Before 1920

Brigham Young Academy, organized in 1875, had no English Department, although courses were offered in grammar, spelling, and rhetoric. The academy was divided into departments, but these were divisions, not academic departments, which students entered according to age and preparation. Divisions included a Primary Department, for students aged six to eight who had never been to school before; an Intermediate Department for students aged eight to eleven who knew their three R’s; and an Academic Department for students aged eleven to fourteen, ready for advanced work.

Nels L. Nelson

The first teacher of English in the academy was Karl G. Maeser. Milton H. Hardy, who directed the Intermediate Department, supervised the grammar class and taught penmanship on all levels. Nels L. Nelson, principal of the high school and trained in both science and philosophy, directed English studies from 1883 to 1903.

By 1898, English courses focused on the study of the “principles of invention,” the purpose being to prepare students to write essays, theses, lectures, and sermons. Students were also drilled in effective reading. Entering students who did not have high school diplomas or certificates had to take an examination on Goldsmith’s “Deserted Village,” Scott’s “Lady of the Lake,” or Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle.” Besides Nelson, others who taught English courses were Alice Louise Reynolds, Alfred Osmond, and Miriam Nelke.

Academic departments were first listed in the 1902-03 catalog, the academic year before the academy (although with some hesitation) was renamed Brigham Young University. Before that, English courses had been listed under a subtitle, “English.” The catalog for Brigham Young Academy and Latter-day Saints’ Normal School for 1901-1902 states in an introductory paragraph that English courses had “been laid out after a careful study of the needs of the young people in the inter-mountain region. They aim, first of all, to supplant the crudities in expression so prevalent in the western communities, by simple and direct but pure English. They are next designed to develop literary taste, and the taste for literature, or a feeling for the companionship of books.”  Alfred Osmond became the first chair of the newly named department of English. At this time all classes were taught on what later became known as the “lower campus,” occupying the square block between 500 and 600 North and University Avenue and 100 East (present site of the Provo Library, part of which is in the restored Academy Building).

Lower Campus. Courtesy of Office of the Dean of the College of Social Sciences, 
Brigham Young University Archive

The 1902-1903 catalog lists ten courses in the Department of English: G. Advanced Rhetoric, H. Advanced Rhetoric, 1. Poetry, 2. Oratory, 3. Oratory, 4. History of American Literature, 5. History of English Literature, 6. History of English Literature, 7. Chaucer, and 8. English Drama. No English faculty members are listed; however, under College and High School Faculty, Nels L. Nelson appears as a professor of English, Alice L. Reynolds as an assistant professor of English, and Annie Pike as an instructor in English.

The 1905-1906 catalog (1904-05 missing) added five courses: one in English Literature, two in Shakespeare, and two in Chaucer, but dropped History of American Literature, possibly following the lead of some other universities who felt it not worthy of study.  New faculty included Eunice Angeline Holbrook, Nellie Schofield, B. T. Higgs, and Reinhard Maeser.

Alfred Osmond

Alfred Osmond served as chair for thirty-two years (1903-35). Professor Osmond memorized great literature, particularly Shakespeare, and apt sayings, which he often quoted in his teaching and conversation or recited to himself while sitting in his front room alone. He wrote and published many occasional and informal poems, including for several years weekly poems in the Deseret News under the title “Vernacular Verses” and in The Utah Farmer under “Rural Rhymes for Farmin’ Folks.” He also gave recitations.

Osmond was known as an inspirational teacher who sought to help students live their lives by the highest standards. The story is told that he once assigned students to write couplets in the style of Alexander Pope, and when asked to recite his masterpiece, one student, hesitating, said, “I’m not a poet,” to which Osmond replied, pointing an accusing finger, “Young man, I want you to understand you’re not a finished product. You are still in the process of being created.” Two of Osmond’s daughters, Mary Irene Spears and Nan Grass, later taught in the English Department.

Alice Louise Reynolds

Alice Louise Reynolds, who became a much-loved faculty member, taught English as a new department, English came to life the year before George H. Brimhall (1904-21) was named the first president of Brigham Young University. Before him, Karl G. Maeser (1876-91), and after him, Benjamin Cluff, Jr. (1892-1904), served as principals (sometimes called superintendents) of Brigham Young Academy. The Department of English, like all other departments and divisions, was housed on the lower campus. Along with the rest of the university the department slowly began to grow. Until 1916, only Osmond and Reynolds taught college English classes exclusively; teacher training (the normal school) and high school classes took most of the faculty’s time.

