Karl G. Maeser’s legacy remains vibrant at BYU — and beyond

Credit: Jason Swensen
1005-38 243 1005-38 GCS Spring MSRB, Maeser Building, Karl Maeser Statue, May 21, 2010 Photography by Jaren Wilkey/BYU © Jaren Wilkey 2010 All Rights Reserved (801)592-7585 Credit: Jaren Wilkey/BYU


Karl G. Maeser never taught an online course, crafted a PowerPoint presentation or replied to a student’s email. Yet his impact on education across the worldwide Church is both wide and remarkably contemporary.

For one, his legacy and influence is alive and well at Brigham Young University — the Church-owned institution of higher learning (originally called Brigham Young Academy) that he established in 1876. Each weekday, thousands of BYU students pass by the heroic-sized statue and building that bear his likeness and name.

But Brother Maeser’s deep fingerprint stretches far beyond the Provo campus. Seven academies that he founded are now institutions of higher education. And he could correctly be called the father of today’s Church Educational System that serves legions of young people in seminaries and institutes across the globe.

“His story is such an important part of Brigham Young University and [beyond,]” said A. LeGrand “Buddy” Richards, a Maeser biographer and a BYU professor of education.

An ongoing exhibition at the Joseph F. Smith Building on BYU campus brings the story of one of the Church’s premier educators to life. “Learning with Head, Heart and Hands” both explores and celebrates Brother Maeser’s testimony, teachings and legacy.

Organized by Professor Richards and Rachel Wadham, a senior librarian at the school, the exhibition would likely earn an exemplary grade from its revered subject. Brother Maeser believed learning should be replete with stories, images and object lessons. The BYU exhibition is rich with visual tools and informative texts that tell the story of a dedicated teacher fueled by his unwavering faith to the gospel.

“Learning with Head, Heart and Hands” was designed and installed by BYU Museum of Peoples and Cultures’ Director Paul Stavast and design student Raymond Griffin.

A good lesson typically starts at, well, the beginning — and so does the exhibition, commencing with the 1828 birth of Karl G. Maeser in Vorbrucke, Germany. Despite humble beginnings, young Karl showed remarkable promise as a student and professional educator. He was rising quickly in the region’s academic ranks when, in 1855, he met a Mormon missionary named William Budge, who was staying with the Maeser family under the pretext of studying German.

Elder Budge’s message resonated with the young professor. He would be baptized later that same year.

Brother Maeser’s commitment to his faith faced almost immediate challenge. He soon found that being a Latter-day Saint would mean surrendering his educational career in Germany. Undeterred, he and his wife, Anna, immigrated to England and, in 1860, the Maesers headed west to Philadelphia.

Three years later the family arrived in Salt Lake City. He gained wide renown as a brilliant man and educator. In 1861, President Brigham Young placed him in charge of the Union Academy and, later, as a private teacher to his own children and other youth.

Ecclesiastical duties interrupted his professional career in 1867 when he accepted a three-year calling to preside over the Swiss and German Mission.

Then, in 1875, came a call from a prophet that would forever change the Church’s educational system. “Brigham Young came to Brother Maeser and told him, ‘We would like you to be the principal of Brigham Young Academy,’ ” said Professor Richards. Brother Maeser accepted the position.

The final two-and-a-half decades of Brother Maeser’s life would be dedicated to establishing BYU and, by extension, the beginnings of the Church’s global educational system.

His guiding teaching principles were often ahead of his time. He championed gender equality, believing it was essential that girls and young women enjoyed educational opportunities. He also implored his fellow educators to be examples of dignity and goodness. A teacher, he said, must possess a pure heart before giving one to his or her students.

He also believed that education is anchored to the Creator and His sacred and ubiquitous teachings.

“Life is one great object lesson,” he taught. “Nature furnishes the raw material for practical purposes as object lessons.”

“Learning with Head, Heart and Hands” will be on display through November 2017. @JNSwensen

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