Pratt with excommunication for contradicting Young’s teachings.32
In frontier Utah, Mormons had reasons more pragmatic than liberal to focus on education. Throughout the last decades of the nineteenth century, Young and his successors designed a massive educational system to protect Latter-day Saint children from the influences of an increasingly secular state and from the influence of non-Mormons, often evangelical Christians, who used what educational footholds they could to proselytize Mormon youth. To serve their own needs, Mormons established the majority of Utah’s universities that have persisted through the twentieth century. The University of Deseret, founded in Salt Lake in 1850, became the University of Utah. Brigham Young College in Logan became Utah State University in the 1920s. A large number of secondary academies, turned over to state governments, became local high schools in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As the Mormon educational stronghold eroded in the Intermountain West, due largely to financial difficulties and pressure from the encroaching American society, the Latter-day Saints tenaciously gripped on to Brigham Young Academy in Provo, founded in 1875, as their primary educational institution.
In retrospect, nineteenth-century Mormon education represented a quest for a peculiar brand of religious, albeit often temporal, knowledge, at once a retreat from mainstream Protestant-American values and a desire for legitimation from that outside world. As such, the early Mormon educational ethos paralleled other Mormon practices, most particularly a theocratic government. Politically, nineteenth-century Mormon leaders followed Joseph Smith’s cue to set up a government based on American constitutional principles but governed ultimately by divine revelation.33 Similarly, [p.9]Smith, Parley Pratt, Brigham Young, and others believed that their lack of worldly education was fortunate, because the content but not necessarily the form—of worldly education was corrupt, and that their religion gave them greater and more meaningful knowledge. “You will see the day,” prophesied the church’s third president, John Taylor, in a sermon quoted by BYU president Merrill Bateman in 1996, “that Zion will be as far ahead of the outside world in everything pertaining to learning of every kind as we are to-day [sic] in religious matters.”34 As in government, early Mormon leaders based their institutions on American models but differed in the ultimate claim of perfect, divine revelation. Hence, when Young oversaw the foundation of the Provo academy that would bear his name, he charged its founding principal, Karl G. Maeser, “not to teach even the multiplication tables without the Spirit of God.”35
Mormons and Modern America: Early Academic Freedom Crises
Mormon isolationism ended in the 1860s with the arrival of the transcontinental railroad, which brought a record number of non-Mormon travelers and settlers to Utah. This reunion with the nation at large hoisted the church back into the national media spotlight, this time for the openly practiced institution of polygamous marriage. To Americans, particularly Republican reformers, Mormon polygamy was as much a threat to civilization as its “twin relic of barbarism”—slavery.36 By the turn of the century, more than two decades of political pressure from the United States—including deployment of federal troops, the institution of new territorial officers, the economic and political disenfranchisement of the church, and the imprisonment of many Mormon leaders for “unlawful cohabitation”—had brought an end to peculiar Mormon marriage, government, and economic patterns. The push for the church’s survival began a half-century move toward assimilation.37
Sociologists of religion describe a decrease in tension between a new religious movement and the surrounding culture as being necessary to ensure growth and stability. In typical cases, once a religious group qualifies as a full-blown church, the assimilation process only continues. Mormonism, Armand Mauss has argued, presents an anomaly in that the counter-modern retrenchment of the mid—to late-twentieth century constitutes “a reversal of evolutionary direction … back toward a more sect like posture accompanied by some increase in tension with the rest of North America.” This reversal, however, constitutes a survival strategy; while it may limit assimilation, “success” for a religion can be defined as the retention of at least some peculiarity, allowing the group to maintain “optimum tension” with its host society.38 Mormonism’s first major educational encounter with secular education came, then, near the beginning of the church’s period of assimilation. Much to his predecessor’s dismay, Brigham Young Academy’s second president, Benjamin Cluff, Jr., encouraged the hiring of Eastern-educated professors. [p.10]Cluff himself had attended the University of Michigan and had been appointed to BYA’s faculty against Karl Maeser’s wishes. As a faculty member and later as president, Cluff helped many BYA graduates to attend schools such as Michigan, Harvard, and Stanford, hoping they would return to bolster the church school’s faculty and reputation.39 An acquaintance of national educational figures such as William James and John Dewey, Cluff invited the latter to deliver lectures on educational topics at BYA. Influenced and intellectually stimulated by such thinkers, Cluff also introduced courses in psychology and philosophy to the campus. When his successor, George Brimhall, hired the school’s first Ph.D.s, the now-renamed Brigham Young University began to outgrow what had previously been a high school-level institution.
