20th Century Latter-day Saint History Theology

What Was the Latter-day Saint Chicago Experiment?

It was the first real attempt to train scholars in the field of religion.

In the 1930s, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sent teachers to learn theology at the University of Chicago. In some cases, the Latter-day Saints returned with academic tools to supplement their faith. But, in others, they experienced faith crises and set aside critical components of the Restoration like miracles and angels. In this interview, Casey Griffiths explains more about the Chicago Experiment and why issues of faith and intellect are still relevant.

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Summarize the Chicago Experiment.

In the 1930s, Joseph F. Merrill, the Church Commissioner of Education, recruited several promising young religious educators to attend the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. Merrill’s hope was that these scholars would gain skills that would allow the Church to professionalize its corps of religious educators then serving in the seminary program and the newly-launched institutes of religion.

Several of these educators, such as Sidney B. Sperry and T. Edgar Lyon, returned home and used their training to revolutionize the way the scriptures and history of the Church are taught. Others struggled to find the right balance of faith and learning and eventually came into conflict with the leadership of the Church.

The Chicago Experiment was highly influential on J. Reuben Clark giving his landmark speech, “The Charted Course of the Church in Education,” which is still considered a seminal text for Latter-day Saint religious educators.

Boyd K. Packer summarized the experiment in a later talk, saying,

“Some who went never returned. And some of them who returned never came back. They had followed, they supposed, the scriptural injunction: ‘Seek learning, even by study and also by faith.’ (D&C 88:118.) But somehow the mix had been wrong. For they had sought learning out of the best books, even by study, but with too little faith. They found themselves in conflict with the simple things of the gospel. One by one they found their way outside the field of teaching religion, outside Church activity, and a few of them outside the Church itself.”

Boyd K. Packer, That All May Be Edified, 1982, p. 43-44.

The Chicago Experiment was the first real attempt to train scholars in the field of religion, leading to the blossoming fields of religious studies centered around Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and other Restoration events and beliefs.

Listen to Casey Griffiths talk about the Latter-day Saint Chicago Experiment on the Gospel Tangents podcast.

What concerns led Church leaders to create academies, seminaries, and institutes?

In 1888, President Wilford Woodruff created the Church Board of Education to counter the movement of creating secular schools in the Intermountain West.

President Woodruff expressed his concerns about these schools, stating:

Religious training is practically excluded from the District Schools. The perusal of books that we value as divine records is forbidden. Our children, if left to the training they receive in these schools, will grow up entirely ignorant of those principles of salvation for which the Latter-day Saints have made so many sacrifices. To permit this condition of things to exist among us would be criminal.”

Wilford Woodruff to the Presidency of St. George Stake, June 8, 1888, cited in James R. Clark, ed., Messages of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965–1971), 3:167–68.

President Woodruff called upon local stakes to create their own Church academies. At these schools the gospel was taught hand in hand with secular subjects. A teacher who taught mathematics or biology would also teach a course on theology.

There were no professional religious educators. Some educators, such as David O. McKay, saw this as an ideal arrangement because the gospel would be intertwined with all of the other subjects taught.

When was the need for professional religious educators first identified?

The academy system lasted for several decades, but with the establishment of more and more free public schools, the system became more and more difficult to sustain. Church members were paying taxes to support public education—and also paying tuition so their children could attend the Church-sponsored academies. Public schools were also being established in places where the Church could not support a school.

The year that the population of young Latter-day Saints attending public schools first surpassed the number attending the Church schools was the same year the first seminary was established.

He believed the claims of the Restoration would hold up.

Joseph F. Merrill set up an experimental seminary at Granite High School in Salt Lake City. The Granite Stake donated $2,500 to construct a building, and asked Thomas J. Yates to teach as the first teacher. Students in the first seminary class included Howard S. McDonald (future president of BYU) and Mildred Bennion (the future mother of President Henry B. Eyring).

It took a few years, but the seminary program soon proved a cost-effective alternative to the Church academies. An analysis done in the early 1920s showed that the cost of educating a student in seminary was a tenth of what it cost to educate a student at a Church school.

