The Latter-day Saint Chicago Experiment

The Chicago Experiment was an effort to train some of the best teachers in the Church to the academic standards of Biblical Studies applied elsewhere in Western Civilization during the 1930s. The results were mixed, with some of the scholars going on to improve the Church Education System, while others struggled to reconcile what they had learned with their faith. Casey Griffiths discussed the Chicago Experiment in a recent interview at the Latter-day Saints history blog, From the Desk. What follows here is a copost to the interview. 

To start, Casey Griffiths shared an overview of the Chicago Experiment:

In the 1930s, Joseph F. Merrill, the Church Commissioner of Education, recruited several promising young religious educators to attend the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. Merrill’s hope was that these scholars would gain skills that would allow the Church to professionalize its corps of religious educators then serving in the seminary program and the newly-launched institutes of religion.

Several of these educators, such as Sidney B. Sperry and T. Edgar Lyon, returned home and used their training to revolutionize the way the scriptures and history of the Church are taught. Others struggled to find the right balance of faith and learning and eventually came into conflict with the leadership of the Church.

Elder Merrill worked to target high-performing teachers in the Church who would have a big impact:

Commissioner Merrill handpicked most of the eleven teachers who eventually attended school in Chicago. This was during the early stages of the Great Depression, and Merrill made a considerable sacrifice to provide the men with the support they needed to leave their teaching positions during their studies.

Merrill chose some of the most gifted teachers in the Church, hoping they would return and serve as the nexus of a new generation of scholars who could contribute and professionalize religious education in the Church.

Many of them did, though others struggled afterwards. 

Part of that struggle was set up in the very nature of the school they attended:

One of the men who traveled to Chicago later remarked that the Divinity School at the University of Chicago was seen as one of the most liberal schools in the entire country! But only a liberal school would accept Latter-day Saints, who were seen as heretics at most other divinity schools. (This was still just a few years after the end of plural marriage, and most other Christian religions wanted nothing to do with the Saints.) The liberal nature of the University of Chicago allowed Latter-day Saints to attend there, but it also set the stage for future conflicts when the teachers returned home.

The liberal nature of their education would later clash with the conservative nature of Church leaders, especially J. Reuben Clark, Jr.

Casey Griffiths explained how that came to pass:

Some of the men, like Sidney Sperry, saw the tools of scholarship as a way to augment and inform their beliefs in God and miracles. Others took the skepticism that some of the Chicago scholars demonstrated toward the Bible and began applying it to the miracles of the Restoration. They soon came to doubt that angels and miracles could take place in the Restoration setting.

At the same time many of the teachers encouraged their Latter-day Saint students to apply the tools of scholarship to the unique teachings and history of the Restoration. In the decades following their time at Chicago, the methods of scholarly inquiry led to more in-depth and thoughtful explorations of the teachings and scripture of the Restoration. Even T. Edgar Lyon, who was easily the most critical of the methods of the Chicago school, came to see the experience as a blessing to the Church.

So, it turned out to be a mixed blessing, but a blessing nonetheless.

The experiment eventually was brought to a close:

The number of students going to Chicago began to decrease as the first students came back and began to share their expertise. Another decisive factor was that in 1933, Joseph F. Merrill left the post of Church Commissioner of Education to serve as the president of the European Mission. He was replaced by John A. Widtsoe, who seemed to have less faith in outside academia.

Widtsoe began to sponsor summer sessions where he was the primary instructor of the religious educators who attended. It also seems that Joseph Fielding Smith, an influential voice among the Apostles, began to be concerned with higher biblical criticism into Latter-day Saint religious education. By the time J. Reuben Clark gave “The Charted Course of the Church in Education” the leadership of the Church was less supportive of inviting outside academics to influence religious education in the Church.

So, the experiment was short lived, but had a big impact. But there is a broader context that is still applicable today that should be considered:

The Chicago Experiment has to be properly contextualized in the story of the larger struggle between modernism and fundamentalism that took place in almost all Christian denominations in the early 20th century. In some ways the struggle is still taking place today.

Modernists wanted to apply higher criticism towards the Bible and religious belief. This can be a wonderful thing: it can deepen understanding and create new ways of looking at and understanding sacred texts. But at times, it also led scholars to attack the divinity of the Bible and disbelieve in the miracles and reality of God. At the same time fundamentalists insisted on strict interpretations of the Bible that often conflicted with the findings of scientists and historians, and led them to eschew any scholarship surrounding the biblical texts.

Latter-day Saints were not immune from these struggles, as the story of the Chicago teachers illustrates. But compared with some other denominations, we did weather the storm fairly well. There was a great increase in scholarly study of biblical and restoration texts, which was a great boon for the Church. Even Heber C. Snell, who was the teacher who probably held the most radical views, remained active in the Church. Several scholars have noted that there were no books banned, no excommunications, and no schisms that occurred.

At the same time, the battle is still being fought in the Church. There are still those who would seek to remove the miracles from Church history and accept only naturalistic explanations. There are still those who think that any kind of scholarship is harmful to faith. These conversations aren’t going away any time soon.

For more on the Latter-day Saint Chicago Experiment, head on over to the Latter-day Saint history site From the Desk to read the full interview with Casey Griffiths.

2 comments for “The Latter-day Saint Chicago Experiment

  1. As I was reading this, I kept thinking to myself, “This all seems weirdly familiar.” And then I see:

    In some ways the struggle is still taking place today.

    Yeah.

  2. I observe that there is too much a devotional focus in the courses of study, even in the institute courses. More than one young person has told me that there are too many redundant things in the institute courses. Perhaps the church has done a study that by reinforcing the spiritual (devotional) experience in young adults and members of the Church then they will have a better and more empowering spiritual life in the week. However, this causes us to repeat quotes, slogans said by the authorities of the Church but without deeply reflecting on the content… we only repeat.
    I don’t know if it is the American cultural method, but breaking down the teachings of the Church into steps or points only leads to memorizing but not fully assimilating and understanding.
    Thus, faced with the risk of placing an emphasis on studies and deep reflection on our faith, we remain only on emotional or spiritualist conversion. Why talk about the FSY.
    At least for me it leaves a sweet and sour taste when I search through high school and Sunday textbooks to improve my understanding and internal coherence of my faith.

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