American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism, with Thomas W. Simpson [MIPodcast #55]
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BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. As the twentieth century dawned, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was still at odds with the United States, a country that had provided fertile soil for the growth of their faith, but also a country they felt alienated from. Some of the things Mormons did to keep themselves separate from the outside world ended up helping them reconcile with it. In their efforts to build a self-sustaining Great Basin Kingdom, they sent missionaries back to the eastern US not to preach their restored gospel, per se, but to learn at universities, to advance in fields like law and medicine. In his new book, Thomas W. Simpson argues that American universities played a key role in making Latter-day Saints feel at home in America again. In this episode of the MIPodcast Simpson joins us to talk about his new book, American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism. It’s a story about the tensions that come along with being a people set apart, and a people trying to fit in. Questions and comments about this and other episodes can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please take a moment to rate or review the show in iTunes. I really appreciate hearing from people about what they like about the show.
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HODGES: Thomas W. Simpson joins me today here in Salt Lake City. Thanks for being on the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
THOMAS W. SIMPSON: Of course. Glad to be here.
HODGES: I want to begin by talking about two figures that play a prominent role in your new book: Romania Pratt and Hannah Sorensen. These are two Latter-day Saint women. And forgive me for starting off with a little bit of a mini-lecture, but I want to kind of set the stage a little bit, especially for listeners who aren’t familiar with Latter-day Saint history. So here’s a quick little thing to set the stage.
From the late 1840s, the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints migrated westward from the United States to what soon became the Utah Territory. Based on their distinctive religion and their experiences—wrangling with unfriendly neighbors and having issues—they began to establish this “Great Basin Kingdom” as it’s been called. And Brigham Young was the leader of the church and he had political and ecclesiastical oversight, and he spent a lot of time as the leader worrying about the relationship of Mormons to the United States. And so he hoped that they could in many ways become people sort of set apart. There’s a strong strain of separatism to the new Mormon colony, but at the same time there were still connections with the United States.
And so it became increasingly apparent that Mormons couldn’t do it out here on their own. They were going to need some outside help. And people were going to be coming through anyway, especially some of the help they needed were in things like law and medicine. So that kind of sets the stage. So let’s look at this fascinating figure in the book, Romania Pratt. Talk about her. Who is she?
SIMPSON: So Romania Pratt is one of the first Latter-day Saint women in the 1870s to be set apart by high-ranking church authorities to pursue higher education in medicine. So there’s a core group of women including another one I talked about at length in the book is Ellis Reynolds Shipp, and Martha Hughes Cannon. But there’s this first group of women that’s authorized by Brigham Young and set apart by the church to go pursue the medical degree most often at the Women’s Medical College of Philadelphia. So these women are traveling two thousand miles east to pursue the MD.
And what makes Romania Pratt really special in my mind is that she goes beyond what Brigham Young had articulated as a limited and pragmatic endorsement of medical training. Brigham Young basically wanted medical training for emergencies, but he was really careful about not wanting to undermine some of the divine principles of healing that are found in the Book of Mormon and other revelations to Joseph Smith. So there was always an ambivalence or a little bit of awareness about how far medical training should go for a devout Latter-day Saint.
HODGES: And medical science at the time was a bit shaky too. There were questions about Thomsonian medicine and that sort of thing. Did that play to Brigham Young’s calculus?
SIMPSON: Absolutely. And there was some suspicion—as you find often today—some suspicion that the medical profession might lead you astray and maybe you’re better off with home remedies. Or maybe you’re better off with the community’s wisdom about healing rather than consulting a doctor at every turn.
HODGES: Why women primarily for pursuing medical training?
SIMPSON: Oh, excellent question. Right. So there’s a real concern about Mormon women kind of suffering the indignity, in many ways, of having to turn to Gentile doctors all the time, especially male doctors.
HODGES: Latter-day Saints were called non-Mormons “Gentiles.”
SIMPSON: Right, exactly. Thank you. And so there’s a concern that there would be kind of a danger in some ways to female modesty or just an inability to rely on the community’s help and a trusted physician in a situation where women needed medical attention.
HODGES: We’re talking childbirth and stuff too as well, that kind of thing.
SIMPSON: Exactly. Obstetrics, yeah. Gynecology. And so the idea on Brigham Young’s part was that yeah, if trained Mormon women could attend to other Mormon women, that would be ideal.
So it’s interesting. I think there were some conservative assumptions about gender in play here and some progressive ones as well, right?
HODGES: Yeah. It’s an interesting mix. What are some general LDS attitudes toward women? Obviously, polygamy was happening at this time.
SIMPSON: Yes, yes. And I think what’s especially fascinating to me and one of the things that drew me into the project at first was looking at the 1870s and seeing a magazine like the Women’s Exponent. So in the Woman’s Exponent, you’ll find justifications or endorsements for polygamy. But you also find notices in this newspaper, this periodical, for Mormon women saying, “Look, the University of Michigan is opening its doors to women.” I think this happens in the second issue of the Woman’s Exponent in the early 1870s. They’re saying, “Look, the University of Michigan is open to women. Take advantage of this. This is something that’s to be celebrated.”
And so, in many ways, I would say a feminist magazine. It’s explicitly advocating the rights of women in Zion and throughout the world. I mean this is the kind of slogan of the Woman’s Exponent.
HODGES: It’s on the masthead or something—
SIMPSON: Exactly. It’s on the masthead. Yeah. And so they’re encouraging women to take advantage of these opportunities and Romania Pratt is at the center of that interest.
HODGES: One of the tensions that she is negotiating at the time is the relationship that you’ve kind of hinted at earlier between revelation and church governance, of ecclesiastical authority, and also then professional expertise.
HODGES: Talk about that element of her negotiation.
SIMPSON: Definitely, yeah. I think this is what’s most fascinating about her, because you see in the official blessing that she receives from the church, there is an ambivalence about saying “we’re encouraging you to pursue this training. We trust that it’s going to be of great benefit to our community. But we also add a prayer that people’s faith will not be crowded out by your expertise, your scientific expertise.”
So the authorities, in many ways, are trying to walk that tight rope. Romania Pratt, I think, is bolder and more confident in saying that her scientific training and expertise can absolutely be reconciled with Mormon faith. We see this in the book. Right after Brigham Young dies in 1877, just a few months later, she’s being endorsed by the Deseret News. They’re recommending that everybody seek out her aid for healthcare. And Romania Pratt is saying that if we’re not careful, if we’re too reliant on our own limited understandings of how healing happens, there’s a danger that we can become naive, and there’s a danger that just this limited knowledge is actually obsolete. It’s actually dangerous and it’s potentially lethal for Mormon women and for their children in childbirth. So she’s saying our limited understanding can actually be fatal and result in “the desolation of hearts and homes,” I think is a really powerful phrase that she uses.
HODGES: Yes. She’s fighting against this idea, this populism idea.
HODGES: The idea that sort of “every person can be a doctor” in essence.
SIMPSON: Or that every person has access to everything they need to know. And that “populism,” I use that as a theological term or a religious term from the 19th century. There’s an old classic book in U.S. religious history by Nathan Hatch. The Democratization of American Christianity where he talks about this kind of populism as really a dominant theological mode in the 19th century among egalitarian minded and democratizing minded Christian groups.
HODGES: There’s a sense of elitism. Like they’re these religious people with training and they’re elites.
HODGES: “Well, hey, we don’t need any of that—”
HODGES: “Like we have the Bible. We have simple faith.”
SIMPSON: Exactly. And you find that strain a little bit in the Book of Mormons and that distrust of the learned that they’re going to take advantage of you.
HODGES: Yeah, “to be learned is good if they—” Yeah.
