Vision, Faith and Work:  From Wagonbox to University

Michael R. Orme


Brigham Young University–Idaho Devotional

January 20, 2004


In 1884 a small group of courageous Latter-day Saints had ventured forth from the comparatively mild, hospitable, and civilized climate of the Territory of Utah to settle the bleak sagebrush plains of the Upper Snake River Valley in the territory of Idaho. It was a daunting and formidable task. Throughout the course of the nineteenth century, a variety of adventurous explorers, rough-hewn mountain men and thousands of intrepid pioneers traveling to the Oregon Country had traversed the Snake River plain, but very few had elected to stay. The reasons for their disdain for this country were abundantly clear to any observer: the land was treeless, characterized mostly by sagebrush and lava rock and suffered from unrelenting wind, persistent cold, and little rainfall. In sum, it was your basic barren, high mountain desert. Early explorers, like Captain Bonneville, described it as a “vast uninhabited solitude that must forever defy cultivation.”

These hardy Mormon pioneers had created homesteads in the Iona area, a small village located just north of Idaho Falls. However, the pioneers quickly became discouraged as their crops were wiped out by numerous killing frosts during the all too short growing season.

I have to digress at this point in the story to tell you a little about how really cold it can get in Southeast Idaho. I know a little about these frequent frosts and chilling winds because, when I was growing up in Idaho Falls, I saw it snow every month of the year but July. Moreover, I am descended of Mormon Pioneers who, after surviving the early winter snows of Wyoming with the ill-fated Martin Handcart Company in 1856, ultimately settled east of Ashton, Idaho near the slopes of the Tetons in an area known as Squirrel Meadows. They had a saying about Squirrel, that can be appreciated by those of you who have survived a hard Rexburg winter, which went something like this: “Squirrel only has two seasons: ten months of winter and eight weeks of tough sledding.”

It was into the midst of these discouraged members that Wilford Woodruff and Heber J. Grant came to address the first formal Church meeting held in the Iona area on 17 June 1884. This meeting was only attended by some nine to ten adults and a few children. Significantly, one of the adults in attendance was Thomas Ricks, whose name would figure prominently not only in the history of the area, but also in the establishment of a small, Church academy at “Mosquito Bend,” now known as Rexburg. This institution, while bearing his name, would become the largest private junior college in the United States and is now a four year university—Brigham Young University-Idaho. As these Saints had no chapel, the meeting was held outside and the tailgate of a wagonbox served as the pulpit. Pulling himself onto the wagon and looking down on this small fellowship of Saints struggling to survive in a harsh and unforgiving environment, Apostle Woodruff was blessed with a remarkable vision of the future of the valley and announced the following marvelous prophecy:


The Spirit of the Lord rests mightily upon me and I feel to bless you in the name of Jesus Christ. I promise you that the climate will be moderated for your good. I can see these great sagebrush prairies, as far as the eye can reach, turned into fertile fields. I bless the land that it shall yield forth in its strength. Flowers and trees and fine homes shall grace this great valley from one end to the other. Schools and colleges of higher learning shall be built to serve you that you may learn the mysteries of God’s great universe. I see churches and meetinghouses dotting the landscape, where the God of Israel may be worshiped in spirit and in truth. Yes, and as I look into the future of this great valley I can see temples—I can see beautiful temples erected to the name of the living God where holy labors may be carried on in his name through generations to come.

Here was a clear, prophetic and very audacious vision of the future. We do not know what the immediate reaction of this small congregation was to this unusual declaration. However, I doubt that they thought that this vision would happen automatically without their active involvement. Rather, I suspect that the people hearing this prophetic utterance realized that it would take both the ardent faith and the hard, sustained work of a righteous and devoted people over an extended period of time to bring the vision to reality. We do know, however, that the people of Iona were persuaded to stay in Idaho and within a relatively short time established a prosperous settlement with a school, a meetinghouse, and other facilities like those they had left behind in Utah.  But, it also seems quite likely that Elder Woodruff had envisioned something on a grander scale than a small, but successful agricultural village on the edge of civilization. Instead, my sense is he had glimpsed the larger possibilities for the future in this particular part of the Lord’s vineyard which are still unfolding today. Let’s take a closer look, with the hindsight perspective of 120 years, at how the vision has been fulfilled.

