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Joseph F. Merrill
Full name Joseph Francis Merrill
Born August 24, 1868(1868-08-24)
Place of birth Richmond, Utah Territory
Died February 3, 1952 (aged 83)
Place of death Salt Lake City, Utah
LDS Church Apostle
Called by Heber J. Grant
Ordained October 8, 1931 (aged 63)
Ordination reason Death of Orson F. Whitney
End of term February 3, 1952 (aged 83)
End reason Death
Reorganization at end of term LeGrand Richards ordained
LDS Church General Authority
Quorum of the Twelve Apostles
Called by Heber J. Grant
Start of term October 8, 1931 (aged 63)
End of term February 3, 1952 (aged 83)
End reason Death

Joseph Francis Merrill (August 24, 1868 – February 3, 1952) was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) from October 8, 1931 until his death.

Merrill, born in Richmond, Utah Territory, was a key figure in the development of the Church Educational System in the early twentieth century. He served as the sixth Commissioner of Church Education from 1928 to 1933. Prior to his service as commissioner, he played a significant role in the creation of the released time LDS Church seminary system. His tenure as commissioner saw the creation of the Institutes of Religion and the transfer of nearly all the remaining church schools to control of the states they resided in. He also faced a crisis in 1930 and 1931 which threatened to end the released time seminary. His leadership and fiscal wisdom ensured the continued survival of LDS Church education through the Great Depression. In 1931, while still serving as commissioner, he was called to serve in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.


Early life

The son of LDS Church apostle Marriner W. Merrill, Joseph Merrill was among the first Latter-day Saints to leave Utah and travel to the eastern United States to seek higher education. He studied at the University of Deseret, the University of Michigan, and finally Johns Hopkins University, becoming the first native Utahn to receive a PhD. While at the University of Michigan Merrill was the president of the Ann Arbor Branch of the LDS Church.

Upon his return from the east he became the director of the School of Mines at the University of Utah. In 1895 he became the first principal of the University of Utah College of Engineering. The Merrill Engineering building on the University of Utah campus is named in his honor. In 1911 he was called to serve in the presidency of the Granite Utah Stake of the LDS Church.

Church education role

Upon hearing his wife relate stories from the Book of Mormon she had learned in a class taught by James E. Talmage, Merrill began to seek means for students attending public high schools to have some form of weekday religious education. Influenced by seminaries he had seen at the University of Chicago, Merrill worked with the Granite School Board, and the Church General Board of Education, securing the necessary funding and legal rights to open a seminary next to Granite High School. In his search for a proper teacher to instruct the youth, Merrill wrote:

"May I say that it is the desire of the Presidency of the Stake to find a young man who is properly qualified to do the work in the most satisfactory manner. By young, we do not necessarily mean a teacher who is young in years, but a man who can command their respect and admiration and exercise great influence over them. We want a man who can enjoy student sports and activities as well as one who is a good teacher. We want a man who is a thorough student, one who will not teach in a perfunctory way, but who will enliven his instruction with a strong winning personality and give evidence of thorough understanding of a scholarship in the things he teaches. "It is desired that the school be thoroughly successful and a teacher is wanted who is a leader and who will be universally regarded as the inferior to no teacher in the high school."[1]

Merrill found the right man in Thomas J. Yates, a young engineer in the Granite Stake. With the building completed, and proper curriculum developed, the first released-time seminary opened its doors in 1912.

In 1928, Merrill left his position at the University of Utah to serve as the head of the LDS Church school system. Upon Merrill’s acceptance, the name of the position was officially changed from “Superintendent of Church Schools” to "Church Commissioner of Education". As commissioner, Merrill faced several unique challenges.

Merrill took over the development of the first institute program at Moscow, Idaho. Working with J. Wyley Sessions, Merrill helped development the basic goals of the institute program, which he felt should be designed to help students reconcile the secular learning of university with the spiritual truths of the gospel. Having successfully navigated the rocky shoals of secularism during his time in the east, he hoped that the institute program could serve to safeguard the faith of students in the collegiate environment. He wrote:

"In this collegiate seminary work we are, of course, starting on a new thing in the Church. But if we keep the objective clearly in mind it may be helpful. And may I say that this objective, as I see it, is to enable our young people attending the colleges to make the necessary adjustments between the things they have been taught in the Church and the things they are learning in the university, to enable them to become firmly settled in their faith as members of the Church. The big question, then, is what means and methods can be employed to help them to make these reconciliations and adjustments. The primary purpose, therefore, is not to teach them theology. It is not to prepare them for seminary teachers or preachers of the Gospel. We should, therefore, continually hold before our minds that we want to hold them in the Church, make them active, intelligent, sincere, Latter-day Saints. We want to keep them from growing cold in the faith and indifferent to their obligations as Church members. We want to help them to see that it is perfectly reasonable and logical to be really sincere Latter-day Saints."[2]