By 1911, however, less than a decade into Brimhall’s tenure, some church leaders felt the new professors—particularly through teaching evolution and higher criticism of the Bible—had jeopardized students’ faith. Although the professors in question enjoyed much popularity with the student body, the university’s board of trustees, made up almost exclusively of high ranking church officials, ignored the arguments of critics and determined that “evolution would be best left out of discussions in our church schools,” without necessarily “undertaking to say how much of evolution is true, or how much is false.” Although he feared firing the controversial professors might be the school’s death knell, Brimhall ultimately resolved that “[t]he school follows the church, or it ought to stop.”40 Students were not so sure. Of 114 undergraduates, over 100 staged a protest on campus in defense of the faculty members; almost all of these signed petitions that were published in local newspapers.41 One alumna later recalled that “[n]othing happened in the educational field, in my experience, which created more individual thought than the release of these B.Y.U. professors.”42
Of course, the issues involved—evolution and higher biblical criticism were divisive not only to Mormons. Most universities of the era, the majority of which had denominational roots, were grappling with the same issues. Within fifteen years the controversy over evolution would escalate the Protestant fundamentalist movement, culminating in the Scopes trial of 1925. The struggle over evolution also prompted many schools to embrace the newly formed American Association of University Professors (founded by John Dewey and others in 1915) in its ideal of academic freedom for individual professors.43
The lack of central Protestant authority helped ease the transition from religious to secular universities. In 1910, just as the evolution controversy was beginning to brew at BYU, Vanderbilt University’s board of trustees defied the Southern Methodist General Conference’s appointment of conservative trustees; by 1914 the school had dropped denominational support.44 Catholicism, however, like Mormonism, had no lack of central authority. In 1906 the Catholic Pontifical Biblical Commission addressed questions of [p.11]higher criticism by ruling that Moses had authored the Pentateuch; in 1910 a Catholic University scholar was fired for ignoring the ruling.45 The 1911 controversy at BYU similarly ended in the firing of one professor and the resignation of three more.46 Mormons and Catholics, who had initially established separate schools to protect their children from the Protestant menace, now found themselves even more threatened by pressure for academic freedom from within the fold. The situation for both religions has more or less remained the same throughout the twentieth century.
Contemporary Mormon liberals, such as Armand Mauss and Kendall White, who look back to a kinder, gentler Mormonism that fostered free inquiry, remember a period during the 1920s and 1930s when a number of Eastern and even European university-trained people held influential positions in church education and government. In 1919 Adam Bennion, a Berkeley Ph.D., was appointed superintendent of LDS church education, under the supervision of three moderates among Mormon apostles, David O. McKay, Stephen L. Richards, and Richard R. Lyman, the latter having himself earned a doctorate at the University of Michigan. In 1922 McKay was replaced by John A. Widtsoe, a scientist trained at Harvard and Goettingen.47 Although the church was forced economically and politically to eliminate a large portion of its educational operations during Bennion’s tenure, the retrenchment did not initially extend to curriculum. Indeed, Bennion and Widtsoe (at least, initially) emphasized the ability to harmonize evolutionary theory, higher criticism, and Mormon doctrine, and formed in-service institutes for Mormon teachers to deal with issues such as the increasingly popular “social gospel.” After arranging visits from prominent Protestant theologians, Bennion’s successor, Joseph Merrill, encouraged a handful of young Mormon men to attend the University of Chicago divinity school, notwithstanding Mormonism’s aversion to professional clergy.48
