Reaching beyond the Classroom: 1980–2000

Richard O. Cowan, "Reaching beyond the Classroom," Teaching the Word: Religious Education at Brigham Young University (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, 2008), 53–80.

The appointment of Robert J. Matthews as dean of Religious Instruction was announced in May 1981. Having served six years as chairman of the Department of Ancient Scripture, he was well acquainted with Religious Instruction’s objectives and functions, and he was virtually the unanimous choice of the faculty. He was a popular speaker and qualified writer, having served as editor for the Church Educational System. Because of his service on the committee producing new editions of the standard works, he was well acquainted with the General Authorities and their views. At a special faculty meeting, he set the tone for his leadership by counseling the faculty: “All should work with an eye single to the glory of God. If we do this, we will succeed. If we work with an eye single to our glory alone, we will not succeed.”[1]

Name Changed to Religious Education

By 1983 the name “Religious Instruction” was changed to “Religious Education” because members of this unit do far more than classroom instructing. Furthermore, the new name would parallel the two other campus­wide programs of General Education and Honors Education.

The university began placing greater emphasis on writing as part of its quest for increased academic excellence. Dean Matthews concurred, noting that we can reach only a few hundred in the classroom but many thousands through our writings. Furthermore, he asserted, “it is amazing how much clearer our views become, and how quickly we can discover to ourselves what we don’t know about a subject when we try to write. . . . We know from experience that when we set out to compose a document, we nearly always have to do more study, more research, and refine our thinking.”[2]

The Religious Education faculty felt it was their opportunity and responsibility to provide quality research and writing that would benefit the whole Church. However, opportunities to publish articles on the restored gospel in scholarly journals were limited. Religious Education took steps to create more outlets for the scholarly work of its faculty. The annual Sperry Symposium was enlarged, including as many as sixteen faculty presentations. Beginning in 1985 the Religious Studies Center began sponsoring an additional annual symposium during winter semester; these treated varied topics of a more scholarly nature. That same year the RSC launched the annual fall Book of Mormon Symposium, which typically included fourteen faculty presentations. A “Research and Writing Committee” was organized to encourage faculty members to take advantage of these opportunities and to provide peer review and editorial assistance when requested. To help teachers keep focused on the spiritual component of their work, Religious Education compiled and distributed five Foundational Documents setting forth counsel by key Church leaders (see excerpts, appendix A).

Selecting new faculty members for Religious Education posed a unique challenge. They needed to meet the general scholarly expectations applied to those teaching in any other area of the university. At the same time, Dean Matthews insisted, they must possess the inclination and ability to build faith in their students. Not only did the usual scholarly credentials need to be examined, but the candidate’s experience or potential as an effective teacher must also be considered.

Dean Matthews raised a related concern: “How do we meet the challenge of increased research and writing and still retain our patience and interest in student needs and welfare? If we are not careful, students could become an annoyance to us. If we feel that happening too frequently, we may want to check our priorities.”[3]

As administrative duties became increasingly weighty, Dean Matthews revived the position of associate (formerly assistant) dean. ­Monte S. Nyman was called to this office in 1982 and assumed responsibility for the transfer faculty program. As even more help became necessary, a second associate dean, Donald Q. Cannon, was appointed in 1986. One of his major responsibilities was supervision of research in general and the RSC in particular.

Beginning in 1983, Religious Education provided help to those from other departments who had been invited to teach religion classes. Monte Nyman organized a six-week seminar on the Book of Mormon. Experienced members of the full-time faculty were invited to treat a given group of chapters, not only discussing their content but also model­ing effective teaching methods. One enthusiastic seminar participant remarked: “It’s terrific! It is one of the most stimulating things I have ever done.”[4]

Jeffrey R. Holland, who had become BYU’s president in 1980, gratefully acknowledged the seminars’ “profound effect” across campus. He praised them as having “a collegial, professional influence on the faculty. . . . It is not easy,” he conceded, “to walk into a room of professional peers at the University and say, ‘I am now going to teach you.’ But you have done it in an absolutely terrific way.”[5] A similar seminar was later organized for those teaching the Doctrine and Covenants.

