During the late 1800s a growing number of states in the United States were demanding tax-supported public education for their children. As a result, state governments began taking over schools established in religious communities and eventually prohibited them from teaching religion.
Brigham Young knew the Latter-day Saints would not be shielded from the secular storm coming in from the East, and quietly began setting aside property and resources to be used for schools that would be separate from the state – Church Academies.
In 1875, the Church’s first academy, Brigham Young Academy, was established in Provo. Karl G. Maeser, the Academy’s founding principal, was appointed in 1876. Within a decade, several other church academies were established, including one in Salt Lake City known today as the LDS Business College.
President Young’s preparatory steps proved prophetic as conflicts grew between Latter-day Saints and their local neighbors who objected to the teaching of LDS doctrine in community schools, although originally founded by individual wards within the Church.
The tipping point came in 1887 when the federal government passed the Edmunds Tucker Act. Proclaiming a battle cry against polygamy, this act imposed several excessive restrictions on the Saints including the abolishment of female voting rights, the confiscation of Church properties, and many other devastating limitations. In terms of education, this act allowed the government to take over Utah’s schools and eliminate the religious instruction they had been offering.
In 1888, President Wilford Woodruff called upon all stakes in the Church to establish their own academies – schools where LDS students could be free to study spiritual subjects alongside academic ones. This request seemed almost impossible, as the Saints now were paying taxes to support government-owned, public schools. Additionally, the Saints bore all financial responsibility for local Church operations and buildings, due to some of the mandates of the Edmunds Tucker Act.
However, in spite of their poverty, the Saints sacrificed to provide an education for their children not dominated by the secular views of society. Miraculously, 36 academies were almost immediately established by Church stakes.
How did they do it so quickly?
Pres. Woodruff (and undoubtedly the two Church presidents preceding him) had been conferring with Karl G. Maeser for years beforehand about setting up other academies based on the model of Brigham Young Academy. In fact, Maeser, now the Superintendent of Church Education, had already founded several academies before Pres. Woodruff issued the call to the stakes. Additionally, most of the original teachers of stake academies (James E. Talmage, Jacob Spori, etc.) had already been trained at BYA.
All in all, the Church opened approximately 40 academies – schools that taught academic and spiritual truths side by side.
This church-wide school system operated for about 40 years, but eventually became much too expensive to maintain, as many families were paying academy tuition in addition to the taxes for public schools.
By the 1920s, Adam S. Bennion, then Church Superintendent of Schools, calculated that financing the Church schools cost eight times as much per student as the newly developed Seminary program, which had been officially adopted by the Church in 1919 after years of trial runs in individual stakes. A few years later, the Church opened the Institute program for college-aged students.
The Seminary and Institute programs had the advantage of being able to supplement secular education for all young Latter-day Saints, not just those who were able to afford to attend the academies.
Between 1920 and 1924, the Church academies not offering college-level courses were shut down or handed over to their respective state governments. Those who did offer college courses discontinued their secondary-level courses and became colleges.
Thus, as the academies were phased out, the seminary program was able to step up and fulfill the purpose of the academies, which was to provide weekday religious instruction for the youth of the Church that could anchor their testimonies as they journeyed through their secular, academic studies.
– Adam Watson, Communications Major, Gallery Educator