Lowell L. Bennion was the most important Latter-day Saint educator, ethicist, and humanitarian of the 20th century, according to biographer George Handley. BYU philosopher Philip Barlow has also called Bennion “the conscience of the 20th century church” and “the Latter-day Saints’ Mother Theresa.” In this interview, Handley explains more about the legacy of Lowell Bennion.
Read the biography of Lowell Bennion by George Handley.
Who was Lowell L. Bennion?
Lowell L. Bennion was the most important Latter-day Saint educator, ethicist and humanitarian in the twentieth century. He directed the first Institute of Religion at the University of Utah from 1935 to 1962 where he encouraged thousands of Latter-day Saint students to embrace the fullest implications of a Christian life.
His dedication to service both as a personal commitment and as a pedagogical tool led him in his later life to dedicate himself full-time to humanitarian work in Salt Lake City. In honor of this legacy, the Lowell Bennion Community Service Center was created at the University of Utah in 1987.
The many manuals that he wrote for the Church and the numerous books he wrote in the final decades of his life spelled out a coherent and integrated understanding of social morality and a commitment to education and human flourishing for Latter-day Saints.
What important lessons did he learn from his father Milton Bennion?
His father was a lifelong educator and education specialist, having served as Dean of Education at the University of Utah from 1913-1941 and in various functions on the Sunday School board of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for 40 years. He wrote two books about ethics, and Lowell insisted that his own commitment to ethics stemmed from the way his father taught the scriptures to the family, particularly the Sermon on the Mount.
How did he harmonize the expansive gospel and normal everyday things?
Lowell Bennion was insistent that the gospel must be applied to contemporary life and lived experience. He believed helping believers make these connections was a chief responsibility of religious education. When religion is compartmentalized or taught apart from those circumstances and considerations, it enters the realm of theory and religion ends up becoming a matter of belief only and not of practice, one of the great mistakes in the religious life of which Jesus was so critical.
He believed firmly in the gospel’s capacity to rise to this challenge if we don’t hamper it with our own fears or biases but instead allow it to teach us how to act in the real world. Students, he believed, needed the opportunity to explore connections between the gospel and the academic disciplines, as well as to the practice of life, in order for them to gain a holistic and integrated understanding of religion’s role in the whole of life.
This was the path to a more consecrated and abundant life.
How did Lowell Bennion impact the Church Education System?
He wrote the first Institute manuals for the Church to introduce the doctrines and teachings of the Restored Gospel to college age students. His manuals were noteworthy for their intelligence and sensitivity to the kinds of questions and doubts that students might have and for the ways in which they sought to help students develop a love for gospel living and to have compelling reasons to affiliate with and serve in the church.
He did not, however, ever ask students to give up their own conscience or to abdicate their responsibility to use their own best judgment. He sought a healthy fidelity to the church that was grounded in faith and sound understanding of the gospel with an awareness of the sometimes troublesome qualities of institutional life.
He warned students against dogmatism, institutionalism, and authoritarianism, what he called the “illegitimate children” of religion.
How did the civil rights movement contribute to Lowell Bennion leaving Church employment?
There is enough uncertainty in the record to render this a difficult question to answer definitively. Lowell Bennion spoke clearly and often throughout his career that the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ called us to a life of service on behalf of the dignity and flourishing of all people, especially the underprivileged.
As he sought to live up to that standard in his own life, he became increasingly aware of many societal obstacles that stood in the way for people of color, not the least of which in his own church was the ban that prevented men of African descent the opportunity to hold the priesthood.
He asked questions about this policy, which he became increasingly convinced was untenable and harmful, in several public settings, and he brought these questions directly to President David O. McKay, who was an important friend and mentor to Bennion. He became convinced that differences of opinion in Church leadership stood in the way of a change for McKay.
It is clear that Ernest Wilkinson, then both the President of Brigham Young University and Commissioner of Education for the Church in the early 60s, did not like Bennion’s willingness to ask forthright questions about the unofficial justifications for the ban on the priesthood that were in circulation at the time. But it is also clear that Wilkinson had strong opinions on bureaucratic matters, including his conviction that Institute classes needed to be taken for credit—something Bennion opposed.
Wilkinson offered Bennion a position at BYU, which Bennion turned down. Although Wilkinson seemed to have respect for Bennion, this was likely an attempt to bring him under closer supervision at the Provo campus and to diminish the autonomy he enjoyed at the U.
