Mormons and Education:
An Overview

Education lies close to the hearts of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and resonates with many of the other values they hold dear. Mormons love learning and are dedicated to the acquisition of knowledge. Their commitment to education, both as a principle and as a practice, is evident in their beliefs, teachings and everyday activities. They affirm that education is a broad, lifelong pursuit with a variety of vital purposes. They have a unique understanding of what education is — a principle that recognizes the human soul as well as the intellect. Moreover, Mormons have a tradition of education that is rich and longstanding, something they cherish and continue to maintain. Because they believe that education deserves their best efforts, Latter-day Saints afford it significant resources and energy.

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I. Mormons’ Understanding of Education

The Purposes of Education

The principle of education is woven into the most fundamental beliefs Mormons hold about God, about life and about themselves. Latter-day Saints affirm, for instance, that God is all-knowing, and are taught that “the glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth.”[1] They also believe that as children of God, the objective of all people is to continuously strive to become like Him, and they see education as a vital part of this striving. Hence life, for Latter-day Saints, is not only a time of testing but also a school to develop understanding through both study and experience.[2] Education is one of life’s preeminent purposes and has enduring eternal value that transcends death.[3] The development of a refined, enlightened, and godly character is its ultimate end.[4]

Latter-day Saints believe that because of its immense and lasting value, God has made education a divine commandment for which His children are responsible.[5] Both the Bible and the Book of Mormon echo this commandment with invitations to seek, “knock,” and ask for knowledge; modern revelations and prophets give explicit instruction to learn, and clarify that learning is essential for salvation. Church founder Joseph Smith taught that “no man is saved faster than he gets knowledge,” and that “no man can be saved in ignorance.”[6] Mormons also affirm that God is actively involved in the education of His children. He enlightens the mind; He promises that efforts to learn will be recognized and met with His wise dispensations of knowledge.[7]

Behind the Latter-day Saint approach to education is a distinctive understanding of learning and knowledge. Mormons distinctly emphasize that education is for the whole person; it involves and benefits both the mind and the spirit. Education is not exclusively intellectual; rather, Latter-day Saints seek learning “by study and also by faith” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:118). In part, this means that Mormons recognize a kind of learning that incorporates both intellect and spiritual insight.[8] They also acknowledge that these are not unrelated: spiritual understanding, for instance, is necessary to give rational inquiry its ultimate purpose.[9] Moreover, Latter-day Saints affirm that faith and reason are not fundamentally hostile to each other.[10] Thus the pursuit of truth is unbounded, although Latter-day Saints especially prize understanding that brings seekers nearer to God and helps fulfill life’s essential purposes.[11]

While education plays a vital role in the theology of Mormonism, it also has other personal value. Latter-day Saints believe that education ought to relate to and enhance life experience. Brigham Young explained that “education is the power to think clearly, to act well in the world’s work, and to appreciate life.”[12] Mormons value the life of the mind and the richness that education adds to life experience. They are encouraged to love learning and teaching, and they recognize that knowledge is personally empowering.[13]

Latter-day Saints also believe that learning ought to have practical value; it should improve one’s ability to make social contributions, to be financially self-reliant, and generally to “act well in the world’s work.”[14] Latter-day Saints recognize that education is crucial for moral and practical reasons that range from the support and upbringing of their families to participation in broader society. Education is a serious charge for parents who are responsible to provide the necessities of life for their children. Church President Thomas S. Monson has encouraged both men and women to pursue education in order to participate as needed in a competitive economic world.[15] Education also enables those who pursue it to make a greater impact for good in their communities. It enhances their ability to serve the human family.