The Department of Church History and Doctrine in 1985 launched a series of in-depth visits to areas important in Latter-day Saint history. Faculty members were invited to research facets of the history in each area. Resulting papers were published in a series of volumes titled Regional Studies in Latter-day Saint Church History. The Department of Ancient Scripture organized similar trips to the lands of the Bible and Book of Mormon.

Beginning in the fall of 1985, graduating BYU students were required to have at least one course in the New Testament and another in the Doctrine and Covenants in addition to the basic two-semester Book of Mormon series. Adoption of this “core curriculum” guaranteed that students would be exposed to at least three of the four standard works with emphasis on the scriptures of the Restoration. Inevitably, however, this move led to smaller enrollments in other areas such as Old Testament or Church history.

This shift in emphasis toward the Restoration was also reflected in the RSC in 1989. The former “scripture” area was divided into separate areas for the Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price. At the same time, the Ancient Studies area once again became physically separate from the RSC and was housed in the Harold B. Lee Library.

During these years the far-reaching influence of Religious Education faculty members was felt in new ways. During the fall of 1985, over a million visitors toured the Ramses II exhibit at the Monte L. Bean Museum. The favorable impression C. Wilfred Griggs had made on Egyptian officials led to BYU’s becoming the first U.S. institution invited to host this dazzling collection of ancient artifacts.[6]

BYU Jerusalem Center

From the beginning, the religion faculty has played a key part in Brigham Young University’s programs in the Holy Land. The first study tour there was led in 1953 by Sidney B. Sperry, director of the Division of Religion. He was assisted by Eldin Ricks, another member of the religion faculty. In 1966 the First Presidency approved a semester abroad in Jerusalem with the provision that equal attention be given to the Arabs and the Jews, but the Six-Day War the following year delayed implementation.

In January 1968, Daniel H. Ludlow, dean of Religious Instruction, took a group of twenty students to Jerusalem. Dean Ludlow, realizing members of his faculty would not benefit much from a traditional sabbatical leave, proposed an alternative. During the summer of 1968, he led the two-month “Lands of the Scriptures” workshop, including three weeks in Israel. As the approximately two dozen professors held a priesthood meeting on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, they realized they were the largest group of Melchizedek Priesthood bearers in the Holy Land since the time of the Savior.

Under the direction of BYU’s Travel Study office, other student semesters abroad followed. One or more members of the religion faculty regularly directed these groups and taught courses in the Old and New Testaments. These groups were typically housed in youth hostels or on kibbutzim, so there was a definite need for a permanent home. The result was the 135,000-square-foot BYU Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies, which opened in 1987. This beautiful facility on eight levels became a recognized landmark on the slope of Mount Scopus and afforded spectacular views of the Old City.

The purpose of the center was twofold: (1) to provide a unique opportunity to study the Bible as well as Near Eastern languages, cultures, and history in their native lands and (2) to establish cultural and service programs to benefit the Holy Land and its peoples.[7]

Upon moving to this new facility, the Jerusalem program expanded to include courses in the ancient and modern Near East, classes in Hebrew and Arabic, and the traditional Bible classes. Instruction was enhanced by frequent fieldtrips to key biblical sites. Faculty members who actually taught the classes were assisted by administrators and a support staff. Members of the religion faculty continued to play an important part. In 1989 George Horton became the first of four from this faculty appointed consecutively to direct the Jerusalem Center for a total of nine years.

As tensions in the world increased, the center was closed at the end of the year 2000. As the climate stabilized, however, students once again returned to the center in 2007. Even though the staff was streamlined in comparison to earlier years, the number of religion teachers at the center remained about the same. With so many religion teachers in Jerusalem, the faculty in Provo needed to cover their classes; this they were willing to do because of the great benefit the experience in the Holy Land provided to their colleagues as well as to the students.

The New Joseph Smith Building

In the 1960s, the basic functions of the Joseph Smith Building underwent major changes. When the Harris Fine Arts Center opened in 1964, dramatic productions were no longer staged in the JSB auditorium. With the completion of the Ernest L. Wilkinson Center the follow­ing year, the JSB was no longer needed as a social and recreational center for the campus. Both the basement area formerly occupied by the cafeteria and also the large ballroom of the main floor were remodeled to provide additional classrooms and office space. For the first time in many years, almost the entire full-time religion faculty, many of whom had for some time been located in temporary buildings around campus, could be housed under one roof.

