The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints saw a group of highly-impactful university professors during the 20th century who helped to shape Latter-day Saint thought. For many, Hugh Nibley, Truman Madsen, Eugene England are a well-known part of their experience with the Church. Another figure that deserves to be remembered in that group is Lowell Bennion. In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog, biographer George Handley discussed Lowell Bennion and his contributions to the Church. What follows here is a co-post to the full interview.
As you might expect, George Handley started out by explaining who Lowell Bennion was. He wrote:
Lowell L. Bennion was the most important Latter-day Saint educator, ethicist and humanitarian in the twentieth century. He directed the first Institute of Religion at the University of Utah from 1935 to 1962 where he encouraged thousands of Latter-day Saint students to embrace the fullest implications of a Christian life.
His dedication to service both as a personal commitment and as a pedagogical tool led him in his later life to dedicate himself full-time to humanitarian work in Salt Lake City. In honor of this legacy, the Lowell Bennion Community Service Center was created at the University of Utah in 1987.
The many manuals that he wrote for the Church and the numerous books he wrote in the final decades of his life spelled out a coherent and integrated understanding of social morality and a commitment to education and human flourishing for Latter-day Saints.
As an institute director, humanitarian, and writer, Lowell Bennion left an impact on his faith community.
Of course, his life and legacy has been viewed with some mixed emotions. Like Eugene England, he has been seen as a bit unorthodox and liberal and had some disagreements with Church leaders. As Handley noted, Bennion “warned students against dogmatism, institutionalism, and authoritarianism, what he called the ‘illegitimate children’ of religion.” His questioning of the priesthood and temple ban on individuals with Black African ancestry was a particularly volatile area of conflict:
Lowell Bennion spoke clearly and often throughout his career that the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ called us to a life of service on behalf of the dignity and flourishing of all people, especially the underprivileged.
As he sought to live up to that standard in his own life, he became increasingly aware of many societal obstacles that stood in the way for people of color, not the least of which in his own church was the ban that prevented men of African descent the opportunity to hold the priesthood.
He asked questions about this policy, which he became increasingly convinced was untenable and harmful, in several public settings, and he brought these questions directly to President David O. McKay, who was an important friend and mentor to Bennion. He became convinced that differences of opinion in Church leadership stood in the way of a change for McKay. …
He clearly differed with Mark E. Peterson and others on the justifications for the priesthood ban which to him made little moral sense, and he consistently tried to point out the dangers of overly dogmatic positions against the findings of science, such as Joseph Fielding Smith’s public insistence that the earth was only six thousand years old.
He believed the Church needed and deserved loyalty and sometimes loving criticism, but not blind obedience, even if some Church leaders at times acted as if they expected it.
This may have been part of why he was released as institute director at the University of Utah.
Still, he was deeply committed to humanitarian efforts and helped to move the needle in that area.
Lowell Bennion drew inspiration from the Sermon on the Mount, from Christ’s teachings regarding our treatment of the “least of these” and from the examples of great humanitarians—especially Albert Schweitzer whose life of service and articulation of ethics Bennion found especially persuasive.
He was well versed in the academic study of what was known as “ethical monotheism” and was persuaded that the greatest power of the gospel of Jesus Christ was its capacity to bring the abundant life to people here and now on this earth.
He valued the promises of salvation but did not believe that they ever gave us license to ignore the unequal and often unjust temporal conditions of many of God’s children who had limited opportunity to experience the abundant life. His favorite and most frequently quoted scripture was Micah 6:8: he sought to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God in order to bring integrity to his beliefs and moral value to institutional affiliation.
George Handley added that:
Some of his greatest ideas were expressed in manuals which are now out of print. In some ways, we have made significant improvements since his time so perhaps his ideas are in fact now more institutionalized.
I would point to a growing interest in humanitarian service in the institutional Church and among members as a prime example. The Church leadership’s call to root out racism might be another, although we are hardly done with that work.
It’s always difficult to narrow down to one source of an idea or movement within the Church, but Lowell Bennion did seem get more traction on humanitarian involvement by the Church and its membership.
For more on Lowell Bennion and his contributions to the Church, head on over to the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk to read the full interview.