When Bennion refused, he was then let go as Director of the Institute. Bennion never got a satisfactory explanation for this decision, but he moved on to very fruitful careers as a professor and administrator at the U and later as a leader of community service in Salt Lake City.
How did his gospel views differ from some Church leaders?
Lowell Bennion saw himself as closely aligned with David O. McKay, who was first in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles when they first met and then President of the Church, beginning in 1951. He loved McKay’s expansive vision of the gospel, his generosity of spirit and his commitment to education.
He did not relish the role of being in any particular camp, even though he would later write an essay in defense of being a “liberal,” in an effort to rescue the word from its negative connotations.
Ultimately he strove to be a disciple of Christ, and to the degree that his own views of what this might entail seemed at odds with some Church leaders, he kept his sights on his best understanding of the fullest and most expansive implications of the Restored Gospel rather than ever seeking to put himself into a position that could divide the Church.
He very much regretted that his ouster at the Institute added to such divisions. He didn’t want to become a symbol of resistance to the church. He saw himself, however, as offering what he called “loving criticism” of institutional excesses.
He differed clearly with President J. Reuben Clark’s vision of church education laid out in a speech to church educators in 1938. In the speech, Clark denounced the teaching of ethics, something that was central to Bennion’s moral orientation and faith and his desire to teach.
His response is instructive: instead of stepping out in open conflict, he sought to win over students, leaders, and members by the use of reason and gentle persuasion and example.
He clearly differed with Mark E. Peterson and others on the justifications for the priesthood ban which to him made little moral sense, and he consistently tried to point out the dangers of overly dogmatic positions against the findings of science, such as Joseph Fielding Smith’s public insistence that the earth was only six thousand years old.
He believed the Church needed and deserved loyalty and sometimes loving criticism, but not blind obedience, even if some Church leaders at times acted as if they expected it.
What were his views on science and religion?
Lowell Bennion believed harmony was possible, that no truth stood outside of the reach of the Restored Gospel, even though science and secular knowledge often appeared at odds with Church teachings. He subscribed to the hope that in time harmony would become apparent, either because our understanding of secular knowledge would change, secular knowledge itself would change, or because new gospel understandings were needed.
He believed Latter-day Saints should be inquisitive, not fearful, and that they needed the opportunities to explore and test ideas in a spirit of honesty and trust to find the gospel’s relevance to the great issues of our time. He believed this required healthy tolerance for differences of opinion even as it also required faithful adherence to gospel fundamentals.
Who were the “Swearing Elders”?
This was a group, more formally known as the “Mormon Seminar,” of academic and academically minded men who began gathering in 1949 until 1955 to explore the implications and relevance of gospel teachings to academic scholarship. This was a kind of informal precursor to more official forums that developed later, such as the publications and meetings associated with Dialogue, Sunstone, and many online forums today.
It was in embryo what we now call Mormon Studies. Two of his closest friends in this group, Obert C. Tanner and Sterling McMurrin, took paths away from Church orthodoxy, but they all remained dear and beloved friends to the end of their lives.
What informed this lifelong commitment to service?
Lowell Bennion drew inspiration from the Sermon on the Mount, from Christ’s teachings regarding our treatment of the “least of these” and from the examples of great humanitarians—especially Albert Schweitzer whose life of service and articulation of ethics Bennion found especially persuasive.
He was well versed in the academic study of what was known as “ethical monotheism” and was persuaded that the greatest power of the gospel of Jesus Christ was its capacity to bring the abundant life to people here and now on this earth.
He valued the promises of salvation but did not believe that they ever gave us license to ignore the unequal and often unjust temporal conditions of many of God’s children who had limited opportunity to experience the abundant life. His favorite and most frequently quoted scripture was Micah 6:8: he sought to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God in order to bring integrity to his beliefs and moral value to institutional affiliation.
What institutions exist because of his work and influence?
From 1972–1988, he was the director of the Community Service Council in an effort to more effectively coordinate the work of various agencies on behalf of the poor and underprivileged. Today the various food banks and services to the homeless in the state are a legacy of his service.
In the early 1960s, he founded the Bennion Boys Ranch in Teton Valley, Idaho where he taught boys the joys of work and service for 25 years. Today there are two camps in the same valley that continue this legacy and one in Spring City that was modeled after the original ranch.
