Timeless Teacher

From Karl G. Maeser

The Preparation of a Timeless Teacher

By A. LeGrand Richards

On November 9, 1900, three months before he died, Karl G. Maeser was invited to a Founders Day celebration at the Maeser Elementary School—one of the first public schools in Utah to be named after a living educator. In each of the four classrooms he wrote a profound educational message on the chalkboard, dated it, and then signed his name. In the corner of the southwest classroom he wrote, "This life is one great object lesson to practice on the principles of immortality and eternal life." Within this pronouncement is a profound summary of Brother Maeser's unique combination of the best educational preparation the world could offer and a powerful understanding of eternal purpose—the timely and the timeless.

To appreciate the power of this statement of Brother Maeser's philosophy, we must understand what Johann Pestalozzi meant by "object lesson" and what the Prophet Joseph Smith meant by "the principles of immortality and eternal life," as well as the impact these two men had on Maeser's life and learning.

Pestalozzi, who Maeser referred to as "the apostle of the present educational dispensation,"1 represented the temporal preparation Maeser received at the Friedrichstadt Schullehrer-Seminar to become a professional teacher in Dresden, Saxony. And Joseph Smith, who Maeser testified was "a prophet of the living God,"2 represented the unique spiritual preparation that required the sacrifice of almost all the comforts that could have been Maeser's. These two aspects of preparation combined in a powerful way for Maeser to become the "spiritual architect"3 of the Church Educational System.

Timely Preparation

For Pestalozzi an object lesson was much more than a clever gimmick to introduce an instructional topic or make it more interesting; it was taken from the German word Anschauung, which refers to experiential observation that expands as one is provoked to ask probing questions of it. Pestalozzi used common objects and questions to lead the learner from the known to the unknown, from the simple to the complex, from the concrete to the abstract, from the temporal to the eternal. In a time when social class was rigidly distinct, Pestalozzi held a radical view of the nature of man, democratically believing that every person has the right to learn and should be provided a solid opportunity to do so. Education should be balanced between the head, the heart, and the hand; it should be personally engaging and meaningful; and it should be primarily self-directed. For Pestalozzi there was no need for corporal punishment or tangible reward to coerce the learner, and the use of such only revealed a failure on the part of the teacher to truly engage the student in self-activity and self-discipline.

Pestalozzi's ideas were not generally taught in German universities, which tended to reinforce an aristocratic elitism. Rather, they were found in the teacher colleges in an intensive three-year program combining theory and practice through functioning lab schools on the campuses, followed by a two-year apprenticeship. Maeser could have chosen the more elite and secure route through the university because he had done well at the Dresden Kreuzschule, a prestigious preparatory school, but he chose the more practical and politically insecure teacher college, a place that was quickly becoming known as a seedbed of democracy.

A few years earlier (while Maeser was attending the Kreuzschule), Horace Mann, the founder of the American public school system, had toured the schools of Europe and returned to sing the praises of the Prussian and Saxon schools as the best he had observed. He was deeply impressed with the sincere affection and dedication of the teachers, the curriculum, and especially the teacher colleges. 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."4

Mann's prediction was to be fulfilled the year Maeser graduated, when political unrest erupted into revolution (1848–49). But the strength of the Prussian army was too great. Because the government countered by imposing oppressive measures to suppress democracy and to limit freedom of speech and the press, the right to assemble, freedom from unlawful search and seizure, and other civil rights, the decade that followed has been called die Reaktion. The schools and the teacher colleges were special targets of the reaction. The curriculum was reformed and controlled by the government, and the ideas and methods of Pestalozzi were considered seditious. (Even Froebel's kindergartens were banned.)

