Early 20th Century Mormonism — Both Similar and Different

Reading through T. Edgar Lyon’s biography has offered a fascinating look at the church in the early twentieth century. I took note of this unintentionally humorous quote, which demonstrates that some things haven’t changed in roughly 80 years:

When John Hart had called Ed [Lyon] to teach seminary [in Midway, Idaho], he had also advised him to “buy a house, start a family, and vote the Republican ticket.”

T. Edgar Lyon Jr., T. Edgar Lyon: A Teacher in Zion, pp. 112

Yet in the large majority of instances, you get a sense of how different it must have been to be a member of the church then:

[Sidney B. Sperry] was a popular teacher in the seminary system who had recently returned to BYU with a master’s degree from the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. Sperry had studied with some of the greatest Old and New Testament scholars in the world, and he ignited a fire in the seminary system which the new, critical approaches of close textual analysis, archaeological investigation, and historical exegesis. …

The Church Educational System had decided to cement ties with the University of Chicago, particularly its Divinity School, by bringing Professor [Edgar J.] Goodspeed to conduct one of the religious education classes in Provo during summer 1930. Sidney B. Sperry had sold Elder Joseph F. Merrill on the idea, and Merrill, in turn, had convinced President Heber J. Grant of the value of bringing such a scholar to BYU. …

Goodspeed so ignited [Ed] Lyon and other Church educators that Elder Merrill, with President Heber J. Grant’s approval, invited Goodspeed to speak in the Salt Lake Tabernacle in one of the regular Sunday fireside sessions. This was a heady time for many in the Church, a time when General Authorities — B. H. Roberts, James E. Talmage, John A. Widtsoe, and Joseph F. Merrill particularly — were reaching out, embracing serious secular scholarship and applying it to the study of Latter-day Saint theology and history.

T. Edgar Lyon Jr., T. Edgar Lyon: A Teacher in Zion, pp. 115, 117-118

I understand that the modern church is still involved in academic religious research, but I believe most if it is limited to the efforts of BYU professors and FARMS (correct me if I’m wrong). Can you imagine a time when apostles were seeking out critical, secular scholarship to be applied towards Mormon history and theology? Scholarship that could potentially damage the image of the church with its revelations? You get a sense that these men were truly confident that their religion would hold up to academic scrutiny. The modern church, by contrast  seems to play its cards on the defensive these days. Correlation, as an example, appears to be a testament to how cautious higher church leaders are in regards to the average member knowing “too much” about the finer details of Mormon theology and history.

I’m not condemning the modern church, necessarily — I just find the change in attitude over the course of several decades to be fascinating. It makes you wonder what the attitude of the church will be another 80 years from now.

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