In 1950, a number of LDS teachers at the Logan Institute and BYU signed a letter to President J. Reuben Clark regarding one of their newly-hired colleagues.
The author of the letter was Glenn Pearson, who would go on to be a Religious Education professor at BYU, known for his books on the Book of Mormon, his opposition to evolution, and his conservative politics. Seven others signed a supporting page, indicating in brief that they
agree with Brother Pearson that the man he has written to you about does not believe and would not teach the orthodox teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We will testify in any manner and place you desire to the things we know him to advocate.
Signatures came from
- Robert C. Patch, BYU RelEd professor
- Reid Bankhead, BYU RelEd professor (1949-1985) who had been mission companions with Pearson (they were peas in a pod), and would serve as Cumorah Mission President.
- Lareby [sp?] A. Stephenson (can’t find anything, because I can’t read his first name signature)
- Calvin H. Bartholomew (not listed in the emeritus BYU section)
- Ellis T. Rasmussen, BYU RelEd professor (1951-81) and eventual Correlation board member
- Richard L. Anderson, BYU RelEd professor and probably the best-known member of this list
- Stanford L. Richards (maybe this guy?)
What about this man, whom I keep anonymous, triggered such a serious level of concern? Pearson laid out a series of complaints for President Clark. I reproduce below text from the 1950 letter, extracted, and bullet-points added for readability
Whether or not this man is an apostate depends on definition.
- If it is apostasy to believe that man is the product of evolution, he is an apostate.
- If it is apostasy to believe that Adam did not bring death and sin into the world, he is an apostate.
- I have heard him admit that he doesn’t know for sure that the Book of Mormon is true or that Jesus is the Christ. (However, he said he believed it quite strongly.)
- He is, or at least has been, something of a protege of Heber C. Snell. [See here and here]
- He believes the documentary hypothesis of the origin of the Pentateuch and believes in the evolution of religious ideas.
- He believes that the scriptures are not to be taken literally, but to be interpreted in the light of scholarly research.
- He believes that an apostle is not qualified to pass opinion on Sociology, Economics, etc., without being properly educated in the field.
- He believes in Socialism and co-operatives (I don’t mean to intimate that the latter are always evil) and that the reason the leaders of the Church are against Socialism is that they are all rich men.
- He believes the negroes should have the priesthood.
- He believes that the Reorganites [i.e. RLDS Church, now the Community of Christ] might have the priesthood as well as us. He once stated to a friend of mine that, if the Church didn’t give him what he wanted, he would join the Reorganites.
- I have never seen him bow to the scriptures if a scholar disagreed with them.
I have shared an office with him and about five other men for seven months. We have all labored with him and have borne our testimonies to him. I have begged him as a prospective Institute teacher to go with me to any of the General Authorities to discuss his religious views to see if they would consider it honest for him to teach them and accept the tithing money of the Saints to do it, and he has refused. He accused me of being the one who teaches false doctrine, but wouldn’t name a doctrine to be tested. He said that the Division of Religion at the BYU as it is presently constituted is the only place in the Church where such “Fundamentalism” is tolerated, and suggested that it is due for a housecleaning.
There are, to me, two points of interest here.
First is the more general issue of the spiritual/intellectual status of those hired by the Church to teach in Seminaries, Institutes, and BYU Religious Education. Is it “honest for him to teach… and accept the tithing money of the Saints to do it”? I tend to agree with President McKay, who made a distinction between lay members of the Church (who had wide freedoms for their beliefs) and tithing-paid teachers of the Church Education System, who were held to higher standards and expected to be believers who reflected Church teachings in their classroom. If I were in President Clark’s position, after making confirming inquiries and speaking to the teacher himself, I would likely have been very uncomfortable paying him tithing money to teach Institute.
Second, the content. Several of these accusations reflect tensions between scholarship (including science), tradition, and the nature of prophetic authority and knowledge. Pearson came down very hard on one side of this complex balance, which you can see in his list; traditional understandings of LDS scripture took precedence over any and all claims to the contrary, whether from scientists (evolution) or religious scholars. He did not recognize the false paradigm he was perpetuating when he says “I have never seen him bow to the scriptures if a scholar disagreed with them” (see here). He did not recognize his misuse of “literal” in this claim of apostasy— “He believes that the scriptures are not to be taken literally, but to be interpreted in the light of scholarly research.” Pearson’s views of revelation, prophets, and scripture were absolute, which is a mark of fundamentalism. Pearson elsewhere expressed the view that it was apostasy to believe scripture to be “the inspired word of men, not the inspired word of God,” which seems to reflect dictation theories of revelation, another tendency of fundamentalism. And obviously, I disagree with Pearson on the issue of evolution, as he was not representing LDS tradition fairly.
Pearson represented a different kind of spiritual and intellectual threat, on the fundamentalist side. The 1950s saw a distinct shift in that direction which Pearson reflects and contributed to, but I know he did receive significant pushback from some people in Church and BYU administration on his writings and teachings.
So what happened?
This teacher went to Salt Lake to represent himself, and was reassigned to a different Institute in Nevada, where he (according to Pearson) got on the radar of his Stake President, got caught peeping in windows, and was effectively fired from the Institute. Shortly thereafter, he joined the Bahai religion and eventually authored a book on Joseph Smith’s supposed “prophecies” of Baha’ullah.
As for Pearson, he became a deeply influential BYU professor, Curriculum writer, and confidant of President Benson, ghostwriting many of his talks and speeches. Pearson’s fundamentalist views were preached over the pulpit, and written into LDS magazine articles and manuals. I’ll discuss him and his influence in my presentation at the upcoming Mormon History Association conference, and I hope to have a paper published about him later this year.