This post may be construed as too idealizing of BYU, especially during “Rivalry Week” with the University of Utah. It is not meant to idealize, but rather to try and interpret what is idealized by the LDS Church broadly and BYU specifically.
In my first few weeks at the University of Virginia, I am beginning to both love and roll my eyes at the constant mention of Thomas Jefferson in student conversations, on posters on campus, or at any opportunity in class to bring him up. This affection for Mr. Jefferson reminded me of two statues on the campus of BYU, and what the likenesses of the two men portrayed mean in relation to BYU’s Honor Code, and what that means for Church culture generally.
The first statue, near the Abraham O. Smoot Administration building, is a sculpture of Brigham Young. It portrays a beardless Brigham Young (Honor Code appropriate!) with a cane in his left hand, surveying the main campus from its northern edge. Contrary to popular belief, BYU claims that no beard was ever removed from the statue with the introduction of the Honor Code in the 1960s.
The second statue is of Karl G. Maeser, the school’s first principal and head instructor. A German immigrant, Maeser made BYU his life’s work, and personally instructed giants in Mormon History, including James E. Talmage, Reed Smoot, Alice Louise Kimball, and J. Golden Kimball. Maeser’s insistence on student’s rigorous work ethic (Talmage once taught several classes while taking 10 classes himself, at Maeser’s insistence. Talmage complained about the working conditions to his journal) combined with his integrity work has become a staple of BYU (and Mormon) culture. Maeser is portrayed as bearded, and is the southernmost statue on campus, placed in front of the building of his name, the Karl G. Maeser Building, where honors classes are regularly taught.
It has always struck me that these statues are the first and last statues one would see coming on to campus from the north or south hills. These two statues, more than representing BYU, represent attitudes towards the LDS culture of education. On one end of campus, you have Brigham Young, surveying the campus with a steely glare, as if to personify the order and practical programs necessary for BYU to remain functioning, and placed in front of the administration building. There, honor code infractions, fees, scheduling issues, and other corporate type matters are resolved, ensuring that the University runs smoothly and efficiently. On the other end, Maeser’s statue looks out from his building towards the Joseph Smith Building (the religious education building). Maeser, who was famously told by Brigham Young that “neither the alphabet nor the multiplication table should be taught without the Spirit of God.” His bearded visage, which is regularly pointed out during complains about shaving requirements, stands to me for the directive from President Young: everything done with honor, and everything in harmony with honoring God. Maeser reportedly said:
“I have been asked what I mean by ‘word of honor.’ I will tell you. Place me behind prison walls–walls of stone ever so high, ever so thick, reaching ever so far into the ground–there is a possibility that in some way or another I may escape; but stand me on the floor and draw a chalk line around me and have me give my word of honor never to cross it. Can I get out of the circle? No. Never! I’d die first!”[i]
These two statues represent Mormon ideals of themselves, that they are efficient, hard working, and always honorable in what they choose to do. The portraits of Young and Maeser also point to the pioneer spirit that Mormons regularly invoke in their self-identification, Young the colonizer of religious immigrants like Maeser, and Maeser building up the Kingdom (at least in his eyes) that he was assigned to by Church leadership through teaching at Brigham Young Academy. Furthermore, the desire to learn, teach, and build, but with a deeply spiritual motivation behind a practical purpose.
The idea of the Mormon work ethic and the Mormon desire to build up a corporeal Kingdom of God, embodied in the statues of two men on either end of its campus.
[i] Imagining him screaming this in his German accent was the one highlight of going to BYU’s testing center, where this quote is posted in regular intervals.