The latest issue of Religion and American Culture arrived in the mail several weeks ago, and swamped with a thousand other things to read, I tossed it on my bedside table and promptly forgot about it. While cleaning in preparation for the arrival of visitors last weekend, I pulled the issue out from under a stack of library books and scattered, semi-coherent dissertation notes I scribbled down in the middle of the night while laying in bed and quickly glanced at the table of contents. I was pleasantly surprised to see an article on Mormonism, and even more pleased when I saw that Thomas Simpson was the author.
We’ve featured Simpson’s research here at the Juvenile Instructor in the past; his dissertation on Mormons in higher education in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—from which both that article and this new one are drawn—is smart, thoughtful, and makes a real contribution to the study of both Mormon history and American higher education. In this latest article, entitled “The Death of Mormon Separatism in American Universities, 1877-1896,” Simpson shifts attention away from Utah (or perhaps more accurately, beyond Utah) in attempting to make sense of “the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries” that “were critical for the church’s evolution and modernization.” He locates American universities as “a realm of genuine hospitality, dignity, and freedom” that became for Mormon students studying “abroad” at Michigan, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and elsewhere “a liminal, quasi-sacred space” in which they—and ultimately their family and friends back in Utah—“could fall in love with America again” (163-64). Neither sectarian nor secularist, universities provided Mormons a venue in which to discuss and debate with their non-Mormon peers. In short, the campuses became a place where “Mormons could rehearse for American citizenship.” Finding acceptance and developing a sense of loyalty toward these institutions ultimately helped “dismantle the ideological framework of Mormon separatism and pave the way for Mormons’ voluntary re-immersion into the mainstream of American life” (164-165).
Simpson breaks his analysis down into three chronological parts. Part I, covering 1877-1885, explores the experiences of the first Mormons to pursue higher education back east. These men and women embraced their professional and scientific training and ultimately “came to understand that populist self-reliance can lead to simplistic interpretations of complex phenomena” (169). This made some church leaders nervous, fearful that the students were imbibing the philosophies of men to the rejection of faith. More importantly, the students earned the respect of fellow students, developing friendships that demonstrated the possibilities of a new era of Mormon-Gentile relations, one that “allow[ed] mutual respect to replace entrenched hostility” (171).
Part II focuses on the years 1886-1890. It was in 1886 that church leaders, concerned with the threat posed by American universities “as institutional rivals in the formation and transformation of Mormon students’ character,” decided to do something about it. President John Taylor and BYA principal Karl Maeser decided what was needed was more direct and local ecclesiastical oversight and charged Benjamin Cluff, Jr., who was preparing to leave for studies in Ann Arbor, with holding regular church meetings and reporting back to Salt Lake on the spiritual state of Mormon students there.* What Cluff learned was that the Mormon students enjoyed their academic and ecclesiastical freedom, and when Cluff returned to Utah a couple of years later to take charge of Brigham Young Academy, he too had been influenced by “the American university’s modern creed: changing circumstances often render established ideas obsolete, and they demand forward-looking ‘progressive’ adjustment in response” (176).
The third and final part of the process described takes the story to 1896. This period saw Mormons official end polygamy; it also witnessed more Mormon students leave Utah for American universities than ever before. Glowing reports written in letters home describing their experiences “abroad” were published in church periodicals like the Young Woman’s Journal and (appropriately) the Juvenile Instructor. The feeling was in part mutual. Harvard president Charles Elliot liked his Mormon students so much that, in one instance, he waived tuition fees for financially-strapped George Thomas. In 1892, Elliot traveled to Salt Lake and spoke to a large gathering in the Tabernacle on the subject of religious liberty. Mormons rejoiced at their newfound acceptance, but others in Utah and elsewhere were alarmed at Elliot’s revelation that Cambridge was home to a “colony” of Mormon students (181). Mormons were far from accepted into American society, and anti-Mormonism persisted well into the twentieth (and twenty-first) centuries, but by 1896 when Utah attained statehood, “university-trained Mormon students possessed a new status and authority.” In turn, they demonstrated for all “a strikingly successful form of diplomacy” in Mormon-Gentile relations (184).
Simpson’s article deserves attention for a number of reasons. I especially like his research because it highlights the role of both leadership and laity in enacting change in Mormonism’s past, and I encourage all interested to take the time to read the article in its entirety. The many wonderful experiences and anecdotes he narrates that I didn’t have room to include here will make it more than worth your while.
*As Simpson notes, Cluff was a polygamist and left Utah in the midst of the raids that sent others into hiding and/or to prison. “Officials at the University of Michigan welcomed Cluff in 1886,” he cleverly remarks, “unaware that their esteemed institution was becoming part of the Mormon underground” (172).