Soon after, nearly all of the Church academies were closed or transferred to state control, and seminaries were established throughout the Intermountain West. A few years later the seminary model was retooled and applied on the college level, with J. Wyley Sessions establishing the first institute of religion in Moscow, Idaho.

Seminary and Institute teachers only taught religion. Church leaders felt these teachers needed professional training and began to invite religion professors from the Divinity School at the University of Chicago to attend summer sessions and provide training in biblical theology and archaeology. Some of these men were among the most prestigious scholars in their fields, such as Edgar J. Godspeed and William J. Albright.

How did Sidney B. Sperry influence the Chicago Experiment?

Sidney Sperry was one of the most promising young teachers in the system during this time. He had already received some professional training at Chicago and other universities. He was instrumental in connecting Church leaders with the scholars from the University of Chicago.

Sperry believed whole-heartedly that the tools of scholarship could be harnessed to defend the Church and help Latter-day Saints have more meaningful study of the scriptures. He wanted to provide the first academic studies of restoration scripture, and create a group of scholars who could help raise the discourse surrounding Church teachings and history.

Why did Joseph F. Merrill call individuals to study at the Chicago Divinity School?

Joseph F. Merrill spent his entire life working in academia and had a deep love for learning. He was instrumental in creating the school of mines and engineering at the University of Utah. (The engineering building at the school is still named after him.)

He left the University of Utah in 1928 to serve as Church Commissioner of Education. He believed strongly that the claims of the Restoration would hold up under academic scrutiny.

Merrill handpicked most of the eleven teachers.

Merrill also had some experiences in his past that led him to see the need for professional religious educators in the Church. As a young man, he did his graduate work at schools outside of Utah, including the University of Michigan, Cornell, and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. During this time he wrote frequent letters about his faith, and he may have experienced a faith crisis during this time.

Throughout his time as a Church leader, Merrill spoke frequently about the need for spiritual mentors for students. He wanted teachers who could help students make the connection between their secular studies and their spiritual lives. This led him to help create the first seminary at Granite High School. As Church Commissioner of Education, his first major project was the creation of the first institute of religion.

Merrill felt strongly that secular learning and gospel scholarship were compatible. In a letter to the first institute director, he wrote:

Personally, I am convinced that religion is as reasonable as science; that religious truths and scientific truths nowhere are in conflict; that there is one great unifying purpose extending throughout all creation; that we are living in a wonderful, though at the present time deeply mysterious, world; and that there is an all-wise, all-powerful Creator back of it all. Can this same faith be developed in the minds of all our collegiate and university students? Our collegiate institutes are established as means to this end.

Joseph F. Merrill, quoted in By Study and Also By Faith, 2016, 69.

How were people chosen to attend?

Commissioner Merrill handpicked most of the eleven teachers who eventually attended school in Chicago. This was during the early stages of the Great Depression, and Merrill made a considerable sacrifice to provide the men with the support they needed to leave their teaching positions during their studies.

Merrill chose some of the most gifted teachers in the Church, hoping they would return and serve as the nexus of a new generation of scholars who could contribute and professionalize religious education in the Church.

A black-and-white headshot of Joseph F Merrill
Joseph F. Merrill personally selected most of the “Chicago Experiment” students while serving as Commissioner of Education for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the 1930s.

Why was the University of Chicago selected over other prominent schools?

One of the men who traveled to Chicago later remarked that the Divinity School at the University of Chicago was seen as one of the most liberal schools in the entire country! But only a liberal school would accept Latter-day Saints, who were seen as heretics at most other divinity schools. (This was still just a few years after the end of plural marriage, and most other Christian religions wanted nothing to do with the Saints.) The liberal nature of the University of Chicago allowed Latter-day Saints to attend there, but it also set the stage for future conflicts when the teachers returned home.

One of the teachers who attended later noted that, on the whole, the young school prided itself as being a “‘hotbed’ of radical theology.” One of the school’s scholars noted that “theologically, the Chicago school broke with the older patterns of authoritative Protestantism, its creeds, confessions, and biblical inspiration. They attempted to retain as much as possible whatever was vital and valid in the older Protestant theology, though they believed that the deposit was relatively small.”