These remodelings, however, left the building with some significant problems. Fitting so many offices into these former spacious rooms resulted in confusing passageways. Because most campus growth had occurred toward the north, the thousands of students coming to the JSB for religion classes each hour had to thread their way through this maze of narrow hallways rather than use the commodious entrance on the west. ­Furthermore, there were no elevators to give students with disabilities access to the offices in the basement or to the two separate and unconnected floors, where all but three of the classrooms were located.

BYU officials announced on January 31, 1989, the decision to construct a new building. The new structure would have approximately the same area as the old and hence was to be regarded as a replacement rather than as an enlargement.

The assignment of designing the new Joseph Smith ­Building was given to the architectural firm of John and Dix Markham, sons of Fred L. Markham, the designer of the original structure a half century earlier. Their plans blended features of the old building into a new architectural design. The sixty thousand square feet of floor space included a nine-­hundred-seat auditorium, seventeen classrooms, seventy-five offices, as well as conference rooms, a student commons area, and other facilities.[8]

A bronze sculpture facing the quad to the north honored Joseph Smith. Sculpted by artist Franz Johansen, the twenty-five-by-nine-foot panel depicted the Prophet teaching a young family the doctrines of the kingdom out of the scriptures.

President Gordon B. Hinckley dedicated the new Joseph Smith Building on December 10, 1991. BYU president Rex E. Lee affirmed, “Joseph Smith’s life and work are as central to the Restoration, and to the welfare of humankind, as the learning that will occur in this building is central to the mission of our university.”[9] As he dedicated the building, President Gordon B. Hinckley petitioned:

We pray for those who will walk its halls and sit in its classrooms, that their minds may be enlightened, that their understanding may be quickened, that they may learn those things which will bless their lives in the world of which they will become a part, and, in a more particular way, that they will become familiar with that truth which is eternal in its nature and everlasting in its consequences.

Bless the faculty who will teach here that they may be qualified through scholarship to do so effectively, but, more important, that they may teach by the power of the Holy Spirit, that their faith may be strengthened, that truth shall be established, and that thy divine will may be done. . . .

Let thy Holy Spirit abide constantly within these walls and be felt by all who teach and learn. May there be an absence of intellectual arrogance; rather, may there be that humility which comes of recognition that man, with all of his knowledge and understanding, shares only a feeble light when compared with the wisdom of the Almighty.[10]

A statue depicting Joseph Smith at the time of his First Vision was placed in the building’s atrium in 1997. This sculpture, titled The Vision, was a gift from the classes of 1945, 1947, 1955, and 1957. The statue was an original made by well-known sculptor Avard T. Fairbanks, who had hoped that a bronze cast could be placed where it would “solemnly tell the story of the beginning of the restoration of the gospel.”[11] At the unveiling ceremony, Elder Henry B. Eyring of the Quorum of the Twelve acknowledged that even “though the building is named for Joseph Smith, and though the statue portrays him, this piece of art represents that moment when Joseph learned that there is a way for the power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ to be unlocked fully.”[12]

Outreach Extended

Robert J. Matthews was one of the senior editors working on the Encyclopedia of Mormonism. As pressures from this assignment mounted, he was released as dean in January 1990. Donald Q. Cannon, who had served four years as associate dean, was named acting dean. After a year, Robert L. Millet was named as dean. After receiving his doctorate at Florida State University in biblical studies and nineteenth- and twentieth-century religious thought, he joined the Religious Education faculty in 1983. At the time of his appointment as dean, he was serving as department chair of ancient scripture.

