LONDON — Long portraits of English barristers in regal red robes and white wigs loom over the staircase inside the Honorable Society of the Inner Temple. An adjacent auditorium bustles with a group of international lawyers, scholars and clergy, all attending Notre Dame’s third annual Religious Freedom Summit.

A tall, broad-shouldered Anglican priest dressed in a cassock is chatting with the Relief Society general president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The two could be old acquaintances, even though they’ve just met.

The Oxford-based priest — the Rev. Dr. Andrew Teal — has developed a public relationship with the global Latter-day Saint community. He’s delivered addresses at BYU and visited Utah. He’s co-authored a book with an apostle. He’s hosted BYU scholars and church leaders at his university.

But it isn’t just the Rev. Teal. The Oxford college that he calls home, Pembroke College, has also developed unlikely ties to Latter-day Saints and to Utah County. 

Years ago, Elder Matthew S. Holland, while serving as president of Utah Valley University, forged a relationship with Dr. Nicholas Cole, an Oxford historian. That led to an ambitious research project that combined students and academics from UVU and Oxford, eventually culminating in annual pilgrimages to Oxford for UVU students. In 2017, Elder Holland took a sabbatical to be a visiting scholar at Pembroke, where he met the Rev. Teal.

Last summer, Terryl Givens, a senior research fellow at the Maxwell Institute, hosted a group of scholars and other Latter-day Saint historians and theologians for a weeklong seminar at Pembroke. This fall, the former Maxwell Institute director Spencer Fluhman will head to Pembroke for a yearlong fellowship of his own, months after dozens of UVU students have returned from their summer visits.

Nowhere is Pembroke’s welcoming posture more apparent than at the Chapel at Pembroke College, which the Rev. Teal oversees. At a cursory glance, the building looks much like Oxford University’s other on-campus worship spaces. Its gray marble floors contrast with ornate, colorful ceilings; window after window of stained glass emit multicolored hues. An altar sits before a painting of Christ in a red robe. 

On the chapel’s wooden pews, arranged horizontally on either side of the room, lay copies of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Next to each book is a gesture to Latter-day Saint visitors who come to worship: a copy of the Book of Mormon.

Students play croquet at Pembroke College, Oxford University, England, on June 14, 2017. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

‘A really interesting proposition’

Like many British universities, Oxford follows the traditional collegiate pattern. Instead of dividing itself like an American research university — engineering school here, humanities school here, life sciences there — Oxford is organized by a series of residential colleges. The colleges are not organized by subject matter, and in some ways, operate as universities within the broader university, having their own head masters (who act much like deans under the university’s chancellor) and their own facilities — classrooms, dormitories and often a dining hall, library and chapel. Sometimes they have their own separate endowments. Students and faculty of different disciplines live and work among each other, and the college controls its own membership. The system, dating back centuries, promotes both fraternity and interdisciplinarity. There are 39 colleges at Oxford; Pembroke is one of them.

Pembroke’s Old Quad — a grassy area flanked on all sides by limestone offices and residential spaces — was built in the 1600s, and its larger Chapel Quad was added later. Just inside the door of one of these buildings, a stone’s throw from the chapel, is Dr. Nicholas Cole’s office. He is a British-born historian, but his office betrays a clear interest in the United States of America. On his coffee table lays the latest copy of New York magazine; on his bookshelf, a row of biographies of Thomas Jefferson.

Cole, by any measures, is an expert on American history, having done his doctoral work on Jeffersonian thought and being a former fellow at the on-site research institute at Monticello. But despite all his travels and research across the states, he’d never heard of Utah Valley University. That is, until 2015, when Dr. Paul Kerry — a historian from Brigham Young University — connected Cole with Holland. 

Kerry was a visiting fellow at Oxford, and he’d heard of Cole’s interest in collaborating with an American university on a project related to the U.S. Constitution. Holland had just launched UVU’s Center for Constitutional Studies, and Kerry saw it as a perfect match.

