A mother, President Packer and an LDS convert: A look at the lives, sacrifices of seminary teachers

Published: Thursday, June 5 2014 8:00 a.m. MDT

This photo shows a young Boyd K. Packer, left, as a seminary teacher at the Brigham City, Utah, Seminary in 1953.

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As Joseph F. Merrill prepared to launch the first released-time seminary program at Granite High School in 1911, the future LDS apostle knew certain qualities would be vital for long-term success in the teaching position.

“It is the desire of the presidency of the stake to have a strong young man who is properly qualified to do the work in a most satisfactory manner. By 'young' we do not necessarily mean a teacher who is young in years, but a man who is young in his feelings, who loves young people, who delights in their company, who can command their respect and admiration and exercise a great influence over them,” wrote Merrill, whose description was later published in a 1938 edition of the Improvement Era and the Religious Educator. “We want a man who is a thorough student, one who will not teach in a perfunctory way, but who will enliven his instructions by a strong, winning personality and give evidence of a thorough understanding of and scholarship in the things he teaches. … A teacher is wanted who is a leader and who will be universally regarded as the inferior of no teacher in the high school."

More than 100 years later, Merrill’s description of the ideal seminary teacher is still accurate, said Brad Howell, who oversees the training of seminary teachers for LDS Seminaries and Institutes of Religion.

“It hasn’t changed. The need we have now is much the same," Howell said. "I think Elder Merrill captured it in that statement."

Today, there are more than 47,000 people involved in the Seminaries and Institutes of Religion program of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in various professional or volunteer capacities. The majority are seminary teachers, who teach more than 725,000 students in nearly 140 countries around the world.

It all started with a mother teaching her children in a family home evening. Within a year, the first seminary teacher was hired. With time, the program expanded internationally. Over the last century, professional full-time seminary teachers along with volunteer early-morning teachers have helped strengthen the faith of LDS youths through a study of the scriptures. These dedicated teachers have blessed countless lives.

"To think that you may have played a small role in helping a young man or woman to establish their faith, that’s fun," Howell said. "It’s a very rewarding career."

Inspired by a mother

The inspiration for the seminary program started in a family home evening when a husband heard his wife teach her children from the scriptures, according to Casey Griffiths, who published the story in a 2008 article for the Religious Educator.

In the early 1900s, Merrill was serving as a counselor in the Granite Utah Stake presidency. During a family night activity, he marveled as his wife Laura (also known as Annie) held the family spellbound with stories from the Bible and Book of Mormon. When Merrill asked his wife where she had learned to teach like that, she responded that it was in James E. Talmage’s class at the Salt Lake Academy.

This gave Merrill an idea.

At that time, the church owned several schools and academies, but enrollment at public high schools was increasing. So how could the church continue to provide daily religious education to students without compromising the line between church and state?

Impressed by his wife’s actions and drawing on his own educational experience, Merrill proposed that a facility be built near the school and students could be temporarily released to attend religious classes. The idea was presented to church and community leaders and approved, Griffiths wrote.

While supervising the construction of the building and developing the curriculum, Merrill sought to identify the right man for the job. The first seminary teacher chosen was Thomas Yates.

Thomas Yates

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