Benjamin Cluff

Benjamin Cluff Jr. (February 7, 1858 – June 14, 1948) was the first President of Brigham Young University, and the school's third principal.[1][2] Under his administration, the student body and faculty more than doubled in size, and the school went from an academy to a university, and was officially incorporated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Cluff changed class periods from half an hour to a full hour, adopted the official colors of the university, started summer school and the Alumni Association, encouraged the university's first student newspaper (White and Blue), provided the first student loans, and developed an intercollegiate sports system.[3]:188

Benjamin Cluff
Benjamin Cluff.jpg
President of
Brigham Young University
In office
October 1903 – December 1903
Succeeded byGeorge H. Brimhall
Principal of
Brigham Young Academy[1]
In office
January 1892 – October 1903
Preceded byKarl G. Maeser
Personal details
Born(1858-02-07)February 7, 1858
Provo, Utah
DiedJune 14, 1948(1948-06-14) (aged 90)
Los Angeles, California
Alma materUniversity of Michigan

Early lifeEdit

Benjamin Cluff was a native of Provo and was born to Benjamin Sr. and Mary Ellen Foster Cluff in 1858. When he was 4 years old, his family moved to Logan, Utah. They then moved to Hawaii when Cluff was 7 years old because his father was serving a mission there. The family worked at a church owned plantation for cotton and sugar cane. They returned to Utah in 1870.[3]:213 Cluff later lived in Coalville, Utah with his uncle where he became the city librarian at age 17 because of his love of reading.[4]:29

In 1877, he walked 67 miles from Coalsville to Provo in order to start his studies at Brigham Young Academy, where he studied in the Normal Department. When he first started school he worked as a janitor, but after one year he became an instructor in the Primary Department at Brigham Young Academy.[3]:213 He then went on a 3-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to the Hawaiian Islands in 1879. In 1882 he returned to teach at the Academy, teaching everything from language to bookkeeping. He also helped the fire brigade in Provo when the Lewis Building, which was the original location of Brigham Young Academy, caught on fire.[4]:29

In 1886, he received approval for a leave of absence to go to the University of Michigan and was set apart to study there by John W. Taylor. While studying in Michigan, Cluff joined a prestigious student organization called the Adelphi Society. He worked closely with professors in the fields of astronomy and engineering, and became good friends with James Burrill Angell, president of the university.[3]:214–215 Cluff received his bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan in 1890.[4]:29 He also served as president of the Ann Arbor Branch of the LDS church while there. At the time he left for the University of Michigan, Cluff had two wives, Mary the daughter of David John and Harriet "Hattie" Cullimore.[citation needed]

Principal of Brigham Young AcademyEdit

After receiving his degree, Cluff returned to Brigham Young Academy and became the assistant principal.[4]:29 Although the Board voted unanimously to make Cluff assistant principal, much of the faculty at the Academy were apprehensive because of Cluff's ties to education in the East and their distrust in eastern influences at the Academy.[3]:216 When Karl G. Maeser, the acting principal of the Academy, returned from an extended trip, he found that many of the affairs of the Academy, especially financial affairs, were in disarray and because of Maeser's reaction, Cluff resigned as assistant principal. A few months later the board rejected Cluff's resignation. By late 1891, Karl G. Maeser had to be replaced as principal of Brigham Young Academy because he had been called to oversee the entire LDS education program as Superintendent of Church Schools, and was unable to do both jobs.[3]:218

Church UniversityEdit

On January 4, 1892, the principalship of Brigham Young Academy was passed from Maeser to Cluff. This occurred on the same day that approximately one thousand people were gathered for the dedication of the new Academy Building. After becoming principal, there were many pressing matters that Cluff had to address. One of those matters was the proposed formation of an LDS university in Salt Lake City. Many worried that this would affect the Academy by taking away some of its most prestigious teachers, including Cluff who had been offered a position there. Fortunately for the Academy, Cluff did not go to the LDS College.[3]:224 When the Circular Number Eight, a document that restricted the right of existing LDS schools in order to centralize the new Church University, was created by the General Board of Education, Cluff and other leaders of major church schools tried to fight back against certain provisions of the document. One provision that Cluff feared was the restriction of church schools other than the new Church University to give degrees to their students.[3]:226

