The University of Utah Institute of Religion

The Institutes of Religion were and are an outreach by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to LDS college students. To a lesser extent this was and perhaps is true for faculty too. When I’ve been employed by universities outside Utah, I have always enjoyed it when an Institute was nearby because it also served as an island of friendship. For the most part, these were small operations with maybe one full-time CES person as instructor along with a part-time secretary. For me, as a faculty member, they were always an oasis in a somewhat sterile academic environment. Often a few of us would get together for lunch-time discussions with the CES personnel and those discussions were wide-ranging, feeling out the limits of gospel interaction with humanities, education and science. It was nearly always a blast because generally none of us felt threatened in our various faith-worlds during these discussions.[1] Once, three of us constituted the bishopric of one of the local wards. I was a big fan of those experiences and wonder if they are replicated in the current system. I presume they are in many places.

Some of my favorite Institute experiences occurred during my graduate work in mathematics at the University of Utah. At the time the University was throwing a lot of money at the mathematics department and consequently some of the best scholars around the country and internationally were recruited with post docs and instructorships filled by fresh Ph.Ds from the best programs in the US. It was a stimulating time and rather tough on grad students to stay in the program: qualifying exams were murder.

The old buildings are gone now.


What I really liked about the local Salt Lake Institute of Religion was the classy well-read scholars who taught there.[2] Some of that experience still resonates in me and influences the way I think and feel about Mormonism. I can say with some assurance that their sympathetic ears and scholarly enthusiasm (occasionally cutting edge) made me feel at home and made my faith flourish partly because I felt they understood and embraced rigorous thinking blended with warm fervent belief.

Several of them encouraged my growing interest in early Mormonism, offering a rather crazy grad student with interests in science, history, English and math a chance to get in among the rare documents of the Church. I took a couple of summers off from my school work to bury myself in the Church archives and the rather respectable Mormon collection at the University of Utah. I still have file drawers full of material from those ventures that I have not had time to completely revisit.

I guess what I’m after with this is whether advanced students and junior faculty find the Institutes useful adjuncts to their University life. Perhaps my experience was one of a kind. My current assignment, and perhaps my current disposition puts me out of any sort of loop like that. A related question is whether post-university folk who didn’t go into academics maintain ties with the local Institute. In some sense I have the feeling that I may have been lucky in my contact with Institute. But I reject the idea that my experience was unique. I just wonder how things are now.

—————-
[1] A few times there were Saints who got wind of some of the stuff we would banter about and feel we were on the high road to apostasy. One tenacious fellow went to the stake presidency and asked that we be barred from using the Institute building for these episodes. We invited him to join us to see if we were really as bad as his imagination made us. If he had ever come, he may have felt vindicated, I don’t know. All I know is that I relished them.

[2] I didn’t know any female Institute people and I never encountered female LDS faculty in those years. I’m old enough that I ran into folk like Ed Lyon (Nauvoo Restoration), Max Parkin (who is now with the JSPP I think), Reed Durham (an early pres. of MHA) and others. There were two Institute buildings just off campus, one on the lower end and one on the upper south side. It was great to take an hour once in a while and sit in a stimulating gospel atmosphere. I think those guys tried hard to draw us in because some of them had experienced some alienation in their own church/academic interactions. I say, bravo to them. Checking the current line up there, I don’t see the same cool factor but I could be wrong. Am I?

Comments

  1. I attend university in North Carolina, and our Institute classes are held at the chapel, a ten-minute drive from campus (I don’t have a car), in the evenings when I’m usually in rehearsal or at work. As a result, I have never attended my local Institute (I’m a senior). I’m not sure about the other seven LDS students on campus; we’re all vaguely friendly, but none of us really hang out. Most of my religious discussions are with my Muslim friends from Arabic class, where I’m considered a bit of a scriptorian because I still remember some Scripture Mastery verses from Seminary. Our religious discussions also have a scholarly bent to them, and I enjoy them for the most part. So even though I don’t attend Institute, I feel like I’m getting something out of these discussions, and I enjoy being able to talk about things (like the nature of God, or the role of women) in a way I don’t think would be possible in an official Church setting.

