The Chicago ExperimentBy: Mormon Heretic
When it comes to religion, there are 2 main camps: fundamentalists and modernists. Perhaps you would prefer the term “conservative” and “liberal”; to some degree, these terms make sense. Casey Paul Griffiths came out with an article in BYU studies back in January called “The Chicago Experiment” and said “the Church had inserted itself directly into the modernist-fundamentalist controversy”.3
Griffiths describes the battle on page 92. Theological liberals are
called “modernists”, and and their conservative enemies, termed “fundamentalists”….In the battle between the two camps, one that hoisted the banner of science and another that decried the abandonment of traditional biblical views, where would the Latter-day Saints land?
In the late 1800′s and early 1900′s, the LDS church established schools. These schools were tremendously expensive to run. The church experimented with high school and college seminaries in Utah and Idaho. These seminaries were much less costly than church schools. The economic savings and stock market crash of 1929 persuaded the church to turn over nearly all church schools to the state, and focus on funding seminaries for high school, and Institutes of Religion for college campuses. But there were some problems. The Utah State Board of Education recommended (on page 96)
that Church seminaries and public high schools be completely disassociated, release time eliminated, and credit for biblical studies withdrawn. A major point of Williamson’s criticism was the teaching of LDS doctrine in biblical classes offered for credit. Williamson charged that such teachings as “the Garden of Eden was located in Missouri;…Noah’s ark was built and launched in America;…Joseph Smith’s version of the Bible is superior to King James version; and…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” were being taught in biblical classes for which the state offered credit.24
Joseph Merrill was the church commissioner of Education. He recommended that BYU become a training school for seminary teachers, and that these teachers not only obtain a teaching certificate, but be trained in theology. Just prior to the scathing Williamson report, some LDS members had received training in theology on their own. From page 93,
Sidney B. Sperry, on his own initiative, left in 1925 to attend the Divinity School of Chicago. He received a Master’s Degree in 1926, specializing in Old Testament studies.10 At the same time, Heber C. Snell, a teacher at Church-owned Snow College, attended the Pacific School of Religion, majoring in biblical studies.
Impressed with this theological training, Merrill issued a call to Daryl Chase, Russel Swenson, and George Tanner to attend the University of Chicago’s Divinity School. From page 98,
Why the University of Chicago? Besides Sperry’s already existing relationship with the school, there were several compelling reasons to send seminary men there–and several reasons for concern. Chicago was among the most liberal divinity schools in the country. At the time, the divinity school…emphasized research and academic freedom. The views of scholars there fell highly on the modernist end of the spectrum, stressing historical methodology and critical linguistic, sociological, and psychological approaches to the scriptures.31 Many of the conclusions reached by the Chicago scholars ran contrary to orthodox views of the scriptures among Latter-day Saints.
Doubtless there were professors on both sides of the spectrum from Goodspeed, but on the whole the young school prided itself as being a “hotbed” of radical theology.34…the school emphasized non-confrontational approaches toward those who held more conservative views on scripture. Russel Swenson recalled, “In all the time I was there I never heard one criticism by the professors against the fundamentalist of conservative point of view.”36
Page 99 notes the famous Scopes Monkey trial of 1925. This trial on evolution seems to be the pinnacle of the arguments between fundamentalists and modernists. From page 99,
When Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan argued in a Tennessee courtroom over evolution and the inerrancy of the Bible, Darrow, a Chicago attorney, was using ammunition supplied by Chicago scholars.38
So once again, this leaves the question, Why the University of Chicago?
Indeed, one of the ironies of the situation may have been that only a very liberal school would accept Latter-day Saints as students in the religious climate of the time.39
Merrill was interested in improving the scholarship of seminaries. In showing that Sperry was still a conservative scholar, Merrill noted that (pages 99-100)
“Sperry had been back there and apparently this hadn’t hurt him at all.” He said Daryl Chase had concluded that “Joseph Merrill had so much faith in the gospel that he thought if we went there we’d be able to find the material so that we could just positively lay out the proof for all of our claims.” Chase believed that “Joseph F. Merrill was naive enough to believe that that would lead us into proof positive of the various positions we had taken.”42 While the men may have believed that Merrill was being naive, there is ample evidence to believe he also knew the risk he was taking. Each of the men was informed that if they changed their views, they might not have a position when they returned.43 Overall, Merrill’s attitude indicated a cautious optimism about the venture.
Griffiths notes good and bad experiences for LDS students. Some embraced the school, while others weren’t impressed. Swenson wrote that “the past year will be a bright year in my life” and “They have no diabolical scheme to undermine the truth, but the reverse, to discover it.” On the other hand, T. Edgar Lyon wrote the professors were “either infidels or agnostics…I fail to see how a young man can come here to school, then go out after graduation, and still preach what we call Christianity.”
Eleven LDS students obtained advanced degrees from the University of Chicago. Swenson and Sperry became faculty at BYU, and Merrill (not a graduate) was later called to be an apostle. Chicago graduate Howard Snell created controversy among Institute teachers when he questioned the historicity of the Book of Jonah, and said that God used evolution to create life. This provoked a strong reaction from Joseph Fielding Smith who was very antagonistic toward evolution. On page 107, J Reuben Clark, a member of the First Presidency
warned that if unorthodox teaching continued, “we shall face the abandonment of the seminaries and institutes and the return of Church colleges and academies.” He added, “we are not now sure, in the light of developments, that these should ever have been given up.”88
President Clark’s address provoked strong reactions among educators present. Sterling McMurrin, a young teacher present, remarked, “We divided ourselves up…into liberal and conservative camps…Clark laid it out very firmly, and there was considerable discussion about it around our campfires.”89
[page 109] At the end of the 1938-39 school year, when Guy C. Wilson retired as the head of the Religion Department at BYU, J. Wyley Sessions, who did not hold a PhD, was appointed as his replacement, which was perceived as a signal that faithfulness was more important than scholarship in Church education.
President Clark wrote a letter stating (on page 110),
“Teachers will do well to give up indoctrinating themselves in the sectarianism of the modern ‘Divinity School Theology’. If they do not, they will be no longer useful in our system.” The letter asked teachers to teach “the gospel and that only, and the Gospel as revealed in these last days.” They were also warned not to use the term “ideology”, which the First Presidency felt placed “the Gospel in the same category with any and every pagan religion or theology.” The letter continued, “This concept reduced to its lowest terms, may be expressed as conceiving that religion is man-made, that man makes his God, not God his man–a concept which is coming to be basic to the whole ‘Divinity School Theology,’ but which is contrary to all the teachings of the Church and to God’s revealed word.”102
Griffiths notes that the Chicago men varied from quite orthodox (Sperry) to liberal (Snell). It seems quite clear that the church made a swing toward fundamentalism, and away from modernism. Even apostle Joseph Merrill seemed concerned with some of the more liberal teachers. T Edgar Lyon was the last person to attend divinity school for the next 30 years. Griffiths notes some of the good things that happened with the divinity school experiment. From page 121,
Nearly all of the Chicago men noted that their time at the divinity school opened ecumenical doors for the Church and helped bring Mormonism further into the mainstream of American religious discourse. At the same time, the scholarly methods learned in Chicago, applied toward modern scripture, led to huge leaps in the quality of Mormon apologetics. Sidney Sperry, T. Edgar Lyon, Russel Swenson, and other Chicago scholars wrote the majority of Sunday School and priesthood manuals used in the Church for decades after they returned from Chicago.”
I am saddened that the fundamentalists won, but I am encouraged that it seems the modernists are making some headway in the church. What do you think of this history? Are you a fundamentalist, or a modernist?