Brigham Young, Karl Maeser, and Mormon Idealization at BYU

By September 19, 2013

This post may be construed as too idealizing of BYU, especially during “Rivalry Week” with the University of Utah. It is not meant to idealize, but rather to try and interpret what is idealized by the LDS Church broadly and BYU specifically.

In my first few weeks at the University of Virginia, I am beginning to both love and roll my eyes at the constant mention of Thomas Jefferson in student conversations, on posters on campus, or at any opportunity in class to bring him up. This affection for Mr. Jefferson reminded me of two statues on the campus of BYU, and what the likenesses of the two men portrayed mean in relation to BYU’s Honor Code, and what that means for Church culture generally.

The first statue, near the Abraham O. Smoot Administration building, is a sculpture of Brigham Young. It portrays a beardless Brigham Young (Honor Code appropriate!) with a cane in his left hand, surveying the main campus from its northern edge. Contrary to popular belief, BYU claims that no beard was ever removed from the statue with the introduction of the Honor Code in the 1960s.


The second statue is of Karl G. Maeser, the school’s first principal and head instructor. A German immigrant, Maeser made BYU his life’s work, and personally instructed giants in Mormon History, including James E. Talmage, Reed Smoot, Alice Louise Kimball, and J. Golden Kimball. Maeser’s insistence on student’s rigorous work ethic (Talmage once taught several classes while taking 10 classes himself, at Maeser’s insistence. Talmage complained about the working conditions to his journal) combined with his integrity work has become a staple of BYU (and Mormon) culture.  Maeser is portrayed as bearded, and is the southernmost statue on campus, placed in front of the building of his name, the Karl G. Maeser Building, where honors classes are regularly taught. It has always struck me that these statues are the first and last statues one would see coming on to campus from the north or south hills. These two statues, more than representing BYU, represent attitudes towards the LDS culture of education. On one end of campus, you have Brigham Young, surveying the campus with a steely glare, as if to personify the order and practical programs necessary for BYU to remain functioning, and placed in front of the administration building. There, honor code infractions, fees, scheduling issues, and other corporate type matters are resolved, ensuring that the University runs smoothly and efficiently.  On the other end, Maeser’s statue looks out from his building towards the Joseph Smith Building (the religious education building). Maeser, who was famously told by Brigham Young that “neither the alphabet nor the multiplication table should be taught without the Spirit of God.” His bearded visage, which is regularly pointed out during complains about shaving requirements, stands to me for the directive from President Young: everything done with honor, and everything in harmony with honoring God. Maeser reportedly said:

 “I have been asked what I mean by ‘word of honor.’ I will tell you. Place me behind prison walls–walls of stone ever so high, ever so thick, reaching ever so far into the ground–there is a possibility that in some way or another I may escape; but stand me on the floor and draw a chalk line around me and have me give my word of honor never to cross it. Can I get out of the circle? No. Never! I’d die first!”[i]

 These two statues represent Mormon ideals of themselves, that they are efficient, hard working, and always honorable in what they choose to do. The portraits of Young and Maeser also point to the pioneer spirit that Mormons regularly invoke in their self-identification, Young the colonizer of religious immigrants like Maeser, and Maeser building up the Kingdom (at least in his eyes) that he was assigned to by Church leadership through teaching at Brigham Young Academy. Furthermore, the desire to learn, teach, and build, but with a deeply spiritual motivation behind a practical purpose.

The idea of the Mormon work ethic and the Mormon desire to build up a corporeal Kingdom of God, embodied in the statues of two men on either end of its campus.


[i] Imagining him screaming this in his German accent was the one highlight of going to BYU’s testing center, where this quote is posted at regular intervals.

Article filed under Reflective Posts


  1. Interesting, Joey! I wonder what you make of another statue on BYU’s campus that of Massasoit. I always find that one so odd and I want to ask… “What’s that doing there? Massasoit was never a part of Mormon history.”

    Comment by Amanda HK — September 19, 2013 @ 6:55 am

  2. Amanda, Im saving that for another post. It is definitely odd, and I believe it’s the oldest sculpture on campus. My initial feeling is that it ties to Lamanite culture in some way, although I’m not sure why they moved it out of the art building to its spot by the library.

    Comment by J Stuart — September 19, 2013 @ 7:30 am

  3. Great post, Joey. I never heard the rumor that the BY statue was de-bearded in the 1960s–hilarious! I like how you juxtapose these two statues geographically and in relation to buildings.

