Karl G. Maeser

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Karl G. Maeser

Karl Gottfried Maeser has rightly been called the spiritual architect not only of Brigham Young University, but also of the educational system of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. What Brigham Young did for the settlement of the Western United States, Karl Maeser did for the education of the west.

Educational Preparation

Born January 16, 1828 in Meißen, Saxony to middle class parents, Karl showed unusual academic potential very early. After completing his compulsory schooling in Meißen with “vorzuglich” [excellent] results, as a young teenager he moved to Dresden in order to attend the Kreuzschule, a famous preparatory school. He studied Latin, Greek and the classics in the finest tradition of European education and did well, but in this preparation he did not accept the belief that true education was primarily an elite preparation for the very few to justify and maintain a rigid class structure.

The ideas of democracy had been planted in Europe and leading educators viewed the schools as a key element of self-government. Horace Mann, the father of the American public education system, traveled to Europe the first year Karl enrolled at the Kreuzschule and was deeply impressed by what he saw. He believed that the schools in Prussia and Saxony were the best he had seen. The teachers were sincere, affectionate and deeply dedicated; the curriculum was rich and inspiring bringing far more out of the students’ minds than what was written in any textbook. He believed the cause of this great system was the teacher colleges that had been established. He predicted that such education would inevitably lead to democracy, “the time is not far distant when the people will assert their right to a participation in their own government."

Concluding his preparation at the Kreuzschule, Karl made a critical decision not to follow the elite path to the university, but to attend one of the Teacher Colleges that Mann had visited in 1843, the Schullehrerseminar at Friedrichstadt. Here he received an intense theoretical and practical preparation in the ideas of Johann Pestalozzi, a Swiss educator who believed in the profound potential of all children to develop in “Head, Heart and Hand.” A laboratory school had been established in the Teachers College with 8 classes—3 specifically for the children of the poor. At the conclusion of his 3 year academic preparation in 1848, he began a 2 year apprenticeship in Eastern Prussia. Mann’s prediction was being fulfilled, political unrest had been brewing throughout the countries of Germany and Dresden was not excluded. A major demonstration was held only a few blocks from Karl’s school just before his graduation. He had been supportive of the movement to establish a democratic constitution and to unify the country, but was not in Dresden when the movement turned to revolution. He was placed as a tutor with a family in Bohemia for his internship, the Baron Rüdt von Collenberg. He also conducted Protestant worship services in Komotau (now called Chomutov).

Upon his return to Dresden the German educational system was engaged in the “Reaktion;” the revolution had been suppressed and the monarchies were blaming the educators (the impact of the Reaktion on education can be seen in the Prussian Stiehlsche Regulativ). Karl had been prepared to teach in a system that was no longer permitted to exist. The government specifically targeted curriculum of the Volkschulen [elementary schools] and the teacher colleges. Teachers were required to teach only the authorized materials and required religious doctrines. The ideas of Pestalozzi, Froebel and democracy were prohibited and inspectors were assigned to guarantee teacher conformity.

Before accepting the secure position of Oberlehrer at the private Budich Institute in Dresden, Karl taught at a public school in Dresden where he met and pursued the Headmaster’s daughter Anna Mieth. They were married June 11, 1854 and their first child, Reinhard was born in March of 1855. The Budich Institute was the first Teacher College for women in Saxony. They also conducted an elementary school in it for both genders.

Conversion to Mormonism

Karl had been a member of a teacher association (the sächsische Lehrerverein) that reviewed the newest academic works. When it was his turn to present, he selected Moritz Busch’s new book on the Mormons (Die Mormonen: ihr Prophet, ihr Staat, ihr Glaube). Busch had described a strangely industrious people who naively believed absurdities. Karl could not accept that the good fruit Busch documented was produced from such a bitter root and craved to learn for himself the truth about the Mormons. Missionaries were not permitted to preach in Saxony, but after a whirlwind investigation and few hours of intense teaching by William Budge, Karl was baptized in the river Elbe late at night on October 14, 1855 to avoid the purview of the police by Apostle Franklin D. Richards and Elder Budge.