The first, and perhaps most striking element of the vision, is the promise that the climate would be moderated for the good of the settlers. How was this to be accomplished? Indeed, there may be some of you from warmer climes like Southern California and Arizona who wonder if this part of the prophecy was actually fulfilled. At first glance, climate moderation would appear to be something uniquely within the providence of God. Even today with sophisticated satellite technology and computer modeling, the task of predicting the weather, let alone changing it, seems beyond the ability of mere mortals. Nevertheless, there are instances when the people’s exercise of faith can have a moderating effect on the weather. Back in 1977-78, Southeast Idaho, like in recent years, was in the grip of a devastating drought. This is, after all, a desert where precipitation is always going to be sparse and unpredictable. The stakes in Idaho Falls where I was working that summer organized a vigil of prayer and fasting to the end that the Lord would moderate the weather for their good. I wondered at the time at their use of language—why ask for the weather to be moderated, why not simply ask for more rain? After participating with our stake in the fast, I was impressed to observe that while the historic amount of rain received in the spring and summer did not appreciably change, the timing of the rain was such that the non-irrigated dry farms in the region got the needed rain at the proper time and in the proper amounts to ensure a bumper crop. From this perspective, I have no doubt that the Lord’s hand has been manifest in moderating the climate in our mountain valleys to allow for productive agriculture. However, I am also satisfied that the active faith and work of the people of the area in building large dams and irrigation projects has also contributed hugely to making agriculture successful in Southeast Idaho.

A second element of the vision is the dramatic transformation of the sagebrush prairie into verdant, fertile fields “as far as the eye can reach.” Although I provide legal services for BYU-Idaho, my office is located on the campus of BYU in Provo. I am able to do this largely because of modern electronic communication technology. Nevertheless, face-to-face communication is still very important in giving good legal advice, and, as a result, I travel from Provo to Rexburg by car along I-15 on a regular basis. I have made this trip numerous times and, believe me, I am very familiar with the landscape along the way. As you travel through Northern Utah, you really see very little in the way of agriculture. The landscape is dominated by increasingly crowded cities to the east and a barren Great Salt Lake to the west. On entering Idaho, one first navigates the Malad Pass and then travels through Marsh Valley which is still characterized by sagebrush and lava flows and probably doesn’t look a whole lot different today than it did in Brigham Young’s time. Finally, the road bends north around Pocatello bringing into view the great Snake River Plain. In the high summer as I head north up the valley, I am amazed, no matter how may times I have made the drive, by the immense and fruitful land “as far as the eye can reach” of miles upon miles of cultivated fields stretching out across the plain; and, yes, there are flowers and trees, an abundance of fine homes and LDS meetinghouses complete with conspicuous satellite dishes. It is a glorious view, but it did not spring spontaneous from the ground after Elder Woodruff climbed down from the wagonbox in 1884. Rather, the Saints and their neighbors of other faiths spent decades digging, mostly by hand and by horse, a grand and elaborate system of reservoirs and canals to channel the flow of the surging Snake River into the desert plain and, literally and miraculously transformed the land which, it turned out, was perfectly suited for raising world famous potatoes.

Another element of the vision is the concluding pinnacle of achievement—the erection of “beautiful temples.” This is a remarkable statement because at that time the only operating temples were the St. George Temple (1877) and the Logan, Utah Temple (1884).  Moreover, note that this reference to temples is in the plural. The decision to build the first temple in Idaho in Idaho Falls was made in 1936.  At that time, the construction of temples was largely financed by the local members. In the 1930s, the United States was, as you will recall, in the midst of the greatest economic disaster this country has ever experienced. We now refer to it as the Great Depression. This was not a particularly opportune time for the local farmers, ranchers, and small businessmen in the area to raise the money to build a large, beautiful temple on the banks of the Snake River. But they persisted in the face of great economic obstacles, laying the cornerstone in 1940.  The construction of the temple was then delayed when the United States entered World War II, an epic world-wide struggle against the dark forces of Fascism and militarism. However, by the conclusion of the war, the Idaho Falls Temple was dedicated in September 1945 by President George Albert Smith as the then eighth operating LDS temple. 

