Benjamin E. Park: How a 1938 speech continues to shape Latter-day Saint education

The linking of two “Clarks” — From J. Reuben Clark to Clark Gilbert, BYU and other church schools seek to put faith first amid culture wars.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Former member of the First Presidency J. Reuben Clark, left, and Clark Gilbert, church commissioner of education.

In early 2023, Brigham Young University published a compilation of “landmark” addresses that “shed revelatory light on the divine role of this institution.” Copies of “Envisioning BYU” were supplied to every faculty member. It may even serve as a textbook for a new required course for all incoming students.

One of the core speeches is “The Charted Course of the Church in Education,” delivered by J. Reuben Clark in 1938. It was the product of trenchant intellectual battles that roiled American society between the two world wars. Yet despite its connection to a particular historical moment, this speech has done more to influence The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ approach to higher education than any other.

College campuses have always been key battlegrounds for fights over identity politics. Yet the flagship Latter-day Saint university exhibits a revealing example of an institution tethered to two unyielding contexts: the fundamentalist commitments that were “charted” during the culture wars of the 1930s and the present disputes over secular and spiritual missions that engulf America today.

An intellectual trajectory

As the Mormon tradition slowly moved toward cultural assimilation in the 20th century, many took advantage of the community’s new spirit of openness. A generation of intellectuals, including some apostles, were eager to prove that believers could balance sincere faith with the latest academic developments like evolution.

It was in this climate of ideological experimentation that Franklin Harris became president of BYU in 1921. Harris was the first individual with a doctorate, not to mention the first nonpolygamist, to head the faith’s flagship school. He immediately set to modernize its curriculum, hire professors with advanced degrees and emphasize intellectual openness.

Reformers within the church hierarchy were simultaneously envisioning other ways to reach university-age students. They established “institutes” at state-run colleges across the Mountain West where Mormon students could learn more about their faith with academic rigor. The church’s commissioner of education expressed a wish to place “scholarly books dealing with historical and literary analysis of the Bible” in institute libraries throughout the nation.

To staff BYU and these rapidly multiplying institutes, church leaders introduced a program in which they sent their best and brightest educators-in-training to the University of Chicago, then the academic hub for modernist scholarship. Several of Chicago’s professors were also invited to speak to summer gatherings for Latter-day Saint teachers held in a scenic campground in the Wasatch Mountains.

Some worried the reforms went too far. Parents wrote letters complaining that professors taught secular heresies. After hearing one Chicago-trained teacher lecture on a humanistic interpretation of the Bible, Joseph Fielding Smith, a dogmatic apostle, declared that if such views “become dominant in the church, then we may just as well close up shop and say to the world that Mormonism is a failure.”

Smith was right to be concerned that Latter-day Saint youths were changing course. A 1935 survey at BYU captured a generation of Latter-day Saints evolving from pioneer principles. Some 64% believed humankind’s creation involved biological evolution, for instance, and only a quarter prioritized revelatory authority.

Though such a sentiment may sound absurd today, Latter-day Saints seemed poised in the 1930s to follow an intellectual trajectory more in line with progressive faiths. Yet such a cultural course, always tenuous, soon hit an immovable roadblock.

A clear course for religious instruction

J. Reuben Clark, born in 1871, had devoted more of his adult life to Republican politics than to the church. After exhausting all local avenues for education, he attended Columbia Law School and became a solicitor for the federal government in 1910. He eventually was appointed ambassador to Mexico, making him one of the most prominent Latter-day Saints in American politics. Then, despite never holding a position in church leadership, Clark was called to the faith’s governing First Presidency in 1933.

The brilliant organizer known for his ability to bend others to his will immediately sought to modernize the church according to his conservative principles. Nearly every facet of the faith was molded to meet his standards over the next three decades. He, perhaps more than nearly anyone else, was responsible for helping inaugurate cultural shifts within the Latter-day Saint community, including pushing scores of members toward the Republican Party as well as reaffirming traditional domestic roles for women.

But it was in education where Clark’s impact was immediately felt. Though possessing an elite education himself, he was skeptical of intellectuals who lacked conservative priorities. “I have come to deplore the fact that some of our ‘literati,’ as I call them,” he explained, “do not spend more time on the gospel as revealed, and less on the pagan philosophy of ancient times and the near-pagan philosophy of modern times.” Church leaders soon turned a skeptical eye to the same BYU professors to whom they had previously granted wide latitude.

Speaking at the same summer gathering for Latter-day Saint educators that had taught modernist principles for over a decade, Clark delivered his “Charted Course” address in August 1938. He denounced the “newest fangled ideas” that failed to mesh with divine truths, no matter how “backward” traditional doctrines appeared. Latter-day Saint teachers, he urged, must embrace the “essential fundamentals” of the gospel. Any instructor not willing to pledge allegiance to these principles did not have a place in church education.

The discourse was immediately published with official church endorsement. Joseph Fielding Smith, the apostle who had previously complained about modernism among church educators, told Clark that he had “been hoping and praying for a long time for something of this kind to happen.”

Clark and Smith were drawing from a much larger conservative movement across the nation as fundamentalist evangelicals used similar language to push back against the onslaught of modernist reforms.

Latter-day Saint leaders proceeded to restructure BYU’s administrative board and reoriented its religion curriculum. The school should “give up indoctrinating themselves in the sectarianism of the modern ‘Divinity School Theology,’” Clark told Franklin Harris. Feeling the squeeze, Harris soon left BYU for a state university. The institute programs also switched directions and instead of featuring “scholarly books,” emphasized what Clark considered “fundamental” doctrines.

The course for Latter-day Saint religious instruction was now clear.

Standing strong in ‘spiritual moorings’

“The Charted Course of the Church in Education” remained a quasi-canonical work for Latter-day Saint religion instructors ever since. But the argument to reject secular truths in favor of divine fundamentals has adopted new resonance in today’s culture wars. Church authorities have become increasingly frustrated with BYU faculty who have been reluctant to defend “traditional” values. Rather than threats of evolution or biblical criticism, however, the new challenges primarily concern gender and the family.

The current church commissioner of education, Clark Gilbert, has been especially vocal about BYU maintaining a divine mission in the face of a perceived secular war. He declared that the institution would not follow other academies in moving away from their “spiritual moorings,” even if it cost academic standing.

Under Gilbert’s watch, the church’s education system has implemented a series of safeguards against the same threats Clark decried in his 1938 address. Existing faculty were expected to “opt in” to policies that formalized and tightened the ecclesiastical approval process necessary to keep their job. A new “Ecclesiastical Clearance Office” was created to oversee faculty compliance with fundamental doctrines. And a growing number of faculty and prospective hires have seen their contracts rescinded due to perceived violations of unclear guidelines.

This direction is a far cry from the BYU that Franklin Harris envisioned a century ago, but it is in step with the course J. Reuben Clark had charted. Produced in the heat of a previous culture war, Clark’s clarion call for an exceptionalist and fundamentalist institution is given renewed life in today’s culture clash.

The enduring legacy of Clark’s speech is a reminder of how contemporary concerns often shape religious development, even if those very traditions lay claim to unchanging fundamentals.

(Photo by Mike Hoogterp) Benjamin Park is also the author of "Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier."

Benjamin E. Park teaches American history at Sam Houston State University. His latest book is “American Zion: A New History of Mormonism” (Liveright).

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