Schooling and Being Schooled in Religious Education - Casey Paul Griffiths
The formal foundation of education in the Mormon Church began in 1888 when the church board of education was established. Around this time, the United States initiated a free schools program. President Wilford Woodruff, the president of the church at that time, became very concerned about the idea that young Latter-day Saints would be receiving their schooling without any instruction in the scriptures. Starting in the 1890s, he instructed every stake to launch their own academy.
By the early 1900s, the academy system became unsustainable, and the church opened its first seminaries. Little did church leaders realize that this would lead to a whole new problem — training religious instructors and the establishment of professional religionists in a layman church.
In the 1930s the consequences of having professional theological scholars started to become apparent as some key tensions emerged — tensions the church is still grappling with. Find out what this first generation of scholars faced when they came back to Utah to teach in Mormon religious classrooms after studying in the liberal classrooms of the University of Chicago on this episode of the LDS Perspectives Podcast.
LDS Perspectives Podcast
Episode 48: Schooling and Being Schooled in Religious Education
with Casey Paul Griffiths
(Released August 16, 2017)
Stephanie Sorensen: Hi, this is Stephanie Sorenson with the LDS Perspectives Podcast, and today we’re here with Casey Paul Griffiths, an assistant professor of church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University. He holds a bachelor’s in history, a master’s in religious education, and a PhD in educational leadership and foundations, all from Brigham Young University. He taught in the Seminary and Institute system for 11 years as a teacher and a curriculum writer before joining religious education at BYU. His research focuses primarily on the history of Latter-day Saint education. He is one of the authors of By Study and Also by Faith: 100 Years of Seminaries and Institutes of Religion, published in 2015. His most recent book is What You Don’t Know about the 100 Most Important Events in Church History, coauthored with Susan Easton Black and Mary Jane Woodger. Welcome, Casey, we’re glad to have you here.
Casey Paul Griffiths: Thanks, Stephanie. It’s good to be here.
Stephanie Sorensen: Today we’re going to be talking about the history and the role of the Church Education System. A little bit about its background, how it’s currently functioning, and what we see as the future of church education. To start out with, I just wanted to mention that with the Restoration, it laid the groundwork for ongoing education with the whole, “glory of God is intelligence” and “establishing a house of learning,” and all of the things that the Lord laid forth in those early revelations, spanning from the School of the Prophets and all the efforts that were made. Then, with the Lord saying that, establishing a temple, it would be a place of instruction from on high. Clearly from the beginning, the Lord commanded that He wanted His people to learn about all things at home and abroad and on the land. He wanted His people to be well educated, but He wanted that to be supplemented as well with a spiritual education. Having said that, could you lay a groundwork for the beginnings of a more formal system of church education, I believe starting around the 1870s. Is that right?
Casey Paul Griffiths: The formal foundation of education in the church occurred in 1888 when the Church Board of Education was established. The historical context is that around this time the United States starts to establish a free schools program. That idea that there’s a high school that’s for the public in every community is a late 19th century innovation that the United States launches. At the time the church was pretty much the only game in town. We were running schools and didn’t have any problems with that sort of thing. Now these free schools were popping up in every community, and, of course, these are state-sponsored schools, so they don’t teach religion.
Stephanie Sorensen: They’re secular.
Casey Paul Griffiths: They’re secular. President Woodruff, the president of the church at that time, became very concerned about the idea young Latter-day Saints would be receiving their schooling without any instruction in the scriptures. Starting in the 1890s, he instructed every stake to launch their own academy. These academies were more or less successful. Some of them endured well into the 20th century. Some of them started and failed within a couple months. The idea was that the church was going to sponsor educational programs where we would teach all secular learning and all spiritual learning. Then in areas where numbers just didn’t make that possible, they started supplemental religious education programs. These supplemental programs were called Religion Classes, and were among the first of their kind in the nation.
If you were living in an area where it was too small for you to have your own academy, you would go to a religion class a couple times a week outside of the school day. That’s the generalized origin of the Seminary and Institute program that we enjoy today. These academies are great, first of all, and help establish some really strong identity for young Latter-day Saints, but they also have some drawbacks to. They charge tuition, and some of them were boarding schools. If you were a kid growing up in Parowan, Utah, for instance, you had to go live in Beaver, Utah, for the year.
Stephanie Sorensen: In order to get religious education.
Casey Paul Griffiths: In order to get religious education.
Stephanie Sorensen: To supplement your secular education.
Casey Paul Griffiths: Right. A boarding school, as you know, is a whole new set of problems that you have to deal with. You have to establish housing. You have to monitor the kids. You have to make sure that the children don’t get into trouble.
Stephanie Sorensen: It’s like youth conference on steroids.
