In the early 1930s, the educational system of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints found itself near the end of a major transformation. In the short span of only a dozen years, the Church had all but abandoned its network of loosely associated Church academies in favor of a system of less expensive released-time seminaries linked to public high schools throughout the Intermountain West. As a result, the seminary program had grown explosively, quickly becoming the dominant form of Church education. However, there was an ominous feeling of insecurity hovering over the seminary program. With nearly all of the Church academies closed or sold to the state, there was no backup if something arose that made the seminary system untenable. Further moves were being made to close or transfer the remaining schools and junior colleges. Yet the seminary program, less than twenty years old and still largely experimental, existed on uncertain legal ground. Figuratively speaking, Church education had put all its eggs in the seminary basket, hoping no new threat would arise. When such a danger did appear in 1930, the Church launched a desperate battle to save its educational program.
In the early twentieth century, the Church began a major move away from the field of secular education. The reasons for this change were complex but can be boiled down to a few major factors. First, with the entry of Utah into the federal union in 1896, Latter-day Saints were less concerned with isolation and moved toward inclusion in American society. Instead of keeping themselves separate from American society, Church leaders adopted a “deliberate church policy,” which Armand L. Mauss has called “conspicuously assimilationist.”After decades of struggle with the outside world, in the early twentieth century the Saints moved to embrace it. A good measure of this assimilation may be seen in the enrollment of Latter-day Saints in Utah public schools during the early twentieth century. In a short space of time, the enrollment of the Church academies fell dramatically as attendance in the newly created public high schools skyrocketed. Public high schools were embraced readily by Church members because of their cost, convenience, and availability. In contrast to the public schools, Church academies required tuition, could be established only in major population centers, and sometimes required youth to leave home during the course of the school year to attend. While their embrace of public schools was rapid, Church members retained a sense of wariness. Could the unique Mormon sense of culture be transmitted in secular public schools? How would the youth of the Church respond to immersion in a secular environment five days a week? While these questions of faith hovered, even more pressing practical concerns loomed. Could the Church continue to compete with the federally funded, ever-increasing public school system? Would the members be able to maintain a dual system, paying for both through tithing and taxes? The Latter-day Saint response to these questions is as good a case study as any to illustrate how Mormonism managed to become a part of the American mainstream while striving to transmit its unique culture, identity, and beliefs to rising generations. Fittingly, the solution to the school problem came from looking outward, not inward.
The questions associated with rising American secularism were not unique to Latter-day Saints. Leonard Arrington notes that the early twentieth century was a tumultuous time for Americans culturally, when traditional religious and societal ideals were bumping into the expanding realms of science and secularism.In 1905, at an interfaith conference held in New York City, Dr. George U. Wenner decried the monopolization of students’ time and indicated that “churches were entitled to their share of it.” It was proposed that students be allowed “released time” every Wednesday afternoon so that local churches could provide religious instruction. Those not desiring to attend church schools could continue with normal classes. Almost a decade later, in 1914, William Wirt, a school superintendant in Gary, Indiana, launched the first released-time program. During the school day, a period was set aside when students could study their own family’s faith under the tutelage of an expert in the faith. Within a few years, the program had begun to spread throughout the nation.
During this time, Joseph F. Merrill, serving as a member of the Granite Stake board of education, launched a released-time program at Granite High School in 1912.How much Merrill was influenced by similar movements in other states cannot be determined, but it is likely that he was aware of them, having served as an educator at the University of Utah. Merrill was also a founding member of the Utah Education Association and had completed a term as its president only the year previous. Merrill cited his wife’s experience in religion classes taught by James E. Talmage as his inspiration. Years later, Merrill’s daughter said that he was inspired by religious seminaries he had seen during his doctoral course of study in Chicago. Included in the planning of the new venture were the General Church Board of Education and the Granite school board. While Merrill did not request it, the Granite school board generously offered to provide one-half credit for each of the two courses in Bible study planned by the seminary. With the approval of the Church and the school board, the program was launched in earnest in the fall of 1912.
Whatever inspired Merrill, the program became a rousing success and spread like wildfire throughout the Church. Merrill himself expressed surprise at its rapid growth, stating in later years that “we sometimes ‘build better than we know.’”It grew steadily during the remainder of the decade, gaining numbers and legitimacy. In January 1916, the State School Board of Utah approved a directive that allowed high schools to give up to one unit of credit for Bible history and literature, provided that the class was taught by a certified teacher and met state academic standards. By 1919, there were 13 seminaries with an enrollment of 1,528 students. Without intending to, Merrill had found the solution to the Church’s educational problem.
Under the leadership of Adam S. Bennion, the Church Superintendent of Schools from 1920 to 1928, the seminary program became the backbone of Church education. From 1922 to 1932, seminary enrollment rose from 4,976 to 29,427.Why such a rapid shift? On a practical level, the Church’s move to seminaries instead of academies was a matter of simple economics. For the 1924–25 school year, the cost of operating an academy was $205 per student, compared to $24 for a seminary student. Closing the academies was seen as a painful but necessary step in the evolution of Church education. With the economy of the Intermountain West already struggling in the 1920s and the ugly specter of the Great Depression rearing its head by the end of the decade, the move to seminaries made good economic sense. It would widen the geographic sweep of Church education, lessen the load on Church resources, and save Church members from having to support a dual system of education.
By January 1930, the Church’s withdrawal from the field of secular education was underway but not yet complete. The seminary program, which had begun experimentally, was now being touted as an alternative model for not only Church high schools but Church colleges as well. Christened “Institutes of Religion,” fledgling college seminary programs were launched in Moscow, Idaho, and Logan, Utah, with encouraging results. The transfer of the remaining Church schools was still a work in progress, though a clear policy was in place and specific goals had been outlined.
When Joseph F. Merrill assumed Bennion’s post in 1928, the task of transferring or closing the schools fell to him. Perhaps without knowing it, Merrill had stepped into a potentially explosive situation. Tension was high, especially in Salt Lake City, over the Church’s aggressive push to start new released-time seminaries. The spark that would ultimately ignite this powder keg came from the unique set of circumstances surrounding the closure of the high school portion of LDS College in Salt Lake City.
While the seminary program spread in other areas, it met with opposition in the Salt Lake area because the local school board refused to grant either released time or credit for classes in biblical studies. From its inception, seminary curriculum had consisted of three courses—Old Testament and New Testament, for which credit was granted, and Church History, for which no credit was granted. As a result, in the area immediately surrounding Church headquarters, students could take seminary only before or after regular school hours. Partly because of this restriction, seminary enrollment in Salt Lake remained at about 10 percent of the LDS population compared to 70 percent in other areas.Having such a low attendance rate in the heart of Mormondom, where many of its leaders and their families resided, was not only potentially embarrassing for the Church but also placed local youth in a situation where they were not receiving daily religious education.
Even before the closure of the Church schools, some Church educators believed that conflict over the seminary system was inevitable. Lowry Nelson, a professor at BYU, wrote privately that the seminaries were “destined sooner or later to stir up widespread animosity between the church and other churches. Not a very considerate gesture on our part to fasten them on to the secular system of education, just because we happen to be in the majority.”At the time, the seminary system was less than twenty years old, had little legal precedent, and was thought by some to be a foolhardy investment on the part of the Church. Others felt that the Church might have moved too rapidly in closing the academies in favor of the seminary system. At a meeting of the Church Board of Education in 1926, David O. McKay had stated, “I think the intimation that we ought to abandon our present Church Schools and go into the seminary business exclusively is not only premature but dangerous. The seminary has not been tested yet but the Church schools have. . . . Let us hold our seminaries but do not do away with our Church schools.” McKay was right. No legal precedent existed for the seminary system. In spite of the blessing of the local school boards and the state board, there existed little legal precedent for the practice.
