Franklin S. Harris, president of Brigham Young University from 1921 to 1945, said of his predecessor, George H. Brimhall (fig. 1), “George H. Brimhall, under a tree would make a university any day for where he teaches students will always gather to be taught.”Brimhall had two great causes, Harris said: his religion and the cause of education. From his youth to his old age, Brimhall carried these causes forward with unrelenting vigor. In his service as president of Brigham Young University (1904–1921), they merged into one: a university supported by, loyal to, and controlled by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He believed that Brigham Young University, as an arm of the Church, had greater potential than any other university in the world.
Brimhall was closely associated with BYU from the days of its precursor, the Dusenberry School in Provo, to its emergence as a university offering bachelors’ and masters’ degrees. During his career as an educator, he was a student, teacher, principal, department head, acting president, president, president emeritus, and even head of the alumni association. He was closely associated with all previous school principals and presidents: Warren Dusenberry, with whom he began studying in 1871; Karl G. Maeser, who became his personal mentor and exemplar; and Benjamin Cluff Jr., who hired him and twice turned over the reins of the school to him. He also had close associations with Franklin S. Harris, who had been his student, and with Ernest L. Wilkinson, who graduated from the university in Brimhall’s last presidential year and later served as BYU’s president from 1951 to 1971. Thus Brimhall’s interaction with the school’s leadership covered a period of one hundred years.
As a Church educator, he also associated with every Church President from Brigham Young to Heber J. Grant and with Apostles George Albert Smith, David O. McKay, and Joseph Fielding Smith. Spencer W. Kimball and Ezra Taft Benson felt Brimhall’s influence when they attended BYU. President Benson said, “No man has so inspired me with so few spoken words as has President Brimhall.”
Brimhall was one of BYU’s most prolific presidents, and much of the institution’s early history is known today because Brimhall kept detailed diaries, copies of correspondence, and a myriad of recorded talks that included personal and professional information. Some volumes such as Brigham Young University: The First One Hundred Years, Brigham Young University: A School of Destiny, and Brigham Young University: A House of Faith have recorded Brimhall’s tenure; however, his particular contributions have been undervalued within the larger institutional picture. Grandson Raymond Brimhall Holbrook and his wife, Esther Hamilton Holbrook, published a Brimhall biography entitled The Tall Pine Tree: The Life and Work of George H. Brimhall, but it mainly contains details of Brimhall’s family life.
This article seeks to fill in the blanks of Brimhall’s biography. It will serve as a biography of Brimhall’s educational career and will briefly outline his early years and preparation as a professional educator and highlight his unique style and development as a Church educator and his involvement and contributions to BYU’s development. It will also show that in all of Brimhall’s efforts, two personal qualities stood out: first, his personal loyalty, admiration, and love for the Church’s leadership; and second, his belief that positive change comes from a dynamic relationship between teacher and student. He believed that if the Church’s university trained effective teachers, it could change the world.
Early Life and Education
George Henry Brimhall was born in Salt Lake City on December 9, 1852. His father, George Washington Brimhall, had joined the Church in 1832, had come west in 1850, and had eventually settled in Ogden. When George Henry was six years old, he watched settlers in Ogden prepare to burn their homes in advance of the arrival of the U.S. Army in what was called “Johnston’s Army invasion.”George Henry’s mother, Rachel Ann Mayer, was his first teacher. He remembered, “My mother taught me to read in the First Reader, the Second Reader and the Third Reader and then she put into my hands the Book of Mormon.” He attended his first formal school in Ogden at the age of seven.
When George Henry was eleven years old, his parents were called by Church leaders to explore the Colorado River region of southern Nevada on what became known as the Muddy Mission. The object of the mission was to see if pioneer settlements could survive in an area where there was little water or arable land. George Henry’s father recorded, “I told Brother [George A.] Smith I wished to leave my family and go on the mission alone, but he said that without a family along, the methods of traveling would not be known for others with families, who might follow.”The Brimhalls lost all their physical possessions on that mission and returned to Spanish Fork, Utah, one year later, hungry and destitute. This was a defining experience for George Henry, the oldest of the five children who accompanied his parents. Forty-three years later (in 1907), while traveling by train across the same territory, Brimhall noted:
Here and now in the midst of these reminders of our early hardship, hunger, thirst, weariness and danger, I bear my testimony to all men, and especially to the posterity of my parents, that we are more as a family than we would have been had father and mother never been called to the Muddy Mission and filled it to the satisfaction of the leaders of the church. They and we have been blessed thru obedience and the blessings will extend down to our posterity forever.
Obedience to Church leaders became Brimhall’s unwavering standard.
By the age of seventeen, Brimhall discovered that his “ruling passion” was to “move men’s minds.”At the age of eighteen, he attended high school at the Timpanogos Branch of the University of Deseret in nearby Provo taught by Warren and Wilson Dusenberry. His first year there, Brimhall did janitorial work to cover his housing and tuition. When he could not find employment his second year, he ended up walking twelve miles to Spanish Fork on Fridays to do chores there on Saturday. Once, when Brimhall was worried about finances, his father gave the school part of a butchered ox to help pay for tuition. When Brimhall complained that this sacrifice was unfair to the younger children, his mother responded that if he went to school he would be able to help the other children later.
At age nineteen, Brimhall and other young men from Spanish Fork cut down timber in Santaquin Canyon, hauled it to town, and built a school they named the Young Men’s Academy (fig. 2). Brimhall taught at the academy in the winter and farmed in the summer. Young women also attended the academy.There Brimhall met Alsina Elizabeth Wilkins, a student at the academy, whom he married in the Endowment House in Salt Lake City on December 28, 1874.
At twenty-three, Brimhall was married and poor and had two small children to feed.Although already possessing a teacher’s certificate issued by the Utah County Board of Examination, he wanted to enroll in the first class of the Brigham Young Academy (BYA) to study under its principal, Karl G. Maeser. To meet expenses, he worked as a janitor at the academy. The next year he received his normal (teaching) diploma from BYA and became a teacher with administrative responsibilities at Spanish Fork’s elementary school, where he taught until 1883, when he was elected superintendent of Utah County Schools. In 1888, he was named superintendent of Provo City Schools and moved his family to Provo.
Between 1875 and 1882, his family grew to two girls and three boys. In October 1883, a sixth child was born who died shortly thereafter. Brimhall’s wife became ill with brain feverfrom an infection contracted during that childbirth. After months of sickness, it became apparent that mentally she would be unable to care for herself or for her young family. Brimhall wrote to a friend, “My sun has set; from now on I must walk by the light of the moon.” Through a court order, his wife was placed in the new mental care facility in Provo in 1885. She never recovered. Brimhall’s second daughter, Alsina, wrote, “Father made frequent trips to the hospital throughout the years, to see mother, each time returning with a ‘broken heart’ and a ‘contrite spirit.’” In January 1926, Brimhall learned that she was near death after over forty years of living with the sickness. He insisted on bringing her home, where she died the same day with all her family present.
In September 1885, five years before the Manifesto of 1890, Brimhall married a second wife, Flora Robertson, in the Logan Temple.She had also been a student at the Young Men’s Academy in Spanish Fork. Brimhall did not divorce his first wife, so Flora was considered to be an illegal polygamous wife under federal law. He made an effort to conceal his marriage to Flora from federal authorities, but in March 1889, he was informed that Flora had been arrested. He went before the U.S. Commissioner, agreed to appear before a grand jury, and fully expected to be sent to prison. The jury was to hear testimony from his two oldest daughters, who were twelve and thirteen. Later, his daughter Alsina enjoyed telling about the following incident, which took place before the legal proceedings commenced: “One of them [the jurors] came to us as we were just seated in the audience. He asked us if we had been told what to say if we were asked questions. My sister said, ‘Yes, we were. We were told to tell the truth by our father.’ We were not called to the stand to testify.” After the hearing, Brimhall recorded:
A day of deliverance. Attended teachers association. Got my trunk and bed ready for the penitentiary for conscience sake. Appeared for sentence on a charge of having been guilty of committing adultery with my wife Flora. . . . The judge suspended sentence.
