"For the word of the Lord is truth, and whatsoever is truth is light..."

Attitudes Toward Education

by David P. Gardner

Beginning with Joseph Smith, all Church leaders have encouraged education. This Pioneer Day float in the 1950s celebrates the first school in Utah, which opened with nine pupils on October 17, 1847, three months after the pioneers arrived in Salt Lake Valley. Photographer: Albert Wilkes. Courtesy Nelson Wadsworth.

The Articles of Faith underscore the deep and fundamental role that knowledge plays in the teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: "If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things" (A of F 13). Speaking of the LDS commitment to learning and education, M. Lynn Bennion wrote: "It is doubtful if there is an organization in existence that more completely directs the educational development of its people than does the Mormon Church. The educational program of the Church today is a consistent expansion of the theories promulgated by its founders" (Bennion, p. 2).

The educational ideas and practices of the Church grew directly out of certain revelations received by Joseph Smith that emphasize the eternal nature of knowledge and the vital role learning plays in the spiritual, moral, and intellectual development of mankind. For example: "It is impossible for a man to be saved in ignorance" (D&C 131:6) of his eternal nature and role. "The glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth" (D&C 93:36). "Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection. And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come" (D&C 130:18-19). "Knowledge saves a man, and in the world of spirits a man cannot be exalted but by knowledge" (TPJS, p. 357). An often-quoted statement from the Book of Mormon reads: "To be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God" (2 Ne. 9:29). In June 1831 Joseph Smith received a revelation concerning "selecting and writing books for schools in this church" (D&C 55:4), and another on December 27, 1832, establishing the broad missions of education in the Church:

And I give unto you a commandment that you shall teach one another the doctrine of the kingdom. Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand; of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms—that ye may be prepared in all things [D&C 88:77-80].

The Church has been built on the conviction that eternal progress depends upon righteous living and growth in knowledge, religious and secular. "Indeed, the necessity of learning is probably the most frequently-repeated theme of modern-day revelations" (L. Arrington, "The Founding of the L.D.S. Institutes of Religion," Dialogue 2 [Summer 1967]:137).

Joseph Smith and many of the early Mormon pioneers came from a New England Puritan background, with its reverence for knowledge and learning (Salisbury, p. 258). The LDS outlook assumes the perfectibility of man and his ability to progress to ever-higher moral, spiritual, and intellectual levels. In this philosophy, moreover, knowledge of every kind is useful in man's attempt to realize himself in this world and the next. "It is the application of knowledge for the spiritual welfare of man that constitutes the Mormon ideal of education" (Bennion, p. 125). The early leaders of the Church, therefore, saw little ultimate division between correct secular and religious learning. Broad in scope and spiritual in intent, LDS educational philosophy tends to fuse the secular with the religious because, in the LDS context, the two are part of one seamless web (Bennion, pp. 120-23).

In 1833, Joseph Smith founded the Church's first educational effort, the School of the Prophets, in Kirtland, Ohio. That school was devoted to the study of history, political science, languages (including Hebrew), literature, and theology. Its main purpose was to prepare Church leaders to magnify their callings as missionaries to warn all people and testify of the gospel (D&C 88:80-81). It also set an example of adult learning that was followed "in Missouri, Illinois, and Utah, where parents joined their children in the pursuit of knowledge" (Bennion, p. 10).

In 1840, Joseph Smith sought the incorporation of the City of Nauvoo, Illinois, and along with it authority to establish a university. The Nauvoo charter included authority to "establish and organize an institution of learning within the limits of the city, for the teaching of the arts, sciences and learned professions, to be called the "University of the City of Nauvoo"' (quoted in Salisbury, p. 269).

The first academic year in Nauvoo was that of 1841-42. The university probably was among the first municipal universities in the United States (Rich, p. 10); it was certainly an optimistic and ambitious undertaking. The curriculum included languages (German, French, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew), mathematics, chemistry and geology, literature, and history; but "the data are too scant to reveal the scholastic rating of the instruction given. It was probably superior to the average secondary work of the time. The faculty represented considerable scholarship and indeed was a rather remarkable group to be found in a frontier city" (Bennion, p. 25).