HODGES: Exactly. Yeah. Or they’ll get prideful.
SIMPSON: Yes. Exactly. And so in this populist mode, really the untutored Joseph Smith has held up as a beautiful example of how people don’t need formal education to understand everything that they need to know about divine truth and divine healing. So you can understand why it would be a very strong strain in Mormonism, these populist strains.
And again, ordinary people know everything. God wouldn’t withhold essential knowledge from ordinary people, right? And so you can understand why it would be such an appealing idea. But Romania Pratt’s saying it’s dangerous to think that we know everything we need to know.
HODGES: Yeah. There’s this actual quote right here which you include. She wrote this in the Woman’s Exponent. “It is neither right nor safe for anyone with a smattering of knowledge picked up promiscuously to undertake the practice of medicine and go forth to hold the balance of life and death in their unskillful hands, too often unnecessarily resulting in the desolation of hearts and homes,” as you said.
And then she ties into this other Mormon strain. So there’s the Mormon strain of this populism, democratization, then this other Mormon strain of reason. She says, “Our reason, the greatest gift of God to man, was given to us for the cultivation of our life here on earth. It presents a series of opportunities, of transforming circumstances into eternal knowledge.” And she ties into this idea of progress, eternal progression.
SIMPSON: Exactly. These Mormon students, I think this generation of Mormon students, is so important because they’re some of the first ones to make this argument that you can take advantage of worldly education, secular education, outside expertise, and still be devoutly Mormon, right? And so I think Romania Pratt is making this crucial argument right after the death of Brigham Young that “no, this is consistent with Mormon belief and Mormon doctrine.”
And she’s getting that I think by saying “yeah, this is related to the idea of eternal progression.” This is related to the idea that “the glory of God is intelligence.” This is related to Article of Faith 13. This idea that all truth is from the same divine source and so there’s no danger. Ellis Reynolds Shipp says this earlier in the 1870s. She says, “There’s no danger of becoming too wise.” Right? All truth is from the same divine source. There’s no danger in going out and searching for what other people have discovered and learning from it.
And this is an affirmation, a really optimistic affirmation that becomes harder to hold onto in terms of the overall trajectory of the book. By the 1930s, I think we’re finding that it’s harder for both scholars and high-ranking church authorities to hold on to that affirmation that there’s no danger in going out and seeking.
HODGES: You actually see it early on as you bring up Joseph F. Smith who gave Dr. Romania Pratt a blessing in 1881 with John Taylor, and in this blessing they’re saying that “faith may not be crowded out of the hearts of the people of God through the science of medicine.” So they included this affirmation of her craft, but then this warning.
SIMPSON: Yes. Exactly. And you see this in blessings for people going out and seeking training in the law, seeking training…The mentality in the 1870s is on the part of church authorities—Brigham Young, Joseph F. Smith, John Taylor—the mentality is you’re going to undertake a sojourn in Babylon, right? You’re going to have this sojourn in Babylon, right? And you’re going to spend time across enemy lines as it were. Go get this expertise, acquire this expertise, but don’t be influenced by the surrounding culture, right? Just go acquire this expertise. Come back and use it so that we can keep building the kingdom of God here. We can keep building an independent and largely separate society.
So there’s basically I think still an ideology—it’s interesting—I think there’s an ideology of separatism, but there’s an appreciation of the wisdom that’s out there that is needed. And there’s a certain respect for that. But the idea is there’s a danger that the students are going to become apostates.
SIMPSON: And there’s a little bit of a fear that if they spend too much time in Babylon, they’ll become of that world. And so the idea is “yeah, go out, spend a little bit of time, enough time, to acquire this expertise but then come back and don’t ever think about leaving us or betraying the faith.”
HODGES: Yeah. Come back and then we can make more of a self-sustaining ongoing medical practice here in Utah.
HODGES: It wasn’t just the hierarchy in the men who were concerned about this.
HODGES: You raise this other figure who was also more than ambivalent about education, Hannah Sorensen. She’s fascinating.
SIMPSON: Yeah. There was no ambivalence. [laughs]
HODGES: Yeah! And I’ve never heard of her before but she makes for a great comparison with Romania Pratt herself. Talk about her background and what her story was.
SIMPSON: Right. So Hannah Sorensen I find to be a fascinating figure. So she receives her medical training and is an accomplished doctor herself in Denmark and in the mid-19th century. She converts to Mormonism as I recall in the 1860s, I believe. And she’s ridiculed, she’s vilified. She loses her professional status and respectability as a result of converting to Mormonism. So she arrives in Utah and she’s assisting thousands of women with childbirth. She’s a really vital presence in the Mormon community in terms of taking care of women who are going through childbirth in often very difficult circumstances. And so Hannah Sorensen develops this mentality, I say in the book she’s populist to the core.
HODGES: And she’s got a chip on her shoulder about it too.
SIMPSON: She does, and for very understandable reasons. I think it’s entirely legitimate and understandable that she would be very suspicious of the medical profession because she was so wounded and exiled, right? She was exiled from her profession. And so ends up being a figure, a kind of cantankerous figure when she’s writing these letters to the young women of Zion.
HODGES: In the same periodicals that the other pro-education articles are appearing in.
SIMPSON: Exactly. That’s what’s so fascinating to me. Everything’s contested, everything’s fluid. There’s nothing monolithic about the Mormon attitudes toward higher education in this period. And so I think it’s incredible that the women’s magazines are giving something like equal time. I end up saying, I think they get more than equal time to the pro-education voices which is why I think they went out. But Hannah Sorensen gets a lot of airplay—
HODGES: To say, “Don’t get educated. You don’t need it.”
SIMPSON: Yeah. She’s saying “you do not need to make this pilgrimage.” I love that she uses the word pilgrimage because I think it really is a pilgrimage where students are experiencing a transformation of consciousness and identity saying don’t make this—
HODGES: And there’s a sense of devotion to it.
SIMPSON: Exactly. Don’t make this pilgrimage to these wicked cities like Chicago, New York, Philadelphia. And she uses this language that’s reminiscent of what Joseph Smith was going through as a young man. She’s saying if you consult ten doctors, twenty doctors, you’re going to get different opinions from all of them. And how are you supposed to know which one is true, right? How are you supposed to know which—
HODGES: You hear people saying it today.
SIMPSON: Exactly. How are you supposed to know which one is true? And she said the only way to know what’s true is to go straight to the source. Right?
HODGES: It’s like a Joseph Smith tale. Like Joseph trying to decide between religions—
SIMPSON: It really is. Exactly.
HODGES: Which one’s true? Go straight to the source. She’s saying it’s the same with medical science here. While other Latter-day Saints are saying, “No. We need to learn.”
SIMPSON: And there’s this incredible woman who’s writing at the very same time that Hannah Sorensen is writing. A woman who writes under the name Cactus.
HODGES: You couldn’t identify her for sure, right?
SIMPSON: I couldn’t identify her. So yesterday, I ran across Lisa Olsen Tait who maybe you know has done great work in Mormon women’s history. And she’ll tell you all more about this soon. But she came up to me yesterday and she said, “I know who Cactus is and I can prove it.”
HODGES: Very good!
HODGES: And she can prove it!
SIMPSON: Yeah. And she can prove it. I have footnote where I say I have a hunch. I said the best match in terms of the dates from the Michigan alumni records and from what Cactus says in this correspondence, my best hunch is that it’s Julia McDonald Place who became a doctor and a great writer in Salt Lake City.
HODGES: I know you don’t want to scoop Lisa, but did she tell you who it was?
HODGES: Okay. So you know but we’re waiting for—
SIMPSON: It’s Julia McDonald Place. Yeah. But Lisa can give all the documentation. She proved it. So I’m so excited that she went out and did it and just thrilled. Because that’s I think—
HODGES: She’s a key figure there. Why is she writing anonymously?