The reason for the judge’s action is not explained.
Brimhall had been called to work in the Church’s newly organized Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association (YMMIA) in 1876.In 1885, he was named to a committee of five men to write lessons for the Church auxiliary. While working on a YMMIA lesson, he wrote in his journal:
Worked on Scriptural analysis of Book of Mormon and felt an unspeakable satisfaction on so doing, and I here testify that every time I read the book I have a testimony of it being true and it breathing a spirit [of] joy which I can get from reading no other book.
The Book of Mormon became a key text in Brimhall’s efforts to put theology at the center of Church school curriculum.
In 1891, the BYA board of trustees chairman, Abraham O. Smoot, asked Brimhall, then age thirty-eight, to join Brigham Young Academy’s teaching staff and head the Normal (teacher training) Department.Brimhall saw this as an opportunity to institute innovations in the training school and to pursue his own education. Two years later, the Academy graduated its first college class. Brimhall received the degree of Bachelor of Pedagogy and became BYA Alumni Association’s first president.
At that same time, Brimhall began experiencing severe chest pains, which were later diagnosed as symptoms of a damaged heart.Notwithstanding, in spring 1897 he was called to serve a Church proselytizing mission to Colorado during his summer break. Though he was forty-four years old, had ten children, and was in constant pain, Brimhall was thrilled to accept the call. The mission breathed new life into him. At its conclusion, he wrote, “Free from anxiety and depending on the Lord not from day to day alone but even from hour to hour . . . [the mission] has been one of the most profitable periods of my life physically, mentally, and spiritually.”
That same year, Brimhall was elected president of the Utah Education Association. He had become a champion of the teaching profession. “There is nothing higher,” he declared some years later. “There may be something with more money in it. There may be something with more fame in it. But nothing higher.”In 1898, Brimhall became a member of the General Church Board of Education, which that same year conferred on him the honorary degree of Doctor in Science and Didactics.
Development as a Master Teacher
While on his mission to Colorado, Brimhall recorded preaching to eleven persons, three of whom left the room.However, out of humble, unimpressive beginnings developed an educator who touched the lives of thousands of young men and women under his tutelage.
Much of Brimhall’s success derived from his personality. Church leader Bryant S. Hinckley said Brimhall possessed “an intangible something that leaps from soul to soul like electricity from a dynamo.”Former student Stanley Gunn said that Brimhall “was the teacher that taught so I could not forget.” Brimhall is remembered because he changed lives. For instance, when Brimhall taught a prospective missionary class in 1901, of the 101 students enrolled, about forty percent had “bad habits,” such as “using tobacco, blaspheming, using intoxicants, visiting saloons, idleness and lack of ambition.” By commencement, Brimhall reported that each of the 101 students “keeps the Word of Wisdom, has a desire to learn, has a reverence for the name of Deity, has respect for the Holy Priesthood, and desires to do good to his fellowmen.”
Brimhall’s accomplishments also derived in part from his absolute confidence that his students would succeed. This belief drove him to empower those who sat at his feet. His focus was always on the individual. Brimhall told his classes, “The absence of a [single] student effects [sic] every student in the school. . . . [When a student] is away from school, the entire school is effected just as when one man performs some gallant act. . . . We are moving in the opposite direction to the educational policies of the world.”Only when all students were developing did Brimhall feel he was succeeding. On one occasion, he reported that “all the students in the school who are doing unsatisfactory work could ride in one hack. And it would not need to be a very large one either.”
His genuine regard for each student is evident in this statement: “Every young person is entitled to the encouragement of success.”He consistently told students he cared about them, even when some disappointed him. During one devotional, he said, “I heard the other day that a student thought that I hated him. I could not do it. I may hate lawlessness; I may hate impurity; I may hate dishonesty, but I could not hate one of you.” Brimhall used his affection for students as a tool for discipline. Students kept school standards because they had a great desire to please him. In turn, those students supported the school as alumni, and the school grew and prospered.
In spring 1900, BYA Principal Benjamin Cluff Jr. left on a scientific expedition to Central and South America to prove the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, and Brimhall, age forty-seven, was named the academy’s acting principal.In Cluff’s absence, Brimhall provided vigorous leadership and assumed responsibility to find strong people to serve on BYA’s board of trustees, which was reorganized in 1901 with Joseph F. Smith as president. Among others, Jesse Knight and Lafayette Holbrook became members of the board. Brimhall’s oldest daughter had recently married Knight’s son, and his second daughter was engaged to Holbrook’s son.
Brimhall was a skilled orator and made effective use of the school’s assemblies. He disciplined from the rostrum and used “the sheer power of [his] character and the eloquence of his address” to bring about needed change.One well-known incident arose when a student’s watch was stolen from a gym locker. Brimhall was incensed with the dishonesty. At the next devotional assembly he said that if the culprit had “even so much as a trace of conscience and character, every tick of that watch would say to him, ‘thief! thief! thief! thief! thief!’” The next day Brimhall found “half a dozen watches and several pens on his desk.” Developing students’ character was a goal of Brimhall’s presidential tenure. For Brimhall, “education [was] more than preparing for life, it [was] life.”
In 1901, while Brimhall was acting principal of BYA, John Dewey came to Provo and lectured to the BYA faculty.Right after Dewey’s visit, Brimhall was summoned to Salt Lake City for a special meeting of the Church Board of Education at the office of Church President Lorenzo Snow. Before the board was a proposal to eliminate college work and leave elementary and high school education at BYA and all other Church schools so all college work could be consolidated at the state university in Salt Lake City. This was a pivotal moment for Brigham Young Academy. Brimhall led the argument in favor of keeping college departments at Church schools. However, after a long discussion, President Snow said he favored the University of Utah if the Church could maintain control of it. Brimhall forecasted that “we might get hold of the University, but we could not keep hold of it.” The meeting ended with no action taken. That night Brimhall made a terse entry in his journal: “Meeting of the Board of Education at the President’s Office. Big Discussion. Saved the college Department of BYA. University tried to cut it out of existence.”
In 1902, when special appropriation was provided for the maintenance of the college, Brimhall was delighted. By 1920, BYU was designated as the preeminent Church school for training teachers as other Church schools fed into the Church Teachers College of BYU. BYU also attracted excellent students from state schools, “especially those who contemplate[d] making teaching their vocation.” During these years, Brimhall envisioned “a community of teachers” who would have “education as their life’s work.”
In February 1902, Benjamin Cluff Jr. returned from the South American expedition, and Brimhall turned the reins of the school back to him. Brimhall was worn out, his heart trouble was back, and by March he was so ill that he felt his work had ended.Recently ordained Church President Joseph F. Smith consented for him to travel to California, where Brimhall’s son was serving a mission, to see if Brimhall could recover his health there. Brimhall convalesced in California until April 1903, when he received word that his one-year-old daughter, Alta, had been accidentally killed by a runaway team and wagon in Provo. He immediately returned to Provo, but his health did not improve. He then traveled to Canada, where several of his children were engaged in business. In December 1903, while in Canada, he received a letter from Joseph F. Smith asking him to be president of Brigham Young University. (Benjamin Cluff Jr. had successfully changed the name of the school from Brigham Young Academy to Brigham Young University shortly before he resigned as president. ) Brimhall’s tenure as president of the school (1904–1921) would roughly correspond to Joseph F. Smith’s term as President of the Church (1901–1918).
