LDS seminaries: 100 years of studying, learning and loving the Lord

Published: Sunday, Jan. 22 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Seminary principal Donald D. Davis teaches at Granite High School Seminary, the LDS Church's first seminary.   (Tom Smart, Deseret News) Seminary principal Donald D. Davis teaches at Granite High School Seminary, the LDS Church's first seminary. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Frank Day wasn't around for the first few years of seminary in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But the 91-year-old American Fork resident has been around for most of them. And for more than one-third of seminary's 100-year history, he was an active participant in the church's educational outreach to teenagers and young adults.

"When I started it was pretty much still a western United States thing," said Day, who started with the Church Educational System in 1951 after his service as a Marine during World War II and continued for 36 years, most of them spent as an administrator of the program. He was a key player in the establishment of LDS seminaries in Asia and the South Pacific — ironically, in many of the same areas where he had fought during the war.

"I'm so glad I had a chance to go back and do something good there," he said. "It's been a joyful thing to watch the program grow and bless the lives of young people and their teachers in other parts of the country, and throughout the world."

Brick from the original seminary that was established in 1912 in Salt Lake City. (Tom Smart, Deseret News) Brick from the original seminary that was established in 1912 in Salt Lake City. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

Day came up through the CES ranks right behind a handsome young teacher and administrator named Boyd K. Packer. In fact, they worked together in the eastern United States during the 1960s while Day was organizing and supervising CES programs there and President Packer was serving as a mission president in New England.

"He was like a secret weapon for us back then," Day said of his CES colleague, President Packer. "He always had a special fondness for seminaries and institutes, and would do anything he could to help us do what we needed to do. He still does."

Today President Packer is the president of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and this evening President Packer will be the featured speaker at a special worldwide broadcast commemorating the 100th anniversary of LDS seminaries. Frank Day will be among the longtime CES administrators who will be seated on the stand right behind him.

The broadcast will emanate from the Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City beginning at 6 p.m. MST. It will be broadcast to LDS meetinghouses worldwide. It will also be streamed live on www.seminary.lds.org.

Sometime during the broadcast someone is likely to refer to the first LDS seminary, which was organized in 1912 near the now-closed Granite High School in Salt Lake City. Thomas J. Yates rode his horse from the power plant at which he worked full time to teach the 70 students who were enrolled in that first seminary program.

"This was a new venture," Yates wrote in his autobiography. "It had never been tried before. We could see wonderful possibilities; if it were successful it would mean a complete change for the church."

Certainly things have changed for the church and for the seminary program during the century that has passed since that first seminary class. Today there are nearly 370,000 high school-age students participating in seminary classes in more than 140 nations of the world. There are also 350,000 young people enrolled in institute classes for college-age students.

But even with all that growth, with so many students taking classes in so many nations of the world, one thing hasn't changed.

"The most important factor in the 100 years of seminary is the hundreds of lives it has touched over those years," said Elder Paul V. Johnson, CES commissioner. "It is the individual lives that have been affected as young people have a chance to learn the gospel and to apply those teachings in their lives."

Johnson's words reflect the sentiment of LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson, who said at the start of the 2011-12 school year that "seminary has blessed the lives of hundreds of thousands of LDS youth."

"I remember my own seminary experience," President Monson continued. "Seminary for me was held at an early hour in a little house across the street from my high school. I thought, if my teacher can get up that early, I can get up that early."

Outside the LDS Church, the word "seminary" usually refers to a place where one trains for the ministry. For LDS high school-age students, seminary is a course of religious instruction, usually taught daily in a classroom setting, during which professional or volunteer instructors lead the in-depth exploration of one book of scripture for an entire school year. During the course of four years of seminary instruction, a student will have spent a year each studying the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants.

There are actually three kinds of seminary programs. In most of the world, students attend seminary either before school or after school. This used to be called "early morning seminary," but is now simply referred to as "daily seminary." In parts of the world where students don't live close enough to each other to make daily seminary practical, a complete home study curriculum is available. And in communities with large LDS populations, students can attend seminary during "released time" as part of their regular school day.

Steven J. Padilla of Silver Spring, Md., had the unusual opportunity to spend at least one year studying in each of the three kinds of seminary programs during his high school years back in the 1970s. Because of his father's professional assignments, he spent one year in a home study program in Panama, two years in an early morning program in Montana and his senior year in a released time program in Utah.

While there were both advantages and challenges with all three seminary forms, he said, the one that seemed to suit him best was the early morning format.

"You had to sacrifice to be there so early in the morning," he said. "I think any time you get young people together and they're making a sacrifice to be there, it's going to mean something to them. And it really did. The teachers and the students were all there to learn the gospel together. It really made a difference for me."

Today his children are participating in a daily early morning program in Maryland.

"We've always told our kids that seminary is critical to getting them fully immersed in the scriptures every day," said Padilla, who with his wife, Kathy, has seven children, five of whom have already completed their seminary years. "We read the scriptures as a family, but it's not quite the same as what they get in seminary. With all of the garbage that they get in their high school classes, we just feel it's really important that they get some reinforcement out of the scriptures every morning."

To that end, the Padillas make seminary a family experience every morning. The whole family gets up, has breakfast together, reads scriptures and has family prayer before the high school-age children go to seminary.

"That means we start getting up about 4:30 in the morning in order to get all of that done before seminary," he said. "It's a huge commitment, but it's worth it to us."

Jabari Parker of Chicago is widely considered one of the best high school basketball players in the United States. Recently, however, The New York Times reported that "there also is a side to Jabari that does not attract the spotlight: the Mormon, who attends religious classes in the predawn hours three days a week."

"Early on a recent Monday," the Times story continued, "the 16-year-old with a 3.7 GPA was at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Hyde Park, offering an opening prayer for six classmates and two teachers.

" 'Dear Father in Heaven, please bless us this morning,' Jabari said. The class then opened the Old Testament to Leviticus."

Jabari even uses the lessons learned through his seminary classes in his conversation with the Times reporter: "He recalls the Genesis account of Abraham's willingness to obey God's command to sacrifice his son Isaac, a sacrifice cut short by divine intervention.

"'It shows how strong his faith is, that he's willing to do anything,' Jabari said of Abraham. 'I use that as an example in life and in basketball.'"

Such stories of faithful seminary students remind Chad H. Webb, administrator of Seminaries and Institutes for the church, that the goals and objectives of seminary haven't really changed a lot in 100 years.

"Elder Joseph F. Merrill, who was a faculty member at the University of Utah, a church leader in the Granite High School neighborhood and the pioneer of that first class, hoped for the same results in the lives of young people that we hope for today," Webb said. "Merrill and Yates, the first teacher, helped their students to study, to learn the scriptures and to love the Lord. We hope that is what will happen in every seminary class today and forever."

Email: jwalker@desnews.com

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