As Armand Mauss has noted, however, this brief period of intellectual expansion in part facilitated what he sees as the major Mormon retrenchment of the mid- to late-twentieth century.49 By the late-1930s, most defenders of evolution and higher criticism among the Mormon leadership had died, leaving their younger, conservative colleagues to shape the future of the church and its attitudes toward education.50 Worried that secularism had already taken too firm a foothold at BYU, conservative authorities such as First Presidency counselor J. Reuben Clark, for whom BYU’s law school is named, chastised the faculty for taking lightly their obligation to indoctrinate students and preserve their faith. “I assume that I am an [educational] apostate, that I am no friend to higher learning,” he wrote one BYU president: “I have a feeling that the mission of the Brigham Young University is not to make Ph.D.s or M.A.s, but to distribute among as wide a number as possible the ordinary collegiate work leading to Bachelors Degrees and to instill into the students a knowledge of the Gospel and a testimony of its truthfulness.”51
[p.12]Others shared Clark’s concerns for practicality and the preservation of faith, As early as the mid-1930s, faculty were subjected to special interviews by church authorities to determine their level of orthodoxy and commitment to church leaders. Subsequently a number of the university’s best-trained faculty took positions elsewhere.52 (Such attempts at control, however, were spasmodic and not systematized or made permanent for several more decades.) This occurred immediately prior to a massive twenty-year-long expansion of the university—from just over 5,000 to the over 30,000 students it has today. This growth included, of course, increased financial commitment from the church as well as a greatly enlarged campus. The decrease in individual academic freedom at BYU also came at a time when the Association of American University Professors was formulating its 1940 statement on academic freedom, which allowed religious institutions the right to limit freedom, provided they inform entering faculty in writing at the time of appointment what such restrictions will be, something BYU did not take seriously until the controversies of the 1990s. This renewed emphasis on indoctrination at mid-century prompted one conservative leader to assert: “In teaching the gospel there is no academic freedom. There is only fundamental orthodox doctrine and truth.”53 Only a few years earlier, another leader, previously cited, had lauded Mormon educational endeavors as “second to none in America or in the world.”54
Although the university’s growth largely limited the administration’s and board of trustees’ ability to oversee directly every facet of university education, a conservative political agenda has more or less continued to hold sway to the present. President Ernest L. Wilkinson, a John Birch Society devotee who ran BYU from 1951 to 1971, launched the school’s most famous campaign against liberal faculty during the nationally turbulent 1960s, a student spy ring that enabled him to keep tabs on certain “liberal” professors.55 Such practices on Wilkinson’s part prompted some faculty members to organize a local chapter of the American Association of University Professors. While the spy ring may be the most scandalous episode in the history of academic freedom at BYU, the atmosphere that led up to it had already resulted in the gradual departure of other faculty members.56 If the original reason to provide a Mormon system of higher education was to protect children from gentiles and secularism, the concern for twentieth-century leaders had expanded to include protecting Mormon students from some of their own Mormon teachers and preserving doctrinal orthodoxy.
A conservative posture has prevailed at BYU from the 1940s to the present, with brief periods of rigorous faculty recruitment followed by occasional controversies such as those of the 1990s. On one level, recent scandals support Mauss’s description of a general Mormon retrenchment, an attempt to preserve a unique Mormon identity in the face of too much assimilation of mainstream American values.57 What such an explanation [p.13]overlooks, however, is that in this retrenchment effort the church and BYU have, paradoxically, joined a mainstream movement in a culturally conservative backlash against the perceived excesses of modem democratic society. On one hand, the church has, from its earliest days, pined for the approval of the American mainstream; on the other, it wants to maintain that legitimacy while preserving the authority of church leaders to maintain doctrinal purity. If this ambivalence emerged in the church with renewed force in the 1960s, it has always been present with respect to intellectual freedom and education. This remains the fundamental source of tensions at BYU.
