“Mormons condemned ‘the world’ and yet craved its praise”: Mormons in Higher Education

By January 10, 2008

In 1868 Brigham Young approached nineteen-year old Franklin S. Richards to give him some advice, if it can be called that. Young told Richards that he needed to study to be a lawyer. Richards, surprised, replied that he had always heard Brother Brigham speak ill of attorneys, and that he [Richards] intended to be a doctor. Young informed Richards that he needed to be a lawyer ?because the time will come when the Latter-day Saints will need lawyers of their own to defend them in the Courts and strive with fearless inspiration to maintain their constitutional rights.? Richards, the son of Apostle Franklin D. Richards, obeyed Young, became a successful attorney and represented the Church’s leaders before the U.S. Supreme Court several times during the polygamy raids.

When my father told me this story several years ago (Richards is an ancestor), I was intrigued not only by his role in defending the Church but also by the manner in which he was put on that path by the direct counsel of the Prophet. A recent article in Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture provides a fascinating look into the wider context that produced Franklin S. Richards, general counsel to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.[1] The author, Thomas W. Simpson, is an assistant professor of Religion at Carthage College. Simpson is not a Latter-day Saint, but became interested in Mormons while in graduate school (his father was raised as a Mormon, but Simpson is a Methodist). I met Simpson over the summer when he presented a lecture to the Bushman Fellows summarizing his dissertation, from which this article is taken. Simpson’s article examines the nineteenth-century roots of the Mormon obsession with education.

Examining the beginnings of Mormon academic migration reveals that the Mormon path to modernization was neither narrow nor fixed. Mormons saw higher education as a tool in their separatist nation-building project, but it was also a proving ground in Mormon relations with outsiders (“Gentiles,” when things were heated). By the end of the 1860s, Mormons wanted to cultivate a cadre of the credentialized, not only to help build the intellectual and material infrastructures of the kingdom, but also to demonstrate the power of the Mormon mind. Emerging from the shadow of persecution and deprivation, Mormons condemned “the world” and yet craved its praise.[2]

The article explores Brigham Young’s thought on commissioning young Latter-day Saints to go receive professional training abroad (or at home, as was the case with Richards), focusing on the years from 1867 to 1877. Simpson has done a tremendous amount of research recovering the stories of dozens male and female Mormons that left the Mormon enclave, including Brigham Young’s son, Willard, to receive training at the top universities in America.

In his conclusion, Simpson offered hints at how his story evolves after Young’s death. “The Saints who survived him believed that trained professionals in medicine, engineering, and law would help strengthen and protect their emerging civilization, which they thought would be the envy of the world.”[3] Simpson’s dissertation, which hopefully will be published soon (it’s available through Proquest), goes through 1940, treating the increasing dissonance between secular training and commitment to the Kingdom, during the early twentieth-century battles over evolution. Given the continued Mormon obsession with education and receiving secular training, Simpson’s work is a timely contribution to Mormon historiography.


[1] Thomas W. Simpson,”Mormons Study ‘Abroad’: Brigham Young’s Romance with American Higher Education, 1867-1877,” Church History 76, no. 4 (December 2007): 778-98.

[2] Ibid., 779-80.

[3] Ibid., 798.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Thanks for the write-up, David. It’s been great to see Mormonism well-represented in the recent issues of Church History.

    Regarding “the stories of dozens of male and female Mormons that left the Mormon enclave … to receive training at the top universities in America” — does Simpson offer any sort of gender analysis in his discussion? (i.e. how many more males than females leave for academic training? How significant is it that females are receiving this training?, etc.)

    Comment by Christopher — January 10, 2008 @ 1:43 pm

  2. Chris: I agree that it’s definitely a good sign that Church History is publishing these articles. In terms of Simpson’s gender analysis, he does try to show how the academic experience was different for both men and women. He concludes that BY encouraged women to study medicine in order to 1) preserve female modesty from “outsider” doctors and 2) deflect outside criticisms of the Mormon patriarchy by being able to point to educated women. Simpson concludes that while some Mormon women did go study abroad (he pays close attention to the two famous ones, Romania Pratt and Ellis Reynolds Shipp), and that Mormon women supported each other in this endeavor, but Mormon women did not receive the same kind of close attention as did men from BY and other Church leaders.

    Comment by David Grua — January 10, 2008 @ 1:54 pm

  3. Huh, it has been my perceptions that the women received significant attention. I should probably track down the dissy.

    I know that Ardis has done some interesting work on Richards.

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 10, 2008 @ 2:01 pm

  4. J.: Here’s what he says:

    While Mormon women offered each other support and a rationale for higher education, Mormon men who studied abroad in the 1870s often enjoyed the personal attention and advice of Brigham Young (795-96).

    So maybe in the the dissertation he goes into more details on contact between Mormon women and the hierarchy and this statement is only a necessary oversimplification for the article.

    Comment by David Grua — January 10, 2008 @ 2:05 pm

  5. to go receive professional training abroad (or at home, as was the case with Richards)

    Mormons of that generation thought of New York and Boston and Washington as “abroad.”

    I’d like to read TWS’s work and compare notes with him on some of the students I’ve been studying. First stop: to find a run of Church History.


    Comment by Ardis Parshall — January 10, 2008 @ 3:38 pm

  6. Just finished this article. Thanks, David, for bringing it to my attention. Church History is not a journal I scan regularly, so I hope you’ll continue to mention Mormon articles, especially when they’re as great as this one was.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — January 10, 2008 @ 9:55 pm

  7. Ardis: No problem. I was excited to see Tom’s article so I decided to do a writeup (it’s great to see not only an article about Mormons but also one written by a non-Mormon). Chris says he’ll try to get a writeup done on Jan Shipps’ presidential address from the last issue of Church History in the next week or so.

    Comment by David Grua — January 10, 2008 @ 10:06 pm

  8. Yeah, you don’t often find such an affectionate tone in any article, much less one written by a non-Mormon. I get the feeling that he actually likes the people he wrote about! Imagine that.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — January 10, 2008 @ 10:17 pm

  9. This is fascinating stuff. I’d be interested in seeing how things developed in the period from 1940 to the present, but asking someone to write vol. 2 of their dissertation is just cruel.

    Comment by Jonathan Green — January 11, 2008 @ 8:22 am

  10. I was struck when reading Tom’s article that evangelicals in the 20th-century and Catholics in certain eras felt much the same way about either secular or mainline Protestant higher education.

    Comment by John Turner — January 16, 2008 @ 8:52 pm

  11. Hey, Simpson spoke at the SBL session in November on teaching Mormonism, and also came to the BYU reception for a while. Nice guy, very friendly, and interesting things to say.

    Comment by Nitsav — January 29, 2008 @ 1:43 pm


Recent Comments

Kiersten Olson on 2020 Mormon History Association: “I'm planning on submitting something about charismata in the late 19th/early 20th century and how it shifted from the first generation - the influence of…”

Rachel Helps on Digitized Publications Available from: “BYU also scanned the Exponent II and it's available on archive.org.”

Kent S Larsen II on Digitized Publications Available from: “It’s not just the Scandinavian, German and Dutch publications that are available. Almost all the foreign language publications in the Church History Library are available…”

Matt Harris on Digitized Publications Available from: “C. Terry & J. Stapley: Thanks for these outstanding posts!”

Gary Bergera on Digitized Publications Available from: “This is great and deserves wide circulation. (And J. Stapley's amazing.)”

C Terry on Digitized Publications Available from: “Thanks for all those helpful additions, J Stapley!”