100 years of seminary: Looking back and moving forward

Formal spiritual education a century after it began

As a man who has been involved in seminary for most of his life — either attending, teaching or administrating as a supervisor — President Boyd K. Packer, President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, has seen firsthand the benefits that come to those who are involved in the seminary program in the Church Educational System.

"The rewards are incredible," President Packer told the Church News. "The rewards that come from studying the gospel with a faithful teacher and going systematically through the scriptures are immeasurable."

What began 100 years ago with a few classes led by one teacher and only 70 students in a small building across the street from Granite High School in Salt Lake City has now grown into thousands of classes and participants from around the world.

Because of the anniversary, the Church has planned a commemoration program to be broadcast on Jan. 22.

"Why do we do a commemoration?" asked Elder Paul V. Johnson of the Seventy and commissioner of the Church Education System. "I think part of it is to remember what has happened before, to be grateful for it, to see how it has impacted the Church and our lives. And then, maybe even more important is to make decisions about the future.

"We commemorate the pioneers as we talk about their stories and we are familiar with what happened in their lives. We revere them, and we think they are great, but the most important part of commemorating their lives is to make us be better and to move forward into the future."


A seminary teacher in Brigham City at the time, Boyd K. Packer, left, assists then Elder Harold B. L
A seminary teacher in Brigham City at the time, Boyd K. Packer, left, assists then Elder Harold B. Lee in 1954. | Photo courtesy President Boyd K. Packer

"The history is a manifestation of the dedication of the Latter-day Saints, including the youth," President Packer said in his conversation with the Church News. "It could not work otherwise and it could not work anywhere else, but there's that dedication of the young people and their parents who foster them to do that."

At a time when many of the Church's academies (Church-run schools set up in settled areas that taught both the gospel and secular subjects) were closing and more and more children were attending public schools, public education was becoming the way to go, but many people feared education would not be complete without gospel teachings as well.

President Joseph F. Merrill, a faculty member at the University of Utah and second counselor in the Granite Stake Presidency, had an idea of how to integrate the gospel into students' learning.

"He [Joseph Merrill] loved hearing his wife teach their children," said Elder Johnson. "She had received instruction when she was younger and was able to teach the gospel through the scripture stories."

In 1912, Church leaders decided to try holding seminary classes adjacent to Salt Lake City's Granite High School, where students could learn about the gospel as part of their school day, but separate from their secular subjects taught at the high school.

Thomas J. Yates — an engineer who was supervising the construction of the Murray Power Plant — was asked to be the first seminary instructor. Because of his job at the plant, he would end up traveling by horse up and down the mountain to teach classes at Granite High.

Some years later, President Packer was a part of the second seminary established by the Church.

"In high school (in Brigham City, Utah) I took seminary," said President Packer. "We had Abel S. Rich as the principal of the seminary when I was a student and as I went back to teach in the same building. He opened the second release time seminary of the Church. When I started teaching we had a small building — three rooms, three teachers."

Release time had been granted by most schools in Utah and students were able to attend seminary as part of their class schedule.

It wasn't until the 1950s that a Church leader in California organized six classes (about 200 students) before school in Church meetinghouses near public high schools.

In 1967 the first home-study seminary classes for scattered rural secondary students were piloted in Indiana, Iowa and Illinois, paving the way for the Board of Education of the Church Educational System to announce in the 1970s that the seminary program would be available to Church members worldwide, wherever numbers warranted and circumstances permitted.

"Seminaries and institutes follow the Church," said Chad H. Webb, administrator of seminaries and institutes of religion for the Church. "When the Church is officially organized in a country, seminaries and institutes are organized shortly after. It shows the importance of education in the Church, especially with the youth."

Today, the seminary program has grown, providing an opportunity for Church members throughout the world to participate in the seminary program.

Purposes of seminary

"I think it's really been a miracle over the 100 years," said Elder Johnson. "Some things have seen great changes and some things are just almost the same. The purpose for seminary is really about the same as it was 100 years ago and yet the program has changed a lot."

Although some of the curriculum and teaching tactics have changed, many of the objectives of teachers today are the same as those established by administrators in 1912.

"We have an objective statement," said Brother Webb. "To help the youth and young adults of the Church to understand and rely on the teachings and Atonement of Jesus Christ, to qualify for the blessings of the temple and to prepare themselves and their families and others for eternal life with their Father in Heaven.

Juniors and seniors from Dana Hills High School in Dana Point, Calif., begin their early morning sem
Juniors and seniors from Dana Hills High School in Dana Point, Calif., begin their early morning seminary class each week day at 6:15 a.m. Young women attending the class listen intently as their teacher, Sister Dana Donahoo, shares a lesson on Jan. 18. | Photo by Alan Gibby

"So you see, we are still striving to know the Savior better through a study of the scriptures and follow Him to have the blessings that come from obedience to the gospel and the covenants that we make in the temple that will lead us in the eternities and that hasn't changed at all."

Over the years the curriculum has gone from a story telling approach, to a more conceptual approach — teaching by topic — to a sequential study of the scriptures.

"There is a difference in how seminary operates, but the gospel remains the same," President Packer said. "The curriculum now is incredible, with all of the visual aids and all of the support materials — it is first class and top rate."

Seminary today

What started with that one teacher in Salt Lake City has now turned into a worldwide program in 143 countries. There are 1,460 full-time teachers and coordinators and 36,700 called teachers to instruct the more than 375,000 students this school year, with the majority of those students in daily study seminary (often referred to as early morning or home study seminary).

"It's a sacrifice for anybody," Elder Johnson said. "Even in a release time setting you give up another class … to make up for it. And, of course those in the early morning settings, they are up early every morning and they are just amazing."

But it is through participating in seminary — in the midst of very busy lives — that blessings come, Elder Johnson said. And those blessings far outweigh the costs.

"It makes a difference," he said. "Sacrifice brings forth the blessings of heaven, so it's not a 'I'm giving all this up and I get nothing in return.' I think some of the key things are that it really helps students solidify their foundation in the gospel of Jesus Christ, students get a fine overview of the scriptures and an understanding and a relationship with those scriptures and the Savior and their Heavenly Father.

"It is impossible to measure the good that seminary has done. Students are blessed as they study the scriptures and by teachers who care. You can't count the good that has been done in seminary.

"If you study the gospel, if you study the scriptures and you are willing to live what you learned, then your relationship with God is closer, and that is what really triggers the gospel coming into your heart."

President Packer said, "This is a choice generation, a blessed generation of youth. They have much to learn and yet so much to offer. The blessings that come from seminary — regular scripture study and personal prayer — will help them attain the choicest blessings of our Heavenly Father."

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