Casey Paul Griffiths: It really was. One of the first projects I was engaged in -my family roots are from Beaver, Utah. I’d always heard tell that there was a church school there. People there even talk about how BYU was going to be in Beaver, and then they moved it. I dove in and wrote a little bit about the history of that school. It was a boarding school where people from all over southern Utah came. All kinds of crazy shenanigans that happened at this school. My personal favorite story is that they’re living in these abandoned army barracks. I mean, they took over the army fort that was established there after the Mountain Meadows Massacre and turned it into a school. No electricity, no running water, no lavatories. This one young lady wrote a story about how the principal would make surprise inspections. The principal came in while she was on the chamber pot.
Stephanie Sorensen: Oh, no.
Casey Paul Griffiths: She couldn’t get out of the way fast enough, so she just threw her skirts down and pretended like she was sitting on a milking stool. The principal came in, and she said he talked to them for an hour and a half.
Stephanie Sorensen: Oh, no.
Casey Paul Griffiths: By the end her bottom was so sore, she couldn’t walk around the next day. That wonderful environment was something that the church sponsored, and it was successful for around 20 years, but ultimately was untenable because of the boarding, because of the tuition charge, and because public schooling just became too attractive. You can send your kids to school for free, while you’re paying tithing and tuition to a church institution. Over time, especially by the early 20th century, enrollment in these academies starts to decline.
It’s actually the year before the first seminary programs launched at Granite High School that public high school enrollment in Utah surpasses academy enrollment for the first time. By the early 20th century, the academies are really expensive, first of all. Second of all, the church is wondering why are we paying people to teach mathematics when the government will pay for that. They have to develop a new way to get religious education to students without providing the public education or taking it. I guess what they want to do is take advantage of the public education system.
The origins of the Seminary program are that in 1911 a man named Joseph F. Merrill, an educator to the University of Utah, who came up with this idea of, “Well, why don’t we release students from high school for an hour. They can go to a structure built across the street from the high school and receive theological training?” Basically, we’re not going to build the whole high school or sponsor it anymore. We’re going to build the theology department and teach them there.
This also changes a few things fundamentally in the church because in the academy system your religion classes were taught by your English teacher, your math teacher, and so on and so forth. There was no professional religion scholar in the church. I mean, there were several people that were gifted. They were mostly general authorities or people that worked directly for the church, like B. H. Roberts or Orson Pratt. But there’s no church-sponsored scholars of religion. The launch of the seminary system in 1911 basically means now we’re going to have professional religionists. In a church where everybody’s a layman, even Joseph Smith preaches a sermon then goes out and works his farm. What are the consequences of having professional theological scholars?
Stephanie Sorensen: Okay, let’s explore that just a little bit because that became a new need that the church faced in trying to provide professional theologians then that would be educating their youth. What challenges did they face as they pursued that route? What were their goals? What were things they were trying to avoid as they look towards educating their educators for this kind of profession?
Casey Paul Griffiths: First of all, it really didn’t turn into an issue of professionalization until the 1930s. At first, it’s a mom and pop operation. The very first Seminary teacher is named Thomas Yates, and he’s actually a mechanical engineer at the Murray Power Plant. He’s paid 100 bucks a month to get on his horse and ride to Granite High School and teach two classes in the afternoon. It works, it’s an experiment, but it’s really a grassroots stake- sponsored program. The Granite Seminary is the only seminary program in the church, for instance, until 1915 when the second program opens in Brigham City. By about 1920, the program had started to become popular and a lot of stakes were sponsoring released-time Seminary programs.
In 1920, the economic system of the church is struggling a little bit. The commissioner of education is really David O. McKay, but it’s really a triumvirate with Talmage and Widtsoe, and they make the decision: we’re going to close all the academies. Basically, every academy, except for a handful were closed or transferred to the state.
Stephanie Sorensen: They closed all of these in favor of this released-time approach.
Casey Paul Griffiths: Yeah, McKay’s idea was that we’ll take the biggest academies, which were BY Academy in Provo, LDS University in Salt Lake, theschools that are now, Dixie, Weber, and Snow College and turn them into church- sponsored junior colleges. Because President McKay’s idea was, “Well, maybe we can’t control public education, but if we’re in charge of all the junior colleges in the state, we can train all the teachers anyway. Then, we won’t have a biology teacher, for instance, that destroys a person’s faith because they’ll be a Latter-day Saint that went to Snow College or something like that.”
