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.
Yates, then 42 years old, was not a professional educator or religious expert, Griffiths said. He had served an LDS mission and earned a doctorate degree at Cornell University but hadn’t taught a class in 20 years. At the time, he was working as an engineer on the construction of the Murray power plant, according to Griffiths.
What got him the job, according to Griffiths’ research, was his integrity, his love of the gospel and his passion for the scriptures, along with his willingness to serve.
Yates also had to have a fun personality and talent for connecting with the youths. As a young man, Yates and his friends used to take apart a neighbor’s wagon and reassemble it on top of a nearby shed, Griffiths wrote in his article. Yates also liked to tell big stories about growing up as a cowboy in Scipio, Millard County.
After accepting the position, Yates arranged his schedule so he could ride his horse to the Granite seminary each afternoon to teach two classes. His salary was about $100 a month.
The new building was completed three weeks into the fall of 1912, and 70 students enrolled. There were no air-conditioned rooms, video equipment or electronic scriptures. The building didn’t even have electricity.
There was a blackboard, though. The only textbooks were the Bible and the Book of Mormon. The class was conducted much like Sunday School. Students were given a reading assignment and asked to participate in a class discussion, Griffiths wrote.
“He (Yates) was expected to be not only a teacher but also a guide to show how the gospel could be practically applied in the lives of the students,” Griffiths wrote in his article. “In this bare-bones environment, the teaching strategy boiled down to little more than a steady diet of the scriptures, seasoned with the friendship of a loving teacher.”
In spite of his best efforts, Yates resigned after one year.
“By his own admission, he struggled,” Griffiths said in an interview with the Deseret News. “He ended that first year feeling he was a failure. Guy C. Wilson, a professional teacher, replaced Yates and got seminary firing on all cylinders in the years that followed.”
In a 2010 address to religious educators, President Henry B. Eyring, first counselor in the First Presidency, said Yates was not a failure.
President Eyring's mother, Mildred Bennion, was one of those original 70 students to enroll in 1912. At that time in her life, the 16-year-old’s father was “less active,” and her mother became a widow shortly thereafter. President Eyring’s grandmother raised and supported his mother and five other children alone on a small farm.
“Somehow that one seminary teacher cared enough about her and prayed fervently enough over that young girl that the Spirit put the gospel down into her heart,” President Eyring said in his remarks. “That one teacher blessed tens of thousands because he taught just one girl in a crowd of 70.”
As a young U.S. Air Force pilot in World War II, Boyd K. Packer, future president of the Quorum of the Twelve, was stationed near Okinawa, Japan, when he made a pivotal decision. If he was fortunate enough to survive, he wondered, what would he do with his life after the war?
“It was on that night that I decided I wanted to be a teacher,” President Packer said in his 2012 seminary centennial address, “How to Survive in Enemy Territory.” “I reasoned that teachers are always learning. Learning is a basic purpose of life.”
President Packer began teaching seminary in Brigham City in 1949. The faculty consisted of three men: Abel S. Rich, principal; A. Theodore Tuttle, a future general authority; and President Packer. Rich opened the Brigham City seminary, the second released-time seminary in the church, in 1915.
Rich became a prominent leader in the community and the church, serving in several elected positions and as a stake and mission president. Rich was also instrumental in helping to improve the financial condition of seminary and institute teachers as they reached retirement age, according to President Packer’s biography, “A Watchman on the Tower,” by Lucille Tate.
“I learned much from Brother Rich,” President Packer said in his 2012 talk. “He taught me to consider a problem, determine what gospel principle was involved, and then make a decision. His philosophy was simple: “Do what is right; let the consequence follow.’ ”
It was through Rich that President Packer became acquainted with the “old war horses” of the seminary program. For example, he recalled one teacher, William E. Berrett, walking from town to town to recruit students for the new Uintah Basin seminary.
Elijah Hicken, another early teacher, had his life threatened when he attempted to open a seminary in the Big Horn Basin of Wyoming, President Packer said in his 2012 talk. When promised in a blessing that his life would be protected, Hicken returned, “took off the six-shooter he had worn to class each day” and established the program.
As a teacher, President Packer also learned an important lesson from Elder Antoine R. Ivins, then senior president of the First Quorum of the Seventy. In a 2008 talk to religious educators, President Packer said he once told Elder Ivins about a troubled young man in his class whose biggest contribution was not coming to class. He asked the church leader, “How far do we have to go? What do we really owe?”
