By An interview with Jim Bell
How did you come to the love of learning that seems to be so much a part of who you are?
I was born of goodly parents; so, as Nephi found, I was “taught in all the learning of my father.” Both of my parents loved books and cared about public service and were submissive to God. They met at BYU in the 1920s, where my dad (Orval Hafen) was on the debate team, and my mom (Ruth Clark) loved literature, drama, and French. He then earned a law degree at U.C. Berkeley, where he tasted enough urban sophistication that he decided to practice law in Phoenix. But he stopped of in St. George, his home town, in the early depression years to help the city fathers with a new agricultural co-op, and he ended up staying there. From my earliest days, I was attracted by my dad’s wonderful private library, and I saw my mom go every month to the Alice Louise Reynolds Club–probably the first book review group ever established in St. George, named for her favorite BYU teacher.
So my home life drew me naturally to ideas, books, and the arts. Of course growing up in St. George wouldn’t let those interests get too fancy. A small LDS town like that (it was small then) needs everybody to do everything, which has a way of rounding out your perspective. I began piano lessons at a young age and as a teenager accompanied many local singers; but I also participated in sports, student government, scouting, and church activities. And my close friends came from homes that spanned the entire socio-economic spectrum.
Did your father practice law in St. George?
Yes, and he was involved in many community and business projects. In 1952 he was elected to the Utah State Senate and astonished himself by discovering that he was taken seriously and was needed there. As a state legislator, he tried hard to be more of a statesman than a politician.
Since my mother’s recent death, I’ve thought back on my parents’ lives. My dad worried that his career wasn’t more focused. Other people needed him for so many things that he never quite got around to doing what he wanted to do. His life reminds me of Van Dyke’s Christmas story about “the other wise man,” who spends his life looking for the Christ-child but keeps getting distracted, giving his gifts to people who need them more than he does. In the end, the service he renders leads him to Christ after all.
My dad was passionate about Dixie College and the beauties of southern Utah, about lawyers actually trying to help people, about integrity and matters of principle in government. I’ve concluded that his life of service was more purposeful than he had imagined, because its essence was in the journey, not the destination. Being personally balanced and interested in other people helped him live that journey fully.
I realize now that my parents embodied the complete “aims of a BYU education.” That phrase is the title of an eloquent statement BYU adopted last year as part of our massive self-study project. It explains how a BYU education should be spiritually strengthening, intellectually enlarging, and character developing, leading to lifelong learning and service.
How did your parents teach you the spiritually strengthening part?
Mostly by example. Soon after my dad arrived in St. George, he was called to the stake presidency, which was one reason he stayed there. He was in his late 20s and single at the time; he married my mother soon thereafter.
Years later when in his mid 50s, he was called to serve as a counselor in a bishopric. At that time he was president of the State Senate, racing constantly between St. George and Salt Lake City. He was tired and financially overextended. At first he groaned inside, but then saw his calling in a mature light. I’ve reread in recent weeks what he confided to his journal:
My first reaction was, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me. I know something of the work required of a bishopric; it is a constant, continual grind; there is no let up. But neither do I feel that I can say no to any call that is made by the Church, and so I add to my first reaction, “Nevertheless, not as I will, but as Thou wilt.”
I will resolve to do it as best I can. The work of the Church will have to come first. I will have to learn, I suppose, to love the Deseret News, or at least the Church Section, as much as I love the Tribune. I will have to go to the temple more often. I want to become better acquainted with the ward members and be genuinely interested in them and their problems. I will need to learn to love every one of them and to dispose myself in such a way that they might find it possible to feel the same toward me. Perhaps in my weak way, I will have to try and live as close to the Lord as we expect the General Authorities to do.
Those were the private thoughts of his heart. He wasn’t running for office or complaining or apologizing–he knew exactly what he was getting into. It sobers me to hear my dad, so honest and so seasoned, say “we expect” the General Authorities to love the members of the Church and to live very close to the Lord. When I wonder how one does that, it helps me to think of his example.
How did you first come to BYU as a student?