In some ways, the struggle is still taking place today.

The school was very evangelistic in promoting its views, publishing widely and sending its scholars on a variety of speaking engagements everywhere possible. At the same time, the school emphasized non-confrontational approaches toward those who held more conservative views on scripture.

Russel Swensen recalled, “In all the time I was there I never heard one criticism by the professors against the fundamentalist or conservative point of view.”

What was the experience like for those who attended?

Most of them loved the experience and enjoyed their studies. Sidney Sperry wrote letters home saying that he was excited to apply what he was learning to Restoration scripture. One of the teachers later reflected that he “learned more about the Bible and things there in a semester than you learn in a lot of our Church institutions in five times that length of time.”

Other teachers struggled with the environment at the school. T. Edgar Lyon wrote a scathing letter to his family:

Down in their [the professors’] hearts they are all either infidels or agnostics. . . . I fail to see how a young man can come here to school, then go out after graduation, and still preach what we call Christianity. The U. of Chicago is noted as being the most liberal (and that means Modernism) school in America. All religion is taught as a product of social growth and development, and anything supernatural is looked upon as merely a betrayal of one’s own ignorance and primitive mind. They make no attempt to harmonize Science and the Bible—they merely throw the Bible away, and teach scientific “truths” as the only thing to follow.

T. Edgar Lyon

What unique tensions can arise when applying “learning by study and faith” to the scriptures?

The tension is apparent in the letters from the teachers attending the Chicago School. The secularizing tendencies of the school tended to downplay the miracles found in the Biblical texts. There is nothing wrong with using natural eyes to study the scriptures, but we have to leave room for the supernatural as well. Some of the men like T. Edgar Lyon felt that when the biblical texts and science came into conflict, science was always favored first. This left little room for supernatural miracles that couldn’t be explained by science.

T. Edgar Lyon critiqued some of the teachers and their tendency to disbelieve in a literal God. He wrote:

Their God, here at this University, is “the cosmic force of the Universe,” “the personality producing force of the cosmos,” the “in all and all” and a few more phrases just as unintelligible and meaningless. I readily see why the modern preachers talk about psychology, sociology, astronomy, prison reform, etc., in their churches on Sunday—that is all there is left to talk about after they have finished robbing Jesus of His Divinity, and miracles, and resurrection.

T. Edgar Lyon

Do we know why the Chicago Experiment tried the faith of some and nurtured others?

Some of the men, like Sidney Sperry, saw the tools of scholarship as a way to augment and inform their beliefs in God and miracles. Others took the skepticism that some of the Chicago scholars demonstrated toward the Bible and began applying it to the miracles of the Restoration. They soon came to doubt that angels and miracles could take place in the Restoration setting.

At the same time many of the teachers encouraged their Latter-day Saint students to apply the tools of scholarship to the unique teachings and history of the Restoration. In the decades following their time at Chicago, the methods of scholarly inquiry led to more in-depth and thoughtful explorations of the teachings and scripture of the Restoration. Even T. Edgar Lyon, who was easily the most critical of the methods of the Chicago school, came to see the experience as a blessing to the Church.

Later in his life, Lyon called the Chicago Experiment “a landmark in an educational outreach which the Church had never known before, and which has profoundly influenced the teaching in the seminaries and institutes since that day.”

He wrote:

It was a time of an intellectual and spiritual awakening which was the entering wedge that put the Church educational system in contact with the ongoing mainstream of Christian scriptural and historical research. This outlook has aided in the metamorphosis of the LDS Church from a sectionally oriented to a worldwide Church in less than forty years.

T. Edgar Lyon

Did any of Chicago Experiment students leave the Church?

None that I am aware of ever left the Church, though some may have become only nominally active—and a few struggled with their testimonies. The Chicago Experiment has to be properly contextualized in the story of the larger struggle between modernism and fundamentalism that took place in almost all Christian denominations in the early 20th century. In some ways the struggle is still taking place today.

The list goes on and on.

