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Who is Joseph F. Merrill? The man behind the church seminary program

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Try this trivial Latter-day Saints question: Which apostle founded seminary and institute programs, served as mission president to a future church president, and helped start the use of media and technology to spread the gospel message?

The answer is Joseph F. Merrill, who served in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1931 to 1952.

Casey Griffiths called Brother Merrill a “forgotten” apostle.

“Not many people have ever heard of him,” said Griffiths, who had no idea of ​​himself until he was a BYU graduate student in 2007. “He’s probably the Forgotten Apostle on most important that we have. “

Griffiths, a Brigham Young University professor in the Department of Church History and Doctrine, published the biography of a relatively unknown church leader titled “Seeker of Truth: The Life of Joseph F. Merrill, Scientist , educator and apostle ”. The book’s release date is July 27.

Here are five interesting facts about Merrill’s life and why it matters today.

1. Merrill witnessed a “transition”

Joseph Merrill was born in Richmond, Utah on August 24, 1868.

Marriner Merrill, father of Joseph F. Merrill, was a Cache Valley pioneer and the first president of the Logan Utah Temple. He was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles from 1889 to 1906.
Church History Library

His father was Marriner W. Merrill, a Cache Valley pioneer and the first president of the Logan Utah Temple. Marriner was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles from 1889 to 1906.

Joseph’s mother was Maria L. Kingsbury, one of Marriner’s eight wives. In his personal writings, Joseph Merrill wrote that his father stayed with a different family every day of the week and had secret hiding places in their home so that his father could escape the US Marshals planning to arrest him for practicing plural marriage. .

“(Joseph Merrill) is an excellent illustration of the transition the church is going through from the 19th century to the 20th century, from being some sort of those savage polygamists in the West, separated from the world, to becoming respectable and honest members of society. , a light and an influence in the world. At the end of his life, he was a respected educator and scientist, “says Griffiths.

2. Reconciling religion in a secular world

Merrill would be the first Utahn born in the country to earn a doctorate.

Edward Bennion, Samuel A. Hendricks, Joseph F. Merrill, and DH Christensen attended the University of Utah in 1889.

A group portrait of University of Utah students Edward Bennion, left, Samuel A. Hendricks, Joseph F. Merrill and DH Christensen in 1889.
Church History Library

He attended the University of Deseret (now the University of Utah), where he met his future wife, Annie Laura Hyde, the granddaughter of the Apostles John Taylor and Orson Hyde. The two corresponded as Merrill continued his education at the University of Michigan and then Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

During his graduate studies, Merrill became somewhat cynical in his attitude towards the faith because he did not have a local Latter-day Saint congregation to attend.

“It’s kind of fun to see pious people; they seem to think religion is mainly about going to church, ”Merrill wrote in a letter to Hyde. “But I must admit that judging by this standard, I have lost almost all of my religion. I have only been to church once since May 30. What do you think I’ll become! Doesn’t the prospect scare you? “

Hyde encouraged Merrill to stay true to the gospel, Griffiths said.

“She writes to him and says, ‘You have to hang on and stay strong,'” said the biographer. “She sort of pulls him off the brink.”

3. The beginnings of religious education

Merrill married a young family in 1911 when inspiration for the church’s future seminary program came.

One night, Merrill observed his wife holding the children spellbound by stories from the scriptures. Later he asked her where she had learned to teach like that? She replied that she had learned from her professor at the Salt Lake Academy, another future apostle named James E. Talmage.

Joseph and Annie Laura Merrill and their children paint a family portrait.

Joseph and Annie Laura Merrill and their children at the time of the founding of the seminary program, circa 1911.
Annie whitton

Remembering how he strayed from religion in college, Merrill formulated an idea to create a system where a person can attend a secular school while still having the opportunity to study the scriptures.

As a member of the church’s Granite Utah stake at the time, Merrill suggested building a seminary next to the high school, similar to something he had seen during his visit to the University of Chicago. The stake president authorized the use of $ 2,500 to construct the seminary’s first building, which was designed as a one-story house so it could be sold if things didn’t work out, Griffiths said.

Thomas Yates, an engineer at the Murray Power Plant, was recruited to be the first teacher of a one-class seminar in 1912 which included future BYU president Howard S. McDonald and Mildred Bennion Eyring, the mother of President Henry B. Eyring, second counselor in the current First Presidency of the church.