SIMPSON: That’s a fantastic question. And Lisa might be able to better answer that than I.
HODGES: Because there wasn’t a lot of that in this—And they also weren’t directly debating either. They were just like, “This is my position, this is the way it is.” They weren’t saying like, “Romania Pratt’s crazy.”
SIMPSON: Right. No.
HODGES: Or Romania wasn’t saying, “Hannah Sorensen, don’t listen to her. She’s off the path.”
SIMPSON: Exactly. Yeah. So I’m not sure about the anonymity. So Cactus or Julia McDonald Place is saying…She’s not directly opposing Hannah Sorensen but she is saying the University of Michigan is—she uses this rhapsodic language about the University of Michigan, saying, “This is the one place in the United States where people from any background can come—”
HODGES: Any faith.
SIMPSON: Yeah, “any faith. And if they’re willing to do the work, they will be rewarded.” I think my central argument in the book is that the American University was this unique cultural and institutional space for Mormons especially in the 1880s when there’s federal persecution, there’s a raid, there’s every reason for a kind of separatist ideology to take route and take hold. And there are these students who are experiencing fairness in the American University. They’re experiencing being welcomed. They’re experiencing being received with hospitality. They’re experiencing dignity. And I really don’t think there’s any other cultural or institutional space that offers them that. So it’s a space where Mormons can see—They can imagine being American.
HODGES: Yeah. In this university space.
SIMPSON: Exactly. They can imagine citizenship. They can imagine that they can be American without betraying the faith.
HODGES: And this is where the title of your book comes from. When you’re talking about “American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism,” when Mormonism became less insular, when it started to have wider connections. This was the birth of that, you place it within the context of these university experiences Mormons were having.
SIMPSON: That’s my argument. And when I say “modern Mormonism,” what I mean is a Mormonism that is at home in America, at home in the United States, and then at odds with itself more. So the conflict becomes less of a Mormon/Gentile conflict and more of an internal struggle for the soul of the faith: What is Mormonism going to look like in the 20th century? These big, big controversies about scientific evolution, academic freedom—
HODGES: And that’s already playing out in these medical discussions between Romania Pratt and Hannah Sorensen and Cactus and these other people that are already, almost, struggling over the soul of what Mormonism is at this point.
SIMPSON: Yes. Right. Can you be formed by outside influences and still be a good Mormon?
SIMPSON: Yeah. That’s the big question.
HODGES: And it’s obvious, I mean there are a lot of people that would see that as traitorous. People who lost their homes, their everything.
SIMPSON: Of course. Yeah.
HODGES: People who have such a strong antagonism for the United States.
HODGES: So you can see, I mean in the context of it, it makes a lot of sense why this tensions are playing out.
This is Thomas Simpson. We’re talking to him about his book, American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism. Now I want to talk a little bit about what brought you into the project yourself. Tell us a little bit about your background and how you became interested in this particular topic.
SIMPSON: Oh, yeah. That’s a really complex story and I think about it in a couple of ways. I really didn’t anticipate for the longest time that I would be interested in the academic study of Mormonism. I guess starting in my late undergraduate years at the University of Virginia, I started developing a real interest in United States religious history especially modern United States religious history since the Civil War and reconstruction, religion and social reform. I was very interested in the Protestant social gospel movement. So Progressive Era—
HODGES: Early 1900s.
SIMPSON: Exactly. Late 19th century, early 20th. Then I got very interested in Martin Luther King and his social justice movements and the way that they were formed by religion.
HODGES: You could have stopped in any one of those decades too by the way.
HODGES: There’s so much to look at there.
SIMPSON: Right. It’s so rich. I’d studied the history of Christianity for a long time and wasn’t especially interested at modern religious movements.
HODGES: Was that the masters of theology degree?
SIMPSON: Yeah. So as an undergraduate history of Christianity, and then yeah, an MTS that was basically focused on history of Christianity and religion in the United States. And then back to Virginia for a PhD in European and American religious history.
HODGES: And Mormonism itself in particular wasn’t necessarily there. You’re looking more at the social gospel, Progressivism, and these ideas.
SIMPSON: Yup. But then I have this deep, deep ancestry in the LDS tradition on my dad’s side of the family, I mean going back to the time of the pioneers. But if you kind of trace it through my dad’s line—So I grew up with these Mormon relatives I loved, you know, these cousins who I thought were some of the coolest and smartest people in the world. [laughs] These guys, you know. So I grew up kind of with a really intimate acquaintance with Mormonism. But I didn’t think of my relatives as Mormons. They were just—
HODGES: They’re your family, yeah.
SIMPSON: My family. And so these were the guys that were sharing music with me that I thought was cool and teaching me about—I mean they were musicians themselves. I mean my cousin Kim Simpson is a singer and songwriter in Austin, Texas and has a PhD in American Studies and is an authority on the history of American popular music. And my cousin Kendall was in rock bands in Salt Lake growing up and was a skateboarder. And they’re both devout Mormons.
SIMPSON: They both really take their Mormonism seriously. They take their education seriously.
HODGES: They sound like an “I’m a Mormon” commercial. [laughs]
SIMPSON: I know, right? [laughs] I don’t mean to. But what I mean to say is I had this deep love.
HODGES: And your father had been Latter-day Saint and he—
SIMPSON: And my dad went to BYU. Yeah, my dad went to BYU.
HODGES: Spencer Fluhman, I was talking to him before the interview, he said that your dad left the church around the 60s?
SIMPSON: The language he always uses is that he distanced himself. And he’s never taken himself off the membership rolls.
HODGES: He was uncomfortable over some of the racial issues and things like that?
SIMPSON: I think that’s fair to say. I always hesitate to—
HODGES: Assign one thing.
SIMPSON: Yeah. To speak for him on that question because his thoughts are so interesting and so complex, and he has deep, deep love for so many of the teachings of the church. And as I mentioned yesterday at BYU, that he speaks with reverence in a lot of ways about the education that he got at BYU and the love of literature that he developed at BYU from 1960 to 1966. He became a literature professor. Just retired after 45 years of teaching. So he speaks with real reverence about some of the Ivy League educated English professors that he had at BYU who were teaching him. And so he’s a really interesting figure that way. I grew up myself with a respectful education that he received. And again, these cousins of mine. And then I have an uncle who is on the music faculty at BYU for years and years and years. But yeah, this ancestry goes back. If you look back at my paternal grandmother Simpson, her eight great grandparents were all in Nauvoo.
HODGES: Oh, yeah. So it goes right back. Yeah.
SIMPSON: So I really was formed by this tradition. I joked at BYU yesterday when I was talking there that when I was a little kid and BYU won the national championship in football, I was almost as excited as my Mormon relatives. [laughs] It was a big deal to us. It really felt like part of my heritage even though I’ve never been a member of the church. I’ve never been a practicing member.
So late in my undergraduate years, I read Jan Shipps’s Mormonism for the first time. And I think that really opens my eyes to where eventually I could see “okay, this is how you can write responsible Mormon history as a non-Mormon,” right? If you put in the time and you develop the relationships. And I think when I was looking for a dissertation topic, I really wanted something that would be relational. I knew I had to put in the time in the archives but I wanted it to be a project where I was engaging in conversation with wonderful scholars and I wanted it to be something that would allow me to reconnect with—I grew up in western New York. So I grew up couple of thousand miles away from these cousins and these relatives that I loved. So the research in Utah allowed me to reconnect with that family and watch my cousins’ kids grow up.
SIMPSON: One of them was in diapers when I started this project and he’s eye to eye with me now. So it’s been a long journey but a beautiful way of connecting with family. And then just finding these stories, I think these stories in the book are incredible.
