In 75 years, institute grows from 25 students to 316,000

In 1925, Norma Geddes Greene and her sister, Zola, enrolled at the University of Idaho in Moscow.

This institute building adjacent to University of Idaho was dedicated on Sept. 25, 1928. It housed the Church's first institute program until the mid-1960s, when it was replaced by a new building on the same site in 1968.
This institute building adjacent to University of Idaho was dedicated on Sept. 25, 1928. It housed the Church's first institute program until the mid-1960s, when it was replaced by a new building on the same site in 1968. Photo: Church News file photo

The sisters expected to find a large group of active LDS students in the town; instead they could not even locate a building owned by the Church. Members in the small northern Idaho community attended a branch that met on the second floor of a lodge hall on Main Street.

Soon Norma's father, William C. Geddes, visited his daughters and attended Church. Cigarette smoke and the smell of whiskey from Saturday night's activity downstairs still permeated the room. "He couldn't believe there wasn't a better place to meet," recalled Sister Greene, now 92.

Brother Geddes made a few calls to Salt Lake City and soon met with President Charles W. Nibley, then second counselor in the First Presidency.

"He convinced them that the University of Idaho could never hope to attract LDS students from south Idaho unless their parents knew that their sons and daughters would be provided a better spiritual environment," Sister Greene recalled.

The next year a director, J. Wyley Sessions, was sent to Moscow and 25 students enrolled in the Church's first Institute of Religion program.

Within a few years institute programs were functioning in Logan, Utah; Pocatello, Idaho, and in Salt Lake City. Soon institutes were started at universities in Wyoming, Arizona and California.

From those small beginnings institute grew. Today more than 316,000 college-age young adults attend more than 2,000 institute programs; the Church maintains 322 institute buildings throughout the world.

Bryan Weston, Church Educational System executive assistant, said Church leaders were probably receptive to Brother Geddes' concerns because they knew then what has become evident today. "There is a tremendous pressure on college-age young adults," Brother Weston said. "The world has such a pull or a press that some may become less active. They are preparing for life. They are leaving home. They could fall into the wrong group. They could drift from their spiritual roots if they don't have friends in the Church."

Institute, he said, provides a stable environment in which young adults can learn of the gospel and socialize on a day-to-day basis. It provides young people with a place to gather to develop and strengthen faith.

That's why the Church is building a new 114,000-square-foot institute building adjacent to the University of Utah and a 54,500-square-foot facility adjacent to the Salt Lake Community College Jordan Campus in the Salt Lake Valley. Other buildings are under construction in Moscow, Russia; Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia; Lima, Peru; Apia, Samoa; Cochabamba, Bolivia; northern Mexico City, Mexico; Santiago, Chile; Taipei, Taiwan, and in downtown Washington D.C., said Ralph Swiss, CES director of physical facilities and real estate.

The buildings — like the first institute building constructed in Moscow, Idaho, and dedicated on Sept. 25, 1928 — are needed to house a growing number of institute students, said Brother Weston. During the past five years institute enrollment has increased more than 26 percent in Utah. In the United States it has gone up 30 percent and more than 40 percent internationally. Currently, more than 184,000 students participating in institute live in areas outside the United States.

And like the beginnings of the Institute of Religion in Moscow, Idaho, programs worldwide are helping a growing number of college-age young adults keep their faith.

In an October 1997 general conference address, Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve said a 1996 Church study revealed the following: of those graduating from institute, 96 percent received temple endowments and 98 percent of those receiving their endowments had their marriages performed in the temple. In addition, 96 percent of the men graduating from institute served missions.

Young adults participating in institute in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, wrote a letter to the Church News detailing how the program has brought them closer to the teachings of the scriptures. The 17 institute students often sacrifice even to attend class, sometimes traveling in - 40 degree Celsius weather. Of the 30 students attending the program in 1998, only seven still remain. The others have gone on missions for the Church or have married in the temple.

Brother Weston said this story is not unique. "A lot of people in the Church can trace the roots and development of their testimony to the time they were making major decisions," he said. "Seminary and institute came along in those most crucial years."

Brother Weston remembers serving as institute director in Moscow, Idaho, in 1971. While he was there he found an early telegram from Brother Sessions, the first institute director, to President Nibley, regarding business of the institute. He realized the teaching he was doing then was not so far removed from institute's early years. Today he looks back with even more amazement. In just 75 years, institute enrollment increased from 25 students meeting in northern Idaho, to more than 316,000 meeting around the world.

Norma Geddes Greene also marvels at the miracle of institute; her father, she added, had no idea what would come of his call for help.

"All he wanted was a decent place for his girls to meet," she recalled. "Instead of that, he got a whole Institute of Religion. To his dying day, he was amazed at what came out of a very small request."

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