Those junior colleges remain in the system for an additional 10 years with that idea being, “All right, we’re not going to control public education, but we will train all the educators and then provide seminaries.” In the mid-1920s, Adam S. Bennion, whose the superintendent of LDS schools, does a cost-effectiveness breakdown and basically presents this document to the church board of education that it’s 10 times cheaper to educate a seminary student than to educate a student that goes to a church school. At that period of time, every church school is up in the air, even BYU. They were considering getting rid of and they come very, very close to getting rid of in 1929 when things started to get really bad and the Great Depression begins. This is where we start to have this professional core of seminary teachers start to professionalize because before, I mean, according to the early teachers it was just find a funny guy that gets along with kids. The sort of person you’d make your Young Men’s president today. Let’s recruit them to be a Seminary teacher.
Stephanie Sorensen: Bring them in and let them do their thing.
Casey Paul Griffiths: They had almost no qualifications other than that they loved kids. That was how they got thrown in there. I mean, I’ve studied Joseph F. Merrill’s life and gone through his papers. They’re all here at BYU. One of the first directives he sent out when he was made church commissioner of education — he’s the first church commissioner that’s not a general authority — was that everybody had to have a high school degree.
Most of these seminary teachers don’t have any training. They’re just funny guys that get up and love the gospel and can inspire youth. But they run into a major problem in 1930, where the state high school inspector Isaac Williamson publishes this scathing report of the Seminaries. See, at the time and honestly, up until the 1970s, you could get academic credit for what you study in Seminary. You’d get credit for biblical studies for the Old Testament, New Testament year. Seminary was typically three years: you’d study the Old Testament, New Testament. Then senior year, you’d study church history. There’s no Book of Mormon class, and senior year was voluntary. You didn’t get any credit for it, and a lot of kids just absconded.
This state high school inspector publishes this report where basically, he just tears open the Seminary system and says, “The constitution of Utah says that you can get credit for biblical studies, but it can’t be sectarian training.” He lists off a litany of offenses like he’s gone to classes where they’re holding seminary inside the high school, and nobody has any problem with that because everybody in the community is Mormon. He sat in on one of the classes and heard sectarian teachings like the Garden of Eden is located in Independence, Missouri, or Noah landed in South Carolina. I mean, stuff that we dismiss as esoteric teachings were being taught directly within the classroom.
Stephanie Sorensen: He was seeing some inconsistencies with the constitutional law.
Casey Paul Griffiths: Yes.
Stephanie Sorensen: And also, with the way that religion was being taught from one seminary to a next.
Casey Paul Griffiths: Right.
Stephanie Sorensen: There were some curriculum problems.
Casey Paul Griffiths: He was saying this is a state-sponsored religious education system, even if the church is paying for it. We’re giving them credit. High schools and seminaries were exchanging attendance information. The seminary teacher was in the high school yearbook. He sees major problems with this. Williamson is a non-Mormon, lives in Eureka, Utah, he is also originally from Kansas and doesn’t know how the West works, basically. Just these flagrant violations of the non-sectarian provisions within the Utah state constitution.
Stephanie Sorensen: Is this where the commissioner, Merrill, decides to pay a little more attention into making that segregated and then training teachers on a more consistent level across the board and having them be prepared to be religious educators?
Casey Paul Griffiths: Merrill saw it as a lack of training and discipline on the part of the seminary teachers. He’s the creator of the Seminary system 20 years earlier, now he’s the commissioner. He goes to bat for it, in fact, I’ve read the minutes of the State Board of Education, and there’s some really intense meetings. We come within one vote of having the Seminary system outlawed or moved to outside school hours, which Merrill thought at that time would be devastating.
Stephanie Sorensen: So, it’s not living up to his vision of what it was supposed to be.
Casey Paul Griffiths: He comes in, and he’s the new sheriff. He’s going to fix it and professionalize the system. Merrill’s background is higher education, so his solution is, “Well, we get a subject expert to come in and train these individuals.” When really at the time, there were no subject experts in Mormon theology and doctrine, except the general authorities like Joseph Fielding Smith or John A. Widtsoe or James E. Talmage. Merrill is thinking, “Hey, even John A. Widtsoe is an agronomist.” He’s the most prolific writer among the apostles, but he’s not a scholar of religion. Merrill takes into confidence some of the more aggressive, some of the more intellectual seminary teachers like Sidney Sperry who was a Seminary teacher during this time. Sidney Sperry had voluntarily gone to the University of Chicago and received theological training there. He’s very impressed with him. He comes and tells Joseph Merrill that the University of Chicago would have no problem teaching Mormons. That’s another concern is most theological schools won’t accept Mormons or don’t want anything to do with us.
Stephanie Sorensen: But one that is more liberal —
Casey Paul Griffiths: One that’s really liberal —
Stephanie Sorensen: Will allow them to come and be part of the conversation.