Although the leaders of the major LDS schools were apprehensive about the idea of creating a Church University, many of the most prestigious of these educators were called to be members of the committee charged with the responsibility to organize the new Church University. Along with Cluff, the committee consisted of Karl G. Maeser, and James E. Talmage from the Academy, plus James Sharp, and Willard Young. The next day, the committee proposed that the new university be called "The University of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" or the "Church University". After nationwide financial issues, church leadership decided to suspend any further efforts to create the Church University and proceeded to give their support to the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.[3]:230–232 After continuous financial struggles, the Academy was able to stay open, but because of the death of Abraham O. Smoot who was a generous benefactor of the Academy, the financial struggles lasted longer than other periods of financial challenges.[3]:239

In 1893, Cluff went back to the University of Michigan to work on a master's degree and left George H. Brimhall as acting president.[4]:29

Changes under CluffEdit

Cluff's methods as principal have been described as nearly opposite those of Maeser. Maeser was insular and conservative in his teaching methods. He kept his teachings well within the LDS world, and adhered to classical education standards. Cluff was more open to new ideas and methods. He also believed that the world outside Mormonism had a lot to offer the school.[5][3]:218 Cluff often referred to his time as administrator of the Academy as the "New Epoch" because of his commitment to academic excellence and his motto, "learn to do by doing".[3]:260 At the beginning of Cluff's principalship, the administration continued to strictly enforce the rules of the Academy as the Maeser administration had done, but over time Cluff helped the Academy transfer that power to the students themselves. This helped to establish an atmosphere of discipline and responsibility maintained by the students through self-governance.[3]:279

Before Cluff's principalship, Brigham Young Academy was still more like a present-day high school than a university. Cluff, however began implementing several changes to the school according to his experiences at Michigan. He began separation of the college from the high school, giving older students access to higher level materials.[4]:29 The Collegiate Department of Brigham Young Academy was officially established in 1896 and was an extension of the college-level courses that Cluff had been teaching since becoming principal.[3]:265 He also introduced an athletics program, which included baseball, football, and track and field. The football program was quickly closed by the Board of Trustees because many colleges at this time frowned on athletics programs and because the sport was an "abomination to the spirit."[3]:282–287 Cluff also helped implement many programs that were ahead of their time such as adding a military department, a summer school, a school song, and psychology classes. He also extended the length of class from thirty minutes to one hour blocks.[4]:29 The school was privately supported by members of the community, and was not absorbed and sponsored officially by the LDS Church until July 18, 1896.[6]

Around 1894, Cluff was finding it increasingly difficult to find qualified teachers who were willing to take the salary that the Academy was able to offer them. Another recurring problem was the Academy's teacher retention because of mission assignments from the church that required the instructors to leave their teaching jobs and dedicate all of their energies to their missionary efforts. That same year, Cluff was able to hire a handful of non-Mormon teachers after much resistance from Maeser and Brigham Young Jr.[3]:258 Although hiring teachers outside of the Mormon community was Cluff's doing, he also saw the importance of training high quality teachers within the Mormon community. In order to accomplish this goal, Cluff started a "Normal Training School" which gave free lessons to students who were interested in teaching. This approach proved to be successful, and the normal school supplied experienced and qualified teachers to the schools in the region.[3]:263–264

In May 1898, College Hall was built in order to provide more space for the upper division students of the Academy's Collegiate Department. Even with the added space, many students at the Academy were cramped because of the continuous increase in enrollment.[3]:267 The school continued to have success with the dedication and opening of the annual Brigham Young Academy Summer School.[3]:268 Another successful initiative that Cluff suggested was the implementation of a Missionary Training Program in 1899 for prospective missionaries of the LDS church.[3]:271

Expedition to Central and South AmericaEdit

In 1899, Cluff outlined his proposal to take Academy students on an expedition to ancient Book of Mormon ruins and complete other related historical studies in Central and South America. Church leadership approved Cluff's plans, and he began preparing for the trip. He had to select the men who would accompany him, getting needed funding, and better organize the studies that would take place during the expedition.[3]:291 The men who were part of the expedition were set apart on 7 April 1900 and 10 days later they embarked on their expedition, leaving George Brimhall as acting principal of the Academy. As they journeyed through Southern Utah, for the first 16 days of the journey they were met by feasts and celebrations in many of the cities that they entered.[3]:294 After leaving predominately Mormon areas, members of the expedition began to go off in pairs to act as missionaries in the cities that they passed through. The expedition stopped in Thatcher Arizona for a month while Cluff went to visit Florence Reynolds, who was a teacher at the Juarez Academy in the Mormon Colonies in Mexico and would become Cluff's second wife.[3]:309 The young men in the company were getting restless because of the significant delay in their journey, and after their month-long wait, they continued towards the Mexican border and began to familiarize themselves with Mexican culture.[3]:304–306

