Joy abounded at the Sixty-Seventh Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints convened in the Salt Lake Tabernacle in April 1897. After fifty years of tension between the Church and the federal government, rapprochement had finally begun. The government had recently granted Utah statehood after returning much of the Church property it had earlier confiscated. This action had eased the Church’s heavy financial burdens that had intensified over the previous decade.
This conference was an especially celebratory time for trustees of the Brigham Young Academy, the teacher-training (normal) school Brigham Young had founded in Provo in 1875. Since Brigham’s death in 1877, the trustees had clawed for funds to keep the school from closing, running the school’s debt to $80,000and incurring the wrath of outstanding creditors. Relief was secured once articles of incorporation for the school were prepared by Church authorities and sustained by the Saints. The First Presidency of the Church was “willing to assume said indebtedness” and henceforth “provide the necessary means to support and maintain said institution of learning.”
Given the numerous challenges to the academy’s existence after Brigham Young’s death, surviving twenty years on its own seemed nothing short of miraculous to those who had closely followed the school’s history. This paper chronicles how Brigham Young Academy survived during these years (1877 to 1897) without a stable financial base. A principal and board of trustees, energized by a charge from Brigham Young, carried the school through troubled times when it might have otherwise closed. Yet, like many nonpublic school administrators of the nineteenth century who sacrificed financially to keep their schools afloat, academy officials did not work alone.The school could not have survived strictly on the efforts of its principal or trustees, for at critical junctures in the school’s history, these officials were dependent on the aid of those whom they petitioned. Academy officials welcomed assistance from students, parents, Church leaders, citizens, and even the late Brigham Young himself, appearing in vision. An entire community enabled the trustees to pull the academy through tumultuous times. In the end, the trustees believed God “gave the increase” (1 Cor. 3:6) to everyone’s efforts.
Four periods in academy history illustrate how the trustees and principal steadied the school when it teetered on the brink of suspending operations or closing down altogether. In each case, a series of critical factors brought the academy to a crisis, and academy officials acted decisively to pull the school through. More than simply fascinating, dust-covered episodes from the past, these events illustrate how individuals with resolve can form communities whose collective strength can overcome trying circumstances.
The Academy Is Created
Brigham Young Academy was the first of three schools Brigham Young founded toward the end of his life.His academy endowment came in three parts. The original endowment in 1875 consisted of a two-story brick schoolhouse (called the Lewis Building, after its original owner Jesse W. Lewis) and the acre of land on which the building stood. A second endowment came when he deeded to the school three acres of largely undeveloped land in the center of Provo City in the summer of 1877. Three months later, deeds for $40,000 in property and bonds—the largest endowment yet—were carried to Brigham Young’s desk, awaiting his signature, on the very day he took fatally ill. He died three days later with the deeds unsigned, and the academy trustees were left to seek substitutes for the endowment that never materialized.
School administrators intent on keeping the academy open at all costs navigated the school around financial challenges. The president of the Brigham Young Academy board of trustees was Abraham Owen (A. O.) Smoot, a former territorial justice of the peace and mayor of Salt Lake City. Smoot had moved to Provo in 1868, at Brigham Young’s request, to unite local communities north and south whose squabbling threatened to divide the county. He was immediately installed as mayor of Provo City and as chief ecclesiastical officer of Utah County, an area coterminous with Utah Stake, which was not organized until 1877 with Smoot as president of ten thousand members who lived from Alpine to Santequin.Smoot led a board of seven trustees who were all handpicked by Brigham Young to manage his school. Four of the seven carried the burden of their callings for twenty years or more, and none of the trustees was remunerated for his or her service.
To the trustees Brigham gave the task of preserving his highest values: a school whose “standard” texts were the Bible, Book of Mormon, and Doctrine and Covenants and whose forbidden text was any “that misrepresents, or speaks lightly of the Divine mission of the Savior, or of the Prophet Joseph Smith, or in any way advances ideas antagonistic to the principles of the Gospel.”Echoing the rhetoric Brigham Young employed to describe his endearing commitment to his prophet-mentor, Joseph Smith, Smoot often told friends that he would be “ashamed” to face Brigham Young beyond the veil and there admit to having “fail[ed] . . . my trust.” Smoot’s earnestness was animated by a charge Brigham Young issued to him, to the other trustees, and to Principal Karl G. Maeser to “turn your influence and energies to the building up of that Academy” and to “help it with [your] influence.” This influence was pivotal in keeping the academy open, and later in extending its reputation, until the Church was in position to redeem the school from financial insolvency.
Surviving after Brigham Young’s Death: 1877–1883
Brigham Young died on August 29, 1877, two days after the beginning of the second academic year, leaving the academy trustees to mingle their tears with humble yearning to know exactly what Brigham would now have them do. They were certain he would have the school remain open, with or without his pocketbook, but now his plans for funding had not matured. Brigham Young had never cowered from hardship; as guarantors of his wishes, neither would these trustees. So the school continued, limping out its next four terms, or forty weeks, until the end of the academic year in June 1878.
The academy trustees could suddenly no longer afford a Dr. Williams, “linguist and classical scholar,” hired shortly before Brigham died, to teach instrumental music and complement the salaried faculty of four.Somehow they wriggled free of the contract and instead hired James Daniels, a local journeyman, for $50 a year. The trustees may have counted this savings large, but a tuition total of just $1,700 for the 1878–79 school year allowed them to pay faculty only 60 percent of full salary.
Tuition alone could never cover all the academy’s expenses, but higher enrollment would have helped. At this early point in the academy’s career, attracting students was a challenge. Many parents who had children of academy age were first- or second-generation Latter-day Saint immigrants who came out of traditions slow to adopt habits of formal secondary schooling. Other parents farmed land that for them typically required their children’s labor. Surviving from day to day was more important than paying to educate children; public clamor for fully tax-supported public schools would not rise for still another decade. In the late 1870s, less than two-thirds of Utah children ages six to sixteen were enrolled in school and less than half of the same population regularly attended.Only about 3 percent of young people nationally ages eighteen to twenty-one were enrolled in postsecondary schools. The academy drew from both these age populations: the younger population attended the primary and intermediate departments, which were often taught by the older students enrolled in the normal department. During the academy’s early years, tuition ranged from $3 to $8 per term, although most students, arriving late in the fall after harvest and leaving early in the spring before planting, paid a simple percentage, often in kind. Just eighty-eight of 333 enrollees remained through the end of the 1877–78 school year. Under such conditions, fiscal problems were inevitable.
Teachers would have been worse off were it not for Smoot, an erstwhile farmer and lumber store owner whose reputed wealth was, like Brigham Young’s, always greater in popular imagination than it was in reality.As chief Church and civic leader in Utah Valley, Smoot led out among his people when he gave $320 to the academy during the school year after Brigham Young died. The cooperative over which Smoot presided, the Provo woolen mills, chipped in another $70. Such gifts were certainly appreciated but could not fill the mammoth financial shortfall left by Brigham Young’s departure. Smoot’s two bequests comprised all but $20 of the total donations to the academy for the entire school year.
