The Basic Course in Religion

Historian's Corner

Richard O. Cowan

Richard O. Cowan ( is a professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University.

During 1960 a heated debate erupted among BYU religion faculty members whether the basic course should be in theology or the Book of Mormon. On November 28 a group of fifteen faculty members, including Eldin Ricks, wrote to university and Church leaders, urging the cause of the Book of Mormon. The faculty members agreed to provide each member of the college a copy of their arguments. After affirming their support for university and Religious Instruction leaders, the faculty members argued that “to fail to require the Book of Mormon of all B.Y.U. students (with those few exceptions which the administration shall see fit to designate) would be a serious educational and spiritual error and a blow to the missionary program of the Church.” The petitioners further argued that requiring the Book of Mormon during the students’ second year would be “a major setback to the religion program of the University” because of the large number who dropped out after their first year.[1]

Glenn L. Pearson, Hugh Nibley, Reid E. Bankhead and Eldin Ricks—faculty members who felt particularly eager about emphasizing the Book of Mormon—appended individual statements. Eldin’s statement acknowledged, “I wish also to stress that in urging a study of the Book of Mormon, I am in nowise minimizing the value of the other standard works of the Church. . . . My only point is that the Book of Mormon should be studied first.” He also acknowledged, “I am not opposed to the study of theology. I am convinced, however, that the Book of Mormon should be the foundation course of theological study as I am also convinced that it should be the foundation course of a study of the four standard works.” He then presented three reasons for making the Book of Mormon “the basic required course in religion for all students at the Brigham YoungUniversity. These are:

“1. The Book of Mormon, by its very nature, is a foundation course.

“2. The Book of Mormon has greater student appeal than any religion course offered at the Brigham Young University.

“3. The Book of Mormon teaches the high standard of personal conduct that is stressed as one of the principle aims of the [existing theology courses].”[2]

As a result of these efforts, the Book of Mormon requirement was adopted and implemented the next academic year. (For more on Eldin Ricks, see the “Teaching Legacy” article.)


[1] Glenn L. Pearson and others to Ernest L. Wilkinson and the Board of Trustees, November 28, 1960; copy in author’s possession.

[2] Eldin Ricks to Ernest L. Wilkinson and the Board of Trustees, November 28, 1960; copy in author’s possession.