On April 16, 1904, a frail fifty-one-year-old George Henry Brimhall was inaugurated as BYU’s second president. Joseph B. Keller and Edwin S. Hinckley were named as his counselors.There were 1,275 students enrolled at BYU but only sixty enrolled in the college division. The rest were elementary, intermediate, or high school students. At a devotional assembly that fall, he said to the student body, “As I looked at you coming in and passing down the aisles, I could not help thinking I am scarcely able to preside over so much intelligence and purity.” Brimhall’s health began to improve. He attributed it to God and went forward at a strenuous pace, focusing on the college division. He wrote to the Board of Trustees, “High schools are coming into existence all around us and there is increased demand for college work. Our students, in the near future, will come from high schools seeking learning at the college level. It should therefore, be our policy to strengthen our college faculty and facilities to accommodate this growth.”
At the close of his first year as president, Brimhall reported that the university was “a school of seven schools”: a college, a normal school, a high school, a commercial school, a school of music, a school of arts and industries, and a branch institution (in Beaver, Utah).At the time of Brimhall’s release in 1921, the institution had undergone dramatic change. The steady escalation in student enrollment in the early years of Brimhall’s administration was mainly attributed to lower-division students: “In 1904–5 a total of 1,275 pupils were enrolled, most of whom were high school students.” Elementary student enrollment also saw great expansion, as some of the elementary classes were forced to move from the training school building to the art building in 1912 to accommodate the growth of the grammar school. In addition, college enrollment increased from fewer than 60 to 438 students during the seventeen years of Brimhall’s presidency. The degree of bachelor of arts had replaced the degree of bachelor of pedagogy, and a master’s degree was offered. The first yearbook, The Banyan, had been published. The block Y on a mountain above campus had been painted. Thirty-seven acres of the upper (present) campus had been acquired. The first honorary degree had been conferred, and two new buildings (the Maeser Memorial Building and the Mechanic Arts Building, now known as the Brimhall Building) had been erected on upper campus.
Brimhall’s reputation as an educator spread throughout the Church, the state of Utah, and the nation. Fellow professor and lecturer James L. Barker observed that Brimhall “could go quicker to the heart and truth of a thing and get rid of the non-essentials” than any other educator he had known.Brimhall used the Savior’s example as a backdrop for all aspects of his pedagogical practices:
Teaching was the vocation of the master. The teacher’s work—creative. In the beginning the earth was without form and void; so is the world to the child. The teacher is to make the world for the child, by leading him to discover. The preparation of the material was spiritual. All things created first spiritual then temporal. Man imitates God in preparing and planning.
Brimhall hoped that future teachers studying at BYU would also use the Master as their role model and hoped that the study of pedagogy would be uppermost in their minds. He said, “Normal school students should be filled with the spirit of pedagogical inquiry from first to last.”He was adamant that “as a Normal School, the B.Y.U. needs to exist for the purpose of training teachers for the church, the schools and the world.” His ambition was to make it the place from which Latter-day Saint teachers would go forth to influence the destiny of Utah, the United States, and the kingdom of God.
Of BYU graduates, he said, “We are not the geologists nor the biologists nor the sociologists of the world—more than anything else we are the teachers of the world.”He rejoiced that “rare, indeed, are the cases of failure among those sent forth from our institution as teachers.” “The work in [the pedagogy department],” he said, “does more than just prepare [school] teachers.” In 1900, while serving as acting principal of BYA, he announced the addition of courses on parenthood in the teaching curriculum. Brimhall was pleased that as far as he was aware, “the Latter-day Saints are the first people in the world . . . to make the theory of parenthood a part of their higher education. In no other system of training, have courses in parenthood been included as part of the academic curriculum.”
Brimhall took positions on many issues facing the teaching profession, some of which are still being debated today. For example, he said, “The lower the grade the better the teacher needed,” and “the highest salary should go with the best teacher!”Well ahead of his time, he declared, “It is piracy to pay a woman less than a man gets for the same work.” Aretta Young, an art professor at BYU (1885–1923), said of Brimhall: “No other man of my acquaintance has done so much to give dignity to the professional woman.” Brimhall also grasped the concept of alternative education. He proclaimed, “Educate all the people all of the time, not just some of the people some of the time. School should open six nights as well as six days.”
Brimhall believed that BYU’s academic community was a unique place where scholars could reconcile science and religion. He explained:
We have not only to supply the immediate and growing demands for teachers, but we have also great educational problems to work out in the light of the Gospel, problems which can not be solved in educational institutions where the field of revelation is either forbidden ground, or looked upon as unprofitable. To our minds, it seems that upon
us as a people<the church schools> rests the responsibility of bringing to the world, a harmony between science and religion, and to do this we must be in possession of both.
A core principle of Brimhall’s educational philosophy was that a school is responsible for instilling hope for a productive future in its students. He believed this responsibility was shared by administration and faculty, and he encouraged innovation to accomplish it. Student Ruth Roberts Lusk, who was born with a cleft palate, benefited from these innovations. After undergoing surgery, she came to BYU’s Normal school program. There she met with the director of the Normal School, James Lehi Brown, and teacher Hermese Peterson. Under Brimhall’s direction, these two educators pioneered work in speech therapy. Lusk felt that her experience showed “the unique vision, flexibility and freedom which was possible under the presidency of George H. Brimhall.” She observed that Brown and Peterson “could not have devoted their time and talents to this pioneering endeavor without the beaming approval of President Brimhall,” and she called the experience a miracle where the dumb had learned to speak.
Brimhall and his contemporaries envisioned the present college campus on land known as Temple Hill. Apparently Brigham Young had prophesied that a Church temple would be built there, but many believed it would be a “temple of learning.”The student newspaper, the White and Blue, on October 24, 1911, read: “It may not be the kind of a temple that was in the minds of the dreams of the youth of that former day,” but fulfillment of the prophecy is “apparent in the prospect that a temple of learning . . . shall crown this hill.” Church funds for such expansion were scarce. Brimhall had to turn elsewhere for support.
Brimhall asked students to support the effort to acquire Temple Hill by giving up their pleasure money. Students went without candy, gum, shows, and dances for three weeks and raised $1,049 to help purchase the land where the new college campus would be built.But his main support came from mining magnate Jesse Knight. The Knights and Brimhalls were close neighbors and trusted friends. In 1905, Brimhall recorded that Knight invited him to have a soda water with him; Knight told Brimhall of his struggle to quit tobacco. Brimhall wrote in his diary, “I have felt that I would like to put my hands on his [Knight’s] head and bless him that he may not fail. The chief purpose of this effort is to put himself [Knight] in a condition that he may have the spirit of the Lord to direct him in the use of his wealth.” The next year, Knight gave BYU five hundred acres of land on the Provo Bench to be sold as needed for revenue. This was not the only instance when Knight came to Brimhall’s aid. Their relationship was so close that when Knight died the month before Brimhall was released as president of the university, Brimhall confided in his journal, “I’ve lost the presence of my strongest friend. How he would carry me through trouble. I seem now to be quite alone. He understood me, rain and snow.”
With the help of the students and Jesse Knight, the land was secured, and Brimhall suggested to the board of trustees “that steps be taken to erect a new building to cost from $75,000.00 to $100,000.00.” He felt “the cost . . . could be met by appealing to the Alumni Association and to the friends and patrons of the institution.”The building would be exclusively dedicated to college classes and was to be known as the Maeser Memorial, to represent the school’s devotion to its past. Karl G. Maeser had been Brimhall’s chief mentor. Brimhall had spoken at Maeser’s funeral and helped raise the money for a plaque in his hometown in Germany. Many compared the two educators. James E. Talmage, a BYA classmate of Brimhall’s, once wrote to Brimhall, “You are the man upon whose shoulders the mantle of our beloved Brother Maeser rested and you have worn it well.” The imposing college classroom building was to be the first building on the proposed new college campus, a campus that was designed to include academic buildings and a temple.
