The Chicago Experiment

By: Mormon Heretic
September 19, 2011

University of Chicago Divinity School

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and public high schools be completely disassociated, release time eliminated, and credit for biblical studies withdrawn.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?

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24 Responses to The Chicago Experiment

  1. Ben S on September 19, 2011 at 7:00 AM

    As a Chicago grad (from NELC, not the Div School, but I knew LDS in the Div school), the categories don’t apply the same way anymore.

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  2. Michael on September 19, 2011 at 7:57 AM

    Ben S,

    Please explain what you mean.

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  3. Jeff Spector on September 19, 2011 at 7:57 AM

    Wow, this is really interesting. I read the BYU Studies article, so I appreciate your take on this.

    It seems that a very high level definitions has the fundamentalists satisfied with the status quo while modernists are questioners, looking for more evidence and trying to prove what is believed. It appears that the Pratts were modernists to BY’s fundamentalism and BH Roberts was a modernist to who? Widsoe? And Talmadge was a modernist to JFS as a fundamentalist?

    Was the Chicago experiment a theological search or a PR move?

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  4. Mike S on September 19, 2011 at 8:08 AM

    I don’t know if it is the “correct” term, but in the LDS Church, the fundamentalists have currently “won”. Under the Joseph Fielding Smith/McConkie era, the men who rose through the ranks were ones who agreed with them philosophically. The ones who disagreed generally didn’t “rise” as far. Because of this the current leadership of the LDS Church is largely comprised of the “conservative” wing. This is reflected in many of the unofficial “policies” that trickle down to us.

    Ironically, it is what has led to the growth of sites such as this. There is no longer any room in the LDS Church for open discussion of issues from the “liberal” point-of-view. It has been marginalized to private conversations, conferences largely demonized by the mainstream church, or to various internet sites where people can discuss the issues. It’s even to the point where if you bring an issue up to them, they don’t really want to hear it but instead “bounce” it back to the local leaders.

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  5. Ben S on September 19, 2011 at 9:08 AM

    I find plenty of room for open discussion. I find much less tolerance for pushing of dogmatic conclusions under the guise of “questioning.”

    By my original comment, I meant the stark lines are much blurrier now. You don’t have to reject everything the modernists nor accept everything the fundamentalists did. It’s not a package deal.

    I haven’t read the article yet (though I’m familiar with the general history).

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  6. Michael on September 19, 2011 at 9:35 AM

    I don’t find any tolerance for questioning or critical thinking in my ward or stake. While there are many members who question in side conversations, there is a cadre of die-hard non-thinkers in leadership roles and in prominent callings who are absolutely scared to death to deviate from the child-like interpretations of the Restored Gospel.

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  7. allquieton on September 19, 2011 at 9:52 AM

    Michael–#6

    I’ve had the same troubling experience as you at church.

    But also, it frustrates me as a think-for-yourself conservative that the same folks who correctly identify some of these problems with the Church, tend to be the ones trying to push the Church into adopting worldly, politically correct, values and truths.

    I think there must be plenty of fed up conservatives, but I never seem to run into them.

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  8. Michael on September 19, 2011 at 10:00 AM

    allquieton,

    I agree. There is nothing wrong with being a questioning conservative.

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  9. Will on September 19, 2011 at 10:38 AM

    Michael/Allquieton:

    “But also, it frustrates me as a think-for-yourself conservative that the same folks who correctly identify some of these problems with the Church, tend to be the ones trying to push the Church into adopting worldly, politically correct, values and truths.”

    Please provides some examples. I find myself to be fairly conservative and don’t understand what you mean.

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  10. Mike S on September 19, 2011 at 11:21 AM

    #7 allquieton: … it frustrates me as a think-for-yourself conservative that the same folks who correctly identify some of these problems with the Church, tend to be the ones trying to push the Church into adopting worldly, politically correct, values and truths.

    We are quick to brand ANYTHING against the CURRENT traditions in the Church as “worldly, politically correct”. But people examining current Church policies in the context of the surrounding society is exactly how change comes about. The conservative status quo tries to marginalize these folks by labeling them “liberal” or “questioning” or “now following the Prophet” or whatever. Examples:

    Giving black people equal rights WAS a “worldly, politically correct value”. It was taught against by Church leaders, equated with communism by others, etc. But ultimately, as McConkie said, “I was wrong”.