Of course, Mormons affirm that education is crucial in the immediate family as well. As the Saints understand the family to be the most fundamental unit of human society, they regard the home as the seat of human learning. Parents are divinely commissioned to rear their children “in light and truth” (Doctrine and Covenants 93:40). They have primary responsibility to bring their children to intellectual, social and spiritual maturity through precept and example. The raising of children is considered a collaboration with God, and parents and other educators are responsible to guide children in ways that benefit them immediately and eternally.[16]

The Scope of Education

The Mormon understanding of education is inclusive, not only of different kinds of learning, but in other ways as well. Church teachings outline a vast field of valuable knowledge, incorporating an unlimited array of secular and religious subjects. Geography, culture, history, science and innumerable other subjects fall within these wide parameters, which extend well beyond the conventional scope of religious knowledge.[17] Indeed, at one level, Mormons do not distinguish between “secular” and “religious” knowledge. They regard all forms of truth as relevant and sacred.

Although “education” often suggests formal schooling, Latter-day Saints recognize that it should involve far more than that. They are encouraged to regard education as an individual responsibility,[18] and they are taught that each person ought to pursue education independently in the context of their own lives, learning in the ways and to the extent that their circumstances allow.[19] While they view formal educational programs as indispensible, Mormons also value individual reading, study, thought and observation of many kinds. They affirm that a wealth of knowledge is available to all those who will engage it.

Finally, to Latter-day Saints, education is a principle that spans eternity. Mormon scripture teaches that “whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life” will follow us in the hereafter (Doctrine and Covenants 130:18). Latter-day Saints also see in education a perpetual enterprise; they anticipate and hope for a long course of learning that extends indefinitely into the future.

II. The Mormon Tradition of Education

The tradition of education [20] surrounding The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is robust and long-standing — indeed, a hallmark of its people.[21] For nearly 200 years, Mormons have developed educational initiatives and maintained a culture in which education has been a paramount concern. This tradition can be traced to the earliest days of the Church.

In addition to the Bible and the Book of Mormon, Latter-day Saints have looked to divine revelations received by the Church’s founder, Joseph Smith, for a framework and a sense of purpose for their learning.[22] Among other things, this modern scripture encourages the Saints to prize and perpetually seek wisdom of all kinds and to teach one another diligently, so that that they might be “instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, [and] in the law of the gospel” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:78). Such teachings have spurred educational efforts of various kinds throughout the course of Mormon history.

These teachings extended early Latter-day Saints’ commitment to the education of their children and deepened their personal devotion to self-improvement and educational growth. Like many contemporary families, Latter-day Saints attended to education in the home, but they also pursued it more formally. During a 19th-century era when education was often the privilege of a few, Mormons in Kirtland, Ohio, organized their own schools. Some of these provided ministerial and religious instruction, and others instructed members of the community — including women and youth — in the study of languages, arithmetic, grammar and other elements of a traditional curriculum.

Mormons also pioneered education on the untamed, 19th-century American frontier in Missouri, establishing the first school in present-day Kansas City in 1831. A few years later, in their newly-built city of Nauvoo, Illinois, they maintained a mature society encompassing both high culture and higher education. Church leaders had explained that one of the major purposes for Latter-day Saints to gather together was so that they might enjoy the benefits of education, and in Nauvoo many of these benefits were realized.[23] Common schools, clubs, theaters, museums, lyceums and literary and other societies were envisioned and organized. The Saints established a university, the University of the City of Nauvoo, which administered the city’s educational system. Visitors to Nauvoo found a people committed both to their religious principles and to the improvement of their minds.[24]

Even in the second half of the 19th century, when Mormons spread out to colonize the western United States, education remained a priority. In an effort to sustain learning, Church leaders Brigham Young, John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff directed the formation of stake schools and “academies,” which channeled the Latter-day Saints’ often meager resources into an organized educational program. Many of these stake schools and academies have since become the region’s modern high schools, colleges and universities. As alternatives became available, the Church discontinued much of its effort to provide nonreligious education. It began instead to develop systems of supplementary religious education for students of all ages.

III. Church Educational Initiatives

True to tradition, education has continued to occupy a prominent place in Latter-day Saint life and belief.

In addition to the emphasis on learning in Sunday worship, temple worship, and other settings, the Church has an array of formal initiatives to assist members in their pursuit of education.