Thousands of his students remember the impact of service projects that changed their lives and their educational perspectives, so much so that the University of Utah’s Lowell Bennion Community Service Center was named and funded by former students in his honor. The Center continues to bring students into community service.
How did he feel about the priesthood ban?
Lowell Bennion saw firsthand the harmful effects of the ban on students he met and on individuals he knew. He brought specific cases to the attention of Church leaders to help them see such effects. He asked for explanations and was never satisfied by the ones he got.
Although hesitant to say so outright, he remained unconvinced that the ban had its origin in divine revelation. As one theory had it, the ban was justified by a premortal sin of some kind for which blacks were now being punished. He found this explanation morally abhorrent. It blamed a group of people for an action they couldn’t possibly ever remember doing and gave them no chance for repentance. He suspected that it perhaps had its origins in deep racial bias or at least in ignorance and that it was a cultural problem that needed work to be eradicated, root and branch.
How would he feel about the current mainstream Latter-day Saint belief in a “continuous Restoration”?
Bennion embraced this idea. This was the very grounds for believing that we could confront contradiction and conflict of ideas without fear. If we trust in God’s higher purposes, he will eventually reveal to us what he needs us to understand.
He offered what I consider to be one of the most important articulations of how revelation works. In his interpretation of the first section of Doctrine and Covenants, he saw the Lord explaining that he can only communicate to us what we were prepared to understand and accept. This implied for Bennion the need for us to do the spade work to prepare the soils of our minds and hearts to be receptive to the seeds of divine revelation that God might wish to place there. If we were overly dogmatic or confident in our current understandings or if we ever let bias or prejudice stand in the way, we might risk losing out on higher and further understandings because we would fail to imagine alternatives to our own way of seeing the world.
For Bennion, we must be faithful to what is revealed but wary of the gap that inevitably exists between what we understand of God and His higher and ultimate reality.
Why is Lowell Bennion “hardly remembered at all”?
I am not entirely sure. It is a great tragedy in my mind because he is one of the most important minds we have had in the Church. Some of his greatest ideas were expressed in manuals which are now out of print. In some ways, we have made significant improvements since his time so perhaps his ideas are in fact now more institutionalized.
I would point to a growing interest in humanitarian service in the institutional Church and among members as a prime example. The Church leadership’s call to root out racism might be another, although we are hardly done with that work.
But in the Church Educational System it seems we have lost an interest in the kind of integration he argued for. Although Church doctrine is taught generously and often to our students in religious education classes and institutes, the deeper connections to the academic disciplines are still much neglected. Although they are not shy about sharing testimonies, scholars today in the various academic disciplines in the Church Educational System are not well versed in the more formal and rigorous ways in which Christian values intersect with and even inform what they teach. So, we often end up with a kind of compartmentalized spirituality where intellect and faith are still kept at arm’s length. This is not healthy.
Finally, I think we remain vulnerable to the problems of institutionalism and dogmatism that worried him. If this is a reason to ignore him, I would suggest we think again. His writings held the key, I think, to a healthy balance of individual conscience and institutional loyalty. If we can’t find the balance, we are left with extreme choices: either radical departure or even more dogmatic entrenchment.
Although I consider his writings to be of utmost importance and relevance, I don’t think he had the stylistic power that could have made him the favorite of even more readers.
How do you view Lowell Bennion today?
He should be seen as ahead of his time, even though I would also insist that he was a very traditional and even conservative thinker, in the sense that he went back to the well of the scriptures and Christian fundamentals to get his inspiration.
I think he would be appalled at how materialist we are, how distracted we are by mindless entertainment, and by the evils of the smart phone. He would be shocked to see the hard-won advances in racial justice being undermined by a rise of public racial antagonism. He would be critical of our obsessions with identity but not because he was insensitive to difference. He would prefer we find common ground and seek our common human dignity.
He was a believer in institutions, which is maybe not in fashion any more, but I believe he helped us to see why institutions matter, whether they be schools, churches, NGOs or government agencies and how and why we can help them do their work effectively. He would be dismayed by the level of distrust and polarization we have today. We need to listen to him more than ever. That is my main argument.
How well did he fulfill Micah 6:8?
Better than anyone I have ever known.
About the interview participant
George B. Handley is a Professor of Interdisciplinary Humanities at Brigham Young University. He has published in journals such as the Journal of Book of Mormon Stories and BYU Studies Quarterly. Handley is also the author of books such as If Truth Were a Child and Lowell C. Bennion: A Mormon Educator.
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