Utah History Encyclopedia


By Jessie L. Embry
Karl Gottfried Maeser, the first principal of Brigham Young University and general superintendent of the LDS Church school system, was born on 16 January 1828 in Saxony, Germany. He graduated with high honors from the Friedrichstadt Schullehrerseminar, a teacher-training college in Dresden, in May 1848. He worked as a teacher in Dresden, as a private tutor in Bohemia, and as vice-director of a school in Dresden. He married Anna Mieth, the school director's daughter, in 1854.

Maeser first heard of the LDS Church through an anti-Mormon pamphlet. Rather than turning him away, it piqued his interest, and he wrote for more information. After some effort on his part, missionaries finally agreed to come to Dresden to teach him, and in October 1855 he was baptized. The LDS Church organized a branch in Dresden with the eight members, and Maeser was sustained as presiding elder.

Like other Mormons, Maeser wanted to immigrate to "Zion"--that is, Utah. Although he left Germany in 1856, he did not arrive in Utah until 1860. In the years between he served a church mission to Scotland, organized church branches and labored with Germans in London area, worked in Philadelphia to earn money to go west, and served a mission in Virginia.

After arriving in Utah, Maeser renewed his work as a teacher and school administrator. He helped organize schools in the Fifteenth and Twentieth wards in Salt Lake City and tutored Brigham Young's children; he also worked as Tabernacle organist and as an accountant. After serving a mission to Germany and Switzerland from 1867 to 1870, he taught briefly at the University of Deseret. He later returned to the Twentieth Ward Seminary. In 1875 he married Emilie Damke, a German immigrant, as a plural wife.

In 1875 Brigham Young purchased the financially troubled Timpanogos branch of the University of Deseret and changed its name to the Brigham Young Academy. He asked Maeser in 1876 to go to Provo to establish a church school, explaining, "Brother Maeser, I want you to remember that you ought not to teach even the alphabet or the multiplication tables without the Spirit of God." During the next sixteen years, Maeser struggled to build a school. Initially, he was not only the principal, but also the teacher, chorister, organist, janitor, recruiter, fund-raiser, and fan club. He took the school from a small student body of only twenty-nine students who academically were only at the fifth reader level to an enrollment of more than 400 students in several departments including a normal school. Under his direction, Brigham Young Academy became one of the principal schools in the Utah Territory. Maeser was able to combine academic concerns, religious beliefs, and character development as part of the students' education.

Maeser was appointed the first general superintendent of LDS Church schools in 1888, but he was not released from his responsibilities at the Brigham Young Academy until 1892. In 1889 the Mormon Church Board of Education gave Maeser a degree of Doctor of Letters and Didactics. He published his views of education in School and Fireside in 1898. Maeser died on 15 February 1901.

See: Gary James Bergera and Ronald Priddis, Brigham Young University: A House of Faith (1985); Alma P. Burton, Karl G. Maeser: Mormon Educator (1953); Ernest L. Wilkinson and W. Cleon Skousen, Brigham Young University: A School of Destiny (1976).