The dedication of Temple Hill and ground breaking took place in January 1908. The building was completed in fall 1911 and dedicated May 30, 1912,but paying for it became one of Brimhall’s chief activities over the next eight years. “Among others, the faculty contributed . . . some sacrificing ‘what would mean a half year’s salary.’” The initial effort netted $41,125, of which $33,000 came from the Jesse Knight family and $5,350 from the Lafayette Holbrook family.
By 1914, the obligations incurred for the completion of the Maeser Memorial building had grown into a great liability for the school. Its financial situation was so desperate that unofficial reports circulated that BYU would be closed or consolidated with another Church school in Salt Lake City. The school’s board of trustees, which at that time was distinct from the Church’s General Board of Education, met in June 1914 and ordered Brimhall to liquidate assets.In October, Knight came to Brimhall’s rescue with an endowment of $100,000 in irrigation stock. In addition, various other measures were taken, including the Church’s purchasing of the school’s assets, before BYU was able to recover financially. The building was paid for at a final cost of $114,000.
Throughout Brimhall’s tenure at BYU, he wrestled with the institution’s financial problems, but he did not seem to worry much about his own financial situation. To help pay for the Maeser Memorial he once contributed half his annual salary to the school.He had a large and growing family—five surviving children from his first marriage and eight from his second. Thanks to the Knights, the Brimhall family lived in a comfortable home in Provo (fig. 3), but they never had wealth. Referring to the years he served at BYU, Brimhall’s wife Flora wrote, “The spirit of our home was loving and serving. We lived generously, gladly, freely in the spirit of the master. What though we didn’t acquire a bank account?”
For Brimhall, an important function of Brigham Young University was to train missionaries. When the school was still an academy, he and Cluff had presented plans for missionary training classes to the Board of Trustees.Once implemented, these classes quickly bore fruit. Mission president German F. Ellsworth wrote Brimhall, “We feel that the greatest thing that your school has done to the missionaries who have come to us is to help them to gain a testimony of the Gospel.” Brimhall also established a student mentoring program in which each student had a personal advisor from the theology faculty. He expected these mentors to give students “special confidence, counsel, and guidance.”
Brimhall began classes in health training, woodworking, kindergarten work, and mechanical arts.He was open to suggestions for course offerings from others. Zina Young Card’s correspondence with him suggested she be hired to teach a short course “for the instruction of our dear girls with regard to the future duties that will rest upon them as wives and mothers.” Card, who served on BYU’s board of trustees, insisted she was being led by “the promptings of the Spirit.” In similar fashion, Susa Young Gates, who also served on the school’s board of trustees, shared her vision of putting the “study of genealogy into our Church schools,” insisted that BYU “take the lead in this, . . . as in everything else,” and encouraged the establishment of a genealogical library. Brimhall responded affirmatively to both of these requests.
When Latter-day Saint men began serving in the military because of World War I, Brimhall informed President Joseph F. Smith, “There is a demand here in the school for military training, and unless we supply that demand, a number of our boys will undoubtedly leave school to get this training.”Three faculty members were sent to the Presidio in San Francisco, California, to train as military instructors. BYU officially opened its Army Training Corps Center in October 1918.
Above all, Brimhall wanted religious education to permeate every aspect of the BYU experience. He informed faculty and students:
Every department in our great school contributes to the department of religious education. The job of the religious education department as a specific unit is merely to crystalize all that is given elsewhere; to turn the stream of knowledge accruing in each class into the pulsating living flood of human interest which some style the humanitarian movement, but which we call vitalized religion.
Brimhall believed religious education was the difference between BYU and every other institution of higher learning: “The Brigham Young University holds an enviable position among the institutions of higher learning throughout the United States. Its departments of natural and mathematical sciences, commerce, history, music, art, and education all receive splendid recognition. But primarily it is a University of Religion.”The authors of Brigham Young University: The First One Hundred Years wrote that Brimhall was “determined to make BYU universally acceptable to the [LDS] religious community, incorporating moral and theological training as an integral part of the school’s academic program.”
Though Brimhall is BYU’s only president to have received all his education at BYU, including receiving an honorary doctorate degree from his alma mater, he looked for educational ideas from those of his generation who were pedagogy pioneers. Taking several trips to the eastern United States, he visited Parker’s school in Chicago, the Horace Mann School, and Columbia University and engaged speakers to come to BYU. In June 1914, he spent days listening to John Dewey lecture in Provo.Brimhall lectured on “Parker’s principles on Unity of Idea”; shared the wisdom of William James, whom some believed to be America’s greatest philosopher; discussed formative and informative education; and defined the pedagogical creeds of several other modern educators.
Influence on Individual Students
U.S. Congressman Don B. Colton said he had never met anyone who had more “heart power . . . [for] causing others to know, to grow and to feel” than George H. Brimhall.Family friend A. T. Thurber added that Brimhall was “life’s unsevered tie between [his] pupils and eternity” and that Thurber and others would “carry more of Dr. Brimhall [with them] than any other man, not excepting loved and honored fathers.” James E. Talmage, a former classmate of Brimhall’s, repeated a similar sentiment, remembering Brimhall as “a source of help and inspiration” during his student days and long afterwards.
Brimhall’s largeness of heart was manifest in the fact that, as one student wrote of him, “[His] true joy was helping young men and women do their best to reach their potentials.”He created a positive personal affinity with individual students. Despite a packed schedule, he focused on individuals instead of groups. He believed this ultimately saved him time and helped him realize his objectives for BYU. In a 1910 interview for the Improvement Era, Brimhall said that the most important characteristic of a teacher is sympathy. “What an awful thing it is,” he said, “when you come to think of it, to allow any young person in our charge to lose heart . . . when almost the only really helpful thing we are able to give is an uplift!”
If a student left school without completing a program, Brimhall believed it was not only tragic for the individual, but also indicative of an institutional weakness. Brimhall told one young woman that her unnecessary withdrawal dealt a blow to the school. If one student failed, Brimhall saw the “collective body” of BYU weakening.Time spent with students was put at the center of his administrative schedule.
Brimhall’s devotionals at the beginning of the school year typically included an invitation for students to visit him in his office. He counseled, “Don’t be afraid to come and see me. I would like it if there was a stream of you coming from time to time.”He reassured them that “nobody comes to the office of the president to be reprimanded—that is a place where students come for counsel and never to be scolded or reprimanded.” In his office, Brimhall tried to ignite enthusiasm in down-hearted students. They were asked to report their progress to him, after which he would follow up with encouragement. In one report, student Leland Stott admitted he had “been rather neglectful of [his] secret prayers,” praying only occasionally. He also reported missing some church meetings. Thanking Brimhall for his interest, Stott wrote, “The thing I appreciated more than anything else was the little private talk I had with you in your office. It has been a great help and a wonderful encouragement to me.” The following is a typical report found in the Brimhall presidential papers:
Dear President Brimhall,
1–Yes, I pray daily
2–I have only missed two Devotional Exercises so far this year other than when I have been absent from school.
3–I have neglected going to Sunday services in the past in that I have averaged about two a month, but I have done much better on my mid-week meetings.
When reports did not materialize or were unsatisfactory, Brimhall wrote home to parents.These reports were Brimhall’s way of ensuring that struggling students had every possible chance to improve before being asked to leave the school. The withdrawal policy seems to have mandated a visit to the president’s office to ask for a release. There Brimhall tried to provide students with perspective, draw them away from their problems, introduce them to a broader view, and lift their spirits. In typical fashion, he told one struggling student:
It is possible for a person to draw the ills of life so close to their eyes that they entirely shut out the possibility of the entrance of sunshine. You have much to live for. You were intended to perform a mission of usefulness on the earth and it rests with you to see that every prediction that has been made concerning your success is fulfilled—that is a part of your mission. . . . I have no hesitancy in assuring you that universally the school extends towards you the confidence and love that is due a sister [in the gospel].