The years leading up to the conflicts of the 1990s demonstrate the continual struggles to determine BYU’s mission and to satisfy the demands of diverse constituencies. After Ernest Wilkinson’s retirement in 1971, University of Chicago School of Law professor Dallin Oaks took over the school’s reins. During Oaks’s administration, BYU increased to some degree, at least, equitable employment opportunities for women. To liberals the campus atmosphere seemed hopeful, paralleling that of Mormon intellectual life in general. Several major developments came from Mormon academic circles in this period. A “New Mormon History” grew out of the 1965 establishment of the Mormon History Association. And a new, cohesive independent Mormon sector produced publications in the 1960s and 1970s such as BYU Studies, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Exponent II, the Journal of Mormon History, and Sunstone. But conflicts with authorities have kept BYU a lively and controversial place throughout the last two decades. Beginning in the early 1980s and escalating to the present, a number of controversial moments indicates that BYU more than ever remains determined to deviate from contemporary academic models and preserve a safe space for Mormon education, even at the expense of outstanding faculty and national reputation (though leaders maintain that such a sacrifice will not be exacted). This book begins to tell that story.
After a series of broad, historical chapters that establish introductory and contextual material on feminism, student publications, and the student honor code and grooming standards, chapters 5 and 6 begin to recount BYU’s most recent academic freedom crises. Throughout the 1980s some church leaders criticized professional historians of Mormonism in ways similar to their previous criticism of evolutionary biologists. One result was the resignation in 1988 of D. Michael Quinn, a tenured, Yale-trained full professor, whose funding had been eliminated and who had been threatened privately with ecclesiastical sanctions by church leaders. In 1993 he was excommunicated from the church for his nontraditional interpretations of Mormon’ history, although he continues to claim belief in pivotal Mormon faith-claims.58 Also in 1988 David P. Wright, an assistant professor of Near Eastern studies, was released from BYU after he disclosed to an administrator [p.14]his private belief that the Book of Mormon, a central Mormon scriptural work, was authored by Joseph Smith rather than translated from an ancient record as Smith claimed. He, too, was later excommunicated for his beliefs.59 Their stories help us understand what would come in the following decade.
In 1993, as noted above, after much campus controversy, Cecilia Konchar Farr, an assistant professor of English, was fired for her outspoken feminist politics, and David Knowlton, an assistant professor of anthropology, was fired for his studies of Latin American Mormon missionaries as terrorist targets, and for his subsequent public arguments for increased academic freedom at BYU. In the wake of the two firings, along with student protests, a number of faculty resigned from BYU, including a half dozen feminist scholars and, among other officials, Harold Miller, the dean of general and honors education, who reported to National Public Radio that his idea of a university and the church’s were no longer compatible. (He has since, however, returned to the university.) A number of other professors announced plans to leave as soon as employment opportunities arose, although such opportunities are difficult to come by in the 1990s academic market. Still others have said they will stay to provide a safe space for non-traditional students.
Just as the campus began to settle after the Farr and Knowlton firings, two more untenured English professors were forced out. Brian Evenson, a fiction writer, was told that the material in his nationally published collection of short stories was unsuitable for a BYU professor. And in the longest running of BYU’s academic freedom conflicts, Gail Turley Houston was dismissed in 1996 for a variety of alleged infringements, ranging from alluding in public to her private prayers to a gender-inclusive God (even though such a belief is provided for in Mormon theology) to her participation in a public campaign to ask the church to deal more kindly with its liberal intellectual community. Houston’s case attracted the attention of the national American Association of University Professors. That group’s BYU chapter, revived in the wake of the academic freedom controversies, remains at the center of debates over the school’s future. Houston, Evenson, and the AAUP form the core of chapters 8 and 9. Chapter 7 deals with larger movements in the Mormon church to quell dissent as the church approaches the twenty-first century.