Solicitation Increases Attendance. Brigham Young had recognized that high ecclesiastical position could be utilized to promote the academy’s interests. “Call upon the people to patronize” the school, he had counseled the trustees, four of whom were bishops of wards in principal settlements of Utah County.Church leadership positions were valuable tools for academy trustees to call local Saints’ attention to the academy’s financial needs. Utah Stake and ward minutes before and after Brigham died record the trustees’ pleadings for parents to support the academy as they might other Church programs, such as the Sunday Schools or Mutual Improvement Associations. Smoot and his fellow trustees believed the academy’s founder, along with its gospel curriculum, hallowed the school enough to justify reminding congregations of the first day of an academy term. The school meshed seamlessly with official Church movements intended to create self-sustaining Saints.
Sermonizing converged on either acquiring donations or increasing enrollment. “In great Ernistness,” William Bringhurst called upon his congregation in Springville “to lend there [sic] aid for support” of the academy “not only as a duty but also as a great Privilege.”Smoot testified that it was “not God’s plan” to “rule the Bible out of the Schools.” He asked parents in Payson to “trust your children” to Principal Karl G. Maeser, a “true hearted, established Latter Day Saint” and “the best teacher in Utah.” Harvey Cluff solicited help from stake priesthood leaders “in the purchasing necessary improvements of ap[p]aratus” to “greatly facilitate” the academy’s capabilities. At stake conference, Leonard Harrington “spoke in eloquent terms of the blessings” awaiting students who attended the academy, and, of course, awaiting parents who sent them. After seeing how the academy had cultured his eighteen-year-old son, Marion, who worked days at the woolen mills and studied Greek in the academy’s night school, Myron Tanner even “exhorted parents to take a course” alongside their children at the end of the workday. The undercurrent in all these public exhortations was the academy’s financial condition, which the petitioners felt measured the righteousness of the Saints. A prosperous school evidenced a people doing God’s will; a school financially stricken told the trustees and the people everyone had more work to do.
These petitions undoubtedly helped enrollment but resulted in no new donations. Not to be dissuaded, academy officials cut a wider swath when they published in the summer of 1879 a circular “to the Saints of Utah, Wasatch, Juab and Sanpete Stakes of Zion.”The circular requested Saints to join together “in the maintenance of this Academy as their central institution on the co-operative principle.” Maeser and Smoot presented an early draft of the circular before the priesthood of Utah Stake, whose vote to raise $2,000 for the academy was noted in the version of the circular published later in the month in the Deseret News. “By these means” and those contributed by the other stakes, the trustees “hoped that the anxieties until now attending the financial management of this institution will be avoided in the future.” The trustees had observed the public outpouring in response to recent calls for temple funds and were counting on similar results.
Temples were one thing, schools another. Donations for schools came begrudgingly on the cash-poor frontier, where homes often served as schools but where homes never served as temples. When the subscription circular brought in less than $200 from the four stakes combined, academy officials abandoned their active quest for donations, took out a few small loans, and focused on increasing enrollment.While the trustees took to the pulpit, Principal Karl Maeser seconded their pleas in private discussions. Maeser had spent several weeks out of each of his first four summer vacations at the academy in a horse and buggy, riding long stretches of dusty road in Utah County and counties south, where in prescheduled meetings he petitioned parents to send their children to Provo. In the summer of 1880, after the circular failed to bring desired results, he recruited north of Salt Lake City for the first time, canvassing for six weeks in Davis, Weber, Box Elder, Cache, Rich, and Morgan Counties and even into southern Idaho. Maeser held about forty meetings in all, captivating audiences with common gospel discourse in one breath, and arcane lectures, such as the “Pyramids of Egypt,” in the next. He reassured suspicious parents with promises that he would shepherd their children and board them with the finest Latter-day Saint families in Provo. Maeser’s barnstorming and the school’s growing reputation for excellence worked wonders. By 1882, almost half of the academy’s 461 students came from outside Provo—including 18 students from Idaho, Nevada, and Arizona.
The timing of all this solicitation was ideal. Utah’s school-age population burgeoned in the late 1870s, and the call for trained teachers was loud. Some teaching slots were filled from among an increasing number of non-Latter-day Saints who settled in Utah after the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869. Some of these teachers came intent upon rescuing young Saints from the throes of Mormonism, and even those who did not were still looked upon with distrust. Simply the appearance of Protestant mission schools in Utah Territory was enough to alarm parents who still vividly remembered the persecutions they once suffered in the states at the hands of God-fearing Christians. Who could protect the children against encroaching Babylon? The academy’s daily theological instruction gradually became more of an essential alternative than simply an attractive one.The context of sudden and unsettling change transformed the school into a symbolic bastion for the young and for parents who worried over them.
Maeser’s personal appeal made decisions to send children to the academy easier. Some parents needed convincing because the concept of a boarding school was new and ran counter to the needs of farmers with few farmhands. Maeser’s hearty German accent made him just human enough for fellow immigrants to trust him with their children, while his noble bearing and oratorical skills gave him a mysterious, almost irresistible allure. Maeser also eased the transition into the technocratic world Utah was rapidly entering as overpopulation across the Salt Lake Valley made farming an unlikely occupation for many of the rising generation.His talents were in primarily nonscientific fields: small-town people could admire his learning without being fearful of it. Perhaps most important for gaining confidence, Maeser’s learnedness never overshadowed his testimony.
The academy had become widely known within three years of Brigham Young’s death. The school’s excellence was both the creator and creation of public acclaim: Maeser’s term statistical reports were included in the Deseret News by 1879. A near doubling of enrollment between 1877 and 1880 allowed the school to significantly cut into its debts to teachers.The academy’s reputation for taking any student, even the poor, tuition in hand or not, spread far and wide. This was not ideal but still suited the trustees, since promises to pay later were always better than leaving desks empty with no better prospects of filling them. And yet a packed house brought no more donations than did an empty one. Without a trusted ally, the trustees had no real insurance against costs that tuition receipts could not meet.
Church Assistance Begins. Academy officials naturally looked to Brigham Young’s successor, John Taylor, to help cover costs Brigham would have paid had he lived. The line dividing Brigham’s private and Church business remained hazy for Principal Karl G. Maeser, whose pen nearly wept in a letter to President Taylor six weeks into the new school year early in October 1878. “Please, dear President, do something for us,” Maeser pled, “for thus far I [have] had to strain my physical, mental, and private resources to their utmost capacity” and “must necessarily give out in all these directions” in a “comparatively short time.”Maeser insisted the academy “must be placed under the direct control of the Presidency of the Church, or it will perish of its undefined semipublic-private character.”
President Taylor was not convinced—at least, not yet. The Church had struggled for a quarter of a century to pay for the Salt Lake Temple, still incomplete, and had recently invested in construction on temples in St. George, Manti, and Logan. Church funds were also increasingly applied to lobbying efforts against further antipolygamy legislation then under contemplation in Washington, D.C.Although President Taylor lauded the academy’s work both in public and in private, his attempts to meet large needs with small purses could not bring him to “look upon [schools] financially as exclusively Church matters.” Were the Brigham Young Academy given special treatment, he reasoned, the Twelve would feel responsible for the “similar applications from other Stakes” sure to follow. This stance was complicated by an elected office President Taylor then held: Utah Territorial Superintendent of District Schools, responsible for distributing territorial school funds. Tact and caution were required at this time when even unfounded rumors of favoritism could dash Utah’s chances for statehood.
