Revealed Educational Principles: History & Principles of Latter-day Education

The following is a chapter from the book, Revealed Educational Principles & The Public Schools by Jack Monnett.

Chapter 3 – Frontier Education: Money, Teachers, and Books

by: Jack Monnett

School conditions varied from community to community; however, all shared common interest in a broad curriculum that agreed with LDS doctrine.

The Gentile Problem

During the difficult times of their initial solitude in the west, the Saints conversely experienced the freedom that allowed them to practice their religion to a greater degree than they had previously enjoyed. One of the advantages found in sequestering themselves in the Rockies was complete control of school curriculum. Although a full array of material was taught, scriptures were highly visible as readers and regular recitations from them were expected.

The Lord’s curriculum is all truth and His textbooks are the standard works of the Church.Some have supposed that a reason for using scriptures in early Utah classrooms was the scarcity of textbooks from the east; for, to be certain, Books of Mormon were more accessible than McGuffy’s Readers. The primary objective, however, was the understanding that the scriptures contained the “knowledge of most worth.”Sensing that schools were beginning to stray from their earlier curriculum, in 1867, President Daniel H. Wells of the First Presidency arose in a General Conference and told the Saints that schools should be places where “scriptures are taught by faithful Mormons.” 1 Following his remarks, President Brigham Young commented further on Wells’ talk and reiterated the importance of using scriptures: “. . . and all the works pertaining to our faith, that our children may become acquainted with its principles.” 2 A year earlier President Young had counseled the St. George Saints “that no infidels be used as school teachers and that the Book of Mormon, Book of Covenants, and the Bible be introduced into the schools as readers.” 3

Not only were scriptures initially evident in schools, but other subjects were given the flavor of Mormonism. No doubt, studies about Government and United States History were spiced from the perspective of the Missouri persecutions, Carthage, and the Nauvoo Exodus—all leading to an LDS educational slant that was comfortable for teachers and students with common backgrounds. Gentiles walking into such schools, however, were incensed. Not only were studies decidedly Mormon, but schools were usually conducted in churches with LDS bishops making many final school decisions! As the number of non-Mormons in the territory increased, their dissatisfaction with Utah education became more vocal and quickly assumed national proportions.

Logic and any knowledge of the history of the LDS Church would tell non-Mormons to expect nothing else. When a majority group as decidedly unique as the Mormons shared a history unparalleled by any other citizens of the United States, how else would they have been expected to approach subjects? Certainly not with the calm disinterest of those who were not a part of it!

Although initially ignoring criticism from non-members, Utah schools eventually introduced less offensive text materials into the classroom. The advent of common schools saw church buildings used less as schoolhouses and, although still unsatisfactory to newly arriving easterners, they demonstrated a higher degree of secularization than during their first twenty years in the territory.

Even though curriculum steadily lost its scriptural grounding, the school organization assured continual Mormon control. School-teachers were approved by local boards of Examiners and local boards of education—of which the bishop was generally the guiding member. This normally meant that selected teachers were good Latter-day Saints; however, on occasion the Saints needed to be reminded. Brigham Young was especially indignant when nonMormons were appointed to teach in the schools. He told church members in General Conference:

Are you going to pay [a gentile school teacher] for his good looks? That is what some of our bishops want to do. If they can get a man, no matter what his moral qualities may be, whose shirtfront is well starched and ironed, they will say—“Bless me, you are a delightful little man! What a smooth shirt you have got, and you have a ring on your finger—you are going to teach our school for us.” And along comes a stalwart man, axe in hand, going to chop wood, and if he asks, “Do you want a school teacher?” though he may know five times more than the dandy, he is told, “No, no, we have one engaged.” I want to cuff you bishops back and forth until you get your brains turned right side up. 4

By controlling local schools, bishops and concerned parents were able to keep faithful Latter-day Saints in the large majority of school positions. The preponderance of LDS teachers, much as the use of scriptures in the classroom had been, was also abrasive and created further antagonism between Mormons and nonMormons. Justifying the ratio of Mormon teachers, President John Taylor—who simultaneously acted as church president and the Territorial Superintendent of District Schools—explained that “where nine-tenths of the children belong to one party, that at least a prorata of the teachers employed should belong to or be in harmony with that party.” 5 That made sense to him and to other Latter-day Saints, but gained momentum as a popular school issue against perceived Mormon control.

