Walking between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Joseph F. Merrill

Research Update

Carmen Cole

Carmen Cole is a designer at the Religious Studies Center.

Apostle. Educator. Scientist. Founder of the University of Utah School of Mines and Engineering. Founder of the Latter-day Saint seminary and institute programs.

Devoted to both God and science, Joseph F. Merrill was a man like no other. When he was a young man, his home state of Utah was deeply divided between church and state. Merrill worked tirelessly over his life to bridge the gap between the two, resolving to walk the precarious line between “the devil and the deep blue sea.”[1]

The many intricacies of Merrill’s life are brought to light in Truth Seeker: The Life of Joseph F. Merrill, Scientist, Educator, and Apostle, newly published by the Religious Studies Center and Deseret Book.

Along the path to building bridges between the worlds of academia and faith, Merrill left Utah to study in Baltimore, received his PhD from Johns Hopkins in 1899, returned to Utah as faculty at the University of Utah, and spent thirty years working with colleagues at the University of Utah and the Utah State Legislature before successfully creating the School of Mines and Engineering at the University of Utah.

His work also inspired adding spiritual instruction alongside academic instruction. “With the help of others, Merrill created the first seminary, a program that later became the signature educational program of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. More than anyone, Merrill is responsible for the distinctive Latter-day Saint program of supplemental religious education now operating in dozens of countries and serving nearly a million students.”[2]

Merrill served as the commissioner of the Church Educational System from 1928 to 1933. As the Great Depression hit the United States and threatened the existence of religious education, he “twisted arms, threatened, and cajoled his way into transferring nearly every Church school to state control. In keeping the schools from outright closure, he saved thousands of jobs and laid the groundwork for the current Utah system of higher education. At the same time, Merrill fought off a serious threat to the remaining system of religious education that arose from the Utah State Board of Education.”[3]

Author Casey Paul Griffiths says of Merrill, “Merrill’s scientific and administrative accomplishments created an impressive legacy, but to this he added a third accomplishment of spiritual bridge building. In a time when the entire country was embroiled in the furious battles about the teaching of evolution and duels between the advocates of scripture and the learned scientists of the age, Merrill walked a narrow path between the two worlds.”[4]

One of Merrill’s contemporaries said about him, “Joseph F. Merrill is a man, who, if duty demanded it, would walk through fire.”[5] Merrill himself proclaimed, “I am convinced that religion is as reasonable as science, that religious truths and scientific truths nowhere are in conflict, that there is one great unifying purpose extending throughout all of creation; that we are living in a wonderful, though at the present time deeply mysterious world; and that there is an all-wise, all-powerful Creator back of it all.”[6]

Read more about the adventures and challenges of Joseph F. Merrill in Truth Seeker: The Life of Joseph F. Merrill, Scientist, Educator, and Apostle, available now in stores and at deseretbook.com.


[1] Casey Paul Griffiths, Truth Seeker: The Life of Joseph F. Merrill, Scientist, Educator, and Apostle (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book), xv.

[2] Truth Seeker, xvi.

[3] Truth Seeker, xvi.

[4] Truth Seeker, xvi.

[5] Truth Seeker, xv.

[6] Truth Seeker, 170.