During the late 1800s, the Church operated academies in many Latter-day Saint settlements that delivered both religious and academic instruction. 1 By the turn of the century, large numbers of Latter-day Saint students began to attend public schools. The Church’s Board of Education, which had administered the academies since 1888, began to focus on providing religious education for children and young adults.
As a member of the Granite Stake presidency, Joseph F. Merrill hoped to supplement the secondary education of youth in his stake with religious instruction. He took inspiration from his wife, Annie Laura Hyde Merrill, who often taught her children Book of Mormon and Bible stories she had learned in James E. Talmage’s theology class at the Salt Lake Academy. Joseph developed a concept for a seminary that he took to the local school board, the superintendent of the state board of education, and the First Presidency for approval. The Granite Stake funded the construction of a seminary building across the street from the local high school and employed Thomas J. Yates, a member of the stake high council, to teach its first classes on the Bible and Church history. The first sessions opened in the fall of 1912 with a group of 70 students. 2 Merrill’s model inspired the Church Board of Education to open additional seminaries adjacent to other schools.
By 1919, thirteen seminaries had opened, with student enrollments numbering around 1,500. Over the following decade, the Church’s educational system shifted focus away from academies toward developing these seminaries, with faculty and students organized in Utah, Idaho, and Arizona. Adam S. Bennion was appointed Church Superintendent of Schools and worked to expand the program to all schools where there were enough Latter-day Saint students. He also professionalized the education program and recruited college-educated Latter-day Saint teachers. 3
Public schools in Utah and other areas with large Latter-day Saint populations offered released-time programs, allowing many students to attend seminary classes during school hours. This arrangement came under scrutiny by some who wanted to draw a sharper line between state and religious institutions. Any threat to the seminary program was ultimately resolved by a series of cases heard by the United States Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of released-time programs but prohibited “excessive government entanglement with religion.” For a time, the Church Board of Education kept the seminary curriculum focused on the Bible while the commissioner and faculty worked with state officials to meet court-regulated standards of church and state separation. Seminary faculty were encouraged to pursue graduate degrees and lend scholarship to religious subjects. 4
In the 1920s, Latter-day Saints attending the University of Idaho in the town of Moscow, Idaho, lacked adequate facilities for holding Church meetings. In response, the Church Board of Education developed a support program of “collegiate seminaries.” In 1927, the First Presidency appointed J. Wyley Sessions to teach religious classes at the University of Idaho and directed the construction of a building for a Moscow Institute of Religion that accommodated both classroom instruction and other Church meetings. Within 20 years, similar institutes opened on or near the campuses of several colleges and universities in Idaho, Utah, California, Wyoming, and Arizona. Student-run councils created various support groups, sometimes as religious alternatives to fraternities and sororities, which helped increase enrollments in institute classes. Originally, full-time faculty did not teach courses based on a standardized curriculum but rather developed religious lectures based on their own expertise, like professors at their nearby campus. 5
As the first institutes of religion launched, the United States witnessed several controversies related to science and religion. The Scopes Trial in 1925 attracted national attention to the debate over whether human evolution should be taught in public schools and whether biblical Creation narratives should take precedence over modern scientific interpretations. In the wake of this debate, the First Presidency and Church Board of Education took measures to ensure that teachers and curriculum remained focused on gospel principles. The board enacted new hiring procedures for institute directors, adjusted curricula to affirm Church leaders’ teachings, and monitored the balance of secular and religious approaches to scholarship. In 1938, President J. Reuben Clark Jr. delivered remarks to seminary and institute faculty on “The Charted Course of the Church in Education” that emphasized spiritual learning at all levels of education and cautioned against substituting revelation with secularism. His discourse remained a touchstone for Church educators and defined curriculum design for decades. 6
In the 1950s, the Church Board of Education explored a plan to unify the complex administration of seminaries and institutes. Ernest L. Wilkinson, president of Brigham Young University, proposed consolidating all venues of religious education into a single system that provided teacher benefits, preservice training, and standardized curriculum. These efforts culminated with the establishment of the Church Educational System (CES). 7
Meanwhile, efforts to expand seminary classes beyond Utah, Idaho, and Arizona met with resistance from school boards and state officials who were unwilling to accommodate released-time classes. Stake presidents in California, where membership was booming and released time was not available, continued to request support for a seminary program. The success of one early-morning class in Salt Lake City inspired Commissioner Franklin L. West to dispatch Ray L. Jones, a seminary principal in Utah, to organize similar classes in California. Jones moved to Los Angeles, where he worked with Howard W. Hunter, the Pasadena stake president and future President of the Church, to establish a regional board of education and offer classes at 6:00 and 6:30 a.m. Although many were skeptical that students would turn out so early, attendance increased rapidly. After seven years, more than 9,000 students were enrolled. 8
CES administrators soon expanded early-morning seminaries to serve Native American tribal nations, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. By the 1960s and ’70s, seminaries and institutes were established in the Pacific Islands, the northern Atlantic, the Caribbean, southeast Asia, Central and South America, and Africa. The Church Education System produced standardized curricula for courses and developed programs designed for Deaf and blind students. Programs expanded to support education at mental hospitals and state prisons. By 2020, global seminary and institute enrollments passed 400,000 and 310,000, respectively. 9