HODGES: How did you narrow it to the topic of the universities in particular?
SIMPSON: Exactly. So I didn’t expect to find that. I didn’t know anything about that history. And I think this history is a surprise to a lot of people who are encountering the book, too. So what I was looking for first was Mormon responses to Wilford Woodruff’s manifesto [that stated the church’s intention to cease polygamous marriages]. I wanted to know, like after all this costly and principled resistance to federal authority—
HODGES: For years.
SIMPSON: Yeah. After all this resistance, how does patriotism happen? Or how does Mormon patriotism emerge—
HODGES: Because it became super patriot.
SIMPSON: Right. So that was my big question.
HODGES: And there’s been a few theories about it that you’ve seen.
SIMPSON: Yeah. But I’ve never been persuaded that coercion—I mean the fundamental psychological problem that I was working with was coercion doesn’t produce loyalty, right?
SIMPSON: Pressure doesn’t produce love, right?
SIMPSON: So I was trying to figure out especially, again, zeroing in on the 1880s when the raid is happening. And so as I started looking at Davis Bitton’s Guide to Mormon Diaries and Autobiographies, I was looking for responses to the manifesto. It’s a wonderful collection of diaries and autobiographies, this guide that Bitton has. I started seeing some examples of Mormons who had gone and received this training at the great new American universities starting in the 1870s and the 1880s. I found some of the obvious examples. At first, I found John Widtsoe going to Harvard in the 1890s. I found that James Talmage had gone to Johns Hopkins for a little bit.
HODGES: Yeah. And they became general authorities in the church.
SIMPSON: Exactly. So I thought okay, that’s kind of interesting. But then I found more and more examples. Like these women and—
HODGES: I hadn’t heard of many of these figures.
SIMPSON: Exactly. And so you got people going to Cornell, you got people going to the University of Michigan, you got people going to Columbia.
SIMPSON: Yes. Stanford by the 1890s. Harvard by 1890s, the University of Chicago by 1890s. And so I thought in the 1880s, again, this is where I think an ideology of separatism could and should have taken hold.
And in my graduate education, I was thinking about some other cultural forms of separatism. And as I started to teach and study more about African American religious history, I was studying the Nation of Islam. Here’s a strongly separatist organization. They want to have their own independent institutions. They don’t want to be part of a society they see as degenerate, a society they see as corrupt.
And I was really interested in okay, what allows Malcolm X or what allows W. D. Mohammed, the son of Elijah Mohammed, to develop this more inclusive vision to say “you know what? It would make sense for us to have a multiracial society. It would make sense for us to have more of a sense of belonging in this country. Like we’re not really going to be fully separatist.”
SIMPSON: And so what I ended up finding is all these stories of Mormons who were having these exhilarating experiences in universities in the 1880s. Again, I think they’re figuring out that they can be devoutly Mormon and loyal as Americans at the same time. And so one way I talk about this is that I think the Mormon student experience is a “Malcolm in Mecca” experience, right? That you’re getting this vision of a new way of being—
HODGES: When Malcolm X went on pilgrimage, the Hajj.
SIMPSON: Yeah so he goes on the pilgrimage and he says, “Woah, I’d never seen all these people of different races together and it’s beautiful and it’s not going to make me a worse Muslim. It’s actually quite the contrary. It’s going to make me better. I’m going to be a more…”
And so what I find is with the Mormon students, I think the experience is so exhilarating precisely because it feels like spiritual growth. So it’s not just that they’re being welcomed, but they’re being challenged and they’re being inspired. They’re seeing it as consistent with Mormon ideas about education, about eternal progression, and Benjamin Cluff thinks ‘What’s more Mormon than learning everything you can,” right?
HODGES: Yeah. We’ll get to Cluff too. But before we do, I also want to talk about some of the earlier Mormons who went for training. We talked about the women who I think in most cases did medical pursuits. But when it came to men, a lot of them started focusing on law. So talk about Brigham Young’s relationship to these men who were the first to go back to be educated in legal matters.
SIMPSON: Yes. So this is going back to the 1870s. So Brigham Young is feeling besieged and he’s not mistaken in that feeling, right? [laughs] So there are people really threatening his power, his assets. So he realizes that…
HODGES: A lot of lawsuits.
SIMPSON: Yeah. Exactly. A lot of litigation and so he realizes that trained Mormon lawyers who are getting degrees at places like the University of Michigan could really be an asset in terms of protecting his holdings and this independent status in terms of the Mormon kingdom building project. He’s sending a couple of his own children and a range of other folks. But again, there is real ambivalence about the legal profession. It’s seen by Brigham Young and a lot of other Mormon leaders as a dangerous profession precisely because they’ve seen up close how menacing and how manipulative trained lawyers can be.
HODGES: So, lawyers jokes basically, right? [laughs]
SIMPSON: Right. Exactly. Like this is nothing unfamiliar. [laughs]
HODGES: With apologies to all lawyers who are listening. We love you all.
SIMPSON: Exactly. Right. Yes. And so yeah, there’s a real fear and a real ambivalence when you see this coming through again in the blessings of lawyers who are being sent off to pursue this training. They’re saying, “Look, it’s business. Potentially very useful, but potentially also quite dangerous. So be careful not to be corrupted by outside influences.”
HODGES: It’s pretty symbolic that he’s setting them apart. He used the term “set apart” and that’s when within the LDS church, they’ve laid their hands on the head and pronounce a blessing on someone and set them apart as some particular role. And this is typically done for missionaries.
HODGES: So they’re setting this apart as missionaries but with some really interesting differences. What kind of counsel is Brigham Young giving? Is he saying go teach the gospel while you’re out there?
SIMPSON: No. Almost never. I mean occasionally in these early cases they’ll say engage in some proselytization if you have time. But in the vast majority of cases, they’re saying, “This is an academic mission. Your mission is to go out and acquire this expertise and come back and use it to our benefit.”
HODGES: He would talk about setting examples too. And maybe you could “Look, when you’re out there and you’re doing good work, people will see that Mormon’s aren’t these crazy weirdos.” So that’s nice. Like that’s preaching in a sense.
SIMPSON: Yes. Exactly. And I think that goes both ways so that there’s a sense in which the Mormon students become exemplary, in a way. Romania Pratt talks about this and Ellis Reynolds Shipp. She’s saying it really humanizes Mormons for a lot of non-Mormons. And then on the other end—
HODGES: Yeah, they’re preaching too, to the Mormons.
SIMPSON: Yes. Exactly.
HODGES: In the same way.
SIMPSON: Exactly. Right. And so there’s a mutual humanization I think that’s happening that really counterbalances a lot of the dehumanizing rhetoric that could be happening on both sides, again. So Mormon students are figuring out “this is not Babylon,” and then a lot of non-Mormons—we see this with the University of Michigan students especially in the 1880s—we see non-Mormon students electing some of their Mormon peers to really important student offices, and just Mormon students are winning a lot of respect. And then the American University itself—I think this is true to the present day—I think the American University is a great engine of diplomacy. I think almost no American institution makes the United States look better than the university. And you see today how that the American University still draws people from all over the world. And it breeds loyalty. I think more often than not, they’re going back with a real love of the United States for the—
HODGES: Sports teams. [laughs]
SIMPSON: Yeah! The sports teams. Exactly. [laughing] But I mean there’s a sense of like “I was taken care of, I was challenged, I was inspired when I was far from home.” And this works for Mormon students.
HODGES: They are also at this time sort of still caught between polygamy and respectability. They’re dealing with these issues. Josiah Hickman is one of the figures that encounters this. What’s his story?