President Taylor’s refusal to finance the academy did not prevent the trustees from keeping the school’s need in front of him. They invited him to commencements and consulted with him on curriculum, while, at the same time, waiting patiently upon the Lord to deliver financial assistance. The wait, as it turned out, was two years long. Zina Young Williams, Brigham Young’s daughter who taught needlework and drawing at the academy at that time, later remembered calling on President Taylor at his home, in 1881, “to relieve my mind upon the subject that had so distressed us all”—academy finances. Zina vented her frustration before a prophet as only a prophet’s daughter dared do. President Taylor, forever a British gentleman, listened until she finished and then kindly took her hand in his “fatherly way.”“I have been visited by your father,” President Taylor began. “He came to me in the silence of the night clothed in brightness and with a face beaming with love and confidence told me many things of great importance.” Among these, “the school being taught by Brother Maeser was accepted in the heavens and was a part of the great plan of life and salvation.” Brigham’s message, as John Taylor recited it, riveted itself into Zina’s memory: “Christ himself was directing, and had a care over this school.”
Concern for privileging one stake’s schooling over another’s vanished. Shortly after the vision, President Taylor appeared at the academy’s 1881 commencement exercises and there publicly announced a Church benefaction of $200 cash, a rare commodity in those days.The following year, he established ten one-year tuition scholarships, to be given annually on the basis of merit and need, to students in the academy’s normal department. These initial appropriations, modest in sum but colossal in import, brought the Church into the academy’s family. The school now had an ally willing to lend assistance even when giving that assistance strained logic. More importantly for the trustees was their belief that God had confirmed both the desirability of the academy surviving at all costs and the trustees’ ability to guide the school through crises. This was knowledge that the trustees could cling to through years to come.
Surviving Fire: 1884
Shouts of “Fire!” and peals from the academy bell pierced the frigid air at about 10:30 on the night of January 27, 1884. Locals who converged on smoke billowing from the center of town found flames dancing behind the Lewis Building’s second-story windows. Provo, population 4,500, had no fire department.Those first on the scene ran to the nearest well a block away, where a bucket brigade formed and was soon joined by every able body. “Can you for once imagine . . . the hor[r]or that consumed our minds” to see the school enflamed, asked an incredulous Lars Eggertson, the student janitor. Fire engulfing a solid brick structure—this of all Provo’s buildings—was a sight least expected.
Students and townspeople conceded their defeat within an hour.The blaze died only after it had ripped through both stories and charred the solid brick walls. At dawn, less than an empty shell remained. The front wall lay fallen and the other three stood smoldering. The interior walls were reduced to miserable rubble. Chattel snatched from the flames—benches from the lower rooms, books, laboratory apparatus, musical instruments, and the school organ—rested on a frozen icepack in the middle of Center Street. The New York Times, which was probably wired the story, estimated damage at $30,000, though local estimates were about half that. The school, of course, had no insurance.
Students doubted the academy would continue. On the night of the fire, they were told to return to the rubble the following morning, at regular school time, and there be instructed “what was going to be done.” All “spark of hope had fled” from us that morning, recalled one student.Nels L. Nelson, a teacher in the intermediate department, observed with the same gloom, “No note of hope left in the undertone conversation of the little knots grouped here and there. The only question seemed to be how soon they could get ready to start for home.”
If ever academy officials needed an excuse to shut down, this was the perfect one. Questions with no easy answers abounded. Where could four hundred students possibly be housed? Assuming temporary accommodations were found, at what cost and for what length of time could these be procured? Where could funds for a new building be located? Smoot had given $3,000 out of his own pocket for an addition to the Lewis Building in the summer of 1882, although he was quick to acknowledge that this money came only after “the Lord had opened the way.”Should the trustees now expect the Lord to open a much larger way? The third term of the academic year was to begin the morning after the fire. Should the students be dismissed now so they could enter other schools without getting behind in their studies? These were just some of many issues academy officials would no doubt have silently pondered in those early morning hours after the fire had jeopardized the very life of their school.
Temporary Quarters Arranged. The school was not dead. Loss of the Lewis Building, academy officials insisted, could no more kill the academy than death of the body could extinguish the spirit. “The Academy is not burned,” Maeser rallied his fellow teachers, “it lives forever.”Academy trustees agreed. They met early on the morning after the fire and resolved to continue classes “without delay.” Maeser conveyed the message while standing upon a chair, in the middle of the street, facing the students, whom he invited to a meeting to be held later in the morning, three blocks up the road in the Provo meetinghouse, where a plan for the school’s continuance would be announced.
Leaders roused support for the school’s continuance by making sense of the disaster. “Acknowledge the hand of the Lord” in this fire was the main message twenty-one-year old Ferdinand Ericksen took from the meeting. Maeser, Smoot, and Elders Erastus Snow and Francis M. Lyman of the Quorum of the Twelve wanted students to “leave it to Him from whom all blessings come, and He would see us through alright.”A correspondent to the Deseret News heard Elder Lyman testify that “the Lord would not allow this institution to fail.” Lyman prophesied that in the disaster’s aftermath, “Brother Maeser should grow younger instead of older in body, and in spirit.” Maeser, for his part, predicted the academy “should arise Phoenix-like from its ashes.” Lars Eggertson affirmed how these powerful messages filled students with renewed hope “and a better determination to go forward and help their teachers to bare [sic] their burdens.”
Smoot’s influence on locating new accommodations was apparent. Like a concerned father, he assured that “all will be made as comfortable as possible” in the “places provided.”The higher departments would meet in the upper rooms of the newly completed building of the First National Bank, of which Smoot was president and one of six directors. Nels L. Nelson described how this “grand old man” waved off other competitors then vying for that very rental space and convinced his fellow directors to give room to the academy at a modest price. The lower departments were housed in the basement of the Provo meetinghouse for the next few days, until Samuel S. Jones’s new mercantile store, located several doors down from the bank building, was fitted up for them. Jones, Smoot’s close friend, leased space to the school at a cheap rate—provided his children received free tuition. Academy officials saw God’s hand in these arrangements, for had the fire come weeks earlier or later than it did, space for the school would likely have been unavailable.
School began immediately, as the trustees had resolved. “Notwithstanding the burning of the Brigham Young Academy building last night,” Smoot wired across the territory, “this institution will open regularly to-morrow morning.”Students turned out that afternoon and “with helping hands” hauled desks and books and chalkboards up the street into the classrooms. Regular devotional was held the following morning in the Provo meetinghouse, located at the center of town, before students separated to classrooms as usual. Maeser later credited “the spirit manifested by the board, the faculty, the students and friends of the Academy, [who] made it possible that only one day [of school] was lost.”
Subscription for a New Building. No argument was necessary to convince people the academy needed help after the fire. Everyone knew the academy was poor. Prior to the fire, newspapers had often mentioned penury in their accounts of the school’s history. The pitiable tone conveyed by reporters reminded parents that the humble beginnings of this school resembled those of the divinely sanctioned Church the school represented. In Ogden, far away from the academy’s workings, the Daily Herald concluded less than twenty-four hours after the fire that “the people of Provo and of the Territory”—not the academy trustees—should “soon make up the loss and decide to build another structure for the school.” This institution “has no funds,” the paper reminded readers.Elder Erastus Snow described the public sentiment when he compared rebuilding the academy to a “public work, of which all will feel the responsibility.”
