What is the Chicago Experiment? Back in the 1930s, LDS Church leaders sent employees to be trained in theology. They came across some sticky theology topics such as evolution, the Documentary Hypothesis, and whether multiple people wrote Isaiah. Would the Church re-entrench on faith, or accept secular methods to understand the Bible? Dr. Casey Griffiths will tell us about his Ph.D. project and paper titled “The Chicago Experiment.”
Casey: Basically, prior to 1930, there are no professional religion scholars in the Church. We have your Orson Pratt and your B.H. Roberts who are really amazing, but pretty much self-taught, but don’t hold divinity degrees. Joseph Merrill, who is the person that starts the seminary program, becomes Church Mission of Education and is starting the Institute [of Religion] program. Joseph Merrill is a college professor. He’s a professor of physics. He’s [thinking,] “If we’re going to have people that teach college level, they need to have a degree in religion.” But where does a Mormon guy go in the 1920s to get a degree in religion? BYU is still a small little school that doesn’t offer any degrees in religion. So, Merrill gets this idea, partially inspired by Sidney Sperry, that he’s going to send a bunch of scholars to the University of Chicago. At Chicago, they’re going to get degrees in Divinity and then come back and kind of spread the wealth, and we’ll have professionally trained religious educators in the Church.
Casey: Well, in the 1930s, there’s still quite a bit of bias against Latter-day Saints, and the only Divinity School that would accept Latter-day Saint students had to be a really liberal one. So, the conflict here is that the University of Chicago is incredibly theologically liberal, and the Church is incredibly theologically conservative. But, if we want to have people trained in the field of religion, the only school that will accept them is a liberal school. So, these guys are there and, by the way, they’re there at the same time Martin Luther King’s mentor is there. They’re intermingling with black scholars. They’re intermingling with scholars from different faiths. They all have this overwhelmingly positive experience at the University of Chicago. It’s just when they come back and they have to interact with the conservative Church, there’s some major conflict.
Casey: You have some people that are able to negotiate it really successfully, like Sidney Sperry. Sidney Sperry strikes the right balance between being conservative, but also moving the work forward. He really professionalizes his religious education, inspires a lot of great people like Hugh Nibley. They come onto the scene a little bit later. Then, there’s other people like Heber Snell, that just really struggle. There’s a whole story, like I said, there, in that they come back and spend their career Snell, is an Institute director, Sidney Sperry is pretty much the religion guy at BYU. It’s interesting to see what trajectory they take. Sidney Sperry, takes his scholarly training and turns it on the Doctrine & Covenants and the Book of Mormon. He writes the first pretty good scholarly stuff about the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine & Covenants. He’s using the tools of higher biblical criticism on Latter-day Saints scripture, and he’s using it in the apologetic way to prove that the scriptures are true. Hebrew Snell become so enamored with higher biblical criticism that he really doesn’t like restoration scripture. He wants to focus on the Bible. We have letters from Heber Snell, where he was like, “I can’t believe that they teach the Book of Mormon alongside real subjects, at this institute. You’re like, “You’re an institute teacher, buddy, do you know who signs your checks?” But it shows that as late as the 20th century, we still hadn’t quite nailed down what our identity was. There were guys like Heber Snell that basically wanted us to sort of accept restoration scripture as an interesting hobby, but the main meal is the Bible. Then, there’s guys like Sidney Sperry that say, “No, restoration scripture is just as interesting, inspirational and complex as the Bible, it needs to be at the table right alongside them.”
Moving on to another topic, did you know slavery was still legal in Utah until 2020? We’ll talk about the drive to remove this provision in the Utah Constitution with an Emmy-award winning director, Loki Mulholland who directed the film “The End of Slavery.”
Loki: My latest project is called “The End of Slavery: the Fight for Amendment C.” It’s about the fight to actually take the language of slavery out of the Utah State Constitution. When the Utah State Constitution was written, they actually wrote in the language of the 13th Amendment, which was that slavery is abolished, except as a punishment for crime for those who’ve been duly convicted. What that means is that you can be re-enslaved again, not you and I, but African Americans, because that’s what it was written for. So, that was created as a nod to the South to re-enslave people, to put them into penal farms, and then do convict-leasing. So, what they would do is, if you were African American, you could be arrested for something like loitering. Loitering meant that you didn’t have a job and you were just kind of hanging around. Well, the problem was, is that white people weren’t going to hire black people. So, you couldn’t get a job. So, now you get arrested, you’re put into a penal farm. You’re leased back out to the mines, to the railroads, to the farms, to the plantations, and worked like a slave all over again. This is all for the black folks.
GT: It’s not just picking up trash on the side of the road.
Loki: No, it’s not just picking up trash on the streets, not things like you think about today. But, that was really the start of kind of the jailing institutions that we have today. It was just another way, not only to re-enslave people, but also to take away the right to vote. Voting is power and African-Americans, at that point, had the right to vote, but we need to take that away from them. So, that became, also, part of that whole system. What was interesting was, Utah was founded 30 years after slavery ended. The Civil War was done and everything. Yet, for some reason, they wrote that in there. So, Sandra Hollins, she is the first black female elected official in the State of Utah. Right now, she’s the only black elected official in the state of Utah.
GT: We’ve got Burgess Owens, technically.
Loki: But, he’s not a state official.
GT: Okay. He’s a federal official.
Loki: He’s a federal official. Okay, so. This was brought to her by a reporter who said, “Hey, did you know this was still in here?” Colorado had already passed this. Utah is not the only state that had this in their state constitution, but they took it out in Colorado. So, they’re like, “Wow, we need to do this here in Utah.” So, a couple of years back, I think I want to say it was 2019 or so, 2018, 2019, the bill was passed in the House, which is where she is, and then it went to the Senate the next year. Then, it was on the ballot for the State of Utah to vote whether to take it out or not. The interesting thing I thought when I was making the film, was that in the State Capitol, I wanted to get a shot of Sandra, standing in front of the Constitution, we’d rack focus from her to the Constitution, like chiseled on the wall. I don’t know why I thought would be chiseled on the wall or something. But, there was no copy of the Constitution anywhere in the Capitol Building. I’m like, “Well, no wonder why no one knew that was there.”
Oregon is the next state to try to take slavery out of their constitution (and there are other states with this issue too.) Were you aware of slavery was technically legal? Do you have any thoughts on theological training for seminary/institute teachers?