    There is currently a push in our stake (and many others) including articles in the Friend about having even little children keep their shoulders covered as a part of “modesty”. People who push back are branded as wanting to “adopt worldly, politically correct, values and truths”. But the supremely ironic thing is that the current standards are ALREADY CHANGING according to the world. Prophets have taught that garments should come to the wrists and ankles. They already changed garments to conform to worldly trends. Yet people with short sleeve dresses who already follow worldly trends condemn someone for wanting to follow a different worldly trend than them.

    Etc

    In all cases I can think of, the Church has changed as a reaction to society. It pushes against trends for a while, it equivocates for a while, then often changes. Doctrinal things we have changes following this pattern include garment length, blacks and priesthood, polygamy, etc.

    I’d be really interested to see what things “think-for-yourself conservatives” have changed that HAVEN’T been a reaction to “worldly values”?

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  11. Jeff Spector on September 19, 2011 at 12:42 PM

    Getting a bit off the topic, don’t you think????

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  12. Michael on September 19, 2011 at 12:56 PM

    I agree with Jeff that we are getting off topic.

    I find it very interesting that there was an initial attempt to create a theological seminary for Mormonism. I would loved to have seen that come to fruition. It would perhaps have been a great resource to the Church as we are facing so many theological paradoxes and dilemmas today that are not being addressed by revelation from the Saviour.

    I often wonder if we have not already be given many pieces of the puzzle that we are just not taking the time to put together correctly.

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  13. Jeff Spector on September 19, 2011 at 1:23 PM

    I’ll repeat something I’ve written before. As a rule, our church members are much more knowledgeable on LDS church doctrine than just about any other Christian denomination on the planet. JWs spend much more time learning the scriptures and their own unique theology.

    But almost all Church members can relate the basic gospel principles off the top of their heads.

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  14. Michael on September 19, 2011 at 2:16 PM

    I don’t know about that Jeff. We have had six Utah County missionaries in a row in our Florida ward that all attended release time seminary, were raised in the church from birth, came from strong pioneer stock and had their whole social life structured around other LDS. We hold a little questioning session with each one when they arrive to test them. We ask them to differentiate between the original Catholic theology, reformation theology and restoration theology in very general terms. We also ask them to define sola Scriptura and continuing revelation. Lastly, we ask each one to tell us if the comment on earrings and tattoos by President Hinckley reflected revelation and therefore, reflects the mind and will of our Lord.

    Guess how many were able to confidently respond accurately?

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  15. jmb275 on September 19, 2011 at 2:31 PM

    Cool post MH. I really liked it. I don’t have much to add except that I agree with your analysis in the end.

    To toot my own horn a little, I think what you’ve written ties nicely into my discussion about “balancing the discussion” I wrote last week. That is, there are good reasons to believe stuff, good reasons to act morally, to follow Christ. We don’t need to rely on faith promoting stories. One thing I like about the modernist view is that if the modernists remain strong members of the church they discover these reasons since they no longer need to hold to the fundamentalist claims to retain their belief. As a result, those messages get taught and hopefully will make their way into our culture.

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  16. Jeff Spector on September 19, 2011 at 3:47 PM

    Michael,

    “We ask them to differentiate between the original Catholic theology, reformation theology and restoration theology in very general terms. We also ask them to define sola Scriptura and continuing revelation. Lastly, we ask each one to tell us if the comment on earrings and tattoos by President Hinckley reflected revelation and therefore, reflects the mind and will of our Lord.”

    Do you actually enjoy playing “gotcha” with the missionaries? I probably would. :)

    I said they knew LDS Church Doctrine , not Christian Church history.

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  17. Martin on September 19, 2011 at 3:53 PM

    I haven’t much to add other than I really enjoyed the post. Good stuff.

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  18. Paul on September 19, 2011 at 3:54 PM

    #14: “We hold a little questioning session with each one when they arrive to test them. We ask them to differentiate between the original Catholic theology, reformation theology and restoration theology in very general terms. We also ask them to define sola Scriptura and continuing revelation. Lastly, we ask each one to tell us if the comment on earrings and tattoos by President Hinckley reflected revelation and therefore, reflects the mind and will of our Lord.”