Merrill recognized the tension surrounding the relationships of seminaries and schools and did not want to give the impression that the Church was seeking anything beyond what he felt were its legal rights. In his first address as commissioner, he explained:
You understand of course that in all of our system of education we are not trying to get into, we are not trying to dominate, we are not trying to influence improperly, we are not trying to interfere in any way with the public school system of education. All that we are asking is that the members of the Church may voluntarily go during school hours into our buildings, and our own property, and receive religious education.
The last thing Church leaders wanted was a confrontation over the seminary system. With the divestiture of Church schools already in progress, the continued operation of the seminaries was crucial to the success of Church education. The worsening economic situation made seminaries more desirable. The Church had reached a point of no return, where any move to re-establish the academy system might not have been possible. A confrontation was about to be thrust upon them, however, and Joseph F. Merrill would have to take the lead in defending the legality of the seminary system.
The 1930 Williamson Report
While all of these pieces were being moved into place, Isaac L. Williamson, the state high school inspector, issued a report to the state school board on January 7, 1930.The report was a scathing critique of the relationship between Utah high schools and seminaries. At the time, there were few indications that the attack was coming. Merrill had tried to meet with Williamson’s committee before it made its report to the state board but had been refused permission. Church leaders, Merrill included, found themselves blindsided by the report and quickly organized themselves to issue a response.
Criticism from a man with Williamson’s credentials presented a cause for serious alarm. Williamson, a non-Mormon, was also somewhat of an outsider to Utah politics. A former superintendent of schools in Wakita, Oklahoma, he had completed postgraduate work at Harvard University before being brought to Utah to serve as principal of Tintic High School in 1912.He was chosen as the first superintendent of the Tintic School District in 1915. Both posts were located in Eureka, Utah, a town nestled in the mining district of central Utah and one of the few areas of rural Utah without a dominant Latter-day Saint population. Appointed as the state high school inspector in 1923, Williamson’s seven prior years of service as the state inspector gave little indication of any grudges against the seminary program. The only entries in the minutes of the state board included a thorough evaluation of a Catholic school in 1926 and a minor complaint of seminary classes being held in public high schools in some rural schools. Ironically, a new LDS seminary was announced in Williamson’s home district of Tintic only two weeks earlier. Williamson proved to be a formidable and tenacious critic during the ensuing months.
The full text of the report was issued in the Salt Lake Tribune on January 9, 1930. Williamson attacked the seminary program, stating his concerns in three areas: (1) the Utah constitutional aspect, (2) the educational aspect, and (3) the financial or economic aspect.
The Constitutional Aspect. Constitutionaem Williamson pointed out that Utah laws forbade the teaching of sectarian doctrine in a state-controlled school. He questioned whether Bible courses in seminaries were truly free from sectarian doctrine. He quoted from the introduction to the current seminary textbook, Outlines of Religious Education: “Basic aims in the teaching of theology, an abiding testimony: That God is our Father; that Jesus is the Christ and that Joseph Smith and his successors are the prophets chosen by Him to reestablish His gospel in the earth as the power of God unto salvation.”
He went on to show evidence that the Book of Mormon, specifically chapters of Ether and 3 Nephi, had been used to supplement the Bible during Old and New Testament studies. He charged the seminaries with teaching doctrines in credit courses accepted by no other religious body besides the LDS Church. He charged:
That the Garden of Eden was located in Missouri; that Noah’s ark was built and launched in America; that Joseph Smith’s version of the Bible is superior to the King James version; and that Enoch’s city, Zion, with all its inhabitants and buildings, was lifted up and translated bodily from the American continent to the realms of the unknown may all be facts, but they are not accepted as such by the religious world in general, and consequently must be classed as denominational doctrine.
Next, Williamson questioned whether the current relationship between seminaries and public high schools violated the principle of the separation of church and state. He said the state was giving financial support to seminaries by allowing students to be transported in state vehicles to schools, where they would subsequently be attending seminary classes during the day. He claimed high school rooms were being used for seminary classes, heat and janitorial services were being provided from public funds, and school attendance offices were being used to report absences from seminary classes. He even went so far as to claim that students using school study halls to do homework from seminary classes were in violation of the law. Williamson complained that in the minds of the public, the seminaries and schools were “thought of as one institution.” Seminary buildings and high schools were next to each other, students rode to both in the same buses, even most high school yearbooks of the time published portraits of the seminary teachers alongside their public school counterparts. Although Williamson acknowledged the connection between high schools and seminaries to be “somewhat intangible,” his report was not without serious danger to the Church program.The serious lack of separation between the two institutions could represent a violation of Utah law.
The Educational Aspect. The next section of the report dealt with what the committee saw as educational detractions in the seminary program. Williamson charged that though only a half credit was granted for each course of study in seminary, the work given in the classes were equivalent to a one-credit study course. He believed the resulting amount of work was causing students to fail in other studies, resulting in a lower rate of graduation and a greater amount of failure once students reached the college level. He wrote:
What [are] the implications for efficiency and scholarship? Are there any reasons to believe that the high school students of our state can scatter their energies over 18 units of work and do it as efficiently as students in other states who concentrate for four years on 16 units? Is there any reason to believe that the students of Utah can carry five to five and one-half units of work per year in an efficient manner when the standard for American high schools is four to four and one-half units?
To prove his contentions, he cited a 1926 U.S. Bureau of Education study that reported the performance of county schools being below the achievements of the Salt Lake City schools. Williamson connected the academic shortfall of the county schools to the time students spent on religious studies, compared to Salt Lake schools, which had no released-time programs. From Williamson’s perspective, even if a theology course held more value than a high school course, the schools had an obligation to furnish public education, and in his judgment the seminary program was dragging down the academic achievement of the public school student who enrolled in it.
The Economic Aspect. Next the report accused the seminary program of increasing the financial burden of the state, due to the effects of low grades and failures it purportedly caused. It stated that seminaries were forcing pupils to become “part-time” students since they were taking sixteen units of credit instead of eighteen. Beyond this, the report charged that curriculum had to be adjusted for all students to compensate for those taking fewer credits as a result of seminary. Without giving any specific numbers, Williamson estimated the cost to the state because of these factors to be “many thousands of dollars.”Appealing to the taxpayers, he laid out what he felt were the consequences of the continuation of the seminary program:
If students in certain schools devote one-sixth of their time to theology and five-sixths to the public school, then a 36-week term with theology becomes the equivalent of a 30 weeks’ term without theology.
From the standpoint of equity, should taxpayer A, who lives in one part of the state, and who may be vitally interested in public education, but not in theology, have his taxes increased in order to lengthen the school term of a district in another part of the state, in which the pupils devote only five-sixths of the lengthened term to public education and one-sixth to theology? Would it not be more just to the taxpayer to have a 30 weeks’ term without theology, since, in terms of public education, one is the equivalent of the other?
Williamson was careful to explain that the issues involved were constitutional, educational, and financial, not religious. He further stated that he did not question the value of religious education. Rather, he did question the seminary program’s “laxity” toward observance of the laws. Williamson felt that church and state had an obligation to lead the way by their adherence to the Constitution. Finally, Williamson stated he felt the seminary program was an infringement on the spirit of the law and possibly a violation of the letter of the law.
The state board moved cautiously to assess the credibility of the Williamson report. A three-man committee of the board consisting of C. A. Robertson, George A. Eaton, and Joshua Greenwood was appointed to consider the validity of the report’s claims and make recommendations by the end of March.