Brimhall reported that one student walked into the office and told him that he wanted to graduate. Brimhall said, “I think you can,” to which the student replied, “I will,” and walked out with determination.Brimhall was willing to spend time with “prospective quitters,” as he called them.
At the same time, Brimhall understood if a student had a valid reason to withdraw. One student who withdrew from BYU and received personal support from Brimhall was Spencer W. Kimball, who later became president of the school’s board of trustees. Kimball reported to Brimhall that the “cause of [his] absence from school and [his] abrupt discontinuance” therefrom was the result of having “received an authoritative call to arms from the authorities of the United States.” Kimball then wrote, “I wish to express my appreciation for the kindness and consideration with which I have been treated while in [the University’s] midst.”In typical fashion, Brimhall acknowledged Kimball’s correspondence with these heartening and prophetic words:
You have a flood of friends in the B.Y.U.
Your sudden call was something of a disappointment to us as we had hoped to have your valued services in the student body this year. . . . You will be a valiant defender of the truth, physically, intellectually, morally, and spiritually. God bless you our dear friend, brother, student. . . .
With the assurance that the Lord will have you in mind wherever you go, and that whatever road you may take in the end you will be among the triumphant ones.
Another student, Margaret Maw, remembered Brimhall coming to her hometown of Deseret, Utah, in 1892, soon after he had joined the BYA faculty. After a visit from Brimhall, she and her bishop were convinced that the financial way could be opened for her to attend BYA. In Brimhall and other teachers at BYU, Maw found some of her greatest influences. She fondly recalled that at one social gathering Brimhall remarked, “Now, there’s Margaret—she will bring forth Washingtons and Lincolns in her family.” After Maw finished her first year at the academy, Brimhall recommended her for a teaching position in Spring Lake. He informed Maw that the position would be challenging (in her words, “The pupils were in the habit of throwing out their teachers”), but assured Maw she would succeed. After a week of teaching, Maw came into Brimhall’s office, burst into tears, and cried: “Brother Brimhall! I’ve expelled a boy the first week—it happens its [sic] the boy where I board too—I didn’t know it at the time. . . . I threw him out by the coat collar.” Maw recalled that after she had finished, Brimhall said, “What are you crying for? You’re in! You’ve done just what had to be done. You’ll have no more trouble over there. You’ve made it, girl! I’m proud of you.” Maw went on to finish the year, becoming one of the county’s finest teachers, and later proclaimed that Brimhall’s tremendous confidence in her over the years had caused her to grow considerably.
Brimhall believed that teachers, administrators, and parents typically overreact to young people’s behavior. He tended to minimize a student’s infractions and to encourage the student to move onward and upward. For example, when a young man admitted that he frequented a “dive,” Brimhall applauded him for being “frank, and above-board” about it. He denounced what the young man had done but said he had “full faith in [the young man’s] integrity as a student in the future.” Of the situation, Brimhall wrote:
No amount of censure or harsh words on my part could make him regret the occurrence more than he does, or do him any good. I believe that time and kind counsel will give him a chance to prove that he can and will rise above any such line of conduct.
I am more interested in what the boy will do than what he has done and I have full faith that he will improve every day he is kept here in school.
Ray Olpin, president of the University of Utah from 1946 to 1964 and former BYU student, put Brimhall’s unique blend of discipline this way: “President Brimhall is possessed of a stern demeanor and bluntly frank in expressing his aims and convictions—but he was endowed with the most sympathetic understanding and greatest power of appreciation of any man I have ever met.”After telling one young man that if he continued his current course of behavior he would be expelled, Brimhall confessed that, notwithstanding, he was willing to throw himself “into the jaws of a lion or in the cannon’s mouth [to help him].” Brimhall’s personal interest was a constant in every student’s life. He wrote the following to a student who lost her mother:
The loss of a mother is more than words can express, and then such a mother as you had. We know her through you. Children reflect their parents. The sympathy of the entire faculty and student body is extended to you. . . . We, of course, are powerless to aid you any further than to give you the comfort and consolation that may come from dear friends. . . . You are young and time will dull the edge of the sword of sorrow. . . . Be brave and true as you
nwere in school. Your mother’s spirit is affected by you and your conduct on the earth. Unnecessary grief and sorror [sic] is painful to the spirits of the departed ones. Cultivate cheer and happiness, shed a radiance of hope all around you in the family and you will gain an increase in sweetness and strength of character.
As T. N. Taylor said at Brimhall’s funeral services, Brimhall’s “heart was in the work.”Heart power was a large part of his leadership style.
In a 1905 devotional, Brimhall characterized his administrative practice. He told of finding one of the university’s leading students, one he labeled “an educational thoroughbred,” in a room where students were not supposed to be and reprimanded the student sharply. Later, the young man came into Brimhall’s office and admitted he was wrong. “You know as a rule I do not do those things,” the student said. Brimhall admitted the behavior had been abnormal, then added, “We will sweep the stairs from the top down. If it had been a first year student, I probably would not have gone at it in that way.”Because this young man was a leader, he was expected to set an example.
Brimhall expected the same of himself as an administrator. He was the exemplar, requiring more of himself than of others, never asking a subordinate to do things he himself would not do. He held himself to a rigid decorum and was willing to admit when he deviated from it. He was once two minutes late for a devotional. His opening words were, “I feel that I owe the school an apology.”But Brimhall was also known for the patience and concern he showed to those in his stewardship. His granddaughter Jennie H. Groberg recalled hearing Ida Jensen Romney, who served as Brimhall’s personal secretary for a time, remark that “next to her husband [Marion G. Romney, who served in the First Presidency of the Church], no one had influenced her life for good as had President Brimhall.”
Brimhall’s influence on faculty and staff began with the hiring process. He was adamant that he select teachers himself. If a prospective teacher was a member of the Church, the first and essential qualifications he looked for were loyalty to the Church and love for the restored gospel. He gave more than lip service to this requirement. A prospective teacher who was denied employment complained:
From my conversations with you and your letters to me it is evident that I have given you the impression that I am out of sympathy with the Church and all that it stands for. While I concede that I have said and written things which would lead you to this conclusion, yet I surmise that you have looked me over suspiciously, as people do one who has been away to a University.
I am of the impression that while you have sympathy with Mormons, you are out of sympathy with Mormonism. I think you look upon Mormon doctrine as back-number philosophy and the followers of it as at least quasi-deceived. What we call inspiration, you would denominate as imagination; what we call zeal, approaches fanaticism in your mind; what we call divine interference, is to you superstition to a certain extent.
. . . Your inference that people who attend universities are generally looked upon with suspicion, seems to me to be just a little inappropriate. . . .
I am delighted that you are desirous of getting into a church university, but I should shun the responsibility of being instrumental in your obtaining a position in one . . . when your chief motive was the development and improvement of yourself. When a person steps on the rostrum as a teacher, his chief interest must be in those he teaches—the self must be forgotten.
Under Brimhall’s criterion, if one’s “chief motive was the development and improvement of [him]self,” that individual did not qualify to teach at the Church school. However, this criterion did not seem to mean that only Church members could teach at BYU. Annie Pike Greenwood, who was not a Church member, wrote that there was “not one of us but what would strain every nerve to bring about the accomplishment of that which he [Brimhall] desired or suggested and we not only did the thing, but we outdid ourselves, surprised ourselves with a best that we did not know we possessed for it was President Brimhall who knew how to unlock the secret doors of our beings.”Hiring qualified teachers was never easy, and keeping them at BYU was always a challenge and a constant concern to Brimhall, who nevertheless managed to keep many teachers even when they were offered higher salaries elsewhere.
