Mormons at the University of Chicago Divinity School

I occasionally try to push people to examine the Dialogue archives for the many treasures to be found therein. But I realize that is too general a suggestion. So I think that from time to time I’ll point you to a specific article for your consideration.

As it so happens, I just had occasion this morning to reread Russell B. Swensen, “Mormons at the University of Chicago Divinity School: A Personal Reminiscence,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 7/2 (Summer 1972): 37-47. (I wanted to refresh my recollection for a review I’m writing.) You can read the article here (navigate to it using the left hand pane.)

After his mission to the Southern States from 1919-1921, Sidney Sperry taught seminary, but he became deeply frustrated with his lack of knowledge of the Bible. He resolved to pursue graduate study at the University of Chicago Divinity School, one of the finest such institutions in the world. He counseled with the general authorities of the time, who were almost completely negative on the idea, but he resolved to push ahead anyway, earning his master’s in 1926 and doctorate in 1931, both in Old Testament.

Sperry was so impressive upon his return that the director of church education started a program of sending promising young church educators to the University of Chicago, beginning with three young students, of which the author of this article, Russell Swensen, was one. This is basically his memoir of what that experience was like. Others followed in their footsteps throughout the 1930s, but the program died promptly after the end of the decade, for reasons Swensen talks about.

Not only did LDS grad students head to Chicago, but quite a number of Chicago professors spent summers at BYU teaching Mormons. The article recounts one episode where the famous scholar Edgar Goodspeed was introduced as having recently spent time in Utah “trying to convert the Mormons,” and Goodspeed arose indignant and promptly launched into a vigorous defense of Mormons and Mormonism.

Today we have dozens and dozens of young LDS grad students pursuing advanced degrees in religiious fields. Over 40 of them attended the recent Yale conference. This article recounts a similarly heady time, if on a smaller scale.

It was published in 1972, which is before most of you were even born, so it is likely that many of you have never encountered this reminiscence before. This is just one illustration of what awaits you should you choose to spend some time in the dusty stacks of the past issues of Dialogue.


  1. Am I correct in interpreting that Sperry lived away from his wife and children (the small family mentioned on pg 38) while he pursued his degrees?

  2. Ardis Parshall says:

    Thanks for this pointer, Kevin, I enjoyed reading this.

    On the off chance someone might be thinking of revisiting this topic, I suggest a source: From before 1910 through at least the 1930s, some (not all) Saturday Deseret Evening News editions included a column on “Utahns in Chicago.” These are short social notes that don’t mean much individually, but taken as a whole the notes on comings and goings, church activities, awards, marriages, visits, and graduations add up to quite a picture and can sometimes solve puzzles. So far as I know, nobody has ever exploited this source.

  3. Costanza says:

    The biography of T. Edgar Lyon written by his son has an excellent chapter on Lyon’s experiences at Chicago. He was there later than Sperry, but I can’t remember the exact years.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    Kristine N., I got the impression that he lived away from his family for maybe a couple of years. While he was working on his Ph.D. he got a job at an LDS institute in Idaho, and presumably his family lived with him there during this time while he worked on his dissy.

    Ardis, that is fascinating. I hope someday someone pursues this resource. I have a special interest in this subject, having lived most of my life in the Chicago area.

    The article talks about the years T. Edgar Lyon was there, IIRC.

  5. “It was published in 1972, which is before most of you were even born” — Thanks, Kevin, for making this very early middle-aged / very late young-aged man feel old.

    I can tell you that attending classes at Harvard Divinity School was an amazing experience. Harvey Cox was a fascinating teacher, as was Father Fiorenza. (If I mis-spelled that name, my apologies. I’m working off of memory, and I didn’t pay much attention to the spelling even then.) Not only did I gain an invaluable understanding of the fundamental principles of mainstream Christian theology, but I gained an even deeper appreciation of the incredible teachings of a young, uneducated prophet. I listened to much deep, intellectual discussion and thought, “Wow, I learned that in Primary!” – or “No, that can’t be. The Bible says …” (remembering multiple scriptures from Seminary). I wrote papers on basic Mormon doctrine that received top grades, even though the professors and graduate students who graded them disagreed strongly with the positions I espoused. They disagreed with the doctrinal conclusions, but they couldn’t fault the Biblical citations and interpretations.

    Thanks for taking me back down memory lane.

  6. a random John says:

    I’m a broken record!

    I would read it but the interface is so frustrating that I can’t bring myself to do it. I’m sorry.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    I realize it’s a little frustrating, but it’s not that bad, especially for a short article like this. You just have to click on one page at a time as you read it, that’s all.

  8. This article is fascinating. Of course, as Swenson vaguely alludes, the University of Chicago was the great sun of Protestant liberalism in the 1920s; I am slightly astonished that Mormons would pick it over a conservative institution like Princeton. On second thought, though, two things – there is something pragmatically Mormon about picking a school based solely upon its prestige rather than philosophical orientation, and, secondly, I suspect my gut reaction may be reading Mormon theological conservatism too far back in time.

    Swenson does seem to downplay the influence of liberalism upon Mormon students, but of course, the two leading Mormon alumni Swenson mentions, William Chamberlain and Heber Snell, were deeply – and controversially – influenced by it. You can even see the philosophy in the orientation of the classes Swenson mentions; they’re all about the social implications of Christianity.