SIMPSON: So Hickman, yes, in the late 19th century is at the University of Michigan before statehood. And he’s in a situation where he’s…As I recall he’s got multiple wives living with him in Ann Arbor at different times. And finally, the first presidency says, “Hey,” right? [laughs]
HODGES: Yeah. Wait a minute.
SIMPSON: Right. “There’s a real danger here of you making the church look really bad.” And so they tell him to keep up appearances in a cleaner way in terms of the church’s image. And Hickman really struggles with that and he ends up kind of trying to…He has this fabulous education and ends up coming back to Utah to teach in Mormon-affiliated schools. And eventually, it just doesn’t work out. This is the era of not only Wilford Woodruff’s manifesto of 1890, but then the so-called second manifesto of 1904.
HODGES: It’s like we’re serious this time. Like we will excommunicate you [if you contract plural marriages].
SIMPSON: Yeah. And so the church ends up in a position especially by 1904 where they have to purge some people with really high-level education like Hickman because they’re an embarrassment. So Josiah Hickman ends up not really having much of a career in academics.
HODGES: Yeah, and he could have.
SIMPSON: Yeah. He could have.
HODGES: He would have probably been a key figure.
SIMPSON: Exactly. This goes for Benjamin Cluff as well. I think Benjamin Cluff is a hugely important figure—
HODGES: Let’s talk about that because this is where Mormons are starting to generate more education in Utah. So with all the concern about going abroad and sort of being exposed to Babylon and having problems, well, one solution to that is to have people get trained and come back here and make our own education systems here. So the book talks about the origins of higher education in Utah, including the university that you’re visiting this week here, Brigham Young University, and also the University of Utah which is right where out here in Salt Lake is just up the road here. So let’s talk about some of these key figures. You mentioned Benjamin Cluff, he’s one. And the other one is Karl Maeser. And they kind of represent a sort of Hannah Sorensen-Romania Pratt tension in the ways that they see outside education.
SIMPSON: Yeah. Absolutely. So Karl Maeser, again, I have a lot of sympathy for him. He’s trying to get these institutions going. I mean he’s very ambitious. Thomas Alexander was really helpful for me on this, the BYU historian, of the same period, of this Mormon transitional period of the late 19th and early 20th century. And Alexander points out in his studies of Mormon education that it was really ambitious at this time in the 1880s and 1890s to start talking about any kind of colleges.
HODGES: They were dreaming big here.
SIMPSON: Dreaming big, yeah. And Karl Maeser’s trying to run basically the whole thing. He’s the head of the whole church education system. And so he’s really keen on making sure that Benjamin Cluff—who’s about half of, as I recall, Maeser was about 60 at the time and Cluff was about 30—He’s really keen on getting Benjamin Cluff back to help oversee the Brigham Young Academy.
HODGES: And Maeser doesn’t want students going abroad. Was it more because he wanted to establish something here or more because he had that ambivalence about, if you go, you might not come back?
SIMPSON: Yeah. It’s really that same kind of Hannah Sorensen concern. So I think it’s really important when you have people like Hannah Sorensen and Karl Maeser who were formed in Europe and have kind of a suspicion of—Maeser has a suspicion of secular education and a devotion to religious education that plays a big part in this. So he’s really passionately and understandably committed to developing Mormon educational institutions. Institutions that are run by Mormons for Mormons.
So again, he recognizes the benefit of some outside training but the end goal for him is to eliminate the need for going outside at all. So he’s saying, “Let’s get the Brigham Young Academy—” He’s reluctant for Mormon youth to go even to the University of Utah. But he said “that’s okay as long as they’re not going outside the region,” right? So he really was suspicious of outside education.
HODGES: And he’s saying, “Benjamin Cluff, come back and help me build this thing.” Benjamin Cluff is borrowing from Michigan. He’s in Michigan, right? And he’s going to come back and start to sort of initiate the summer schools at BYU.
SIMPSON: Exactly. So Cluff I think is incredibly pivotal. I often say he’s a very difficult figure for Latter-day Saints today to enshrine because, again, he’s a kind of source of embarrassment because of polygamy and other things he did in terms of his trips to Central America to try to—
HODGES: Prove the Book of Mormon.
HODGES: And this is post-manifesto polygamy, and these type of things took him down.
SIMPSON: Exactly. So he’s a tough guy to celebrate. But I think he’s hugely important. For one, while he’s at the University of Michigan, again, to dismantle the populist argument, he’s saying “it’s a sin to miss the opportunities that higher education outside the region affords.” He’s saying it’s actually a sin not to take advantage of outside learning, outside wisdom, outside teaching. It’s a really strong theological statement. And then as you say, Blair, he starts bringing some of the most respected educators in the country to Utah in 1892, 1893 for these summer institutes that are benefiting not just Mormon educators but non-Mormon educators as well. And so it’s a little remarkable—
HODGES: Let’s get the statewide education going. Let’s have the best people come in here and tell us what to do.
SIMPSON: Exactly. These are really well-attended. Charles Eliot, the president of Harvard comes and speaks to 7,000 people at the Tabernacle, Mormons and non-Mormons. And then eventually, a little bit later, people like John Dewey are coming to Salt Lake and coming to speak to people who teach at the Brigham Young Academy. These are heady times, I say a couple times in the book.
Mormons are, again, exhilarated I think by realizing. And there are these wonderful accounts in newspapers from the time of these compliments that these leading educators give to Mormon teachers. They’ll leave saying, “I’ve never met such a hardworking group. I’ve never met such an eager and enthusiastic group. You’ve got a bright future ahead in Utah education.” And so people really soaked this up and they’re getting on board.
HODGES: “They’re saying good things about us!” kind of a thing.
HODGES: The other thing at this time, Stanford University in California is becoming a destination school for Mormons and that caused some internal tensions that play out in some of the other schools. We’ve sort of skipped through that. But I thought Stanford would be a nice example to talk about internal tensions between Mormons themselves. And I was interested in the Swenson/Jensen situation that revolved around evolution. Talk about that and some of the tensions between Latter-day Saints.
SIMPSON: Yes. So it’s a small Latter-day Saint community but you see this at the University of Michigan at the time as well in the mid-1890s. Some real fissures and fractures starting to develop, especially around scientific evolution, which becomes a kind of heuristic or a kind of symbol of what it means to be a good Mormon. So can you be a good Mormon and embrace scientific evolution?
There are some real debates, really bitter debates that break out about this at Michigan and at Stanford among Mormons who are trying to hold on to a sense of religious community. They’re trying to meet together, have sacrament meetings and things. But some of them are just really grating on each other about these questions. They sensed that they’re in an environment that embraces scientific evolution. David Starr Jordan who’s the president of Stanford, a trained scientist espousing scientific evolution. And so there’s a lot of influence, a lot of debate. So John Swenson is soaking this up. He loves the freedom of the environment.
SIMPSON: He’s a little bit troubled by the teachings of scientific evolution at first but he’s coming around. And then P. J. Jensen is bitterly opposed. Really feels out of sorts at Stanford. Feels like it’s not a good environment for a true Latter-day Saint.
HODGES: And he’s writing to the president of Brigham Young Academy, George Brimhall, at this time. He’s corresponding with him, sort of reporting on other Latter-day Saints.
SIMPSON: Yes. Exactly. Saying, “I’d be happy to let you know who’s keeping up with their devotions and who’s not.”
HODGES: He says “I’m very anxious to see Swenson return to our dear Utah and get warmed up by the spirit of the gospel.” He says that “I’m happy track down records of his tiding and ward activity. This would be a simple matter of righteously inquiring after his welfare.” So he’s spying on people.
SIMPSON: Yeah. Look out, right? [laughs]
HODGES: Yeah. And reporting. And so this is sort of playing out these ideas, like can Mormons embrace evolution? Can they not?