A Dangerous Time
The attack on the seminaries was particularly painful for Merrill. Not only was he the current head of the Church Educational System, but seminary was also his brainchild. Only two years before the issue of the Williamson report, Merrill ended his nearly thirty-year tenure as head of the University of Utah’s School of Mines to accept a call to serve as Church Commissioner of Education. By the time Merrill began his service as commissioner, the Church had already thrown its lot in with the seminaries. A return to the academy system at this point would have been almost impossible, given the financial trauma of the Depression. Now the whole educational program of the Church was about to collapse like a house of cards, and Merrill would have to struggle to put together the pieces. Because of the financial situation of the Church, an attack on the legality of the system could not have come at a worse time.
Like most major institutions at the time, Church finances were sinking under the burden of the Great Depression. Merrill’s correspondences during his service as commissioner were filled with pleas toward Church educators to be extremely cautious with their funds. To Franklin S. Harris, the president of Brigham Young University, he wrote, “The income of the Church is going rapidly from bad to worse, resulting in the First Presidency looking with very grave concern upon every item of expenditure.”
A glance into the internal workings of the Church Board of Education reveals how stark the situation had become. Upon his succession to the office of commissioner, Merrill was informed that “the policy of the church was to eliminate Church schools as fast as circumstances would permit.”With most of the Church academies already closed or transferred to public education, the Church next moved to transfer or eliminate its junior colleges. In a meeting held on February 20, 1929, when Merrill pressed the question of how far the closures would go, he was answered that the policy would eventually extend to all Church schools. When Merrill asked if this included BYU, Heber J. Grant informed Merrill that even BYU would have to be considered for closing or transfer. No final decisions were made concerning BYU at the time, but it was clear that the school’s existence was in jeopardy.
Merrill did not favor the closure of any of the Church schools, unless there was no alternative. While he immediately began making the arrangements to transfer the Church junior colleges to state control, he had a different vision for BYU. Almost immediately, he began work to keep BYU in the Church Educational System. In a letter dated February 21, the day after the board’s decision, Merrill wrote to a stake president in Utah Valley, requesting his assistance in taking steps necessary to ensure BYU’s survival. He wrote, “My own hope and fondest desire is that we may retain the BYU as a senior and graduate institution, eliminating its junior college work, and make the University outstanding, a credit to the Church, and a highly serviceable and necessary institution. But [whether] this can be done or not will, of course, depend on conditions.”When the announcement was made a few days later that the Church would be closing two schools by June 1930, many at BYU sensed the danger to their own institution. “The whole thing is full of dynamite,” Harris confided to John A. Widtsoe, sharing his feelings that Church education was headed in a dangerous direction.
Over the next few months, Merrill carefully arranged for the transfer of the junior colleges while ensuring his support for BYU. Two months after the board’s meeting, Harris confided to a faculty member that “the little flurry [over the school closures] has blown over as far as we are concerned.”Then came the Williamson report. With the fate of the seminaries now threatened, the future of the university was as well. It is ironic that the seminaries and institutes, which were intended to replace the Church schools, were now a key factor in Merrill’s strategy for keeping BYU open and under Church control. Before the Williamson report was issued, Merrill had written to George Brimhall, head of religious education at BYU, explaining, “The most effective argument that I have made for the permanency and continued maintenance of the BYU is that we need it for the training of teachers in the Department of Education. I think the Department of Religious Education should be the strongest and most developed . . . of any department in the University.” To convince the skeptical board members that BYU should be maintained, Merrill had emphasized the one truly unique thing the school could offer: training for Latter-day Saint religious educators. Merrill’s correspondence with Harris during the period indicated his desire to have every seminary and institute teacher trained at BYU, and to have them receive master’s degrees in religious education there as well. By taking such a bold initiative, Merrill had given the board a solid reason to retain BYU. However, in doing so he had inextricably tied the fates of the released-time seminary program and BYU to each other. If released time was eliminated, there would be little need for professional religious educators. Church finances would not permit a return to the academy system, and the institute program was still in its infancy, employing a mere handful of teachers. In Merrill’s mind, BYU had become the head of the Church Educational System, and the seminaries and institutes its body. Any threat to one could mean the death of the other. Expecting to use the seminaries to save BYU, this sudden turn of events could have seriously curtailed Merrill’s efforts to keep the school alive. Having been in office less than two years, Merrill was facing disaster on his watch unless immediate action was taken.
With so much at stake, Merrill immediately moved to answer Williamson’s accusations and assure Church educators of his confidence that he saw no reason to panic. The day after the report was published in the Salt Lake Tribune, Merrill wrote to Harris, saying he thought it was “perfectly feasible and logical to make the BYU the most outstanding institution between the Mississippi and the Pacific coast. Enough said.”
The same day, Merrill fired back by publishing a lengthy response in the Deseret News. Merrill countered that the seminaries saved state money by shouldering part of the educational load and raising the standards of the students attending state high schools. Part of the report he labeled an overreaction:
To one who knows the real situation, the question will arise, was not the writer of the report straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel?
How, for example, does the existence of a seminary near any high school add one penny to the cost of transporting pupils to and from the high school? Every person who gets this transportation is a school student, and if the seminary did [not] exist not one penny could be saved in transportation.
Merrill went on to declare that the seminary system saved the state thousands of dollars by employing teachers and providing for part of the cost of the credits required for graduation, without charging for any of these services. He said the goal of modern education was the formation of character, which the seminary was designed to do. He also cited a Church questionnaire, sent out fourteen months earlier, in which nearly every high school principal questioned cited the presence of a seminary as a positive thing for their schools.
Merrill acknowledged that the report had raised some valid concerns and vowed, “Should any of these conditions . . . be found to exist, they will be corrected.”He attempted to explain why some of the discrepancies in the report existed. For example, in Panguitch, Utah, the seminary had been conducted in a high school classroom. This action, however, had come about as the result of a trade in which the school, lacking facilities, had been given permission to use a local Church recreation hall for some of its classes.
Merrill also pointed out that universities and colleges had allowed credit in biblical studies for years and there was no reason why high schools could not offer credit as well. Answering the more serious question of scholastic deficiency in seminary students, Merrill said, “The impression widely prevails that the scholarship of seminary students is higher than that of non-seminary students. If this is the case, then what the report says about scholarship of high school students has no point whatever.” He promised that the charge would be investigated by the Church.
Lastly, Merrill took affront to the charge of the Church not supporting the law. He declared that the Church stood firmly behind the laws and acted as a force to promote “sound morality, good citizenship, and high educational ideals and attainments.”
Merrill was not the only one to respond to the report’s accusations. D. H. Christensen, a former superintendent of Salt Lake City schools and a Latter-day Saint, wrote a letter to the Deseret News questioning Williamson’s interpretation. He noted that the U.S. Bureau of Education report quoted by Williamson also declared that Salt Lake City children attended 480 weeks of school during their 12-year education, while students from rural districts, where seminary was offered, attended only 420. Therefore, any academic differences between the two groups were more likely to be a product of less school time rather than time spent in seminary. He continued, “A high school student who spends one-fifth of his school time in the study and discussion of things spiritual, loses nothing and he may gain much by the uplifting and wholesome influence of such effort.”
While publicly lambasting the Williamson report, behind the scenes Merrill took steps to remedy some of the problems highlighted by the crisis. The minutes of the Church general board indicate that an extensive discussion took place in a February 5 meeting of the board concerning the report. Merrill also proposed that Guy C. Wilson, his right-hand man, be moved to the BYU religion department.Wilson, who had served as the first full-time teacher at the original Granite High School seminary and as a principal at a number of LDS schools, was a staunch supporter of the seminary system. The crisis provided the sense of urgency Merrill needed. His request was granted, and Wilson was in place by the end of February.
