Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Jedediah Grant on Learning

Jedediah M. Grant

One frequent and misguided claim about Mormons is that we are anti-intellectual; that somehow we reject learning. While I can’t agree with that characterization, I do think that there is a complexity to the issue. Theologically, mormonism is actually highly supportive of intellectual pursuits–but tempers that with an overriding constraint; spirituality. In addition, Mormon culture adds its own wrinkles to this attitude, with clear anti-intelectual elements that are justified by the theological constraint.

The following excerpt from a speech by Jedediah M. Grant is an example of this complex attitude, and perhaps an extrapolation of the constraint. Grant had been, at the time this discourse was given, the second counselor in the First Presidency for just over a year, following nearly nine years as one of the First Seven Presidents of the Seventy. Less than a year after this talk, he would be asked to start what is now called the Mormon Reformation, a call for repentance and perfection among Church members, which they signaled by rebaptism. Grant toured much of northern Utah giving fiery speeches condemning all forms of evil and sin.

The Holy Spirit, and Human Learning and Science.

by President Jedediah M. Grant

Again, whenever I have had anything that was great or important to accomplish, I have been impressed with my own weakness and inability to perform the task imposed upon me, and that of myself I was as nothing, only as I trusted in God, and under these circumstances I was certain to speak by the power and influence of the Holy Ghost. When I have trusted in books, or in my own acquirements that I had gleaned from reading the productions of different authors (for I used to be fond of reading the works of Brown, Abercrombie, Locke, Watts, and other metaphysical writers[1]), I was sure to be foiled in my attempt, for all would leave me. But whenever I have trusted in the Lord, and relied upon Him for strength, it has come out right.

I want the Saints of God, when they come to school, to be filled with the Holy Spirit; I want the Saints to pray that those who speak may do it by the power of the Holy Ghost, and by this course you will learn and understand the principle of eternal life and happiness, and will receive intelligence from the fountain of all knowledge, which will exalt you in the presence of God. You may read all the books in the universe, and study all you can upon the science of astronomy, chemistry, and theology, and make those sciences interwoven with your very nature, till they are like a straightjacket upon you, and you may be wrapped up in them and bound hand and foot, and after all they will not let you into the fountain of all knowledge; but by taking such a course, you will have to become slaves to the learning that you have acquired. But I want the Saints to use their learning in the same manner as a boy uses the top, which is in perfect subjection to him; upon the same principle let the Saints use their learning, and when they speak, let it be by the power of God. It is not that I discard learning, but let it be used properly.

There is a fountain of intelligence, and the channel thereto is open, thank God for it, and the light of heaven bursts forth through this channel.

From: The Holy Spirit, and Human Learning and Science.
Delivered in the Social Hall, Great Salt Lake City, May, 30, 1855.
Reported by G. D. Watt.

What I found most intriguing about this statement is Grant’s claim that knowledge can bind and enslave us. He says:

“¦till they are like a straightjacket upon you, and you may be wrapped up in them and bound hand and foot, and after all they will not let you into the fountain of all knowledge; but by taking such a course, you will have to become slaves to the learning that you have acquired.

I’m not quite sure that I can see how this might be true exactly, but I suspect that there is an element of truth in it. Perhaps Grant is referring to the idea that learning determines how we approach and think about problems; we therefore become rigid in how we think and what we do. In that sense, I can see the idea that we often become prisoners to our learning, controlled by how that learning makes us think. Its a little like the old proverb about tools: When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

For authors and readers of literature, I do think that the idea that how we think might imprison us is an important one. In one sense, our views of literature and writing are influenced by society and by our education, which “imprison” us with a certain view of literature. On the other hand, we get warnings from Church leaders that give us another way of thinking, one that may equally “imprison” us in how we view what we write and read. Perhaps the lesson is that we need to be careful about which influences we accept, and that no influences should be accepted blindly, because each influence has its own limits.

Perhaps there is another way to see Grant’s statement. If you have another way of looking at this, I’d love to hear it.

[1] Grant is apparently referring to:

  • Thomas Brown, author of Lectures on the philosophy of the mind
  • John Abercrombie, author of The Philosophy of Moral Feelings
  • John Locke, author of, among other works, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding
  • Isaac Watts, author of, along with other works and many of the hymns in our current hymnal, The Improvement of the Mind

6 thoughts on “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Jedediah Grant on Learning”

  1. To me it feels like the opposite: learning is permissible to the extent that the conclusion is already assumed, i.e. as apologetic learning only. Willingness to explore knowledge without a foreordained conclusion seems to me to be less accepted. Thus it feels to me as though knowledge is inside and outside the prison, and the prison itself is church doctrine.

    Just my two cents.

  2. Mark, you may be right that I’m projecting my own views on what Grant is saying. I don’t know. I don’t think it is clear from this quote.

    But I don’t think that is the doctrine.

    I do think that some intellectuals get off track at times when they only see the world through a particular intellectual lens, which could distort reality, at least on the margins. You can sometimes see this when two different intellectual traditions intersect, and their very different views of the world compete to explain reality. In these cases neither quite seems right, while in the main area of their study they are completely right. Surely every way of looking at the world has its limits.

  3. Wm says: just a reminder that the focus here is on culture rather than doctrinal.

    And my own two cents is: all ideological lenses are prisons and playgrounds. It’s all in how you treat them. I saw plenty of people running around with just one hammer in grad school. And what’s unfortunate is that things like Marxist theory in relation to fictional narratives and feminist concerns and structuralism and Jung’s archetypes and Lacan can all be applied productively to some works of literature. The key phrases there are “can be” and “productive”.

  4. The way I’ve been thinking about these issues is that we have a religious culture that is both pro-education and anti-intellectual. That is: you are expected to learn in informal and formal settings, but you are expected not to use your education and intelligence as central organizing principles for your worldview or to rhetorically intimidate others.

    We appreciate teachers for sharing knowledge, but resist professor-as-priest models where education qualifies one as a dominant arbiter of morality.

    This attitude seems to have come up most often in the 19th and early 20th centuries as a point of distinction from Protestants. Since the mid-20th century, it’s also become more prominent as a point of tension with liberal secular culture…which is, I think, fairly Protestant in many of its assumptions.

  5. Wm, I hear what you are saying — and I’ll make sure I steer comments away from doctrine.

    Although, I must admit that the line between culture and doctrine is often a bit fuzzy.

    James, I do think there are elements of what you say in Mormon culture. To be honest, what concerns me most is what Mormon culture should move to and how to get there.

  6. We should probably also note that there is a lot of diversity within the Church on questions of learning as well. As to the quotes, I read it very much in light of the pragmatist philosophy of the era. Don’t cut off inquiry. Many refuse to look because they think they already have the answers. Ironically intellectual pursuits can thereby become anti-intellectual and wrap one up in a kind of politics of group identity.

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