From the perspective of administrators and leaders, the elimination of “dangerous” faculty is necessary if student faith (and predominantly conservative tithe-payers’ faith in the school) is to be preserved. A number of other factors complicate the issue further. As discussed above, the desire for national prominence, including competitive recruiting according to national standards (and faculty members’ desire to participate in the national academic community), exists in tension with the desire for rigidly maintained faith boundaries. This tension (ideally a source of creativity”60) is heightened by the fact that the administration feels greater loyalty to the board of trustees [p.15]than to the faculty or students, as well as by divisions among faculty over questions of institutional loyalty. (The religion department, for example, sides with church leaders, while the sociology department has, at least once, taken a unanimous stance contrary to an official dictum from church authorities.) Other complications result from the board’s understandable awareness of alumni and parental concerns, especially those of Mormon parents whose children are unable to attend BYU due to its slowly rising enrollment cap.61
In predicting BYU’s future, the most important event in recent years is probably the institution of hiring policies that emphasize more than ever loyalty to church leaders. As the school approaches the turn of the twenty-first century, leaders have had to confront the reality that 40 percent of its faculty will retire between 1995 and 2000 (roughly seventy retirements per year). Hiring men and women whose views match current leaders’ vision for BYU, then, has become all important.62 In the past, BYU’s academic freedom controversies have followed periods of rigorous recruitment of new professors whose credentials fare well in non-Mormon academic circles. If hiring according to religious loyalty over academic credentials succeeds, BYU will probably become tamer, more restrictive, happier, more comfortably homogenous. The administration and board of trustees have demonstrated that they are not interested in pursuing a second option, that of letting the school operate as any other American institution of higher education, including the institution of faculty governance, a scenario that could eliminate national bias against BYU as its faculty increased in productivity and reputation. But if the university continues to follow a path in which it recruits according to national standards but retains according to a fear of internal Mormon pluralism, it may attain a surface homogeneity, but it will more likely remain a controversial place, a house of faith divided.
[p.15]1. See “Y Rated Most Religious,” Sunstone, July 1997, 77. BYU was also rated first in the following additional categories: most religious, pray regularly, and future Rotarians and Daughters of the American Revolution. See also Jennifer Dyer, “Surprise! Y named most religious,” Daily Universe, 8 Oct. 1996.
2. Carolyn Mooney, “Conservative Brigham Young U. Contends with Small but Growing Movement for Change,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 30 June 1993; see also Mooney’s sidebar, “Professor Charges Brigham Young Fired Her for Her Politics, Not for Her Scholarship.”
4. Wendy C. Wright and Tad R. Walch, “Phi Beta Kappa Won’t Let BYU In, Cites, Y’s Mission,” Daily Universe, 20 May 1992. Also see Vern Anderson (A.P.), “Phi Beta Kappa Rejects BYU Chapter Again,” Salt Lake Tribune, 20 May 1992.
6. A. Garr Cranney, “Schools,” and Richard F. Haglund and David J. Whittaker, “Intellectual History,” in Daniel Ludlow, ed., Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 5 vols. (New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., 1992), 1267, 685.
7. See the first four chapters of Frederick S. Buchanan, Culture Clash and Accommodation: Public Schooling in Salt Lake City, 1890•1994 (San Francisco: Smith Research Associates, 1996), esp. 32, 64, 103. For David Tyack’s assessment of the Utah Plan, see p. 104.
8. John Widtsoe, “The Educational Level of Latter-day Saints,” Improvement Era, July 1947, 444-45, quoted in LeGrand Richards, A Marvelous Work and a Wonder (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1976 ), 382. See also E. L. Thorndike, “The Origin of Superior Men,” Scientific Monthly 56 (1943): 424-32; Kenneth Hardy, “Social Origins of American Scientists and Scholars,” Science, 9 Aug. 1974, 497-506. Thanks to Armand Mauss for these citations.
9. Richards, A Marvelous Work, 392; Stan L. Albrecht and Tim Heaton, “Secularization, Higher Education, and Religiosity,” Review of Religious Research 26 (1984): 43-58. A personal response to the study is documented in Susan Buhler Taber, Mormon Lives: A Year in the Elkton Ward (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993), 16. Also see David Knowlton, “The Glory of God? Education and Orthodoxy in Mormonism,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 32 (Spring 1998): 1-13. Knowlton observes that the religiosity trend is reversed for Mormons in the arts, humanities, and social sciences, and for Mormon women generally. Thanks to Nancy Bentley for help with this citation.