Brimhall wanted the best teachers and the latest teachings. He read much and was always open to new ideas, but at heart he was a down-to-earth man who had learned more from his frontier life than from his studies. Professor Harvey Fletcher, who later became a renowned physicist, recalled the following experience that actually endeared him to his university president:
One day I received a call to come into President’s [sic] Brimhall’s office for a conference. Four of the older students in my class were there as a committee complaing [sic] that I was teaching false laws of physics. They repeated a statement that I had made that day in class about action and reaction. I said that when a pair of horses were pulling a wagon down the street, the wagon pulled back with just the same force that the horses pulled forward. They said any simpleton could see that the wagon would not move under those circumstances. Of course, that is a very fundamental law in physics and my statement represented the basic fact in mechanics and dynamics. I argued with President Brimhall and with the students and even with a chemistry professor who was there, but to no avail. I had to leave with Brimhall saying, “Now, Brother Fletcher, you are young and when you have a little more experience you will see the fallacy of this statement.”
Brimhall Confronts Modern Academia
In 1907, in an effort to improve the college faculty’s academic standing, Brimhall hired two brothers: Joseph Peterson (who held a PhD from the University of Chicago and was the first PhD employed by BYU) and Henry Peterson (who held degrees from the University of Chicago and Harvard). The next year he hired Ralph Chamberlin (who held a PhD from Cornell). In 1909, Ralph’s brother, William Chamberlin, was hired. Though William did not hold a doctorate degree, he had been trained at Harvard, the University of California, the University of Chicago, and the University of Utah. Joseph Peterson oversaw the psychology department, and Henry Peterson, a member of the Church’s Sunday School General Board, helped oversee the College of Education. Ralph Chamberlin took charge of BYU’s Biology Department, and William Chamberlin taught psychology, philosophy, and languages. All four were active Latter-day Saints and enthusiastic to be teaching at a Church school. They took interest in the students and invigorated the campus with the spirit of scientific inquiry.
Brimhall, pleased with the exciting new atmosphere, saw it as the realization of the vision he had had in mind when he hired the teachers. Apparently the fact that the new professors believed in and taught organic evolution did not concern Brimhall, and he appointed the Peterson brothers and William Chamberlin as part-time theology faculty.However, their teaching soon led to a real campus crisis.
Though this incident is often called “BYU’s evolution controversy,” the real crisis for Brimhall and the Church General Board of Education came over the teaching of higher criticism in which scientific theories were used to explain the development of theological beliefs. Richard Sherlock says, “Ostensibly the source of the controversy was the teaching of evolution, but the crucial issue was . . . the broader question of scholarly endeavor and religious interpretation.”The new teachers began to have a large following across campus, which led to heated discussions with those who disagreed with the four teachers’ views on scripture, revelation, prayer, sin, Satan, and the Creation. Reports of these teachings reached Church headquarters from as far away as Mexico and were referred to Brimhall’s superior, Superintendent of Church Schools Horace Hall Cummings.
In response, Cummings visited BYU in November and December 1910 for nine days and then reported to Church leaders, as one reviewer of Cummings’s report stated, “the positive as well as negative effects the new learning seemed to have on students.” The same reviewer noted that, in a positive vein, Cummings had reported that many on campus had successfully reconciled Latter-day Saint doctrine and modernism, increased their class attendance, and participated in stimulating good-natured discussion. In addition, Cummings believed most students had not lost faith.On the other hand, he also noted that some teachers and students had struggled so fiercely to accept the teachings of the professors that they had often been robbed of appetite and sleep.
During some classes, he felt the Chamberlins’ and Petersons’ words were full of darkness as “they applied evolutionary theory and other philosophical hypothesis [sic] to principles of the gospel and to the teachings of the Church in such a way as to disturb, if not destroy the faith of the pupils.”Philosopher Tim S. Reid reported that Ralph Chamberlin and the Petersons “believed that when scripture and science conflicted on certain points, scripture must give way to science.” Cummings concluded that “faith now seems to be regarded with pity, as superstition, and is not a characteristic of the intellectually trained.” Church leaders became concerned that the teachers were distorting some doctrinal principles and favored scientific explanations over religious ones.
Brimhall believed the faculty members themselves could work out these differences. In December 1910, he wrote President Joseph F. Smith, “As they look at it their teachings are in perfect harmony with the principles of the Gospel, but there are certainly many who cannot perceive that harmony, and, therefore it seems to me that a little waiting with their working will be in keeping with greater wisdom on their part.”However, Cummings was determined to bring the matter to a head. In his autobiography, Cummings states that after some students told Brimhall “they had quit praying, as they had learned in school that there is no real God to hear them,” Brimhall began to worry. Cummings wrote that Brimhall had a dream, which came as a direct warning. Cummings recorded:
[Brimhall] saw several of the B.Y.U. professors standing around a peculiar machine on the campus. When one of them touched a spring a baited fish hook attached to a long thin wire rose rapidly into the air. . . .
Casting his eyes around the sky he discovered a flock of snow-white birds circling among the clouds and desporting themselves in the sky, seemingly very happy. Presently one of them, seeing the bait on the hook darted toward it and grabbed it. Instantly one of the proffessors [sic] on the ground touched a spring in the machine, and the bird was rapidly hauled down to the earth.
On reaching the ground the bird proved to be a B.Y.U. student, clad in an ancient Greek costume, and was directed to join a group of other students who had been brought down in a similar manner. Bro. Brimhall walked over to them, and noticing that all of them looked very sad, discouraged and downcast, he asked them:
“Why, students, what on earth makes you so sad and down-hearted?”
“Alas, we can never fly again!” they replied with a sigh and a sad shake of the head.
Their Greek phylosophy [sic] had tied them to the earth. They could believe only what they could demonstrate in the laboratory. Their prayers could go no higher then [sic] the ceiling. They could see no heaven—no hereafter.
In January 1911, Cummings sent a report to the Church’s General Board of Education outlining observations about “the nature and effect of certain theological instructions” being given at the school. These observations included the following: Teaching that “the flood was only a local inundation of unusual extent . . . ; the confusion of tongues came about by the scattering of the families descended from Noah when they became too numerous for the valley they originally occupied . . . ; winds blew the waters of the Red Sea . . . ; Christ’s temptation is only an allegory of what takes place in each of our souls . . . ; there is no personal devil to tempt us . . . ; John the Revelator was not translated . . . ; ordinances may be helpful props to weak mortals . . . ; all truths change as we change . . . ; visions and revelations are mental suggestions.” He also stated that “the objective reality of the presence of the Father and the Son, in Joseph Smith’s first vision, is questioned.”
Cummings declared that although these teachers were “perhaps the strongest and best educated men in the faculty,” they “converted many of the other teachers and most of the students, to their views.”One week later, Cummings summarized his report before the faculty. Brimhall aligned himself with Cummings. In response, teacher Amos Merrill called for a faculty committee to investigate the veracity of Cummings’s report. According to one historian, Brimhall asked his faculty to keep criticism of university administration and the Church general board of education in the background and remain loyal to the university.
Once he understood the position of the leadership of the Church on this matter, Brimhall acted quickly, wishing he had acted sooner. “I recognize now that a more vigorous course of action on my part might have been better,” Brimhall wrote to his friend Senator and Apostle Reed Smoot, “but I was lenient, and patiently hopeful that men would change gradually as they have in other cases, but the storm, instead of dying out, increased in its fury.” He continued by telling Smoot, “I would rather the Maeser Memorial remain a sealed tomb containing our college hopes and ambitions . . . than to have its doors thrown open to influences antagonistic to the heroism, inspiration and revelation of those who have made the school.”
The Church’s General Board of Education minutes reveal Brimhall’s course of action:
[Brimhall] expressed himself to the effect that the only thing that he could see to do was to get rid of these teachers. He had patiently labored with them in the hope that they would change their attitude and abstain from thrusting their objectionable views before the classes but it seemed that they were more determined than ever to teach theology according to their own ideas and theories, instead of according to the revealed truth, and he therefore saw no alternative but to dispense with their services.
