The early education wars in Utah

It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that Utah’s pioneer days saw church and school inextricably linked – and not just because of Utah’s special religious history. Church-based schooling was the rule in early America, on the frontier, and for African American children after the Civil War. Necessity probably had more to do with this than theology.

Here’s an excerpt from a history of Smithfield:

“The first public building erected in Smithfield was a combination school, church and amusement hall . . . School was held during the winter months. The pupils had to buy their own books, and the teacher spent Saturdays in going to the homes to collect his pay in whatever [the family] could spare, such as wheat, flour, pigs, wood, etc. The Relief Society helped some of the poor children by making carpets, quilts and other things which the teacher took as pay for their tuition.”

“Free” schools in Utah were, initially, mostly non-LDS church mission schools. And their mission?

As U.S. Commissioner Frank Pierce explained in the 1889 report of the Congregational Church’s New West Education Commission: “Your mission schools in this Territory have done more toward the overthrow of Mormonism than any other one thing. I know of many young men formerly [Church members] who are loyal and true to the government on account of their training in these schools. These schools should be kept up with more vigor than ever.”

In the interests of full disclosure let me state again that I am a member of the Presbyterian, not the LDS, church — and Presbyterians were especially active in the “mission church” movement. But what strikes me is how similar these arguments are to the unashamedly anti-Catholic sentiments of the New England common school proponents.

This helps explain why many LDS church leaders, including Brigham Young, initially opposed creating “common schools.” So do provisions of Article X of the Utah Constitution, included as part of the price for statehood, which specified that Utah must establish public schools, that these schools must be “free from sectarian control”, that no religious tests could be imposed on teachers, and that no state money could be used to support religious education. On their face religiously neutral, these provisions clearly took aim at the LDS church.

But Brigham Young had another concern about common schools. I’ll talk about that in my next post.

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