My Years in the Church Education System, 1967-2001
by Grant H. Palmer
I served a long and rewarding thirty-four years within the educational system of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (CES). After finishing a master’s degree in 1967, I was hired (not by CES) to teach British Empire history at the Church College of New Zealand (CCNZ) from 1967-70. I began teaching religion classes one year later when a member of the religion department returned to the U.S. I left New Zealand after the third year of a four-year contract because of acute asthma and sometimes pneumonia. Doctors determined that if I stayed longer, I would have permanent lung damage. Alton Wade, an American headmaster at CCNZ during my time in New Zealand recommended me to CES in 1970 based on my performance. I loved the students and they seemed to relate well to me. They were often in my home, for instance. I enjoyed my interaction with them and look back fondly on my experience at CCNZ.
I was director of the LDS Institutes of Religion at Whittier and Rio Hondo Colleges and was supervisor of the seminary teachers in the Whittier Stake from 1970-73 in southern California. In 1973-74, I took a sabbatical leave and worked on a Ph.D. in American history. From 1975-80, I was the Institute director at Butte College in Oroville, California, and supervisor over the seminary teachers in the Chico Stake. Wanting to return to our families in Utah, my wife and I decided that I should take a position teaching seminary for one year at East High School in Salt Lake City, followed by seven years at Brighton High School, 1980-1988.
During the 1984-85 school year, I experienced some difficulty with my file leaders while at the Brighton Seminary. Two problems emerged: (1) I shared my research on Joseph Smith and folk magic with faculty members and (2) in one of my classes, a senior student asked if the golden plates were used during the translation process. I answered no, and the student reported this to his mother, who visited my principal, who went to his file leader, who took the “problem” to our zone administrator at church headquarters. A meeting was convened for me and my three file leaders. We spent about an hour together, mostly discussing whether or not the gold plates were used during the translation process. They said they had never heard a General Authority say such a thing and that church magazines depicted Joseph bent over the plates while translating. During this time, I told a history professor at BYU that on a scale of 1 to 10, the collective understanding of church history in the CES was about a 3. He thought I was being too generous. I was placed on probation for one year beginning in January 1985. In sum, I agreed to “tone things down” and apologized to the Brighton faculty for creating an unsettling environment in the seminary. The year 1987-88 was my most successful, in my opinion, and free of problems.
From 1967-85, I was a true believer in every sense of the word, although I was always open to new ideas and felt free to share them with others. In the fall of 1984, the so-called salamander letter caused me to explore what impact Joseph Smith’s mystical mindset may have had upon the gold plates story and how it may have influenced the witnesses to the Book of Mormon. In 1986-87, I was uneasy enough, based on my continuing research (and wanting by this time to be able to teach adults rather than children), that I asked to be able to teach inmates at the Salt Lake County Jail. The CES area director for the Salt Lake Valley knew my circumstances, that I was struggling with church history. He asked how I felt about the Book of Mormon. I said that it should go to the entire world because it brings people to Christ (which I repeat in my book on pp. 49, 118). I was appointed director of the Institute program at the jail because the area director placed faith in my competence and level of belief. Being the only full-time person at the jail, and with limited classroom space, I was asked by jail administration and CES to teach lessons that would be suitable for any and all Christian inmates, which I considered a pleasure to do. I accordingly taught only from the Bible. I also counseled inmates on issues of faith and ethics from 1988 until I retired in 2001. I immensely enjoyed those thirteen years of teaching the New Testament to and counseling those who had strayed.
In the early 1990s, my wife was sick with cancer and died in late 1992. After several years of grieving, I did further research from 1995-1999, expanding and rewriting my manuscript. During 1999-2000 I often discussed with others how to find a positive conclusion to the manuscript and a way out of these difficulties. Signature Books asked in the summer of 2000 that I write an extended conclusion and resubmit the manuscript by August, which I did. I could not find an orthodox way to resolve the foundational problems and felt that it would be appropriate for me to apply for early retirement four years prior to my normal retirement date, in advance of publication of the book.
An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins was released in November 2002. I concluded that while I like many of Joseph Smith’s teachings, the foundational events in church history are too problematic to ignore. I have found a comfortable spot in the church in the new emphasis to become more Christ-centered at the ward level and to do my own part in making this so, especially in my own life. Through 2002, I have taught the high priests quorum in my ward, emphasizing Jesus Christ only. Part of my ongoing effort in this regard is my other manuscript in preparation, The Incomparable Jesus, which I hope to see published at Easter time in 2005.