When I graduated from high school, I went to Dixie College and then was called on a mission. I assumed I would come back and go to the University of Utah, because back then I didn’t think BYU was as strong as the U academically. I thought my choice was between attending a school that was serious about education and one that was serious about the Church.
But my mission affected my attitude toward BYU. When I left for Germany, I believed the Church was true, but I desired an authentic testimony, not a superficial conviction I would put on and take off like a suit. So I took my mission quite seriously, and by the time it was over, I had grown so much spiritually that I could honestly say what Elder Hugh B. Brown once said: “I came to know the Lord on my mission.”
That conviction pointed me toward BYU. By then I’d heard of the Honors Program, directed by Robert K. Thomas, a bright and believing English teacher. I was immediately drawn to him. Bob and the faculty he had involved in that program became a crucial part of my educational–and spiritual–development.
Can you remember some classes you especially liked?
One that stands out was a religion class called “Your Religious Problems,” taught by West Belnap, the dean of Religious Education. I met my wife, Marie Kartchner, in that class. In each class a student would present a problem he or she had wondered about. Under Brother Belnap’s guidance, we would discuss the question in a spirit of constructive inquiry, looking for insight that would help us personally.
I first became aware of Marie when she presented her question, “How can I have the guidance of the Spirit in my life?” That was an honest, important question. My question was, “How conservative should I be about living the gospel, and what do conservatism and liberalism mean?” I had sensed tension on the campus and elsewhere on such questions and didn’t understand what the tension was about. So I wanted to explore this issue.
In that class and in others at BYU, I saw the spiritual and intellectual dimensions of my life really come together on sound gospel foundations. That process felt like a natural extension of what I’d experienced in St. George and as a missionary.
What were your career plans at this point?
I was planning on a college teaching career. As I began my senior year at BYU I was looking at PhD programs. Then my father died at age 60 of a sudden heart attack. My mother began looking to me for help on business problems, and I discovered a gap in my understanding that made me rethink what I wanted to do in life.
Part of my problem was just inexperience, but I’d been so involved in the world of ideas that “the real world” felt uncomfortably foreign to me. And I was curious about how practical affairs worked. So Marie and I came home from my dad’s funeral in October of 1964 feeling unsettled enough about graduate school that we fasted and prayed for help. We abruptly decided to enroll in law school at the University of Utah, even though I hadn’t completed my degree or taken the LSAT (I later returned to finish my B.A. at BYU), and the U’s law school was already three weeks into a 12-week quarter. Marie was working on her master’s in English, she was expecting our first baby, and I was in a BYU bishopric; so I commuted daily to Salt Lake. I don’t recommend these as ideal conditions for starting law school. But in that year (and some others like it later on) we learned what Elder Neal A. Maxwell meant when he said the soul is like a violin string- it makes music only when it is stretched.
When I called Bob Thomas for advice about this change in direction, he said, “Well, then, go to law school, but you’ll come back to BYU. And if you do practice law, you’ll be a lawyer with a novel on your desk.”
I loved law school. I enjoyed there my first taste of serious research, writing, and publication. But I wanted to practice law, so when I graduated in 1967 I practiced in Salt Lake for four years and learned more about the financial and personal problems many adults must cope with.
How did you become involved in legal education?
By 1971, I was thinking seriously about teaching law. That was the year BYU announced it was starting a law school, and Bob Thomas told Dallin Oaks about my interests. President Oaks invited me to BYU as his assistant to help start the law school. In accepting this position, I hoped it would help me become a faculty member–I wasn’t interested in an administrative career. One of my first assignments was to gather background material about people being considered as the law school’s first dean. That is how I first came to know Rex Lee.
Did you spend all your time on the new law school?
No, I also served part-time as an associate dean in the Honors Program. This immersed me in the learning environment I had prized as a student, and it gave me a teacher’s perspective on the undergraduate experience at BYU.
I also began teaching honors Book of Mormon, which was probably the sweetest teaching and learning experience I have ever had. Teaching these classes also launched me on what has become a lifelong study of the Book of Mormon’s teachings about applying the Atonement to life’s experiences. Much of my writing on religious topics has its roots in those classes.