Cole’s project was, in essence, to figure out exactly how the U.S. Constitution was written. Historians have spent the better part of 212 centuries studying the Constitutional Convention, but the more Cole dug, a gap in the research emerged. No one seemed to know exactly how the delegates came to unanimity on each line of text. Cole eventually deciphered the general process — the delegates started with a skeleton, worked through each line, sent some issue to smaller committees, and repeated the process four or five times until they found general agreement. 

Each clause of the Constitution was the subject of rigorous debate, deconstruction and compromise. But did historians know much about the intricacies of those debates? Could they decipher how, say, the First Amendment came to be, word by word?

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Cole developed an idea of how he would go about his research. He had a background in computer science — he’d taught himself how to code in his 20s — and he recognized that a monumental, monotonous task like deconstructing the U.S. Constitution could be aided by technology. He’d create some sort of software that allowed a user to search any clause or phrase of the full text and see all of its former iterations — and, perhaps more importantly, read some of the debates over why it was changed. “Imagine a system for doing ‘track changes’ on steroids, for historians,” Cole told me. “That’s the best way to describe this.”

When Cole took the idea to his superiors, they were intrigued, but encouraged him to find American supporters. He’d likely need a group of students to do the hands-on research, and Americans were more likely to show interest in their country’s texts. And based on the focus of his study, a university in the U.S. would be better poised to secure funding.

Enter Kerry, who suggested UVU’s new Center for Constitutional Studies. Cole was more skeptical. “The open-enrollment university is absolutely the opposite of Oxford and Cambridge,” Cole thought. But he decided to hear Holland out. “The idea of actually seeing if we could find a way of engaging the students was a really interesting proposition.”

“Imagine a system for doing ‘track changes’ on steroids, for historians,” Cole told me. “That’s the best way to describe this.”

Cole flew to Utah to hear Holland’s pitch. The center was already hosting events and lectures, but it wanted to provide more opportunities for students to do research. Cole’s project was novel and topical, and UVU’s nascent center seemed to be the perfect fit.

Within months, Cole had a group of UVU students working remotely from Orem on small projects relating to the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Soon thereafter, Cole had the idea to expand their project to take on state constitutions. Most are patterned after the U.S. Constitution, both in content and composition, and Cole figured he could use the same software and research process to deconstruct and analyze them. He started with Utah’s, and a group of UVU students dove into archives to analyze the 1895 Utah Constitution.

“We think of American constitutional law as very static, because the federal constitution has existed since 1787, and it hasn’t been amended very many times,” Cole told me. “But state constitutional law is written and rewritten all the time.”

From there, the project took off. At any given moment, some 20 UVU students would be working on Cole’s research remotely. UVU got a massive grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to jump-start research on five other state constitutions. And in addition to their remote research in Utah, two groups of UVU students come to Oxford each summer to study civics at Pembroke, co-taught by faculty from UVU and Oxford.

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland shares a light moment with the Rev. Dr. Andrew Teal during a public conversation on Latter-day Saint beliefs and doctrine at the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin at the University of Oxford on Thursday, Nov. 22, 2018. | Simon D. Jones

An unlikely brotherhood

The Rev. Dr. Teal’s friendship to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints may be unparalleled among other Anglican priests — and perhaps among Christian clergy of any denomination. He respects the Book of Mormon as a testament of Christ, having read it three times; he observes the Word of Wisdom, the Latter-day Saint health code that prohibits consumption of things like alcohol and tobacco; he has been brought to tears while reading the Doctrine and Covenants, another Latter-day Saint book of scripture.

After developing a relationship with Elder Matthew S. Holland in 2017, the younger Holland suggested the Rev. Teal meet his father, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland. The Rev. Teal obliged — and now recalls his first meeting with Sister Patricia Holland and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland with reverence.

“It was like the inflaming of souls who have known each other and been committed to something forever,” he said. “Our friendship ... was great fun.”

The relationship grew from there. On Thanksgiving Day in 2018, Elder Holland and the Rev. Teal participated in a public conversation about faith at Oxford’s historic University Church of St. Mary the Virgin. Later that month, Elder Holland spoke at Pembroke’s traditional Christmas worship service. In 2021, they participated side-by-side in a virtual seminar for BYU’s International Society.