The trustees’ responsibility after the fire, then, was more to channel than to create what Smoot called “wide-spread sympathy” for the school.President Taylor immediately led the charge to rebuild by heading a subscription list with $5,000, for and in behalf of the Church. Prominent citizens Smoot and George Q. Cannon, first counselor in the First Presidency, each publicly committed to $500. “Let the funds flow,” encouraged a Deseret News editorialist, “that the academy may, as a creditable institution, be placed firmer than ever on its feet.”
The trustees felt “compelled to appeal to the sympathies of their fellow citizens for help” in erecting a building worthy of the academy’s reputation.To every stake in the Church the trustees sent subscription lists, with an appeal signed by their representative, A. O. Smoot:
This institution has acquired such a reputation in the community for the excellence of its management, that the feeling for its loss is one of universal regret. The institution has struggled through many difficulties, and has been gradually growing in influence, and was emerging from serious embarrassments that had beset its pathway in the past, when this misfortune occurred.
Subscription promises soared to $15,000 by mid-February through the assistance of Zina Young Williams, whom the trustees temporarily released from her teaching duties to solicit donations from among her many friends in Salt Lake City.The Salt Lake Tabernacle held a benefit concert, and a traveling theatrical troupe split the proceeds on performances, for which Williams, her half sister Susa Young Gates, and trustee Harvey Cluff, representing the academy, sold tickets. Utah Southern Railroad officials enticed attendance at the theater by offering theatergoers half-price fares to Provo. Rebuilding the academy became a rallying point for the entire territory.
ZCMI Rents Room to the Academy. Public optimism gave rise to grand expectations. Subscripted funds were reserved for a new schoolhouse costing an estimated $40,000.Rather than salvage the Lewis Building or rebuild upon its property, the trustees scoured Provo for an entirely new lot. They narrowed their choices to two and then called on their chief beneficiary, President John Taylor, to decide between them. One proposed site, several acres of unplatted land a mile north of the center of town, was owned by Smoot and offered to the school free of charge. The other site, two blocks south of the Smoot lot, was a four-acre city block owned by Mary Lewis, widow of Jesse Lewis, who had built and later sold the Lewis Building to Brigham Young. After visiting each site, President Taylor directed the trustees to purchase the Lewis property, which they did on March 24, 1884, for $2,250. Two months later, after volunteer teams had cleared the underbrush, the ground was dedicated and broken, and construction on the new academy building began immediately. Two years was the estimated construction time.
In the meantime, the trustees sought another location to hold school. Rooms in the bank building and the Jones store were notoriously cramped and may have been offered on condition the academy locate another home after the academic year ended in June.More attractive accommodations were in order when postfire enrollment slumped from the year before. Seeking to consolidate students under one roof, the trustees wrote the president of Zion Cooperative Mercantile Institution (ZCMI) of Salt Lake City in early March 1884 asking to use a portion of the institution’s massive Provo warehouse “for the ensuing [school] year and until a new building can be erected.” As for rates, the trustees requested “kind consideration of our recent heavy loss” and of the school’s “benefits accruing to the public.”
Fortuitously, President John Taylor was also president of ZCMI. His advocacy of the trustees’ proposal was all the ZCMI directors needed to grant the school the entire second floor and back half of the first beginning August 1884.The directors granted free rent for one year, after which “there shall be a charge made” at a figure “equitably determined” by the ZCMI superintendent and the academy trustees. That summer an elated academy board prepared for entrance by plastering ceiling and walls, enlarging the staircase, and erecting pine partitions between rooms capable of accomodating four hundred students at any one time—about the same capacity as the Lewis Building. That fall, classes opened in the warehouse, and once again at the trustees’ behest, an academy advantage came as a community gift.
Shadows had not yet fallen on the academy’s good fortunes as the summer of 1884 waned into fall. Saints inside the territory and out had promised to assist the trustees erect a building worthy of the school’s reputation. These promises allowed construction to proceed on a plot Smoot had dedicated to God for the expressed purpose of erecting a “building unto Thy name for the purpose of the promotion of Thy Zion upon the earth.”Smoot knew that Zion would never be built without opposition. Future fiery trials would rival those past, giving cyclical relevance to the handwriting specimen students were asked to copy in penmanship class three days after the fire: “The Academy can no more be destroyed by fire than can the soul of man by death.”
Surviving Antipolygamy Raids: 1885–1888
Academy trustees were not entirely surprised when school opened in the ZCMI warehouse with just ninety students. Enrollment always started small in the autumn months before growing through the winter. Enrollment the term before the fire, one of the highest ever at the school, could not be realistically expected so soon after disaster and so long as the academy convened in a building the public believed was better suited for wares than for school. Yet this fall also presented an unexpected challenge when a nationwide grain glut persuaded some farmers to hoard their yields and prevented others from selling them altogether.Some parents who ordinarily sent their children to the academy kept them home or sent them to tax-supported schools until times improved. Times would not improve soon. The grain glut was just the beginning of an economic crisis that would bedevil the Saints in Utah Territory for much of the 1880s. Here was another fire academy officials would be called to fight.
The trouble began when a territorial grand jury in October 1884 upheld Rudger Clawson’s conviction on charges of polygamy and unlawful cohabitation. Clawson, a bookkeeper from Salt Lake City, was the first polygamist tried under the Edmunds Act of 1882, which mandated severe punishment of those found guilty of polygamy. Clawson was sentenced to pay $800 and serve three and a half years in prison.This landmark conviction signaled the beginning of a six-year witch-hunt orchestrated by U.S. lawmakers and played out by federal marshals and their minions. Some polygamists and sometimes their wives and children, bent on avoiding subpoena, left homes and businesses for the “underground.” In this confusion, crop yields shrunk, business volumes sagged, and cash evaporated across the territory.
Antipolygamy raids shorted the academy of a commodity essential to its livelihood: students. Some families, both polygamist and monogamist, needed their children, particularly older children, at home during this chaotic time; others who did not were still pressed for funds as was everyone else. The impact on the academy is clear: in 1884–85 enrollment dropped 25 percent from the year before, and tuition receipts dropped 33 percent. The ratio of tuition paid in cash to tuition in produce and merchandise fell from 3:1 to 2:1. Student dropouts, on the rise from past years, peaked at 26 percent during the early months of 1885, about the time President John Taylor and other polygamists went underground.“When the ship Zion is passing under the dark shadows of hovering storm-clouds,” confessed Maeser, “it cannot be expected otherwise but that an institution so closely identified” with the “fortunes of the whole Church, should experience the same depression of circumstances.”
The trustees sought help to pay bills the school’s treasury could not cover. President Taylor delivered his subscription as promised, but most of the others were never paid.An empty building fund meant construction on the new building halted indefinitely after 1884 with the basement floor complete six feet above ground level. The school remained in the ZCMI warehouse. A $1,200 bill for rent came when the one-year free rent period expired in the fall of 1885. Academy trustees could not pay the bill because they were already buried in debt from the new lot, construction, warehouse remodeling, and back pay to teachers. Instructor of sciences James E. Talmage lamented how his salary “to a very great extent unpaid” prevented him from meeting “a number of pressing debts.” By the spring of 1886, the amount due teachers alone had run to about $3,400, a sum equivalent to more than two-thirds the entire faculty payroll from the year before.