When the law school opened in 1973, then-Dean Rex Lee invited me to join the faculty and to be the assistant dean. I had enjoyed the exciting process of seeing the law school emerge, and I liked working with law students. But I was especially eager to become a full-time teacher/scholar, although in the next 23 years, I had the luxury of being a full-time professor for only one semester.
What attracted you to being a law professor?
There is no intellectual exercise quite like trying to match wits with eager law students in the socratic dialogue of analyzing cases–especially in BYU’s environment of faith. Beyond that, in the early 1970s American law was in the midst of a profound transformation that began to emphasize individual rights above all other interests. As I watched developments in the civil rights movement and the women’s movement, I expected that some people would eventually want to liberate children. And, indeed, the thrust of egalitarianism was so powerful that it did lead to a children’s rights movement.
In 1976 I published an article expressing concern about “abandoning children to their rights” in the BYU Law Review. I didn’t even think about trying to publish that article elsewhere, which might have seemed a mistake. But when the article was cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in a key case dealing with abortion rights for unmarried minors, I began to get invitations to write and speak on family law issues around the country. By this time I had been asked to go to Ricks College, but I spent much of my summers doing research and writing in the BYU law library. My most interesting experiences in those days included the publication of a long article in the Michigan Law Review on the constitutional status of marriage and an essay in the Harvard Law Review on children and the law.
These kinds of experiences meant a lot to me, partly because I felt so keenly the need to present a gospel-based view of families, marriage, and children to judges, scholars, and policy makers who were too often lost in a sea of anti-family ideas, such as what some of them called “the right to be let alone,” even within a family.
You spent a couple of years at Church headquarters before you went to Ricks College. What did you do there?
In 1976 the First Presidency created an office of research and evaluation in the Correlation Department of the Church. The Church was becoming so large and complex that they wanted to see if they could use modern research techniques to assess the impact of various Church programs, leadership training, curriculum, and so on. My assignment was to try out a variety of research methods- survey research, organizational behavior studies, educational evaluation, etc.–to see what functions and approaches this office should employ.
Under the direction of the Correlation Executive Committee of the Twelve, we brought together an excellent team of people–some BYU faculty on Church service calls and some full-time professionals who worked on given projects and reported their findings confidentially to the appropriate Church leaders. This office still operates as the Church’s Research Information Division.
This experience taught me in new ways how professional skill and spiritual guidance can work harmoniously together. It also opened my eyes to the unwritten order of things in the governing councils of the Church. I learned how the Brethren oversee the Church’s activities and how they give direction to their staff people, who serve so conscientiously. And I watched firsthand how prophetic direction comes, as illustrated by President Kimball’s inspired call to the Church in the late 1970s to more fully proclaim the gospel to all the world. As the doors to many nations have opened in dramatic ways in recent years, I’ve remembered hearing President Kimball earnestly ask the Saints to pray–and prepare- for the Lord to open those very doors.
You spent seven years as the president of Ricks College. How would you summarize that experience?
I had never thought about a career in educational administration, but going to Ricks was like going back to St. George to relive my happy early years, when I was more a generalist than a specialist. Ricks College is a nearly perfect environment for the LDS freshman who needs a sense of direction about life, learning, and love. Ricks has preserved what I call “the spirit of the Academy”–the wholesome and stimulating goodness of the small LDS academies the Church maintained early in this century.
One Ricks experience that brought back the St. George days was playing the piano part in the Brahms Piano Quintet with the Faculty String Quartet. It took me two years of practice at odd hours even to approach this music. The night we performed in the Ruth Barrus concert hall of the Eliza R. Snow Center, I was asked to introduce the members of our group to the student audience. I told them I knew I ran the risk of being arrested for impersonating a musician, but I was just trying to help model the integrated life of aesthetic, spiritual, and intellectual abundance that we try to teach them in the classroom. Besides, I just loved playing Brahms with those people.
My sense is that you’ve done a lot of early morning practicing and late-night reading over the years.
I couldn’t help it, I guess. I honestly believe what we tell our students at BYU and Ricks about how satisfying it is to learn and stretch and grow, especially when we discover the opportunities and blessings that naturally follow. My own experience has taught me that the prophets’ vision of higher education and the abundant life really works. Education is at the heart of the gospel–when the gospel is at the heart of education.