It must have been extremely frustrating for Maeser to return from his two-year apprenticeship to teach in the oppressive atmosphere in the schools of Dresden during the 1850s. He had been prepared to teach self-directed learners in a democratic ideal and found himself hired under the new conditions of suspicion, regulation, and oppression. Struggling under these conditions, Maeser began his spiritual preparation when he was introduced to the Mormon Church through an anti-Mormon book by Moritz Busch, saw through its lies, and was driven to make contact with Church representatives. After a whirlwind investigation Maeser was baptized on October 14, 1855, in the Elbe River. Franklin D. Richards performed the ordinance under the darkness of night to avoid police attention.5

Timeless Preparation

From the theory and practice of Pestalozzi, Maeser learned how to inspire students to reach their own potential, but it took the revelations of the Prophet Joseph Smith to expand his previously agnostic vision of the human person into the context of eternity. Joseph taught that each person has a divinely foreordained mission to accomplish. Education, then, must involve the process of discovering this mission and choosing to fulfill it. Ultimately, he taught that through the Atonement of Jesus Christ man may become as God is.6 But just as the principles taught by Pestalozzi could not be learned merely through reading them, "the principles of immortality and eternal life" as taught by the Prophet Joseph required the seasoning of experience. As he would later teach in his theology class, "These truths we have not learned from books alone. They are gained from life's bitter school and in the darkest hours."7 His covenant and initial instruction took place very quickly, but his preparation was not complete without his own "furnace of affliction."8 At a graduation 45 years after his own, he admitted "that he would never know one half as much as he thought he knew when he graduated."9

Karl G. Maeser was to learn very personally that "to practice the principles of immortality and eternal life" required "the sacrifice of all things."10 Shortly after their baptisms, he and his wife were given the choice of leaving their new religion or losing nearly everything else they held dear. Their choice was clear: They had made a sacred covenant. In July 1856, with his young pregnant wife and their two-year-old child, Maeser found himself expelled from his beloved homeland—without a country, social status, job, friends, or the ability to communicate.

He wrote:

"It wasn't enough that I had to sacrifice my fatherland, my professional position, my possessions, the love of my parents and friends and my good name before the world, but before I stood ready to fully enjoy the marvelous blessings of Jesus' kingdom, I was also required . . . to change my entire inner being".11

The Maesers sailed for Philadelphia in May 1857. The day before they arrived, their four-month-old son, Franklin Maeser, died. The Fourth of July in Philadelphia that year was hardly a day of celebration for the Maesers. Strangers in a strange land, they had to endure financial, cultural, and linguistic challenges. They sold everything they had to join a wagon train to Salt Lake in 1860. Once in the valley, they continued to face financial difficulties and were hardly settled in when it was announced over the pulpit at general conference in 1867 that Karl G. Maeser was called to serve three years in the Swiss-German Mission. More sacrifice would be required of the Maesers before Karl received the assignment to travel to Provo to head up the new Brigham Young Academy. But he had learned that a true Latter-day Saint is one who has dedicated himself, soul and body, to God in all things temporal and spiritual, in all his doings, in all the meditations of his heart, in all his desires, his anticipations and hopes for the future, in life and death; to belong to the Lord only, and has based all his actions, all his thoughts, all his endeavors, all his interests upon that foundation—that he belongs to the Lord.12

The Fruits of Preparation—True Education

"This life is one great object lesson to practice on the principles of immortality and eternal life." Maeser's chalkboard aphorism invites us to observe the concrete elements of mortality in such a way that we see life's timeless purposes, to ask ourselves the questions that will stretch our minds to the realities of eternal life, and to apply those saving principles and ordinances that will link us with God. It invites us to recognize true education as the central purpose of life.

In establishing the Brigham Young Academy, Brother Maeser admitted, "We had the educational systems of the world to pattern after, but we beheld also their faults."13 He, therefore, set out to design "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."14 It was to be built upon two essential principles from which it must never depart.

The first came from the words of the Prophet Joseph when asked how he could maintain such order in the City of Nauvoo. He replied, "I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves."15

The second principle was given him by Brigham Young as he accepted the assignment to establish the new academy: "Brother Maeser, I want you to remember that you ought not to teach even the alphabet or the multiplication tables without the Spirit of God. That is all. God bless you. Good-bye."16 These two principles found concrete expression in the rules and practices of the new Brigham Young Academy.