As depressed as its own circumstance was, the Church became the academy’s last hope. Smoot declared the school would have to close unless outside assistance soon came, and Maeser wrote President Taylor on April 14, 1886, with sobering news:
As all the teachers have been forced to incur debts, and the financial condition of the Academy gives them no hope of meeting their obligations, nor to support their families until the commencement of the new academic year in August, and there being even then no prospect of better times, they all will be under the necessity of seeking positions elsewhere immediately after the close of the present term, May 21.
Maeser categorically placed the academy’s future in President Taylor’s hands. “Whichever manner you may direct” the school’s labors, Maeser wrote, was the course the school would follow.Academy trustees asked President Taylor to direct them before May 1, when they expected to either rehire teachers for the coming school year or release them to locate new work.
Tithing Block Rent from President Taylor. All was not lost for the academy. Maeser’s letter was just one of a recent string of letters from academy officials to John Taylor describing the school’s financial condition and suggesting ways to improve it. President Taylor’s replies show he was eager for the school to survive and was willing to invest Church funds when necessary. His children Nephi and Maggie then attended the academy, and like any involved parent, he took special interest in the management of their school. Far from suddenly dumping the academy into John Taylor’s lap, Maeser’s letter functioned as an ultimatum for the President to decide on issues he had discussed with academy officials intensively for the last six months and occasionally over the past six years.
At issue in these discussions was the property Brigham Young had deeded to the trustees in the summer of 1877. This three-acre plot, called the “Tithing Block” because the Provo tithing office was located on the premises, was an untapped gold mine sitting in the middle of Provo City.The property sat dormant for years while the trustees haggled over ownership with Church leaders. Academy trustees had long claimed that Brigham Young made a verbal promise to Smoot that the school was free to collect $1,200 rent annually from the Provo tithing office so long as the office remained on the premises.
President Taylor had never been comfortable with this agreement. Academy officials collected rent on the office between 1879 and 1881 before the President (not yet converted to the academy’s cause) demurred on the basis that the Church was never anyone’s tenant and that verbal rental agreements were “not in accordance with . . . the way such business should be transacted.”Academy trustees promptly stopped collection and left the issue unresolved. Rising attendance and the Church appropriation for academy normal students in the early 1880s made rent easy for the trustees to forget; plummeting attendance and mounting debt in the mid-1880s brought rent quickly to mind. Soon after ZCMI sent its bill to the academy in late 1885, the trustees sent President Taylor a bill of almost $7,000 in back rent on the Provo tithing office.
In return, President Taylor sent a genial, levelheaded reply to Smoot in December 1885. Still in seclusion from federal marshals, he expressed a “delicacy in launching out” financially under present circumstances.“You and I have each our own responsibilities, and while you, Prest. Smoot,” represent an institution of learning, “I feel that, I, as Trustee in Trust, am using the General funds of the whole Church.” In other words, this $1,200 annual rent sum “outside of other considerations might be well enough,” but under the “present pressure of affairs” it was, quite simply, “exorbitant.” President Taylor offered instead what he believed was currently a just equivalent for annual rent: $400. “If this is not satisfactory we will refer the whole subject to arbitration,” he added, half seriously, referring to a common method for members of the Church to settle disputes. In the meantime, while the trustees considered the offer, President Taylor gave them a down payment of $2,000 to keep the school open another term.
The trustees were serious about paying all their debts and quickly accepted the invitation to arbitrate without counteroffering. “The Board feels that the Trust committed to their charge in the B. Y. Academy is a sacred one,” explained Smoot, “and should they due [sic] anything to retard its progress they would be recreant to their trust.”Arbitration became a way for the trustees to protect that trust after they considered how “they would lay themselves open to just criticism” for taking President Taylor’s offer when lots across the street commanded much higher prices. Smoot aimed to convince when he included these prices in a letter to the President in which he concluded, “ever praying for your welfare,” and signed, “your brother in the Gospel of Christ.” Here were trustees who loved the school and the Church and had faith that God would rule equitably over both institutions through the judgment of a disinterested observer.
Discipleship, not disinterest, would eventually decide this case. Maeser’s ultimatum prompted each side to choose arbitrators, who together were to choose a third disinterested party. At this point President Taylor’s arbitrator, L. John Nuttall, refused to proceed further. Nuttall ignored letters from the academy’s arbitrator, John E. Booth, who wanted to decide on the third party; instead, Nuttall privately prodded academy officials to settle the matter without one.Nuttall was a longtime Provo resident who had worked closely with Smoot and Maeser in civic and Church affairs and was also President Taylor’s son-in-law and personal secretary. Nuttall knew John Taylor about as well as any man living. “Although the proposition to arbitrate was also proposed, I do not think that was expected,” Nuttall confided. Making clear he wrote on his own responsibility, Nuttall pled with academy officials to settle the issue “by way of compromise” and thereby arrest this “coercive” and “forced” measure.
Smoot was persuaded gradually. “The more I reflect upon arbitration of such an important matter with the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” he confessed to Nuttall, “the less I feel like having anything to do with it.”Smoot partially conceded when in mid-June 1886 he suggested that President Taylor choose all three arbitrators “and I will agree to abide the results of their decision.” Concessions were total after he and the trustees motioned on June 26 to “rescind our acceptance of Arbitration” and leave the question of rent “entirely to the judgement of President John Taylor.” Discipleship had triumphed.
For the famished school, something was better than nothing. President Taylor’s judgment was an improvement on his original offer: $450 per year in rent for the last nine years, or $4,050 total, equally divided between cash, merchandise, and produce.On the strength of this promise, Brigham Young Academy opened again in the fall.
Beneficiary Funds from Church Members. Tithing Block rent could not cover past debts or prevent future ones from accruing. Enrollment continued to plummet, reaching an eight-year low by the end of 1886. Poor tuition receipts prompted Maeser to make “one last desperate effort to save the Academy from breaking up next Christmas” 1886, just a few months away. I “cannot afford another sacrifice” like last year, he insisted, stung from losing more than half his salary from the previous year.Maeser, always party to his own advice, had long encouraged academy teachers to consider themselves missionaries who joyfully served without thought for food or raiment.
Maeser was more concerned about how the academy would survive before Christmas than after. The Church had deferred half of the back rent on the Tithing Block until year-end local tithing returns were deposited at the general tithing office during the first few months of 1887.Academy officials responded to the need by initiating two subscription drives during the first half of the academic year. These drives generated enough revenue to satisfy teachers until the remainder of the back rent could subsidize their salaries at the beginning of the new year.
Maeser initiated the first drive in August 1886 when he asked John Q. Cannon, a recently appointed trustee, to raise money for the academy to pay its operating expenses through the end of the school year. Since teachers always seemed to get shortchanged, the trustees agreed to give them all the tuition revenue (still not enough for full salary) and find some other way to raise money for heating, lighting, and incidentals.Cannon gave $100 himself and managed to scrape up another $675 from concerned observers. Smoot, Elder Heber J. Grant, and three of Brigham Young’s heirs each gave $100. Trustee Harvey Cluff gave $75. Another Young heir gave $50, as did venerable General Relief Society President Eliza R. Snow, now over 80 years old.