On the journey to the baptismal spot Karl asked questions in German of President Richards, Elder Budge attempted to translate them into English and President Richards then replied in English. Elder Budge then attempted to translate the answer back into German. On the return trip they began the same interchange when President Richards replied to Elder Budge, “you don’t need to translate that.” After President Richards response, Karl said, “you don’t need to translate that.” Their conversation continued almost the entire return trip when the gift disappeared as suddenly as it had come. On the following Sunday, Karl was set apart as the president of an 8 member branch of the Church in Dresden.

His first religious poem, “Was zweifelst Du?” was published in the December 1855 newsletter, der Darsteller, printed by Daniel Tyler and the Swiss-Italian Mission. More were included in subsequent issues, including poems or articles on various Gospel topics.

Emigration to England & America

Within months the authorities became aware of Karl’s new religion and gave him the choice of leaving it or nearly everything else he held dear—his family, his position and his country. He had already made his decision. On July 2, 1856, the Dresden police delivered him to Liverpool where he reported to President Franklin D. Richards with his pregnant wife and his 2 year old son. He was called to serve as a missionary to the German speakers of London. In May 1857 the Maesers boarded the Tuscarora and set sail for America. Their 5 month old baby, Karl Franklin Maeser, died the day after their arrival at Philadelphia on July 4,1857. The celebration of America’s freedom that year was a bitter-sweet occasion. As immigrants in a foreign land, financial struggles and church responsibilities followed. Karl was called as a missionary to the Germans in the Philadelphia Conference, but was forced to look for work just as a financial panic hit the east. Karl traveled to Virginia and for few months he taught music to the children of the former US President John Tyler in Virginia, but his goal was to gather to Zion in Salt Lake City. In 1858, he was called back to be the president of the Philadelphia Conference. It wasn’t until the spring of 1860 that the Maesers were able to join the John Smith wagon train and travel to Salt Lake City.

School Teacher in Salt Lake City

Maeser immediately offered his services as a teacher, but a refined education was not seen as the greatest priority to those seeking to grow potatoes and tame the wilderness. His commitment to education was not daunted by the tasks of survival in the wilderness. In an 1861 letter, he wrote, "I also consider it my duty to take in the elementary classes all those children free of any charge, that bring me a note from Bishop Davis testifying their inability to pay on account of poverty." ([letter to the Trustees of the 17th Ward School) Oct 11, 1861] Karl’s reputation as a teacher grew as he taught at the Deseret Lyceum and was then recruited to teach at the Union Academy and the 20th Ward. He was also named to be a Regent of the University of Deseret in 1865 and Brigham Young asked Karl to teach his children (no small group).

Missionary and Journalist

At the April General Conference of the Church in 1867, Karl learned that he was called to leave his family and serve a three-year mission to Germany and Switzerland. On his way to Europe, he wrote a series of articles published in the Deseret News in Salt Lake City. In 1868 he became the mission president and was asked to begin a German magazine for the Church, der Stern. He also translated sections of the Doctrine & Covenants and dozens of hymns into German. In 1870, he returned to teaching in Salt Lake, became involved in the Territorial Teachers Association and taught courses at the University of Deseret. Karl helped found a teacher preparation program at the University and won an award for the best district school in Salt Lake County.

In 1873, Karl chaired a committee to draft school law for the Utah Territory, then in April 1876 a major explosion shook the city, causing extensive damage in Salt Lake and closed the 20th Ward School. Karl reported his concerns to Brigham Young who told him not to worry, because he was being called on another mission—this time to Provo to lead the new Brigham Young Academy. His counsel was short, but profound, “Brother Maeser, you ought not to teach even the alphabet or the multiplication tables without the spirit of God, that is all, God bless you, goodbye.”

Brigham Young Academy

The early years were filled with sacrifice, trials and long hours. The Maeser system drew principles from 4 well-known educators that he taught were the founders of modern education, but none of them brought a sufficiently spiritual dimension. From Basedow, he recognized how we learn to do by doing; from Bell and Lancaster he acknowledged how older students, monitors, could be employed to help the instruction of younger students; from Adolf Diesterweg he noted how the analytic and synthetic dimensions of instruction could be combined and how fragile the relationship between state and church could become; from Johann Pestalozzi, who Maseser called the educational apostle of this dispensation, he brought the developmentalist concept of Anschauung that guided the teacher to begin with the known and quickly inspire the students to discover the unknown. But none of the existing systems sufficiently grounded education in the spiritual context of man’s divine mission or personality.