All this culminated in an invitation for the Rev. Teal to visit BYU’s Maxwell Institute on a yearlong fellowship, where he’d research and write a book about Joseph Smith. During his stay, he delivered a campus forum address, as part of the 2021-22 academic year’s series titled “Building the Beloved Community.” Other speakers included the Rev. William Barber, Martin Luther King III and Amy Chua. Ironically, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland was unable to attend the Rev. Teal’s address — because he was in England.

But the Rev. Teal’s visit was cut short. Only months after arriving, he walked barefoot onto a patio in Orem, where heat-reflecting shingles scalded his feet. He spent nearly a month in the University of Utah’s burn unit before returning to England for reconstructive surgery.

“I commit to journey with you even on these feet,” he told students, “however ragged they become.”

Nicholas Cole speaks during the Constitution Day Conference at Utah Valley University in Orem on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2022. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

The path forward

On a muggy August evening last summer, a group of UVU students gathered on Pembroke’s Chapel Quad. They were nearing the end of their visit to England, where some had worked on Cole’s Quill Project and others had gone through the civics course. 

Cole had arranged for the college servery to prepare them a multicourse formal dinner — a last hurrah, of sorts, complete with a nonalcoholic cocktail hour on the lawn (at Cole’s request).

Cole directed me across the lawn, soda in hand, as he greeted the students. The program drew an eclectic mix of majors, though many of them are part of the Constitutional Studies minor, a new program funneled through UVU’s Center for Constitutional Studies. The program seems to attract an impressive mix of traditional and nontraditional students: there are several 20-year-old sophomores, but there is also a middle-aged mother and an employee at the state prison.

The open-enrollment model, despite giving Cole pause at first, has found a way to pull talent from the most unlikely of places. The two students who led out on the Utah constitution project were a former hairdresser and a Peruvian DACA student. One of the current student leaders is a nationally ranked rodeo competitor. “Now, they probably know more about the Utah state constitution than anyone besides the Utah Supreme Court,” said Scott Paul, executive director of UVU’s Center for Constitutional Studies.

Cole tells me about his vision for the future of the Quill Project: an online trove of research on every state constitution in the U.S. It would be a helpful tool for citizens and lawmakers alike, and it could serve as something of a bulwark to our democratic backsliding.

From Cole’s perspective, American democracy is in a fragile place, and his project could prove useful in securing it. “Please don’t write me off as being horribly pompous,” Cole told me. “I think people have very little understanding of how the process of creating America’s constitutional system has worked. I think it is critical that we actually help people understand the origins and the history of their institutions.”

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Cole says he started his project because it was interesting, but it has quickly become more consequential than mere curiosity. The U.S. Supreme Court is dominated by justices who consistently utilize an originalist judicial philosophy, deciding cases in line with the text’s supposed “original intent.” But such a philosophy demands an understanding of what the original intent was, and Cole’s project provides as clear a picture of this as is available.

There is a need on the state level, too. Cole pointed to last year’s Dobbs v. Jackson decision, which ruled that abortion is not a right offered by the federal constitution. As such, the court deferred authority for legalizing or prohibiting abortion to the states. “The United States Supreme Court has said we should look at state constitutions,” Cole said. “I have looked, and there is no information on how state constitutions were written.”

Thus, Cole’s Quill Project is only becoming more and more timely, and the partnership with UVU even stronger. Cole is open to the idea of collaboration with other universities around the U.S., but for now, the UVU deal is perfect.

And Cole, like the Rev. Teal, knows how to make his visitors from Utah feel welcome.

At the conclusion of the meal, long after the plates are cleared, the conversation reaches a lull, and Cole, visibly uncomfortable, glances up toward the door. He then seems to have a realization.

A smile breaks upon his face. “I’d forgotten that I told them not to bring coffee,” he says, laughing, a nod to the common Latter-day Saint practice to abstain from coffee. “I figured I’d be the only one at the table drinking.”

Deseret News Editor Hal Boyd contributed to this report.