Smoot initiated the second subscription drive at a meeting of the Utah Stake high council in October 1886. He told the council that “soon, the school will have to close” unless the brethren present “use their means and influence to sustain” the academy teachers, still due about $2,500.Maeser detailed his own sacrifices before the council and described his “mission” to remain with the school “as long as it was possible for him to do so.” Smoot warned the high council that “if [the academy] goes down,” council members “may bear a part of the responsibility as General Officers of the Church.”
Council members acted on the message. Three councilors were appointed to “devise a plan to carry on the school” with help from the academy trustees.This joint committee concluded that since Provo’s businessmen benefited most from the estimated $40,000 in annual student expenditures locally, they should give something back by “donating of their means to sustain” the school. On November 29, 1886, about one hundred locals met with the council and subscribed over $1,000 for students of their choice to attend the academy as beneficiaries. The trustees encouraged subscription by promising to reopen the primary department, where children as young as age six could attend. Although the Beneficiary Fund was not the academy’s panacea, it was successful enough for the trustees to later initiate it in all the wards of Utah Stake. Trustees and teachers alike were heartened by the collections. The reappearance of community support allowed the trustees to pay the teachers and thus keep the school open.
Back faculty salaries were eventually paid with help from the Church. President Wilford Woodruff, who led the Church after President John Taylor died in July 1887, gave the trustees $2,500 in tithing produce accompanied by a special request to settle with teachers before other creditors.This relief came during the 1887–88 school year, just as the academy and the territory was emerging from the fiscal strain of the antipolygamy raids. Although arrests continued through the Manifesto of 1890, economic fortunes were on the mend long before, at least as early as the spring of 1888, thanks in large measure to a land and credit boom that would later come back to haunt everyone, including the country at large.
Surviving Dispute with Brigham Young’s Heirs: 1888–1897
“Boom! Boom!! Boom!!!” The headline in Provo’s Utah Enquirer for March 20, 1888, marked a shift in the fortunes of an entire people and a school who drew its patronage. A growing perception that the Mormon kingdom was crumbling had enticed investors from the east to Utah. Some were mine speculators whose eastern capital now in circulation allowed local public confidence to soar. Credit stretched far, and investors began buying land at prices empty-pocketed pioneers had never dreamed of.Suddenly the academy’s Tithing Block, vacated by the Church in 1887, was appraised at six-figure prices. Academy trustees needed no convincing: sell now. These three acres could provide all the revenue the school would need to complete the new building and create an ample endowment fund.
Funding the Academy Building. Such an idyllic ending was not to be. Brigham Young had stipulated in his Tithing Block deed that his “heirs or assigns” be given final approval after his death of all decisions pertaining to the “management and control” of academy property.The deed did not say how long the heirs should have this control. Instead, to discover Brigham’s intentions the academy trustees read his final school deed, the deed to the Brigham Young College. Identical in other respects to the academy deed, the college deed stated that all the heirs’ power was to end at “the settlement of the estate.” Even though the estate had been settled years before, the academy deed as a legal document never ended the heirs’ power. The academy trustees, therefore, even at this late date, were forced to go through the heirs to sell. Believing that he was fulfilling Brigham’s wish, Smoot aimed to sever the heirs’ power by enlisting Susa Young Gates in 1889 for the grinding task of collecting the signatures of all the heirs—now over six dozen spread across the country—on a new deed of trust conveying all powers previously held by the heirs into the hands of the trustees.
Three heirs who refused to sign created endless trouble for the academy. Two of these three daughters of Brigham Young and Emmeline Free had sued the Church in 1879 over the estate settlement and were later excommunicated for the act.At the time the Utah land market began declining precipitously in November 1890, only these three of all the heirs had refused to sign the new deed. Academy officials could then wait no longer to sell. On November 12, the day after they officially accepted the new deed without the last of the signatures, the trustees placed the Tithing Block up for sale, hoping investors would ignore a clouded title and agree to buy upon a promise that a perfected one would shortly be provided.
For months the Tithing Block sat on a stagnant market until a large group of Provo businessman formed a joint-stock company for the purpose of buying portions of the land and building upon them.In April 1891, the company agreed to pay the academy $15,000 for 8,000 square feet on condition the school provided a “clear and unencumbered” title within thirty days. Academy trustees were optimistic they could provide such after they sent Ella Young Empey, the recalcitrant heirs’ older sister, to New York to persuade them in person. Presumably on the strength of this visit, the trustees promptly signed for $56,000 in building contracts before any word from the East had yet been received. Construction on the basement floor of the new academy building resumed on May 18, 1891, seven years after it began, with what one trustee frankly described was “not yet a dollar in the treasury.” Such a practice was not uncommon—in credit booms, school trustees both locally and nationally built first and acquired funds later.
The three heirs did not sign, and the school was stuck with the building contracts. Academy trustees delivered over the land they had promised to the joint-stock company, though none of the $15,000 was ever paid because the trustees could not deliver clear title. Other potential buyers shied away from the land for the same reason.The trustees were left to somehow raise funds to pay for building contracts by the time the initial contracts fell due in the spring of 1892. There was no turning back because the work was “under contracts and expenses had to be met,” recalled trustee and superintendent of construction H. H. Cluff. Even worse, money had to be found on a dull market and without help from Church, for it too was in major debt and committed to allocating available resources elsewhere.
After several months of miserable success locating funds, Smoot nonetheless felt hopeful. He publicly recounted in 1892 that Brigham Young
appeared to me and during a brief conversation said Brother Smoot you need not worry about the Academy or about how means can be obtained to build the structures which have been commenced, for the way will be opened that means will be furnished to finish the work.
The trustees soon had the contracts covered. They secured a large mortgage with an eastern lender and wheedled loans from local banks amounting in aggregate to about $44,000 in cash.Subcontractors who were due payment in excess of this on-hand cash agreed to take promissory notes signed by the trustees for and in behalf of the school. These loans and promissory notes were to be paid with interest sometime after the academy won the suit it filed against the three heirs in October 1891. After victory, so the theory went, the Tithing Block could finally be sold and the creditors paid.
The academy won the suit, but still the land could not be sold for reasons never fully explained. Court transcripts of the decision, dated May 12, 1892, state the defendants were “forever barred” from “all right, interest, claim and demand of, in and to” academy lands on the basis of the 1890 deed, an absolute “relinquishment and release of all [the defendants’] rights” granted them in the original deeds.But the defendants obviously knew they once possessed the rights the academy trustees had never called upon them to exercise. Perhaps by claiming that the trustees violated their rights before the creation of the 1890 deed, the defendants immediately threatened further action. The trustees considered this threat legitimate and did not sell the land for fear more suits would result. The new building, meanwhile, erected almost entirely on credit, was completed, dedicated, and opened for classes in January 1892, despite the interest steadily compounding on a debt of $50,000.
The academy trustees finally placated the three sisters by paying them each $250 in return for their signatures on quit-claim deeds.But by the time the school had freed itself for good from the heirs, the Tithing Block no longer commanded prices high enough to cover the building debt. Timing was everything. The last of the quit-claim deeds was signed on May 4, 1893, the very day a sharp fall in the New York Stock Exchange signaled the beginning of the deepest economic recession the United States had seen to date. Utah was hit particularly hard, cash dried up across the territory, and land prices were deflated for years. Once the academy’s pot of gold, the Tithing Block remained unsold until after the turn of the century.