The beginning of the new century brought severe economic trials for the university, although this was certainly nothing unusual. The Church provided some funds, but it was only through the determination and vision of men like Brimhall and the generosity of Jesse Knight, Abraham O. Smoot, and others that the university did not close. The willingness of faculty and staff to work at absolute minimum salaries also made continuing possible. In 1868, Brigham Young had called Smoot, then mayor of Salt Lake City, to move from his comfortable home to Provo to serve as president of the Utah Stake. Family tradition has it that Smoot, who had already served three missions, protested the call, however President Young said he could go to Provo or go to hell. This may not have seemed much of a choice to Smoot, but to Provo he came, to the blessing of the school, which he helped save on several occasions.

In 1906-07, the year BYU applied to be designated the official Church university, the department still did not offer a class in American literature. However, there were additions: two classes in oratory, two classes covering English literature from 1750-1800 (“Intensive studies in Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and others”), one each in Milton and Bacon, and an additional two classes in Shakespeare.  Walter E. Cluff, assistant professor, joined the English faculty. Not until 1909-1910 did the course in American literature return to the catalog as an English course. No description is given. Other additions that year included philology and a course titled “The Epic of Mormonism—This course will take up the reading and discussion of ‘Elias,’ an epic poem by O. F. Whitney. The work involves some of the deepest problems in philosophy and theology, and also a wide acquaintance with sacred history.”

When President Brimhall took office in 1904, none of the university faculty held a master’s degree, although many held bachelor’s degrees from top eastern universities. But the quality of the faculty steadily improved, with some holding doctorates soon hired. But because of small salaries faculty members still struggled to survive and had to find additional sources of income. One faculty member wrote that in order to teach at BYU “one had to own and till a farm and to be obliged to take watering turns between classes.”

Led by the new university faculty trained at eastern universities, a controversy brewed up about this time over what was called modernism, or the teaching of evolution and higher criticism (reinterpretation and “de-mythologizing” of the Bible); however, with the exception of one professor, N. L. Nelson, who taught English but was trained in philosophy, the English Department was not significantly involved in this controversy. School and Church policy allowed discussion on virtually any topic, but advocacy was another matter.

More significant was the 1911 opening of the new Maeser Building, built at a cost of $100,000, on Temple Hill, the first building to be built on what would become the permanent or upper campus. Until the university stopped offering classes on the lower campus, students had to make a ten-minute dash between classes from one campus to the other. Temple Hill was so designated because Provo residents long believed that a temple would be built where the Maeser Building now stands. A temple was indeed included in the early planning for the upper campus, but it was never built.

The 1913-14 catalog, the first available after 1909-10, fails to list Whitney’s epic of Mormonism but adds English courses in modern drama (Ibsen, Shaw, Materlinck, Hauptmann, and others) and Anglo Saxon (based on Bright’s Anglo-Saxon Reader), which suggests that the curriculum was expanding. A new instructor in Physical Education and Oral Expression, Beatrice Camp, under the department heading.

Although new more professionally trained faculty were being added and the curriculum expanded, the university continued to have serious funding problems.  A 1914 letter from President Brimhall to Abraham O. Smoot suggests the determination to keep the university going: “I could stand to lose my own home, go out and live in a tent better than I could stand to see the youth of Israel . . . meet when they come here closed doors or a poor bill of fare. It cannot be! Surely, the school is an institution of destiny.”  In this same year Osmond and Reynolds were among the six faculty members authorized to teach exclusively college classes. In 1916, thirty-three students graduated with bachelor’s degrees, two of them in English. In 1918, the Church assumed the university’s accumulated debts, which both eased the financial crisis and created a closer bond between the school and the Church.

With the coming of World War I, BYU established a Student Army Training Corps. In 1918, a second building was built on the upper campus, the Mechanical Arts Building, which later became known as the Brimhall Building. The 1918 flu epidemic, in which more Americans died than were killed in the war, closed the university for nearly four months. The department offered three new courses: The Short Story, Analytical Grammar, and Love and Light—O. F. Whitney’s Idyl of the Westland.