To safeguard the principle of free agency, special efforts must be made to protect the rights of minorities. (D&C 101:77-80)

Church members found themselves in an awkward position. Even though they made up the bulk of Utah’s population, they were a minority in the greater United States; therefore, their large numbers were given minority status. To the contrary, the Saints saw self-government as a principle to which they were entitled because they made up the larger part of voters in the territory.

Aggravated by increasing demands made by the nonMormon minority, Elder Charles W. Penrose reminded the Saints that “God intended that His people whom He has gathered to this land should possess it, and that they should not be ruled by their enemies, as long, at least, as they were in the majority.” 6 Despite the sentiment of the Saints, however, their majority (or minority rights—whichever the case may be) were steadily siphoned.

Many Latter-day Saints were indignant while others were somewhat militant in their remarks. The threatened invasion of the Utah Expedition in 1857-1858 left a bitter taste, as well as the imposition of a nonMormon governor and entourage of appointed officials to regulate the daily lives of church members. Elder Orson Pratt typified the feelings of many when he said, “The majority may undertake to trample upon the minority because they have the power to do so; but this will not hinder the minority from patriotically defending their rights.” 7

Entering the 1880s, schools mirrored the characteristics found in the greater Deseret—a combination of Mormon/Gentile conflict and general pioneer growing pains. There was a lack of conformity in curricular standards, a lack of consensus about teaching standards, and a lack of central authority to direct school affairs. Like their counterparts in other western territories, schools were ungraded and geared for elementary or primary instruction as opposed to high school instruction.

As haphazard as the Utah schools appear to modern readers, they were typical of rural education nationally. The growing pains of organization—or apparent disorganization—were not without consequences: in 1876, for example, Utah’s average school attendance was just 44%! In addition, schools of the Utah Territory met challenges unknown to other western territories.

It was impossible to remain aloof from the Mormon /Gentile conflict during the 1880s. Federal appointments of nonMormons to territorial government positions brought increased ill-feeling from the LDS majority. Coupled with government interference were other problems that converged to provoke further discord. Notable issues were: (1) greater numbers of nonMormons entering the territory; (2) mounting national outrage against the practice of plural marriage; (3) increasing numbers of well-organized and well-financed Protestant schools; and (4) momentum toward public taxes to fund schools.

Taxes and School Funding

School funding was a major issue for Latter-day Saint leader-ship. In 1851, under the direction of a Latter-day Saint legislature, a school act was approved that defined proposed funding. The prophets and general authorities supported the act and frequently referred to it as a guide. The law was straight forward and generally understood: local community taxes were levied for school buildings and student tuition payments (with minimal tax support as needed) covered the costs of instruction, building maintenance, and miscellaneous teaching supplies.

A vital ingredient of this act, the area of most dissention was its reliance upon student tuitions to pay teachers’ salaries. Although sometimes referred to as “free schools,” early Utah schools did not measure up to our current definition of “free.”

Answering the non-Mormon challenge that claimed the schools were partisan, President John Taylor, in his official school capacity, said that district schools were “open and free for all to attend.” 9 In other words, they were public because anyone could attend, but those in attendance were expected to pay tuition to defray instruction and maintenance costs. As much as Utah was chided for its funding naiveté, its approach to school support was hardly unique—New England had successfully financed its schools in the same way for a hundred years!

New England aside, because the national trend was toward public taxation to cover all educational costs, Utah schools were severely criticized by nonMormons as well as by the Latter-day Saints. The momentum for free schools (schools completely supported by taxes) was alarming to church leaders.

Reviewing the western territories, the United States Commis-sioner of Education reported that in 1873, Montana received 95% of its educational funding from taxes; Arizona 84%; Wyoming 71%; Idaho 61%; and California 56%. Although showing a trend toward higher taxes for education, Utah registered only 10% of its costs met by taxation.