A special committee consisting of five Apostles, Brimhall, and Cummings met with the Peterson brothers and Ralph Chamberlin. During a five-hour meeting, the three teachers supported their belief in higher criticism of the Bible and “balked at recognizing the authority of the university president or Board of Trustees to rule on questions of science.”
After deliberating, the committee agreed that the teachers would either need to conform to the committee’s instructions or leave the university. When Brimhall pleaded with the professors to change their curriculum, Ralph Chamberlin’s response was, “I never gave a public lecture on evolution until I had consulted you as to whether it would be all right. You urged me to do it. Now, why have you changed suddenly?”
William Chamberlin taught at BYU until 1916. Joseph Peterson and Ralph Chamberlin left the university voluntarily. Henry Peterson had to be dismissed.It was a heart-rending experience for Brimhall. He wrote a letter of termination to Henry Peterson and sent a copy to President Joseph F. Smith, adding these words: “This is the first time during our administration that we have had occasion to handle a teacher and the necessity is very, very painful to us.”
When word of the dismissals spread across campus, students circulated a petition against the decision. The Provo Herald reported that as much as 90 percent of the student body signed it.Among faculty who signed were Carl F. Eyring, B. F. Larsen, and Hyrum Manwaring. On March 16, 1911, Brimhall spoke to the BYU student body and faculty, comparing the crisis with the Mormon exodus. He described the suffering of the early Mormon pioneers that had fled Nauvoo, Illinois, in winter 1846. He said that for every one of them it was a moment of decision whether to follow Brigham Young. There was murmuring, he commented, and some chose not to follow the prophet. Those who did follow circled their wagons against the wind and cold. “The fugitives sheltered by those . . . wagons and tents were the people of whom we are the children,” Brimhall said to the assembled, “. . . I ask you, my beloved students, not to give evidence to the world that you have lost faith in the leaders of Israel.”
Nevertheless, a cloud of gloom descended over campus, and for the next few months Brimhall worked hard to improve morale. In a letter to Smoot in May, he wrote, “I would be in perfect misery if I were not in harmony with those over me—I can stand it to be out of harmony with others.”Part-time BYU instructor Juliaetta Bateman Jensen was temporarily out of harmony with Brimhall. In her journal, she disclosed:
This fight has been extremely bitter in many ways. Pres. B. [Brimhall] has talked to his faculty in the most insulting, uncultured manner such as no truly educated president would do to his faculty many of whom are far, far superior to him in scholarship, and in everything else. I have lost all my respect for him. . . . If the school is not injured I shall miss my guess.
Another who criticized was Utah educator Milton Bennion. In the Utah Educational Review, Bennion suggested that those who asked the professors to leave were confusing “essentials and non-essentials in faith.”
Despite Brimhall’s efforts over the next few years, some believed that the professional status of the faculty did not recover until the 1920s. Thomas L. Martin, BYU Dean of Applied Sciences, observed:
We lost much when the Chamberlains and the Petersons left us. If some of the narrowness which caused the upheaval in 1911 could have been prevented from exercising its power, I believe the vision that George H. Brimhall had in mind would have been accomplished; and if we could have had a free hand with these men and their associates, people would be singing our praises.
The centennial volume Brigham Young University: The First One Hundred Years reads:
The significant implications of the events of 1911 concerned authority. Brimhall had been slow to react and reluctant to exercise authority when he might have avoided the catastrophe; however, he became acutely aware that the Church Board was the governing power in the Church school system. After the modernism controversy died down Brimhall was much more sensitive to the attitude of the Church Board of Education concerning academic matters.
Notwithstanding this assessment, research shows that Brimhall was consistently sensitive to the Church Board. However, in this episode, Brimhall’s two great causes, his religion and education, seemed to collide. He wanted the best-qualified teachers at BYU, but even more importantly he wanted the school to follow the leadership of the presiding authorities of the Church. For Brimhall, the former was desirable, but the latter was essential. The incident had both negative and positive effects on the school. His actions had exhibited his “complete loyalty to Church leaders [and] won the school acceptance in the eyes of the presiding authorities of the Church.”Even in the midst of the controversy, Brimhall perceived this positive result. He explained to Smoot:
The going of these professors will perhaps disturb the college and interfere with its immediate growth. They will have a following, but like the Church, in a short time the school will not only retrieve its losses, but out of the accident [incident] God will bring glory to the institution until it will be said, “It is a good thing it happened.” There are some people who predict the death of the college if these men go. I am ready to say that if the life of the college depends upon any number of men out of harmony with the brethren who preside over the Church, then it is time for the college to die. . . . The school follows the Church, or it ought to stop.
BYU Permanently Tied to the Church
Brimhall believed that the Church’s mission was larger than the school’s mission. He believed that it was only as an arm of the Church that the school was destined to achieve greatness. Although there were times during his administration when, due to financial problems, board members and others suggested that BYU be closed, moved, or turned over to the state, Brimhall was confident that because of its Church connection the institution would survive and prosper. He cultivated Church leaders’ involvement, often extending invitations to General Authorities to visit campus. When he was the acting principal, he invited Lorenzo Snow to attend the school’s annual Handshake Dance so students could shake a prophet’s hand. He gave the First Presidency and members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles frequent campus tours. He invited them to present summer school lectures and asked the President of the Church to give graduates their diplomas.
Brimhall’s administration roughly paralleled President Joseph F. Smith’s administration. Brimhall revered President Joseph F. Smith and said that BYU students and faculty, regardless of membership in the Church, were like President Smith’s own family.The feeling was mutual. President Smith wrote to Brimhall, “We need you, Brother George. There is work for you to do of greater value than all earthly riches, and you possess richly the spirit of that work, and you have been endowed with gifts and wisdom which fit you for it in an unusual degree.”
Brimhall also admired and established close personal relationships with other General Authorities. He was especially close to Heber J. Grant. Brimhall’s papers are replete with correspondence between him and Elder Grant, full of words of mutual respect and admiration. Brimhall often complimented Elder Grant and stood firmly behind Elder Grant’s constant request that Latter-day Saints keep the Word of Wisdom. At one time, Brimhall suggested that a building be erected on the BYU campus named the “Word of Wisdom Memorial.” He proposed that funds could be raised by getting students to contribute their “tobacco money to the building fund.”
Though the two men shared similar goals for BYU, differences did arise. On one occasion, Elder Grant opposed keeping a certain professor whom Brimhall favored retaining. Elder Grant acquiesced to Brimhall and, according to Brimhall’s recollection, stated, “If that is the way you feel about it, I have no desire to press my side any further.” After the meeting, Brimhall wrote to Elder Grant, “The tenderness with which you handled my feelings on that occasion sweetened, beyond expression, the strong attachments which had existed before.” He said that Elder Grant’s tone of voice was “so full of sincerity and respect” that it “almost crushed [him]” and that he felt like he “was being melted under the radiant ray of brotherly love.” He ended the letter by testifying, “The nearer I get to my brethren, the more perfect they become to me.”
Brimhall also developed a close personal relationship with David O. McKay. Elder McKay’s assignments in the Quorum of the Twelve gave him extensive influence over Church education. Brimhall’s daughter Fawn married Elder McKay’s brother, Thomas E., so when Elder McKay visited campus, he stayed as a guest at the Brimhall home.The correspondence between these two leaders does not have the same sentimentality as that expressed between President Grant and Brimhall. Both are completely open and frank.
One example involves a letter from a faculty member who had written to Elder McKay complaining about the discontinuance of one of her courses. In turn, Elder McKay told Brimhall to set the teacher straight, assuring him that the faculty member was taking “a wrong view of this entire matter.”Brimhall’s response to Elder McKay was straightforward: “[The teacher’s] firmness borders on her obstinacy in not yielding to anything she does not recognize as authority, and at the same time her willingness to obey the decision of recognized authority puts her in the category of those whose humility guards very strongly against humiliation, and she is very tender on the latter point.” Brimhall’s open and respectful relationship with Elder McKay and with Church leaders in general is expressed in the letter’s conclusion: “Your explanations and statements concerning your attitude towards the department and the teacher is all-sufficient for me. I would have needed no explanation and no line of argument beyond your candid declaration.”
