A short introduction to the little known Religion Class Program

By September 3, 2008

Through my work as a researcher for the Education in Zion Project at BYU, I have become acquainted with one of the lesser known auxiliaries of the Church called the Religion Class program. To date, the only substantial work on the classes was an article written by Michael Quinn for the Utah Historical Quarterly in 1975. Other authors like Thomas Alexander (Mormonism in Transition) and Scott Esplin (Education in Transition, Ph.D. Dissertation 2006) have briefly dealt with the classes, but their treatments of the subject have remained limited. Considering the fact that the Religion Classes were an important auxiliary of the Church for nearly 40 years (1890 to 1929), this whole in our history seems quite remarkable. In my research for BYU and my thesis research, I have found the classes to play an important role in transition era Mormonism and turn-of-the-century Utah. Hence, I thought I would provide you all with a brief overview of some of the important aspects of this interesting auxiliary.

Begun in 1890, the Religion Classes were developed by the General Board of Education in response to the Utah Free Schools Act and the difficult economic conditions that existed during the Depression of the 1890s. Originally, the classes were designed to provide weekday religious instruction to LDS children because the Church couldn’t afford to build and maintain elementary schools. There was also the hope that they would serve the growing population of LDS teenagers who were unable to attend one of the Church run secondary academies (schools such as Ricks, BYA, Weber, etc.), though this hope never really materialized.

The classes would meet once a week for an hour following the regular school day, and were often taught in the public school building by the public school teacher if that teacher was LDS. This close relationship with the state schools created problems with parents of other faiths and with the government which were brought up during the Smoot hearings, and culminated in a 1905 letter from the First Presidency instructing the classes to be held in some other location so as to avoid further troubles.

Other troubles plagued the classes throughout their history because of the program’s close resemblance to the Primary program, which was also held on weekdays following school. Friction developed between these two auxiliaries, leading some bishops to refuse to organize Religion Classes in their wards. This problem continued throughout the history of the program, and only a year before the program’s dissolution, Heber J. Grant threatened to release any bishop in the Church who refused to organize the classes. Beginning in 1906, the Church made an effort to correct these problems by organizing its first correlation committee, but little progress was made in this regard. And the program was finally terminated in 1929 with the Primary taking over full responsibilities for the children of the Church.

I find these classes to be fascinating for several reasons. First, they represent the Church’s first major effort to provide supplementary religious education to children in public schools. While this may not sound impressive today, this was an important concession for the Church to both allow and encourage the participation of its children in the public schools. Prior to this time, there had been a deep seated fear that such participation would lead the children to reject their religion, particularly if they were being taught by “gentile” teachers. This decision represented a partial acceptance by the Church of the wider American culture which they had rejected prior to this time. At the same time, it reflected an unwillingness of the Church to fully adopt American culture by continuing to exercise their influence within the public schools. Second, the difficulties experienced in the administration of the classes demonstrates the uniqueness of each ward and reminds us that there is greater diversity in Mormonism than we sometimes attribute to it. Finally, these classes were a precursor to the present seminary and institute systems. In many regards, I believe that Joseph F. Merrill’s creation of the first seminary was in direct response to some of the failings of the Religion Classes. Rather than pressing for early morning or after school classes, Merrill was emphatic that the classes be held during the school day at an off campus location. It is also fascinating to me that Merrill did not ask that the seminary be made into an auxiliary of the Church, but that it would maintain a separate identity so as to avoid conflicts with the other auxiliaries.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. If by “one of the lesser known auxiliaries of the Church” you mean that I’ve never heard even a whiff of it or about it then you’re right on. Thanks for introducing me to this part of the history.

    Comment by Edje — September 3, 2008 @ 3:52 pm

  2. Second, the difficulties experienced in the administration of the classes demonstrates the uniqueness of each ward and reminds us that there is greater diversity in Mormonism than we sometimes attribute to it.

    This idea has been sticking out more and more to me the more I study Mormon history, particularly during the “transition” period. Who would have thought we weren’t just a monolith always following the Prophet?

    Nice post, btw.

    Comment by Ben — September 3, 2008 @ 3:58 pm

  3. Wonderful stuff, Brett. Do you know how these Mormon efforts at supplementary religious instruction for public school students compares with the initiatives of Protestants, Catholics, and/or Jews in America at the same time? Were there similar efforts made by those groups?

