The year was 1935. One world war was over and another was about to begin.
In that uncertain and terrifying time, Rufus B. von KleinSmid, president of USC, and Carl Sumner Knopf, Dean of the School of Religion, launched an experiment. They felt it was fundamentally wrong for a university to grant credit for almost any philosophy, ancient or modern, but deny university credit for teachings that were at the very soul of humanity and the nation because they bore a church label.
In a radio address, Von KleinSmid spoke of political convictions saying, “none of these – not all together – can ever take the place of religious convictions which insist that it is possible for peoples so thoroughly to understand each other’s character, aspirations and necessities that war would seem to be as foolish as it is needless and ineffectual.”
Boldly, USC invited religions associated with its University Religious Conference to send qualified professors to teach about their faith for university credit. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints assigned Apostle John A. Widtsoe. In accepting the assignment, Widtsoe said, “Sound prominent thinkers felt that if collegiate youth, the coming national leadership, were made acquainted with living religions in a systematic, dignified manner, placed at least on an equal footing with all academic subjects, it might help advance the national welfare.”
On September 22 John A. Widtsoe boarded a train from Salt Lake to Los Angeles—just 10 days after receiving his USC assignment – embarking on one of the most novel endeavors ever undertaken by the LDS Church.
His classes attracted members of the LDS faith but also “a large number who are not...the class is actuated by a spirit of honest and frank inquiry and no semblance of prejudice or narrowness.”
During his one-year tenure at USC, Widtsoe not only delved into the basic history and tenets of the Church, but presented expositions on premortal life, the plan of salvation, man’s “second and third” estates, and the Mormon belief in eternal life. At night he also taught classes for members who lived in Southern California. These became the forerunner of the Church’s first Institute program outside of Utah.
The First Presidency of the Church told Widsoe “what you are doing is laying the foundation of something which will be a very rich benefit to the Church, and you have our confidence and blessing.”