Brimhall hoped students would tie themselves to the Church in the same manner as he tied the institution to it. Shortly after becoming the university’s president, he pled with the student body, “I would have you love the policy of the Church of Jesus Christ. I would have you love the ideal we are working to. I would have you students be able to say, ‘I have no need to step outside of the Church for things I need for my enjoyment.’”Brimhall often spoke to students about Church loyalty. He thought devotion to the Church should be their natural inclination: “You have been the guests of the Church, and you have also been the guests of the Board, who have served without pay. I hope none of you will assume to be host or hostess.” He said, “I did not create this university; you did not create it. I have not maintained it; you have not maintained it. I am an employee. And shall the employees presume to instruct the employer and tell him how his business should be run? Is it good taste on the part of the guest to indicate how the banquet shall be served?”
Brimhall believed that if BYU were run on gospel principles it would have success and unity. In a devotional to the campus, he said he believed the university was “the mountain of the Lord’s house educationally, the parent institution, the institution that must be the pattern for the latter-day [sic] Saint world.” Speaking of his own appointment, he said, “My brethren called and appointed me to, not simply to take charge of the school in an educational way, but in a Church way, an official Church way.” He continued by admonishing the students to combine their faith with their studies: “I hope the Lord will bless you to be Latter-day Saints in your educational work, that in your coming here you may learn the government of the Church, and love the government of the Church, and walk therein.”
End of an Era
The last few years of Brimhall’s administration were marked by a renewed emphasis on teacher training. World War I, along with the influenza epidemic of 1918, greatly affected BYU’s enrollment and finances. Many students and faculty left and could not be replaced. In 1918 the university transferred all its assets to the Church in return for the Church’s assumption of all the school’s debts and financial responsibilities.Brimhall was sixty-five years old. The war, the death of President Joseph F. Smith in November 1918, and Brimhall’s age all signaled the end of an era. In July 1919, the administration of the Church Educational System was reorganized. Brimhall was asked to supervise the seminary program and to appoint a faculty executive committee to help administer the university.
On April 22, 1921, the Church Board of Education announced Brimhall’s impending release. At that meeting, Heber J. Grant, who had succeeded Joseph F. Smith as President of the Church, said, “I feel in my heart that from the time Brother Brimhall took charge of the Institution—the spirituality in it—the spirituality that should characterize our school system—namely—that which is necessary for the making of Latter-day Saints—has existed in the school as perfectly as it is given of mortal man to make it.”That summer the university’s Board of Trustees conferred the Honorary Doctor of Law Degree upon Brimhall, and he was named president emeritus of the university, which then had 438 college students.
As president emeritus, Brimhall maintained an office on campus and from early morning until late afternoon kept his door open to all BYU students.He also continued to give what became his trademark four-minute sermonettes at the school’s weekly devotionals. At the same time, he allowed Franklin S. Harris, the new university president, autonomy. Harris was a former student of Brimhall’s, and the two got along famously. The relationship is described in Brigham Young University: The First One Hundred Years: “Because of his great spirit of loyalty and ‘absolute willingness to work, to support, and to sustain’ President Harris, George Brimhall continued to render valuable service to BYU.” Perfectly happy with his new position, Brimhall wrote Harris, “My cup of BYU joy has simply been overflowing ever since you took charge. I am working at what I like, with those I love, and under a leadership in which I have perfect confidence. What more is there to wish for than just a continuance?”
Along with his university service and his responsibility for Church seminaries, Brimhall continued to serve on the General Board of the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association as he had done since its inception.He wrote lessons for that organization as well as for the Young Women’s Mutual Improvement Association and for the Relief Society (fig. 4). In her life sketch, his wife Flora reported that “night after night he sat up outlining yearly theology programs for the auxiliary organizations. . . . He put his whole soul into these projects, regarding each one in the light of a mission call.” President Heber J. Grant wrote Brimhall, complimenting his work but gently suggesting that he slow down:
I wish to say to you that I am very, very grateful for the splendid work you have been doing for the Era in writing lessons for the Senior Classes. I have not read them all but nearly all and I have never read one but what I have been impressed with the inspiration and splendid spirit that has guided you in writing these lessons. . . .
I know of no single worker from the time that the M.I. Associations were first organized until today, who has put in more genuine thought and study and done more work for the advancement of our young men than your own dear self.
I am wondering, my dear brother, if you . . . have been guilty of over-doing.
In 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, Brimhall became very ill. “Uremic poisoning,” possibly the result of kidney failure, is identified as a secondary cause of death on his death certificate.He was incapacitated with rheumatism and confined to bed. Doctors gave him no hope of recovery but did prescribe pain medication that may have compounded and aggravated the negative effect uremia sometimes has on patients’ good judgment. On July 29, 1932, he died at his home in Provo, Utah, a little more than four months short of his eightieth birthday.
Utah newspapers simply reported that Brimhall died at home after a long illness.However, an air of melancholy surrounds his death. Brimhall was an avid hunter and kept hunting rifles in a cabinet in the house. Family members believed he was unable to get out of bed without assistance, but while his wife was on an errand he somehow got out of bed and was killed by a discharge from one of those rifles. There was no autopsy or criminal investigation. The death certificate states the primary cause of death as “gunshot wound of head—self inflicted” but next to those words a question mark is penciled in.
An explanation of what happened is found in a letter from BYU’s President Harris to Elder John A. Widstoe, who was serving in Europe at the time:
Certainly this was a very tragic affair but I think no one who knows all the circumstances blames President Brimhall for the occurrence any more than if he had fallen from a house or if he had been overcome by any other disaster for which he was in no way responsible.
He had been in bed for five and one half months with rheumatism and general poisoning of the system . . . from which they seemed entirely unable to rid him. For months he seemed to preserve his balance completely but in time his nervous system was gradually undermined so that . . . he was not at all himself and could not be held responsible for his actions no matter what they might have been.
It had not been thought that he needed anyone to watch him particularly however, and on the day of his death, his wife went out on an errand and while she was away he took a gun out of a closet in the room and then the fatal thing happened. It was very surprising because he had not been really able to stand by himself. . . . Of course the manner of his passing added to the gloom but it certainly did not lessen the respect of anyone intimately connected with the circumstances. . . .
The unfortunate part of it is the fact that people outside and those who are not acquainted with the circumstances will not understand as those of us who are here do.
At the funeral service, Harris eulogized, “The passing of this great man is like the falling of a mighty oak that has been blown over by the accidental gust of a storm.”The next year, the Church would also lose two other great men: James E. Talmage in July 1933 and B. H. Roberts in September 1933.
Three years after Brimhall’s death, while dedicating an expanded and remodeled Mechanical Arts Building on the BYU campus and renaming it the George H. Brimhall Building, President Heber J. Grant pronounced his benediction on Brimhall’s life: “George H. Brimhall was one of the choicest, finest, most spiritual-minded, loyal, true men that I ever knew. That sums it all up. . . . [M]y association with Brother Brimhall was absolutely perfect.”
George H. Brimhall was a man of widely varied interests and talents with a lifetime of accomplishments in pursuit of his two great causes: the religion he loved and education. His dynamic teaching ability inspired a generation of students and coworkers, and he played a key role in binding Brigham Young University to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In that regard, his statement made to the Presiding Bishopric in 1914 is prophetic: “The motto of this school has always been, ‘We follow the Church’. . . . I can say with perfect safety that the faculty of the Brigham Young University will hold up the hands of the authorities of the Church in assisting the greatest of all institutions on the earth in the teaching and training of the people of this dispensation.”