Mormons sack historian

February 7, 1997

PRIVATE religious colleges in the United States have historically adopted a secular outlook that emphasises their academic mission over their spiritual one. But at Brigham Young University, the Mormon church appears intent on bucking that secular trend.

An assistant professor of history has become the first casualty of a newly written code that requires Mormon faculty to earn a "recommend" from their local bishop.

To receive a "recommend" a Mormon is required to meet ten criteria - to be active in the church, hand over a tithe or tenth of their income and avoid alcohol or caffeine, for example.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints founded and owns Brigham Young, based near Salt Lake City in Utah and one of the most prestigious religious colleges in the US. The university, which has 1,500 staff and ,000 students, gave Steven Epperson a six-month period of grace last March. In October he was told that his contract would not be renewed because he failed to meet the measures of spiritual worthiness.

Mr Epperson claimed he had not been certified because he had missed some church services on Sundays. He had spent the time serving breakfast to the homeless, he said. The university refused to comment except to say that he was one of only a handful of staff who received warning letters.

BYU adopted its new policy in 1995, after a long internal debate. Some staff reportedly saw it as retrenchment; others merely the codification of existing policy. About 95 per cent of its faculty, and almost 100 per cent of its student body, are Mormon. For non-Mormon faculty, there is a strict moral code they must adhere to.

There are about ten million Mormons and 50 temples around the globe. A worldwide temple-building programme now under way includes a new temple at Liverpool, on the site of the first Mormon chapel in England. The university has a "study abroad" programme in Britain.

Last year, BYU denied tenure to another faculty member, Gail Houston, saying she had "contradicted fundamental church doctrines" in her teaching, including advocating prayers to "Heavenly Mother" as well as to "Heavenly Father", and extending the priesthood to women.

James Gordon, an associate vice president of academic affairs, said: "Most religious universities in the US have become secularised and our mission is to provide a first-rate university education in an environment consistent with the Gospel. We would like to remain a truly religious university, and maintain a commitment to faith."

Mr Epperson had taken issue with professors of religion at BYU over the question of whether the Mormon church needed to convert people of Jewish faith. But that was not apparently connected to his dismissal, staff said.

The BYU mission statement is more than academic, pledging "to assist individuals", for example, "in their quest for perfection and eternal life" and help them be better prepared for "home and family life, social relationships, civic duty, and service to mankind".

It espouses a "broad university education", but states: "BYU's faculty, staff, students and administrators should also be anxious to make their service and scholarship available to the church of LDS in furthering its work worldwide."

Many private liberal arts colleges in the US had their roots as religious institutions. Those that remain so - with BYU among the most prestigious, and most overtly spiritual in purpose - are periodically caught in debate over the right place for religion. "The Catholic university is where the church does its thinking," is how Father Theodore Hesburgh, the famous post-war president of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, once described their role.

Baylor University, until recently under the close control of the Southern Baptist church, has been debating whether to sell a chain of university-owned hospitals in the Dallas, Texas, area. While a sale would give Baylor a huge endowment for academic purposes, the hospitals, offering free health care for the poor, were part of its original Christian mission, staff say.

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