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From Our Exchanges: William E. Berrett, “How Do You Teach Church History?”

By: Ardis E. Parshall - February 15, 2010

William Edward Berrett (1902-1993) was a lawyer by training and practice and a teacher and historian by love. He graduated from the University of Utah in 1924 and received his legal degree there in 1933. In between, he joined the LDS Department of Education and taught seminary at half a dozen high schools from Rigby, Idaho in the north to Kanab, Utah in the south. Even while maintaining an active law practice in Salt Lake City, he taught outgoing missionaries in the Mission Home throughout the 1930s and ’40s.

He became a professor of religion at BYU in about 1950, and soon afterward was appointed vice president of BYU as well as vice administrator of church schools in charge of religious education (i.e., seminaries and institutes). He wrote a number of textbooks for the seminaries and institutes system. He retired from active teaching in 1970, serving then as a stake patriarch until his death.

William E. Berrett, “How Do You Teach Church History?” Improvement Era, February 1959, 94-95, 104-110.

This essay reads as though it may have been a talk before some gathering of seminary and institute leaders, but there is no note to that effect in his publication here.

Berrett opens with the standard arguments justifying the teaching of history, with Mormon examples: We understand the present by looking to the past (so we will know, for instance, why the few homes in Moccasin, Arizona are clustered in a tight knot rather than being scattered across the landscape as they would be in Iowa); we will find meaning which the natural eye overlooks (the Sacred Grove is just a clump of trees unless you know what happened there); we can live mentally anywhere, any time, with the greatest minds who have ever lived (even if our feet are firmly planted in the dusty ground of Moab, Utah, with “no public library, no operas, no gifted artists, nowhere to go and nothing to do”); we will be warned by the example of the past (and not be fooled by the rise of a Mussolini, a Hitler, or a Stalin, because history teaches us that happiness comes from obedience to law and to God); we will be comforted (bishops who are concerned by low attendance at meetings will realize that attendance was even lower in the past; things are looking up, brother); and we will be able to model ourselves after the great men of the past (such as Joseph Smith, who never complained about anything again after his experience in Liberty Jail).

When Berrett begins discussing the actual teaching of history, his talk is prescient of Boyd K. Packer’s memorable address to religious educators, The Mantle Is Far, Far Greater than the Intellect, but without the harshness. Where President Packer warns religion teachers against adopting academic standards he finds antithetical to the gospel, Berrett testifies movingly to the role of God in history, and simply assumes that religion teachers will want to place history in a gospel light:

The history of our church is a part of the whole pattern in which the Lord has played a part among men. He does have a place in history. He does have a place in our history and what is occurring among us. He is leading to the completion of the plan. The events of Mormon history are not chance events. In their larger implication they are events brought about by men working with God to the end that the purposes of the Lord can be completed upon the earth, so that the Lord will come again. Our Saints looked forward to that coming, and as they lived the events recorded, that thought was uppermost in their minds. As we study those events and contemplate our own lives in the picture, we, too, should be looking forward to that part of history yet in the future but which we know will happen because the Lord has brought the future into our present.

He writes,

In teaching history, there are two things that should concern us. One is our point of view, and the other is the matter that we emphasize.

Writers of history often have a point of view. Sometimes it is a good one and sometimes a bad one, but few people write without some point of view. Mayor Thompson of Chicago some years ago wrote a book on American history. He had a point of view. It was that Americans are glorious, and all other peoples are cowards. In illustration of his work, consider these lines from his account of the Battle of Bunker Hill: “Three times the cowardly British stormed up the hill in the face of a withering fire.” It is true that there are some people who recount LDS Church history in about that same mood – all the Mormons are saints and all their persecutors are scoundrels. It is not necessary that one needs to take that point of view in studying Church history, but there is a point of view that we should take. It is the point of view that in the story of this people God is a central figure. … One cannot understand the history of this people unless he takes the point of view that God has spoken. …

It is to be hoped that in teaching Church history, our teachers keep a major objective in mind – to have every student of Church history come out of his study with an understanding that God has played a part in the history of this people, that his hand has been at the helm, and that we have succeeded because of his guidance.