Heber J. Grant went and visited the expedition camp which had stopped in Nogales, on the border of Mexico. Once he returned to Utah to report his findings, the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles decided that because the members of the expedition were not well experienced travelers and were not proving to be completely compliant with the rules that they were taught at the Academy, a letter was sent to Joseph F. Smith. He met with Cluff and expressed the concern of church leadership and recommended the termination of the trip. Even as he was told to cease the venture, Cluff ignored this counsel and proceeded with the journey.[3]:308 Although Cluff decided to continue, some members of his expedition party decided to return to Provo, leaving only 9 members of the expedition party, including Cluff.[3]:311 They passed through many Mormon settlements in Mexico and had many hardships including starvation, illness, and fatigue. After nearly two years of travel, the expedition ran out of supplies, had problems with securing safe passage through Colombia, and was forced to turn back. Cluff finally returned to his position in 1904, but was accused of various improprieties, including sexual immorality by his assistant Walter Wolfe. Cluff was forced to resign.[7][3]:323 The charges of immorality stemmed from a post-Manifesto marriage between Cluff and twenty-five-year-old Florence Mary Reynolds conducted in Mexico. Cluff had obtained permission for the marriage from Joseph F. Smith.[8][9]

Founding of Brigham Young UniversityEdit

In Cluff's last official act, he proposed to the Board that the Academy be named "Brigham Young University". At first there was a large amount of opposition to this. Many members of the Board thought that the school wasn't large enough to be a University. However, the decision ultimately passed. One opponent to the decision, Anthon H. Lund, later said, "I hope their head will grow big enough for their hat."[7]

Today, the Cluff Building on BYU's Provo campus is named for him.

Later lifeEdit

After resigning in 1903, Cluff moved to Mexico to establish a rubber plantation and once again had trouble in Mexico. At one point he was held by bandits for 2 weeks and during his absence his family was robbed.[4]:29 He worked with mahogany and shipped some lumber to California which caused him to decide to move his family to California where he opened a grocery store and gas station. He died on June 14, 1948 at the age of 90.[4]:29

Family LifeEdit

Cluff was husband to three wives and fathered 25 children.[4]:29


  1. ^ a b Bergera, Gary James; Priddis, Ronald (1985). "Chapter 1: Growth & Development". Brigham Young University: A House of Faith. Salt Lake City: Signature Books. ISBN 0-941214-34-6. OCLC 12963965.
  2. ^ "Brigham Young High School History: 1869 to 1903 - The Founding Years". Brigham Young High School. Retrieved 2007-08-19.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa Wilkinson, Ernest L. (1975). The First One Hundred Years Vol. 1. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press. pp. 31–49. ISBN 0-8425-0708-6.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Scott, Hollis (1975). "Capsule Profile of a President". The Daily Herald (78). Provo, Utah. Retrieved 28 March 2017.
  5. ^ Wilkinson, Ernest L. (10 October 1974). "Highlights in the Ninety-Nine-Year History of BYU". Brigham Young University Press. Archived from the original on 17 August 2007. Retrieved 2007-08-19.
  6. ^ "From 1903 to 1920 ~ A High School Within a University". Brigham Young High School History. Brigham Young High School. 2007. Retrieved 2007-08-20.
  7. ^ a b Wilkinson, Ernest L. (10 October 1974), Highlights in the Ninety-Nine-Year History of BYU, Brigham Young University Press, archived from the original on 17 August 2007, retrieved 2009-11-15
  8. ^ Quinn, D. Michael (Spring 1985). "LDS Church Authority and New Plural Marriages, 1890–1904". Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. 18 (1): 87–88.
  9. ^ Anderson, Elizabeth O., ed. (2013). Cowboy Apostle: The Diaries of Anthony W. Ivins, 1875–1932. Salt Lake City: Signature Books. p. 205n50[clarification needed]. ISBN 978-1-56085-226-1. OCLC 814372610.


External linksEdit

Academic offices
New creation President of Brigham Young University
October 1903 – December 1903
Succeeded by
George H. Brimhall
Preceded by
Karl G. Maeser
Principal of Brigham Young Academy
January 1892 – October 1903
Academy split to become
Brigham Young University
and Brigham Young High School.