HODGES: There’s this ongoing tension between anxiety about education and aspiration to be well-educated. And John A. Widtsoe is one of the most prominent figures who’s wrestling with this. He became an apostle in the LDS church. He’s one of the first Mormon PhD’s. Who was first?
SIMPSON: Yeah. Oh, gosh. I’m trying to think now. So Joseph Merrell and John A. Widtsoe. Yeah, we’re right in that.
HODGES: Neck and neck?
SIMPSON: Right at the turn of the century.
HODGES: Right. So he becomes one of the highest ranking authorities in the church and I was struck by one of the quotes that you cited from something that he wrote to the youth of the church.
HODGES: And this is something that was ultimately published in a book as well that had wide reception within the church. He says, “In the life of every person who receives a higher education in or out of schools, there is a time when there seems to be opposition between science and religion, between man-made and God-made knowledge. The struggle for reconciliation between the contending forces is not an easy one.”
This is the line that hadn’t struck me before.
HODGES: He says, “It cuts deep into the soul and usually leaves scars that ache while life endures. There are thousands of young people in the church today and hundreds of thousands throughout the world who are struggling to set themselves right with God above and the world about them.”
He talks about this pain that’s in the process.
SIMPSON: Yes. And there’s some beautiful language in his autobiography, In a Sunlit Land, he calls it, where he talks about arriving at Harvard for the first time and how helpful his mentor in the field of chemistry was in helping him to come to some of that reconciliation. So he said it was just massively important for him to hang around this professor, Josiah Cook, who had gone through the same struggles as a non-Mormon and had come to the conclusion as a chemist, as a Harvard professor in chemistry, that all—I think the exact phrase is “all nature is God’s speech.” And so this is profoundly influential for Widtsoe. Widtsoe feels that, “okay I can be a devout Mormon and I can be a world class scientist.”
HODGES: He’s plugging into an ancient, a very long-standing Christian idea. “The two books.” You’ve got the Book of Life and then the Book of Nature. Both of these things manifest God.
SIMPSON: Exactly. And I think, again, as this plays out in the decades to come, there are people—scholars and church authorities who struggle to affirm that they can be held together. By the 1930s, there’s a really strong push in the direction of saying that religion and science occupy separate spheres.
HODGES: Spheres, yeah. Well, this is starting to play out a 1911—There’s this big controversy at BYU. A number of professors who had received professional training then came back to teach. So this was the ideal, this is what they wanted. They wanted this school to have these great scholars. What happened here?
SIMPSON: Right. So you get a cadre of professors—the Petersons, the Chamberlains—coming to BYU with high-level training in a range of fields that ends up being problematic in the eyes of administrators like George Brimhall who’s the head of Brigham Young University at the time. And some church authorities like Horace Hall Cummings who’s overseeing the education system. They’re coming back and they’re taking an approach to a range of subjects in a way that’s exhilarating for younger Mormon students in a lot of ways, but presenting some problems and some controversies.
HODGES: Evolution, higher criticism in the Bible. Yeah.
SIMPSON: Exactly. Pragmatic philosophy. And there’s a lot going on that’s interesting just in terms of epistemology here, too. I talk in the book about an issue of the Improvement Era in the first decade of the 20th century where Milton Bennion and Franklin West are writing about epistemology, about how knowledge and truth come to us. They’re writing separate articles in the same issue.
SIMPSON: And Franklin West is basically making an argument as a physicist that maybe divine truth and maybe prayer work in ways that are similar to radio reception or radio communication.
HODGES: He’s using a metaphor.
SIMPSON: Like maybe it’s invisible. Yeah. But it’s real, right?
HODGES: Yeah, right. Empirical, I would say even.
SIMPSON: Yeah. Exactly. And so maybe we can reconcile teachings about divine truth and modern science that way.
SIMPSON: And then Milton Bennion is saying in a different article that knowledge is essentially a private affair. It’s essentially subjective.
HODGES: Subjective, yeah.
SIMPSON: And so they’re saying very different—
HODGES: In the same issue of the magazine.
SIMPSON: And I would argue irreconcilable things about—
HODGES: Yeah. They’re mutually contradictory.
SIMPSON: I think so. But what’s fascinating to me is that these both get printed in the same issue and there’s a kind of fledgling and eclectic sense of what Mormon intellectual life can look like. But I think this is just before there starts to be more of a crackdown, more of an effort to say “no, we need to be more consistent,” especially because you can imagine, in Mormonism, questions are going to arise quickly about well, do we literally mean that what Joseph Smith experienced had an objective reality to it?
SIMPSON: Because Mormon scholars are starting to say the knowledge is essentially subjective—And maybe you’re going a little bit in this William James direction of saying–
HODGES: That it was a psychological experience Joseph Smith encountered in his mind or was it, yeah.
SIMPSON: Exactly. And so tests like multiple choice or true-and-false tests start to be administered at BYU in this period about—Like “do you think what Joseph Smith experienced was subjective—
HODGES: In his mind, yeah.
SIMPSON: Or in objective reality,” right? And the right answer is objective, right?
SIMPSON: So yeah, there’s real controversy developing about, “where is this going with this pragmatic philosophy? Where is this going with the higher criticism of the Bible? Where is this going? Is this going to be damaging to young people’s faith?”
HODGES: The president of the church, Joseph F. Smith, at times can be very worried about this. He talks about wanting to avoid a “theological aristocracy.”
HODGES: He’s thinking that here are these highfalutin philosophers who are bringing all these ideas, injecting them into Mormonism. And their professors on the other hand are saying, “Listen, if we’re going to be involved in higher education, our students are going to be confronting these ideas.” Peterson, one of the professors, is saying, “I’ve labored under the impression that our young people who cannot avoid hearing about evolution had better hear and read it in our church schools where they’re pervaded by the spirit of God and where they’re taught doctrines of the church right along with it.” So he’s sort of introducing this idea of “we need to include this in higher education. It’s part of education in the country. But we can do it in a faithful environment. Why don’t we do that?’
But Joseph F. Smith is still saying no to this.
SIMPSON: Exactly. This is so interesting and so complex. Again, I understand Joseph F. Smith’s concern. I think his fundamental concern, as he articulates it,8 is about class, right? And I think he’s right to this extent that there’s a danger that as an intellectual class in Mormonism develops, there’s a danger that people might start to think that the intellectuals are the only ones with something to say about really important matters of Mormonism.
SIMPSON: And so sometimes, church authorities are threatened by that. They recognize that scholars have an authority that is sometimes largely separate from their priesthood authority. Or in the case of a Romania Pratt—
HODGES: She doesn’t have the priesthood.
SIMPSON: Yeah, women can develop this authority or scholars in general can develop this authority and so there can be a sense of rivalry, a sense of territoriality that emerges. But I think Joseph F. Smith’s concern is yeah, that we’re going to have class division that’s going to damage our communitarian spirit, our “spirit of brotherhood,” he would say, that’s been so beneficial in terms of building up the church. So there’s a fear that intellectuals are going to get uppity, they’re going to get arrogant, they’re going to get more influential than they should be. But at the same time, this argument, the scholar’s argument that you’re mentioning, that students need to know about this, in a lot of ways—or at particular times—really wins out I would say. So in 1911, there’s kind of a setback for the scholars.
HODGES: Well, they actually fired or removed several professors.
SIMPSON: Exactly. Big controversy. And a lot of Mormons know about this. They know this history, this controversy. But I found that what fewer people know is we think back to the climate at Stanford. By 1925, the year of Scopes Trial, the year of the Scopes Monkey Trial in Tennessee over evolution being taught in public schools in Tennessee, in 1925, there’s a Stanford trained zoologist, Vasco Tanner, teaching evolution at BYU without incident.