    Comment by Christopher — September 3, 2008 @ 4:01 pm

  4. All good points. I’ve found that a lot of people don’t have never heard of them–and neither had I until a couple of years ago.
    Chris, I need to do a little more searching into the correponding programs of other religions. Quinn argues that the Religion Class Program was the first weekday supplementary religious education program of any religion, but as to that statement’s accuracy, I’m not sure. Anthon Lund says that a Catholic bishop had suggested a similar idea, but that it had been rejected by the Diocese because of the fact that they could not ensure that the teachers in the public schools would be Catholic. Lund then noted that this was one of the reasons why it could work for the Church, as they were largely concentrated in Mormon towns. I do know that by 1913, similar programs had begun to crop up across the US, with the most famous being in Gary, Indiana. These programs were so successful that during the 50s the Supreme Court ruled on released time religious instruction, stating that students could have one class period per day of religious instruction with credit provided there was no sectarian teaching involved. I’d be interested to see if the Court’s opinion has changed in the past 50 years.

    Comment by Brett D. — September 3, 2008 @ 5:16 pm

  5. Another interesting facet of the conflict between the Religion Classes and Primary is the gendered leadership–Primary being organized and run by women, while the Religion Classes were organized as a male-run priesthood auxiliary (although the term is an anachronism, at least at the beginning of the period in question, right?) It might be the only time in Mormon history where a female-organized program subsumed a male-instituted one.

    Comment by Kristine — September 3, 2008 @ 7:42 pm

  6. That is an excellent point, Kristine.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 4, 2008 @ 9:30 am

  7. I think that’s interesting the Prophet had to threaten Bishops to organize these classes or he would release them. Something tells me a few Bishops saw this as an escape from a calling. Just kidding, I’m sure they loved being Bishops.

    [Admin Note: Post edited. This is not a forum to advertise your company. The link on your name is enough. Thank you.]

    Comment by ldsartcollector — September 5, 2008 @ 1:24 am

  8. That is a fascinating point, Kristine. Brett, do you plan to treat issues of gender in your thesis? I think digging deeper into what Kristine has suggested here would be quite interesting.

    Comment by Christopher — September 5, 2008 @ 11:12 am

  9. It is an important point that I hadn’t really considered yet, me being stuck in my white middle class male world. I’ll need to look into this more fully. Another interesting point is that the Religion Classes began with a letter from the First Presidency instructing the wards to organize them whereas both the seminaries and the institutes began as more grass roots oriented organizations. I find it fascinating that the top down program was the one that failed out of the three. Not sure just what to make of it yet, but I think there is something there.

    Comment by Brett D. — September 5, 2008 @ 1:20 pm

  10. I would love to see the classes started for investigators who have joined. I am very interested in the teachings and study my D&C,Sunday School, Bible and Book of Mormon. However I often feel less informed than the Children in my Ward who have or do attend seminary and Insitute classes. This article has opened my eyes to even more areas of study I would like to undertake. I have been a member since 1974 and feel I am still a little child in my faith. I am also a senior citizen (ouch) so have the time for more study, just not the knowledge of where to look for material. Great article keep up the good work. May God bless you and continue to lead your path of knowledge.

    Comment by Angel C. — September 5, 2008 @ 5:35 pm

  11. Brett, since reading this post a week ago, the words “religion class” seem to pop out of nearly every record I handle. For instance, this bit from the 8 August 1916 Liahona: The Elders’ Journal: “On the 16th of June the Jacksonville [Florida] religion class closed their work for the summer with an excellent program rendered by the children. The large number of parents present witnessed the excellent results of this training. Refreshments were served and games played. The sisters conducting the religion class work have done well.”

    No doubt religion class conducted in the missions would have been quite an adaptation from religion class in Ogden or Manti — still, I wonder if a search of “religion class” in the online Liahona might not be worthwhile to your study.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — September 11, 2008 @ 11:19 am

  12. I had never heard of these classes before, either. Thanks, Brett.

    Angel C., many stakes have adult continuing education classes (like Institute, but not limited to young college-aged singles). You might check to see if such classes are offered in your area, and if not, agitate a bit for one to be started.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — September 11, 2008 @ 11:50 am

  13. […] [1] http://www.juvenileinstructor.org/a-short-introduction-to-the-little-known-religion-class-program/. […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Gender constructs and the dissolution of the Religion Class Program — January 2, 2009 @ 5:25 pm


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