“He thought for a while and then said, ‘What if it’s your boy?' ” President Packer said. “I learned something. What if it is your boy?”
A teacher's influence
In 1955, John Madsen’s family moved from Maryland to Pullman, Washington. The young man, active in several sports and student government, was just beginning his junior year of high school. His life changed one day when a man he didn’t know walked into Sunday School and announced, “Young people, we’re going to have seminary in our ward.” Madsen had once heard of seminary a few years earlier in Utah but didn’t know what to expect.
“We are going to have seminary every morning at 6 a.m. That was a shock,” Madsen said in an interview with the Deseret News. “The next morning, I attended my first class and didn’t miss a day in the next two years.”
During those early morning hours, Madsen said, some wonderful things began to happen in his life. Most importantly, he gained a strong personal testimony of the gospel.
“I was no longer dependent upon my parents for my testimony, for I knew for myself,” Madsen said. “This, of course, changed everything.”
During those two years, Madsen said, he made three critical decisions that impacted the rest of his life. The first decision was that he would serve a full-time mission “no matter what,” which he did in the North Central States from 1959-61. This decision required him to sacrifice his starting wide receiver position on the Washington State football team.
His second pivotal decision was “when I married, it would be in the temple.” He married Diane Dursteler in the Salt Lake Temple in 1963.
Madsen’s third resolution was “to serve the Lord in whatever capacity he may call.”
His seminary teacher, Dale T. Tingey, later persuaded Madsen to forego dental school to become a seminary teacher. Madsen served in many capacities within the LDS Church Educational System over a 30-year career. In 1968, he was asked to introduce the seminary program to church members in the British Isles. Through the years, Madsen has served the church in numerous capacities. He has been a mission president and a regional representative, and he has served on various church general committees, including the Young Men general board. He was called as a member of the Second Quorum of the Seventy in 1992 and was sustained as a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy in 1997.
Elder Madsen was released from the First Quorum of the Seventy and designated as an emeritus general authority in 2009.
“I shall be eternally grateful for my teacher, Dale T. Tingey,” Elder Madsen said. “Those decisions made during early-morning seminary really did set the course for the rest of my life.”
Today, the process to become a professional full-time seminary teacher involves taking institute classes designed to train teachers and then being evaluated as a student teacher for upwards of a year. It's a fairly rigorous process, but administrators have made adjustments in recent years to reduce the burden on individuals and their families, Howell said.
"Our feeling was we could get a pretty good look more quickly than we have in the past and not cause the working professional to have to go through such an elaborate, lengthy process," Howell said. "I think it’s making a difference."
For more information on the process and requirements to become a seminary teacher, visit seminary.lds.org.
The chances of being hired are small. In any given year, Howell estimated that 750 to 1,000 people start the process. Of those, about 120-150 become student teachers, with some dropping out and new individuals being added. Of those, about 50 percent are hired, Howell said.
"We always ask the question, 'What is in the best interest of the students?' We want the best teacher in front of the kids," Howell said. "I never feel like we are turning away our best teachers. It feels like it's working out just right for us, and I hope it continues."
The compensation for a seminary teacher is comparable to that of a nine-month school teacher, including a benefits package and retirement plan. Teachers are asked to keep their compensation confidential, Howell said.
"You are not going to strike it rich as a seminary teacher, but that's not why people want to do it," Howell said.
Turnover among seminary teachers is low, but Howell encourages teachers to occasionally evaluate their situation and ask "is this where I'm supposed to be?"
"I'm asked almost every day about teaching seminary. I say we are always looking for good teachers," Howell said. "Whether it's full-time teaching or an experience to help bless you in roles you will play later in life, if you feel an interest in pursuing this, there is a reason. It might be professional or otherwise, but follow those promptings and you will be blessed for it."
For those interested in teaching seminary, learn how to study the scriptures, Howell said.
"Increasingly, the responsibility to teach the scriptures is related to our ability to study and understand them ourselves. To be effective, you must first partake of the living water yourself," Howell said. "If you don't know how to identify principles, look for and find patterns in the scriptures, you won't be able to help others. To see hidden symbolism and to appreciate meaning at different levels, to help students analyze and then synthesize, you must know how to do it yourself. Learn how to really study and understand the scriptures. You first have to be a student to be a teacher."
Shaylie Huntington, Kellan Cutler and Marc Oslund were among the group recently hired as full-time seminary teachers.