In step with other territories, Utah’s nonMormon governors also encouraged public support for education. Governor Alfred Cumming petitioned the legislature for free schools.10 Acting Governor James Doty delivered the same message to the 1863 legislature,11 and a year later Governor Charles Durkee told lawmakers that the “territory should be taxed to defray all expenses of the education of its children.” 12 Taxes for schools continued to gain national impetus through the time that it became a key issue in the 1880s.

Schools were not intended to be maintained by public taxes.
Church leaders were opposed to ongoing school taxes as a matter of principle. Whereas an aversion to taxes of any nature often solicits cries of: “Pay your fair share!” or “Stop being such a tightwad!” in reality, neither fairness nor cheapness had anything to do with the Church’s stance. There were six related principles to their reasoning:(1) Taxes were not necessary. Following school construction paid for from community taxes—because school buildings were considered public buildings—remaining school costs were mainten-ance, teaching supplies, and teachers’ salaries. Student tuitions were generally $3.00 to $4.00 per term but sometimes went as high as $6.00 or $7.00 for the higher grades. Making things easier for families of students, tuitions were not required before beginning school and could be paid any time during the term.Some teachers offered free tuition to students who were unable to pay 13 and some students received aid from within the community. Brigham Young said to a group of parents, “Do not say you cannot school them, for you can. There is not a family in this community but we will take and school their children if they are not able to do it themselves.” 14

Increasingly, more parents complained about paying tuition. Addressing them in General Conference, President Young stated that if they had done all in their power to pay their children’s tuition and were still unable, they should “apply to some of [their] neighbors” for assistance. He did not think that inability, however, was the primary obstacle. Later during the same address he said:

Men able to ride in their carriages, and not able or un-willing to pay their children’s tuition, ought, I think, to have a little composition or catnip tea; and then, perhaps, they will be able to send their children to school! I know such persons are weak and feeble; but the disease is in the brain and heart—not in the bones, flesh, and blood. Send your children to school! 15

(2) Taxing took away the opportunity of freely giving and, consequently, its attendant blessings. Brigham Young and many others were asked to contribute to student tuitions and considered the act an opportunity to help the less fortunate. Referring to complaints about his objection to free schools, he observed that he “schooled ten children to every one who complained so much” about him. [He] now paid the school fees of a number of children who [were] either orphans or sons and daughters of poor people.” 16

Saints in all dispensations have been admonished to give freely to others: “to impart their substance to the poor and needy;” (Alma 4:13) that such giving was a token of humility; (Alma 5:53-55) and, in modern times, that “those who did not impart [their] portion unto the law of the gospel unto the poor and needy will . . . lift up [their] eyes in hell.” (D&C 104:18) To emphasize charitable giving, Brigham Young told the Saints: “I am for the real act of doing . . . . Would I encourage free schools by taxation? No! That is not in keeping with the nature of our work. 17

Blessings that should accompany charity are lost through taxation. President Ezra Taft Benson noted that, “Charity is not charity unless it is voluntary;” and further, that if tax money deprives people of additional income, “it cannot be voluntary if there is nothing to give.” 18

(3) Taxes create both waste and abuse. Brigham Young was adamant that charity was a vital part of the plan of salvation, but was just as adamant that he could personally look over the needs of the people more efficiently than the government. His charities, he said, should be given directly and not filtered through “the hands of a set of robbers who pocket nine-tenths themselves, and give one-tenth to the poor.” 19 Describing the nature of bloating taxes, President J. Reuben Clark, while a member of the First Presidency, told Saints that: “Tax is at first light, but it grows by leaps and bounds. Always and ever, the more you feed a government—any government—the hungrier it gets and the more it eats. 20

President David O. McKay referred to the writings of Thomas Jefferson wherein the new nation was warned to “prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under pretense of caring for them.” 21 Observing not only waste, but poor management and decisions based upon faulty principles, President Benson wrote that, “in every case, forced charity through government bureaucracies has resulted, in the long run, in creating more misery, more poverty, and certainly less freedom than when government first stepped in.” 22

(4) Those disbursing taxes often assume undue authority to enforce compliance to additional or unrelated regulations. This principle ultimately became the primary rationale for opposing free schools. Both Presidents Taylor and Woodruff observed that encroaching state jurisdiction deprived schools of their power to teach celestial principles.