Casey Paul Griffiths: Will be part of it. What happens is Merrill invites a scholar named Edgar Goodspeed and the funny thing was is while I was researching this I was at one of the oldest seminaries in the church, Jordan Seminary, who basically has preserved their library. Jordan Seminary opens in 1918, and their library is basically intact from that era. I walked into the Jordan Seminary Library and saw a whole shelf of books by Edgar Goodspeed.
Stephanie Sorensen: Wow.
Casey Paul Griffiths: Because he comes to BYU —
Stephanie Sorensen: As a biblical scholar.
Casey Paul Griffiths: As a biblical scholar. He’s a New Testament scholar. He’s done his own translation of the New Testament. He is the guy, and he just blows everybody away.
Stephanie Sorensen: Okay, let me share a quote that I found in one of your articles about that where Russell B. Swenson, who later become one of the first professors of the actual religion department at BYU with Sidney Sperry.
Casey Paul Griffiths: Right. He’s one of our founding fathers.
Stephanie Sorensen: He said about Goodspeed’s lecture series when they had him come out, he said, “Those summer classes at Aspen Grove really changed my thinking. It really set me on fire to really get more knowledge. I became aware of how little I knew about the scriptures and about history, and it was the beginning of a turning point in my life.” This is an example of what you’re talking about. That it blew things up when they realized, ‘Wow. We have a lot to learn about biblical scholarship and how we can apply that to our Mormon theology and our instructional approach.’”
Casey Paul Griffiths: Right and this is like nothing they’ve ever seen. Not only was he impressive to the Seminary and Institute teachers, he was invited to lecture in the Tabernacle by President Grant. He just really set the world on fire and everybody was blown away by what he did. For the next two years, at least, scholars are invited from the University of Chicago and Merrill decides, look, this isn’t something we can permanently do. We’ve got to have our own subject expert. So, he handpicks several young Seminary teachers with the idea that they’re going to go to the University of Chicago, receive their own theological training, then come back and perpetuate them.
Stephanie Sorensen: From that point on, we begin to train these religious educators to be professional theologians per say.
Casey Paul Griffiths: That’s the idea. Prior to 1930 when that whole Seminary crisis happens with the Utah state board, the BYU religion department is the same way academies are always run, you get your English or your humanities teachers. George Brimhall, the former president was the only permanent religion faculty member. Merrill actually sends Guy Wilson, who is, for all intents and purposes, the second seminary teacher ever, to take over the religion department. Then he sends Sidney Sperry and Russell Swenson and a few other people to the University of Chicago expecting them to come back and either run the religion department at BYU, which happens, or run the Institutes of Religion throughout the church.
These guys, again, it’s a situation that is interesting, but fraught with peril, because what happens now when you have a guy that has an advanced theology degree that maybe knows more about the Bible and biblical studies than the general authorities of the church do? Some of the people that go to Chicago are enamored by the scholastic tools. Sidney Sperry writes letters back where he says, “What till we take what they’re doing with —”
Stephanie Sorensen: He’s on his way to enhance the faith and the religion —
Casey Paul Griffiths: Yeah. “Wait till we take what they’re doing with the Old, the New Testament, and apply it to the Book of Abraham and the Book of Mormon.” That’s exactly what he does throughout his career. There’s other people like T. Edgar Lyon, who becomes a really influential Institute teacher in the church, who gets back to Chicago and is just not impressed with what he sees. He thinks that they’re all godless heathens that see religion as an academic subject and not a devotional part of your life. Then there’s people in-between like Russ Swenson who sees church methods as really antiquated and outdated, but I think still has a testimony of the church.
Stephanie Sorensen: Right, but struggles to reconcile some of the criticisms that come with that education towards the Mormon faith without denouncing the research that they found.
Casey Paul Griffiths: Right, and it depends on who you talk to. Sidney Sperry, when Chicago was brought up, would just always change the subject. T. Edgar Lyon would directly say, “Yeah, I see my fellow Latter-day Saints here losing their testimony.” Russ Swenson would say, “This is the most wonderful thing ever. This is the best thing that I’ve ever done in my life.”
Stephanie Sorensen: Then we have a situation where these men are educated at these theological universities. They come back, they’re teaching in the church education system. As you mentioned, there are some struggles or differences about what they have accepted from their secular education and what they’re applying to their religious teaching. Somewhere right in this mix is when J. Reuben Clark gives that landmark church education speech that is called “The Charted Course of the Church in Education.” Can you give a little bit of context to that speech? Why it was important? What came from it?