The murder of Joseph Smith in 1844 abruptly ended the dream of the University of the City of Nauvoo and set in motion the difficult journey to the Great Basin. Despite the hardships, education was not forgotten. Brigham Young instructed the migrating Saints to bring with them

at least a copy of every valuable treatise on education—every book, map, chart, or diagram that may contain interesting, useful, and attractive matter, to gain the attention of children, and cause them to love to learn to read; and, also every historical, mathematical, philosophical, geographical, geological, astronomical, scientific, practical, and all other variety of useful and interesting writings, maps, etc., to present to the General Church Recorder, when they shall arrive at their destination, from which important and interesting matter may be gleaned to compile the most valuable works, on every science and subject, for the benefit of the rising generation [MS 10 (1848):85].

The charter of the University of the City of Nauvoo served as the foundation for the university of Deseret (now the University of Utah), established by Brigham Young in Salt Lake City in 1850. "Education," he once told this school's Board of Regents, "is the power to think clearly, the power to act well in the world's work, and the power to appreciate life" (Bennion, p. 115). He advised: "A good school teacher is one of the most essential members in society" (JD 10:225).

In 1851 the territorial legislature granted a charter providing for "establishment and regulation of schools" (Bennion, p. 40), but for some years the struggle for survival eclipsed the effort to establish a formal system of education. Utah's first schools were private, paid for by parents or by adult students, and classes took place during either the day or the evening, depending on local needs, interests, and resources (Rich, pp. 13, 17-18). Attendance rose and fell with the seasons and the demands of an agricultural society in which human labor was scarce and precious. Curricula varied as well, often depending on the academic strengths or interests of the teacher; some schools offered traditional subjects, others more practical pursuits such as carpentry or masonry. The existence of these frontier schools was always precarious and their operation intermittent (Rich, p. 18), but they were an eloquent and often moving testimony to the commitment of early Mormon pioneers to education, demanding as they did considerable sacrifice of scarce time and resources.

Brigham Young's philosophy of education was practical and pragmatic, but he was not opposed, as has sometimes been assumed, to liberal education; he simply felt it was overstressed in the educational environment of his day (Bennion, p. 107). "Will education feed and clothe you, keep you warm on a cold day, or enable you to build a house? Not at all. Should we cry down education on this account? No. What is it for? The improvement of the mind; to instruct us in all arts and sciences, in the history of the world, in the laws of nations; to enable us to understand the laws and principles of life, and how to be useful while we live" (JD 14:83). He believed that "every art and science known and studied by the children of men is comprised within the Gospel" (JD 12:257).

President Young's educational philosophy was further enhanced by Karl G. Maeser, a German educator who joined the Church and immigrated to Salt Lake City in 1860. In 1876 Brigham Young appointed Maeser the principal of the Brigham Young Academy in Provo (see Academies). "The development of the Academy movement and the direction of Church policies in education were largely determined by this German educator" (Bennion, p. 117). His approach to education included a belief that "knowledge should be supported by corresponding moral qualities. The formation of character depends upon the nature of the moral training which accompanies intellectual advancement" (Maeser, p. 43). He maintained that religion was "the fundamental principle of education" and was its "most effective motive power" (Maeser, p. 56). His influential and widely circulated syllabus, School and Fireside (1898), clearly identified the critical functions of education as preparing people for practical life in the family and in the nation and inculcating fundamental principles of spiritual development.

In the early pioneer days, most schools in Utah Territory were LDS Church schools, and religion was an integral part of the curriculum. With the increasing diversification of Utah's population and the passage of the Edmunds-Tucker Act in 1887, which had the effect of prohibiting the teaching of religion in public schools, the Church looked for other means of assuring spiritual instruction for its young people. Between 1890 and 1929, the Church sponsored special religion classes conducted in ward meetinghouses for children in the first to the ninth grades in a movement that was "the first effort of the Mormons to supplement (but not to replace) secular education"; it was "America's first experiment in providing separate weekday religious training for public school children" (Quinn, p. 379).

This endeavor grew into the Church Educational System, which consists of several levels. First is seminary, a daily religious education program held in a seminary building near the school for grades nine through twelve that provides for the study of the Book of Mormon, Old Testament, New Testament, and Doctrine and Covenants/Church History. Second, institutes of religion adjacent to campuses serve students enrolled in postsecondary programs by offering religion classes, usually scheduled twice a week to fit in with college schedules. Third, the Church sponsors four institutions of higher education: Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah; Brigham Young university—Hawaii in Laie, Hawaii; Ricks College in Rexburg, Idaho; and LDS business college in Salt Lake City. In addition, in Mexico and the Pacific, the Church sponsors seven elementary schools, thirteen middle schools, and nine secondary schools that provide both secular and religious training.

