BYU is emphatic about mentoring for at least two reasons. First, mentoring is a generative, revivifying activity that blesses students and teachers alike. Second, BYU owes its very existence to mentoring. Mentors such as Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and Karl G. Maeser laid the foundations for BYU and prepared future generations to build on them.
We don’t usually think of Joseph Smith as one of BYU’s founders, but this is a mistake. Joseph was a great mentor because he learned from great mentors. According to George Q. Cannon, Joseph “was visited constantly by angels . . . in order that his mind might be fully saturated with knowledge of the things of God.”1
“When I saw Joseph Smith,” said Brigham Young, “he took heaven, figuratively speaking, and brought it down to earth; and he took the earth, brought it up, and opened up, in plainness and simplicity, the things of God.”2
Joseph’s learning at the feet of angels prepared him to mentor the Latter-day Saints. Prominent literary and cultural critic Harold Bloom, in an insightful passage, says that “Brigham Young is Joseph’s finest creation.”3 It was Brigham who rallied the Saints after Joseph’s death. It was Brigham who encouraged the Saints to cram their covered wagons with
every valuable treatise on education—every book, map, chart, or diagram that may contain interesting, useful, and attractive matter, to gain the attention of children and cause them to love to learn to read; and, also every historical, mathematical, philosophical, geographical, geological, astronomical, scientific, practical and all other variety of useful and interesting writings, maps, etc., to present to the General Church Recorder, when they shall arrive at their destination, from which important and interesting matter may be gleaned to compile the most valuable works, on every science and subject, for the benefit of the rising generation.4
Brigham took no part in the School of the Prophets. Early on, he rarely evinced enthusiasm for learning in his letters or journals. Years at Joseph’s side, however, made their mark. Brigham became arguably the most outspoken, elegant proponent of education in the history of the Church.5 Joseph awoke in Brigham a “sense of destiny and special responsibility that encouraged and fostered him.”6
Brigham Young shepherded a similar progression in Karl G. Maeser. Maeser spent valuable months in Brigham’s home before being dispatched to Provo with the admonition to “teach not even the alphabet and multiplication tables without the Spirit of the Lord” ringing in his ears.7 Maeser proceeded to “infuse the teachings of the Church into virtually every aspect of secular learning”8—and went on to mentor James E. Talmage, George Albert Smith Jr., J. Golden Kimball, George H. Brimhall, Reed Smoot, Bryant S. Hinckley, Alice Louise Reynolds, Susan Young Gates, and many others. We owe decades of BYU and Church leadership to Maeser’s personality and philosophy.
Elder Heber J. Grant, while traveling with Maeser on a statewide inspection of Church schools, presided one night over a large conference in Mesa, Ariz. Maeser brought Elder Grant’s attention to four young men seated in the audience. Maeser was confident that the young men would greet him after the meeting. Three of them did; one disappeared. Later, Elder Grant asked Maeser about the missing young man. Maeser explained that he had “got some mud on him,” and was ashamed to face his former teacher. Maeser told Elder Grant not to worry—”I will hunt him up; I will wash it off.” Later, as the two men prepared to continue their journey, Elder Grant asked Maeser whether he had been successful. Maeser had indeed found his young man, and had done what he could to get him pointed in a happier direction.9
The image of an old man going out into the night to find and comfort a former student illustrates the range and depth of Maeser’s achievement. He recorded a famous dream of “Temple Hill filled with buildings—great temples of learning,” and one doesn’t have to walk far from campus to look back and see the fulfillment of that dream.
In 1975, President Spencer W. Kimball taught that BYU’s faculty “has a double heritage that they must pass along: the secular knowledge that history has washed to the feet of mankind along with the new knowledge brought by scholarly research, and also the vital and revealed truths that have been sent to us from heaven.”10
My personal experiences with mentoring, though not as dramatic or influential as those described above, have convinced me that President Kimball’s vision can be realized by any teacher who cares to share his or her “double heritage.”
1. Quoted in Alexander Baugh, “The visions of Joseph Smith,” BYU Studies, 28.
2. Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 5:332..
3. Harold Bloom, The American Religion, 117.
4. Quoted in Susa Young Gates, Life Story of Brigham Young, 282.
5. See especially Hugh Nibley, “Brigham Young on Education,” and “More Brigham Young on Education,” in Brother Brigham Challenges the Saints.
6. Ronald K. Esplin, “Discipleship: Brigham Young and Joseph Smith,” Susan Easton Black and Charles D. Tate ed., Joseph: The Prophet, The Man, 246.
7. Gates, Life Story, 291-292.
8. Richard E. Bennett, “Brigham Young University,” Encyclopedia of Latter-day Saint History, 8.
9. Heber J. Grant, “Honoring Karl G. Maeser,” Improvement Era, June, 1935, No. 6.
David Paulsen is a professor of philosophy.
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