Oh say, what is truth? ’Tis the fairest gem / That the riches of worlds can produce, / And priceless the value of truth will be when / The proud monarch’s costliest diadem / Is counted but dross and refuse.” Hearing these words, sung with devotion and considerable musical talent by a congregation consisting of two hundred mostly freshmen students at Brigham Young University, my Catholic guest and I were moved. The students clearly believed what they were singing. The occasion was a regular Latter-day Saint Sunday worship service (“sacrament meeting”). But for me this was a special meeting, my last Sunday with such a student congregation, having served for three years as the bishop, or lay minister, for one of more than a hundred such campus wards. We were gathered as always in a law school lecture hall just large enough to accommodate our congregation, almost every member of which was present that and every other Sunday. That same Sunday morning, all across the campus, every available large lecture hall was similarly occupied, and almost every student was attending a similar worship service. (More than 90 percent of BYU students are Mormons.)
The Victorian lyrics are quaint, but the central idea is one anchored deep in Latter-day Saint belief and in the founding purposes of Brigham Young University: the unity of truth, revealed and rational, to be pursued at once “by study and also by faith.” Brigham Young himself was persistently emphatic on the spiritual and eternal value of intellectual labors: “All our educational pursuits are in the service of God, for all these labors are to establish truth on the earth . . . that we may become fit subjects to dwell in a higher state of existence and intelligence than we now enjoy.”
Mormon students come to BYU well acquainted with both sides of this statement from the Book of Mormon: “To be learned is good if [we] hearken unto the counsels of God.” And on the whole these students are at least as committed to the religious proviso as to the endorsement of learning. In order to be admitted, students must be endorsed as morally worthy and religiously committed by their local church leaders, and the endorsement must be renewed every year. I am convinced that the level of moral obedience and religious practice is extraordinary. The level of religious practice among facultyalmost all of whom are Latter-day Saintsis, if anything, even higher, and it is not left to chance: All BYU employees must be certified by their local church leaders as religiously fit for their educational responsibilities.
In a word: BYU is a massively, intensely, and, notwithstanding inevitable human lapses, sincerely Latter-day Saint institution of higher learning, and the broad and deep religious commitment of students and faculty is by far the greatest asset the university possesses, and the chief source of the deep gratitude I feel for the privilege of serving on its faculty for the past twenty-seven years. It is a genuinely and pervasively Mormon institution, and this must be kept in mind as we attempt to weigh its promise against the daunting challenges it now faces.