Rehearsing for American Citizenship: Thomas Simpson on “The Death of Mormon Separatism in American Universities, 1877-1896”

By September 6, 2012

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).

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Categories of Periodization: Accommodation Cultural History Women's History


  1. Thanks for the heads up Chris! Tom’s work is impressive and he’s a really classy guy on top of that. His dissertation is one of the best I’ve read.

    Comment by Brett D. — September 6, 2012 @ 1:27 pm

  2. Thanks, Chris. Does Tom get into the training of physicians much?

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 6, 2012 @ 1:43 pm

  3. Thanks, Brett. I agree.

    J, he spends some time early on discussing the medical schooling of Romania Pratt and others at the Woman’s Medical College of Philadelphia and how their training equipped them to combat what he terms Mormon “populism” regarding health, medicine, and healing. You’ll definitely want to take a look, I think.

    Comment by Christopher — September 6, 2012 @ 2:02 pm

  4. Thanks for the summary of what sounds like a fascinating article. The same tensions over university education are still with us today.

    Comment by D. Martin — September 6, 2012 @ 2:13 pm

  5. Thanks for the rundown, Chris. Looks like a great article that adds a significant dimension to the “transition” narrative. I like how he’s added citizenship studies to the mix.

    Comment by David G. — September 6, 2012 @ 2:47 pm

  6. Christopher–a thousand thanks to you and everyone at JI for giving my article such a close look and fine summary. That’s a great question about the physicians. I go into much more detail about them in an article Church History published in December 2007, which covers the period from 1867-1877.

    I hope this piece will reach my friends who specialize in Mormon women’s history. Maybe you all can help me with that. What has struck me over and over again about this process of transformation is that bright, confident, independent Mormon women made unique, essential, and public contributions to it from the start. They deserve an exalted — I choose my words carefully 🙂 — place in Mormon intellectual history.

    Thanks again, not just for this, but for all your excellent work in service of Mormon Studies. All the best–Tom

    Comment by Tom S. — September 6, 2012 @ 9:19 pm

  7. Great write-up, Christopher. I find much here that intersects with my own work on coeducation in the West, and particularly for our purposes, at Utah State. It’s too bad that I can’t love Charles Elliot completely, for his anti-coeducation and almost distinctly misogynist views. But at least he was generous to Mormons. And my question is whether Simpson deals with the infamous Joseph Tanner controversy at Utah State University in 1900, in which, because he was ‘caught’ still practicing polygamy, was then forced out by the Utah Legislature. Being as well-respected as he was (and he was one of the Harvard Mormon “gang” of the 1890s), Utah might have let it pass, except for the new federal-state relationship of the land-grants, requiring the states to adhere to stricter obeisance to federal regulations. Tanner ended up at Oregon State for a while, I believe, before serving as Church Commissioner of Education.

    Comment by Andrea R-M — September 6, 2012 @ 10:45 pm

  8. That’s a fantastic comment, Andrea–in the dissertation my periodization was different, with a chapter devoted to the years 1888-1903. That allowed me to track the stories of Cluff and Tanner — two of the most important people in this history — through a rocky period at the turn of the century. It’s in that first decade of the twentieth century that you see the demise of the polygynists Cluff and Tanner as towering figures in Mormon education, a new marginalization of women in Mormon intellectual discourse, and the (re)emergence of a robust Mormon anti-intellectualism. So you’re exactly right — the story sounds nice when you stop in 1896, but there’s a whole lot to tell about what happens immediately afterward. (And a whole lot more to say about Charles Eliot!)

    Looking forward to talking and working with you more–I hope our session proposal for 2013 flies….

    Comment by Tom S. — September 7, 2012 @ 6:04 am

  9. One wonders if something similar could happen today, if instead of our best and brightest youth being told the only place for them is BYU they were encouraged to attend some of these schools where they could become engaged much earlier on with the broader community. In fact, this may be happening. In our ward in recent years we’ve seen students go off to Dartmouth, Princeton, William and Mary to name just a few.

    Comment by Aaron — September 7, 2012 @ 12:48 pm

  10. […] print (or at least online). In this blogger’s egocentric universe, that merits its own post. Here is the link; you have to scroll down to the first comment to see that I am not making this […]

    Pingback by Staying Classy | wayne street soul — September 7, 2012 @ 3:25 pm

  11. That’s a really interesting question you’re raising, Aaron. As an outsider, I don’t have much of a sense of Mormons’ intramural discourse about higher ed these days. Maybe others can help us here.

    Comment by Tom S. — September 7, 2012 @ 7:12 pm


Recent Comments

J. Stapley on A Quick Note: Historicizing: “Here is the YM org chart from 1967, which doesn't include a YM's presidency, so perhaps that dating of the presidencies to the mid 1970s…”

Mees Tielens on The Mechanics of Applying: “Just a gentle tip that if you are one of the interdisciplinary folks presenting at MHA your panel will probably not be well attended, but…”

Ardis on The Mechanics of Applying: “Thanks, J. My memory isn't perfect, but so far as it extends I don't recall ever seeing such a comprehensive and easy-to-follow explainer of the…”

J Stuart on 2019 Book of Mormon: “Eccles Conference Center, Rooms 201 and 205. I don't have any further information and their website doesn't seem to be updated.”

Robin on Guest Post - Mormonism: “This is such an important project and I'm so glad you're working on this. We need so many more scholars turning their attention to this…”

Jedd on 2019 Book of Mormon: “Where exactly is the conference being held? Which building? Also, do you know the titles of the keynote Speakers? Details on the book reviews? I'm excited…”