Casey Paul Griffiths: A few things happened when the Chicago teachers come back. They start to influence other teachers and bring people into their sphere of influence. There starts to be developing conservative and liberal branches within Mormon studies. I would say and maybe I’m wrong here, that Sidney Sperry is really the father of apologetic, conservative Mormon studies and Heber C. Snell is the intellectual father of liberal Mormon studies. I hate to use those words because I don’t want to set up a false dichotomy. Heber Snell is probably the Chicago student that goes the furthest into accepting their ideals. He starts to give addresses in the Seminary and Institute system because he’s an Institute director at Pocatello, for instance.
Stephanie Sorensen: Then publicly decries some basic theological —
Casey Paul Griffiths: He gives an address at a Seminary and Institute convention where he defends the theory of evolution, which is still really up in the air at that point and time. And starts de-literalizing the Bible. He cites several instances from the Old Testament, like the book of Jonah were he basically says —
Stephanie Sorensen: Or the authorship of Isaiah and things like that.
Casey Paul Griffiths: Yeah. He, for instance, buys wholeheartedly into the theory of multiple authors of the book of Isaiah. He gives this speech at an Institute convention that eventually gets back to some of the more conservative general authorities. The lead one in all these papers is Joseph Fielding Smith. Joseph Fielding Smith reads Heber C. Snell’s address at an Institute convention and basically says, “If we start teaching this, we might as well close up shop and say to the world that Mormonism is a failure.”
Stephanie Sorensen: He calls for a return to the pure clear doctrines.
Casey Paul Griffiths: He does. The other thing is this crisis in 1930 caused us to rewrite all of our curriculum. How do you avoid the Garden of Eden is in Independence, Missouri? Well, our curriculum from the 1930s started with Abraham and just left Adam and Eve and everything out of it. We just didn’t talk about it in Seminary. That doesn’t sit well with Joseph Fielding Smith and a few others either. In the 1930s J. Reuben Clark is the eloquent intellectual general authority. He’s a member of the state department during the Taft administration. He’s a former ambassador to Mexico. He’s just incredibly gifted.
Stephanie Sorensen: He becomes the voice of the church for this issue.
Casey Paul Griffiths: He kind of does. When the church wants to speak to intellectuals, they ask J. Reuben Clark to do so. David O. McKay is incredibly smart, too. David O. McKay is less of a hardliner when it comes to intellectuals than J. Reuben Clark is. That becomes apparent when David O. McKay becomes president of the church. Effectively, what happens is J. Reuben Clark comes to Aspen Grove and gives The Charted Course address. Today The Charted Course is like the constitution to any religious educator, you know?
Stephanie Sorensen: Yeah.
Casey Paul Griffiths: If you read it in its historical context, it’s a pretty strong rebuke of what was going on in the Seminary and Institutes. There’s one place in The Charted Course where President Clark says, basically, “We have given up our academies, and we don’t know if that was the best decision, and if we have to go back to it, we’ll do that.” Then he says some things that must have been incredibly pointed to certain members of the audience. Like, “We have had certain members go off and receive, what they call is the most up-to-date training. This doesn’t make them experts in our religion.” He says other things like, “The gospel is more than just a system of ethics.” Which is something that’s taught pretty directly at the Chicago Divinity School.
There’s behind the scene things that happened, too. At this point, most of the Chicago guys are out in the field directing Institutes or at BYU, but a lot of their progenitors, a lot of the people that they influenced were at the central office in Salt Lake City, and J. Reuben Clark goes after them pretty directly. Any teaching that draws away from the scriptures, any teaching that makes it sound like, “Oh, this is a good idea to do ethically, without it doctrinal justification“ is condemned. A lot of the people that are in the central office at that time are driven off because J. Reuben Clark is so direct about how worried he is about the secularization of the Seminary and Institute system.
You and I are intellectuals in the 21st century and saying evolution is something we should consider isn’t that big of a deal to us, but in the 1930s it is. He calls in, there’s records from J. Reuben Clark’s journal that Joseph F. Merrill, John A. Widtsoe, several people are called in on a regular basis to say, “What’s going on? Why aren’t we building faith? Why are we paying for a Seminary and Institute system if it’s just turning people into godless heathens?” These efforts in the late 1930s, and it’s not just The Charted Course, there’s several very pointed letters sent to BYU and to the entire Seminary and Institute system that basically say, “Here’s the fundamentals, God, Jesus, the First Vision in the Book of Mormon —”
Stephanie Sorensen: And cultivating faith in those things —
Casey Paul Griffiths: “Your objective is to cultivate faith,” got sent out. Part of the way you could view this is that the leadership of the church was reasserting their role.
Stephanie Sorensen: One of the responsibilities of a prophet and apostle is to regulate the doctrine and to disseminate it among the membership of the church. They see this as a threat a little bit, in the sense that because they’ve accepted these worldly perspectives about religion, they’re no longer focusing so much on the pure doctrine that prophets and apostles would like to see more emphasis.
