Legacy of seminary, institute manuals discussed at Mormon History Association conference

Published: Monday, June 10 2013 4:55 p.m. MDT

LAYTON — In the 1920s, the state of Utah decided that many of the LDS Church teachings in seminary courses, which then counted towards high school graduation, did not meet public school curriculum requirements, prompting a revision of seminary textbooks.

Retired CES instructor/administrator Kenneth Godfrey outlined many of these works in “‘Gladly They Studied, Wrote, and Taught’: The Written Legacy of Selected Seminary and Institute Teachers, 1912-1960” on June 8 at the Mormon History Association conference.

“Their scriptural insights regarding the context, historical and cultural setting of the canon at times challenged past traditions as they exposed their students to new ideas and ways of looking at the (scriptures),” Godfrey said.

He began by describing the work of Ezra Dalby, a former president of Ricks College, who was charged to “give students a new excitement for the Old Testament.” This prompted Dalby to pen "Land and Leaders of Israel: Lessons of the Old Testament" in 1930. Godfrey described how students found the book “read like a novel, while providing sound Old Testament information, and furthermore school officials did not find it in violation of the state’s constitution.”

Tackling church history, educator John Henry Evans wrote "The Heart of Mormonism" in 1930, which discussed what books Joseph Smith read in school, the color of his eyes (blue), his family history and even that he practiced plural marriage in Nauvoo. Students also learned, as Godfrey asserted, “what the Book of Mormon did for Joseph Smith, providing him with a clearer idea of Jesus Christ, his personality and his concern for mankind.”

In 1938, a committee consisting of William E. Berret, Milton R. Hunter, Roy Welker and H. Alvah Fizgerald was charged with preparing a text that “would lead students to the Book of Mormon itself.” It said that “there is little in the Book of Mormon about art and architecture, instead the focus is on God, the mission of Christ, immortality and Nephite democracy.”

Philanthropist and businessman O.C. Tanner wanted to help the students work toward a better understanding of the New Testament, and so in 1948 wrote "The New Testament Speaks." With scholarly inquiry into the gospel writers and narratives, Tanner placed the New Testament in a historical setting and even discussed dating challenges to each book. In doing so, Tanner’s work “set a new standard with regard to seminary and institute texts,” said Godfrey.

Godfrey concluded with this lament: “The passage of time erased from memory, except perhaps for historians, the dozen or so books authored by some of Mormonism’s most educated, most capable teachers and writers. What is certain is that so far, no other period in the history of seminaries and institutes have so many volumes of such substance been published in the name of the Department of Seminaries and Institutes. For these reasons alone, this era deserves to be remembered.”

Emily W. Jensen covered the LDS online world for five years. She continues to track online developments and discussions. Email: ejensen@desnews.com

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