  2. WVS, in Europe there has been an attempt to rekindle, imo, something of that spirit among the YSA by creating rooms or spaces for 18-30yo. The problem it seems is that they are governed by a different ethos from the one described in your post. Part of the fun and fellowship was found in the fact that people could bring their perspectives and openly consider those. This does not seem to be part of the current dynamic in these spaces and they have faltered, at least in my experience so far.

  3. Aaron R. is right, the ethos in outreach centers in Europe is so different. I kind of envy those who have real Institutes. Based on what I hear here in the Bloggernacle, it sounds like the classes held at least in some of the Instiutes of Religion are in totally different level than the classes I’m attending.

  4. Thanks for this, WVS. I have to concur with Aaron R. and Niklas about institute out here in Europe: though I live in a university town, institute does not seem open to the type of deep conversations and engagement you reminisce about here. When I reached out to see if anyone was interested in a reading group that is a bit deeper than institute classes, I mostly received cold stares.

  5. I believe that the current director at the UU was over Purdue when we were out there. One Sunday while we were counting tithing together, he mentioned that it was impossible to believe in the atonement and evolution. I don’t remember the exact context of the conversation, and I regret not having the gumption at the time to have rigorously corrected him.

    From an outside perspective, it seems to me that there is more of an institutional CES retrenchment vibe these days. But you also have folks like Ben S. teaching a class in NY. It is a different program, but I really enjoyed teaching Adult Continuing Ed on the D&C.

  6. Ben P., we have a discussion group in our ward and an Adult Religion class in our Stake. Although I suspect we might be a bit of an anomaly in that regard. To be honest, I would have thought Cambridge to have been a little different, but I suppose the Mormon presence is not quite like its American counterpart.

  7. I suspect the difference is the Institute CES culture has shifted. Among other things, the emphasis today is on prepping young college kids for missions and marriage. In order to teach Institute, you first have to teach Seminary for 10 years or so, and be successful at it. The problem is that what makes a Seminary teacher successful (and will get him into teaching Institute) fails miserably with mid-20ish RMs and grad students.
    I taught volunteer for 2 years in the midwest, associated with a large school that attracted lots of graduate science students, few LDS undergrads. The prior Institute director had apparently done quite well, but he was old school; he’d populated the Institute library (I’d never before seen such a thing) with quality Church books, as well as archives of BYU Studies, Dialogue, Sunstone, the multi-volume JPS Torah Commentary and other accessible scholarly resources.
    His replacement was a late 30-something who seemed to epitomize CES ideals. My class had attendance in the 20s, his were single digits. He asked for suggestions, and I couldn’t make any. He was selling exactly what CES had to offer, the problem was no one wanted it.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    Institute at the University of Illinois in the early 80s was fantastic, much like you describe here. We had a student ward (both marrieds and singles) and actually met for Church in the Institute building. The director then was Craig Isenbarger, both knowledgeable and easy going and a really good guy. He was great. They had a solid library there, including Dialogue and Sunstone. And the members were awesome (my EQP was Michael Hicks, now professor of music at BYU). There may have been retrenchment since that time, but for me Institute was just what I needed at that point in my life and studies.

    My father had been a student of Ed Lyon’s at the UoU Institute. We always stopped at Nauvoo for a weekend on our way out to Utah for our annual family vacation to visit the relatives. One year Ed was there, hopped in our car and gave us a personalized tour of Nauvoo, including showing us where Samuel Lee, my father’s ancestor, lived. Even as a young boy (I was maybe 9 or 10), I appreciated how cool that was.

  9. anonforthis says:

    Another issue that has led to this change is how CES teachers are now trained, including their limitations and what is expected of them.

    I had lunch with one of the administrators of BYU’s religion department recently, and we talked about the CES and it’s relationship with BYU. He said that new changes that are being put in place that will make it much less likely that CES will produce the type of “scholars” that BYU would be interested in hiring. (These changes have either recently taken effect, or will do so soon.) Specifically, they will strongly and explicitly discourage CES employees to perform their own research outside of lesson preparation, make it impossible for them to publish their own ideas so that 100% of their efforts are focused on following CES curriculum, and all-but-prohibit CES teachers to get advanced degrees. While much of CES culture has been moving toward this for a long time, making it difficult for the few who are interested in this type of approach to the gospel, these moves are designed to squelch out the remaining few that are so inclined. To me, this seems like a ridiculous approach and only brings the Institute program full circle away from what the OP mentions above.