When I was at Ricks, for example, a group of us tried using the Articles of Faith as our point of departure in teaching students in Western Civilization classes that they have more of a philosophy of life than they know. We showed them that the gospel has the real answers to life’s big questions–the questions that get asked in philosophy classes, in history classes, in the hard sciences, and in the social sciences. Our students found they could use the Articles of Faith to organize and understand the history of the world’s great questions and ideas. It worked, and it was really fun.
Turning to your years at BYU, there have always been tensions between education and religion. How do you feel the university and the Church ought to deal with such issues, particularly given that we’re dealing here with a vast number of individuals, each with unique backgrounds and perspectives?
I’ve felt those strains at times, but I consider them productive tensions. People in BYU’s central administration have always served somewhat as interpreters between the Board of Trustees and the faculty. When I joined the administration in 1989, I had already developed so much appreciation for the Brethren that I had enormous confidence in their educational vision–how broad it is, how genuine it is. I had also lived long enough on the faculty side to feel great trust in my BYU colleagues.
The basic perspective of BYU’s approach to education isn’t complicated–our religious understanding is simply broader than our secular understanding. As Terry Warner put it, that’s why Alma’s map of the universe includes everything Korihor knows and more, but Korihor’s secular map is too small to understand Alma’s religious experience.
Still, it can sometimes be very demanding to combine unwavering religious faith with the relentless pursuit of intellectual inquiry. Yet all of my experience confirms for me that our belief in scripture and living prophets literally gives us what Elder Henry B. Eyring calls “a better way to teach and learn.” I’m increasingly convinced about BYU’s ability to pursue these twin commitments without compromising either our faithfulness or our academic quality.
I also see more every day how much society needs us to do that. More than once I’ve been approached at family law conferences by people who express a combination of wonder and envy about the Church’s reputation for stable family life. Then they say this stability gives us a base of insight and experience that makes our participation absolutely crucial in the scholarly and policy dialogues about the family. We live in a world that is fast losing its confidence that people can make marriage and parenting work at all.
Is there any risk that our unusual approach to higher education will result in other universities taking BYU less seriously?
We clearly face that risk, especially because many elites in American society may grow even less sympathetic toward religious explanations in the future. That’s why our faculty and students simply must be methodologically and professionally impeccable, so people can see that our total approach to teaching and scholarship is sound. By the quality of our educational fruits they will know us. The country’s academic leaders already perceive BYU in the most favorable light we’ve ever enjoyed–last year’s national U.S. News poll ranked BYU among the nation’s top 25 undergraduate teaching universities.
And the national team that renewed our 10-year institutional accreditation this spring called BYU “a very strong institution” that is “much changed for the better” in recent years. They offered a few modest suggestions, then they commended the university for the “uncommonly pervasive” sense of its mission across the campus; the openness of its approach to academic freedom; and the honest depth of the recent campus self-study. On the other hand, the history of church-related universities shows that a school’s success can be its biggest problem. As faculty on a religious campus surprise themselves by earning the respect of non-religious peers, they may become more concerned about the judgment of those peers than about the feelings of their church constituencies. But the BYU people I know are too wise to fall for that temptation.
I once tried to explain to an education writer for the New York Times how serious we are at BYU about our spiritual commitments and our commitments to intellectual rigor. He said, “If I didn’t believe that BYU is serious about its devotion both to academic excellence and to Mormon religious values, I wouldn’t be here- there would be no story. It’s the combination that makes you unique and interesting. Nearly all other religious universities wind up choosing mostly a secular path or a religious one. I hope you succeed, but it won’t be easy.”
How difficult is it to achieve that combination?
In the most fundamental sense, it’s not that difficult, if we just follow the Lord’s counsel: “Teach ye diligently, and my grace shall attend you.” (D&C 88:78) Both elements are there–analytical rigor and spiritual power. But both parts require hard work. As President Boyd K. Packer once said, reason and revelation will mix only when they’re interactively in motion, like stirring oil and water. When the motion stops, they may separate and pull apart. But with all that movement, I’ve noticed that a few people may get motion sickness.
