And all Saints [who obey these commandments] shall run and not be weary and shall walk and not faint.
—Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon-church, describing God's promise to him, made by divine revelation, if the Mormons would observe a moderate, wholesome diet and abstain from tobacco, wine, strong or even hot drinks.
We find within us the disposition to 'fun and frolic,' which, under certain conditions and circumstances, it becomes necessary to gratify, in order to insure perfect health and harmonious working of the whole human organism. The intelligent parent and school teacher are not ignorant of the fact that the body and mind of the child can be perfectly ruined by constant application to study and being denied the necessary leisure for physical recreations and exercises, and thousands, through the same cause, have become certified lunatics.
—Brigham Young, Mormon president and leader of the Utah pioneers, in a sermon delivered 11 years before the founding of the school that would bear his name.
The only possible way to understand the big picture is to look at it this way: there's a vast invisible superdome covering all of Brigham Young University's 646 acres, and the dome is pumped full of goodness. One may come and go freely—which is maybe the main advantage of an invisible dome—but there's a vague feeling about the place that if you were to suddenly wheel and look up over your shoulder, you might glimpse a greatly magnified celestial eye looking at you. This isn't necessarily a frightening prospect to anyone on the campus, Mormon or not. At BYU, the eye is always benign. These days, it twinkles.
Well, no wonder. Brigham Young is a jewel of a college tucked away at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains in Provo, Utah, 45 miles south of Salt Lake City. This is a set designer's campus: at 4,600 feet, under a flawless sky, the air always freshly laundered and crisped up. Everything fits—the boys are stouthearted, the girls wholesome, walking through life with what novelists used to call "long, cleanlimbed strides." It's enough to shake a cynical heart during an age in which everybody knows that purity gets you no points and nothing is as swell as it seems. But then, just when that reality starts to sink in, the bells jar you from such tawdry thoughts. Starting at 6 a.m. and repeating every hour, the tower on the upper campus peals forth with the first four bars of Come, Come Ye Saints, the Mormon signature hymn.
The hymm is a call to study. When the first of the bright-faced students appear on their way to 7 a.m. classes, there is a momentary impulse to leap upon one, wrestle him or her to the ground and check for a Mattel trademark just behind one ear, or perhaps a telltale inflation valve just where the umbilicus should be. Ah hah! Just as we suspected, not a one of you is real! You're all BYU props. Hundreds of Donnys and Maries.... But they're not; they're all too real. And there in the dawn comes one final realization: this 'isn't sophisticated suburbia. Brigham Young may be the only college in America where the girls going to morning classes trail the aroma of Dial soap.
Maybe 95% of these students are Mormons. More officially, they're members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, also known as the LDS Church, which has a membership of 4.6 million worldwide. The members are usually called Mormons and occasionally Saints—which BYU students find mildly amusing in this day and age. LDSers frequently call each other Brother and Sister, and they figure that anybody who isn't a Mormon is a Gentile, Jews included, which is confusing to the rest of us but maybe simpler, too. The Mormons took a lot of flak in the mid-1800s; some early critics and cartoonists insisted that all Mormons had horns, and a lot of folks believed it. The Mormons finally fled west by wagon train and found their own Zion in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. "This is the place," said Brigham Young upon arriving at the mouth of Immigration Canyon, seeing the desert and lake spread out below him. And now this is the school—at last.
The point is that the Mormons got what they wanted. The mood on campus today is pretty much the way it is by plan—the successive administrations since 1875 have made sure of that. And if there's an air of goodness all around, well, by God, that is precisely what Young demanded. "Neither the alphabet nor the multiplication tables are to be taught without the word of God," he thundered—and Young was a man who could, and often did, thunder at his flock. He was 5'10" and 44 inches around the chest, and in his glory days he was called the Lion of the Lord. Young had converted to Mormonism from the Methodist Episcopal Reform Church and had had only 11 days of what was known as formal education back in those days—but he was a brilliant, charismatic leader who advocated the hardy life and was intolerant of panty-waists. "Many persons are so constituted that if you put them in a parlor, keep a good fire for them, furnish them tea, cake, sweet meats, etc., and nurse them tenderly, soaking their feet and putting them to bed, they will die in a short time," he said. "But throw them into snowbanks and they will live a great many years."
Well, the Mormons have survived—and, more important, prospered—for enough years that their school has quietly become a force in the country: Brigham Young is now the largest private university in the U.S. With its 26,000 students, its enrollment is more than twice that of Stanford, 1½ times that of Harvard, three times that of Notre Dame, and it could seat all of Oral Roberts' student body in its field house—the old 10,200-seat one, not the new 22,700-seat job. What's more, BYU is one of the few colleges in the country with a growing number of applicants—largely because of a parallel growth in the membership of the LDS Church. There's also a growing sense of athletic feistiness in Provo, though, Lord knows, it took a lot of time to develop. Traditionally, the Mormons of BYU have been a far, far less imposing folk athletically than, say, the Catholics of Notre Dame. This isn't a matter of guts, nor are any of those Pat O'Brien halftime histrionics involved; it's simply that it takes a lot of practice and some national exposure for a school to develop a proper in-your-face stance. For years, the interests of BYU pretty much ended on Provo Canyon Road at the edge of the campus—in fact, until 1921 it was basically a teachers' college whose first president, a Lutheran retread, was paid in part in chickens and produce. But no more.