Teaching Legacy: Ellis T. Rasmussen

A Gentle Giant

D. Kelly Ogden

D. Kelly Ogden was a professor of ancient scripture at BYU when this was written.

Every English-speaking member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints owes an enormous debt of gratitude to a quiet, unassuming man from rural Utah. Ellis T. Rasmussen was a key figure in preparing the Latter-day Saint editions of the King James Bible and triple combination. But he also epitomized the idea that there is no end to the good you can do if it doesn’t matter who gets the credit. For example, when the June 1979 Church News wanted to feature his leading role with the new editions, he refused to allow them to write about him; instead he redirected the focus to others who were involved.

Ellis was humble. He entered mortality on September 21, 1915, in humble circumstances in Redmond, Utah, twenty-five miles south of Manti. His father, Wilford Rasmussen, and mother, Katie Johanna Nelson Rasmussen, were Danish. His mother died when he was almost twelve, and five years later, in 1932, he welcomed into his life a beloved stepmother, Myrtle Jeffery Blackburn Rasmussen. She encouraged him to pursue as much education as possible.

Ellis received eight years of basic education at Redmond Elementary School and four years at North Sevier High School in Salina, Utah, where he served as student body president. He wasn’t good at athletics, but he enjoyed participating in extemporaneous speaking, debating contests, and performance in school plays and operettas.

Armed with a scholarship, Ellis attended Snow College in Ephraim and majored in elementary education, earning a teaching certificate and embarking on a teaching career that would span sixty years. While at Snow, he awoke one morning after a severe headache and found that the right side of his face was paralyzed. Doctors attributed it to tick paralysis or Bell’s palsy. Some effects of that malady lingered throughout his life.

Ellis taught fifth grade at Redmond Elementary School for two years. He earned enough money to pay for one year at Utah State Agricultural College in Logan, Utah, and for about half of his mission. At USAC he upgraded his teaching certificate and took additional classes in chorus, in drama, and at the LDS institute. In fact, he took all the classes offered by Milton R. Hunter (later of the First Quorum of the Seventy). Brother Hunter asked him one day, “Why don’t you go on a mission to Germany?” Soon after counseling with his father and his bishop, Ellis was called to the West German Mission—without his suggesting anything about where he might go.

Missionary Adventures in Germany

Elder Rasmussen embarked aboard the SS Manhattan on July 13, 1938, bound for Britain and Europe. By train he reached mission headquarters in Frankfurt am Main. He reported in his personal journal: “This was in the period of Hitler’s might and glory, so most people were cautious about inviting two young Americans in to teach something new. I have since thought it quite miraculous that we were even tolerated all over Germany, teaching about an ‘American’ church—and on ‘free days’ walking around everywhere with cameras slung on our shoulders.”

By early September 1938, he observed that some people who did belong to a church were clinging fearfully to their faith and hope and that those whose hopes lay in the Nazi way of life were engrossed in and consumed by it. By mid-September, he felt that they might not be long in the land, and indeed the elders of the two German missions were told on September 15 to close things up at their lodgings and travel to Copenhagen for a conference.

They remained on hold in Denmark while Neville Chamberlain, Hitler, and others met in Munich to decide the fate of Europe. On September 28–29, still in Denmark, Elder Rasmussen wrote: “With the ‘four powers’ meeting today [in Munich], we bide our time, awaiting their ‘judgments.’ It is evidently at the crisis point in world affairs. What tomorrow bringeth, no man knows!”

The Brethren felt it was safe for the missionaries to return to Germany for a time. The young elders never worried throughout the next year, knowing that word from their leaders would again take them out in time, if necessary. Soon Elder Rasmussen was transferred to Vienna. He worked hard, but teaching opportunities were precious few.

The evening of August 25, 1939, less than a week before World War II broke out, Elder Rasmussen received a telegram from mission headquarters instructing the elders to leave at once. Ellis and a small group of missionaries were to travel by train through Holland and then secure passage by ship to America. Because their steamship tickets were at the Dutch mission office, the German elders were stopped at the border. They had to wait there until their steamship tickets could be delivered. Then they had to find their way by train through northern Germany to Copenhagen, crossing that border a few hours after all German trains were to have been commandeered for the invasion of Poland. A few days later, they took passage on freighters from Denmark to America, and Elder Rasmussen was eventually reassigned to the Southern States Mission.

Beginning His Life’s Work

Ellis completed his BA at Brigham Young University and qualified for a secondary school teaching certificate. In July 1941 he was called in to the Church offices in Salt Lake City for an interview. He was chosen as one of two new Church Educational System employees to open an experimental half-time seminary at small rural high schools. After the interviews, the two new teachers happened to meet President Heber J. Grant. He asked genially, “Well, boys, what are you doing here?” Ellis answered, “Oh, President Grant, we are going to teach seminary.” He smiled and counseled, “Well, boys, when you get out there, don’t teach them all the wonderful things you learned at college; teach them the gospel.” That became Ellis’s motto.