Modernists wanted to apply higher criticism towards the Bible and religious belief. This can be a wonderful thing: it can deepen understanding and create new ways of looking at and understanding sacred texts. But at times, it also led scholars to attack the divinity of the Bible and disbelieve in the miracles and reality of God. At the same time fundamentalists insisted on strict interpretations of the Bible that often conflicted with the findings of scientists and historians, and led them to eschew any scholarship surrounding the biblical texts.

Latter-day Saints were not immune from these struggles, as the story of the Chicago teachers illustrates. But compared with some other denominations, we did weather the storm fairly well. There was a great increase in scholarly study of biblical and restoration texts, which was a great boon for the Church. Even Heber C. Snell, who was the teacher who probably held the most radical views, remained active in the Church. Several scholars have noted that there were no books banned, no excommunications, and no schisms that occurred.

At the same time, the battle is still being fought in the Church. There are still those who would seek to remove the miracles from Church history and accept only naturalistic explanations. There are still those who think that any kind of scholarship is harmful to faith. These conversations aren’t going away any time soon.

Did any Chicago Experiment students become influential religious educators?

Several of the Chicago teachers can be counted as among the most influential religious educators in the history of the Church. Sidney B. Sperry and Russell V. Swensen served as the nucleus of the College of Religious Education at BYU. The students and teachers they mentored went on to revolutionize religious studies in the Church.

George Tanner served as the institute director in Moscow, Idaho for nearly thirty years. Among his students was Leonard Arrington, who had a tremendous impact on the professionalization of Church history in the latter half of the 20th century. Many of the Chicago scholars were called upon to write manuals and curriculum that influenced how Church members saw the scriptures. Sidney Sperry alone authored dozens of books and articles that applied the academic training he gained in Chicago to the scripture of the Restoration.

What did Church leaders at the time think of the Chicago Experiment?

Church leaders at first embraced the teachings of the Chicago school. Edgar Goodspeed was invited to teach in the Salt Lake tabernacle, and leaders saw the value in using scholarship to bolster the truth claims of the Restoration.

However, as the teachers sent to Chicago began to come home, Church leaders grew more concerned. Some of the members of the Quorum of the Twelve and the First Presidency grew concerned with presentations given by some of the Chicago teachers.

I still believe I was right. Unfortunately I’m the only one.

In 1938, J. Reuben Clark, a counselor in the First Presidency, gave an address to religious educators that directly addressed these concerns. In The Charted Course of the Church in Education, Clark said:

On more than one occasion our Church members have gone to other places for special training in particular lines; they have had the training which was supposedly the last word, the most modern view, the plus ultra of up-to-dateness; then they have brought it back and dosed it upon us without any thought as to whether we needed it or not. I refrain from mentioning well-known and, I believe, well-recognized instances of this sort of thing. I do not wish to wound any feelings.

But before trying on the newest fangled ideas in any line of thought, education, activity, or what not, experts should just stop and consider that however backward they think we are, and however backward we may actually be in some things, in other things we are far out in the lead, and therefore these new methods may be old, if not worn out, with us.

J. Reuben Clarke, The Charted Course of the Church in Education

Clark’s speech drew strong reactions from the teachers present. But eventually it became a standard text for Church Educators about the dangers of secularizing the gospel and avoiding the unique miracles and teachings of the Restoration.

How and why did the Chicago Experiment come to an end?

The number of students going to Chicago began to decrease as the first students came back and began to share their expertise. Another decisive factor was that in 1933, Joseph F. Merrill left the post of Church Commissioner of Education to serve as the president of the European Mission. He was replaced by John A. Widtsoe, who seemed to have less faith in outside academia.

Widtsoe began to sponsor summer sessions where he was the primary instructor of the religious educators who attended. It also seems that Joseph Fielding Smith, an influential voice among the Apostles, began to be concerned with higher biblical criticism into Latter-day Saint religious education. By the time J. Reuben Clark gave “The Charted Course of the Church in Education” the leadership of the Church was less supportive of inviting outside academics to influence religious education in the Church.

How did the experiment go on to impact the Church Educational System?