Brigham Young’s appearance had filled Smoot with gratitude that the construction contracts were covered and with hope that the loans to pay them off still would be. Yet even Smoot’s hope stretched thin as loan deadlines were not met and a creditor’s judgment could mean forced marshal sale and the end of the school. The trustees were out of solutions at the point when Smoot informed President Woodruff in March 1893 of the “seeming impossibility of continuing the school under existing conditions.”Interest payments alone devoured almost half the previous year’s tuition revenues, and expenses in the new building were expected to overshoot annual revenues at least $10,000 annually. Loans more than two years past due comprised a debt now $81,000 and rising.
The academy’s rescue was not automatically assured. Before 1888 the Church had given funds for the school to escape its financial crises. In that year, however, President Wilford Woodruff directed the Church’s thirty-two stakes to open their own schools and promised to help subsidize them with annual appropriations from the newly created General Church Board of Education, a governing body of nine.These appropriations were strictly nominal and were never large enough for sizable building construction—understandably so considering the Church’s troubled financial condition. Stakes were expected to build within their means and not count on help from general Church funds. The existence of these other stake schools was by no means secure: twenty-five of the original forty schools shut down after the Church was unable to offer them financial assistance during the 1893–94 school year. Brigham Young Academy indebtedness was over twice the indebtedness of any other stake academy, pressing Church leaders to decide whether they would allow the school to be among those that closed.
The Church University. Resolution to this crisis took time. Church funds eventually paid the academy’s indebtedness, but only after the school had become so integral to the Church educational system that Church leaders would not allow the school to collapse. Although the Brigham Young Academy was the acknowledged leader of the few Church schools that existed before 1888, this status was threatened when the Church decided to found a university to head the new system of schools.The academy was suddenly one school among many. The task academy officials pursued was to work toward becoming a university before the Church university opened and therefore regain their place at the head of the Church school system. Academy officials retained current faculty, erected the new building, offered free tuition to normals, expanded curriculum, lured in transfer faculty, hired new faculty, increased faculty salaries and expenditures, initiated theological lectures, and issued their first college degrees. These measures meant increasing the debt before it could be removed.
Church leaders initially seemed more eager to establish a new university than to rescue the academy from debt. The leading educational institution in the territory, the University of Deseret (renamed the University of Utah in 1892), had remained outside of the Church’s influence since the days of Brigham Young, whose pleas to implement theological instruction at the school had fallen on deaf ears. The Church school system created in 1888 seemed to demand an organization crowned by an entirely new institution, a full-fledged university, located at Zion’s center, Salt Lake City. The First Presidency had planned on founding the new university there for at least a year before the Deseret News officially announced a formal organization on June 2, 1891, just weeks after the academy trustees had entered into their initial building contracts.At the head of the new institution was an intimidating twenty-six member board of trustees that included seven Apostles and the entire First Presidency, with President Wilford Woodruff as “chairman of the finance committee.” The following spring, April 1892, a resolution to found the “University of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” was read and accepted from the pulpit at general conference, and an initial endowment of $100,000 was penned into the deed of trust. About $60,000 of that sum was given for the construction of a temporary school building to be used until the Church could acquire funds to launch a $1,000,000 network of university buildings spread over an entire city block. By fall 1893, when the university opened classes in chemistry and natural theology in the temporary building, the academy had been in deep debt for two years.
Academy officials had rushed into construction, in part, as a means of consolidating their power against the encroaching university. A chagrinned Smoot had watched for several years as the General Board consistently plucked the academy’s most celebrated teachers for service in schools outside of Provo.The last straw for him came in March 1891, when the General Board unexpectedly released Maeser’s successor-in-waiting, Benjamin Cluff Jr., from his position at the academy, effective at the end of that school year. Cluff, the thirty-three-year-old assistant principal from Coalville, Utah, was the only teacher at the academy with a college degree. His expertise in teacher training was needed in Salt Lake City during the coming year “contemplating the establishment of the University of Zion,” wrote President Wilford Woodruff, president of the General Board. Smoot quickly led a delegation of academy trustees to the First Presidency’s office and there asked for a countermand. His charge that the General Board was “injuring” the academy by taking the school’s best teachers “in order to build up Salt Lake College” was denied by President Woodruff, Smoot’s former missionary companion. Nevertheless, the call was suspended after the Presidency unitedly agreed that moving Cluff from Provo “would be imprudent under the circumstances.” The circumstances were that a coalition of Provo businessmen had only days before agreed to purchase portions of the Tithing Block, and Smoot feared they would not follow through with their promises once this “new blow at the prosperity of the institution would become known.”
Cluff Spurs Growth amidst Debt. Cluff’s return to the academy stirred Provo to reassert the academy as the finest institution in Zion. “The new building now seems assured of completion for the next year,” the Daily Enquirer concluded as it announced Cluff’s suspended call.The day after their meeting with the Presidency, the trustees viewed architect Joseph Don Carlos Young’s updated plans for the new building and then authorized Smoot and Harvey Cluff to negotiate for loans in advance of land sales to Provo businessmen. The trustees would not be stopped from erecting a structure to command the respect of all Israel. The new building was completed in six months and dedicated at a grand celebration held on January 4, 1892. President Woodruff acknowledged the trustees’ success when he called the finished product “the finest building in Utah Erected for the Education of the Children.” The sheer breadth and grandeur of this structure, which was built to accommodate 1,200 pupils, exceeded any school building then in the territory.
Believing the finest building warranted the finest institution, academy officials began upgrading their curriculum to university standards even before the new building was complete—and before, of course, the Church university got off the ground. The main catalyst in this movement was Cluff, who had returned from the University of Michigan in 1890 with a degree in pedagogy and mathematics and a vision of what the academy might become. The most important of Cluff’s early changes came when he convinced the General Board in October 1891 to allow the academy to house the official “Church Normal Training School” until the Church university opened. This request aimed to reclaim the title of official Church normal school taken from the Brigham Young Academy in 1890 and given to the academy in Salt Lake Stake for no demonstrable reason other than location.The request was reasonable since Cluff had remained in Provo and since the University of Deseret had begun offering free tuition to normals in the spring of 1891. Cluff’s request reflected the concern that the Church would lose its supremacy over teacher training in Utah. He asked the General Board for a $5,000 appropriation so that the academy could keep pace and also make its tuition for normals free. The appropriation was granted two months before Cluff became principal of Brigham Young Academy. Maeser retired from the position at the dedication of the new building, and under Cluff’s leadership, the academy never relinquished its position as the premier teacher-training institution in Zion.
