20th Century Intellectualism Latter-day Saint History

The Biography of Joseph F. Merrill

The apostle Joseph F. Merrill was often considered too religious for scientists—and too academic for churchgoers.

Casey Paul Griffiths is the author of Truth Seeker: The Life of Joseph F. Merrill, Scientist, Educator, and Apostle (BYU Religious Studies Center, 2021). His contribution stands alongside apostolic histories such recent biographies of Henry B. Eyring and Dallin H. Oaks.

How did Casey Griffiths discover Joseph Merrill?

I didn’t know who Joseph F. Merrill was until my Master’s program. I did a quick report on him but I couldn’t even find a picture of him or the first seminary. I remember putting in a picture of the Joseph Smith cabin in Palmyra and labeling it as the first seminary as a joke.

A few years later I was in desperate need of a topic for my Masters Thesis, and one of my colleagues, Scott Esplin, told me that Merrill’s paper were at BYU and no one had really explored them. A few hours later I was at BYU Special Collections rummaging through Merrill’s papers.

I found they were a treasure trove of insights into how the Church developed in the period immediately after the end of plural marriage and through the first half of the twentieth century. Letters, diaries, and correspondence in the collection allowed me to create a very intimate portrait of Merrill’s life and his spiritual development.

Why does Casey Griffiths call Joseph Merrill a “forgotten apostle”—and how did he become forgotten?

He is not well known in the Church today for several reasons. Probably most prominent is that he didn’t leave behind a lot of public writings. Well known leaders from that time (who weren’t Church presidents) usually left behind a lot of literature. James E. Talmage, for instance, is remembered because he wrote Jesus the Christ, Articles of Faith, and other seminal works.

Joseph Merrill didn’t share Talmage’s literary gifts, though he did write a book called The Truth Seeker and Mormonism. Merrill’s gifts centered on innovation.

He came up with new approaches toward education, religious studies, and media that we take for granted today, but were real game changers in the time he lived. There is hardly a person in the Church who hasn’t been in a seminary or institute class, seen the Church’s commercials on television, or read an item of scholarship on Church history or doctrine. Joseph Merrill played a key role in developing all of those things.

What role did science play in Joseph Merrill’s religion—and vice versa?

Science was at the heart of the way Joseph Merrill saw the world. Rather than seeing science and religion as adversaries he saw them as two mutually supportive ways of discovering truth. He saw religious and scientific truths as part of one great whole.

The most common phrase I found in his writings was “Truth is truth where ere’ tis found, on Christian or on heathen ground.”

He saw no trouble in using the scientific method to understand religious experience.

After one particularly important spiritual experience in his life, he even wrote up a full physiological report on how his body reacted during this revelatory episode and sent it to the Physical Research Society of Boston for analysis! He just saw no conflict between faith and reason.

How did Joseph Merrill say that the scientific method could help us learn about the personality of God?

Joseph Merrill saw the universe as one of the greatest proofs for the existence of God. He didn’t really dabble in the contested areas of science and religion, but wanted to use the wonder he found in scientific study to show a divine presence behind the universe. Chapters in The Truth-Seeker and Mormonism had titles like “Marvels Revealed in Science,” “Faith, Reason, and Immortality,” and “Can Man Discover God?”

He saw scientific method as another avenue for revelation, in this case, a way to see the wonders of the universe. He taught that scientific intuition, inspiration, and revelation were all just aspects of the same phenomenon.

Was Joseph Merrill interested in apologetics?

Definitely. But he was not only interested in defending the faith, but in using scholarship as a means to explore it. While he was Church Commissioner of Education he recruited several gifted young teacher to travel to the University of Chicago to learn the disciplines of biblical studies and historical methodology.

One of the students he sent said that Joseph Merrill had so much faith in the Restored gospel that he just held no doubts that advanced study would strengthen the claims of the Church and build the faith of its membership.

Though faith and learning are sometimes tricky, I think Joseph Merrill’s wisdom on that score has been proven true.

What would Joseph Merrill think are the most important science-religion issues of today, and what role would he play (as an Apostle) in discussing them?

I was surprised when I read Merrill’s private and public writings to see how little he seemed to worry about earthbound questions of religion and science like evolution or the age of the earth, etc.

It seems like Merrill was focused on using the beauty, wonder, and organization of the universe as proof of the divine. Rather than looking downward, he wanted us to look outward at the universe around us and appreciate the organization and structure in the way things work.

As I was studying Merrill’s teachings I was reminded of an old Carl Sagan quote where he said, “A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.” (Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994, 50).

How did Joseph Merrill’s time in a stake presidency plant the seeds of today’s seminaries and institutes?