Under the principalship of Karl G. Maeser, students were placed on their honor to complete their assignments17 and to report daily the level of their preparation. They were given responsibilities to care for each other, tutor one another, and fulfill every task that they could complete for themselves. They planned and conducted meetings, kept minutes, and reported on assignments to each other. Everyone was to be given an opportunity to serve. Students were expected to look "after the ventilation, temperature, and order of the room, the desks, blackboards, books, and apparatus . . . , roll call, attending to visitors, order in the classrooms and the premises before, between, and after recitation time, mail, etc."18

Maeser taught:

"The prevailing system of feverish competition in our public school, emphasizing, as it does, intellectual advancement to the almost entire neglect of every other requirement, engenders a spirit of selfish ambition, an evil that sadly mars the characters of many of our most prominent public men today."19

Motivation at the Academy was not to be based on the coercive means of punishments and rewards so often found in the schools of the day. Such means operate on the lower laws of "thou shalt," and the student reluctantly responds with "Okay, if I have to." Rather, the Brigham Young Academy teacher's challenge was to awaken the student's religious motives of "I will" in response to the Master's injunction to "Come, follow me."20 Teachers were instructed, "We can never give what we ourselves do not possess."21 Therefore, they were told to always "strive to be yourself that which you desire your children or pupils to be."22 Maeser believed that a religious motive for learning was the most effective incentive and that it could be ignited best by the "almost omnipotent agents"23 of love and confidence.

Maeser constantly saw in his students what they could someday become. Eunice Stewart, acting as secretary in 1878, recorded a few remarks Brother Maeser offered after a little girl had completed a recitation:

"I asked myself what wonderful manifestations of the Holy Spirit we will see when these little ones take the responsibility of this work upon their shoulders. The Bible says the young men shall dream dreams and see visions and the maidens shall prophecy and speak in tongues. I can look around me here today and see children, yes I could call them by name that will in future time stand forth and prophecy in the name of Israel's God, and proclaim the glory of his name in a loud voice completely surpassing that of the prophets of old, in power and glory."24

Maeser recognized Brother Brigham's counsel as an invitation for revelation within one's stewardship. N. L. Nelson recorded:

"When perplexed even by small problems of school discipline, he would retire to his little office and lay the matter before the Lord, just as a child might approach his father with some unforeseen difficulty."25

As he instructed teachers, he declared:

"No teacher should enter the schoolroom without first offering a prayer, 'Father, bless me today. Give me Thy Spirit to discern the needs and desires of these little ones, read their thoughts and feel the pulsation of their hearts, that I can look into their eyes as they look into mine, and know that we love each other. Guide me in all I say.'"26

And for those students "who are determined not to abide by what you say," who may whisper or sneer at you behind your back, he counseled:

"Watch them as they leave the building and offer up a silent prayer to God—'God bless those dear little ones—Bless Johnny, he is wild; rough; I wonder what will become of him; he goes home and receives no kind word of welcome, no smile; what dangers his immortal soul is exposed to—he is left to cultivate it himself or go without. . . . I have prayed many hundreds of times for God to guard this or that one safely from destruction and He has done it; He will do it for you. I know this is the truth. I have witnessed it myself.'"27

Brother Maeser's love for students became almost legendary. When he told them, "I would rather lay down my own life than see one of my children go astray,"28 they knew he meant it. For him love was "the great mainspring of all teaching,"29 and he felt a special calling to reach out to those who were not so easy to love:

"There are two kinds of children . . . , one kind that grows up in an atmosphere of love, tenderness, where kind words, gentle and tender care and loving hands are always seen and heard. Their nature shows it by their sweet smile and ways. It is natural for such to captivate the teacher, ingratiate themselves into the good wishes and graces of all. But there is another class of children, and in their behalf I plead before you teachers and superintendents—I have seen them by the hundreds; this class are starving for love, for a kind word, a loving expression. The atmosphere in which they have grown up is cold, chilly—many times unpleasant. There is no one at home who gives them a kind word. These are like the flowers that grow up in the cellar, where the rays of sunlight never smile on them. No wonder they lack the sweet smile, gentle ways and bright countenances and heads of those who grow up under that paternal love of God's sunlight. These starving children are the ones that need our care, our love, our devotion."30

For Maeser, to enter the world of a learner is to tread on sacred ground: "The moment we take charge of a class we are as messengers from our Heavenly Father—as His representatives—and we have the mission of an angel to perform."31 This counsel is as timely for us today as it was timeless when it was spoken.