10. Joel Alva Flake, “Secular Education as a Doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: Studies in the Mormon Educational Ethos,” Ed.D. diss., West Virginia University, 1988. The quotation comes from the dissertation’s abstract.
11. This view was perhaps most forcefully expressed by former BYU president Rex Lee. In particular, see “What We Are and What We Can Become: A President’s Perspective,” Addresses Delivered at the 1993 Annual University Conference, 23-26 Aug. 1993 (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1994).
12. This tradition stems in part from the formation in the 1950s and 1960s of a more-or-less cohesive Mormon “intellectual” community, which examined itself against intellectuals as defined by non-Mormon scholars. Both Davis Bitton and Leonard Arrington have discussed Mormon intellectuals past and present in the context of Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963). See Bitton, “Anti-Intellectualism in Mormon History,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 1 (Fall 1966): 111-34, and Leonard J. Arrington, “The Intellectual Tradition of the Latter-day Saints,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 4 (Spring 1969): 13-26. In the 1990s this community has been especially fractured by internal conflicts and tensions with some church leaders.
13. Armand Mauss, The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), xii, see also 26-28, 95-98. Although Mauss acknowledges “my own nostalgia, the idealization of my own past,” he still finds sufficient evidence to base his book largely on the difference between mid-century and contemporary Mormon attitudes toward dissent and orthodoxy.
15. Scott Abbott, “One Lord, One Faith, and Two Universities: Tensions between ‘Religion’ and ‘Thought’ at BYU,” Sunstone, Sept. 1992, 15-23; Alan Keele, “All Truth Circumscribed in One Great Whole,” Student Review, July 1992; also see [p.17]John Armstrong, “Divine Reason,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 30 (Spring 1997): 5-23.
17. For early Mormon populist anti-authoritarianism, see Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), discussed as Mormon “republicanism” in Kenneth Winn, Exiles in a Land of Liberty: Mormons in America, 1830-1846 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989). For the other approaches to Mormonism alluded to throughout this paragraph, see D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1987); John Brooke, The Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Jan Shipps, Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985). For discussions of Mormonism as anti-pluralist, see Marvin S. Hill, Quest for Refuge: The Mormon Flight from American Pluralism (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989), and Richard T. Hughes and C. Leonard Allen, “Soaring with the Gods: Early Mormons and the Eclipse of Religious Pluralism,” in their Illusions of Innocence: Protestant Primitivism in America, 1630-1875 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 133-52.
19. Parley P. Pratt, A Voice of Warning and Instruction to All People, Containing a Declaration of the Faith and Doctrine of the Church of the Latter Day Saints, Commonly Called Mormons (New York: W. Sanford, 1837), 147; quoted in Hughes and Leonard, 139.
21. Richard Bushman, “Joseph Smith as Translator,” in Bryan Waterman, ed. The Prophet Puzzle: Interpretive Essays on Joseph Smith (Salt Lake: Signature Books, forthcoming). Our reading of this transition in Smith’s life differs slightly from Bushman’s. While Bushman sees Smith’s attempts at literal translation as defying conventional wisdom—he was, after all, an unlearned farm boy—we see them as evidence of his agonizing desire for education as well as, perhaps, recognition in the eyes of the established cultural authorities who saw him as a poverty-stricken charlatan.
22. Hatch, following Lawrence Goodwyn, describes “the building of significant mass democratic movements” through “a sequential process of recruitment, education, and involvement that allows a ‘movement culture’ to develop” (The Democratization of American Christianity, 58).
24. See D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1994), appen. 6, “Biographical Sketches of General Officers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830-47.” The university also bestowed an honorary LL.D. on New York news paperman James Gordon Bennett, whose defense of the Mormons had won him their undying friendship. See William J. McNiff, Heaven on Earth: A Planned Mormon Society, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Porcupine Press, 1972 ), 64.