Continuing support of its colleges and universities reflects the Church’s recognition of the need for excellent, broad education. The Church owns and operates three universities (Brigham Young University, Brigham Young University-Hawaii and Brigham Young University-Idaho) and one college (LDS Business College). At these institutions, secular education is combined with the ideals and religious principles of the Church. The Church also maintains a number of elementary and secondary schools in Mexico, Tonga, Samoa, Fiji and Kiribati.

Church seminaries and institutes comprise the Church Educational System. These institutions emphasize the importance of developing a comprehensive education that incorporates religious knowledge and faith.

Seminary is a four-year religious education program available to high school students of all faiths. A different book of Latter-day Saint scripture is studied each year — the Old Testament, New Testament, Book of Mormon or Doctrine and Covenants. Seminary classes are taught by both full-time instructors and volunteers, often in Church facilities.There are approximately 350,000 seminary students worldwide.

Institutes of Religion provide religious education to young people between the ages of 18 and 30 at more than 2,500 locations around the world, many of whom are college or university students. Institute classes include the study of scriptures, Church history, doctrine and how to prepare for marriage and Church missions. There are currently about 350,000 students enrolled in institute.

The Perpetual Education Fund, established by the Church in 2001, provides eligible young adults of the Church in developing areas of the world with the opportunity to obtain the education necessary to improve their economic opportunities. Church members make contributions to the fund, and fund recipients are expected to repay the loan at a low rate of interest. Since its establishment, the Perpetual Education Fund has grown into an extensive effort that has helped tens of thousands of individuals.

[1]Doctrine and Covenants 93:36.

[2]See Thomas S. Monson, “Look to God and Live,” Ensign, May 1998, 52-54; Bruce C. Hafen, “The Atonement: All for All,” Ensign, May 2004, 97-99.

[3]See Doctrine and Covenants 130:19.

[4]See Dallin H. Oaks, “A House of Faith” BYU Studies (1996), 117-18.

[5]See Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Two Principles for Any Economy,” Ensign, Nov. 2009, 58.

[6]Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith (2007), 266.

[7]2 Nephi 28:30; Doctrine and Covenants 88:11.

[8]Joseph Fielding Smith explained unequivocally that “knowledge comes both by reason and by revelation.” See “Educating for a Golden Era of Continuing Righteousness,” A Golden Era of Continuing Education (Brigham Young University, 1971), 2; Doctrine and Covenants 9:2.

[9]See Henry B. Eyring, “An Education for Real Life,” Ensign, Oct. 2002, 14-21.

[10]See Richard C. Edgley, “Faith—the Choice Is Yours,” Ensign, Nov. 2010, 31-33.

[11]See 2 Nephi 9:29.

[12]Quoted in George H. Brimhall, “The Brigham Young University,” Improvement Era, July 1920, 831.

[13]See Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Two Principles for Any Economy,” 58.

[14]James E. Faust, “Learning for Eternity” (BYU devotional address, Nov. 18, 1997), 3.

[15]See Thomas S. Monson, “Great Expectations” (BYU devotional address, Jan. 11, 2009), 3.

[16]See L. Tom Perry, “Mothers Teaching Children in the Home,” Ensign, May 2010, 29-31.

[17]See Doctrine and Covenants 88:79; 90:15.

[18]See Russell M. Nelson, “Where Is Wisdom?” Ensign. Nov. 1992, 6-8.

[19]See Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Two Principles for Any Economy,” 58.

[20]As a resource on LDS educational history, see BYU’s “Education in Zion” exhibition text, available here.

[21]See James E. Faust, “Learning for Eternity,” 2.

[22]See Dallin H. Oaks, “A House of Faith,” 115.

[23]See Sidney Rigdon, “To the Saints Abroad,” Elders’ Journal, Aug. 1838, 53.

[24]See, for example, “Highly Important from the Mormon Empire,” New York Herald, June 17, 1842, 2.


Additional Resources

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