Three members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles attended the meeting where Dean Millet was introduced—Elder Neal A. Maxwell, chairman of the executive committee of the board; Elder Dallin H. Oaks, a former president of BYU; and Elder Boyd K. Packer, who had a long-standing background and interest in Church education. Their presence evidenced the importance the Brethren attached to the teaching of religion at BYU. “If the Religious Education faculty were not doing what they are doing,” affirmed Elder Oaks, this “would not be the Lord’s University.” Speaking to the faculty, Elder Packer explained, “We came down to honor you for your work.”[13]

Elder Maxwell counseled the new dean to seek new ways to reach out to and bless the broader Church and even the world as a whole. Since that time, this outreach has taken various forms. Many members of the faculty have participated in numerous scholarly conferences, where they have built bridges with professional colleagues. Some have held significant leadership positions in various academic societies or professional organizations. Donald Q. Cannon, for example, was president of the Mormon History Association for 2004–5. A group teaching world religions made an extensive trip to India, China, Korea, and Japan. Dean Millet and other faculty members visited Notre Dame, Catholic University, Wheaton College, and Baylor University to see firsthand how they taught their courses in religion and how academic freedom was viewed on these church-related campuses. Such contacts helped to open channels of communication and mutual respect.

For years Truman G. Madsen had built bridges of understanding through his service in the Richard L. Evans Chair of Christian Understanding. Following his retirement, the chair was divided into two or more professorships with the expectation that the good being done could be spread even more widely.

Nauvoo became another site for Religious Education’s outreach. As Milton Backman, who had taught Church history for many years, served a mission there from 1992 to 1993, he discovered that winter was a definite slack time. Because missionaries were called to serve eighteen months from the spring of one year until the fall of the next, several of the fifty historic homes where they lived were vacant during the winter. He therefore suggested giving students an on-site experience in Nauvoo during winter semesters. The program was launched in 1994, and Backman served as its director for the first three years. Although Church history and Doctrine and Covenants classes were at the heart of the curriculum, courses in such subjects as U.S. history and American literature were also included. Classes met in the visitors’ center and in various historic buildings around Nauvoo. Field trips visited Church historic sites in New York, Ohio, and Missouri as well as points of general interest like Hannibal, Missouri, and Springfield, Illinois. A weekly community lecture series was open to the public and was typically well attended.

The new adjunct faculty program, launched in 1997, was yet another opportunity for outreach and a means of strengthening relationships across campus. While the former “transfer teachers” were assigned by their departments to fill a quota and often were rotated each semester, the new adjunct instructors taught because they wanted to, generally made a commitment for at least three years, and were regarded as part of the Religious Education faculty. Mingling in faculty meetings and elsewhere strengthened friendships among colleagues who represented a variety of disciplines. University leaders agreed that the adjunct faculty would teach up to one-fourth of all students taking religion, about half would continue to be taught by the full-time Religious Education faculty, and the remaining quarter by visiting personnel from CES or by other selected part-time teachers.

Use of Technology Expanded

During the 1990s, members of the Religious Education faculty made increasing use of computers. A decade earlier, when Keith W. Perkins was chair of the Department of Church History and Doctrine, he obtained Religious Education’s first computer to analyze Kirtland tax and land records. At this time computers were used primarily for scientific research, but he wondered why they could not be employed for gospel study as well. He directed department secretaries to begin entering Conference Reports whenever they had free time. Later, key historical works and compilations of Church Presidents’ teachings were added to the growing database. Eventually he purchased an optical scanner to accelerate the process. When Milton V. Backman became the RSC director for Church history in 1988, he began entering early Mormon journals into the computer.

Another opportunity for outreach came when Perkins was asked to update his Independent Study course in the Doctrine and Covenants. As he completed this task, he wondered why the course could not be offered over the Internet. When necessary preparations were made and the idea was presented, Continuing Education officials were enthusiastic. The course was offered on a trial basis, one of the first such Internet classes in the nation. Response was great, coming from as far away as Australia and New Zealand. After board review and approval, the course officially went online March 31, 1997. First to register was a forty-seven-year-old student in Japan. The first to complete the class was a Berkeley student who was a member of another faith and asked when other religion courses would be available.[14] Religious Education immediately took steps to add other classes. In the year of the pioneer sesquicentennial, Perkins truly was a modern pioneer.

With increased research funds from the university and such tools as computers, a higher share of the faculty became actively involved in scholarly research and writing than ever before. Resulting publications became a growing means of reaching out to yet a broader audience. Even though this scholarship helped improve the quality of teaching, it also brought a modest reduction of one or two classes in the average teacher’s class load to allow time for research and writing.