    On the bright side, it does mean less CES-trained people at BYU.

  10. It is ironic to point out that at the same time CES is heading into retrenchment, the Church History Library and all those who are under the leadership of Elder Marlin Jensen are moving in the opposite, positive, and progressive direction that I think many of us applaud.

  11. Midwest: According to a friend, the new director (2005 or so) asked her to not just throw out, but to shred D. Michael Quinn’s twin volumes, which were on the shelf when he arrived.

  12. My institute experiences were rarely satisfactory. I want discussion, I crave food for thought, and, back in my single days, an “island of friendship” was desperately needed. Unfortunately, where I ended up landing institute was rote, insipid, most people arrived late, and no one lingered. (Location intentionally omitted to avoid finger pointing as maybe the new leadership has changed things since). Maybe I should have toughed things out and tried to change things, but I was already overwhelmed trying to move mountains in my singles’ branch.

  13. whizzbang says:

    not that my comment will add much but I will never understand how a person with a PH.D. in education can teach ancient scripture at BYU.

  14. “He said that new changes that are being put in place that will make it much less likely that CES will produce the type of “scholars” that BYU would be interested in hiring. (These changes have either recently taken effect, or will do so soon.) Specifically, they will strongly and explicitly discourage CES employees to perform their own research outside of lesson preparation, make it impossible for them to publish their own ideas so that 100% of their efforts are focused on following CES curriculum, and all-but-prohibit CES teachers to get advanced degrees. While much of CES culture has been moving toward this for a long time, making it difficult for the few who are interested in this type of approach to the gospel, these moves are designed to squelch out the remaining few that are so inclined.”

    Anon, that I find utterly discouraging and if I can say it without too much heat, just stupid. Students like me who were interested in a deeper knowledge of the church’s history and its relationship to science and thought in general would probably die on this vine. If accurate, this is just unfortunate. I see copies of myself fading from the halls of the Church. But perhaps that is seen as necessary collateral damage in this quest for uniformity or something.

  15. whizzbang: actually, there is a bit of a bright spot there. It wouldn’t be for everyone, but I know people there who exercise some freedom, are reasonably popular with students and yet pursue and honest scholarship. At least that is my impression.

  16. Bob, I figured this sort of thing was out there. I was hoping there were current situations like mine.

  17. The title of this post immediately caught my eye because the University of Utah institute was the setting for some of the most important spiritual progress of my adult life. During a time of history-related spiritual crisis while a grad student at the U, I felt led to sign up for a Church history class from a completely unknown instructor (unknown to me) with a boring name (in the past, I’d chosen between unknown teachers based on name novelty :) It was the first institute class I’d registered for at the university and I had told myself that if it proved to be just another high school seminary experience, I was going to drop the class because I needed un-whitewashed history. As it turned out this instructor with the boring name had a PhD in history (!) and a passion for teaching the youth of the church. His classes were always packed: he offered a scarce commodity in the CES world–complete honesty combined with a strong testimony. I don’t know if other teachers at the U’s institute are similarly stellar, because I took every class he offered and consequently didn’t have time to investigate other instructors (though there was at least one other Church history instructor there that was said to be cut from the same cloth). The instructor’s door was always open to those of us with questions beyond the scope of class discussions, and he was quick to suggest further readings for those so interested and his offer his testimony to those in doubt. He also advised the students who started the (sadly short-lived) University of Utah Mormon History Association, an official university club, which invited in prominent LDS historians to speak and respond to student questions: Richard Bushman, Grant McMurray, Michael Quinn, Ron Walker, Glen Leonard, Davis Bitton, Dan Vogel, Thomas Alexander, Greg Prince, and many others. After I left the university I didn’t have much interaction with the Institute, though I sometimes run into him when researching at the Church History Library.