Casey Paul Griffiths: Right, and there is some evidence that their concern was not unwarranted. For instance, if you look at Goodspeed’s writing, Goodspeed is the big sponsor of the LDS students at Chicago. He was incredibly liberal, especially for the 1930s and his views on origins of New Testament writings. I have a copy of Goodspeed’s New Testament translation in my office, and in his introduction he basically throws half the New Testament out as inauthentic. He doesn’t think that the epistle of James or the epistle of Peter, for instance, are actual apostolic writings, but —
Stephanie Sorensen: Just attributed to that —
Casey Paul Griffiths: Yeah. He’s not dismissive of them as good devotional material, but he just immediately throws out about half the New Testament as historically legitimate. J. Reuben Clark’s only published book during this period is Our Lord of the Gospels. It’s an intensive study of the New Testament. You can see why in a church where up to this point we’ve taken almost everything in the scriptures very literally and the Book of Mormon leads to those ends, he would be concerned.
The other thing is the private correspondence between Snell and obviously Heber Snell is the extreme end of the spectrum. There’s people all along the spectrum in Seminaries, Institutes at the time, but the private correspondence of Heber Snell indicates that he really strongly felt like the Bible should be the only scripture that the church uses and that Restoration scripture, like the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants, were not on the same level.
Stephanie Sorensen: Obviously J. Reuben Clark is responding to this pushback from some of the teachers. He’s saying, “No, we are going to focus on the doctrines of the Restoration. We’re going to use them in context in conjunction with the Bible and the things that we know and have learned about that.” He’s laying out this vision for church education, The Charted Course, and asking the church to go forward. I noticed in some of the research that you shared in your articles, there were a few different times where he came back, and he would affirm that this represented the position of the first presidency. That it was directed as an injunction then from them to move forward in that direction.
Casey Paul Griffiths: Yeah, when he gives The Charted Course, he says directly, “This is what the First Presidency wants me to say.” Then, the follow-up letters that I’ve mentioned come from the First President. I don’t think this is just President Clark grinding an ax, though he’s the most active person involved in it. This was the entire First Presidency, and you can understand their concern a little bit.
Stephanie Sorensen: Beyond Brigham Young University, the church education system has lots of arms and departments and things that are part of a whole global religious education. Could you explain just a little bit what some of those arms are and how the education of the church is expanding?
Casey Paul Griffiths: The church educational system, CES, which is, or rather used to be a term we used just for Seminaries and Institutes. In the mid-2000s, they became uncomfortable with that idea because they wanted to express the idea that CES is Brigham Young University, BYU–Idaho, BYU–Hawaii, LDS Business College, Seminaries, and Institutes. Then there’s a number of secondary and primary schools that the church operates worldwide. Those are all the CES effectively. Seminaries and Institutes, which was referred to as CES is one branch. Part of the reason for that is what happens in the earlier 20th century really repeats itself again in the second half of the 20th century.
David O. McKay is the school man. He’s the principal of Weber State Academy and when he becomes president of the church in the 1950s, he launches international school systems. There’s over 45 secondary and primary schools in Mexico, for instance. There’s a system of at least, we think, 13 schools operated in Chile. Then there’s this massive school system that starts up in the Pacific in places like, Tonga, Samoa —
Stephanie Sorensen: This is back to the academy concept —
Casey Paul Griffiths: This is back to the academy model. There’s pretty clear evidence from the McKay papers that are available and abundant to us, that President McKay didn’t not like Seminaries and Institutes, but he was a fan of the whole Brigham Young quote, “Don’t even teach them the multiplication tables without the spirit of God.” He just thought it was a pedagogical fallacy that you could separate religion from everything else. The best thing to do was to be able to stop at the middle of your English class and say, “Guys, here’s my testimony.” Like we do at BYU.
That is incredibly expensive, and it raises the question of, we’ve got all these schools in Mexico, what about Guatemala? What about Brazil? Are we going to build a BYU in Europe? Are we going to build a BYU in Korea? That idea starts to lose steam in the late 1960s when President McKay starts to become less vital. It’s not a coup necessarily, it’s just that President McKay had been operating by feel basically. They come and say, “These poor children in Mexico, they need schools.” “Okay, let’s build the school system.”
In 1966, the church board of education commission a man named J. Elliott Cameron to do a study of worldwide education leads. This study is locked away in the deep dark freezer of the Church History Library. I’ve seen it. It’s about 3,000 pages long. They asked him to contact almost every ecclesiastical leader around the globe and find out what their educational needs were and then make several recommendations. His recommendations basically were, “On a planetary scale we cannot afford to provide secular education for everybody.” They make the same decision that they made in 1920, which is we can’t build schools for everybody. We are going to provide everybody with religious education.
