For 100 years now, high school-age members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been learning and growing in their faith through the church’s seminary program. Since its beginnings with a class of 70 at Salt Lake City’s Granite High School, the LDS seminary program has grown to more than 375,000 students worldwide, including about 1,800 in Tooele County.
The Tooele Seminary opened its doors in 1926 and has been housed in various buildings and locations over the years, according to Steve Pruden, director of the LDS Educational Institute in Tooele. The original building, on the east side of Second Street, was constructed at a cost of $3,700 and had a single classroom. In 1937, it was expanded to include an office, library and a second classroom. During those years, Brother Le Roi Bently served as the seminary’s first teacher and principal.
By 1960, the Tooele Seminary had grown to 345 students and three teachers, prompting another expansion and the addition of a third classroom. As the ‘60s drew to a close, seminary enrollment topped 600 and a new building was planned, just north of the original one. It was dedicated on Aug. 22, 1971. Today’s seminary building, located near Tooele Junior High School, retains its ties to the past through the historic cement marker in front, which dates from the 1937 expansion.
Over the years, the seminary program grew to other Tooele County communities, including Grantsville, Stansbury Park, Dugway, Wendover, Vernon and Ibapah. Some of the county’s seminary programs are home based, with students learning on their own and meeting once a week. Others meet near high schools during the school day or early in the morning before school starts. Students who participate during the school day are released from school for seminary and do not receive high school credit for seminary courses. However, completing the four-year program is an important component of acceptance to LDS universities, Pruden said.
Max Molgard, director of the church’s correlation department, taught at both the Tooele and Grantsville seminaries in the 1980s and early 1990s. For part of that time, he divided his days between Tooele and Grantsville, teaching in one community in the morning and the other in the afternoon. He has many memories of his years as a seminary instructor and principal, especially the time when a devastating fire at Grantsville High School temporarily forced the seminary students to meet in a portable building.
“We called it the ‘seminary shed,’” Molgard said. “That was really a challenging time, but everyone sacrificed and it was also a time of spiritual growth.”
Darrell Smith, a seminary teacher at Tooele and seminary principal at Grantsville in the late 1980s and 1990s, also remembers the seminaries fondly. “Working with kids is fantastic,” he said. “[As a seminary instructor] you’re teaching a subject that’s not math or science. Most kids really want to be in seminary, so it’s a fun teach. You’re teaching something that you have a testimony of.”
The seminaries provide year-long courses on a rotating basis, including courses on the Old Testament, New Testament, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and church history. All high school-age members of the LDS church are encouraged to participate.
Joyce Erickson was the secretary at the Tooele and Grantsville seminaries between 1978 and 1995. She credits outstanding faculty members for the seminaries’ long history of success.
“We had wonderful faculty the whole time I was there,” she said. “The seminary teachers always dressed very professionally and the church’s standards were always upheld.”
She said she remembers the seminary faculty as a tight-knit and supportive group.
“They worked together, socialized together, and watched each other’s children grow up,” she said.
Although retired now, Erickson continues to stay in touch with faculty members she worked with. One change she has noticed affecting the seminaries, especially since the mid 1990s, is Tooele County’s growth. Erickson said at one time she knew every stake and ward and all the boundaries, but she doesn’t anymore.
Fortunately, the seminary curriculum is standardized, so students who move from another area find that they can easily pick up where they left off, Pruden said. Unlike many high school courses, seminary classes are less about memorizing facts and more about having conversations and sharing thoughts. Students almost always find the program valuable and enjoy the change of pace from the rest of the school day, he said.
Although LDS youth also receive religious education at their churches on Sundays, the seminary is more in depth and interactive than Sunday School, said Scott Wardle, Tooele County coordinator for LDS seminaries and institutes. The seminary program creates a foundation for life that students reflect back on throughout their lives he said.
Part of the program’s appeal may be that it strives to be practical by helping students discover how to apply what they learn in seminary courses to their own lives, Wardle emphasized.
“It’s really about putting belief into action,” Wardle said. “The goal is to help kids practice true Christian action.”
Smith said he believes that seminary teachers and students learn from each other.
“What I saw happening as far as curriculum was that every person is a teacher and every person is a student,” Smith said. “Everyone tells what they see. Students are finding for themselves what they need [in the scriptures] so that when they’re finished with seminary, they are scripturally self-reliant. They know how to interpret and draw out from the scripture. It’s like the old saying, ‘If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, but if you teach him how to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.’”
During the many years that they’ve been involved with the seminary program, Wardle and Pruden have both observed changes in seminary students.
“The caliber of kids is different today,” Pruden said. “Kids are light years ahead of where they were [in the past]. They are scripture scholars. It’s very impressive to see the change. They realize they need a moral foundation or they’ll be swept away by everything that’s going on in today’s world.”
Rebelliousness for its own sake is long gone, and today’s kids work hard, he added. Molgard couldn’t agree more.
“Every year the students became better,” Molgard said. “They’re more knowledgeable about scripture and very focused on studying the scriptures. I think it’s because of all the challenges in the world today. Students have to take a side, and when they choose, they become very committed.”