    So to answer the question of the OP, yes, such remarkable instructors still exist in CES. How common they are, I don’t know. But I am grateful that the CES program exists, because that one instructor played such an enormous role in the survival–and flourishing–of my faith, and I very much hope that there are more such instructors coming down the CES pipeline. One could say that I could have learned much of what I learned from his classes by simply turning to the books written by faithful LDS historians. But at that time in my life I craved that CES stamp of “official” Church approval as a reassurance that my desire to believe was going to be encouraged when encountering difficult things, and I also needed a living person to help me deal with the particular questions I had as I was finding my feet in Church history and regaining my testimony.

  18. Ben P writes:

    It is ironic to point out that at the same time CES is heading into retrenchment, the Church History Library and all those who are under the leadership of Elder Marlin Jensen are moving in the opposite, positive, and progressive direction that I think many of us applaud.

    Perhaps we should whisper this sort of thing. Kidding aside, from this informal survey of experience, you have to wonder where the threads of this would lead if you could trace them. Probably not a productive exercise.

  19. Kevin, what a great memory. Ed was not really teaching at the Institute when I was there, but he did come around and once or twice there was an off the books course or two. He was fantastic.

  20. Marie, thanks so much for that. Care to share the instructor’s name? People like that are real gems. Without being the least bit corny, I say they save many souls.

  21. WVS–I would like to, but he has expressed a discomfort with the student following he had. I don’t know if that was modesty or a fear of CES institutional discouraging of “star” teachers, but I’m quite sure he would be made uncomfortable by my naming him here. I’m afraid I may have already gone too far. :)

  22. Ben S, I’m sure the seminary gauntlet makes it tough in terms of institute recruitment. But as I recall, my favorites came up the seminary ranks. Probably not for a decade though, so I see this as a more severe “weeding out” now if you will.

    Institute libraries where I circulated were fantastic. The UofU library was stocked with stuff I could never afford to have as a grad student. And the other places I visited, some had similar stocks. It was an inspired move on the part of a faculty who saw and filled an important need. I cringe at your “he was selling exactly what CES had to offer, the problem was no one wanted it.” If indeed we are filling Institutes with CES personnel as anon suggests then it bodes ill for a vibrant program. This is not to say that we didn’t have a variety of instructors with different ideas. We did. Some very “seminary-ish” It’s just that like Marie, there were some who appealed to me and that made all the difference. I’m saddened if that no longer exists.

  23. Aaron R. writes:

    WVS, in Europe there has been an attempt to rekindle, imo, something of that spirit among the YSA by creating rooms or spaces for 18-30yo. The problem it seems is that they are governed by a different ethos from the one described in your post. Part of the fun and fellowship was found in the fact that people could bring their perspectives and openly consider those. This does not seem to be part of the current dynamic in these spaces and they have faltered, at least in my experience so far.

    We have this going on too, more YSA spaces. The social aspect is important, less so for me at the time, but my future wife found a home in the social vibe of Institute. But I fear your “bring their perspectives and openly consider” is seen as a negative now? I’m holding out hope for some of this happening. It’s great that you have a study group. We have some adult religion classes in our stake, but I sense they would not be my cup of tea. As for questing students, no, I don’t think so.

  24. J. Stapley:

    I believe that the current director at the UU was over Purdue when we were out there. One Sunday while we were counting tithing together, he mentioned that it was impossible to believe in the atonement and evolution. I don’t remember the exact context of the conversation, and I regret not having the gumption at the time to have rigorously corrected him.

    From an outside perspective, it seems to me that there is more of an institutional CES retrenchment vibe these days. But you also have folks like Ben S. teaching a class in NY. It is a different program, but I really enjoyed teaching Adult Continuing Ed on the D&C.

    Well, I get that you will have this JFS, BRM kind of thing. It was the era I suppose and it was present when I was a student too. But given institutional retrenchment, I have to say that people like you and Ben S teaching in a Church setting brings that warm feeling all over again. I envy your students. And if I was Kevin Barney’s stake president, I would beg borrow or steal him for an adult ed class.