Stephanie Sorensen: Again, the supplementary model.
Casey Paul Griffiths: The supplementary model becomes dominant. Starting in 1968, the first CES employee, S&I employee, John Madsen sent to England to launch early morning seminaries there. Over the next 10 years, almost every country where the church is at follows the system where basically an American teacher was sent out given three years to set up the system, get the local stake presidents on board with it, train a replacement, and come home. The person that really takes over for this and is responsible for it is Elder Maxwell. Elder Maxwell becomes church commissioner of education in 1970. After David O. McKay dies, you can see a major restructuring. Harold B. Lee’s fingerprints are all over this. Where President Lee basically says, “We’re going to do what only we can do, and that’s provide religious education.”
Seminaries and Institutes are set up around the globe, and there is a global superstructure there that exists and has since the 1970s. Since the 1970s, the church has followed a basic rule that if a country can provide sufficient secular education we do not build schools. We build Seminaries and Institutes. What’s interesting and what’s happening right now is that the Pathways program, which is started to be emphasized under Kim B. Clark, who’s the commissioner of education right now, is taking that global model and saying, “Well, what if we put in some vocational training on top of it?” I think it’s safe to say that Seminary enrollment is part of the church, right? Every kid in the church that’s active —
Stephanie Sorensen: — is encouraged to participate in Seminary.
Casey Paul Griffiths: Goes to Seminary, but Institute isn’t that way. Institute enrollment, and I can’t quote exact figures here, is relatively low even in places like Utah. I think part of what Pathways is saying is maybe the reason why Institutes enrollment is low is because there are no parents there to encourage them to go and —
Stephanie Sorensen: It’s not integrated into their academic programs.
Casey Paul Griffiths: It’s difficult to take a college student who’s really busy and say, “Can you take an hour out to go do a class? You’re not going to get any credit for it, but it’ll help you be a better person.” A lot of people respond to that, but I think Pathways is saying, “Hey, let’s give them some vocational training. Let’s help them temporally while we’re helping them spiritually.” Pathways is basically being built over the superstructure the Seminaries and Institutes has already set up. Most Pathway classes take place in an Institute, with a cohort of students that come and take a class in secular training in bookkeeping or accounting and then take a religion class.
It’s a way to motivate students to attend Institute, which is a really good thing. I mean, I’ve seen several studies, and this is when I was writing my dissertation, I had access to some of the administrators up at the church that if a student goes to Institute and graduates from Institute, the outcomes when it comes to activity in the church, participation in the church, are basically the same as if they went to a BYU. If we can get a kid to go to Institute and graduate from Institute, we’re doing the same thing as a BYU grad, but we don’t have to teach them all the other subjects.
Stephanie Sorensen: There’s something powerful about integration of the secular, spiritual education.
Casey Paul Griffiths: Right. Not only that, we could do all of this online, but there’s something to be said about having a cohort. About building a group of people, creating a gathering place effectively that helps them be involved.
Stephanie Sorensen: Let me ask you a little more about that because I did not understand that about the Pathways program. I thought that it would be primarily an internet, online-type learning experience, but you’re saying that they actually create groups where they meet together and have brick and mortar vocational training available to them.
Casey Paul Griffiths: Because that’s what everybody says about Pathways is how is this different from online learning? Pathways is intended to create a cohort where either they meet together and receive instructional training over the internet or they meet in a student led discussion group. Back in December, I went to Tonga. I was visiting the schools there as part of a research project I’m part of. One of the ladies that I interviewed had already taken Religion 200, which is a brand new class we’re teaching here at BYU, as a cohort. She was like, “Oh, yeah. We just discussed this last night.” In fact, it was weird because she showed me her house, and she’s basically living in a cement shack. She was like, “Oh, can I get your PowerPoint presentations? I want to use them.”
At the schools, there’s computers and internet access, even though we’re on ‘Eua, which is one of the least developed islands in the Kingdom of Tonga. It was all there. All the things that I had access to, she had access to, effectively over the internet, because one of the weird phenomenon of globalization is that even if we haven’t gotten everybody clean water, almost every place on the globe has internet access.
Stephanie Sorensen: Right, or cell phones.
Casey Paul Griffiths: I’d go to Tonga, and I’d see people that live in sheds by the beach, but they had a cell phone. That’s great. It’s a window for us to provide education for everybody, but you know that a cell phone in and of itself is inert. It can be a good thing or a bad thing. If we put somebody in a cohort of people that have similar beliefs —
Stephanie Sorensen: We can leverage those tools.
