So few LDS schools

But church had a huge educational impact in the 1800s

Published: Sunday, Nov. 30 2003 12:00 a.m. MST

Students line up in an old LDS academy in the early 1900s, before public education had the hold it does now.

Utah Historical Society

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In a state where about 70 percent of its residents belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it may seem odd that Catholics rule Utah's church-run schools.

The Catholic Church, claimed by about 8 percent of Utah's 2.3 million residents, runs about one-third of the parochial schools listed by the State Office of Education.

Granted, there are a few schools based on LDS teachings, including American Heritage School, erected across the street from the Mount Timpanogos Temple in Utah County. But they aren't church-sponsored.

Yet if the time ever appeared right for the LDS Church — or anyone else — to set up private schools in Utah, it's now. The Legislature is poised to weigh whether to offer income tax credits for private school tuition, which backers say would release pent-up demand for private education.

So why the restraint?

"It has long been the policy of the church not to consider providing elementary and secondary schools where there are adequate public schools available to our members," Elder Henry B. Eyring, church commissioner of education and a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, said in an e-mail interview.

But when the church was young, things were different. And Mormon influence in Utah education runs deep.

"The trend is influenced by the historical . . . more than people realize," said Keith Wilson, associate professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University.

History lessons

Utah's first schools were set up shortly after the Mormon pioneers fled persecution in the Midwest and arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847.

In fact, the Charter University of the City of Nauvoo, set up in 1840 by church founder Joseph Smith, served as the foundation for the University of Deseret, precursor to the University of Utah and established by second church leader Brigham Young in 1850, according to "Encyclopedia of Mormonism," Vol. 2, edited by Daniel H. Ludlow.

Early Mormon schools could have been considered public schools in the sense they served everybody, were free and were supported by the community, writes William E. Berrett in "A Miracle in Weekday Religious Education," a history of the church educational system.

On the other hand, those schools did not take general tax dollars, Berrett writes.

Often, classes were held in LDS church buildings, said Wilson, whose dissertation was in church involvement in higher education in Utah.

And, naturally, they weaved LDS theology in with the Three R's.

Differing views

By the 1860s, Utah's mining industry had attracted non-Mormons, who didn't want to send their children to schools centered around LDS doctrine.

So the Episcopal, Catholic, Presbyterian, Congregational and Methodist churches established private schools for their members. The first, St. Mark's Episcopal School — which has grown into today's Rowland Hall-St. Mark's School — opened in Salt Lake in 1867.

But viewpoints differ on the motives for establishing competing schools.

Mormons viewed it as a move "to counter the Latter-day Saint influence in the territorial public schools and to win young Latter-day Saints away from the church," Berrett writes.

Sister Catherine Kamphaus, superintendent of Utah Catholic schools, has a different take.

"It's not so true that we would (try to) bring them into our schools so we could win them over to our faith," said Kamphaus, adding some of Brigham Young's family members were "tutored by our sisters."

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