His first assignment was teaching high school and seminary students in Weston, Idaho. There he became acquainted with elementary school teacher Oda Fonnesbeck. They courted and married, and continued with graduate work through five additional summer sessions at BYU. Meanwhile, Ellis continued teaching seminary, now full time, in Richmond, Utah, at North Cache High School. In 1951 he finished his master’s degree, with a long master’s thesis about textual parallels found in the Doctrine and Covenants and the Bible. “The thesis,” he later remarked, “would have been much easier to do if computers had already been invented; but they began to be available twenty-five to thirty years later!” Upon passing that educational milestone, he was invited to join BYU’s faculty in what was then called the Division of Religion, beginning what would become a thirty-year career in religious education at Brigham Young University. Ellis’s study, teaching, research, and writing at BYU were mostly about the scriptures, especially the Old Testament.

Sidney B. Sperry, who became his long-term mentor and friend, was pleased that Ellis was interested in doing further graduate studies in the field of Dr. Sperry’s expertise: biblical languages and literature. Even though Ellis was serving as a counselor in his local stake presidency, both the stake president and a General Authority felt it appropriate to release him for his professional advancement. Ellis pursued doctoral studies at the Dropsie College for Hebrew and Cognate Languages in Philadelphia and at Brigham Young University and in 1967 was awarded his PhD at BYU.

“At Dropsie College,” Ellis wrote, “I had courses pertaining to Old Testament peoples’ religion, lands, languages, and history. There were a few Jewish scholars, some Jewish rabbinical students, a few Christian ministers, and one ‘Mormon’ in the student body. My courses in Jewish history were quite interesting; those in Semitic languages were useful; and those bearing on current trends, problems, and movements in Judaism were quite enlightening. The teaching faculty members were helpful in most every way; and Miss Sarai Zausmer, the ‘executive’ secretary who virtually ran the institution, was intrigued with our little family. She was a single lady inclined to be ‘bossy’ with both faculty and students, but she was very solicitous about us and our welfare. One day the Dropsie faculty meeting finished while we were in the foyer, and she insisted that they all meet us. Some were big men in black suits, some had big cigars, and all were intrigued with our little blond-haired children. Some wanted to hold our little ones. We didn’t know how the kiddies would respond, but it turned out all right.”

In the summer of 1963, Ellis began a twenty-four-year period of helping direct summertime scripture-lands study tours and Bible-lands semester abroad programs. Some travel experiences were called Lands of the Scriptures Workshops; others, World of the Bible Tours. In 1979, he led a group to Jerusalem for the dedication of the Orson Hyde Memorial Gardens. In 1981, he directed an extended Bible Lands Study, and from July to December of 1982, he was in charge of an Israel Study Abroad group of young students. In 1984, he and his wife, Oda, were called to serve in the International Mission as special representatives to Israel, a goodwill program of creating friends and humanitarian efforts (but with no proselytizing). When the special representative program was discontinued in 1985, the Rasmussens were retained in the capacity of educational specialists with the BYU study programs.

At the university, Ellis served as chair of the Department of Ancient Scripture (1969–71) and later as dean of Religious Instruction (1976–81). During his long career, he published dozens of articles in Church magazines and scholarly publications, and his course materials were used in campus and off-campus settings for decades.

LDS Editions of the Scriptures

The highlight of Ellis Rasmussen’s career was his pivotal role in creating the Latter-day Saint editions of the scriptures. A letter from Spencer W. Kimball, President of the Council of the Twelve Apostles, dated October 27, 1972, invited him to the project:

Dear Brother Rasmussen:

With the approval of the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve, you are invited to become a part of a special committee to serve under the direction of the Department of Internal Communications. The task assigned is to prepare a King James Bible which would include a standardized concordance, dictionary, atlas, and index and would have footnotes, ready references, and cross-references related to other L.D.S. scriptures.

We are sure that because of your eminent qualifications, your unique contribution to this project will greatly assist in improving doctrinal scholarship throughout the Church.

If you feel you can respond to this assignment, please notify Elder Thomas S. Monson, who will then arrange for an orientation session.

Elder Monson chaired the Scriptures Publications Committee, which included Elders Boyd K. Packer and Bruce R. McConkie. At the orientation meeting, Elder Monson said, “Your task will be to help people understand the Bible.” Professors Robert C. Patch and Robert J. Matthews were also called to help.

First, Ellis and Robert Patch evaluated the existing cross-references and noted that some topics were too limited in scope and that there were no cross-references in the Bible leading to the triple combination. Where the King James translation used archaic or unusual English words, they decided to explain the original Hebrew or Greek meaning.