Casey Paul Griffiths: Yeah, we can create an environment where they’re more likely to be spurred onto church activity. We’ve always used education as leverage to transfer culturally our ideals to people. This is us taking advantage of the internet to provide the best training to these areas because in a place like Tonga that’s always been an issue. We want to have qualified teachers there, but every time we pulled the teacher out of Tonga and brought them to the states, they wanted to stay in the states. It’s hard to get them to go back to where they were because of limited education and opportunities there. This allows us to basically beam effective education into their homes and raise them without having to pull them out of that environment where we need them right now to build the church.
Stephanie Sorensen: Is there any evidence that this international outreach of religious education whether it be Pathways or through Seminaries and Institutes has had the same affect internationally as those studies you saw about the religiosity and then the success of those students as well?
Casey Paul Griffiths: That’s interesting because the study that I saw tracked students from the 1940s into the 1990s. It wasn’t just a, “Hey, how they doing five years after graduation?” It was 50 years after graduation. On the international scene it might take a couple more decades before we get those —
Stephanie Sorensen: Kinds of numbers —
Casey Paul Griffiths: Kinds of feelings and ideas. I’ll give you an example. In Kiribati, in the 1970s, we had zero members of the church. There’s a need for education there, so the church goes over its policy and says, “We’ll build the school here.”
Stephanie Sorensen: Where is this?
Casey Paul Griffiths: This is Kiribati, which is the Gilbert Islands in the, it’s basically, the only school the church has established in the last 40 years or so. They established a school in Kiribati called Liahona High School. Today one out of ten people in that country are Latter-day Saints. I’m not talking small numbers here, this is a country of around 100,000–150,000 people. That school, because it provided quality education and allowed a central gathering place. I interviewed the guy that’s the principal of the school, Iotua Tune is his name. He’s been a stake president. He’s been a bishop multiple times. He’s –
Stephanie Sorensen: Local.
Casey Paul Griffiths: He’s local, right? The local leadership in places like that is drawn from the educational core.
Stephanie Sorensen: As individuals of the church that are eager to learn or serve in callings or as parents who want to instruct children and families in the gospel, how can individuals and families best take advantage of what the church education system has to offer?
Casey Paul Griffiths: That’s a good question. I think everybody knows that it’s a vital investment in your kids to get them to Seminary and especially Institute when they go to college. Parents are the biggest lever we have when it comes to leveraging students to get involved in those things that will help them build abiding faith and testimony.
Stephanie Sorensen: What the research has shown will increase their lifelong religiosity by participating in these programs —
Casey Paul Griffiths: Yeah, we’re a church that’s not afraid of education. Education helps us, in fact, there’s a study published in the Deseret News from Pew that Mormons tend to be more religious the more educated they are. What we’re concerned about is that it is true a person can educate themselves right out of the church. We also mix this idea that religion shouldn’t just become a secular subject, another secular subject that we study. I wrestle with that, too. I go to my congregation, my ward, on Sundays, and the discourse isn’t what I hear at the Mormon History Association. It’s not as intellectually stimulating, but can I sit back and say, “You know what? I might not be talking about the type of academic esoterica that I like to talk about, but this is grassroots Mormonism. This is people changing their lives.”
I hope that’s one thing that parents communicate to people, that the gospel is a fascinating course of study. But we always have to recognize that it’s not just something that we study. It’s something that we live. Learn as much as you can, but don’t let that learning give you a sense of superiority that says, “Well, because I have a higher degree than my stake president or my bishop I am, therefore, a better Mormon than they are.”
The gospel always has been about our acts and our application of it. I’ve met people that know every bit of obscure history about the Restoration, but don’t really live the gospel and become disillusioned with Mormonism because of it. I hope that those two things with our students go hand-in-hand. That we make them really smart, really well educated Latter-day Saints that know all the controversies that can destroy a person’s faith, but that they also recognize that what really destroys a person’s faith is not living it. “If any man will do His will,” Jesus would say, “He shall know of the doctrine.” It’s one thing to know the doctrine, but it’s another thing to live the doctrine and be like Christ. I hope that education never loses sight of that.
Stephanie Sorensen: Excellent. I think we’ll wrap up there. We’ll finish with this quote from President Uchtdorf who said, “For members of the church, education is not merely a good idea, it’s a commandment.” Thank you very much for helping us today to better understand some of the resources that the church has available to help us in this quest for spiritual education. Thank you Casey Griffiths for being with us today on LDS Perspectives.
Casey Paul Griffiths: Thanks, Stephanie.
Disclaimer: LDS Perspectives Podcast is not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The opinions expressed on this episode represent the views of the guests and the podcaster alone, and LDS Perspectives Podcast and its parent organization may or may not agree with them. While the ideas presented may vary from traditional understandings or teachings, they in no way reflect criticism of LDS Church leaders, policies, or practices.