In 1988-1989, the Church's educational system extended to 90 countries or territories and served about 250,000 seminary students, 124,500 institute students, 37,600 students in Church colleges and universities, and 9,300 students in other Church schools. The system employs over 4,100 full- and part-time employees, in addition to 15,000 members who are called to teach in the seminary and institute programs.

In sum, the attitude of the Church toward education is unusual in several respects. First, the Church is distinctive in the degree to which its members, child and adult alike, participate in the many educational activities of the Church: "As a people we believe in education—the gathering of knowledge and the training of the mind. The Church itself is really an educational institution. Traditionally, we are an education-loving people" (Widtsoe, 1944, p. 666). Second, its commitment is to education as an essential component of religious life: "Every life coheres around certain fundamental core ideas…. The fact that [God] has promised further revelation is to me a challenge to keep an open mind and be prepared to follow wherever my search for truth may lead" (Brown, 1969, p. 11). Third, it holds a deep conviction that knowledge has an eternal dimension because it advances man's agency and progress here and in the world to come: "Both creative science and revealed religion find their fullest and truest expression in the climate of freedom…. Be unafraid of new ideas for they are as steppingstones to progress. You will, of course, respect the opinions of others but be unafraid to dissent—if you are informed" (Brown, 1958, p. 2-3). Fourth, it is insistent that secular and spiritual learning are not at odds but in harmony with each other: Latter-day Saints do not emphasize "the spiritual education of man to the neglect of his intellectual and physical education…. It is not a case of esteeming intellectual and physical education less, but of esteeming spiritual education more" (Roberts, pp. 122-23). "Secular knowledge is to be desired" as a tool in the hands of the righteous, but "spiritual knowledge is a necessity" (S. Kimball, Faith Precedes the Miracle, p. 280).

(See Daily Living home page; Education and Work home page)


Karl G. Maeser (1828-1901), a German educator who joined the LDS Church and moved to Utah in 1860, was appointed the second principal of Brigham Young Academy, later Brigham Young University, in 1876.

A Church-sponsored school, the Mapusaga High School, American Samoa, 10th and 11th grades, 1961-1962.


Bennion, Milton Lynn. Mormonism and Education. Salt Lake City, 1939.

Brown, Hugh B. "An Eternal Quest—Freedom of the Mind." BYU Speeches of the Year, May 13, 1969.

Brown, Hugh B. "What Is Man and What He may Become." BYU Speeches of the Year, March 25, 1958.

Clark, J. Reuben, Jr. "The Charted Course of the Church in Education." Provo, Utah, 1936.

Clark, Marden J. "On the Mormon Commitment to Education." Dialogue 7 (Winter 1972):11-19.

Gardner, David P., and Jeffrey R. Holland. "Education in Zion: Intellectual Inquiry and Revealed Truth." Sunstone 6 (Jan.-Feb. 1981):59-61.

Kimball, Spencer W. "Second Century Address." BYU Studies 16 (Summer 1976):445-57.

Maeser, Karl G. School and Fireside. Utah, 1898.

Nibley, Hugh W. "Educating the Saints," and "Zeal without Knowledge." In Nibley on the Timely and the Timeless, ed. T. Madsen, pp. 229-77. Provo, Utah, 1978.

Quinn, D. Michael. "Utah's Educational Innovation: LDS Religion Classes, 1890-1929." Utah Historical Quarterly 43 (1975):379-89.

Rich, Wendell O. Distinctive Teachings of the Restoration, pp. 7-34, 161-88. Salt Lake City, 1962.

Roberts, B. H. "The Mormon Point of View in Education." IE 2 (Dec. 1898):119-26.

Salisbury, H. S. "History of Education in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints." Journal of History 15 (July 1922):257-81.

Widtsoe, John A. "The Returning Soldier." IE 47 (Nov. 1944):666, 701-702.

Young, Brigham. Discourses of Brigham Young, comp. John A. Widtsoe, pp. 245-63. Salt Lake City, 1978.



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Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 1, Education, Attitudes Toward

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