Between the 1870s and 1930s, the Church operated three dozen secondary schools called academies. These schools supplied primarily adolescent Latter-day Saints with weekday education after grade school and before college. After public high schools arose in the United States, the Church closed or sold most of its academies to the states where they were located.
As the Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo worked in the early 1840s to secure a city charter from the Illinois state government, they launched cosmopolitan institutions, including a university. But the university lasted only a short while before the Saints left for the North American West.1 In Utah Territory, early pioneer Saints founded the University of Deseret, but the school closed in 1852 before being reopened 15 years later. It was later renamed the University of Utah.
After the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, several Protestant and Catholic missionaries founded secondary schools in Utah Territory to educate Latter-day Saint students.2 Concerned that the schools evangelized Latter-day Saint children, Brigham Young founded Brigham Young Academy in Provo in 1875 and Brigham Young College in Logan in 1877. Property he had set aside for a third institution accommodated the Salt Lake Stake Academy in 1886, almost 10 years after Young’s death.
The success of these schools encouraged Church leaders to extend educational benefits to all stakes of Zion. During the federal raid against plural marriage in 1887, the United States Congress passed the Edmunds-Tucker Act, which took control of public education in Utah.3 Church leaders worried that Latter-day Saint teachers trained in the three academies would be overlooked for hire in the public schools and students would be left without weekday religious education. The following year, Wilford Woodruff directed stakes to open their own academies, each to be governed by a board of education chaired by the stake president. More than 50 academies and schools were established between Alberta, Canada, and Juárez, Mexico. Karl G. Maeser, the principal of Brigham Young Academy, supervised these schools under the direction of a newly installed Church Board of Education.
The spread of Church academies peaked in the 1890s as schools administered by public funding grew in number. As student enrollment decreased, sustaining the academies proved a challenge. To maintain wide access to religious education, Church administrators developed seminaries for high school students and institutes of religion for college students that supplemented regular schoolwork with scriptural and devotional instruction. Beginning in the 1920s, the General Church Board of Education transferred administration and ownership of most of its academies and closed many smaller schools. Larger academies like Weber College, Dixie Junior College, and Gila College remained prominent state-managed institutions into the 21st century. The Board retained Ricks College (later Brigham Young University–Idaho), LDS Business College, Brigham Young University, and Juárez Academy in Mexico.
In the 1950s the First Presidency consolidated all seminaries, institutes of religion, and remaining Church academies into a single system. The newly formed Church Educational System (CES) continued to establish schools, like the Church College of Hawaii (later Brigham Young University–Hawaii), the Church College of New Zealand, and several middle and high schools in the Pacific Islands. Between 2009 and 2017, CES developed an online program for higher education, BYU–Pathway Worldwide, that by 2019 had served Latter-day Saint students in 100 countries.4