HODGES: Yeah. This new leader comes in and replaces the president, Franklin Harris. And the whole atmosphere changes. Now you have evolution being taught—this is just a few years after these other professors have been removed for that.
SIMPSON: Right, so there’s all this oscillation, all this fluidity. And right, in 1925 there’s much more of a sense, again, that we need outside expertise. And again, it’s I think out of concern for the students in the sense—especially if they’re going to go medical school. They’re saying like, “We want Mormon students to be able to go to the best medical schools. We can’t shelter them and shield them. They just simply won’t be qualified.”
SIMPSON: So as you can see, this mentalities evolve and are fluid and are contested all the time.
HODGES: And it kind of revolves around this populism whether or not—What’s the proper level of…Like “we want to get education but is there too much education? And does that threaten the faith?” And you see some Latter-day Saints leaving the faith as they get higher education, or other Latter-day Saints becoming, in the eyes of other people, heretics believing in evolution and this type of thing.
HODGES: That’s Thomas W. Simpson. He’s a specialist in modern US religious history. He received his PhD from the University of Virginia and a master of theological studies from Emery University. Now he’s an instructor in religion and philosophy at Phillips Exeter Academy. We’re talking about his new book, American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism, 1967-1940. We’ll be right back.
HODGES: We’re back with Thomas W. Simpson. He’s a specialist in modern US religious history, and his new book is called American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism.
So we’ve kind of talked about this oscillation that’s happened where Mormons are reaching out for higher education. There’s also some ambivalence, some skepticism, and even some outright opposition to it. Then they’re developing schools in Utah and you have BYU trying to become a very good school. But then they’re worried about particular things being taught, so there’s professors that are fired. Then you have this renaissance where a new president of the university brings in people to teach evolution and all this.
So it’s kind of going back and forth. And then at the end of your book, J. Reuben Clark becomes a prominent figure here. He’s an LDS church leader and he comes into church leadership as a smart trained and experienced man. But along with that education that he had, he brings a wariness of intellectual pursuits. So talk about J. Reuben Clark and how he changed the trajectory of the story.
SIMPSON: Yeah. He’s a really monumental figure in my mind. And I’m getting that partly from my conversations with Mormon scholars today who have connections with the Church Education System. And they say this speech that J. Reuben Clark gave in 1938 called “The Charted Course of the Church in Education,” which has a real chilling effect on scholars. I mean its real tone of rebuke and condemnation toward people who have imported outside ideas and brought them in, especially to Mormon religious education. They let me know that this document still has real power in the church, still gets circulated, still gets endorsed.
And so that’s in some ways why I felt confident in terms of the periodization of this book. To say okay, I think by 1940 you’ve got some basic parameters in place, so the populist current is still running through Mormon life. And the desire for tremendous achievement and the aspiration is still a strong current as well.
So Clark is a Columbia trained lawyer, very highly educated as you mentioned. But he’s extremely concerned about the effect that outside theories as he conceives of them, outside theories about pedagogy, about psychology, about sociology, about economics—He’s very concerned that these outside theories are going to have a corrupting influence on Mormon youth. And I think if you look also at Hebrew J. Grant at this time, who’s the president of the church, back in 1921 when BYU was really starting to recruit Mormon trained PhD, starting to pursue accreditation, starting to endorse the teaching of evolution, Hebrew J. Grant in 1921 is saying, “I hate to think that BYU needs any sort of improvement. I love the institution so much but I’m willing to recognize that I don’t really have much expertise here. I’m going to let the people—”
HODGES: And then “maybe it’s good business.”
SIMPSON: Yeah. Right. “But I’m going to let the experts, I’m going to let the people with the real education kind of determine the course of BYU in a lot of ways because I trust them to do what’s right.”
HODGES: This is during that renaissance period that was earlier mentioned.
SIMPSON: So that’s 1921, Hebrew J. Grant. Then by 1934, as I recall, he’s gotten much testier, much more defensive, like Clark who’s also a member of the First Presidency. Hebrew J. Grant is saying—And I call this an “ultra-populist” position that I have not really detected among authorities and Mormons before, where Hebrew J. Grant is saying “we do not care what other people have to say about” [laughs]
HODGES: Yeah. I have the quote. I have the quote here and you’re right. It is striking to juxtapose this with Joseph Smith’s teachings about seeking all the good in the world.
HODGES: And the expansion of the intellect. So Hebrew J. Grant says, “If we have the truth, and everyone in this body ought to have a testimony that we do have the truth, we do not care what other people believe or what their teachings are.” It’s striking.
SIMPSON: This is a particular context which is fascinating to me, because what you see in the late 1920s and 1930s is that Mormon academic migration expands to include theological education outside the Mormon culture region. So you’ve got a migration of Mormon students who go to the University of Chicago’s Divinity School. It’s a kind of famously theologically liberal divinity school. And they’re starting to bring back University of Chicago professors to teach Mormon youth about the Bible and about church history.
And so Grant’s comment comes at a bit of contentious time but after years of optimism, about how Mormons can study what Protestant theologians have said about the Bible and what Protestant theologians have said about church history, there’s a tremendous optimism. So there’s the sense that there’s expertise out there about religion that we could benefit from. It’s a pretty radical denial of populism that I think gives way to Grant’s radical neo-populist assertions.
HODGES: It seems like he’s probably following somewhat, I wouldn’t be surprised to see J. Reuben Clark influencing him as well. And then in the speech that you mentioned, “The Charted Course of…
SIMPSON: Of education.
Blair. Yeah. So J. Reuben Clark is saying—
SIMPSON: “Charted Course of the Church in Education.”
HODGES: Right. “On more than one occasion, our church members have gone to other places for special training. They have had the training which was supposedly the last word, the most modern view, and they’ve brought it back and dosed it upon us without any thought as to whether we needed it or not.”
And he talks about how “experts need to kindly consider whether their methods will spur community spirit or build religious activities among groups that are decadent.”
I mean he’s talking about this very antagonistic, back-and-forth. And then he says “great is the burden in condemnation of any teacher who sows doubt in a trusting soul.”
So he was very skeptical of this. I think one of the ironies here is that at the same time, this type of attitude itself could also sow doubt in Latter-day Saints.
SIMPSON: Oh. Yeah.
HODGES: And you don’t really explore this very much but I wanted to ask you about that element of things. I mean Clark is saying “Beware, don’t sow doubt,” but that kind of an attitude itself—especially we’re seeing this more and more today—can sow doubt.
SIMPSON: Yes. I’ve been following with real interest some of the writings and some of the efforts of people like Terryl Givens and Patrick Mason. And recognizing this real issue of doubt in the age of the internet, when people have lots of access to primary source material and lots of access to criticisms of church history, church doctrine—
HODGES: Everything, really. Like it’s the internet.
SIMPSON: Right. Exactly. Honestly, I’m so glad you brought this up, Blair, because I think some of the central tensions in this history and, again, leading up to the present day, have to do with pedagogical approaches, right? What can young people handle? Brimhall has this sense at times and Clark has this sense at times of just really wanting to protect Mormon youth.
HODGES: They don’t want to see anybody lost.
SIMPSON: Yup. Again, completely understandable.
SIMPSON: Completely legitimate.
HODGES: And not seeing some of the risks of that.
SIMPSON: Right. Exactly. But then the scholars tend to make the argument, again, largely coming from their university experience, but also for Mormon affirmations about, again, like “look, we need to exercise these muscles.”
HODGES: “The glory Go i’s intelligence. It’s a God-given gift. It’s a talent that if you buried in the earth, that’s wrong—”
SIMPSON: Exactly. And so if we shelter young people too much, they’re not going to be prepared for real engagement with people from the outside and they’re just not going to be living up to their potential as human beings and as intelligent human beings.