A month later, the reason for the move became evident when Merrill and Wilson both proposed that all seminary texts and outlines be rewritten. He also proposed that a department of religious education be established at BYU, with Wilson as the head.Prior to this time, the theology department of BYU had not been part of any particular college, and its entire faculty consisted of former BYU president George Brimhall. Even before the Williamson report, Merrill had begun to see the need for a professional group of scholars to guide religious education in the Church. In May of the previous year, he had written President Harris, saying, “May I suggest that serious consideration be given to the problem of making a strong department of religion, or of religious education, whichever you care to call it.” In Wilson, Merrill placed a capable lieutenant at BYU, who began building a world-class association of Latter-day Saint scholars. Dr. Sidney Sperry, fresh from earning a PhD at the University of Chicago, joined the faculty in 1932, and Russel Swensen, also trained at Chicago, arrived the next year.
The Crisis Deepens, March–April 1930
As Merrill was taking these steps to ensure the future of the seminary program, the situation went from bad to worse. The special committee appointed to review the matter issued a response even more condemnatory than Williamson’s. The report also revealed that the state board was beginning to fracture along religious lines concerning the question. Only two members of the three-man committee agreed to sign it. Judge Joshua Greenwood, a Latter-day Saint from Utah County, refused to sign, while George Eaton, assistant superintendent of Salt Lake City, and Clarence Robertson, an attorney from Moab, endorsed its contents.Following the report, the state board invited Merrill to make a defense a month later. Unless he managed to turn the tide, it looked as if the Church would suffer a serious defeat. The report was a thirty-two-page bombshell in which the two men sustained every charge of the Williamson report and then went on to add their own legal concerns about released-time seminary. Included in the committee’s report were legal opinions from seven different states and citations of several court cases against religion being taught in schools. Almost all of the report came across as an attack on the seminary program, with only one court decision cited that upheld credit for biblical studies. Based on these assumptions, the two men recommended the following actions: First, “a complete disassociation of the seminaries from the high schools” (referring mainly to the practices of the two sharing attendance records), second, “withdrawal of any credit for religious instruction” at both the high schools and any state universities, and finally, the condition that no students be excused during the school day to attend seminary classes or be allowed to work on seminary work during the school day.
These provisions meant essentially the end of the released-time program and would have dealt a serious blow to the weekday religious education program of the Church and the fledgling institute program. All of the work devoted to the transition in the educational system from the academies to the seminaries would be effectively wiped out in one stroke. Aware of how far-reaching the consequences of their recommendations could be, it was Robertson and Eaton who moved to take no action until Merrill could be brought before the state board to make his case. The action was seconded by Greenwood, who later explained his refusal to sign the report by saying that he didn’t want to incite the public furor over the report. He stated: “It must be admitted that it is the LDS seminaries that are affected by this report. My idea was that Dr. Merrill might talk this matter over with the committee of three before final action is taken.”As drastic as the second report made the situation seem, it suffered from many of the same defects as the Williamson report. Nearly all of the legal opinions given were related to the teaching of religion in public schools, something released time was specifically designed to avoid, and the report made the bold assumption that blame for Utah students’ academic woes could be laid at the feet of Church education. Nevertheless, the situation had grown darker. Released time, which already faced a major reformation, was now threatened with complete discontinuance.
Recognizing how serious the situation was becoming, Merrill rallied the troops and launched a counterattack. At a meeting of Church educators held two weeks later, on April 7, President Heber J. Grant; Milton Welling, Utah’s secretary of state and a former stake president; and Milton Bennion, dean of the University of Utah’s School of Education and a member of the Church General Sunday School Board, each took turns hammering away at the state board’s actions. Grant stated that “our fathers and mothers came to Utah and bore their trials and tribulations for the sole purpose of religious liberty” and called for a public vote to determine the future of seminary. Welling issued an all-out call for the faithful to organize and fight the board’s decision: “If they [the seminaries] are lost to the state it will be the fault of the people of the Church. If they will unite their efforts and follow their convictions, I do not think that the work of the opposition can be accomplished.”Bennion first detailed the opposing arguments, then systematically attacked them, citing his correspondence with practitioners of released-time programs in five different states. He went on to extol the benefits of character education, saying: “The government does not hesitate to call for the cooperation and assistance of the church in time of war or other national crisis. In time of peace the government might very well welcome the cooperation of the churches in every feasible way in promoting the character education of its young people.” Bennion sounded the most conciliatory note, expressing that it might be possible to reduce the number of hours of released time, but overall the conference was a call to war. The report of the conference in the Deseret News carried the subheading “Pres. Grant Calls on Saints to Defend Rights.” The Church had made its position clear. Based on the board’s next move, it appeared that a drawn-out public battle could be looming.
Before the State Board, May 1930
A month later, Merrill was given the chance to present the Church position before the board. The moment was crucial. On May 3, 1930, Merrill presented a twenty-four-page document addressing the claims of Williamson’s report. While this written reply was likely the work of many in the Church department of education, it bears Merrill’s signature and repeats many of the arguments he had already made in favor of seminary. Robert L. Judd, a local attorney, appeared with Merrill to present the Church stance on the legal issues surrounding the case.
Merrill began by addressing the charge of seminary being a cause of deficient scholarship among high school students. Securing data from the fifty-two high schools where seminaries were adjacently located, he reported that in 1928, out of a total of 2,017 students, 1,019, or 55 percent, were also seminary graduates. The seminary graduates had an average scholarship grade of 83.3, compared to their nonseminary counterparts, who had an average grade of 81. The figures from 1929 reflected roughly the same conclusion, with an average grade of 83.6 among seminary graduates and an average of 81.6 among nongraduates.
Addressing Williamson’s charge of seminary attendance affecting college performance, Merrill cited statistics from Brigham Young University, where seminary graduates enjoyed an average grade of 75.6 over 71.3 of the nonseminary students. At the Utah State Agricultural College, seminary graduates earned an average grade of 81.42. The average grade of nonseminary graduates there was 79.36. The University of Utah had declined to provide statistics. Merrill acknowledged the extra work required of seminary students, but he responded that there was “no excellence without labor” and “no royal road to learning.” If students were failing to excel, it was more likely the result of too little study rather than the fault of the seminary.
Answering concerns that seminary studies prevented students from graduating, thereby costing the state more money, Merrill’s analysis showed only one student in 1928 in the state of Utah whose failure to graduate from high school was linked to his seminary studies. In 1929, three students gave seminary as their reason for not graduating. Of these, only one had returned to complete the course of study. Having begun to establish his case, Merrill now leveled an accusation at the state inspector: “Can there be any justification for a school official making grave charges against an institution without having facts to substantiate his charges?”
Next, Merrill addressed the accusations that the seminary program cost the taxpayers thousands of dollars. He responded that they were in fact saving thousands of dollars. Quoting statistics from the Williamson report, Merrill pointed out that if seminary provided one-sixteenth of a student’s high school credit, it was work being done for the state cost-free. Elimination of the seminary program would require the additional hiring of teachers and expansion of classroom space to cover the classes it provided.
Merrill further responded by citing questionnaires sent from the Church office of education to superintendents of school districts where seminaries operated. The letters asked two questions: “1) Are the LDS seminaries in your district a financial burden to the public school funds? That is, if they should cease to exist would the expense of operating your high schools be increased, diminished, or not affected? 2) Is the influence of the seminary helpful or hurtful to the high school and the students? That is, does it handicap or otherwise [impair] high school discipline, efficiency or morale?”Of the superintendents questioned, Merrill reported “nearly all” responded that expenses would increase if seminaries were eliminated. None said expenses would decrease. In answer to the second question, all but two respondents reported seminaries as being helpful to discipline, efficiency, and morale. The remaining two said they had no evidence either way. Though the reports were issued with promised anonymity, several superintendents volunteered to make their names public, along with statements supporting the seminaries. Superintendent R. V. Larson of Cache County wrote:
Should the two seminaries in Cache District cease to function it would cost the district an additional $6,000 per year at least. I am considering the salaries only, and not the additional room that would be needed at the North Cache High School. Two additional rooms would be needed at North Cache High School, at a cost of four to five thousand dollars per room, and the situation would be such that it would be inadvisable to build two rooms alone, so four rooms would be built, at a cost of $16,000 to $20,000.