The dedication of the Idaho Falls Temple was not only in partial fulfillment of Elder Woodruff’s vision, it was also a beacon of light and hope to a war torn world and the harbinger of the many temples that would be built around the globe. As you are probably aware, the second Idaho temple (26th in the world) was dedicated in Boise in 1984 and the Church as just announced a third temple in Idaho to be built in Rexburg. There are presently 115 dedicated temples world wide.  I think it is safe to predict that in the process of time there will be other temples that will dot the land along the Snake River crescent and elsewhere in Idaho.

If you have been following the order of the elements articulated in Elder Woodruff’s vision, you will have noted that I temporarily skipped over the promise of the establishment of “schools and colleges of higher learning.” I have done this because I wanted to address this element in a little more detail.

My favorite picture of the BYU-Idaho campus is what I believe to be the earliest known photo, taken by an unknown photographer, of the Spori building around 1905. I will not take the time to recount here how under the inspired leadership of Thomas E. Ricks an academy was established for the education of the youth of the Bannock Stake in 1888 except to note that this was at a time when the legislature of the Idaho Territory had passed a Test Oath Act which required all male citizens of the territory, as a condition to voting or holding public office, to affirm that he was not a member of the Mormon Church.  Thus, it was at a time of both great poverty and persecution that the academy was begun.

There is a saying that a picture is worth a thousand words and I think that is certainly true in this case. The woman is standing in what is now a center part of the campus. I think it is interesting and instructive to observe the vegetation or lack thereof. The sagebrush is short, stunted and sparse. There is more than a hint of chilly weather with the slight touch of snow around the brush. In the center of the picture is the massive Spori Building, constructed in the rough and rugged lava rock terrain, but in an elevated area where it could be seen from miles around. The building itself is made of sturdy stone with thick imposing walls. It seems almost like a citadel with the subliminal message that the people who built it were permanent residents who would not be moved out of their place. The cost of the structure is believe to be around $40,000, a huge sum at the turn of the nineteenth century.  For me, the most interesting part of the photo is the community backdrop. There are a few modest frame houses, some out buildings and corrals, but nothing that would remotely suggest that this community had the economic resources to construct such an imposing building. You have to admire these folks for the sacrifice that must have been required to build the Spori Building in the time of their poverty.

The battle to establish a faith-based institution of higher education would, of course, extend well beyond the initial, albeit impressive, start with the Spori Building. I believe that every individual who has the special privilege and blessing of attending this great Church university should know something about its miraculous history. I say “miraculous” because it is nothing short of a miracle that BYU-Idaho exists today. Time does not allow a full recounting of all the times this institution teetered on the edge of oblivion only to be pulled back time and again by the sacrifice and determination of those who loved her so well. For example, of the some 27 Church academies established in the nineteenth century, only two: BYU in Provo and BYU-Idaho in Rexburg, are still affiliated with the Church today. The others either faded away or were taken over by the state. Through all this travail and uncertainty, the hand of the Lord was with the school as it first survived and then slowly grew and then came to thrive as it does today.


My association with Ricks College and with what many people have come to call the “Spirit of Ricks” began in 1982. At that time I was a much younger lawyer in the private practice in Idaho Falls, and I was blessed with the opportunity to combine my professional training in the law with my love of higher education. Since 1982, I have had the wonderful experience of associating with four different presidents of this great institution and to observe closely how they have used their own unique talents, experience, and personality to foster the growth and development of the school. Upon reflection, I have concluded that each was an inspired choice who was a very good fit for the particular challenges of his administration. In keeping with the general theme of my talk today, each President developed a vision of what he was charged to accomplish and through the exercise of faith in the vision and sustained, hard work was able to make meaningful progress towards implementing that vision.

