Devotional traditions change over the years

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    By Alice-Anne Lewis

    Tuesday Devotionals are a campus tradition, with a largely unknown tradition.

    Over the past 16 years, fewer general authorities have spoken at BYU”s weekly Devotionals and even fewer off-campus speakers have come to speak at Forums.

    In the past Fall Semester, the 10 weeks of scheduled BYU Devotionals featured two general authorities and one off-campus Forum speaker.

    But during Fall Semester 1985, those 10 weeks packed in three general authorities, the general Relief Society president and five off-campus Forum speakers.

    The next semester ushered in five general authorities and four visiting professors from Harvard University, the University of Washington, Cal Tech and the University of British Columbia.

    But even though BYU brought in the big names, 1985 did not bring many students into the Marriott Center for Devotionals, according to a Daily Universe article printed on March 25, 1987.

    While Devotional attendance averages 14,028 during most fall semesters, Fall 1985 skimmed in a weekly attendance average of 4,684, according to the article.

    It was the lagging numbers that caused then-President Jeffrey R. Holland to rethink how Devotionals were run.

    How do we get students together on Tuesdays?

    During the 1950s, President Ernest L. Wilkinson got students received credit for attending Tuesday Devotionals and Thursday Forums.

    Students received a half-credit for making their way to the Smith Fieldhouse twice a week. A computer card was given to them to check their attendance, said Edwin Butterworth, director of public communications during President Wilkinson”s era.

    Wilkinson saw Devotionals as an important part of students” education and was disappointed when attendance was low, Butterworth said.

    Later, students had to voluntarily record their attendance for credit, and Devotionals were moved to the newly built Marriott Center in 1972.

    Donnay Hutchings, a BYU student in 1969, recalls those Devotionals.

    “We never missed it,” Hutchings said. “It was always a general authority, and it was amazing.”

    In the fall of 1986, President Holland cut the frequency of devotionals in half to increase attendance, said Brent Harker, director of public communications during President Holland”s era.

    With fewer Devotionals and Forums, President Holland believed this would alleviate the burden of busy students and teachers, according to a Daily Universe article.

    What really made the difference, Harker said, was President Holland”s emphasis on the importance of Devotionals.

    Although there was a dramatic increase in attendance after President Holland changed the policy and encouraged attendance, a decline soon followed, Harker said.

    The university assemblies lacked consistency for students and teachers, he said.

    In 1994, President Rex E. Lee was also looking for a way to fill the Marriott seats. He decided that consistency was the key.

    Devotionals and Forums returned to a weekly basis, and BYU professors were asked to speak in what President Lee termed as Campus Devotionals.

    Fall Semester 1994 brought in two general authorities, two off-campus Forum speakers and six speakers or performing teams from BYU. During the following semester, there were no off-campus visiting Forum speakers.

    The trend of using BYU professors as Devotional and Forum speakers has continued since President Merrill J. Bateman came into office in 1996.

    “Some of our finest Devotionals are from our faculty members,” said Carri Jenkins, BYU spokesperson.

    Choosing the speakers

    Fall and Winter semesters are suppose to feature all off-campus speakers for Forums, said Gary Daynes, a member of the committee that chooses Forum speakers.

    The Forum committee attempts to bring in as many off-campus speakers as possible, said John Lewis, associate advancement vice-president.

    “We try to get speakers that have a universal appeal,” Lewis said.

    But Lewis said it takes money to bring in the Margaret Thatchers of the world. (Thatcher, Great Britain”s prime minister, visited BYU in 1995.)

    The process of inviting and bringing in off-campus speakers has also become slower, Daynes said.

    After a request is made to the committee, it goes to the President”s Council and then to the Board of Trustees, Daynes said.

    “As the church gets bigger, (the selecting process) gets slower,” he said.

    Forum speakers are usually selected years in advance, Jenkins said. General authorities are then alloted weeks for which they can come and speak.

    For Lewis, the reason there seems to be a decline in general authorities speakers is due to the growing needs of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

    “Their demands have grown astronomically,” Lewis said.

    Lewis was asked by President Bateman to head up an ad hoc committee last year to examine why there has been a decrease in Devotional attendance and what BYU should do about it.

    Two conclusions were reached: fundamentally, everyone loves devotionals. However, students and faculty are crunched for time, Lewis said.

    The recommendation from the ad hoc committee was to give students more time to get to the Marriott Center, he said.

    The university has already pushed the starting time of devotionals to 11:05, and school officials are looking to push the noon class to a later time so more students will have the chance to attend Devotionals in the Marriott Center.

    In addition to this change, the Forum committee is looking to bring in off-campus speakers who may or may not be celebrities, but whose expertise follow BYU”s General Education curriculum, said John Lamb, chair of the Forum committee.

    By encouraging the faculty to promote the Forum speakers in their classrooms the hope is that attendance will rise, Lamb said.

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