  9. Karl D. says:

    I would read it but the interface is so frustrating that I can’t bring myself to do it. I’m sorry.

    a random john,

    I use a little perl script (a totally non-elegant, quick, and dirty script) to create a pdf when I want to read a Dialogue article. The pdf is large (6 megs for this article) but it is quite readable and prints nicely. For this article, the script looks like this:


    my $base = “” .
    my $size = “&DMWIDTH=1024&DMHEIGHT=1600”;
    my $beg = 5202;
    my $end = 5212;

    for (my $i=$beg; $i

    Should work on most Linux boxen. I just modify the beginning and ending page for each article ($beg and $end).

  10. Karl D. says:

    Oops, the perl code got screwed up, but you can see it here.

  11. Russell Swenson was my mission president’s father. The son was pretty erudite himself. Thanks for the link, Kev.

  12. Does anyone think we will see something comparable to the “Chicago Movement” again?

  13. Kevin Barney says:

    Re: 12, not in the foreseeable future, at least not as an official church program, for a couple of reasons:

    1. CES these days actually discourages its teachers from getting these kinds of advanced degrees, so it would take quite a sea change in the System for institutional support of such degrees to occur.

    2. There are already more LDS grad students in religious studies fields than could be absorbed by BYU and its related institutions, and if the Church can get this kind of talent without having to pony up for it, then it certainly isn’t going to subsidize this kind of schooling.

  14. Kevin,

    I think that certainly speaks to the more pragmatic aspect, but I was more refering to the ideological side of things–do you think the church will return to an openness toward scholarship that it once was willing to explore (although the article made clear that such openness was never completely there)? It seems that part of the issue is that CES changed the way it viewed “Education”–from knowledge about our tradition to social participation in our tradition. In your opinion, what caused this change (other than the implications of the factors outlined in the article)?

  15. Kevin Barney says:

    CES used to be a very liberal institution. Sterling McMurrin was a CES teacher at one time! So I think there was a conservative backlash against the old guard (I want to say Harold B. Lee and Boyd K. Packer were involved in this, but that’s just my impression off the top of my head; I don’t recall the specifics).

    The Maxwell Institute at BYU on the other hand derives largely from the Nibley tradition, and is committed to rigorous academic scholarship. I just saw the latest Insights with an extensive list of Nibley fellows, who receive modest stipends for their graduate studies in religion; it was an impressive list, including several from the Bloggernacle.

  16. Kevin said:
    “CES these days actually discourages its teachers from getting these kinds of advanced degrees”

    How does it discourage its teachers and why whould it do so?

  17. Kevin Barney says:

    I don’t know the details, I’ve just talked to CES employees who report that in a variety of subtle and not so subtle ways it is made clear to them that an advanced degree in religion is not a desirable thing. Or, at the very least, it is not something that CES is willing to encourage in any way. The idea I’m sure is that such study is not necessary for what seminary and institute teachers are trying to accomplish, and there is a concern no doubt that such study will inculcate the students in modern secular academic scholarship.

  18. A friend of mine alerted me to this thread. I was quite intrigued, especially as the only Mormon student (to my knowledge) to be currently attending the University of Chicago Divinity School. My experience here has been invaluable both as a scholar and a religious person. I have received nothing but wide acceptance, and even elevated expectations, because of my Mormon background.

    The University of Chicago maintains what many would see as a paradoxical tradition of Classical education blended with progressive methods. There is a heavy emphasis on Continental Philosophy as well as the “controversial” brand of religious inquiry known as Process Theology (or, more accurately, Process Philosophy). In an odd twist, Matt–and this may be an interesting reflection on earnest Mormonism–Princeton has more LDS grad students now than the U of C Div School, and I would say that Princeton has also become quite a bit more liberal. (Not the institution as a whole, but its Religious Studies program, especially given the gnostic tendency of its scholars.)

    Kevin is right. There has been a burgeoning interest in religious academics by Mormons–a much needed interest–but the Church leadership and CES are still skeptical, and I doubt we will see any return to Church sponsorship of religious academics anytime soon, if ever. It is unfortunate that CES is mildly to acerbically averse to its instructors having advanced degrees in religion; however there is a young group of scholars up and coming within the Religion Department at BYU, like Professor Judd, who graduated with a PhD in religious studies from Duke, and Professor Wayment, who graduated from Claremont Divinity School. I only know things by hearsay, but apparently there is a division among the faculty in the Religion Department at BYU over this issue. It is sad because the quality of religious education at BYU is generally weak. I don’t mean to display undue negativity toward a department I may find myself seeking employment in, but in its current condition the Department of Religion would be better reduced to the status of an adjunct seminary or institute of religion. It’s rather embarrassing to call it a full-blown Department of Religion at a very well-respected institution. Although, I bet if you look at the background of most LDS grad students in religion you would find that they came out of schools other than BYU and/or from programs other than religious studies. I myself came out of the Classics and Comparative Literature departments, and everyone I know personally who is engaged in advanced religious studies has a similar background in language, philosophy and literature.

    After reading this thread, I found myself longing to have grown up in Swensen’s era. But there are enough of us now that perhaps BYU and CES will change in time; we need a stronger younger generation for this to be accomplished. I’m actually optimistic; only, it may be decades before we see any significant changes.