Several of the Chicago teachers were placed in highly influential positions where they influenced generations of religious educators. The best example is Sidney Sperry, who helped found the division of Religious Education at BYU. Sperry also wrote a large number of highly influential books that introduced academic analysis of Restoration texts. He really does some of the first sophisticated analysis of the Book of Mormon, Doctrine & Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price.

T. Edgar Lyon became a fixture at the University of Utah Institute where he inspired thousands of young students to fall in love with Church History. George Tanner taught at the Moscow Institute for nearly 30 years, even launching innovative programs for his students to stay in school during the lean years of the Great Depression. He taught—and was a major influence on—Leonard Arrington, who in turn inspired the professionalization of Latter-day Saint history.

These are just a few examples. Daryl Chase became president of Utah State University. Russell Swensen became an important figure at BYU. The list goes on and on.

When we emphasize one over the other is when we tend to get into trouble.

But perhaps the most important legacy of the Chicago Experiment was that it showed a Latter-day Saint could engage in rigorous academic study and not lose their testimony of the Restoration.

David Yarn, one of Sperry’s students, recalled an experience where a visitor to Sidney Sperry questioned his belief in the Book of Mormon.

Yarn wrote:

I remember being in Dr. Sperry’s office when one who was considered a religious skeptic came in to visit with him; upon learning that Dr. Sperry
was writing about the Book of Mormon, the visitor said cynically, ‘Oh Sid, you don’t believe that stuff about the Book of Mormon, do you?’

Dr. Sperry, in a courteous and respectful manner, but in firm and unmistakable terms, bore a resolute testimony concerning the Book of Mormon.”

David Yarn

Many Latter-day Saints are now pursuing similar degrees on their own. Do we know how their experiences compare to those in the 1930s?

I would hope that those who enter into academia—especially religious studies—will keep in mind the lessons learned from the Chicago Experiment.

It can be easy to fall in love with religious studies and neglect your own faith. It is easy to step outside of faith and observe it as a scholar, and lose the sense of humility and wonder that comes from seeing the hand of God in our lives.

At the same time, I think it is a little bit easier for a Latter-day Saint entering into religious studies because events like the Chicago Experiment paved the way. They showed that the teachings and history of the Restoration were compelling and robust enough to merit a wide range of academic ventures.

But, like President Packer warned, students entering into the academic study of religion need to work to find the right balance of reason and faith. Those two things can be a powerful mix when brought together, but one without the other can quickly lead into dangerous spiritual territory.

What did Joseph F. Merrill think about the Chicago Experiment’s legacy?

I think Elder Merrill was proud of having launched the venture, but he also recognized that it raised concerns with other Church leaders. Russel Swensen recorded a poignant moment with Merrill, years after the episode.

He said:

I saw Brother Merrill just before he died and thanked him for what he’d done for me in opening my eyes. I think the Chicago experience really was one of the greatest things of my life. At that time he said, ‘I still believe I was right. Unfortunately I’m the only one of the authorities who could see that way.’

Russel Swensen

In the years that followed, the professionalization of religious education that came in the wake of the Chicago Experiment became a real asset to the Church. For example, without the ups and downs of the Chicago Experiment, it is doubtful that the College of Religious Education would exist in its current form today.

The religious education faculty today at BYU is an eclectic mixture of scholars with degrees in varying fields. Higher education has proved a key asset to the department’s success, just as Merrill believed. Though the religion department has had numerous struggles and course corrections over the years, it has long been an integral part of the university.

In time it became a remarkable center for the type of studies Merrill had sent the group to Chicago to produce in the first place.

Did the Chicago Experiment teach us about the proper relationship between faith and study in religion?

We sometimes set up a dichotomy that faith and study are opposing forces to each other. I hope that scholars like Sidney Sperry and T. Edgar Lyon show that faith and reason can be a powerful combination.

People of faith can see scholarship as a way to enhance their faith. I also hope that scholars—and everyone else—will have the humility to know that faith is essential in our search for truth as well. When we emphasize one over the other is when we tend to get into trouble.

There are those who rely wholly on faith, and don’t follow the Lord’s admonition to “study it out in your mind” (Doctrine & Covenants 9:8) when seeking answer to questions.

