In the summer of 1968, 29-year-old John M. Madsen was the first teacher selected to go to England and establish a seminary program for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Although fairly new as a seminary teacher, Madsen viewed the assignment as a dream job.
"There was a sense of adventure, and in a very real way, a kind of pioneering feeling. It really touched my heart deeply that we should be privileged to be involved with this great work, and that's how we felt," Madsen said later of the experience. "It was a sacred privilege, a sacred trust."
William E. Berrett, then the head of LDS Church Religious Education, accompanied the Madsens to England to meet with local priesthood leaders and introduce the new program. Before he left, Berrett turned to Madsen, a future member of the First Quorum of the Seventy, and told him success in this assignment was vital to the future of the church.
"The future success of the educational program of the church rests squarely on the reception of this program by the leadership of the British Isles," Berrett told Madsen. "If you fail in this mission, we will set the church back at least 10 years."
After sharing this account, Casey Griffiths said what many were probably thinking of Madsen's charge: "No pressure."
Griffiths, an instructional designer for Seminaries and Institutes and an adjunct professor of LDS Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University, shared the ancedote as part of his presentation, "Global Pioneers in Church Education," at the Church History Symposium at the Conference Center Little Theater on March 7.
Over the course of about 20 minutes, Griffiths summarized the historic expansion of the LDS Church Education System into countries around the globe with the help of PowerPoint slides.
The seminary program was first established at Granite High School in Salt Lake City in 1912 and with time expanded throughout the Intermountain West.
The earliest documented request for Mormon seminary and institute programs outside this area came in a letter from Brisbane, Australia, in 1961. Church leaders consider the request but decided the timing was not yet right.
Around that same time, Berrett began to receive similar requests from members around the world, including one American serviceman in Germany who wrote, "HELP! ... My immediate charge is to get religious education off the ground here in the Frankfurt area this fall. ... So ... HELP!"
In order to meet the needs of international membership, church leaders felt the need to develop new curriculum, including a home-study program. This new program, designed to operate among smaller groups of Latter-day Saints, was piloted in Iowa under the supervision of Donald R. Bond.
When declared successful, Madsen was sent to England in 1968. The British saints were so enthusiastic and supportive that classes were organized within two weeks, Griffiths said.
Seminary then moved into English-speaking nations, including Australia (J.L. Jaussi, 1968) and New Zealand (Rhett James, 1969).
In 1970, seminary moved into non-English speaking countries, namely Guatemala (Robert Arnold), Brazil (David A. Christensen), and Uruguay and Argentina (Richard Smith).
Griffiths said Arnold's departing instructions were brief. When he asked for instructions, Berrett replied, "Well, go down and start seminary, and use the Book of Mormon, of course." When Arnold pressed for more details, Berrett answered, "Just go down and do what needs to be done. We won't leave you stranded."
"That was the end of the interview," Arnold said. "That was the total orientation I had about Latin America seminary."
In the early 1970s, Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve became the commissioner of church education and Joe J. Christensen was named the head of Seminaries and Institutes. A decision was made to discontinue sending American families overseas and transition into finding local Latter-day Saints to oversee each program. Each American teacher going out was given three years to: first, develop positive working relationships with local priesthood leaders; second, start the home-study seminary program with secondary and college-age students; and third, find and train a person who could replace them so they could return home.
Griffiths cited the example of E. Dale LeBaron, who encountered several trials while starting seminary in South Africa before leaving the program in the capable hands of Don C. Harper, a convert to the LDS Church.
With time, church leaders realized they didn't need to send out American teachers. They began recruiting teachers from local membership. A man named Rhee Honam, a future stake president and mission president, was recommended in South Korea.
In more recent years, CES missionaries and senior couples have also played a supporting role in international church education programs.
These stories represent only a small part of the international expansion of LDS religious education programs. At one point, growth was so rapid that Elder Maxwell said managing expansion was like trying to contain an explosion.
Today LDS Seminaries and Institute programs exist in 146 countries around the world, Griffiths said.
"The leadership developed by CES is only a small part of the international expansion of the latter-day church, but it remains a vital part of the superstructure of global Mormonism," Griffiths wrote in his research paper.
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