Robert Matthews received permission to cite passages from the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, and the committee limited selections to doctrinally or historically significant things plus items that could not be found in the Pearl of Great Price or the Book of Mormon.

To create items for the Topical Guide, the professors surveyed reference books to discover popular topics and then created others. They continued to develop more efficient modes for collecting and organizing the data. Throughout that process, a steady stream of additional scholars and other experts joined the project and made unique and superb contributions. For example, some 19,900 scriptural entries were collected under 741 topics, but the product was still unrefined. Consequently, they recruited BYU colleagues who knew biblical languages to help with items needed for notes on archaic or otherwise difficult words.

The committee received permission to use the Cambridge Bible Dictionary as a starting point, adding or deleting items according to the needs of LDS readers. All items were submitted to Elders Monson, Packer, and McConkie for approval. Ellis wrote, “For problems or for proposals we needed to have evaluated or approved at the working level, we were permitted to contact Elder McConkie freely by phone or in person. I remember with delight how we from time to time would enter his office and see him stand and reach his big hand out over his desk to us, saying with a big smile, ‘Well, slaves, how are you today?’” Elder McConkie wrote the chapter summaries for all four standard works.

After Cambridge University Press was chosen to print the new editions of the scriptures, Ellis and other key people traveled to Cambridge in 1977 and 1978 to oversee formatting and printing and especially to develop the footnote system. Late in 1979, the first copies of the new edition of the King James Bible were printed and bound and made available for sale and for use.

By that time, Church leaders had decided to prepare a triple combination with the same footnote system, inserting sections 137 and 138 and the official declarations to the Doctrine and Covenants. All this was accomplished by September 1981, and the new triple combination was printed.

Personal Reminiscences

Through the five years we worked side by side on the new editions of the scriptures, I learned much from Ellis Rasmussen. Even though I had already begun a doctoral program in another field of study, he encouraged me to pursue a doctorate in a subject he could see I loved: the Bible. That felt right, so in the ensuing years my PhD work was done in Hebrew language and biblical studies in Utah and in Jerusalem.

During the years we spent together in the Holy Land, we took hikes through the land, and we led students on walks through the events of the last week of Jesus’ life. I will never forget one night in the Garden of Gethsemane listening to Ellis read from the Gospels by the light of a lantern hanging in an olive tree. We also gave priesthood blessings and blessed babies, and we taught Gospel Doctrine class together in Jerusalem.

Ellis was a dignified man and a scholar. He could also be funny. On receiving our son Daniel’s emails from Iraq, he wrote to us Ogdens: “Thanks always for sending us a copy of the emails Daniel sends from Babylon. That’s been a place to stay out of ever since Abraham left, and a place to keep out of ever since the Babylonian captivity of Israel. Right? As Tevya says in Fiddler on the Roof, ‘Of course right’!”

Ellis was also tenderhearted. In January 2008, he wrote to the Ogdens in Guatemala: “We still have our car, and it runs fine, but the last time I went for renewal of my driver’s license, a gentle soul there put up her eye chart and then asked kindly, ‘Would you like an ID card in place of a driving license?’ I said humbly, ‘Well, yes. That would be helpful, thank you.’ . . . When you come back to our home we can revel in memories together. What a joy it will be to share handshakes and embraces and review memories from the Middle East [and more].”

In February 2005, at a special gathering of three hundred persons remembering and celebrating the coming forth of the LDS editions of the scriptures, I heard President Monson say, “Ellis Rasmussen [and others]—you’ve affected the world.” Well, Ellis Rasmussen certainly affected me. I feel to praise the life and life’s work of this gentle giant.

Ellis always enjoyed quoting, in Hebrew, the first words of the Bible, with a little dramatic flare, Bereshit baurau Elohim et ha-shamayim v’ et ha-aretz, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” He did that, for example, in the documentary film That Promised Day: The Coming Forth of the LDS Scriptures. Just a few hours before his departure from mortality, his wife and children allowed me a little private time with him, and though he was not conscious, they said he might be able to hear me. I reminisced with him about how he had affected my life and then recited that favorite Hebrew expression.

“In the beginning God”—that is the testimony of both Ellis T. Rasmussen and D. Kelly Ogden. Those four words are a poignant reminder to scholars, historians, politicians, scientists, and all of humankind. God is first and foremost. “In the end God” is also true. He is the beginning and the end. He is in and through all things. He should be, as evidenced in the life of Ellis Rasmussen, the top priority and focus of our lives as we help bring to pass his eternal work and glory.

Note: I appreciate Oda Rasmussen and the whole Rasmussen family for the use of Ellis’s personal journals and autobiographical sketches in preparing this article.