Dean Millet believed that one of the great challenges facing members of the Religious Education faculty was to maintain a wholesome balance between competency as a capable scholar-teacher on one hand and humility as a servant of God on the other. We must “have an eye single to the glory of God,” he insisted. “Learn to avoid like a plague the damning influences of arrogance and cynicism.” We need to “acknowledge that Christ is the light” and that “we are but dim reflections of that light, at best.”[15]

As part of the continuing quest to improve teaching, Religious Education leaders in 1998 established the Religious Education Teaching Fellowship, which would “explore various methods and means for teaching in a religious setting, including research, writing, symposia, and other activities which foster increasing effectiveness in conveying gospel principles to students.”[16] The first recipients of this fellowship were Matthew O. Richardson and Dennis A. Wright.

About this time, the university began planning to furnish classrooms with a uniform set of equipment to enable teachers to take advantage of the latest technological developments. Religious Education faculty had gained the reputation of being willing to try new methods and programs; many, for example, had embraced Microsoft PowerPoint when it was introduced a few years earlier. University officials therefore consulted with the faculty when developing the new equipment. As a result, during the 2001–2 school year, the Joseph Smith Building was one of the first to receive the new TEC (Technology Enhanced Classroom) facilities. Religious Education led most areas in the extent to which these new facilities were used.

With the advent of the TEC rooms, an increasing number of faculty members gave thought to using digitized images—maps, photographs, or other illustrations—to enhance their teaching. Dennis A. Wright therefore applied for funds to produce a CD with images related to Church history, scripture, and other topics in Religious Education. The Harold B. Lee Library had also been interested in launching such a project, so library officials and Professor Wright moved forward as partners. The result was a growing digital collection of images, numbering in the thousands, as part of the library’s home page, available to teachers around the world.

Religious Education also launched its own Web site, which included biographical data on faculty members, a listing of recent faculty
publications, information about organizations related to Religious Education, a statement of policies, and a catalog of courses. An important feature of the site was an electronic library, which included the scriptures, commentaries, and over a thousand books and articles. Many of these materials were made available by commercial publishers specifically for faculty use.

John P. Livingstone, who was a teaching fellow from 2002 to 2004, developed a Web site designed to help teachers, particularly the adjunct faculty from other departments who were teaching courses in Religious Education. It included electronic audio and visual teaching tools, ­suggestions for improving teaching, and a list of resources available together with instructions on using TEC rooms and other computer-oriented resources.

The increasing importance of technology was reflected in the 2003 appointment of Richard Crookston as Religious Education’s first Technology Services Representative (TSR). Previously, faculty members had been appointed to serve as Computer Services Representatives (CSRs) as part of their regular academic load. Crookston shared Religious Education’s vision of its mission and how best to achieve it. At the same time, he worked cooperatively with the Office of Information Technology (OIT) across campus to ensure that religion teachers had the best and latest resources available.

Secretarial Support

Over the years the secretarial pool was another valuable resource for the religion faculty. At first, their almost sole responsibility was typing exams, course materials, and other projects for faculty members. As time went by, they also became responsible for distributing or even preparing printed pictures, slides, tape recordings, and other teaching aids.

David Boone became the supervisor in 1981. In the old Joseph Smith Building, the office was housed in the northeast corner of the basement; the ceiling was so low that utility pipes were wrapped in foam rubber to prevent injury if a person should run into them. There was no room for the audiovisual collections, so they had to be kept in separate rooms. David was also responsible for the faculty library even though it was located in the opposite corner of the building. When the new JSB was being planned, David helped design far more ample, convenient, and efficient facilities for what would become known as the Faculty Support Center. The faculty library would be next door, and the new center would incorporate a storage room for its collections.

When David became a member of the full-time faculty in 1994, he was succeeded as supervisor by Patty Smith, who previously had worked with the Religious Studies Center. Under her leadership, changes were made to further enhance the work of Faculty Support. She and Robert Marks of the Copy Center, directly beneath on the ground floor, proposed connecting their two facilities with a dumbwaiter system. “Rapunzel,” as it was nicknamed, ended the necessity of carrying huge stacks of copied materials up the stairs and through the halls. Patty coordinated the involved process of producing student packets for dozens of classes and was also regularly a member of the committees, planning and producing publications for the annual Sperry and Student Symposia; her student workers served as hosts for sessions of these events.