HODGES: And within our own society, we won’t be able to have the same types of advantages.
SIMPSON: Right. Exactly. So there’s something that goes back and forth, and I see this a lot in my own teaching of religious studies largely outside the Mormon community. But there’s often a sense in religious education that there’s going to be this really damaging experience of disillusionment. A lot of students will say I feel like—this this comes up in the 1911 controversy, this language comes up exclusively—but people will say, “This feels like learning that there’s no Santa Clause.” Right?
HODGES: The rug is pulled completely out from under me, yeah.
SIMPSON: Yeah. Like if you just tug at the fabric of the garment, the whole thing unravels. There’s a fear that that initiation into all that complexity is going to be an experience that some young people can’t recover from. And so I think it’s a really interesting debate. Again, a fundamentally pedagogical debate, I think, about what can students handle? Where we should set the bar in terms of how much we can challenge them? How much can we expose them to the complexities of church history?
HODGES: One of the Mormon apostles, M. Russell Ballard, just recently gave an address to church educators that seems like the new J. Reuben Clark speech. But in this one, he talked about the necessity of learning. He talked about the need to rely sometimes on expertise of scholars, and he said the days are gone if a student has a question, we can just tell them “forget about it. Everything’s okay.”
HODGES: Now, at this point, we have an apostle giving that sort of a speech that could have that kind of an effect as well. J. Reuben Clark’s really put a damper on seeking and on education in a lot of ways.
HODGES: M. Russell Ballard is saying we need to learn.
HODGES: Have you heard his address yet?
SIMPSON: I have not seen it in full. Thank you for telling me.
HODGES: You’ve got to see it.
SIMPSON: I’ll go, yeah.
HODGES: It’s almost a shame it came out now because it would have been perfect for your conclusion because it’s sort of like okay, where is this going to go?
SIMPSON: Right. I think that’s the question.
HODGES: I mean it seems like a bookend. J. Reuben Clark, M. Russell Ballard. It’s fascinating.
SIMPSON: Exactly. And as we’ve said, it’s all fluid. And I think it will be very interesting to see what kind of identity and space Mormon scholars continue to carve out for themselves and what kind of parameters general authorities continue to try to set. I’m thinking about really interesting figures like Greg Prince’s relatively new biography of David O. McKay.
HODGES: And McKay was around during these controversies himself and he was saying like, “Let’s do the education thing.” So there’s always these internal tensions.
SIMPSON: It was always contested. Yeah. And I really don’t want to leave people at the end of the book with the impression that J. Reuben Clark has the final word because I go on to say even as he’s issuing the speech, and it does have a chilling effect, and it is still circulated today, right at the same time BYU is developing a really strong academic department in the study of religion with a lot of these Chicago trained people figuring prominently.
HODGES: And the biology department has become a very solid biology department even today at BYU.
SIMPSON: And there are really interesting things happening at the University of Utah at the same time of course, too. So again, Clark doesn’t have the final word, but I think he does end up setting up some parameters. And setting up kind of a suspicion—This goes back all the way to the 1870s and the 1880s, but there’s always a suspicion that people who go and get this outside training are going to be trouble in one way or another.
HODGES: Right. Headaches.
SIMPSON: Yeah. Exactly. They’re going to come back and they’re going to try to corrupt the simple faith of young people.
HODGES: And these are concerns that we see even playing out I think to the present. This kind of discussions are going to continue on. Your book is valuable precisely because it gives a history. It gives some background to some of the discussions that we’re still having today. And so people who are interested in these matters really need to check out this book and you’ll see a lot of familiar things there. You’ll see a lot of surprising things there. And that’s thanks to Tom Simpson. He’s written this book, American Universities in the Birth of Modern Mormonism.
Before we go, the other thing I wanted to mention was the appendices in the book. You have a quite a few here that lists Mormons who sought higher education. What sort of projects do you foresee coming out of those materials? It’s almost like you said, “Here’s a wealth of data for you. Go have fun.”
SIMPSON: Thank you. That’s exactly the spirit in which I intended it. I had this database essentially. The way my life has played out in recent years with my going outside of higher education to Phillips Exeter Academy, and you know I’m a parent now. And I’m teaching and I’m coaching and I’m living in a dorm. I don’t know to what extent I’ll follow through on this material. And I had this sense that I wanted to share it with people. And it’s already happening, I think. Already Lisa Olsen Tait has identified who Cactus is. [laughs] And I’ve just though that—
HODGES: There’s an energetic Mormon studies community that wants to—
SIMPSON: It is. And I just thought if I put this out there, maybe it would generate ideas for other projects. I wanted people to have this history. Sometimes I’ll see something come through on Facebook and somebody will say, “A Mormon scholar just said this kind of controversial thing about evolution.” And I think “oh my gosh, if you only knew how far back,” you know. Exactly. So there’s this revisionist and debatable argument that the Mormon sense of belonging takes root in the American university. Like that’s the basic argument. But even if people are hesitant about buying that argument completely, they’ll have this history and these stories—
HODGES: Go find these people. These lists of people who went and received education and lists of the theses and dissertations that they wrote and all sorts of things for people to dig into.
SIMPSON: Exactly. So yeah, I think people could go on and look at all the dissertations, all the projects that just those University of Chicago divinity school students were writing. Or people who were writing really academic and professional histories of Mormonism in many ways for the first time. And you can see these disciplines. I think there’s a real genealogy of Mormon intellectual life and scholarly attainment here that I think can be—
HODGES: And it’s a nice little add-on to the end of the book there.
HODGES: What about you, Tom, any project you’re working on now? You said you’re teaching. What else? Have you got anything else going on?
SIMPSON: In recent years I have become just absolutely immersed in what’s going on in post-war Bosnia. I was directing a travel program back in 2004 that took me there. A program that looks at the intersections of religion and violence and peace building. And so I have started writing creative non-fiction essays about the stories that I’ve heard in Bosnia that have taught me so much about human capacity. The human capacity for evil and the human capacity for compassion. And it’s really affected me profoundly and deeply.
HODGES: So creative non-fiction. You’re trying to reach a broad audience with this thing, right?
SIMPSON: I am. So I have published a couple of essays in a Canadian literary magazine called Numero Cinq. And they’ve been incredibly encouraging. So the next project is a collection of these essays about encountering post-war Bosnia as an outsider over the last 12 years. I’ve taken five trips in the last 12 years. I’m going back in March. I’m going to be working with teachers over in Bosnia who are trying to develop critical thinking and writing skills and youth in Bosnia as a way of imagining alternatives to aggression.
HODGES: This book is such an echo then. You’re operating these two completely different spheres but they relate…
SIMPSON: In so many ways. And I think what ties them is a real faith in educational institutions to transform lives. I’ve seen it in my life, in my teaching, I’ve experienced it as a college student, and then I see it in a residential boarding school. That’s redundant. [laughs] In a boarding school. I’ve seen how, when people leave home and they come from lots of different backgrounds, and they knit a community together, there’s a kind of camaraderie and loyalty that develops that doesn’t develop in many other cultural spaces. I don’t think you spend four years together. There’s this love that develops for each other, there’s love that develops for the teachers who have taken care of you.
SIMPSON: And so I think that’s what Bosnia is trying to reconstruct. Can we reconstruct these institutions that form youth who will feel taken care of who will want to stay? I mean, brain drain is a huge issue there. So it’s a real faith and confidence that I have in the power of educational institutions to change lives.
HODGES: Thomas W. Simpson. Thank you so much for taking time to be on the Maxwell Institute Podcast today.
SIMPSON: Thank you, Blair. It’s an honor.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)