The World Really Is Our Campus

Scott C. Esplin

Scott C. Esplin ( is an associate professor of Church history and doctrine at BYU.

“Can we have class outside?” At one time or another, nearly every teacher has struggled to deflect this query, but for a few hundred students in Religious Education every year, the answer is a resounding yes. For these faculty and students, the classroom becomes the shores of the Sea of Galilee, the Garden of Gethsemane, or the Sacred Grove. Religious Education’s two ”study away” programs—in Israel and at the sites sacred to the Restoration—facilitate the type of learning that can only occur in a nontraditional classroom.

For a faith committed to the historicity of the Bible and, in particular, its witness of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, the Holy Land is the natural location for Religious Education’s largest and longest-operating outside classroom. Sixty years ago, Dr. Sidney B. Sperry, director of the Division of Religion, led the first Latter-day Saint study tour of the region. Fifteen years later in January 1968, Daniel H. Ludlow, dean of Religious Instruction, led the first group of twenty students to Jerusalem on a five-month study abroad program.[1] Nearly two decades later, the BYU Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies opened its doors in 1987, providing a home each year for the hundreds of students who study at the sacred sites and spaces in and around Israel.

Today, approximately eighty students each semester study at the Jerusalem Center under the tutelage of Brigham Young University faculty from Religious Education and departments across campus. The core curriculum of the experience “focuses on Old and New Testament, ancient and modern Near Eastern studies, and language (Hebrew and Arabic)” with “classroom study . . . built around field trips that cover the length and breadth of the Holy Land” as well as Jordan and Turkey.[2] Students have long reported on the impact the field study has on their lives. “I felt like I was leaving home to come home,” reflected James Thompson, a student during winter semester 1989. The experience “changed the way I look at . . . the amazing gift [Christ] has given each of us, the gift of His Atonement,” Thompson continued.[3] Lauren Barden, a 2012 student, likewise observed, “After one completes the BYU Jerusalem program, they can never view the scriptures in the same way. Every mention of Nazareth, Bethlehem, and Galilee summons deep and stirring memories of the smell of incense in dimly lit churches, stepping into the blue-green waters of Galilee, and quiet moments in a stony field where the hosts of heaven may have come to proclaim the birth of Christ. To a former Jerusalem student, the stories of the Bible are vivid and real, brought to life by the memory of distinct smells, rich landscapes, and deeply personal experiences.”[4] D. Kelly Ogden, Religious Education faculty member and former associate director of the Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies, summarized the program’s impact: “The Brigham Young University Jerusalem Center is one of Jesus’ latter-day miracles.”[5]

While the Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies has a long history, student groups in Religious Education conducting formal study at sites sacred to the Restoration are recent phenomena. Beginning in 2007, associate dean Richard E. Bennett began taking students to Latter-day Saint Church history sites each October as part of a Church history field study. Joined by other faculty including Craig James Ostler, Arnold K. Garr, and Brent L. Top, students in Church history and Doctrine and Covenants honors classes spend six hectic days studying in Palmyra, Fayette, Kirtland, Hiram, Nauvoo, and Carthage. The program began with as few as fifteen students but has expanded to involve as many as forty-five during each fall semester. Gratified by the results, Bennett is working to expand the experience by adding a six-credit summer field study, where students would stay on college campuses while studying the breadth of the early Mormon experience from Sharon, Vermont, to Salt Lake City, Utah. The expanded program would allow students to spend more than a month on the road, adding important sites in Missouri and the Mormon Pioneer Trail to those studied during the abbreviated fall field study.

By visiting the locations where the events of Restoration history unfolded, students better appreciate the declaration found in the introduction to the Doctrine and Covenants: “These sacred revelations were received in answer to prayer, in times of need, and came out of real-life situations involving real people” (Doctrine and Covenants introduction). Student comments demonstrate appreciation of this reality. “I came on the trip out of a desire to see for myself the places I had studied throughout my life,” reflected Jenessa Halliday, a 2011 participant. “Although I had a testimony of the Book of Mormon and of the Prophet Joseph before, I did not truly understand the context for either or have a deeper understanding of the history behind the Restoration. . . . As I visited each site on our trip, I came to a deeper and stronger testimony of this church, of prophets, and of present-day revelation.”[6] Eleesa Fluckiger, a fellow classmate, described, “In the context of my study of the Doctrine and Covenants . . . , I have honestly felt those sections become animated with the details of the men and women and children who began this restored religion. I have fallen in love with these people and their joys, triumphs, and struggles by walking the roads they trod and seeing the cities and buildings and homes and temples they built unto the Lord by His commandment in the Doctrine and Covenants.”[7]

As visitors approach campus, they are greeted by a sign that declares, “Brigham Young University: The World Is Our Campus.” Through the Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies and the Church history field study, Religious Education embraces this motto. For a group of students and faculty each year, the world of scripture, both ancient and modern, truly becomes their campus.


[1] Richard O. Cowan, Teaching the Word: Religious Education at Brigham Young University (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2008), 60–61; LaMar C. Berrett and Blair G. Van Dyke, Holy Lands: A History of the Latter-day Saints in the Near East (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2005), 362.

[2] “Jerusalem Center,”

[3] James Thompson to Scott C. Esplin, email, December 10, 2012.

[4] Lauren Barden to Scott C. Esplin, email, December 8, 2012.

[5] D. Kelly Ogden, The Miracle of the Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies, DVD, 2003.

[6] Jenessa Halliday to Richard E. Bennett, November 13, 2011, in possession of Richard E. Bennett.

[7] Eleesa Fluckiger to Terry B. Ball, October 27, 2011, in possession of Richard E. Bennett.