Berrett had great faith in the potential of church history, taught from the right point of view and with th right pedagogical methods, to convert young people to the gospel:

We can become so involved in mere detail that we lose sight of the important things in Church history. … to have students memorize long lists of names, dates, and places is without any value unless one interprets the events that occur. There is no significance in relating the details of the murder of Joseph Smith and Hyrum in Carthage jail as such. There have been many people murdered in this world. It does become important that a man so loved his people and so loved certain principles given to him of the Lord that he was willing to forsake his journey to the West, where he could have saved his life, and willingly gave himself up. It is important that we have young people come to a realization that some things in life are worth dying for.

and

We ought to teach history as great adventure. We ought to take our young people into it as we take them on field trips. They ought to be with Joseph, about to head out to safety in the West, assured of the Lord that if they turn back they will die. They ought to make the decision with him to return to Carthage. They need to die with him for a principle.

Berrett recommends five methods of taking students back in time, to live their heritage along with Joseph:

  • You must thrill with it yourself; live those stories until they are part of you.
  • Send your students into their readings as to an adventure. That means that you must lay some groundwork, so that they will be as eager to go on that trip as they would be to go into the hills to find new streams or climb new mountains.
  • Build your class discussions around great ideas and their effect upon people.
  • Test students on understanding, not on memorization of names, dates, and places. It is important that they know why things happen.
  • Tie all that is past to the present. Bring the student who is out on an adventurous field trip back home with his treasure. Surely in our study of the history of the world we, as Latter-day Saints should be able to do that. We even go so far as to tie up to the present the whole history of man before the earth was made. We tie up all the dispensations in which God has given of his knowledge and of his authority to man with the present. We tie up the present with the future.

But don’t mistake Berrett for one of those seminary teachers who confuses the working of the Spirit with emotional manipulation, who will use bathos, pathos, sensationalism and exaggeration to bring his students to tears or awe. Berrett wants students to live history, but history must be truthful before it has the power to convert:

We have a rich heritage of source materials. … Be careful, however, of sources which have not been authenticated, accounts which have risen only in the minds of a few, or miraculous happenings which are not yet verified. … We do not need to use that kind of story, whether it is true or not. In doing our jobs as Church historians beware of using any miraculous account that is not well verified. Miracles do not convert, anyway. The thing which converts is to have our young people live these experiences, so that they sense what men and women have been willing to go through for principles. They sense how strongly men and women have known that God lives and that this is his church through the way they lived and the sacrifices they were willing to make.

There’s a lesson there for all historians, teachers or not.



8 Comments »

  1. Fun! Makes me want to put on my backpack and head out on a church history adventure!

    Comment by Rob — February 15, 2010 @ 10:52 am

  2. That’s an interesting talk/article. I agree that Mormon history should not be presented in simple us vs. them terms.

    And his list of how to teach Mormon history? It is the rare and memorable teacher who is able to take these points to heart and take the subject to heart and successfully communicate it to his or her students.

    (Quiet day on all the blogs! Must be the holiday.)

    Comment by Researcher — February 15, 2010 @ 1:12 pm

  3. Very interesting. Now I am reading parts of Berrett’s “The Restored Church” that was used in Institutes or seminary classes to see what I need to do to adjust my point of view – which is colored by many experiences that push it into a “us and them” attitude.

    Comment by CurtA — February 15, 2010 @ 2:13 pm

  4. A couple of Berrett’s statements sound like a mission statement for Keepa:

    You must thrill with (history) yourself; live those stories until they are part of you.
    Send your students into their readings as to an adventure.

    You’re a good student and a good teacher, Ardis.

    Comment by kevinf — February 15, 2010 @ 3:22 pm

  5. Thanks for this review. Excellent stuff.

    Comment by m&m — February 16, 2010 @ 12:42 am

  6. Thanks for your comments (especially the personal ones!). I was away from the internet most of the day and wasn’t able to respond until now.

    Berrett must have been a natural-born teacher, at least of the kind who suit my taste. I think it’s as extraordinary that he could analyze his own teaching style to recognize what it was that he was really doing, as it was that he could teach that way at all.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 16, 2010 @ 10:07 am

  7. I like this. Not only can I use it in my teaching in church, but I think many of these priciples could be apllied to writing my blog posts. Ardis already has this stuff to a science.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — February 16, 2010 @ 10:22 am

  8. I loved Berrett’s statement regarding unauthenticated sources, unverified miracles, and accounts “which have risen only in the minds of a few”:

    We do not need to use that kind of story, whether it is true or not.

    Loved that.

    The content was excellent, as were Ardis’ introductory and explanatory comments. Thanks!

    Comment by Hunter — February 16, 2010 @ 10:24 am

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