Teaching Institute

For the first half of my adult life, my default calling at Church involved teaching. I was constantly teaching EQ, and I did stints as GD teacher in three different wards. And then I started teaching Institute.

Or at least my stake called it “Institute”; realistically it was more like an adult continuing education class. Usually I wasn’t teaching college students but just members of the stake.

When I was first given this calling, it seemed like quite an honor. The high councilor who called me made me feel like I was taking on the most important job in the stake. I had the impression that I would be given all the support in the world. I soon found out that wasn’t quite accurate. Over time I realized that this was just the stake trying to fulfill the full program of the Church, and once I was in place they checked that box and I was on my own. My first clue was when the SP didn’t announce the class at stake conference, although I had personally asked him to do so and he had agreed. I had to figure out publicity on my own.

At my very first class the SP and his wife came, and I thought, “Great, if the SP is coming then others will want to come, too.” But they never came back; they were just checking to make sure I wasn’t teaching anything too out in left field.

My memory is pretty vague on this, but I think I was supposed to collect some sort of class fee and do some sort of registration process so that people could get credit for the class if they wanted. But no one needed the credit and I let all those bureaucratic niceties slide, and in subsequent classes that never even came up.

But a nice thing about being off the radar screen of CES was that I could do pretty much whatever I wanted. My first class was on the Book of Mormon; I just kept the class going for two years. I loved being able to teach the scripture at a slower pace and in much greater depth than in GD. (The oldsters among us will remember when the GD curriculum spent two years a piece on a standard work before shuffling to a different one.)

The other classes I taught were Early LDS Church History (basically NY with a little Ohio) [twice], Biblical Hebrew [twice], New Testament Greek, and Old Testament. I don’t think I ever got around to teaching a NT class.

One thing that took some getting used to was the inevitable drop off in attendance. I remember when I did the first Biblical Hebrew Class. I held it in the high council room, and there were over 20 people in attendance. But within three weeks we were down to about eight or nine students who would hang in there for the long haul. Fortunately, I had seen the same phenomenon when I took a noncredit Coptic course at BYU from S. Kent Brown, where a group of about 20 students quickly burned off to three of us hard core students who stuck it out. I realized the idea of studying an ancient language is more appealing than the reality of it, and so I didn’t take it personally when my rolls inevitably dropped off over the first couple of weeks.

The biblical language classes were very fun but also frustrating. These weren’t college students but adults with their calcified brains; we met only once a week, and they led busy lives so there was not substantial mandatory outside homework. So progress was slower than I would have liked. Still, the students seemed to really enjoy the experience. The reason I taught the Hebrew course a second time is that one of my students (who was on the High Council) said the best class he ever had was when he took a rigorous math course over a second time, and the hard concepts started to really sink in. The other students were enthusiastic about it so I taught the same Biblical Hebrew class in back to back years. I felt that I had more success with the Hebrew class than I did with the Greek; for some reason Mormons seem to be more fascinated by Hebrew than they are by Greek.

One time the neighboring stake wanted to teach an Institute class but they couldn’t come up with a qualified teacher, so they got special permission to call me as the teacher. This was the OT class. This class met in the evenings at the old dental school at Northwestern University in Chicago. This one was a sacrifice on my part, because I have a long commute and when I taught the night class in the city I would get home late. But I liked teaching what in effect was a seminar in a graduate environmnent at a prestigious university; it was fun to pretend I was actually a professor there (like our own JNS!). I’m a frustrated academic.

The OT class was the last one I did; I suffered from burn out and really didn’t want to do it anymore. Since then I’ve had mostly non-teaching callings: YMP, EQP, membership clerk, SS president, and now I’m the community relations czar on the stake public affairs council.

But I deeply appreciate the opportunity I was given to teach the adults in my stake in an Insitute setting. It was tremendously fun for me, and I like to think the students gained something beneficial from the experience as well.


  1. Researcher says:

    Biblical Hebrew? New Testament Greek? It’s too bad you’re not teaching here. I would love to attend a class like that with my older kids.

    I agree with you on the pace of Gospel Doctrine. Three chapters in 40 minutes is only enough time to touch on a few basic points.

  2. Julie M. Smith says:

    I’ve been teaching what are now called Adult Religion Classes for a few years and it is beyond fun. I spent a semester on the first half of Genesis last year and it was a blast.

    “for some reason Mormons seem to be more fascinated by Hebrew than they are by Greek.”

    Yeah, I don’t get it.

  3. I taught a couple years of Institute when I was in college and medical school and really enjoyed it. I think it was NT and BoM. Mine was one of several offerings in the Boston area, so the attendees tended to be a group of motivated college students who knew me. I think at this stage my enthusiasm for teaching a sustained curriculum has waned enough that I wouldn’t do it again, but I do have fond memories of the experience.

    As for Hebrew, they’re following in the footsteps of their prophet dear. While the Kabbalah associations are overstated, there is a long history of reverence for the Hebrew language that has been well detailed by a Dartmouth professor named Shalom Goldman over the years.