Our high schools were a fair size when the seminary work was introduced. Immediately principals and teachers commented on the wholesome effect they seemed to have on the student body. There was evident a better tone in the high school and a higher moral plane. It could not be otherwise with most of the students coming in daily contact with a high school class teacher, who was emphasizing the ideals of right-living.
For twenty years I have been partly responsible in an administrative way for the introduction of changes in the course of study in the State as a whole and in the Cache schools in particular. I have seen highly lauded schemes introduced and have seen them fail, and we have silently buried them. The seminaries were expected to give the high school pupil a foundation for moral integrity and character development. They are doing so to a surprisingly successful extent. They seem one thing that is coming up to expectations.
Other superintendents responded similarly. One who remained unidentified wrote: “I am very glad to say that we consider that a portion of our teaching load is being carried by the seminaries. We consider ourselves fortunate in having the present seminary arrangement.”In all, sixteen superintendents responded, none citing seminary as an added financial burden.
When it came to the expense needed to transport students to schools, and therefore to adjacent seminaries, Merrill responded even more cuttingly. He drew notice to the fact that even Williamson himself had admitted seminaries did not increase the public expense. He pointed out the absurdity of this charge:
As to bus transportation, we admit frankly that the seminary is benefited by the transportation system of the high school. So is the corner grocery, the refreshment stand, the shop, the business house, and the town as a whole in which the high school is located. It could not be otherwise. But within the meaning of the law no sane person would assert that because these places are benefited by the presence of the high school in the community they are therefore supported, in part, in any legal sense whatsoever, by the money of the taxpayers.
Merrill continued, observing that instead of costing the state money, the Church had been shouldering a significant amount of the work of providing the state with education. He cited schools such as LDS College, Dixie College, and the other junior colleges under Church control as institutions saving state funds by providing education for the young. There is perhaps an air of irony in Merrill making these statements while he was simultaneously working to pass these assets on to the state, but the fact remained that the Church had borne a great part of the educational burden of the state for the better part of its history.
Merrill must have known the most serious part of Williamson’s charges consisted of the church and state violations of the seminary program. Recognizing this, his strongest arguments were saved for this issue. Comparing seminaries to private schools, he wrote:
It is the practice of the public schools of America to give credit on transfer from private schools; and further, the public schools accept credit on transfer from reputable private schools for subjects that they themselves do not teach. This is common practice in America. To regard this practice as illegal seems a draught on the imagination. The schools of America have established their relations upon a basis of confidence. The public school has confidence in the honor and integrity of the reputable private school, so private school certificates are commonly accepted by the public school.
Merrill readily admitted that the Utah Constitution prohibited the use of public funds for religious purposes, but he also acknowledged that liberal interpretations of the provision abounded. For example, the Utah Legislature paid for the salaries of its chaplains, the State Senate opened with prayer, chaplains were allowed to pray in the United States Army and Navy, and so forth. Merrill asked, “Does this violate the Constitution? Literally, yes, a layman might say; in spirit, no, we believe every court would interpret it.”
Next Merrill observed that it was general practice for colleges throughout the country to grant credit for Bible courses taught in a nonsectarian manner. He cited several cases of universities in Iowa and Montana. He cited the warm reception the institute program had received at the University of Idaho and the Utah State Agricultural College as examples of how well state institutions worked with the Church’s religious education programs. Further, Merrill presented a study showing that twenty-six other states allowed credit for religious education. Only fifteen had no form of religious instruction affiliated with public schools. In most states, public school time was being used for religious instruction. He cited an article from the International Journal of Religious Education to show released time to be common practice in states from across the nation. Examples were provided from Bridgeport, Connecticut; White Plains, New York; Dayton and Toledo, Ohio; Kalamazoo, Michigan; Oak Park and River Forest, Illinois; Kansas City, Kansas; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Portland, Oregon.
Merrill pointed out that the virtues of the seminary system even received praise from the U.S. commissioner of education: “On a visit to Utah, when he was United States Commissioner of Education, Hon. J. J. Tigert said to Mr. Robert D. Young, who at the time was a member of the State Board of Education, that he had made some study of the LDS seminary system in cooperation with public high schools and thought it one of the finest arrangements in the land. He said he believed this method of religious character training would, in the near future, be adopted by the whole United States.”
Referring to his experience with the first seminary at Granite High School, Merrill explained how the program had received unanimous approval from the local school authorities, including the superintendent of public instruction. In addition, the state had passed a law on January 5, 1916, allowing credit for Bible study.
Merrill candidly admitted that the Williamson report was correct in some particulars and explained the action being taken to correct these faults. He wrote:
It may be that the teaching of the Bible has not always been free from sectarianism. But the office of the LDS Department of Education has urged that the teaching be non-sectarian. This has been the objective of the Department. We are quite sure that departures from this kind of teaching have not been frequent or general, even though the Inspector infers to the contrary. We have data on this point from every seminary teacher. We know whereof we write. Revised lessons on the Old and New Testaments, now in the course of preparation, will certainly be free from sectarianism. Samples of these lessons have recently been furnished members of the State Board.
He also raised a valid point in asking if it was possible for any subject, at any school, to be taught without some measure of religious, atheistic, or political bias attached to it. Too narrow an interpretation of the law could act as a two-edged sword. It was valid to suggest that secularism in itself was a kind of religion.
Questioning the inspector himself, Merrill asked why, as far as could be ascertained, he had not spoken personally to any high school or seminary principals about the problem before submitting his report. Why were all those involved not consulted before charges were made? In the past, the Church Department of Education had asked him to contact them if he found anything questionable in their practices.
Merrill’s next appeal was to the public sense of justice. The Church had thrown its entire support toward public education. Church academies had been abandoned and in many cases donated to the state, in large measure helping to give birth to Utah’s public schools. In many cases, buildings had been generously given to provide housing for public schools. This transfer took place in large measure after the 1916 law, in good faith that the right to released time and Bible credit were assured. If the Church had known the state would go back on its word, it would never have abandoned its academies in the first place. Merrill felt the assurance of continued religious education side by side with state education had played a key role in bringing LDS citizens to the support of the public school system.
Speaking boldly, Merrill addressed the issue that perhaps the report was colored with sinister tones. Was the report motivated by religious intolerance? Was it an attack on the legality of released time religious education or the cultural dominance of the LDS Church in Utah? Such suggestions may have been uncomfortable for the state board, but it was impossible to ignore this figurative “elephant in the room.”
The adoption of the committee’s suggestions means the death of the seminary, and the enemies of the seminary all know it. But why do they want to kill something that every high school principal and school superintendent of experience says is good, being one of the most effective agencies in character training and good citizenship that influences the students? Is religious prejudice trying to mask in legal sheep’s clothing for the purpose of stabbing the seminary, this agency that has had such a wonderful influence in bringing a united support to the public schools?
The report, concluding with such incendiary language, clearly indicated to the board that Merrill was not going to let their resolutions pass without a fight. Following Merrill’s remarks, Judd rose and stated that the abuses represented in the Williamson report did not answer the real question, whether released time was unconstitutional or not. The matter would only be settled in court. He then added that if the board was not opposed, he was authorized to say that the Church would be willing to have the question tested in the courts. Judd’s challenge indicated his and Merrill’s confidence in their position. Challenged in court, the Church held a good chance of winning.