I found sources that indicate Joseph Merrill may have been inspired to start the seminary program by similar efforts he witnessed during his graduate education. He wanted to find a way to help students who were engaged in secular studies to have a way to connect what they were learning with spiritual truths.

Joseph Merrill with his wife Laura and their children in 1911.
Joseph and Laura Merrill with their children around the time the seminary program was founded (1911). Courtesy of Annie Whitton.

He did this first as a member of the Granite Stake Presidency, when he started the first seminary program in 1912, where he recruited Thomas Yates, an engineer with training from Cornell University, to be the first seminary teacher.

In 1928, serving as Church Commissioner of Education, Joseph Merrill worked to do the same thing on the collegiate level. He also made the decision that BYU needed its own Religion Department, rather than just having teacher from other departments teach religion courses.

What challenges did Joseph Merrill face without clear direction from the First Presidency when he was called to further the work of seminaries and institutes as Commissioner?

First, we needed a university with experts in all fields to help explain and defend the Restored Gospel.

Second, he felt we needed a university to train religion teachers, both in Seminaries and Institutes and in the Church generally.

Finally, he felt a university was the best way to highlight the importance of learning in the Restored Church and to be a light to the world.

What would Elder Merrill think of the Church Educational System today?

I think he would be pleased that his way of thinking—of emphasizing religious education first became the primary approach to education. I think he would also be pleased to see that there is not only one, but several, Church universities where students were being taught all manner of subjects in the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Because of the Depression, Joseph Merrill was forced to close or transfer to state control several schools like Weber, Snow, and Dixie, and I don’t think he liked it. He wanted religious education for all, and a great education in all subjects in the light of the gospel for as many as we could provide, but he was working with limited resources.

I think he would be thrilled with what we have accomplished. He would also be pushing us to think of new ways to carry out our mission.

Why doesn’t the biography mention Joseph F. Merrill’s thoughts upon his call to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles?

Joseph F. Merrill himself didn’t talk at length about his apostolic call. I don’t know why, but I can suggest two reasons.

First, he was by nature a very modest, and even shy person. He could speak and preach with the best of them, but he didn’t speak publicly often about his personal spiritual experiences.

Second, by the time he was called as an Apostle he had been the Church Commissioner of Education for five years, and was well ensconced in the company of the General Authorities. His work at first did not change greatly after his apostolic call, though it did change when he was called as president of the European Mission.

Joseph Member sitting with fellow members of the Quroum of the Twelve Apostles in 1944.
The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 1944. Joseph F. Merrill is seated on the far right. Courtesy of Church History Library.

Why do today’s theological liberals and conservatives both trace some of their roots back to Joseph F. Merrill?

In many ways, Joseph Merrill is the father of religious studies in the Church. Prior to his time there were brilliant minds like Orson Pratt and B.H. Roberts, but not many people who professionally studied religion. Even at the schools operated by the Church, there were no religion teachers, just teachers who taught religion classes, but who specialized in literature, mathematics, etc.

When Merrill started the Seminary and Institute programs, and set up a religion department at BYU, he effectively introduced the professional study of religion into the Church. When he recruited scholars to go to the University of Chicago he did so with the intent that they would return and use their skills to train others and spread the professional study of religion in the Church.

Some of the scholars Merrill recruited used their skills to defend and deepen our understanding of the teachings of the Church.

Sidney B. Sperry, one of the young teachers Merrill recruited, became instrumental in the scholarly approach to religion we take today at BYU. Others went down different paths and became less enamored with the Restored Gospel, though all of them cherished the experience to receive higher education.

T. Edgar Lyon, another of the teachers recruited by Merrill said later that Merrill’s efforts to raise the scholarly discourse surrounding religion “aided in the metamorphosis of the Church from a sectionally oriented to a worldwide Church in less than forty years.”

If you could go back in time and observe any moment from Joseph Merrill’s life, what would it be?

I would love to have been with him during his time as European Mission president. Arriving in Europe, Joseph Merrill quickly found that missionaries were still using decades old approaches and materials to teach the gospel. He recruited a young missionary, Gordon B. Hinckley, to help him come up with new ways to use media to share the gospel.

Joseph Merrill and Gordon B. Hinckley examine a film strip used for sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Joseph F. Merrill with Gordon B. Hinckley producing a Church film. Courtesy of Church History Library.

He later sent Elder Hinckley back to Church headquarters to persuade Church leaders to adopt newer forms of media to share the message of the Restoration. The leaders of the Church were so impressed with this young elder that they hired him to manage Church media.

He eventually became and apostle and then Church president!

I would have loved to have been present when Merrill was mentoring Gordon B. Hinckley and seen the conversations they had which shaped the Church and its image well into the 21st century.

Further reading

Joseph F. Merrill resources

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

Leave a Reply

Discover more from From the Desk

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading