Lowell L. Bennion: A Mormon Educator, a Review

I have to say that I’m a fan of the trend towards short, accessible biographies of notable figures in Latter-day Saint history. Between University of Illinois Press’s “Introductions to Mormon Thought” series and Signature Books’s “Brief Biography,” there is a lot of excellent work being published. One of the most recent, Lowell L. Bennion: A Mormon Educator by George B. Handley (University of Illinois Press, 2023), is a stellar addition to the library of any Latter-day Saint.

In talking about Lowell Bennion elsewhere, George Handley explained that he “was the most important Latter-day Saint educator, ethicist and humanitarian in the twentieth century. He directed the first Institute of Religion at the University of Utah from 1935 to 1962 where he encouraged thousands of Latter-day Saint students to embrace the fullest implications of a Christian life.” In addition, “The many manuals that he wrote for the Church and the numerous books he wrote in the final decades of his life spelled out a coherent and integrated understanding of social morality and a commitment to education and human flourishing for Latter-day Saints.” Handley explores both the life of Bennion and the ideas that he expressed in his writing (with a stronger emphasis on the latter).

After reading Lowell L. Bennion: A Mormon Educator, I think that I would have liked to have known Bennion. I found that I was highlighting statements and quotes from both Bennion and Handley very frequently in the book. For example, Handley summarized Bennion’s thoughts on the abundant life by observing that “education and service dedicated to the full flourishing of other human beings, then, were Mormonism’s claims for the means and ends of life’s purpose” (p. 54). And a couple favorite quotes from Bennion that were shared, “Salvation is a process of becoming, not a reward given us at the end of our journey or on judgment day” (p. 39). “If a marriage is to be consummated between reason and faith, it will have to be of the same kind we know between husband and wife—one that respects individuality in their respective natures and roles. The concern here is not to achieve identity, nor even complete harmony, but rather a working relationship which will ensure a rich, constructive life” (pp. 68–69). There are a lot of good thoughts within.

One interesting aspect of the book is that Handley integrates his synthesis of Bennion’s thoughts so thoroughly that sometimes it is difficult to tell where Bennion ends and Handley begins. Not being deeply familiar with Lowell Bennion’s work going into reading this book, I had a hard time telling what was a synthesis of Bennion’s thoughts and what was Handley’s personal thoughts on a given topic. Still, it was a fantastic journey.

George Handley repeatedly laments, “with twenty-five years of hindsight since his death, he is hardly remembered at all,” in contrast with contemporaries like Hugh Nibley (p. 3). With any luck, however, Lowell L. Bennion: A Mormon Educator will help to spark something of a revival of interest in Lowell L. Bennion’s life and thought.