    Who is “we”?

    Are original Catholic and reformation theology part of our gospel principles? I think Jeff commented on members’ ability to discuss our gospel principles. I would be surprised to find any young LDS missionary able to define sola Scriptura.

    At the same time, ask those missionaries to describe the role of the atonement in our lives, the restoration of the priesthood, or the nature of the godhead, and I’ll bet they do pretty well.

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  19. Michael on September 19, 2011 at 4:43 PM

    Yeah, we ask them about those things also. They still have a challenge responding confidently and accurately.

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  20. allquieton on September 20, 2011 at 9:03 AM

    I’m not quick to brand anything. Speak for yourself.

    I too get margninalized and accused of being “questioning” and “not following the prophet.” Often.

    You seem to have gotten it into your head that I’m denying that the Church changes in response to society. But my post actually suggests the opposite.

    Anyways, all I really said is that I’m frustrated. It wasn’t exactly a thesis and most of your rebuttal is irrelevant.

    I get that you’re saying, “Liberals were right to push for change with blacks and the priesthood.” All I can say is you’re right about that, I would have stood with them, and that doesn’t make me happy about what lds liberals are doing right now.

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  21. Jake on September 21, 2011 at 2:47 AM

    This was a really good article. I’m not sure if I fully agree with the label’s used to demarcate the boundaries between the different camps.

    The terms fundamentalist and modernists is a loaded set of terms. It already attributes a value to the categories. Fundamentalist is bad, modernist good. I don’t think that this is actually how the groups are divided. I think it would be better to ask are you a modernist or a post-modernist, rather then are you fundamentalist or modernist.

    I think that the church is actually full of modernists now, and that most conservatives are made in a modernist mold circa 1940-1970 rather then a fundemental mold circa 1880-1910. The way they think about the world was not patterned out of the early church leaders fundamental thinking but rather a trickle down from modernism. It seems to me that the liberals today are generally in a post-modern tradition with issues with a modernist church attitude. The way the church functions follows a modernist corporate pattern, which post-modern thinkers generally have issues with.

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  22. MH on September 21, 2011 at 9:06 AM

    Sorry for not commenting sooner–life has become quite hectic lately.

    Jeff asked “Was the Chicago experiment a theological search or a PR move?”

    I’d say neither. I think people like Sperry were genuinely interested in improving church education. As the author point out, there was some PR from the experiment, but I don’t think anyone went into this with PR as the driving force.

    Mike, in light of FireTag’s recent post, I think this is an interesting discussion. In the RLDS, the “liberals won”, making it harder for the fundamentalists. In our church the opposite happened. In either case, it is hard to be the minority viewpoint. That’s why I think Firetag’s recent point about “are we growing the church or simply moving the boundaries” is a good question. When either liberals or conservatives have won, they haven’t made it ok to have the opposite viewpoint. Those of us in the minority feel the heat much more than those in the majority. Of course this also follows with jmb’s post on balancing the discussion as well.

    Jake, I don’t know that I agree with you that
    “Fundamentalist is bad, modernist good.” It depends on your point of view. From J Reuben Clark’s point of view “Fundamentalist is good, modernist bad.” It really depends on which camp you belong to.

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  23. GBSmith on September 21, 2011 at 10:44 AM

    Critical examination of the bible in light of higher scholarship is interesting but isn’t useful in furthering the mission of the church. Under correlation the “facts” of the scriptures are pretty much accepted at face value and used as a framework for teaching gospel and moral principles. That’s why there’s no reason to discuss whether the garden of eden was real, Adam was the first man, there really was a world wide flood, etc.. The Book of Mormon and PofGP are exempted as there’s no basis for scholarly criticism other than for the texts themselves. The best place for these discussions is still outside the church since bringing them up just upsets people and has the effect of putting you on the radar.

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  24. The Bulwark’s October Blog Review on October 5, 2011 at 3:26 PM

    [...] I can tell. Also, there was an interesting post that took up an article from BYU Studies about the “Chicago Experiment” that occurred about a hundred years ago when the Church encouraged some of its educators to attend [...]

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