Joseph F. Merrill is an apostle who has largely been forgotten but who, nevertheless, left a major impact on the Church that remains a part of its DNA to this day. Kurt Manwaring recently sat down for an interview with Merrill’s biographer, Casey Griffiths, to discuss his life and impact. It’s an interesting discussion and can be viewed in full here. What follows below is a co-post, a shorter discussion with excerpts from the full interview. Before Kurt shared the interview with me, I was only dimly aware of Merrill’s impact, mostly encountering him as the mission president of Gordon B. Hinckley or one of the scientist-apostles that Joseph Fielding Smith outlived before publishing Man, His Origin and Destiny. Reading the interview was a good opportunity to learn more about his impact in developing seminary, institutes, and religious education at Church universities.
In the interview Casey Griffiths explained some about why Joseph Merrill isn’t well-known by Church members today, especially compared to contemporaries like James E. Talmage, B. H. Roberts, John A. Widtsoe, Joseph Fielding Smith, etc.
He is not well known in the Church today for several reasons. Probably most prominent is that he didn’t leave behind a lot of public writings. Well known leaders from that time (who weren’t Church presidents) usually left behind a lot of literature. James E. Talmage, for instance, is remembered because he wrote Jesus the Christ, Articles of Faith, and other seminal works.
Joseph Merrill didn’t share Talmage’s literary gifts, though he did write a book called The Truth Seeker and Mormonism. Merrill’s gifts centered on innovation.
He came up with new approaches toward education, religious studies, and media that we take for granted today, but were real game changers in the time he lived. There is hardly a person in the Church who hasn’t been in a seminary or institute class, seen the Church’s commercials on television, or read an item of scholarship on Church history or doctrine. Joseph Merrill played a key role in developing all of those things.
Elder Merrill’s innovations had a major impact on the Church.
The statement about reading an item of scholarship on Church history or doctrine have to do with Merrill’s interest in investing in scholarship about the Church. He “had so much faith in the Restored gospel that he just held no doubts that advanced study would strengthen the claims of the Church and build the faith of its membership.” Hence, he “was not only interested in defending the faith, but in using scholarship as a means to explore it. While he was Church Commissioner of Education he recruited several gifted young teacher to travel to the University of Chicago to learn the disciplines of biblical studies and historical methodology.” In addition, Giffiths stated that “when Merrill started the Seminary and Institute programs, and set up a religion department at BYU, he effectively introduced the professional study of religion into the Church. When he recruited scholars to go to the University of Chicago he did so with the intent that they would return and use their skills to train others and spread the professional study of religion in the Church.” Hence, “in many ways, Joseph Merrill is the father of religious studies in the Church” and, to quote T. Edgar Lyon, “Merrill’s efforts to raise the scholarly discourse surrounding religion ‘aided in the metamorphosis of the Church from a sectionally oriented to a worldwide Church in less than forty years.’”
As for media, Merrill saw a need to change how the Church advertised itself and recruited an important individual to help shape how they went about doing so. When he arrived in Europe to serve as mission president, “Joseph Merrill quickly found that missionaries were still using decades old approaches and materials to teach the gospel. He recruited a young missionary, Gordon B. Hinckley, to help him come up with new ways to use media to share the gospel.” After having success with new approaches that they pioneered, “he later sent Elder Hinckley back to Church headquarters to persuade Church leaders to adopt newer forms of media to share the message of the Restoration. The leaders of the Church were so impressed with this young elder that they hired him to manage Church media.” This ultimately shaped the Church and its image well into the 21st century.
To read more about Joseph F. Merrill, such as his thoughts on science and religion, his struggle to keep BYU open, etc., read the full interview here.