    It may have something to do with the abundance of secular and philosophical literature in Greek and the relatively exclusive religious content of ancient Hebrew, but that’s not something I feel strongly about.

    My buddy’s at work on Attic Greek in his spare time; kind of got me inspired to return at least to some koine, but it would be easier with a study group.

  4. Kevin, we need to find a way to make this kind of thing happen again. You’re too valuable a resource! It doesn’t need to be a church function; let’s get a BCC adult education program going for the Chicago area…

  5. Most CES coordinators will quash anything like this. I know, I’ve tried to push some things through outside of Utah, and they generally don’t happen.

    When I was at BYU, I had a conversation with Bill Hamblin, in which we wondered why there were seemed to be so many more NT scholars (and NT interest) than OT, given how much our other scriptures relate to the OT.

  6. let’s get a BCC adult education program going for the Chicago area…

    Make it a distance learning course too!

  7. I would have enjoyed the classes – if I had been able to attend. That’s the real kicker with adult classes; we’re just so busy.

  8. greekyhebry says:

    I think there are several reason why Mormons are obsessed with Hebrew but not with Greek.

    1) Most people are dimly aware that Hebrew was studied in the so called School of the Prophets and so people say ‘if it was good for Joseph it is good for me.’

    2) A surprisingly large number of well-educated church members think that the documents of the NT were composed in Hebrew.

    3) There is an undercurrent of antipathy against Greek because it is the language of ‘philosophy’ and as so many people in so many various ways have blithely asserted, ‘Greek philosophy corrupted the ancient gospel.’

    4) The old and tired quip, “That’s Greek to me” still carries the sense that Greek is too difficult to learn.

    5) There is a not totally off-base assumption that knowing Hebrew will increase and hone one’s set of interpretive tools when engaging the text of the Book of Mormon.

    6) People often assume that Biblical Hebrew is more ancient than Greek [as though it is one language for all time, locations, and speakers] and therefore more mysterious, more ‘original,’ and closer to the ‘Adamic tongue’ [the old temple endowment certainly added to this sentiment].

    7) People who study both languages generally agree that learning Hebrew is easier than Greek and this aids in making Hebrew seem more approachable to the average church member.

    8) Hebrew as a written language [especially with the Masoretic diacriticals, vocalization, and symbols of notation] looks more exotic and the exotic has a tendency to attract interest–this cannot be overstated and is also true, to a certain degree, with Greek.

    9) The sentiment often voiced that “there was so much going on in the Old Testament that is similar to what we believe” spurs people in their desire to know Hebrew.

    10) Those who initially embark on their study of Greek usually realize early on that to learn Greek without learning Latin concurrently is like hiking with only one boot–the prospect of tackling a second dead language [and Latin holds certain fears for Mormons–language of the Vatican, systematic theology, Englightenment scientific progress, etc., etc.] while Hebrew is usually seen as a single language which will unlock the Old Testament [this, of course, is naive since to learn Hebrew without the context of Northwest Semitics is also a one boot endeavor].

    11) At BYU learning Hebrew is broadly seen as a conscious effort to becoming a ‘scriptorian’ [a thoroughly bastardized word] and this is generally viewed as a worthwhile pursuit by fellow students while those who actually study Hebrew at BYU are usually interested in developing linguistic and academic skills for graduate school. But the positive reinforcement and respect from peers for the Hebrew-studiers is not to be overlooked.

    12) The BYU Jerusalem center, as an institution and through its course offering, communicates the ascendency of Hebrew (Biblical and Modern) as THE language of Religious Eductation.

    These are some of the reason Mormons seem more “fascinated by Hebrew than they are by Greek.”

  9. Kevin, you have your audience here- I would LOVE to have the opportunity for those courses. That is, if my calcified brain could handle it…

  10. greekyhebry says:

    don’t know why a cheesy smiley-face appeared for number 8.

  11. Kevin,

    I had the same experience taking Coptic (with John Gee) and even more so with Middle and Late Egyptian. We had so few students some semesters that if one or two were absent it was just yourself and John Gee.

    We held class in the Ancient Studies room and Nibley even sat through a number of classes one semester. I can testify that Nibley certainly knew his stuff. Often we would read a text and his cryptic notes from years gone by were already there in pencil.

  12. “for some reason Mormons seem to be more fascinated by Hebrew than they are by Greek.”

    I’d wager this is because Joseph Smith’s Mormonism was largely a “restoration” of Old Testament style religion. Mormons relate to the hard-nosed practicality of Hebrew. They tend to get impatient with the airy and esoteric distractions of Greek thought.

  13. Regarding comment #8: The 8 ) smiley ( 8) ) has struck again. That always cracks me up.

    If I were to guess in my very non-academic way. I’d say that Mormons like Hebrew because it’s the language of God’s chosen, and avoid Greek because it is the language of pagans.

    Me? I avoid both because I’m still working on English and French.

  14. julie, my wife and I want to drive up from san antonio and go to your class sometime. when and where do you teach?

    lmwitten at prodigy dot net

  15. Kevin Barney says:

    Joshua no. 11, now that’s my idea of a class!

