Mormons are told that the glory of God is intelligence. But they are also told that the mantle is far, far greater than the intellect. So which is it? Is there an inevitable conflict? Or can the two approaches be reconciled? I’m going to consider these questions while discussing Thomas W. Simpson’s book American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism, 1867-1940 (UNC Chapel Hill, 2016).
Conflict Is Not Inevitable. Many LDS senior leaders are well educated, even if the more recent pattern is to call men from the professions rather than academia. Many LDS scholars serve faithfully in a variety of significant local leadership positions. Conflict may occur, but it is not inevitable. As Simpson shows in the book, conflict tends to be cyclical, with an episode or era of conflict followed by an undeclared truce. The general support the Church gives to higher education, both in sponsoring the BYUs and encouraging LDS youth to get additional education and job training, also works to mute the conflict compared to other fundamentalist Christian denominations.
It’s Not Really a Faith vs. Reason Conflict. LDS leaders and LDS apologists use reason to defend LDS faith claims. LDS scholars can be quite faithful. On the whole, the Church Education System and the old-time BYU Religion faculty tend toward fideism over thoughtful engagement, but no one pays much attention to those folks anymore. It’s more of an authority issue than a faith vs. reason debate, which is why I titled this post mantle vs. intellect. LDS leaders, like the God of the Old Testament, jealously guard their authority and will swat down any perceived threat. Given the atmosphere of mild paranoia that often reigns within the Mormon bubble, academics and intellectuals are often viewed with some suspicion. Hugh Nibley once criticized the sense that Mormon culture will praise a person who gets up at 5 am to write a bad book more than one who gets up at 9 am to write a good book. In the same way, Mormon culture generally prefers a dumb argument made by a senior leader over a good argument made by a scholar. This is why LDS curriculum materials (which are full of GA quotations but avoid scholarly works like the plague) are basically worthless.
A Short History of the Conflict. On this, read the book. What is surprising is that during the 19th century, there was senior leadership support for sending and even financially supporting bright young LDS students to get advanced degrees back east or over at Berkeley. This included sending women, who often studied medicine then returned to practice in Utah. Men tended toward law. The idea was to come back and defend Zion from Gentile attack and to reduce LDS dependence on non-LDS professionals. It was a fairly successful initiative.
There were some young LDS who pursued advanced degrees in religion, philosophy, history, and the sciences. This is where the plot thickens, although even a professional degree in law or medicine equips the recipient to think harder and reason more clearly about religious beliefs and claims. The central event of the period was what is often called BYU’s evolution controversy in 1911. That’s covered in detail in Chapter 3 of the book, “Evolution and Its Discontents.” Here are two entries from the chronology at the front of the book that summarize the story. 1909: LDS First Presidency issues “The Origin of Man,” criticizing scientific evolution. 1911: Evolution and higher criticism controversy at BYU results in investigation and dismissal of professors with advanced training “abroad.”
Things mellowed out after the dismissals, but the issue is always there, lurking behind the scenes. Simpson emphasizes the role of J. Reuben Clark’s 1938 talk “The Charted Course of the Church in Education” as another shot across the bow from The Mantle warning The Intellect to not rock the ecclesiastical boat. That talk is still trotted out whenever a leader feels the need to emphasize that the glory of God is obedience, not intelligence.
More Recent Events. The main part of the book follows events up to roughly 1940. In a short four-page conclusion, brief reference is made to Elder Packer’s 1981 talk “The Mantle Is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect“; the academic freedom controversy at BYU, resulting in BYU’s long and rather convoluted “Academic Freedom Policy“; the 2014 excommunication of Kate Kelly for publicly advocating LDS female ordination; and LDS political opposition to gay marriage. The reader can probably throw in a few more events in the comments.
Reflecting on more recent events, I would say that Correlation and aggressive efforts by senior leadership have more or less cleansed BYU and LDS leadership of any internal dissent. That wins the battle but not the war. With the emergence of the Internet, anyone with a computer and some time on their hands can sponsor enlightening and freewheeling discussion of LDS topics, an activity that seems to be viewed as dissent by a large chunk of the membership and local leadership. Senior leadership tends to praise freedom of conscience (aka free agency or moral agency) in public statements but work hard to restrict it behind the scenes. In a sense, what was once a discussion or debate between elites (senior leadership and a few LDS academics) has, thanks to technology, been popularized and spread to the masses. I hesitate to equate social media with The Intellect, but there is certainly wide ranging discussion on LDS topics that your grandparents and even your parents would never have touched in public.
Two Closing Thoughts. First, read the book if you get a chance. The text is only 125 pages, with another 30 pages of notes. Second, reflecting on post-1940 developments and particularly the last few years, it is now far, far more difficult for The Mantle to manage or control The Intellect. Welcome to the 21st century, Mormonism.