What’s the cure for the motion sickness?
In President Packer’s words, it helps to have “a third ingredient, a catalyst, which itself remains unchanged in the blending process.” That catalyst is the spirit, and it can be aided by our effort to give revelation the priority it deserves. I remember a conversation one night when a close BYU friend said to me, “All of my professional life I’ve believed in the dream of building a truly first-rate university that is fully dedicated to the leadership and the values of the Church. But tonight I don’t know if the idea of BYU can really work.”
He and I exchanged glances that reflected the weight of our both having invested our time and energy over many years in this place we care about so much. Then we said to one another that whether the idea of BYU works is basically up to us–the faculty, students, and administrators. What President Hinckley called “this great experiment” of BYU’s devotion to both sacred and secular knowledge won’t succeed all by itself.
So much good can come when BYU does succeed in the lives of its students and faculty, and those whom they influence, that we shouldn’t be surprised when the Adversary tries to pull our dreams apart. And we’re often dealing with the contrary elements of some large and important paradoxes–elements in apparent contradiction that can in fact work wonders together, like justice and mercy. Consider personal freedom vs. submission to legitimate authority; the life of the mind vs. the life of the spirit; the world of the Church vs. the world of higher education.
When we actively wrap our arms around such paradoxes and lovingly but knowingly hold their moving forces together in productive equilibrium, the BYU idea works. I’ve seen it work, time after time, in my own learning, my teaching, my writing, and its blessings are worth every ounce of strength it takes to clasp our arms around the dream and hold on to it dearly–if need be, to “stretch forth [our arms] all the day long.” (Jacob 6:4)
There is another source of my confidence in BYU’s future, and that is the faith, the attitudes, and the skills of the students, faculty, and others who come here. Marie, who has been teaching Shakespeare and writing classes for the BYU Honors Program the last few years, has experienced the same thing I have. We have watched together in complete awe for 25 years as we’ve come to know intimately the faith, the giftedness, and the unqualified love for the Lord we have seen in dozens upon dozens of young men and women whom we now count among our choicest friends. They are also among our most memorable examples of those who are humble followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. Many of them are now members of the faculty and staff at BYU and Ricks. They represent the Saints of the Most High all across the globe, moved by a heavenly power to gather to this educational Zion. Each of them has personally resolved the educational paradoxes and tensions with inspiring productivity.
We include our own children and their spouses in this description, having watched them complete missions, college and professional training, and teach at the MTC; and we’ve played chamber music and co-authored papers with them. As I see the same healthy relationship between heart and head in our children that I saw in my parents, I know from the evidence that BYU’s great experiment is repeatable–and that Elijah really does plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers.
Recently a non-LDS family law professor from Japan spent a week on the campus among our students and faculty. As he left, he called BYU “an oasis of hope in the land of the apocalypse.” Then he talked about the students and said earnestly, “You must explain to me the mystery behind all the shining eyes.”
One part of that explanation is what Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace called “the spirit of the Army.” He said this spirit is a “mysterious indefinable bond” that can hold an army together in an uncanny unity when the leaders and the soldiers are in spiritual harmony with one another. Then a general’s command succeeds, not because the command is “the outcome of cunning calculations,” but because the “feeling that lies [in the general’s soul also lies in the soul] of every other Russian.”
The spirit of the army of Israel is alive and well at BYU, a spirit of simplicity, goodness, and truth that animates and enlivens this community every day. Those who can’t understand the relationship between the Latter-day Saints and their leaders don’t understand the origin and meaning of this spirit, which derives from the fruits of intensely personal testimonies developed through thousands of private stories and struggles. When these people sing their thanks to God for a prophet, they sing freely, frankly, and with all their hearts.
How did your call to the First Quorum of Seventy come, and how did you react to it?
Someone called from Salt Lake on April l, asking if Marie and I could meet with President Hinckley the next Wednesday. Because the phone call came on April Fool’s Day, I wondered if this were a practical joke. As it turned out, it was no joke.
