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When Mormons first went to Harvard …

Brigham Young sent Mormon men and women to the nation's finest universities in order to preserve the religion's separation from the U.S., but they wound up helping it assimilate.

In May of this year I was part of a meeting at Harvard Divinity School for a small group of evangelical and Mormon scholars.

We discussed theology in the same room where Emerson gave his famous divinity school address, and took photos of one another standing at the pulpit.

We got a personal tour from David Holland, who is a professor at the div school and a stake president in central Massachusetts/southern New Hampshire.

And we Mormons felt very, very cool, like we had come a long way from the backwaters of Utah to the hallowed halls of the Ivy League.

But it turns out that Mormons have a longer history in the Ivory Tower than I ever realized. In fact, the first Mormons began enrolling at universities like Harvard, Columbia, the University of Michigan and Stanford in the closing decades of the 19th century, and the men and women who obtained degrees by studying “abroad” – what Brigham Young and others called anything back east in those days – had an outsized presence in shaping the future of the LDS Church.

To learn more, I talked with Thomas Simpson, whose book American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism, 1867–1940 traces the legacy of these academic pioneers. — JKR

RNS: You’re exploring how Mormon scholars who trained at elite universities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries changed the game for the LDS Church. Why choose that particular lens to look at modernization?

Simpson: I really began with the question about Mormons’ transition from an oppositional and separatist stance toward American culture, a stance of fierce resistance during the 1880s when raids were happening, to one of modernization. So the real question for me was: How did the posture and mentality of Mormon loyalty to the U.S. develop so quickly? How does Mormonism go from being separatist in the 19th century to being hyper-patriotic in the 20th?

During this time period from the 1870s to the 1890s, when polygamy was a source of great tension, there was evidence of Mormons engaging in academic migration. A couple of examples were famous, like James Talmage going to Johns Hopkins in the 1880s. But there were so many others at Yale, Columbia, and the University of Michigan. I didn’t understand why. Why would Mormons be engaging in this academic migration before the Manifesto? This didn’t fit with my preconceived notions of the time period of separatism and the Mormon desire for independence.

RNS: How and why did this “academic migration” begin?

Simpson: Brigham Young himself first authorized it, with the idea that Mormons would gain practical expertise in fields like law and medicine and bring it back to Utah, so their expertise would help Mormon society become more self-sustaining and independent. But after Brigham died, the raid [on polygamists] was in full force, and this was a time when separatism should have been getting stronger. But these students were having transformational experiences in American universities that were making them rethink the Mormon relationship to the United States. Romania Pratt, a doctor who went to medical school in Philadelphia, is making this argument when Brigham Young is barely cold in the grave. She’s saying that we need a new appreciation of modern medicine, and she’s doing it in a really sophisticated way.

At the heart of my argument is the idea that universities provided the only cultural space where Mormons could feel inspired and challenged and welcomed. This was a transformational space for them in a pivotal time.

RNS: You note that while secular universities became a haven, only some LDS church leaders were on board with the students’ more expansive vision of truth.

Simpson: Yeah. A big part of the book’s trajectory has to do with the ambivalence of church leaders for what the scholars are bringing back. On the one hand, there’s tremendous respect for the students. When the best and brightest from Utah and Idaho go and succeed at places like Harvard, Cornell, and Stanford, there’s tremendous pride among the Mormon people. Mormons condemned the world but also craved its praise.

On the other hand, tensions arise when scholarly expertise is seen to perhaps pose a challenge to traditional understandings. It starts very early on with Mormon women studying medicine back East, often in Philadelphia. They’re bringing back understandings of the medical profession that can pose an implicit or even explicit threat to faith healing or home remedies. So there’s a lot for the scholars themselves and for church leaders to negotiate in terms of how scholarly expertise might be reconciled with faith and scripture.

But there’s also a lot within Mormonism that allows scholars to pursue wisdom and education. It’s built right into the faith, in the D&C declaration that the glory of God is intelligence. So scholars draw upon that in seeking truth as widely and deeply as they can.

RNS: You spend some time in the book tracing how those tensions kind of exploded around the issue of evolution, with church leaders on both sides.

Simpson: What was fascinating to me was to see how diverse Mormon thinking was at the time. James Talmage is saying some really interesting things about evolution in the 1880s, but later he gets into a position where he has to moderate his views when he becomes a General Authority. Some professors with training in evolution get fired from BYU in 1911 for saying that Mormons should really understand these principles and ideas.

A fair number of Mormons, in my experience, know about that controversy at BYU in 1911. But it’s not as well known that by 1925 there’s a Mormon named Vasco Tanner teaching evolution at BYU, and no one is giving him any trouble about it at all. And this was in the same year as the Scopes trial.

So there’s a gradual recognition that if Mormon youth are going to go on to medical school and become medical practitioners, they need to understand evolution. There’s not a static history of opposition to evolution by any means. Everything’s fluid; everything’s being figured out on the fly. Sometimes the General Authorities have themselves been trained outside the region, like Talmage.

RNS: And after a while, that training wasn’t just in practical professions like law and medicine, but in the humanities and social sciences too.

Simpson: One aspect toward the end of the story is that first there’s this history of seeking outside expertise in medicine and law, and then in the social sciences, and then by the 1920s and 1930s, you actually have a whole cadre of Mormons going to the University of Chicago Divinity School to do biblical studies and theology. There’s an acknowledgment that there’s a lot that Mormons need to know about the Bible’s history and context. There’s a remarkable openness in the 1920s and 1930s to seeking expert religious education in church history, archaeology, and biblical studies, as many Mormons reject the belief that they already have all of the religious truth they need. But this is also the tipping point where people like J. Reuben Clark begin to exert a more reactionary authority.

RNS: Yes, you bring up that “Charted Course of the Church in Education” speech Clark gave in 1938. It sure seemed to squash open inquiry and the idea of academic freedom.

Simpson: That was very influential. If you look at Clark’s statement, it’s not the last word by any means, but it does set up some parameters. And it’s still circulated among church school teachers as a guide, especially with a warning about corrupting the faith of young people. Any kind of controversy or scholarly finding that disrupts the faith of young people is strongly condemned. Clark was telling teachers to be very, very careful, because this is territory that pertains to salvation.

His statement had a real chilling effect on Mormon scholars for generations. It’s interesting because right now, as you know, there’s some movement toward incorporating modern scholarship in Gospel Doctrine classes. It’s a live question how much this will be used going forward.

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