The School of the Prophets

Encyclopedia of Mormonism – Schools of the Prophets


Author: Sorensen, Steven R.

Between 1833 and 1884, Church leaders from time to time organized schools for instructing members in Church doctrine and secular subjects and for discussing political and social issues relevant to the Church's mission. Although they varied greatly in form and purpose, these schools were called Schools of the Prophets, or sometimes Schools of the Elders.

The first such school met on January 23, 1833, in Kirtland, Ohio, in response to a revelation (D&C 88:119-133) instructing the Church to prepare priesthood members to carry the gospel to the world. Following prayer and an outpouring of spiritual gifts, the Prophet Joseph Smith invited each man present to receive the ordinance of washing of feet and a blessing. They ended their daylong fast by partaking of the Lord's Supper, after which they sang a hymn and were dismissed.

The School of the Prophets met in Kirtland through the winter and early spring of 1833, usually in a room above Newel K. whitney's store. Joseph Smith presided, and Orson Hyde was the instructor. Enrollment was limited to selected priesthood holders and probably never exceeded twenty-five. In accordance with the revelation about the school, members were initiated through the washing of feet, then reaffirmed their commitment and mutual goodwill by exchanging a formal salutation at the commencement of each class. School usually convened at sunrise and dismissed in late afternoon. Instruction focused on scripture and doctrine, though some time was devoted to secular topics such as grammar. During the February 27, 1833, meeting, Joseph Smith received the revelation known as the Word of Wisdom (D&C 89), which thereafter was binding upon members of the school.

The school ended in April 1833, when spring weather permitted active missionary work to begin, and never reconvened. Instead, a series of educational efforts expanded on the original idea and took on added responsibilities. Two of these later schools, known as the School of the Elders or School of the Prophets, convened in Jackson County, Missouri, during the summer of 1833 and in Kirtland, Ohio, from late fall to early spring in 1834-1835 and 1835-1836. These had larger enrollments than the first School of the Prophets and, in addition to the spiritual preparation of priesthood members, taught students an expanded secular curriculum, including penmanship, English, Hebrew, grammar, arithmetic, philosophy, literature, government, geography, and history. These later schools did not observe the earlier initiation rite and formalized salutation. Parley P. Pratt led the Missouri school, and Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Frederick G. Williams, and William E. McLellan taught in Kirtland. During the 1834-1835 school year, students in Kirtland heard the lectures later published in the Doctrine and Covenants as the Lectures on Faith.

Following the closure of the School of the Elders in 1836, the School of the Prophets did not meet again until the Church moved west. In December 1867, President Brigham Young reorganized the School of the Prophets in connection with the University of Deseret. The Church's First Presidency presided over a theological class of ecclesiastical officers and selected priesthood holders that served as a forum for the discussion of questions related to the spiritual and temporal concerns of the Church. The class later separated from the University, and branch classes were established in major LDS communities throughout the Intermountain West. Total enrollment eventually exceeded 1,000 members. Locally elected priesthood leaders presided over meetings of active priesthood members in discussions of religious, civic, and economic issues as well as of the spiritual and temporal concerns of the Church. Meetings were confidential, and admission was by tickets given to an invited membership.

President Brigham Young dissolved these branches of the Schools of the Prophets late in the summer of 1872 and then reorganized in November 1872 a Salt Lake City School of the Prophets for General Authorities and other invited priesthood leaders. Participants numbering more than 200 discussed theology and also temporal concerns. This school helped introduce cooperative enterprises into LDS communities. When United Order organizations were incorporated in the spring and summer of 1874 to facilitate economic cooperation, the Salt Lake City School of the Prophets dissolved and some of its functions were absorbed by local united orders.

President John Taylor, who succeeded Brigham Young as Church President, reconvened the School of the Prophets in the fall of 1883. Inviting Church General Authorities and a select group of other Church leaders to participate, President Taylor followed the ceremonies of the original school. A branch of the school was established in St. George, Utah, in December 1883. These schools probably ceased to operate in early 1884, with no subsequent attempt by the Church to organize further Schools of the Prophets.