Perhaps I should back up to a time several months before this phone call came. Marie and I were feeling tired, and we needed fresh perspective. Most people have such moments, but this one seemed unusually focused, even weighty, for us. My mother, who was 86 and had lived next door to us for 10 years, had just passed away. My long-time friend, Rex Lee, had announced his resignation as president of BYU because of his failing health, and I really didn’t see myself remaining in the next administration in the kind of role Rex had asked me to play. Somewhere in the midst of all this, we just drove to Jackson Hole for a weekend, not knowing exactly why. We had worked in Grand Teton National Park the first summer we were married, and sometimes we just needed to go back. This was such a time. Early on the morning after we arrived, we looked out the window and saw a huge American bald eagle sitting in a tree very close to us. Neither of us had seen an eagle at such close range in the wild.
As we watched that spectacular sight, I was reminded of a scripture in Isaiah 40 I had come to love as a missionary. We read in verse 31, “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.” As I read that verse, I realized that I did not know what it meant to “wait upon the Lord,” but I felt a desire to find out. The next day while reading something quite unrelated, I stumbled across a passage in the Joseph Smith Translation of Matthew about the Savior’s boyhood: He “grew up with his brethren, and waxed strong, and waited upon the Lord for the time of his ministry to come.” (JST Matt. 3:24) Suddenly, I understood that waiting upon the Lord is something active, not just passive waiting. I also sensed that learning how to wait upon Him would fill the undefined need I was feeling.
For the next several months we found ourselves somehow driven to intensify our relationship with the Lord–not because of anything specific, but because we just felt a hunger to do it.
We took several steps as part of this quest, including deeper scripture study and temple time, along with visits to other places that had special meaning for us. In the process we felt that our spiritual and intellectual strength was being renewed, bringing us an unusual infusion of both energy and peace.
We have a favorite art print from a French museum showing Peter and John running at full tilt toward the Savior’s tomb on resurrection morning–they’ve just heard from Mary that he is risen. We’ve now given this picture a new title: waiting upon the Lord.
Someone said that life is what happens to you while you’re waiting for something else. But “waiting” in the scriptural sense is a deeply purposeful way to make things happen. It can allow us entrance to the “rest of the Lord,” which means, among other things, enjoying the influence of the Lord’s presence. Such waiting becomes a spiritual gestation period from which we can emerge like a caterpillar turned into a butterfly, with new direction and new wings, even the wings of eagles.
By the time of April Conference, we had experienced a genuine spiritual renewal. The call from President Hinckley was a breathtaking surprise–yet we had been prepared for it spiritually, even though not rationally.
After issuing the call, President Hinckley told us we would serve until I am age 70. “Then,” he said with a gentle smile, “you can go fishing. Do you fish?” I said I’d learned to fly fish in Idaho. We later told our children this story, explaining what we had learned about waiting upon the Lord. Our daughter then surprised us with the gift of a woodsy picture of a fishing rod, reel, and basket. She inscribed a scripture at the bottom: “My presence shall go with thee, and I will give thee rest.” (Ex. 33:14) So now we will keep “waiting,” and seek the Lord’s “rest,” with all the energy we have, until it’s time to go fishing.
How do you feel about leaving behind your academic career–your books and your scholarship?
I gave my first talk at BYU in 1974. At the end I asked the students to imagine with me that perhaps on one of those nights as some of the pioneers came across the prairies, some of them who liked books might have sat beneath the stars and asked, “Do you think that one day there could be a university in Zion? A great school, with all the books and laboratories and teachers, where the Saints might come from all across the world to learn together? Just think–all those books and the Spirit, too!” At times in recent years my arms have grown weary from holding on to paradoxes, but that childlike sense of wonder still expresses my feelings about BYU, and it has given me strength to hold on.
I thank the Lord for parents who loved books and for the blessing of serving in the Church Educational System. And I’m really not leaving behind any important books–I hope “the best books,” referred to in D&C 88:118, are in me by now. The main books I’ll physically carry “across the plains” to the Pacific Area now are the scriptures, which are the foundation for all my interests- spiritual and intellectual. With those precious books, I feel the spirit of the same promise: “All those books, and the Spirit too.”