Immediately after Judd’s statements, both Merrill and Judd stressed that they needed to know “at once” if any action would be taken by the board that would interfere with Church authorities in allowing seminary teachers to enter into their contracts for next year. Put under pressure, the board agreed not to take any action immediately affecting the status of the seminaries. C. N. Jensen, the state superintendent of education and the board chairman, immediately occupied a mediatory position, and moved to soothe both sides. Jensen stated that he had read every legal ruling he could find relating to the matter since the Williamson report had been issued and was in consultation with several attorneys. He gave his position that the question was “not economic nor scholastic, nor a moral question calling for determination as to whether the seminaries were good or bad, but that it was a legal question.” He motioned to send the question back to the three-man committee and have them confer with the state attorney general. The motion carried unanimously. Williamson, who was present at the meeting, was offered a chance at rebuttal but deferred until he could fully read the Merrill report and formulate a response.
Merrill’s actions gave the seminaries a temporary reprieve, but the question was far from settled. Still, the results were a victory after a string of setbacks. Franklin Harris wrote Merrill to compliment his actions: “It seems to me you have hit them with a solar plexis blow, and I do not see that they have a come-back.”Merrill himself remained less sure of the outcome. At a meeting of the Church board a few days later, a lengthy discussion on the actions of the state board took place. Merrill expressed his hopes that the matter was settled and no further action would be taken. At the very least, he assured the board, seminary was safe for another year.
Attack and Counterattack,
Meanwhile, the question still lingered with the members of the state board. In a meeting held on June 28, C. A. Robertson presented a plan for settling the question in court. In the negotiations following Merrill’s appearance before the board, Judd and the Church attorneys had apparently conceded not to bring to bear any legal attacks if credit was eliminated by the board, seeing it as the board’s right to extend or withdraw credit. As a compromise, both parties had agreed to find a taxpayer to bring to a “friendly lawsuit” to answer the questions arising out of the Williamson report.
At the same meeting, Williamson appeared before the state board and delivered his rebuttal of Merrill’s arguments. Presenting another lengthy report, Williamson reiterated his points from the original and attempted to rebut Merrill’s arguments. Part of Williamson’s objections rested in his feeling that school cooperation with the seminary program gave an unfair advantage to the LDS Church in the teaching of its children. According to his logic, other churches would be forced to open their own seminaries to maintain equal footing with the LDS Church. Replying to Merrill’s refutation of his arguments that seminaries didn’t detract from student scholarship, Williamson argued, “Comparison of grades is not a valid criterion,” but then continued to cite substandard performance of Utah schools as evidence of the detrimental effect of released time. He argued, “It is only necessary to answer a simple question. Do the schools, in order to do their work efficiently, need that one-sixth of the students’ time which is appropriated by the church?” He also attacked what was perhaps the most biting of Merrill’s arguments, that the seminaries were saving the schools millions of dollars by taking responsibility for one-sixth of their education. Counter to this, Williamson argued that there was “the indirect cost imposed upon the schools, due to the fact that they utilize only five-sixths of the pupils’ time in work for which the schools are established, and for which the people pay taxes.” Finally, Williamson underlined all of the arguments by expressing his feelings that the relationships of schools and seminaries were not proper. “Important as it is, the economic phase is not, of course, the most vital issue. The union of church and State and the introduction of sectarian institution into the public schools far transcends in importance any economic loss unconstitutional though that may be. The existing relationship between the public schools and the seminaries is fundamentally wrong. Even if it saved the State millions of dollars and did not cost a cent, it would still be wrong.”
Merrill, who was not present at the state board meeting, soon caught wind of Williamson’s renewed attacks. In a July 2 meeting of the Church board, he reported on Williamson’s response and expressed his own opinion that Williamson had been “rather misleading.” According to the minutes of the Church board, he also stressed “the seriousness of the situation.”Sensing the tenaciousness of Williamson’s attacks, the next day Merrill again went on the offensive. Meeting with a gathering of BYU students, he announced that the Church would “fight to the bitter end” to save its seminaries and that the controversy might eventually end up in the Supreme Court.
In the months that followed, Merrill launched a public relations crusade to save the seminary program. In September 1930, an editorial appeared in the Deseret News laying the case before the public. Many of the arguments in Merrill’s report were repeated, with some new appeals. The editorial stated that the United States was a Christian nation, and spoke of the ill effects of the nation’s youth being raised without religion.The same month, Judge Daniel Harrington wrote an article that appeared in the Improvement Era, the official Church magazine, defending the role of the seminaries. Harrington called the seminaries “corollaries to the schools, as they tend to inculcate moral rectitude, strength of character and Christian ideals.” Merrill himself gave a series of radio addresses focusing on different areas of LDS theology, which also included an impassioned defense of the need for religious education in America.
While maintaining a hard line publicly, Merrill was also working behind the scenes to remedy the ills spotlighted by the Williamson report. The new texts by the Church board Merrill had spoken of were ready for publication by August 1930, an astonishing speed for the writing of any textbooks. Ezra Dalby, the author of the new text for the Old Testament course of study, The Land and Leaders of Israel, noted in his preface that “the text has been written under pressure of time and no doubt many imperfections will be noted.”James R. Smith, author of the New Testament text, The Message of the New Testament, noted in his preface that “the text has been written, as requested, from a Christian point of view without regard to creed.” They also featured some notable changes from the former texts. The first lesson in the Old Testament manual was “Abraham, the First Pioneer,” leaving out the beginning of Genesis, where many of the teachings were that Williamson had focused on as an example of sectarian teaching. Missing were such notable lessons as “Our Life Before We Came to Earth” and “The Story of Enoch,” both of which had been present in earlier texts. The New Testament manual began with “The Coming of John the Baptist” but left out such chapters from earlier texts as “Prophetic Testimonies of Christ’s Earthly Mission.” The new texts featured no references to works by other Latter-day Saint authors, which were abundant in the earlier works.
The new texts were so innocuous when it came to Mormon doctrine that they raised concerns among some members of the Church board. In a meeting in December 1930, Joseph Fielding Smith, at the urging of President Grant, pointed out a number of things in the Old and New Testament texts that he felt were “very unsatisfactory and not in harmony with revealed truth.” Smith plainly stated that he felt the texts were “not suitable for use among [the] young people” of the Church. Merrill responded that “on the advice of the Church attorneys no dogma had been incorporated in the books and . . . the authors had written them with [those instructions] in mind.” A hearty debate ensued, but in the end, no changes were made. Survival was the order of the day, and Merrill was willing to make a few sacrifices to ensure the continuance of the seminary system.
The Tide Turns,
November 1930–September 1931
While this flurry of changes occurred on Merrill’s side, an ambiguous silence prevailed from the state board. After Williamson’s second report in July, the board met only sporadically, and no discussions occurred about the fate of the seminaries. While the minutes from this period reveal little about how the negotiations were progressing, Merrill learned privately that the search to find a taxpayer to bring the seminary question to suit had stalled. In a Church board meeting held in November 1930, Merrill reported that state superintendent Jensen and the Church attorneys had come to the opinion that local boards of education should be allowed to handle the question rather than the state board. Both Jensen and Joshua Greenwood had informed Merrill that “no more would be heard on the matter.”This development weighed heavily in the Church’s favor. With dominant populations in most areas of the state, if control fell into the hands of the local boards, a complete ban on released time and cancellation of credit seemed highly unlikely.
