The Cyclical Nature of BYU’s Religious Education

A guest post from Mrs. Silence Dogood

One of the most interesting books on Mormon history to appear in the last year was Thomas Simpson’s American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism (University of North Carolina Press). You can read reviews of the book here, here, here, and here, as well as interviews here and here. As a summary, Simpson argues that the Mormon tradition’s awkward, uneven, but relentless interaction with higher education drove much of the Americanization process during the Church’s transition period between 1870 and 1940. Young Latter-day Saints traveled to Harvard, Michigan, Johns Hopkins, and Chicago to receive a secular education and better integrate into their surrounding society. Yet the process was complex and brought unintended consequences, especially at home. Most poignantly, not everyone in Utah, especially at the leadership levels, was excited about the new knowledge that graduates brought back with them. A resurgent populism and ever-present authoritarianism countered these modernist ideas and led to several significant clashes. This is an important narrative concerning the origins of the modern Mormon mind.

Much of the second half of the book concerns BYU, and in some ways it contains sobering lessons. Many of the beneficiaries of these higher education degrees were those who returned to Utah to teach at the Church’s flagship school. Having recognized the possibilities for new education, they were eager to train a younger generation of Mormon students. But not everyone was excited about this transition. LDS leaders who were more populist or authoritarian worried that the doctrinal foundations of the Church were being challenged. (Importantly, this was mirroring broader anxieties as American Protestants waged the so-called Fundamentalist/Modernist wars.) In many of these battles, the classrooms at Brigham Young University served as Ground Zero.

But what was so startling about this story is how cyclical it was. There were distinct moments of genuine optimism and valiant attempts to blend sacred and secular knowledge, followed by poignant periods of retrenchment and backlash. Most students of Mormonism are familiar with the 1911 controversy, where a few BYU faculty were fired for teaching evolution. For the decade prior to that, a small cadre of professors, trained at eastern universities, were eager to demonstrate that Darwin and the Bible were reconcilable. When their leaders decided otherwise, they were shown the door. But that reversal was not permanent. Within two decades there was yet another crew, including men like Vasco Tanner, teaching evolution without any problems.

Even if the 1910s featured a rolling back of the progressive developments of the previous decade, the 1920s and 1930s were some of the most open periods on record. Religious instructors gained degrees in biblical criticism, historical Christianity, and world religions at schools like the University of Chicago and returned to teach their students on topics like the documentary hypothesis, the beauties of eastern philosophies, and modernist theology. Glancing over the course list of what was taught during these decades raises two observations: first, how genuinely progressive religious education was at BYU at a moment of national fundamentalism; and second, how far BYU has come in rolling back those developments since then. It would be impossible to imagine several of those topics that were taught, without controversy, in the 1930s appearing in BYU religion classrooms today.

That rollback was due to two things. First, church leadership, led by J. Reuben Clark and his (in)famous “Charted Course of the Church in Education,” definitively established a more populist and fundamentalist approach to religious pedagogy. And second, a generation of LDS scholars split into two camps: those who refused to prioritize ecclesiastical interpretations over secular learning (who fled BYU and never returned), and those willing to frame education within the parameters provided by their Church leaders (who became the leading figures in BYU’s religion department). After 1950, the liberalism of the past generation was wiped away.

There are at least a few lessons from this tale that are worth emphasizing. The first is a bit depressing: in many ways, BYU religious education in the second half of the twentieth century was more regressive, parochial, and fundamentalist than that of the first. This should challenge any simplistic narratives of slow and steady progress. Things don’t become incrementally better, even in the two-steps-forward-one-step-back variety, but rather cycle through various stages, often repeating what had already happened decades before. There is no definite assurance that things will improve.

The second lesson concerns how change can happen. If traditional teleologies of progress are to be eschewed, what introduces advancement? Sadly, it seems like it all comes down to personalities and those in charge. As demonstrated throughout the twentieth century, particular individuals in the right positions can make change happen overnight, even if their changes can be overturned by an equally determined person with an alternate mindset. But more than that, in each episode of progress, there was a host of LDS educators committed to reform who took advantage of changing circumstances. That is, in this war for the Modern mind, we need both generals and soldiers.

At what point in this cycle is BYU’s Religious Education currently experiencing? Only time can tell. On the one hand, there might never have been such a smart and impressive group of scholars than that is now filling the Joseph Smith Building offices. On the other, their hands are constrained by those in authority. In recent years, as part of a retrenchment against so much (positive) change over the last decade, there has been an increased call for “conversion” over “context”—a rejection of much of the modern academy. Word is leaking out of BYU that leaders are worried that their new hires might be too attached to their secular education. Fearing that the boundary between Mormonism and the world is becoming too porous, many are calling for a wall.

In other words, history might be repeating itself.

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