  25. I should say, for anyone reading this who is a student at the University of Utah, that that instructor I referenced still teaches there. A quick look at the faculty profiles on the Institute webpage will reveal which one he is (history PhD + boring name).

  26. MikeInWeHo says:

    My very first encounter with the Church was at the MSU Institute in East Lansing. It was such a dynamic little place. Even though I was still in high school, I felt completely welcome. Can’t remember the Director’s name (this was in the early 80s). The student ward met there on Sunday and was packed. It just buzzing with friendship and optimism, and have often wondered what it’s like there today.

  27. WVS, I should probably add that I have actually never attended an Institute course. At least at Purdue, they were intended for single folks, and I was married. I should also say that the Institute director I name was a very nice individual.

    I have heard that Institutes and Seminaries were being deprofessionalized. That is, the institution is relying more and more on callings and missionaries to serve/teach. Has anyone else heard that?

  28. Way to come through Marie! Mike, that was my experience in one “small” place. No student ward, but a great vibe around the place – welcoming and optimistic.

  29. Bryan Buchanan says:

    Nope, we can’t leave him unnamed–he freely deserves the credit. Marie’s talking about the good man John Peterson. I spent quite a while at the U and the Institute and, fortunately (for those who found their way into his classes) and unfortunately, he is an oasis in a desert. Virtually every other instructor that I listened to was the stereotypical “let’s check our brains at the door, people” CES employee. John is a good friend and has helped countless students in just the way that Marie described. Being the son of Charles Peterson and the nephew of Levi Peterson obviously tells part of the story–there’s some good DNA in that pool. The lengths that John went to to support the UofUMHA (which was quite the experience) was just one of the many ways that he encouraged thoughtful faith. I’m sure there are many others like him spread throughout CES but my guess is that it’s a pretty thin layer and seemingly thinner all the time.

  30. J., I knew people in the program who were great people, yet held different views. The feeling was though, that you and your thoughts were welcome, and you weren’t preached to about your devil inspired thoughts regarding evolution or whatever. Deprofessionalized. This suggests a kind of extension of Sunday School. I’d like to know too whether this is the trajectory for Institute. Are we bailing out of the current system? When I surveyed General Authority backgrounds last year, there were large numbers out of the Institute programs in South America. Would this entail dismantling much of CES structure eventually? Having stakes run things?

  31. Bryan, I appreciate the comment on John. I suppose we should not trumpet his star power, but what the heck. Everybody who’s interested, make sure you get a taste of John if you are LDS and at the UofU (not mutually exclusive categories people – grin).

  32. Bryan Buchanan says:

    Yeah–I understand Marie’s hesitation and your comment. John really is a very modest guy and would never do anything to create a following. However, the power and honesty of his teaching and genuine friendship make that somewhat impossible! We do need to recognize those teachers who are cut from a different cloth and appropriately credit them for the impact they have.

  33. I know institute can be a little touch and go when the population is small (I attended American University before I went on my mission, where institute was 2 people, and I was the only male YSA in New Orleans when I lived there…so not much going on), but the Institute program in Chicago now has prob done more to keep me engaged in the church than anything else. We have a mix of academically minded instructors and more “old schoolers”, but the level of conversation and openness has been wonderful. I’ve really relished the chance to discuss things that I wouldn’t be getting in my Elders Quorum. If I had been involved in the program at Ohio State (where I understood it was also good in the mid 2000s), I prob would have been a better member then.

    Plus, I met my future wife there, so thats a plus.

  34. “Plus, I met my future wife there, so thats a plus.” Matt you have just satisfied all quarters here. Way to do the thing right.

  35. Bryan, I’m with you, and I hope guys and gals like that get all the clients they can handle. Good for the clients, good for the teacher and good for the Church. Would that there were many more.

  36. I feel like I should reply due to my experience, but don’t know exactly what to say. I attended the UU Institute as an undergrad in the very late 90′s/early 2000s (so as those buildings started to be rebuilt). I didn’t much love the regular BofM-type classes. But, I found Wilcox interesting. (As an aside, I have to wonder if I would still tolerate his views on women in religion/LDS scripture now that I’ve become far more firmly entrenched in more traditional feminist thought.) The U’s Institute was definitely the highlight of religious life at the U though; even as I distanced myself from the university wards there, I faithfully attended classes.