Beginning the road to state influence, the School Law of 1876 provided that $15,000 would be disbursed to schools that complied with state mandated teacher certification requirements and withheld money from those that did not. This effectively usurped local control of teachers by penalizing school boards that hired teachers they felt would be the most capable, but who had not fulfilled the legislated educational requirements.

As the distributor of taxes, government assumes control of spending rather than allowing that control by the individuals who paid the taxes. Although government has no money of its own to pay, by collecting and redistributing money, it places itself in the position of dictating certain requirements that must be fulfilled for the intended recipients to obtain the money collected.
Particularly troublesome to the Church were school curricular requirements and the potential loss of LDS teachers from public school positions. Foreseeing the growth of taxes and accompanying legislation, Brigham Young facetiously said in 1867:

I suppose that it will not be long before they will want to dictate in some other places and say how much shall be raised for schools and so forth; and I suppose it will be but a little while before some of those officious characters will determine the number of beans that Brother Kimball and I shall have in our porridge. 23

(5) Taxes foster indolence and recipients of public tax money frequently demonstrate dependency upon the state. The Lord directed the Saints to “not be idle; for he that is idle shall not eat the bread nor wear the garments of the laborer;” (D&C 42:42) and “that if any would not work, neither should [they] eat.” (2 Thessalonians 3:10) In accord, Brigham Young taught, “To give to the idler is as wicked as anything else. Never give anything to the idler.” 24 Referring directly to free schools, George Q. Cannon of the First Presidency instructed:

Let us advance education by individual effort . . . and not bring a child into the world and instill into his mind that because he is born, somebody owes him an education. I think it degrades children to give them such ideas. Teach them that it is their duty to work for themselves. And when a man has children, he should provide for and educate them. [Taxation] is doing more at the present time to pauperize the children of our country in their feelings than almost anything else. They get the idea that they ought to be educated at the expense of the state; and when they are educated they are then to be sustained at the expense of the state. 25

(6) Parents and local community members have greater interest in their children and in their educational situation than does the government. Somewhat intertwined with the fourth principle, it is known that the closer parents are to the education of their children, the more viable and important it becomes.

When a government is given the power to tax, it assumes greater direction for curriculum, teacher hiring, and general education policy. Because of previous and ongoing conflict with government agencies, the Saints were reluctant to release their parental authority to the state. It was a case of the interested passing control to the disinterested when the parents had been vested with divine authority to teach their children. (D&C 68:25-31, 93:41-50)

School funding was a heated topic. Nonmembers of the Church looked to their western neighbors and saw apparently smooth-running schools that boasted territorially mandated funding and avoided Utah’s irritating conflicts. Exposed to the comparisons, Latter-day Saints were given a real test of agency: should they follow the prophet who said “Don’t!” or should they follow the advice of leading educators and politicians who said that public taxes were fair, would assure all the children equal opportunity, and would significantly raise the level of education. It was a tough test that many failed.

Even though most parents were active Latter-day Saints and had made solemn covenants, division still persisted con-cerning the counsel of living prophets.

Not following the direction of prophets was not new; scriptures and histories are full of examples of those who should have known better. The Savior taught that unity was a celestial requirement (D&C 105:4) and prayed to the Father that we would be one with Him as He was one with the Father. (John 17:11) Elder George A. Smith of the Twelve taught that “if the people were united, and could exercise faith, and listen to the counsel of the Presidency as they ought, and united as one man, all the prayers of earth and hell could not prevail against them.26 Elder Charles W. Penrose said:

Herein is the unity of the Saints. When the President of the Church speaks, the whole body responds, and when he brings forth anything for our guidance . . . thereby are the faith and obedience of the Latter-day Saints made manifest.27

Achieving oneness is a process for most Latter-day Saints. Eternal progress is a doctrine indicating that growth is a continuum with Saints attaining different levels at different times. Although we would like to move forward as a Church, many members are not prepared to live certain principles that others are ready to adopt. As a result, celestial rewards are often withheld from Latter-day Saints because the principle of unity is not met. Two years after entering the Salt Lake Valley, Brigham Young had a dream about different levels of progression among members of the Church:

Whom should I meet but brother Joseph Smith. He had a wagon [and] . . . behind the team I saw a great flock of sheep. I heard their bleating and saw some goats among them. . . . There were men driving the sheep, and some of the sheep I should think were three and a half feet high, with large, beautiful white fleeces, and they looked so lovely and pure. Others were of moderate size and pure and white; and, in fact, there were sheep of all sizes with fleeces clean, pure and white. Then I saw some that were dark and spotted of all colors and sizes and kinds, and their fleeces were dirty and they looked inferior. Some of these were a pretty good size but not as large as some of the large fine clean sheep. Altogether there was a multitude of them of all sizes and kinds, and goats of all colors, sizes, and kinds mixed among them.