Cluff did not allow academy indebtedness to hamper his effort to enhance the academy’s prestige. After becoming principal, he immediately expanded course work from two years to four, enlarged elective curriculum, and fought for the academy’s right to begin conferring four-year degrees—and confer them independent of the General Board, which had proclaimed that the first and only institution to have the right to award degrees would be the Church university.Cluff lured one of the country’s top educators, Colonel Francis Parker from Cook County Normal School in Chicago, to the academy for two weeks of lectures in the summer of 1892, and in succeeding summers brought other nationally renowned educators to lecture at the school. Even when it became clear that the Tithing Block could not be sold anytime soon, Cluff enlarged the faculty from sixteen to twenty-one, hiring professors of physical sciences, classical languages, and history, all of whom had degrees from eastern universities and had to be paid handsomely because of it. Most faculty received substantial pay raises between Cluff’s first and second term as principal, when total faculty salaries increased almost 50 percent. The following year, in the middle of the financial panic, other faculty were given financial assistance while on furlough at eastern universities. “A narrow policy on the part of the Academy will kill the school,” Cluff summarized, while “a broad, liberal policy will build it up until it will be the peer of any school in the Territory.”
Cluff’s endeavors were not without the trustees’ approval. He typically presented his requests in person to the trustees, who then jointly motioned to accept, reject, or ammend them. When Cluff insisted that students be furnished with their own apparatus, such as chemistry sets, during this time when a retrenchment mind-set might have called for reservation, they assented to the request.Maeser, who had retired as academy principal to devote himself full-time to his position as superintendent of Church schools, believed the academy’s financial condition called for Cluff to “curtail” some of his “farreaching schemes.” Yet with rare exceptions, those who controlled the purse—the trustees—were generally in accord with Cluff’s aims. The trustees, ultimately, were the ones who contracted with teachers and agreed to pay their salaries on borrowed money.
Cluff wisely involved the First Presidency in his program. He read drafts of his academy circulars to President Woodruff and incorporated suggested changes and additions before printing them. Cluff petitioned the First Presidency for weekly theological lectures given by prominent Church authorities, and the granted request resulted in regular lectures given by George Reynolds, secretary to the First Presidency, and lectures as schedule permitted given by Presidents Joseph F. Smith and George Q. Cannon.Cluff opened a four-week normal course to Mutual Improvement Association officers during his first term as principal and followed that up the next school year with a course for Sunday School officers. These courses brought no tuition initially, but some of the hundred or more students who took the courses every year undoubtedly remained as full-time students. The semi-official prestige that came to the school through these programs was difficult for the Saints and their leaders to conflate with a simple stake academy. By the spring of 1893, Cluff was asking for and receiving from the First Presidency special appropriations for faculty salaries, teaching apparatus, and library volumes.
As Cluff pushed the school into its future, Church leaders gradually recognized that Brigham Young Academy was becoming the kind of institution they wanted in a Church university. The General Board’s May 1893 consent to allow the academy to award the Bachelor of Didactics (B.D.) degree was an admission that the Church university had been effectively bested. The Church university opened three months later, but after financial panic clipped its operations down to a few classes, President Woodruff closed the school for good on August 18, 1894.Two months later, the General Board issued its only two appropriations for the calendar year. Sanpete Stake, struggling to pay off the debts on its new school house in Ephraim, was given $800; and Utah Stake, home of the Brigham Young Academy at Provo, was promised a staggering $26,000.
This decision to embrace the academy was both novel and familiar. Academy trustees had long believed their school, as the oldest of the Church schools, warranted the highest status, especially when they considered how she had through the years “proved her integrity to the President of the Church and to all Israel.”Church leaders began viewing the academy with similar affection once the school expanded into space the nascent university had neither the money nor the urgency to fill. The academy’s rich tradition provided an unbroken link with a pioneer past Church leaders were eager to retain after the original rationale for the Church university collapsed before it even opened. The university’s aim to cease the annual exodus of young Latter-day Saints to eastern universities lost its power after the Manifesto of 1890 started the Church along a path of assimilation into the American mainstream. The goal of monopolizing degrees for all conceivable subjects of higher learning soon became an insular and obsolete end. Church leaders could secure the academy’s dominance in one realm—teacher training—while still encouraging the Saints to leave the territory for other studies. This conservative goal reflected the overall retreat of the temporal kingdom into the smaller spaces and simpler ends. Brigham Young Academy provided Church leaders everything they now needed in a school: leadership willing to move the school into the progressive future, a charter connecting the school to its pioneer past, and a history of commitment to Brigham Young’s ideals through times of crisis.
Removal of the Debt. Lawsuits finally prompted an end to the academy’s debt. The First Presidency promised the trustees forthcoming relief after four creditors were awarded civil-suit judgments against the school in January 1895. Smoot and seven other academy trustees who had signed notes were named as defendants.Smoot’s death in March 1895 hastened the promised funds. His estate could not be settled until the academy’s creditors were paid. They were due more than $66,000 in promissory notes and loans Smoot and other academy trustees had signed for and in behalf of the school. Brigham Young’s close friend and counselor George Q. Cannon, who had closely followed the school’s fortunes from the time he wrote the original academy deed, described after Smoot’s death how this indebtedness “appealed very strongly to my sympathies,” considering “Brother Smoot endorsed these notes in consequence of counsel he says he received from President Young to stand by that Academy and do all in his power to sustain it.” President Woodruff, who had promised to “provide for early payment” of these notes, soon covered the court judgments and other of the most pressing academy debts. The other creditors agreed to take interest payments upon the First Presidency’s promise of future payment. President Woodruff later estimated the Church paid about $75,000 in academy indebtedness—about the cost of the new academy building.
The academy’s future was not secure until the Church absorbed the school. Smoot’s successor as president of the Board of Trustees, Apostle Brigham Young Jr., informed Cluff at the close of the 1895–96 school year that the Church could not appropriate funds to the school for the upcoming year. Realizing that receiving no assistance “meant the death of the Academy,” Cluff arrived at what seemed to him to be his only option:
One evening while returning from a walk down town and while studying deeply over the future of the Academy, the thought came to me like an inspiration. “Give the school to the Church.” Immediately my mind was at rest. I knew that was the right thing to do.
Church leaders had so greatly invested in the academy by the summer of 1896 that even the prospect of pushing the Church further into debt could not dissuade them from turning down Cluff’s unsolicited gift. They accepted the gift, prepared articles of incorporation dated July 18, 1896, and appropriated the needed funds. The following year, three new members of the board of trustees were sustained at the annual general conference of the Church, according to provision in the articles. The trustees had long hoped that the Church would take financial responsibility for the academy; now that the school had become an invaluable asset for building the kingdom, their wish was granted.
Brigham Young Academy’s name was officially changed to Brigham Young University in 1903. The school had long been doing collegiate level work, training teachers for employment and for a decade awarding them with degrees. “The name Academy places the school in a bad light,” Cluff had concluded.Changing the school’s name was the last official move Cluff made. He retired from his position at Christmas break, 1903, never again to return to the field of education. His tenure culminated at the destination he envisioned from the start, and once the school had come of age, his mission was fulfilled.
Benjamin Cluff Jr. followed the tradition of Brigham Young Academy officials before him whose sense of mission carried the school out of crises. Karl G. Maeser guided the school out of a student-poor pioneer Utah; A. O. Smoot extended his credit as far as was needed for the academy to stand at the head of the Church school system; and Cluff poised the school to become a metropolitan university. The commitment academy officials had for the academy stemmed from their loyalty to Brigham Young. “My whole soul is in accord with [Brigham Young’s] in this laudable and praiseworthy undertaking,” Smoot once said of the school.These were not empty words. They were written in the acts of academy officials who consistently manifested their love for Brigham Young and belief in his vision long after he was gone.