From its beginning the Church has emphasized the importance of spiritual and secular education for its members (D&C 88:76-80, 118; 90:15; 93:36, 53). For early leaders, true education was learning those principles that would be valuable in this life and the next. Joseph Smith stated, “Knowledge saves a man, and in the world of spirits, a man cannot be exalted but by knowledge” (Smith, 357). Brigham Young added, “I shall not cease learning while I live, nor when I arrive in the spirit-world; but shall there learn with greater facility; and when I again receive my body, I shall learn a thousand times more in a thousand times less time” (JD, 8:10). The ideology espoused by Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and their successors maintained it was a person’s religious duty to gain knowledge.
The Church not only stressed the importance of education but also put its educational ideals into practice. The School of the Prophets, established in 1833, was one of the earliest programs for adult education in the United States. Many Latter-day Saints embraced American educational ideals, including the concept that schools were a place for the moral, intellectual, and social development of children. As the Saints moved from Ohio to Missouri, and then to Illinois, they founded schools for their children. In addition, when the Nauvoo Charter was written in 1840, it included the establishment of a university.
When the pioneers arrived in Utah, they immediately began to build community schools. In 1850 the territorial legislature established the University of Deseret, one of the first universities west of the Mississippi. During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the Church also founded dozens of stake academies, which taught traditional subjects along with Mormon values. In 1888 a general Church board of education was instituted under the supervision of President Wilford Woodruff to direct the growing Church school system. From 1890 to 1930 the Church also sponsored children’s religion classes, held in ward meetinghouses.
During the first decades of the twentieth century, as more Latter-day Saints had the opportunity to attend public schools, it became evident that the Church could not financially support the more than 30 stake academies that stretched from settlements in Canada to Mexico. Therefore, in 1920 the Church’s board of education recommended that most academies be closed. At this time the Church began to head in a different educational direction. The few academies that were retained became junior colleges, such as Ricks College (later BYU-Idaho) in Rexburg, Idaho, and the Brigham Young Academy in Provo, Utah; the latter eventually became a full-fledged university. For secondary students, the Church would now supply religious education while the public school system would provide the secular.
In 1912 the first seminary was established, adjacent to Granite High School in Salt Lake City. Other seminaries were subsequently instituted to provide religious instruction for Latter-day Saint youth. Some school districts were willing to release students for one hour during the school day to participate in religious instruction. Other students attended classes in the early morning hours before school, and still others received instruction on a home-study basis. Beginning in 1926 at the University of Idaho, institutes of religion were built next to campuses where students attend non-Latter- day-Saint colleges and universities. These programs are designed to help Latter-day Saint youth develop a greater understanding and testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ while they pursue their secular education.
In 1998 the Church Educational System was composed of seminaries and institutes in more than 90 countries. The Church also operated Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah; Brigham Young University- Hawaii Campus, in Laie, Hawaii; Ricks College (later BYU-Idaho) in Rexburg, Idaho; and LDS Business College in Salt Lake City, Utah. Additionally, the Church offered adult and continuing education programs, as well as a few elementary and secondary schools in countries where public education was not provided for Latter-day Saint youth.
Latter-day Saints are taught at an early age the importance of reading the standard works and that “the glory of God is intelligence” (D&C 93:36). Leaders of the Church encourage members to acquire the highest possible level of education, and consequently the Saints often have more schooling than their peers. As the Church spreads throughout the world, its educational emphasis and activities continue to enrich the lives of its members.
Bennion, Milton Lynn. Mormonism and Education. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1939.
Buchanan, Frederick S. “Education among the Mormons: Brigham Young and the Schools of Utah.” History of Education Quarterly 22 (Winter 1982): 435-59.
Journal of Discourses [JD]. 26 vols. London: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1854-86. Vol. 8.
Monnett, John Daniel. “The Mormon Church and Its Private School System in Utah: The Emergence of the Academies, 1880-1892.” Ph.D. diss., University of Utah, 1984.
Smith, Joseph. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Selected by Joseph Fielding Smith. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1970. 357.
MARY JANE WOODGER