There was a lot of reminiscing when political commentator William F. Buckley passed on. I read and saw several of the “last interviews” various people had with him.

Mormon EducationOne interview caught my eye. In it, Buckley discussed his experience at Yale as an undergraduate, and the relationship universities have to God:

“Well, what happened there was that as a student at Yale in my junior and senior year, certain paradoxes sort of crystallized. One of them had to do with Christianity. Although Yale was at least ostensibly a Christian-oriented college having been founded as such 200 years earlier, there was a kind of nagging inattention and sometimes hostility to religion in the classrooms, and then it was—I’m talking about 1945, ‘46, ‘47, ‘48. There was a great infatuation with postwar socialism, so that the socialist government in Great Britain was spoken about here and there as sort of a high point of political sophistication.”

“So when I pulled out, I thought that these paradoxes should be examined in the framework of a book that said, ‘What is a college supposed to do by way of furthering missions?’ and who is entitled to vote on what should be in that mission, my point being that the alumni who sustain a college should have a significant voice in it.”

I chuckled. I’m a graduate of Brigham Young University (BYU), and we constantly had these discussions about God, Man, and the Academy.

For example, Merrill J. Bateman, the eleventh president of BYU and a general authority in the Mormon Church, observed:

“Is the university apart from or a part of the Church? Following the announcement of my appointment as president of Brigham Young University, the Salt Lake Tribune carried an article on what it means to have a General Authority as the school’s leader. The major point of the article concerned the university’s relationship to the Church. The news reporter suggested that although some might have assumed prior to the announcement that the university was a secular institution distinct from but reporting to the Church, the call clearly indicates that the university is an integral part of the kingdom.”

“The article surprised me in that I had never thought of Brigham Young University separate from the Church. Prophet after prophet has stated clearly that Brigham Young University is a religious institution with a divine mission, even though secular education is a key part of its purpose. Given the organizational structure by which the university is governed, it seems paradoxical that some might think that Brigham Young University is not an integral part of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Church itself is an educational institution, and Brigham Young University is one of its key components.”

“Thus, one might say that this institution is not only a university in Zion but is in the process of becoming a ‘Zion university.’” (A Zion University)

So, yes, the student body has everything to do with the body of Christ. They should be one and the same.

The Mormon Church has no professional clergy. Day-to-day management of the church is done on a voluntary basis. When I was an undergraduate student at BYU, I served in the Sunday School as a teacher, as the president of the ward Sunday school (the local congregation), and as Stake Sunday School president. This involved visiting the classes in our stake (akin to a diocese), and reporting back to the stake president. And all that while being a student full-time and working part-time. On top of that, many BYU students are married, with children.

Then there is missionary work. Like me, a majority of the students at BYU have served missions for the Mormon Church. The same can also be said for the professors. In fact the Missionary Training Center for North America is located between the BYU campus and the Provo, Utah Temple. Of course there is some symbolism with this location. The motto of BYU is taken from Mormon scripture: “The glory of God is intelligence.” (D&C 93:36)

The Mormon view of higher education goes back to its first prophet Joseph Smith. In March 1832, almost two and a half years after the organization of the church, Joseph Smith received this revelation from God that endorsed education.

In part it reads:

“Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand;”

“Of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms—“

“That ye may be prepared in all things when I shall send you again to magnify the calling whereunto I have called you, and the mission with which I have commissioned you.” (D&C 88:78-80)

The practical result of this was the creation of the School of the Prophets. This group met in the Kirtland Temple, and the curriculum covered both spiritual and secular topics.

Richard L. Bushman observed:

“The school has been represented as an early adult education effort, but the name ‘the School of the Prophets’ indicated a higher purpose. By alluding to the band of prophets who received instruction under Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha, it implied preparation for a holy work. Missionaries had been going into the field without instruction; in the school, they were to teach one another ‘the doctrines of the kingdom,’ and virtually everything else … There seems to have been no limit on the knowledge needed to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth.” (Rough Stone Rolling, 210-211)

Joseph Smith loved these classes, and personal study as well. Two journal entries highlight this:

“Spent this day at home, endeavoring to treasure up knowledge for the benefit of my calling.” (21 December 1835, History of the Church, 2:344)

“Spent the day at school. The Lord blessed us in our studies. This day we commenced reading in our Hebrew Bibles with much success. It seems as if the Lord opens our minds in a marvelous manner, to understand His word in the original language; and my prayer is that God will speedily endow us with a knowledge of all languages and tongues, that His servants may go forth for the last time the better prepared to bind up the law, and seal up the testimony.” (19 January 1836, History of the Church, 2:376)

The same pattern used in Kirtland was followed in Nauvoo, Illinois with the founding of the University of Nauvoo. A proclamation explained the aims of the university:

“The ‘University of the City of Nauvoo will enable us to teach our children wisdom, to instruct them in all the knowledge and learning, in the arts, sciences, and learned professions. We hope to make this institution one of the great lights of the world, and by and through it to diffuse that kind of knowledge which will be of practicable utility, and for the public good, and also for private and individual happiness. The Regents of the University will take the general supervision of all matters appertaining to education, from common schools up to the highest branches of a most liberal collegiate course. They will establish a regular system of education, and hand over the pupil from teacher to professor, until the regular gradation is consummated and the education finished.” (History of the Church, 4:269)

Brigham Young University is the third incarnation of the School of the Prophets. The university mission statement explains:

“The mission of Brigham Young University—founded, supported, and guided by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—is to assist individuals in their quest for perfection and eternal life. That assistance should provide a period of intensive learning in a stimulating setting where a commitment to excellence is expected and the full realization of human potential is pursued.”

“All instruction, programs, and services at BYU, including a wide variety of extracurricular experiences, should make their own contribution toward the balanced development of the total person. Such a broadly prepared individual will not only be capable of meeting personal challenge and change but will also bring strength to others in the tasks of home and family life, social relationships, civic duty, and service to mankind.” (Mission Statement)

I am not sure of William F. Buckley ever visited BYU, to see this marriage of the secular and the spiritual at work. Even if you disagree with his politics, you must agree with his thoughts on tearing down the wall of separation between Church and Academy. Buckley was a practicing Catholic and worked within the tradition of John Duns Scotus, Albertus Magnus, and Thomas Aquinas. He believed that the secular academy needed to work with the spiritual academy.

So do I. After all, Christ is the Truth.

As a Mormon working within the tradition of Joseph Smith, I also agree that there needs to be an intellectual union of the secular and the spiritual. And I am glad that the Mormon Church actually puts this ideal into practice. Trust me—it works!

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