1. Karl G. Maeser, School and Fireside ([Salt Lake City]: Skelton and Co., 1898), 26

2. Karl G. Maeser, “Londoner Correspondenz,” Der Darsteller der Heiligen der Letzten Tage 3, no. 1 (June 1857): 12. I am responsible for the translations from the German

3. See chapter 4 of Ernest L. Wilkinson, ed., Brigham Young University: The First One Hundred Years, vol. 1 (Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1975), 77–103; also Ernest L. Wilkinson and W. Cleon Skousen, Brigham Young University: A School of Destiny (Provo: BYU Press, 1976), 50–73

4. Horace Mann, Seventh Annual Report of the Board of Education (Boston: Dutton and Wentworth, 1844), 159

5. Those interested in the details of his conversion might review my article “Moritz Busch’s Die Mormonen and the Conversion of Karl G. Maeser,” BYU Studies, 45, no. 4 (2006): 47–67

6. See the King Follett sermon, 7 April 1844, HC 6:302–17

7. Theological Minutes, 9 March 1884, recorded at Brigham Young Academy by Allie Canfield, 211

8. Isaiah 48:10, 1 Nephi 20:10

9. “Holy Day of Rest: The Services at the Tabernacle at the B.Y. Academy,” Daily Enquirer, 22 May 1893, 4. Karl G. Maeser was speaking at the Sunday evening baccalaureate sermon to the first BYA graduates with baccalaureate degrees

10. Lectures on Faith, comp. N. B. Lundwall (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, n.d.), 6:7

11. Karl G. Maeser, “Londoner Correspondenz,” Der Darsteller der Heiligen der Letzten Tage, June 1857, 11. I am responsible for the translations from the German

12. Cited by Heber J. Grant in “Honoring Karl G. Maeser,” Improvement Era, June 1935, 386

13. Karl G. Maeser, “The Brigham Young Academy,” The Normal 1, no. 6 (13 November 1891): 43

14. See Karl G. Maeser, “Final Address” (4 January 1892), The Normal 1, no. 10 (15 January 1892): 82

15. Joseph Smith, quoted by John Taylor in “The Organization of the Church,” Millennial Star 13, no. 22 (15 November 1851): 339; James R. Clark, comp., Messages of the First Presidency, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966–75), 3:54; also see JD 10:57–58

16. Brigham Young, in Reinhard Maeser, Karl G. Maeser: A Biography (Provo: Brigham Young University, 1928), 79

17. See Maeser, School and Fireside, 269–70

18. “Church School Department,” Juvenile Instructor, vol. 36 (1 March 1901): 153

19. Maeser, School and Fireside, 37

20. Luke 18:22

21. Maeser, “Dr. Maeser’s Lecture,” Deseret Weekly, 25 June 1892, 17

22. Maeser, School and Fireside, 266

23. Maeser, School and Fireside, 265

24. Karl G. Maeser, in Religious Lecture Minutes, 1878–1879, 27 November 1878, as recorded by Eunice Stewart, 45; original spelling and punctuation preserved

25. N. L. Nelson, “Dr. Maeser’s Legacy to the Church Schools,” Brigham Young University Quarterly (1 February 1906): 4

26. “Dr. Maeser’s Lectures,” Deseret Weekly, 11 June 1892, 847

27. Maeser, “Dr. Maeser’s Lecture,” Deseret Weekly, 25 June 1892, 21

28. Theological Minutes, 9 March 1884, recorded at Brigham Young Academy by Allie Canfield, 212

29. “Holy Day of Rest: The Services at the Tabernacle at the B.Y. Academy,” Daily Enquirer, 22 May 1893, 4

30. Maeser, “Dr. Maeser’s Lecture,” Deseret Weekly, 25 June 1892, 14–15

31. Maeser, “Dr. Maeser’s Lecture,” Deseret Weekly, 25 June 1892, 15; capitalization modernized.

Published by the McKay School of Education at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. Copyright 2007 by Brigham Young University. All rights reserved. All communications should be sent to MSEWeb@byu.edu.