Perhaps emboldened by this information, Merrill continued to expand the seminary program. In a Church board meeting held December 26, 1930, Merrill pressed the issue of the closure of LDS College. The closing of the school had already been announced a year earlier,but some members of the Church board were hesitant to close the school outright with the fate of the seminaries still in question, especially in Salt Lake City. Merrill pressed that with the opening of the new South High School in the city, LDS College should be closed immediately so that teachers at the LDS school could find employment at the new high school. The main opponents of this view were Joseph Fielding Smith and David O. McKay, who both expressed concern that only a small percentage of LDS students in the schools could attend seminary. Merrill cited similar situations in other cities and replied that he felt the students could still be reached if the Church board gave the move its backing. The debate ended when President Grant intervened, drawing attention to the hard facts of the matter. Grant explained that the question wasn’t “what we would like but what we can do. We can’t extend the seminaries unless we stop these schools.” Grant expressed his regret over the closing of the school and his desire to keep it open. He even went so far as to say that “the influence and spirit of the Church school is something that can’t be had in another institution, in this city or elsewhere, but he could see no alternative.” The weight of these remarks cannot be underestimated. It signaled what was effectively an acknowledgement that the era of the academies was over. The seminary crisis and the energies exerted to save the program had effectively brought into focus where the Church’s resources were to be devoted. With Grant’s backing, the board voted unanimously to close the school and lay the fate of the students in the hands of the seminary system.
When LDS College closed at the end of the 1931 school year, the seminaries expanded in the Salt Lake area to provide for the influx of LDS students who would now be attending public high schools. However, since released time was still restricted in Salt Lake City, this move served to prod the state board to finally announce its position. It read, “It is necessary that the seminary classes will be held at the hours specified [before and after school], since the Salt Lake City schools do not follow the precedent of other schools in the state and the nation in giving released time during school hours for this type of study.”
While circumstances seemed to be moving in favor of the seminaries, Williamson prepared a third attack on the system. A new report was submitted and discussed by the state board in June 1931. His reasoning for the submission of the new report included a tacit acknowledgement that Merrill’s campaign to defend seminary had produced a telling effect on the situation.
The Church Commissioner of Education, through his two articles in the public press, through mimeographed and printed material sent to local school boards, through public addresses, and through instructions to local church officials, has interpreted the seminary movement in a way which obscures the vital principles involved, and which tends to stimulate a crusade for the further extension of the seminary system, with the perpetuation of its unconstitutional relationship to the public schools.
Williamson’s report suggests frustration and aims some direct charges of coercion at Merrill and his associates. He alleged, for example, that “instances have been reported where Church [leaders] have brought irresistible pressure to bear upon high school principals to stimulate greater enthusiasm among the students of the high school,” but offered no specific cases. He also charged that “in the opinion of the Commissioner of Church schools there, evidently, is no limit to the amount of school time the Church may appropriate” and that “the taxpayer has not made sufficient study of this question to realize that the schools are utilizing only five sixths of the school time in legitimate school activities.”
Williamson then proposed his own attempt at a compromise. He suggested that students attend no seminary during their first three years, then “sever their connections with the public school” their senior year to attend seminary full time during their senior year. He noted, “This, of course, would make it necessary for the Church to pay for the students’ transportation during the fourth year, but, since this probably would not exceed $60,000 per year, it should not prove burdensome to the Church, and it would be a great relief to the taxpayer.”With seminary enrollment of over thirteen thousand students at the time, Williamson was estimating that total transportation costs for an entire school year for each student would total just over eighteen dollars, an optimistic estimate by any standards, not considering the other costs that would be incurred.
A new report was submitted by the three-man investigative committee, which again split, with Joshua Greenwood dissenting. This time the two remaining committee members, C. A. Robertson and George Eaton, seemed to acknowledge that they were fighting a losing battle. Noting that their assignment to find a taxpayer to bring suit “was accepted with considerable reluctance,” they expressed their doubt that a court decision would really settle any question of credit. Hence, they moved to make a compromise. The demands of the committee were softened to request that local boards “gradually . . . lessen the time allotted to seminary instruction.” While the complete elimination of released time was off the table, the committee remained firm in their request to dissociate the schools and seminaries in relation to attendance records and insisted that no credit be offered for either seminary or institute studies. In his minority report, Greenwood dissented with the rest of the committee, insisting that the question still be settled legally.
The final vote came in September 1931. The verdict came out six to three in favor of continuing the credit policy for seminary.Demonstrating how divisive the issue in the community had become, all six of the board members that favored retention were Latter-day Saints, while the three dissenters, Robertson, Eaton, and Kate Williams, were not. The victory, however, came with a cost. The board unanimously agreed to adopt two rules designed to increase the separation between the schools and seminaries. First, the board ordered a complete dissociation of the seminaries from the high schools regarding physical plants, faculty records, and publications. Next, local boards of education were ordered to limit the time given to seminary instruction to no more than three hours a week during the regular high school hours.
The board felt this fix was only temporary—that someday it would have to be resolved in court. C. N. Jensen, the board chairman, accurately diagnosed that the issue would “continue to arise until the legal and constitutional issues involved were settled by judicial decision.” Jensen was correct, though neither side could possibly have guessed how much time would transpire before that day came.
What had changed the situation from a year earlier, when it seemed that credit, released time, and the entire seminary system was in jeopardy? Merrill may not have realized it at the time, but the turning point most likely came when he and the Church attorney Robert Judd had extracted the promise from the state board to take no action for the current year. Time was on the side of the seminaries. As the Depression deepened and school finances worsened, the seminaries became more valuable to the schools. Perhaps the most piercing arguments Merrill had made before the state board were the financial ones. The simple fact was that seminary did save the schools a considerable amount of money. Asking the schools to increase their student, teaching, and classroom loads by one-sixth while they were struggling to keep their doors open at all was a price too heavy to pay. Williamson’s arguments of the financial strain the seminaries were placing on the system may have been too ethereal. On the other hand, it was a concrete reality that the cancellation of released time would have cost the schools money immediately.
Another factor that may have exerted considerable influence on the state board was Merrill’s effort to divest the Church of its remaining schools. Other than LDS College, which was closing outright, the rest of the Church schools were being transferred to state control. It is somewhat telling that in the intervening months between Merrill’s defense and Williamson’s second report, the state board did not discuss the seminary issue in its meetings, but it did discuss the management of its new system of junior colleges.The next time Merrill attended a meeting of the state board, he came not to discuss the fate of the seminaries but to work out details on the transfer of Weber College to state control. During Merrill’s tenure, Weber and Snow colleges were transferred to state control, and negotiations began to transfer Dixie College. It is not unreasonable to conclude that part of the reason why the state board was so generous in its ruling was that it did not wish to upset this delicate process, which still had its critics inside and outside the Church. It is possible that the sacrifice of the Church schools may have saved the seminary system, which in turn gave Merrill the justification he needed to save BYU and the remaining Church schools.
Skirmishes over the seminary issue continued in the ensuing decades. A year after the board’s decision, Oscar Van Cott, a principal at Bryant Junior High School, gave an incendiary speech regarding seminaries at the annual convention of the Utah Education Association. Van Cott minced no words regarding his feelings: “Church seminaries as they are currently functioning in conjunction with the public schools are an evil ‘more subtle, farther reaching, more dangerous and more unwise’ than the cigaret evil, the Church is encouraging and fostering a direct violation of the state constitution and statute in operating the seminaries, and school officials who allow the functioning of the seminaries are guilty of a crime.”The Church responded with a Deseret News editorial repeating the basic arguments for the legality of seminary. The controversy eventually sputtered out, though it did serve to illustrate how heated feelings were on the part of some educators.
As for the two antagonists, Merrill and Williamson, the immediate future held divergent paths. Less than a week after the state board made its decision, Merrill was chosen to fill a vacancy in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. He still continued to serve in his capacity as Church Commissioner of Education but now occupied a place in one of the top governing councils of the Church.He continued his work as midwife in the transformation of the education system for two more years, when he was called to serve as president of the Church’s European Mission. Williamson, who emerges so vividly from the minutes of the state board, vanishes almost completely from sight after the 1930 crisis. According to the Salt Lake City Directory for 1932, he left the state in 1931, after nineteen years in Utah public education. His motives for leaving can only be guessed, but given the timing, it is likely related to the outcome of the whole affair.
