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In Our Lovely Deseret: Karl Maeser: Let the wise man within you be your ideal

Published: Monday, Jan. 23 2012 5:00 a.m. MST

The Karl G. Maeser statue in front of the Karl G. Maeser Memorial Building on BYU campus. He was the second principal there. (Stuart Johnson, Deseret News archive) The Karl G. Maeser statue in front of the Karl G. Maeser Memorial Building on BYU campus. He was the second principal there. (Stuart Johnson, Deseret News archive)

Karl G. Maeser embraced the gospel in Germany, came to Zion, suffered and served and stood as a pillar to the entire church as he was the second principal of Brigham Young Academy and raised a standard of integrity and love of God that blessed thousands.

Maeser was born Jan. 16, 1828, in Meissen, Germany. He graduated with high honors from a teacher training college, then in 1855 married Anna Mieth, daughter of the director of the academy in Dresden, where he obtained a teaching position the following year.

An anti-Mormon pamphlet, of all things, initiated his interest in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For a period of time Maeser, his curiosity stirred, began to question and read, until William Budge, who spoke English, was sent from mission headquarters in Liverpool, England, to personally instruct the Maeser family — for there was no freedom of religion in Saxony at that time.

In October 1855, Maeser was one of eight converts baptized in the River Elbe. Shortly after, he was sustained as the presiding elder of the little group.

On the day of his baptism he prayed that the Lord would confirm his faith by some manifestation from the heavens. That manifestation came in a powerful way: the young professor was able to understand President Franklin D. Richards as they walked and talked together — President Richards in English, which Maeser had never before understood.

Maeser learned quickly and thoroughly the voice of the Spirit and the correct patterns of truth. Once, while guiding a group of missionaries over the Alps, the men noticed poles set in the snow to mark a safe way across the glacier.

“'Brethren, there stands the Priesthood,'" Maeser remarked, according to Alma P. Burton in "Karl G. Maeser, Mormon Educator." "'They are just common sticks like the rest of us . . . but the position they hold makes them what they are to us. If we step aside from the path they mark, we are lost.'”

Thus, the stream of his life was diverted, and the waters flowed away from his homeland to a faraway desert where the Lord had work for him to do.

He followed the counsel of that inspired priesthood, taking up missionary labors in England and Scotland, then again in Virginia, while teaching music students so he could earn the money he needed to set foot at last in the Great Salt Lake Valley in 1860, four years after he left Germany.

Life in Zion was a challenge. The members of the church were still poor and struggling. Accustomed to luxury and high regard, Maeser was reduced to the lowest extremities. His son, Reinhard, wrote the following, according to Burton:

“He knew what it was to be hungry ... at times conditions became so distressing that the professor made a personal canvass of those who owed him, to collect on tuition whatever his debtors might be able to share with him ... more frequently than not he returned home as he had left — with his barrel empty. 'Well,' he would say, 'the poor people are no better off than we. They can’t pay; I forgive them.'”

Maeser presided over the German-speaking congregations in the city, organized schools in the 15th and 20th wards, and, for a time, served as assistant organist for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. In 1854 Brigham Young appointed him private tutor to his own family — which invariably included others, the young Ellis Reynolds Shipp being one. The only preparation Shipp had for the rigorous demands of medical school in Philadelphia were the brief months she spent under his tutelage.

“As a pupil of Professor Maeser, how blessed was my life!” Shipp is quoted as saying in the book “Not In Vain, Ellis Reynolds Shipp”. “Every moment in his presence seemed a benediction, so great was his spiritual influence, his intuitive uplift to all that was pure and divine. His implicit faith in the living God was an integral part of his being, indeed, the dominant spark of his magnetic influence over mind and morals.”

In 1875 when Brigham Young sent Karl Maeser to Provo to head the newly-named and restructured Brigham Young Academy, he had little else to go by but the famous adage of the prophet: “Brother Maeser, I want you to remember that you ought not to teach even the alphabet or multiplication tables without the Spirit of God.”

In this setting, despite the long struggle, the challenges and setbacks, the unique beauty, integrity and strength of this remarkable man began to mold the young men and women who were sent into his care. He never lost faith in any individual, but he never gave quarter, either, challenging the weakest until they found their own strengths and discovered the way to use them.

“No man shall be more exacting of me or my conduct than I am of myself,” he taught, urging his students: “Be yourself, but always your better self.”

Maeser changed lives, strengthened testimonies and built men and women of sterling character and dauntless faith.

Brigham Young’s daughter Susa attended the academy following a disastrous marriage and divorce. According to "The 1870’s: a Decade of Collective and Personal Achievement” on GospeLink, she wrote in a letter to her mother: “I am only 23, so there is plenty of time for me yet. Let your heart be at rest for me; as long as I am in the academy I am safe. That is, as long as I am a partaker of the spirit that rules in these walls, I am all right.”

Shipp went on to complete medical school and become the second woman doctor in Utah. She practiced medicine and, at the same time, taught nursing for more than 60 years. She helped to establish the Deseret Hospital, raised her own family, and delivered more than 6,000 babies.

She loved and served, with little thought for self, despite the severe trials that continued throughout her life. Thus her daughter was able to say of her at her death, as quoted in "Not in Vain": “Is there an end to the marvels you can tell about Mother? Love — endurance — sacrifice. She had absolutely conquered herself. Her thought was for humanity — for you.”

Shipp learned well the great example set before her. George Brimhall said of Maeser, “Love was his bow and truth was his arrow.”

Have we in our day forgotten how much power there is in ideals? How tragically great is our loss, if that is the case.

Shipp wrote, as quoted in "Not in Vain": “Under (Maeser’s) superior tutelage I realized a truly great blessing in sharing the immensity of his knowledge, his power to impart the wealth of his intelligence and superior wisdom to the world about him. He helped me to higher ideals in so many ways. I knew he was often tried, and his heroic efforts at self-control were an object lesson never to be forgotten. His personal suggestions and wise direction have proven beacon lights — shining ever brighter as years go on.”

"Make the wise man within you your living ideal." So Karl G. Maeser taught — and so he lived.

Susan Evans McCloud is author of more than 40 books and has published screenplays, a book of poetry and lyrics, including two songs in the LDS hymnbook. She has six children. She blogs at susanevansmccloud.blogspot.com. Email: susasays@broadweave.net

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