Teaching religion: a different kind of BYU professor

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BYU religion professor Anthony Sweat takes his class outside. His Instagram caption reads, “Loud distracting noises in Eyring Science Center + beautiful day + awesome students = D&C 325 class on the lawn today.” (Anthony Sweat)

Brigham Young University employs approximately 1,500 full-time faculty members on its campus. But there’s a group of professors who stand apart, not only because they teach religion, but because their off-campus lives include art, the Army and anything in between.

To fulfill BYU’s mission to “assist individuals in their quest for perfection and eternal life,” students are required to take 14 religion education credits.

Full-time religion professors are required to have a doctorate degree to teach, but teaching doctrine, principles and church history requires not only academic preparation but spiritual preparation as well.

BYU religion professor Tyler Griffin said he believes a good religion professor should, in addition to studying the scriptures, “dig deeper into their character,” because, he added, “You teach who you are.”

Kenneth Alford is an associate professor in the Department of Church History and Doctrine. Alford said he believes “all teachers have a responsibility to understand their subject, but BYU religion professors carry an added responsibility not to ‘put their own spin’ on the doctrines and principles they are blessed to teach.”

Alford hasn’t taught religion his whole life. He’s also a retired colonel from the United States Army.

Colonel Ken Alford receiving the Defense Superior Service Medal in June 2008 during his retirement ceremony at the National Defense University in Washington, DC from Rear Admiral Gerard M. Mauer, Jr.)
Colonel Ken Alford received the Defense Superior Service Medal in June 2008 during his retirement ceremony at the National Defense University in Washington, DC from Rear Admiral Gerard M. Mauer, Jr. Alford teaches religion at BYU. (Ken Alford)

He taught computer science, software engineering and information systems engineering for eight years at the United States Military Academy at West Point. He also taught strategic leadership and organizational behavior at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. for four years.

In 2008, Alford joined the BYU religious education faculty, 30 years after attending BYU as a student.

“In 1978, during a BYU political science class in the MARB, the Spirit whispered that if I prepared myself I might someday return to serve on the faculty at BYU,” Alford said. “After serving almost 30 years in the U.S. Army, I am thrilled to be back at BYU and it continues to be an amazing experience.”

Other religion professors have diverse backgrounds as well. “People (in this department) have degrees from a lot of different backgrounds,” said Anthony Sweat, a BYU religion professor who received his bachelor degree in fine arts.

“You have people who have PHDs in history, teaching and learning, biblical Hebrew or even in law,” Sweat said. BYU’s religion professors are active in religious studies, both on and off campus.

A painting of Joseph Smith translating, completed by BYU professor Anthony Sweat. Sweat said religion professors have the potential to fulfill part of BYU's mission in assisting students in their quest for perfection and eternal life. (Anthony Sweat)
A painting of Joseph Smith translating, completed by BYU professor Anthony Sweat. Sweat said religion professors have the potential to fulfill part of BYU’s mission in assisting students in their quest for perfection and eternal life. (Anthony Sweat)

Sweat carries his art perspective into his religious studies. He illustrated “From Darkness Unto Light,” a book explaining Joseph Smith’s translation process and the challenges he overcame to publish the Book of Mormon.

Dr. Mary Jane Woodger, BYU Church History and Doctrine professor, has interviewed many general authorities and apostles, and her name appears on bookshelves at Deseret Book.

Professor Griffin has taught seminary and institute and has a degree in instructional technology. According to Griffin, it’s sometimes challenging to be a religion professor because professors have to bring the scriptures to life in a way that doesn’t draw attention to themselves.

“Teachers have to be careful not to eclipse the scriptures by being in between scriptures and students, which could distract the students from making a connection to the text or with God,” Griffin said.

Ken Alford, BYU professor of Church History and Doctrine, speaks at the Church History Symposium about organizing religion in Afghanistan. (Samantha Williams)
Ken Alford, BYU professor of Church History and Doctrine, speaks at the Church History Symposium about organizing the church in Afghanistan. (Samantha Williams)

In order to teach a subject of such eternal significance, religion professors prepare using materials outside books and manuals — they use scriptures, LDS talks and words of the prophet.

Woodger has been teaching for 18 years, but when it comes to preparing for a class, her technique has not changed.

Woodger said she prays before each class, so she can “rely on the Holy Ghost to convey a message,” Woodger said. “And when He does, it’s far beyond my capacity to teach.”

But religion classes at BYU must be academic as well. Apart from seminary classes, Sunday school or institute classes, BYU religion classes are academically rigorous and require students to study for tests.

Dr. Mary Jane Woodger
Dr. Mary Jane Woodger, a Church History and Doctrine professor. Woodger said she prepares for each class by saying a prayer. (Mary Jane Woodger)

“A key difference between religion and other courses is the source of the information being studied,” Alford said. “In secular courses, as fascinating and wonderful as they often are, the knowledge comes from other men and women. That, of course, is not the case with religion courses.”

Because of the possible lasting impact religion classes can have on students, religion professors must face distinctive challenges.

Sweat said it’s important to know the academic background behind the scriptures such as the history and context, but professors must also learn and study the scriptural text themselves.

“When you are teaching religion, you are teaching something that has life-modifying, life-changing aspects,” Woodger said.

Sweat said he believes professors should teach students “to know, feel and do.”

Griffin also focuses on teaching his students to act. “You teach truths that are relevant right now,” Griffin said. “BYU students can learn valuable teachings they can apply to perfect themselves both spiritually and intellectually. Both sides work together and “it’s important to find that balance between the heart and the head.”

Teaching religion at BYU brings challenges and blessings to the diverse faculty who commit to bring others to Christ.

“Because religion professors spend so much time dealing with eternal concepts and eternal matters, they have the potential to really fulfill part of the mission and affect students’ eternal life,” Sweat said.

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