Research showing the dire effects of sleep deprivation on adolescents has some LDS parents concerned about the effects of early-morning seminary on their children. That was not an issue in the ‘50s when I attended seminary for high school credit in Utah. At that time seminary was a three-year program with credit for both Old and New Testament. Grades counted on the high school transcript. Church History, the third year, was non-credit, but was treated as a regular class, sans homework. I enjoyed seminary and actually learned some gospel principles despite spending time on the back row writing “in the bathtub” after titles in the hymn books. “I Stand All Amazed” was my personal favorite.
My 14-year-old brother moved in with George and me while we lived in Wyoming. I enrolled David for early-morning seminary over his objection. We carpooled with neighbors to get him to seminary and then to junior high on the cold, dark mornings. The seminary teacher, an authoritarian type, had actually hit one of the students the previous year. David hated seminary, but I insisted he continue. Midway through the year, my precocious brother began bragging about theological arguments he was having with Brother Knotzi. David was pushing for what might literally be a “knock-down/drag-out,” so I allowed him to drop out. The following year the stake hired a competent teacher (ST’s received a stipend then), but no way could I convince David to give seminary another try.
Before our own kids were old enough for seminary, I spent one memorable afternoon substituting for a seminary teacher. It was nothing like the seminary of my youth and nothing like subbing in regular high school classes. Since it was non-credit, teachers had no way to motivate appropriate behavior. The kids insisted Brother Nice always let them make a donut run at the beginning of class. I didn’t, and they got even. At that moment I vowed seminary would be optional for my kids. What was the point in forcing kids to attend if they’re just going to disrupt? And was it really a good idea to have 9th graders in the same classes with 18-year-old seniors?
Our kids took seminary when they could work it into their schedules—basically to be with friends. None of our kids enjoyed it. The only evidence I saw of learning was the summer after Jaycee’s 9th grade. We planned a family picnic up Millcreek Canyon and Jaycee refused to go. Her seminary teacher had told a story about some kind of devil worship that had taken place there long ago and insisted that evil spirits still lurked in the canyon.
While teaching in Utah, I saw students who really loved seminary and considered it the high point of the day. Seminary definitely benefits some students. But not all. The church publishes statistics citing the higher incidence of missions and temple marriages for seminary graduates. Of course the incidence is higher. Only kids from active LDS families attend seminary. A control group of kids from active families who don’t graduate from seminary has never been studied. And never will be. The church has invested millions in seminary buildings and staff. Why would it research the effectiveness of a program with which it is stuck?
LDS parents need to weigh the costs—less sleep (outside Utah), fewer elective choices (in Utah)—and evaluate real vs. hoped for benefits of seminary for their children. Seminary attendance, like family planning, is an individual choice which cannot be delegated to church authorities.