When Merrill departed in 1933 to serve as European Mission president, the battle continued to rage. The future of BYU and other Church schools were still unsure, but at least temporarily the seminary program was safe. A general improvement in Church finances and a lessening of the effects of the Depression made the future of the Church educational program more secure. A turning point came when David O. McKay, a firm advocate for the continuance of the Church schools, was called into the First Presidency.From the mission field, Merrill continued to give encouragement and support to BYU. A year after his departure, he wrote to Harris, “We learn that the BYU has the largest registration ever. We are certainly delighted with this news and hope most sincerely that prosperity will attend you.” He also expressed his desire to have the salaries of Church educators restored as quickly as possible, which he had been forced to cut during the darkest hours of the Depression. When he returned, Merrill served on the Church General Board of Education, helping to coach his successors through similar crises. When a similar debate sprang up in 1948, Merrill counseled Franklin L. West, then Church Commissioner of Education, to adopt his old strategy of sending questionnaires about the seminary program to the local superintendents.
It was more than two decades after the 1930 crisis that legal questions surrounding released-time seminary were decided by the Supreme Court. In Zorach v. Clauson, the court ruled in favor of a released-time program conducted in New York City. The arguments of Chief Justice Fred Vinson closely paralleled the arguments Merrill had made twenty years earlier: “When the state encourages religious instruction or cooperates with religious authorities by adjusting the schedule of public events to sectarian needs, it follows the best of our traditions. For it then respects the religious nature of our people and accommodates the public service to their spiritual needs. To hold that it may not would be to find in the Constitution a requirement that the government show a callous indifference to religious groups. That would be preferring those who believe in no religion over those who do believe.”The Supreme Court’s decision may have buoyed the hopes of the advocates of released time in Utah, who continued to expand the program. Released time was finally granted in the Salt Lake school district in 1956. Institute credit continued with varying degrees of success, until the early 1970s when it was de-emphasized by the Church.
The LDS released-time program, easily the most extensive in the United States, finally saw its day in court in 1978. In a suit between certain citizens of Cache County and the Logan Board of Education, the judge ruled that the practice of granting students released time for religious study was legal. He also ruled that the practice of the local high school providing credit for Bible study was illegal under constitutional provisions for the separation of church and state.The decision was later upheld by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver in 1981. Though the decision technically affected only one school district, the Church chose to “withdraw from asking credit for Bible study at every high school.”
By the time the seminary system was put to legal trial, it had branched out to include early-morning and home-study students, and released time was an entrenched enough tradition in Intermountain areas that there was little danger of its dissolution. Brigham Young University and the other surviving schools had also blossomed and no longer needed seminary as justification for their operation.
While Merrill and his contemporaries may have felt that the 1931 decision by the school board was only a temporary fix, it established an important legal precedent for seminary. In the smallest sense, Merrill had delayed the decision for at least a generation. It was forty-seven years before the question was finally settled. The battle was fought on and off in the Salt Lake district, but the growth of the seminary program remained stable elsewhere. Fallout from the crisis, however, would continue to impact Church education until the present. Namely, the episode radically altered the mindset of Church educators for a brief time, which then led to more orthodox standards being established to govern religious education.
Concerned with losing credit because of the sectarian teaching the classroom, Merrill may have allowed the pendulum to stray too far into secularism. Even during the midst of the crisis, he began taking steps to increase professionalism among religious educators in the Church. To this end, he began inviting prominent scholars of other faiths to teach and lecture to the seminary and institute teachers during their summer sessions. Included among this number were Edgar Goodspeed Jr., William C. Graham, and John T. McNeil.Most of these men came from the University of Chicago, one of the more liberal schools in the nation, and taught some concepts that caused some concern among the Church hierarchy. During this time, Merrill also sent seminary men to be trained at the University of Chicago’s divinity school.
Eventually, the liberal bearing of these professors began to affect Church teachers so much that in 1938, President J. Reuben Clark Jr. visited the teacher’s summer school and delivered the classic address “The Charted Course of the Church in Education,” which in many ways can be read as a stern rebuke of the rising secularism in Church education. Clark even threatened a return to Church colleges and academies if the trend didn’t reverse itself.When he returned from Europe, Merrill was also among the General Authorities who were called upon to bring the Church’s seminary teachers back onto more orthodox footings.
The creep of secularism into Church education during Merrill’s tenure may be traced to his strong feelings that released time and the guarantee of credit were critical to the survival of seminary. In light of the seminary’s successful continuance today without the offer of credit, it must be asked, why did Merrill feel so strongly about the retention of seminary credit? There are several possible reasons why he developed this attitude. First, he had gone to great lengths in 1912 to ensure that students enrolled in seminary would receive credit for Bible study and defended it vigorously during the crisis. In addition, there were many indications that the allowance of seminary credit helped compel educators to support seminary. Writing to T. Edgar Lyon, a seminary teacher in Idaho in 1931, Merrill commented on this issue:
I am a little bit amused at the attitude of your high school principal in preferring that our courses of study remain just as they are. You did not give his reasons, but there is only one reason that I can imagine that he would have any right to have. This is the reason that some few other high school principals have expressed, namely, all the work that first year high school student does should be credit work. Now, since Church History and Doctrine does not receive credit from the high school, there are some principals who prefer that the students for the first year or two take some other than this subject. For this reason, nearly all of our seminaries will find it advisable to have one or more classes the coming year in either the Old or New Testament, in some cases in both.
Finally, Merrill simply believed seminary would be too great a sacrifice without a promise of some school credit. In his report to the state board, he wrote: “But suppose credit be denied and released time be given. If this would not kill the seminary then it would certainly greatly aggravate the conditions the inspector complained of—overloading the student with work.”His desire to retain credit led him to make sacrifices that today seem contrary to the current LDS philosophy of education.
Was credit so vital that such compromises needed to be made? Merrill felt it was. In this judgment, he may have been misguided. When credit for seminary study was abolished in the 1970s, the Church feared a serious drop in seminary enrollments. When the move came, enrollments were not seriously affected, in large measure because of Church action taken to involve local authorities in recruitment and enrollment. In the long term, the move did not seem to have the kind of effect on enrollment that many had feared. From 1976 to 1980, enrollment in the Church’s seminary and institute programs saw a 4.65 percent increase, or a growth of 13,392 students.However, while enrollment remained stable, the long-lasting effect of the lack of credit on class discipline, scholasticism, and engagement can perhaps never be measured.
Even in the light of these developments, Merrill should not be judged too harshly. After all, survival was the order of the day. Merrill’s immediate task was to ensure the continuance of the system, both by changing the curriculum and initiating administrative changes to comply with the wishes of the state board. Such changes included registration taking place in a separate building, photographs of seminary activities not being included in high school yearbooks, and seminary teachers not seeking privileges from public schools that were not already available to any citizen of the community.In preserving the released-time system, Merrill succeeded overwhelmingly.
What was at stake in 1930? The potentially fatal blows of the Williamson report—unfortunately struck at a time when the Church was financially reeling from the effects of the Great Depression—could have radically altered the course of Church education had Merrill, the “father” of the released-time seminary program, not taken decisive and vigorous action to ensure his child could grow to full maturity. Today, released-time seminary is the most effective method of providing religious education for Latter-day Saint youth.
Had released-time seminary been abolished in 1930, it is likely the Church could not have returned to the academy system, nor would there have been as compelling reasons for the Church to keep operating BYU. Merrill’s actions, combined with the worsening economic situation that delayed school boards from forcing the seminary issue, may be credited for saving both released-time programs and remaining Church colleges. Today Merrill’s name is not widely known, even within Church circles. But he stands as a quiet hero of Church education—the right man, in the right place, at the right time.