All three said there were times when they considered giving up, but they stuck with it and are grateful for this new career.
Huntington was studying speech pathology at Utah State University when an institute teacher encouraged her to consider teaching seminary. After student teaching at Mountain Crest High School this past year, she was one of six women hired.
As the only female student teacher in her area, she said, she was intimidated at first but gained confidence as she persisted and improved. The wives of other teachers supported her throughout the process, she said.
"It's a good thing Heavenly Father created men and women differently because we both have talents and abilities to offer," Huntington said. "As we all work together, we are a successful faculty in meeting the needs of most of the students."
As a young man, Cutler realized that seminary teachers got to teach and study the gospel all day and then go home after school and be with their families. It seemed like the perfect job, he said.
Cutler was a student teacher at Box Elder and Bear River high schools, where the job was harder than it looked. "It was humbling. I was quickly able to see my weaknesses," Cutler said. "I realized I didn't really know how to teach and that it would take a lot of work to be where I wanted to be."
The turning point came when he was invited to relax and have more fun. "I came to find myself as a teacher after that," he said.
Oslund, an LDS convert, was a pitcher for the Brigham Young University baseball team when he injured his elbow and surgery ended his career. Without baseball, he pondered what direction to go with his career and felt impressed to look into seminary.
"I told my wife, Rachel, and she asked, 'Are you going to be weird?' " Oslund said.
"I don't think so," he replied.
"Are we going to be poor?" she asked.
"Maybe," he said.
Oslund said he struggled at times, especially teaching Isaiah, and would cry in his office. But he couldn't shake the feeling that he had been spiritually guided in this direction. He was hired and will teach at Pleasant Grove High School this fall.
"There is no mistake about how Heavenly Father puts people in certain places at certain times, and that was the final testimony to me," Oslund said. "It was a huge burden lifted off my heart."
Sister Toni Franklin
As of this year, there are more than 2,200 full- and part-time professional administrators and faculty for seminaries and institutes. Nearly 45,000 volunteer early-morning teachers and part-time church service missionaries also teach around the world.
Toni Franklin, a member of the New Orleans 1st Ward in Louisiana, is one of them. She teaches two teenage students (Jacob and Nicole) each morning before they go to school.
“They are the love of my life. They give me the chance to impact another generation. The best compliment they have for me is they like coming to seminary,” Franklin said in a telephone interview with the Deseret News. “They hate getting up early, but they like coming. They recognize that when they aren’t here, the day doesn’t go as well.”
Franklin earned a master's degree from Columbia University and worked in New York for 31 years before returning home to take care of her parents and continue her career, she said.
The loss of her parents and brother in the years before and after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans was especially devastating for Franklin.
Even so, it was during that span that Franklin became interested in the LDS Church. She investigated the religion for five years before she was baptized in 2010.
“I used to call myself a special investigator,” she said. “The idea of having the Holy Spirit with me at all times was powerful, and it became clear that I wanted that.”
It was during an especially dark time that Franklin was visited by her bishop, Matt Brady. He called her to be an early-morning seminary teacher.
“I said, ‘Are you people crazy? I’m suffering from depression,’ ” Franklin recalled. “The bishop said, ‘We know, but we think this would be good for you.’
“I know that you never, ever turn down a calling. I knew I couldn’t lay on the sofa. I knew I would have to study, get up early and clean my house. But it changed my life for the better. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
The call to teach gave Franklin a new purpose, a sense of service and two young lives to influence, she said. She has taught for three years now and is keenly aware of what youths deal with on a daily basis. She does her best to create a fun learning atmosphere in her home and openly shares experiences from her life. Both students have said they want to serve missions.
“I’m really excited about that. I have always admired the mothers of the 2,000 (sons of Helaman),” said Franklin, who describes herself as “no nonsense.” “I don’t have 2,000, but I have two, and I can listen to them and be a friend and a grandmother type but not a mushy grandmother.”
Griffiths greatly respects teachers like Franklin, Yates and many others who are often unsung heroes in the LDS Church but who make such a difference.9 comments on this story
"When all is said and done, and the grand story of the church is written, and we can finally understand how everything came out, it will be those lower-level Saints, President J. Reuben Clark’s 'Saints of the last wagon,' that we need to stand and recognize," Griffiths said. "Those people do make church history. It's not necessarily as much about seeing a vision as it is having a testimony and fulfilling a calling."
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