New technology impacted the center’s work. Because faculty members had computers in their offices, they increasingly brought disks with items to be copied for their classes rather than needing them to be typed first. This freed the student workers to help with such other useful projects as transcribing oral interviews or preparing electronic copies of early Church periodicals so they can be searched more quickly. Patty also directed the transfer of slides, videocassettes, and other materials to more compact digital formats, which could be used more efficiently.

Annual Student Symposium Started

The idea for the Religious Education Student Symposium was proposed by Richard E. Bennett during the fall of 1998. While attending a seminar for new faculty members, he heard Elder Henry B. Eyring of the Quorum of the Twelve urge BYU to encourage increased learning opportunities for its undergraduate students, even giving them the opportunity to publish material before their graduation. Dr. Bennett, who had coordinated faculty symposia at the University of Manitoba, thought that a symposium for students would be the ideal way to meet this challenge. “Students at Brigham Young University have wonderfully unique views, insights, and interpretations to share concerning the doctrines, history, and modern-day role of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Dr. Bennett believed. “Each new generation brings fresh interpretations, perspectives, and viewpoints that deserve to be heard and studied, yet few academic forums exist on this campus for such formal student expression.”[17]

The first symposium took place on April 1–2, 1999. Of ninety-nine papers submitted, forty-six were selected for presentation. Seven received cash prizes, and a total of fifteen were published in a two-hundred-page volume. This pattern was repeated in the following years, and by 2008 approximately 250 copies of the proceedings were published annually.

This symposium provided students with the experience of researching and preparing a scholarly paper, and then presenting it before an audience in a refereed setting. Several found this opportunity so valuable that they submitted papers in one or more subsequent years.

Master’s Degree Reinstituted

For several years Dean Millet had discussed with Stanley A. Peterson, CES administrator responsible for seminaries and institutes, whether to offer a master’s degree in Religious Education once again. They agreed that the degree should focus on the very topics that seminary instructors were teaching. In addition, Dr. Millet explained, the program should “be rigorous enough to equip those wishing to pursue doctoral training with the necessary skills, and at the same time to provide deeper insights into history and doctrine for those content with a master’s degree alone.”[18]

Approximately 100 seminary teachers applied to be members of the first group of master’s candidates in 2000. Fifteen were selected. After that beginning, similar groups entered the program every two years. Comments from CES administrators as well as from participants have been “almost universally positive.” Robert Millet, who has taught courses in New Testament and the Book of Mormon, reflected, “There’s nothing quite as enjoyable as having a group as eager to learn and be stretched as persons who teach the restored gospel full time.” [19]


[1] Religious Instruction faculty meeting minutes, May 7, 1981, 2.

[2] Robert J. Matthews, address to Religious Education faculty, August 25, 1987, 2.

[3] Robert J. Matthews, address to Religious Education faculty, August 28, 1985, 21.

[4] Daily Universe, June 13, 1990.

[5] Meeting with Religious Education faculty, November 10, 1988.

[6] Daily Universe, August 6, 1985.

[7] The Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University, 2000).

[8] Daily Universe, November 30, 1989.

[9] Y News, April 6, 1990, 1.

[10] Joseph Smith Memorial Building Dedication Remarks, 1.

[11] Joseph Smith Memorial Building Dedication Remarks, 16–17.

[12] “Remarks Given at the Unveiling Ceremony of ‘The Vision,’” typescript, October 17, 1997.

[13] “Meeting with General Authorities: New Dean for Religious Education,” faculty meeting minutes, January 9, 1991.

[14] Interview with Keith W. Perkins, March 23, 1998.

[15] Robert L. Millet, “‘Fools before God’: Striking the Delicate Balance between Competence and Humility in a University Setting,” message to Religious Education faculty, March 15, 1996.

[16] “Religious Education Teaching Fellowship,” statement provided by Matthew O. Richardson, January 10, 2005.

[17] Selections from the BYU Religious Education 1999 Student Symposium (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University, 2000), v.

[18] Robert L. Millet to Richard O. Cowan, November 30, 2004.

[19] Millet to Cowan, November 30, 2004.