What is the Chicago Experiment? Back in the 1930s, LDS Church leaders sent employees to be trained in theology. They came across some sticky theology topics such as evolution, the Documentary Hypothesis, and whether multiple people wrote Isaiah. Would the Church re-entrench on faith, or accept secular methods to understand the Bible? Dr. Casey Griffiths will tell us about his Ph.D. project and paper titled “The Chicago Experiment.”
Casey: Basically, prior to 1930, there are no professional religion scholars in the Church. We have your Orson Pratt and your B.H. Roberts who are really amazing, but pretty much self-taught, but don’t hold divinity degrees. Joseph Merrill, who is the person that starts the seminary program, becomes Church Mission of Education and is starting the Institute [of Religion] program. Joseph Merrill is a college professor. He’s a professor of physics. He’s [thinking,] “If we’re going to have people that teach college level, they need to have a degree in religion.” But where does a Mormon guy go in the 1920s to get a degree in religion? BYU is still a small little school that doesn’t offer any degrees in religion. So, Merrill gets this idea, partially inspired by Sidney Sperry, that he’s going to send a bunch of scholars to the University of Chicago. At Chicago, they’re going to get degrees in Divinity and then come back and kind of spread the wealth, and we’ll have professionally trained religious educators in the Church.
Casey: Well, in the 1930s, there’s still quite a bit of bias against Latter-day Saints, and the only Divinity School that would accept Latter-day Saint students had to be a really liberal one. So, the conflict here is that the University of Chicago is incredibly theologically liberal, and the Church is incredibly theologically conservative. But, if we want to have people trained in the field of religion, the only school that will accept them is a liberal school. So, these guys are there and, by the way, they’re there at the same time Martin Luther King’s mentor is there. They’re intermingling with black scholars. They’re intermingling with scholars from different faiths. They all have this overwhelmingly positive experience at the University of Chicago. It’s just when they come back and they have to interact with the conservative Church, there’s some major conflict.
Casey: You have some people that are able to negotiate it really successfully, like Sidney Sperry. Sidney Sperry strikes the right balance between being conservative, but also moving the work forward. He really professionalizes his religious education, inspires a lot of great people like Hugh Nibley. They come onto the scene a little bit later. Then, there’s other people like Heber Snell, that just really struggle. There’s a whole story, like I said, there, in that they come back and spend their career Snell, is an Institute director, Sidney Sperry is pretty much the religion guy at BYU. It’s interesting to see what trajectory they take. Sidney Sperry, takes his scholarly training and turns it on the Doctrine & Covenants and the Book of Mormon. He writes the first pretty good scholarly stuff about the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine & Covenants. He’s using the tools of higher biblical criticism on Latter-day Saints scripture, and he’s using it in the apologetic way to prove that the scriptures are true. Hebrew Snell become so enamored with higher biblical criticism that he really doesn’t like restoration scripture. He wants to focus on the Bible. We have letters from Heber Snell, where he was like, “I can’t believe that they teach the Book of Mormon alongside real subjects, at this institute. You’re like, “You’re an institute teacher, buddy, do you know who signs your checks?” But it shows that as late as the 20th century, we still hadn’t quite nailed down what our identity was. There were guys like Heber Snell that basically wanted us to sort of accept restoration scripture as an interesting hobby, but the main meal is the Bible. Then, there’s guys like Sidney Sperry that say, “No, restoration scripture is just as interesting, inspirational and complex as the Bible, it needs to be at the table right alongside them.”
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