He wrote, "We had the educational systems of the world to pattern after, but we beheld also their faults in the shape of infidelity, of disregard of parental authority and old age, of corruption, of discontent, and of apprehension of unknown evils yet to come... . A system, not copied from older ones weighed in the balance and found wanting, but guided at every step of its development by divine inspiration, and testifying to the approbation of the God of Israel by overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles need not fear the dark clouds of adversity..." [378.792 B76g N75-- The Normal. Nov. 13, 1891 no. 6]

What was needed was a new vision of education in both the School and Fireside (the title of his book). The Academy’s enrollment and reputation grew rapidly. In every aspect of the school, Maeser sought the Lord’s direction and guidance and encouraged his students to seek their own inspiration.

He wrote: “When Israel stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai, they put bounds around the mountain, allowing none but Moses to go up and speak with Jehovah. There is no fence around the mountain any more, and the road is open to all.”

The day before school was to begin the winter term in 1884, the Lewis Building, in which the Academy had been meeting, caught fire and was completely destroyed. But the Academy was more than a building, so faculty and students quickly accepted the task of converting the ZCMI warehouse into a school. It was intended to be a temporary arrangement, because funds were raised, new property was purchased, plans were drawn up and the foundation was laid for a new large Academy building. Unfortunately, there wasn’t sufficient money to complete the building for another 8 years.

On a Sunday afternoon Maeser would often walk to the foundation of the new building. One day a daughter accompanied him and asked if the building would ever be completed. This occurred during one of the Academy’s financial crises, it has been stated that he decided to accept a position at the University of Deseret in Salt Lake City. His wife and daughter prepared to leave and were sitting on their trunks when the daughter finally mustered enough courage to ask her father when they were leaving. He said, “I have changed my mind. I have had a dream—I have seen Temple Hill [present site of campus] filled with buildings—great temples of learning, and I have decided to remain and do my part in contributing to the fulfillment of that dream.”

Expanding His Vision—Superintendent of Church Schools

For Karl, the Brigham Young Academy was just the beginning of what was needed. In 1886 he proposed ways to expand the work of the Academy to the rest of the Church. Stake academies, modeled after BYA, were begun in Fillmore and Beaver; 1887 he accepted the post of principal of the Salt Lake Academy while he was still principal also in Provo (traveling to SLC on Fridays). In July 1887 the First Presidency accepted Karl’s proposal, where applicable, for Stakes to establish their own Academies. In 1888 the Church Educational System was established with President Wilford Woodruff as Chairman of the Board and Karl G. Maeser as the first Superintendent of Schools.

“We feel that the time has arrived when the proper education of our children should be taken in hand by us as a people. Religious training is practically excluded from the District Schools. The perusal of books that we value as divine records is forbidden. Our children, if left to the training they receive in these schools, will grow up entirely absent of these principles of salvation for which the Latter-day Saints have made so many sacrifices. To permit this condition of things to exist among us would be criminal.” [Wilford Woodruff, June 3, 1888, p. 2]

In formally accepting the calling as Superintendent Maeser wrote to Pres. W Woodruff-- "For many years has it been the chief aim of my educational efforts to formulate a scholastic system founded upon and penetrated by the principles and spirit of the Latter day Work. These efforts, although enjoying in some measure the approval of the Authorities, have necessarily been confined to a limited sphere and could not claim a general recognition from the Church. Your intentions, however, as expressed to me previously, and the steps taken in this regard by the Quorum of the Twelve, unanimously sustained by the General Conference, demonstrate to me the fact, that my hopes for the coming of this eventful epoch in our church history have not been in vain." [April 17, 1888 (#30)--]

Maeser continued to serve as Principal of the B. Y. Academy and Superintendent of Church schools until January 1892 when he retired from BYA to devote full-time as Superintendent. His last act as Principal was to gather the students and lead a march up Academy Avenue to the newly completed building and to give his farewell address. In it he reminded his audience that the institution had been founded upon two basic principles. First, discipline at the Academy was to be developed upon the words of the Prophet Joseph Smith when asked how he maintained such order in the city of Nauvoo. He replied, “I teach them correct principles and they govern themselves.” Second, the mainspring of all teaching at the Academy came from the words of President Brigham Young when Brother Maeser was about to leave for Provo regarding teaching with the spirit of God.