    One of the strange things, looking back at my experience, is how as an out-of-state student the U’s Institute was one of the few social outlets on a commuter campus. I struggle with Utah culture, but the Institute at the U seemed to rise above that. I got the feeling when living down the street from Ohio State’s Institute, listening to friends and family in Southern Nevada and California, and from my current situation (see below) that a primary role of Institutes is to reproduce the young adult Utah culture. I guess because the university wards already served that purpose, the Institute at the U didn’t need to?

    As a current PhD student at Portland State, I walk past our local institute 3 or 4 days a week to drop my kid off at the on-campus preschool. I’ve only entered once or twice over 5 years. My impression (which could be totally off) is that it primarily serves undergrads and as a defacto singles meet-up area. This is probably compounded by the reality that our big urban university is primarily an undergrad institution that has only in the past decade or two begun to put in significant grad programs. But the reality is my decision is probably far more about my stage in life; when I’m on campus with childcare, I am working.

  37. “it primarily serves undergrads and as a defacto singles meet-up area.”

    I’m sure this is generally true in the program. Grads tend to have families and have less connection to that scene. As a grad student I had more connection to certain faculty than the student population. Glad you found a fit with institute at the U. One of the things I liked were the faculty generated courses. And clearly my instructors pursued topics like Doctrine and Covenants without much reference to a manual.

  38. #14 WVS, I was lucky enough to find some very good religion instructors at BYU. Moving on to a different university, however, has confirmed the rather bleak picture painted by others. But I, at least, will be vocal in behalf of not killing the intellectual light of the young in the church.

    So far, I seem to not be doing a very good job… I have simply ignored the Institute as a sanitarium for the spiritually weak (not a fair assessment, sure, but my assessment nonetheless), and my being asked to teach Seminary for my ward only lasted a semester. Seems like visiting supervisors didn’t like that I was demonstrating the basic ideas behind the Documentary Hypothesis, and teaching and offering possible explanations for some of the insanity in the OT, and how the Book of Mormon fits in wonderfully with many modern perspectives on said scriptures. I was literally told by the regional coordinator, “Don’t teach the whole bible!” That’s about the time I think he decided it was best if I be removed from my calling. *sniff*

    This post, and heck, this web site in general, has inspired me not to give up in fighting for and inviting honest, open, and faithful discussion wherever I can in the church. We have so much to gain from it…

  39. J. Stapely #27, a couple in our ward were called to be the institute directors at the local college. He is a recently retired HS teacher with no affiliation with CES. They served 3 years and then were released. Although it is largely a commuter school that draws on a local population I know, because I grew up in the area, that 30 years ago even this school’s insitute used to be directed by a professional CES employee.

  40. I teach Institute in Burlington, North Carolina, and it is like I’ve died and gone to heaven! I try to teach as if I were Dr. Bradshaw in my BYU Biology class. My impression in his class was that faith means being able to ask any question. I try to create a space where students can ask any question. Oh, and I don’t prepare a lesson. For each class, students have a reading. I ask them to then come to class with a scripture that they like, some reasons why they like it, and some questions. I am fully committed to the CES goals and mission, and I think that there are many valuable ways to meet them. We are doing the Old Testament, and we have learned about the Savior’s Atonement and the blessings of the Gospel. For one class we spent the entire time discussing the concerns that a recent convert had from conversations with her very Baptist roommates. We have also talked about the documentary hypothesis, Heavenly Mother, Cain-as-Bigfoot (!), and sex. I don’t bring up potentially controversial topics (generally), because I don’t want to artificially create concerns, but I find that if I try to create the right environment, students feel free to open up. And I see that as creating a very special, sacred place. Our local CES person seems to appreciate what I do. He also seems happy to not ask too many questions ;)

    One reason I follow this blog is to help me anticipate questions or concerns that my students may have and to draw upon resources to help them learn how to find answers.

    Anselma (#1), I would love it if you road tripped it out to Burlington for our Institute.

  41. Sounds great Shawn. Keep it up.

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