Joseph stopped the wagon and the sheep kept rushing up until there was an immense herd. I looked in Joseph’s eye and laughed just as I had many a time when he was alive, about some trifling thing or another, and said I—“Joseph, you have the darndest flock of sheep I saw in my life; what are you going to do with them? What on earth are they for?” Joseph looked cunningly out of his eyes, just as he used to at times, and said he—‘They are all good in their places.’ 28

Many of those who should have known better dissented from the Prophet’s counsel. An influential free school proponent was Warren H. Dusenberry who remained a close friend of President Young while acting as both the principal of the Provo Branch of the University of Deseret and the first president of the Deseret Teachers Association. Addressing other teachers, he lobbied: “Let us petition our legislature to enact a public school law that will be up to the times. Our schools should be sustained by a tax.” 29

By 1872, seventeen petitions with over 3,500 signatures had reached the territorial legislature requesting free schools.30 Although the requests were ultimately defeated, several school leaders had already decided that tax-supported free schools were preferable to the self-sustaining plan that was advocated by the Prophet. Notable towns pioneering school taxes were Payson, Centerville, American Fork, Hyrum, and some schools in Salt Lake City.



  1. Journal of Discourses, Vol. 12, p. 2. April 8, 1867.
  2. Journal of Discourses, Vol. 12, p. 31. April 8, 1867.
  3. Brigham Young, St. George Historical Record, September 26, 1866. LDS Archives.
  4. Journal of Discourses, Vol. 16, p. 19. April 7, 1873.
  5. Biennial Report of the Territorial Superintendent of District Schools for 1878-1879. p. 16.
  6. Journal of Discourses, Vol. 20, p. 128. January 19, 1879.
  7. Journal of Discourses, Vol. 6, p. 363. July 24, 1859.
  8. Missing footnote above.
  9. Biennial Report of the Territorial Superintendent of District Schools for 1878-1879. p. 16.
  10. Alfred Cumming, Message to the Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Utah for the Tenth Annual Session, for the Years 1860-1861.
  11. James D. Doty, “Governor’s Message.” Journal of the Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Utah, 1864-1865.
  12. Charles Durkee, “Governor’s Message.” Journal of the Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Utah, 1865-1866.
  13. Luman Shurtliff Autobiography, pp. 47, 52. LDS Archives.
  14. Journal of Discourses, Vol. 16, p. 20. April 7, 1873.
  15. Journal of Discourses, Vol. 8, p. 40. April 8, 1860.
  16. Journal of Discourses, Vol. 18, p. 357. April 6, 1877.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ezra Taft Benson, Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, Inc., 1988. p. 631.
  19. Journal of Discourses, Vol. 18, p. 357. April 6, 1877
  20. Vital Speeches, 5:176.
  21. Conference Report, April, 1950. p. 35.
  22. Ezra Taft Benson, Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, p. 631.
  23. Journal of Discourses, Vol. 11, p. 374. April 8, 1867.
  24. Journal of Discourses, Vol. 16, p. 18. April 7, 1873.
  25. Journal of Discourses, Vol. 22, p. 272. April 5, 1881.
  26. Journal of Discourses, Vol. 2, p. 375. August 5, 1855.
  27. Journal of Discourses, Vol. 23, p. 354. January 14, 1883.
  28. Journal of Discourses, Vol. 18, p. 245. September 17, 1876.
  29. A Record of the Sayings and Doings of the School of the Prophets in Payson City. P. 126. LDS Archives.
  30. Stanley S. Ivins, “Free Schools Come to Utah.” Utah Historical Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 4 (October, 1954). p. 334.
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