With the successful launch of institute, Merrill’s next task was to complete the withdrawal of the LDS Church from the field of secular education. Most of the church schools had already been closed in the early 1920s, but Brigham Young University (BYU) and several junior colleges remained under church control. In a meeting of the Church General Board of Education in February 1929, Merrill was asked to begin the process of closing all of the remaining schools. Despite the onset of the Great Depression, Merrill was able to successfully negotiate with the Utah State Legislature to ensure the successful transfer of Weber, Snow and Dixie College. In Arizona, Gila College was also transferred and later renamed Eastern Arizona College. When the Idaho legislature rejected to offer to take control of Ricks College, Merrill worked to ensure the survival of that school, despite seriously diminished funding of the part of the church. Merrill also worked with other Church leaders to keep BYU under church control. He felt that maintaining a university was vital for the future training of seminary teachers. He saw the value in maintaining a corps of trained scholars who were well versed in the gospel. In addition he felt that a church university would be a light to the world, functioning as a showcase for the academic achievements of church members. During his service he encouraged Sidney B. Sperry, Russel B. Swensen, and others to seek higher degrees at the University of Chicago. Upon their return, Merrill sent these men to BYU, where they formed the school’s first department of religion.

In 1930, state high school inspector I. L. Williamson issued a highly critical report on the relationships between seminaries and public high schools in Utah. Influenced by this report, the Utah State Board of Education initially moved to suspend released time privileges statewide. Merrill led the charge to ensure the continuation of released time, speaking before the State Board to convince them of the benefits and legality of seminary. When the Board voted on the issue in 1931, both released time and credit for Bible study were retained. With most of the LDS Church schools gone by this point, Merrill’s quick action ensured the survival of what would become the dominant form of religious education in the church.

Merrill also dealt with the effects of the Great Depression, cutting costs in education. Rather than laying off employees, Merrill asked all members of church education to take pay cuts. During his service, church spending was cut nearly in half.

Mission president

When he left in 1933 to serve as president of the European Mission of the church, Merrill passed his fiscal philosophies on to the missionaries serving under him. He succeeded John A. Widtsoe in this office. One of them, future church president Gordon B. Hinckley, cited Merrill’s influence as a major factor in his financial thinking. J. Wyley Sessions called Merrill the “most economical, conservative General Authority of this dispensation.”[3]

Despite the hard times he saw during his tenure as commissioner, Merrill took great joy in his work. Upon his call as commissioner he said:

"Again may I say that I believe there is no kind of education in the world that is so fine and so elevating and so good and so important as religious education. And I believe that nowhere in the world is there a system of religious education that is equal in its quality, in its thoroughness and in its comprehensiveness to the system of education that is being undertaken in this Church. The time will come, I verily believe, and before very many years, when week-day religious education will be offered to every high school boy and girl, to every college and university boy and girl in this Church."

Grave marker of Joseph F. Merrill.

Later life

Merrill served as an apostle until his death in 1952 in Salt Lake City from coronary thrombosis.[4] Upon his death, Joseph Fielding Smith offered the following tribute: “I marveled at his energy. Apparently he never got tired; he loved the truth. He loved the truth of science, but he loved more the truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ ... He had a strong will, was pronounced in his opinions, but he was always submissive to the majority decisions of his brethren.”[5]

See also


  1. ^ History of Granite Seminary, comp. Charles Coleman and Dwight Jones, unpublished manuscript, 1933, MS 2237, Church Archives, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
  2. ^ Ward H. Magleby, “1926, Another Beginning, Moscow, Idaho,” Impact, Winter 1968, 31.
  3. ^ Magleby, 31-33.
  4. ^ State of Utah Death Certificate
  5. ^ J. Wyley Sessions, J. Wyley Sessions Remembrance, UA 156, box 2, folder 5, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT.


  • William E. Berrett, A Miracle in Weekday Religious Education, Salt Lake Printing Center, 1988.
  • Casey P. Griffiths, "Joseph F. Merrill: Latter-day Saint Commissioner of Education, 1928-1933," (Master’s Thesis, Brigham Young University, 2007).
  • Gordon B. Hinckley, "Passing of Elder Joseph F. Merrill," Improvement Era, March 1952.
  • Ward H. Magleby, "1926 – Another Beginning, Moscow Idaho," Impact, Winter 1968.
  • Joseph F. Merrill, "A New Institution in Religious Education," Improvement Era, 1938.
Religious titles
Preceded by
John A. Widtsoe
Quorum of the Twelve Apostles
October 8, 1931–February 3, 1952
Succeeded by
Charles A. Callis


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