Less than a decade later, Merrill became the church’s first education commissioner and helped establish institutes of religion with the mission of helping students balance secular learning with spiritual learning.

The first free-time seminar class was held in the Granite High Seminary building in 1912.

The first free-time seminar class was held in the Granite High Seminary building in 1912.
Church History Library

“Personally, I am convinced that religion is as reasonable as science; that religious truths and scientific truths are nowhere in conflict; that there is a great unifying purpose extending throughout all creation; that we live in a wonderful world, though currently deeply mysterious; and that there is an all-wise and almighty creator behind it all, ”Merrill wrote. “Can this same faith grow in the minds of all college and university students? Our college institutes are established as a means to this end.

Merrill is also responsible for establishing the religion department at BYU, where young academics are encouraged to produce professional studies on the faith of Latter-day Saints.

4. President Hinckley’s Mission Chairman and Media Pioneer

The innovative Merrill was called to preside over the British mission in 1933, then one of the church’s largest areas of missionary work.

Joseph F. Merrill and Gordon B. Hinckley with a group of missionaries in England.

President Joseph F. Merrill (center, seated far left) with a group of British Mission alumni. Future President of the Church, Gordon B. Hinckley, stands third from the left.
Church History Library

While missionaries still preached to crowds in Hyde Park, Merrill felt proselytizing methods were outdated. He selected a missionary named Gordon B. Hinckley and together they looked for ways to use the latest technology and materials to communicate more effectively and reach a wider audience.

This effort led to younger brother Hinckley working with the media in the church after his mission, and he eventually became president of the church.

“When President Merrill returns, they continue to work together to figure out how to use film, radio and new technology to spread the gospel message,” Griffiths said.

Three men, including future Apostle Joseph F. Merrill and future President Gordon B. Hinckley, are working on a church film.

Joseph F. Merrill, center, with President Gordon B. Hinckley, right, producing a church film.
Church History Library

5. Treat the minister

In 1943, one of Merrill’s closest friends and fellow Apostle, Richard R. Lyman, was excommunicated from the church.

Merrill and Lyman were students together in Michigan, had offices adjacent to the University of Utah, and walked to school each day, not to mention service together in the church. Merrill had great respect for Lyman, Griffiths said.

Despite his devastation and grief, Merrill continued to be a staunch friend. His diaries contain many notes about spending time with Lyman. Their friendship continued until Merrill’s death.

The unconditional friendship of Merrill and others helped Lyman return to church before his death, Griffiths said.

“It’s a really touching story,” he said. “Merrill doesn’t abandon her and helps her get back to church.”

“Elder Merrill was my mentor”

Griffiths had never heard of Merrill until about 15 years ago, when he was a graduate student at BYU. He was considering a thesis on a topic related to the Civil War when a conversation with BYU religion professor Scott Esplin turned him in a different direction.

Casey Griffiths is the author of a biography on the life of scientist, educator and apostle Joseph F. Merrill.

Casey Griffiths is the author of a biography on the life of scientist, educator and apostle Joseph F. Merrill.
BYU Religious Studies Center and Deseret Book

Esplin informed Griffiths that Merrill’s family donated their papers to BYU after his death and that they were open to the public. No one had written about his life.

It is rare for the public to have access to an apostle’s papers as they are usually restricted by the church for an extended period after their death due to confidentiality and other safeguards, without prior authorization, Griffiths explained.

Griffiths was in BYU’s special collections an hour later, browsing 46 boxes of rich documents and resources, including newspapers and correspondence. In a box he found a letter from Merrill’s fiancé and a strand of his hair fell out.

“It had been there for about 100 years,” Griffiths said. “I took a picture of it.”

Merrill’s life experiences, especially his struggles with faith and education, served as inspiration for Griffiths.

“Higher education can be difficult for a person’s faith,” he said. “I felt like Brother Merrill was my mentor. When I read his writings and how he dealt with questions of skepticism and faith, I felt like he was looking over my shoulder all the time saying, “Hey, I did that. , and you can do that too. ” … Having the opportunity to read his newspapers and see his struggles has been super uplifting for me.

Griffiths continued, “One of the reasons I wrote the book is that I think Elder Merrill was such a great example for bright young Latter-day Saints to say that you can be a smart person and also a good person. faithful person. There should be no conflict between the two.


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