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.