    The Massasoit statue, I believe, was made by Cyrus Dallin, who also sculpted the Angel Moroni (and hence, the Mormon connection). I think it is a replica of the original made by Dallin for Plymouth. With his peace pipe, Massosoit reflects the tendency among Euro-American artists to depict Indians as welcoming whites, allowing the descendants of settlers to remember the initial peaceful contact, while symbolically forgetting any violence and displacement that followed. It’s a common motif from the late 19th/early 20th century. Washakie, the sole Indian on the This is the Place Monument, likewise holds the peace pipe.

    Comment by David G. — September 19, 2013 @ 9:26 am

  4. Thanks, Joey. That the two statues are both men is probably significant, too.

    Comment by Christopher — September 19, 2013 @ 10:48 am

  5. Your reduction of what happens in the Smoot building to “honor code infractions, fees, scheduling issues, and other corporate type matters” is either a slander on the real leadership that comes from the university administration, or a legitimate (and painful) criticism of what passes for leadership there. I don’t know enough about BYU these days to guess which.

    As to the placement of the statues, the Maesar statue was for years located in the front of the Eyring Science Center, facing across the quad (since filled with the Kimball Tower) toward the McKay Building. Was there any significance to the move–other than to protect it from harm during the construction of the Kimball Tower, or to put it near the building that bears Maesar’s name?

    Comment by Mark B. — September 19, 2013 @ 12:22 pm

  6. What’s that quote? “Tell someone you love them today, because life is short. But shout it at them in German, because life is also terrifying and confusing.” Your footnote made me think of that.

    Comment by Saskia T — September 19, 2013 @ 1:55 pm

  7. That’s great Saskia! German is a great language for shouting.

    Anyone ever see the Divine Comedy sketch where the statues on campus come to life, and they keep threatening Maeser with chalk?

    Comment by Ben S — September 19, 2013 @ 3:11 pm

  8. David: Thanks for pointing that out!

    Christopher: A valid point. Reminds me of Andrea R-M’s post from August: Thanks for reminding me.

    Mark B.: I didn’t mean any disrespect to those who work in the ASB. I was oversimplistic.

    Comment by J Stuart — September 19, 2013 @ 4:27 pm

  9. This is excellent! On my first visit to BYU, I was interested in both of these statues (I have heard that rumor about the removal of Brigham Young’s beard), and then I realized how on my own campus there are many memorializations of the university’s most influential presidents. Now, I attend a large state university but in my small liberal arts undergrad setting there were not many (if at all) statues of the founding “fathers.” I second Christine’s observation that it is telling they are both men.

    I don’t have much to add now but this leads me to think a lot about how educators, college founders, and, otherwise, significant cultural leaders (like BY and Thomas Jefferson) are represented on campuses.

    Comment by NatalieR — September 19, 2013 @ 4:37 pm

  10. I hadn’t intended my comment to suggest that you were being disrespectful. I think that there have been some eras in the university administration where ?honor code infractions, fees, scheduling issues, and other corporate type matters? are probably about all that the SOB* or some of its denizens have been good for.

    *Smoot Office Building, for the uninitiated.

    As to Brigham Young’s beard, why would they have gone to all the trouble of removing the beard while leaving his hair too long ?

    Comment by Mark B. — September 19, 2013 @ 9:29 pm

  11. I don’t think I ever heard that Brigham’s beard was removed. (Can you even do that to a cast bronze statue?) However, I did have the privilege of watching Brother Brigham do the Funky Chicken, which I hear is now impossible due to the library expansion.

    Comment by Left Field — September 19, 2013 @ 9:37 pm

  12. The Brigham Young statue portrays Young beardless and with long hair as he looked in 1847. It is actually a casting of the statue of Young atop This Is the Place Monument in Salt Lake City which was created by his grandson Mahonri Young, a noted American sculptor and artist of the time. BYU, which had an important art collection long before it had a Museum of Art, acquired Mahonri’s artistic legacy and papers following his death in 1957, which included the molds for the This Is the Place Monument. Thus, BYU owned an extremely well-crafted mold for a bronze statue of its founder and four years later it was cast and placed on campus as part of the homecoming celebration.

    I share this little bit of detail to make the point that much of public art is a result of opportunity, influence, and even serendipity! Yet, once the work is installed, we imbue it with all kinds of cultural meaning.

    The statue of Massasoit is in the same category, since BYU had just acquired the Cyrus Dallin estate which had a mold of one of the artist’s most famous statues, Massasoit. Dallin, who grew up in Springville, was internationally known for his portrayals of American Indians in the noble savage tradition.

    Comment by blueagleranch — September 20, 2013 @ 9:00 am


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