26. See Don Harrison Doyle, The Social Order of a Frontier Community: Jacksonville, Illinois, 1825-70 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978); John E. Hallwas and Roger D. Launius, eds., Cultures in Conflict: A Documentary History of the Mormon War in Illinois (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1995).
27. Allen and Leonard, Story of the Latter-day Saints, 358. The most comprehen-[p.18]sive study of the Salt Lake City school system is Buchanan, Culture Clash and Accommodation, esp. chap. 1, a discussion of the Mormon origins of Utah’s schools.
28. Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (London/Liverpool: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1854-86), 12:32, quoted in McNiff, Heaven on Earth, 84. See also Hugh Nibley, “Educating the Saints” and “More Brigham on Education,” in his Brother Brigham Challenges the Saints (Salt Lake City: FARMS/Deseret Book Co., 1994).
33. Klaus J. Hansen, Quest for Empire: The Political Kingdom of God and the Council of Fifty in Mormon History (East Lansing: University of Michigan Press, 1967). See also Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins, chap. 4.
36. The phrase “twin relics of barbarism” comes from the Republican party’s founding platform of 1856. See B. Carmon Hardy, Solemn Covenant: The Mormon Polygamous Passage (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 40.
40. Both quotes in Gary James Bergera, “The 1911 Evolution Controversy at Brigham Young University,” in Gene A. Sessions and Craig J. Oberg, eds., The Search for Harmony: Essays on Science and Mormonism (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993), 30, 32.
46. Wilkinson, Brigham Young University, 1:413-33. Of course, Wilkinson, himself an anti-evolutionist, approved of the course taken against the modernist faculty. “After the modernism controversy,” he wrote, “Brimhall was much more sensitive to the attitude of the Church Board of Education concerning academic matters. To him and to many of the teachers, the events of 1911 punctuated the need for obedience to authority in the Church schools” (433). For other treatments of the 1911 controversy, see Thomas Alexander, Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986), chap. 9; Richard Sherlock, “Campus in Crisis: Brigham Young University, 1911,” Sunstone , Jan.—Feb. 1979, 10-16; and Bergera, “The 1911 Evolution Controversy.”
50. While a handful of leaders defended science in general and resisted blanket rejections of evolution, most did not fully embrace Darwinism in its entirety. See Erich Robert Paul, Science, Religion, and Mormon Cosmology (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 25. On the eventual triumph of scientifically conservative leaders, see chap. 8 of Paul’s book, as well as Richard Sherlock and Jeffrey E. Keller, “The B. H. Roberts/Joseph Fielding Smith/James E. Talmage Affair,” in Sessions and Oberg, eds., The Search for Harmony, 93-116.
58. D. Michael Quinn, “On Being a Mormon Historian (and Its Aftermath),” in George D. Smith, ed., Faithful History: Essays on Writing Mormon History (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992), 69-112. On Quinn’s excommunication, see Lavina Fielding Anderson, “The September Six,” in George D. Smith, ed., Religion, Feminism, and Freedom of Conscience: A Mormon/Humanist Dialogue (Salt Lake City/Buffalo, NY: Signature Books/Prometheus Books, 1994), 3•8. While Quinn’s leaders scheduled disciplinary proceedings against him because of his writing, the official reason cited for his excommunication was his decision not to attend the disciplinary council. See also chap. 7 below.
59. “The Wright Excommunication Documents,” Sunstone, Sept. 1994, 65-76. See also Stirling Adams, “Scholar Dismissed,” Student Review, 21 Sept. 1988, on Wright’s firing from BYU. The most comprehensive account of Wright’s case is in Case Reports of the Mormon Alliance 3 (1997): 291-357.
61. For pressures on trustees from parents and other church members, see Paul Richards (former head of BYU public relations), “Does Paying Tithing Make You a Voting Shareholder?: BYU’s Worldwide Board of Trustees,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 26 (Fall 1993): 59-72.