There are others who rely wholly on what the tools of scholarship can reveal and don’t cultivate the humility to understand that there are many answers which can’t be answered with those tools.

Science helps us answer the questions of what, where, when, and how, but it can never answer the question of why. Religion and philosophy help us answer those questions. The two can work together to help us understand the world around us, but also provide meaning and purpose in our lives.

What about the role of religious scholarship from outside the Church?

Outside scholarship can be a wonderful help. But the scholarship should also be tempered by the teachings of prophets and apostles. I love a talk given by Bonnie Oscarson in 2015 when she spoke of the Family Proclamation becoming “our benchmark for judging the philosophies of the world.”

The work of outside scholars can be a tremendous help as we study the scriptures and seek truth. During my last study of the Old Testament, I used Robert Alter’s translation of the Hebrew Bible and I loved it! He has an incredible grasp of the Hebrew language and I learned a lot from his great work.

But I also studied the Pearl of Great Price and other Restoration scripture along with the modern leaders of the Church to find meaning in the Old Testament. They all have a place in my search for truth.

Joseph F. Merrill was fond of saying, “Truth is truth where ere’ tis’ found, on Christian or on heathen ground.”

I am not suggesting that outside scholars are heathens in any sense of the word—just that truth can come to use from a number of different sources, and we should not be afraid of that, we should embrace it.

What lessons can lay Latter-day Saints learn from the Chicago Experiment?

It is more important now than ever that Latter-day Saints become familiar with the tools of scholarship. The internet has brought us a flood of new information, and some of it is really wonderful. But much of the information found online is shallow and manipulative. Latter-day Saints need to know enough to tell the difference between good and bad scholarship.

Academic studies, carried out in a responsible manner can broaden our horizons and deepen our faith. But it can also be possible for people to mislead and deceive.

I think a central reason why the Lord gave the early Saints so much encouragement to receive education is that it can help us discern between good and bad information. With the very concept of truth being questioned in our time, learning good thinking can really help us know truth from falsehood.

Casey Griffiths and Scott Woodward talk about how Latter-day Saints can learn to think critically to discern truth from falsehood.

Joseph F. Merrill had great faith in education and its power to transform. He believed that the scholars he sent to Chicago would have a powerful effect on the Church in increasing the depth and power of our understanding of the word of God.

After studying his life and the lives of the Chicago students, I feel the same. The pursuit of truth, in all its forms, is not just a good idea—it’s a commandment for Latter-day Saints!

About the interview participant

Casey Griffiths is a Professor of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University. Griffiths holds a PhD in Educational Leadership and Foundations at BYU, and is the co-host of the Church History Matters podcast. He has several publications related to the formation of the Church Education System, including a biography of Joseph F. Merrill, and articles such as A Century of Seminary, The First Institute Teacher, and The Chicago Experiment: Finding the Voice and Charting the Course of Religious Education in the Church.

Further reading

Latter-day Saint Chicago Experiment resources

  • The Chicago Experiment: Finding the Voice and Charting the Course of Religious Education in the Church (BYU Studies)
  • Joseph F. Merrill and the Transformation of Church Education (BYU Religious Studies Center)
  • A Century of Seminary (Seminary & Institute)
  • By Study and Also by Faith—One Hundred Years of Seminaries and Institutes of Religion: By Small and Simple Things (Study Manual)
  • The Sidney Sperry/Heber Snell Debates: Critical Biblical Scholarship and Mormon Tradition (Dialogue)

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

One reply on “What Was the Latter-day Saint Chicago Experiment?”

The Chicago Experiment is indeed an interesting and significant episode in the history of Church Education, and granted that a lot has changed in the last century, but when Griffiths offers advice to young Latter-day Saints thinking about outside scholarship or seeking professional training in Religion, I wonder how much he truly understands of modern biblical scholarship, or whether he consulted with professors who actually have this sort of education. For example, did he ever talk with his BYU colleague Mike Pope over in the Department of Comparative Arts and Letters? Pope has a 2014 Ph.D. in New Testament and Early Christian Literature from the University of Chicago (!), and he publishes on the New Testament in first-rate academic journals.

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