5 facts about one of the most influential and ‘forgotten’ Latter-day Saint apostles
BYU professor publishes biography detailing the life of scientist, educator and apostle Joseph F. Merrill
Try this Latter-day Saint trivia question: Which apostle founded the seminary and institute programs, served as mission president to a future church president and helped pioneer the use of media and technology to spread the gospel message?
The answer is Joseph F. Merrill, who served in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1931-1952.
Casey Griffiths referred to Elder Merrill as a “forgotten” apostle.
“Few people have ever heard of him,” said Griffiths, who had no idea himself until he was a BYU graduate student in 2007. “He’s probably the most important forgotten apostle that we have.”
Griffiths, a Brigham Young University professor in the Department of Church History and Doctrine, has published the biography of a relatively unknown church leader titled, “Truth Seeker: The Life of Joseph F. Merrill, Scientist, Educator, and Apostle.” The book’s release date is July 27.
Here are five interesting facts about Merrill’s life and why it matters today.
1. Merrill witnessed a ‘transition’
Joseph Merrill was born in Richmond, Utah, on Aug. 24, 1868.
His father was Marriner W. Merrill, a pioneer of Cache Valley and the first president of the Logan Utah Temple. Marriner served as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles from 1889 to 1906.
Joseph’s mother was Maria L. Kingsbury, one of Marriner’s eight wives. In his personal writings, Joseph Merrill wrote about his father staying with a different family each day of the week and having secret hiding places in their home so his father could escape from U.S. marshals planning to arrest him for practicing plural marriage.
“(Joseph Merrill) is a great illustration of the transition the church goes through from the 19th century to the 20th century, from being kind of these wild polygamists in the West, separated from the world, to becoming respectable, upstanding members of society, a light and influence in the world. By the end of his life he’s a respected educator and scientist.” Griffiths said.
2. Reconciling religion in a secular world
Merrill is said to be the first native-born Utahn to earn a doctorate degree.
He attended the University of Deseret (now the University of Utah), where he met his future wife, Annie Laura Hyde, the grandchild of apostles John Taylor and Orson Hyde. The two corresponded as Merrill continued his education at the University of Michigan and then Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.
During his graduate studies, Merrill became somewhat cynical in his attitude toward faith because he didn’t have a local Latter-day Saint congregation to attend.
“It’s a little amusing to see some pious people; they seem to think religion consists principally in going to church,” Merrill wrote in a letter to Hyde. “But I must confess that judged by this standard I have lost nearly all my religion. I haven’t been to church but once since May 30. What do you think will become of me! Don’t the prospects frighten you?”
Hyde encouraged Merrill to stay true to the gospel, Griffiths said.
“She’s writing him and saying, ‘You need to hang in there and stay strong,’” the biographer said. “She kind of pulls him back from the brink.”
3. The beginnings of church education
Merrill was married with a young family in 1911 when inspiration for the church’s future seminary program came.
One night Merrill observed as his wife held the children spellbound with stories from the scriptures. Later he asked her where she learned to teach like that? She replied that she learned from her teacher at the Salt Lake Academy, another future apostle named James E. Talmage.
Remembering how he distanced himself from religion in college, Merrill formulated an idea to create a system where a person can attend a secular school and still have an opportunity to study the scriptures.
As a member of the church’s Granite Utah Stake at the time, Merrill suggested building a seminary next to the high school, similar to something he had seen while visiting the University of Chicago. The stake president authorized the use of $2,500 to construct the first seminary building, which was designed like a bungalow house so it could be sold if things didn’t work out, Griffiths said.
Thomas Yates, an engineer at the Murray power plant, was recruited to be the first seminary teacher of a class in 1912 that included future BYU president Howard S. McDonald and Mildred Bennion Eyring, the mother of President Henry B. Eyring, second counselor in the church’s current First Presidency.
Less than a decade later, Merrill became the church’s first commissioner of education and helped establish the institutes of religion with a mission to help college students reconcile secular learning with spiritual learning.
“Personally, I am convinced that religion is as reasonable as science; that religious truths and scientific truths nowhere are in conflict; that there is one great unifying purpose extending throughout all creation; that we are living in a wonderful, though at the present time deeply mysterious, world; and that there is an all-wise, all-powerful creator at the back of it all,” Merrill wrote. “Can this same faith be developed in the minds of all collegiate and university students? Our collegiate institutes are established as means to this end.”
Merrill is also responsible for creating the Religion Department at BYU, where young scholars are encouraged to produce professional studies of the Latter-day Saint faith.
4. President Hinckley’s mission president and media pioneer
The innovative Merrill was called to preside over the British Mission in 1933, then one of the church’s largest areas of missionary work.
With missionaries still preaching to crowds in Hyde Park, Merrill felt proselyting methods were outdated. He selected one missionary named Gordon B. Hinckley and together they looked for ways to use the latest technologies and materials to communicate more efficiently and reach a larger audience.
This effort led young Elder Hinckley to work with media in church employment after his mission, and he eventually became the president of the church.
“When President Merrill returns, they keep working together to figure out how to use film, radio and new technology to spread the message of the gospel,” Griffiths said.
5. Merrill the minister
In 1943, one of Merrill’s closest friends and fellow apostle, Richard R. Lyman, was excommunicated from the church.
Merrill and Lyman were students together in Michigan, had adjoining offices at the University of Utah and walked to school each day, not to mention served together in the church. Merrill had high respect for Lyman, Griffiths said.
Despite his devastation and heartbreak, Merrill continued to be a loyal friend. His journals contain many notations about spending time with Lyman. Their friendship continued until Merrill’s death.
The unconditional friendship of Merrill and others helped Lyman return to the church before his death, Griffiths said.
“It’s a really touching story,” he said. “Merrill doesn’t give up on him and helps him come back to the church.”
‘Elder Merrill was my mentor’
Griffiths had never heard of Merrill until about 15 years ago when he was a graduate student at BYU. He was considering a thesis on a topic related to the Civil War when a lunch conversation with BYU religion professor Scott Esplin turned him in a different direction.
Esplin informed Griffiths that Merrill’s family had donated his papers to BYU after his death and they were open to the public. Nobody had written about his life.
It’s rare for the public to have access to an apostle’s papers because they are generally restricted by the church for an extended period after their death due to privacy and other safeguards, unless pre-authorized, Griffiths explained.
Griffiths was in BYU’s Special Collections an hour later looking through 46 boxes of rich materials and resources, including journals and correspondence. In one box he found a letter from Merrill’s fiancé and a lock of her hair fell out.
“That had been in there for 100 years or so,” Griffiths said. “I took a photograph of it.”
Merrill’s life experiences, especially his struggles with faith and education, served as inspiration to Griffiths.
“I felt like Elder Merrill was my mentor. When I read his writings and how he dealt with questions of skepticism and faith, I felt like he was looking over my shoulder the whole time saying, ‘Hey, I did this, and you can do it too.’ ... To have the opportunity to read his journals and see his struggles was super uplifting for me.” — Casey Griffiths
“Graduate school can be tough on a person’s faith,” he said. “I felt like Elder Merrill was my mentor. When I read his writings and how he dealt with questions of skepticism and faith, I felt like he was looking over my shoulder the whole time saying, ‘Hey, I did this, and you can do it too.’ ... To have the opportunity to read his journals and see his struggles was super uplifting for me.”
Griffiths continued: “One of the reasons why I wrote the book was because I think Elder Merrill was such a great example to bright young Latter-day Saints to say you can be an intelligent person and also be a faithful person. There doesn’t have to be any sort of conflict between the two.”