As Superintendent he helped found over 50 academies and Church schools from Juarez, Mexico on the South to Cardston, Canada on the North; each was built upon the principles of the BYA, adapting to the circumstances of their own locations and nearly all of the teachers in the system were graduates of the BYA Normal department and taught by KGM. He expected to visit each school at least once a year. This required a strenuous travel schedule.

In 1894 KGM participated as a delegate to the Utah State Constitutional Convention and participated on the education committee. In 1898, he was convinced by his former students to write his ideas for preparing teachers into a book, School and Fireside.

Called as a counselor in the General Sunday School Presidency—where he promoted the Church schools, religion classes to supplement the secular instruction of district schools and to strengthen education among all ages of people in the territory.

He died on February 15, 1901 after a day of conducting his usual duties. More than 4,000 crowded into the Salt Lake Tabernacle to attend the funeral services of a beloved teacher. A fund was soon established to build a memorial building to honor him and to help fulfill his dream of great temples of learning to be built on hill overlooking Provo.

His Legacy

KGM taught thousands of devoted students, many of whom testified that he was one of the most influential people of their entire lives. At the age of 85, Amy Brown Lyman, for example, who became president of the General Relief Society of the Church, director of the Church Welfare program and member of the Utah House of Representatives in a tribute in 1957 said:

“I consider it a great honor to have the opportunity, on this occasion, to pay tribute to Karl G. Maeser, the great and masterful teacher—my teacher—at whose feet I sat several hours daily for a period of two school years. To have had the privilege in my formative years of his guiding hand and the benefit of his inspiring example, I count among my greatest blessings. Next to my own parents he has influenced my life most.”

George Sutherland, who, though he never joined the Mormon faith, became a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, wrote in 1941:

"Dr. Maeser’s knowledge seemed to reach into every field...He loved the calling of a teacher as a great painter loves his art, and pursued it with equal fervor. He was indefatigable... He believed that scholastic attainments were better than riches, but that better than either were faith, love, charity, clean living, clean thinking, loyalty, tolerance and all the other attributes that combine to constitute that most precious of all possessions, good character."

Heber J. Grant, who became president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints declared, “if all the money we had spent in sending missionaries to Germany had been spent in the conversion of this one young man, it would have been well spent.”

As the first Superintendent of Church Education he assisted in the founding and maintenance of over 50 academies and schools from Canada on the North to Mexico on the South, hundreds of religion classes, and the development of the Seminary and Institute system. With the development and expansion of a public school system, most of the Church academies were sold or given to their respective states, but seven have become institutions of higher education. The largest of these, the Brigham Young University, continues to be maintained by the Church. As one of the largest private universities in the United States it has 30,000 students from over 100 countries, studying more than 130 different majors and offers degrees at the bachelors, masters and doctoral levels. The Church Educational System that grew out of KGM’s efforts now serves nearly 500,000 students across the world.

The greatest achievements of Karl G. Maeser, however, were personal; he won the love and devotion of a large family and thousands of grateful students. He was central in the preparation of teachers in the Church and public schools. Among his immediate students were hundreds of teachers and principals who would serve throughout the territory, 3 of Utah’s 15 US Senators, congressmen and other statesmen, university presidents, and general authorities of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

As reported in the 'Enquirer' May 24,1889, Maeser wrote. "I should, therefore, be unappreciative of all the kindness shown me by the authorities, fellow-teachers, students and the people, and be ungrateful to my God for His blessings and support, if today, I should not place myself on record as being conscious that all the Brigham Young Academy has been a chosen instrument in the hands of the God of Israel to plant the seed for an educational system that will spread its ramifications throughout the borders of Zion, penetrate with its benign influence every fireside of the Saints, and open to our youth the avenues to all intelligence, knowledge and power, that are necessary for them to attain in the glorious future of the Latter-day work, foretold by the prophets. Amen-- Karl G. Maeser, Principal."


Memorial building

(by A. LeGrand Richards--Brigham Young University)

Link to BYU