  16. Kevin’s Institute classes sound wonderful. I’m envious of those students.

    About GD classes – it is unfortunate that teachers feel a compulsion to “get through” all of the assigned chapters. That is contrary to their instructions. We still have the same 40 minutes a week. It could be spent on 3 verses rather than 3 chapters. The members can read the rest at home.

  17. “Over time I realized that this was just the stake trying to fulfill the full program of the Church, and once I was in place they checked that box and I was on my own.”

    Hardly. There is no Church program for adult continuign ed. Your stake presidency was trying to meet a need in your stake, and should be applauded for that, regardless of whether they thought that meeting the need required the extraordinary step (at least in the stakes I’ve lived in, where announcements during stake conference are very, very strongly discouraged) of making an announcement at stake conference.

  18. Dr. Louis Zucker once posed the same interesting question considered in comments above: “Why was it Hebrew and not Greek?” . . .

    Very likely, it was the availability of a Jewish teacher that inclined the choice of languages, or even of studies, to Hebrew. A Jew was exceedingly rare in northeastern Ohio in those days; . . . A teacher of Hebrew who was a Jew was what the Mormons came to want — Dr. Peixotto or another Jew, even if they had to send, over 600 miles, to New York for one. Providentially, the teacher they desired appeared at the right time, in their neighborhood. [Louis C. Zucker, “Joseph Smith as a Student of Hebrew,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 3 (Summer 1968), 44; the reference to “another Jew . . . in their neighborhood” means Joshua Seixas.]

    I have found it striking to notice how many early Saints’ later reminiscences included mention of “Prof. Seixas.” Hebrew study with Joshua Seixas became positively stylish in Kirtland (early 1836), yet these students took their class work seriously. “The Mormons are very eager to acquire an education.” – reported an unnamed gentleman living in Loraine County, Ohio. “Men[,] women, and children are studying Hebrew. Some of the men in middle age pursue Hebrew till 12 o’clock at night and attend to nothing else.” (unsigned article, “The Mormons,” in New England Advocate 2:42 [newspaper, Middletown, Connecticut, Wednesday, May 11, 1836], p. [1]).

    To understand this, we have to step back in our own memories to some stage of life where we first headed to high school or college, intent upon “getting a degree.” Did we have the slightest inkling then of how much there was to learn? Did we even imagine, at such early moments of our training, that we needed to acquire techniques of research and thinking, even more than the data themselves? The more we learned, the more “stupid” we saw that we had been, . . . and still remain.

    We should try to imagine, now, how such limitations must have challenged Joseph Smith and so many of his contemporaries for whom the attainment of a genuinely thorough, sophisticated education was unlikely, if not impossible.
    To them, a little coursework must have seemed as impressive as post-graduate studies might feel to us. Had they any idea how much there really was to know?

    No doubt, it was almost miraculous that the School of the Prophets’ “Hebrew School” should obtain – from out of all America, this instructor of such merit. It strikes me as absurd to dream that one could learn enough Hebrew in seven weeks to make any difference in analyzing esoteric ancient texts. But for Joseph Smith, who translated things which he seldom saw – and which he never could read, those daily classes at the west end of Kirtland Temple’s upper floor must have felt like thrilling secular handshakes in the midst of a continuing friendship with God.

  19. Kevin (or anyone else for that matter), could you recommend some introductory texts for starting Biblical Hebrew or New Testament Greek?

  20. A little tidbit:

    Sensing that he [Lorenzo Snow] also might find satisfaction in Mormonism, she [Eliza R. Snow] watched for an opportunity to bring Lorenzo to Kirtland, where he might come to know the Prophet Joseph Smith and be influenced by him.

    Her chance came in 1836, when Joseph and other Church leaders were engaged in the School of the Prophets. In the early days of American education every respectable scholar was required to learn Hebrew and Greek. Lorenzo had just completed his study of classical languages at Oberlin but had not as yet mastered Hebrew; so Eliza, knowing that a Hebrew scholar, Dr. Joshua Seixas, had been employed to teach the School of the Prophets, invited her younger brother to come to Kirtland and study Hebrew.

    “Lorenzo Snow: The Decisions of a College Student,” New Era, Jan 1972

  21. Kevin Barney says:

    gomez #19, I just now saw your question; sorry I didn’t respond earlier.

    In my Hebrew classes I wanted to use Thomas Lambdin, which is what I had learned on, but that book is insanely expensive, and it is written at a level that presumes a fair amount of general linguistic knowledge. So I called Eisenbrauns and asked them for a recommendation, and they suggested Page Kelley, and so that is what we used, and I was very happy with it. I would definitely recommend it, and I think it would be useful for someone teaching himself.

    For my Greek class we used William Mounce, Basics of Biblical Greek. I liked this one also, and again, I think it would work well for self-study.

    If you’re going to try to teach yourself, I would also recommend Hebrew Tutor and Greek Tutor, interactive computer programs from Parsons Technology.