Skip to main content

1930s and 1940s

The Great Depression, as might be expected, brought more severe financial problems for BYU. Although earlier transfer of Church-owned junior colleges to Utah and Arizona, left more money for BYU, there was still some question as to whether it would survive. The faculty accepted salary cuts and all contracts were provisional. Students also tightened their belts, literally, forty percent surviving on three to six dollars a month for food. In spite of the Depression, enrollment continued to grow, increasing from 1,494 in 1929-30 to 2,375 a decade later. Although a spirit of free inquiry continued, several faculty left BYU when their orthodoxy was questioned. Changes were also made in religious education when it was found that no courses were offered in the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price, or the Doctrine and Covenants. In 1932 returned missionaries were required for the first time to take religion classes.

A notable addition to the English Department faculty during the 1931-32 school year was Karl E. Young, the first member of the department who had studied at both Harvard (1924-125) and Oxford (1927-30). Other faculty hired to strengthen the department were Gladys Black, Ralph A. Britsch, Orea B. Tanner, and Leonard W. Rice.

The 1902-03 catalog, the first listing English as a department, offered ten courses. The 1931-32 catalog offered seventy-four courses—twenty-seven lower-division, thirty-two upper-division, and fifteen graduate. Of the seventy-four, only eight were in American literature—six lower-division, one upper-division, and one graduate. Obviously the belief in the validity of American literature as important was still not particularly clamorous.

In 1935, after serving for thirty-two years as chair, Alfred Osmond retired, and P. A. Christensen, who would serve for twenty years, took his place. A great believer in freshman English as a fundamental course, Christensen insisted that all department faculty, not just junior members, teach it; according to him, the importance of the course required the best teachers.

In 1939, construction began on a religious education building to be known as the Joseph Smith Building. Built as a welfare project, it was the last of the four buildings (Maeser, Grant, and Brimhall having been built earlier), until the end of the World War II, when BYU’s student population and building program exploded. Except for BYU all Church education came under the direction of the new General Church Board of Education; BYU had its own board of trustees, all General Authorities, which did much to establish BYU as a church wide university. During the war years, 1941-1945, as would be expected, much activity on campus slowed or came to a halt. In 1945, Franklin S. Harris, after twenty-four years as president, resigned to become president of Utah Agricultural College.

Harris had steered BYU through more than two decades of growth and improvement in every category. He believed always that BYU would someday become a great university. His faith is summed up in two paragraphs from a letter Harris wrote to President Heber J. Grant at his retirement:

I am very sincere in my belief that Brigham Young University offers the best educational opportunities found in any school of the nation. We have here a student body coming from the finest people in the land. They are actuated by the high ideals of our Church and most of them respond very well to the situation. . . . The doctrines and practices of the Church are so superior to anything else found in the world and the quality of the young people who grow up in the Church is so fine that when you get this combination with the right kind of education, we are sure to get some of the leadership which the world needs so much just now.

Leaving his position as Salt Lake City superintendent of schools, Howard S. McDonald succeeded Harris as president. Trained initially as an agricultural engineer, McDonald later turned to a career in education. In his letter of appointment, the First Presidency asked McDonald to help them decide whether BYU should be closed, the last of several times the question of BYU’s continuation would come up. The end of the 1944-45 school year, the student body numbered only a little over 1,500, but with the end of World War II, 2,700 students flooded the campus, many of them part of the 10,000,000 veterans whose education would be paid for all or in part by the G. I. Bill. With so many returned servicemen on campus, campus life took on a new maturity and seriousness. A class in freshman English, for example, might easily include men in their mid- and late-twenties who had fought in the war, many of them married and starting families. These veterans, as they were called, wanted to make up the lost years and had a no-nonsense attitude toward education, which they saw as an entryway to jobs, professions, and security.

For the next twenty-five years, from 1945 to 1970, when the student body was finally capped at 30,000, the great task would be to provide the administration, staff, faculty, buildings, and programs to accommodate a rapidly expanding number of students. The first new construction was the Carl F. Eyring Science Center. To help with student housing, McDonald obtained temporary buildings from the Ogden Arsenal, some of which were converted to provide two hundred apartments for married students.

Like other departments, English continued to grow during a hectic period as the 1940s ended. New faculty included Dale H. West, Clinton F. Larson, Briant S. Jacobs, J. Golden Taylor, Olive K. Burmingham Mitchell, Stella P. Rich, Thomas E. Cheney, and Jean Anne Waterstradt. Curriculum changes included a teaching major in English, with the option to drop the twenty-four hour foreign language requirement to meet particular needs of some teachers. However, this necessitated the substitution of a B.S. for a B.A. The department for the first time also set up placement tests for freshman English, added a new category, General and Comparative Literature, as well as ten new courses and a minor. New English courses included a lower-division course in Classic Myths and upper-division courses in The Essay, American literature, and Modern Short Biography. The graduate program grew from fifteen courses in 1929-39 to thirty-three in the 1946-47 catalog, including three in Types of World Literature and four in American literature. The new undergraduate and graduate courses in American literature suggest that American literature had finally come of age. The department, with Professor Thomas E. Cheney as faculty advisor, started publication of Wye Magazine, a student literary magazine. Cheney loved the English poet William Wordsworth, who himself had loved the Wye Valley and River–hence the title of the new magazine.