President Bruce C. Hafen was the President of Ricks College from 1978 to 1985. To me, President Hafen was something of a Renaissance man. He was a law professor with a national reputation in the field of children’s rights, enjoyed the fine arts, and even participated as a pianist in a faculty quartet. He was also renowned for his polished and insightful speeches to the faculty and student body. One of the things that President Hafen did on occasion was to invite small groups of his Ricks College colleagues to his home for dinner. On one such occasion, my wife, Dottie, and I were invited to attend. During the course of our conversation, I asked President Hafen what he hoped to accomplish while President at Ricks College. (I have to pause here and point out the Forrest Gump-like quality of my personal experiences with these presidents. I didn’t make much of a contribution to the growth and development of Ricks, but I liked to be around those who did.) As I recall his response, he said that he had come to believe that Ricks College was, unfortunately, one of the best kept secrets in the Church and that the public perception of Ricks needed to come up to the actual reality. Also, using a golfing analogy, he indicated that despite the fact that Ricks was a very fine college, there were still areas where it needed to “get out of the rough and onto the green.” I felt that by the conclusion of his term as President, he had gotten the word out to the Church that Ricks College was a first-rate school and that many programs had been markedly improved.

I can’t pass by President Hafen without mentioning his delightful sense of humor. I have to confess that sometimes I didn’t get the point of his puns, but I nevertheless chortled for days—after all, he was the President. I do remember the telling of one joke which I thought captured his rather unique sense of humor. One day we were walking across campus in the late winter. It had been a particularly brutal winter, even by Rexburg standards, and the snow was flying at us driven by a forty mile an hour wind. As we struggled to make our way, President Hafen turned to me and said, “Mike, Ricks College is a special place.” “How so,” I cautiously responded as bits of ice and snow stung my face. “Well,” he continued above the howl of the wind, “In the Church, many are called, but few are frozen.” His humor warmed me up on a cold and blustery day.

President Joe J. Christensen presided over Ricks College from 1985 to 1989. He was a wise person who came to Ricks with years of experience in the Church Education System. While in Rexburg, he planned and carried out a successful centennial celebration of the founding of Ricks College. Like his predecessor, President Christensen was a deeply spiritual person who thought very carefully about how his decisions would impact individual members of the campus community. He must have also been an early riser because I received a couple of unexpected phone calls from his office at 6 a.m. in the morning! I tried to sound awake and alert, but I doubt he was fooled. But, what impressed me the most about President Christensen was his sense of fairness and good judgement. It seemed like every time we discussed a particularly knotty problem he would remark “it’s a mighty thin pancake that doesn’t have two sides” and then would, in a very even-handed manner, carefully analyze the situation from a number of different perspectives. Once, after a particularly long and challenging day, we were alone in his office and I asked him what he thought would be his most significant contribution to the school. Without hesitation, he said that he had the final say in the hiring of faculty and that his most enduring contribution would be the hiring of faculty who were both excellent teachers and role models for students in the living of the restored gospel. In my experience with talking to people throughout the Church, this institution has a very enviable reputation in both areas.

President Steven D. Bennion was the President of Ricks College from 1989 until 1997. President Bennion seemed particularly well prepared to assume the leadership at the college. He had prior experience as a college president at Snow College and had a doctorate degree in higher education administration. In addition to his impressive educational and professional qualifications, President Bennion had a remarkably outgoing personality. It seemed to me that within a few days of taking the helm, he knew the names and backgrounds of everyone who worked at Ricks. He had a powerfully inclusive aura about him that helped make Ricks, more than ever, a united campus community, without guile, and of one heart and one mind. I remember that President Bennion was inaugurated in November of 1989 when the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were being unexpectedly transformed before our very eyes. At that time, it was obvious to everyone that the 1990s would be a time of accelerated and profound change. President Bennion met the challenge of change by not only building on the existing strengths of the college, but also by emphasizing the acquisition of new computer technology and pulling into place the long-range planning for space, facilities, and admissions standards that foreshadowed the dramatic changes to the campus which were to occur shortly into the twenty-first century. In the end, however, I believe President Bennion’s chief accomplishment was in building and serving people with great love and humility.

Dr. David A. Bednar became the President of Ricks College on July 1, 1997. He was a business management professor from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville and an Area Authority Seventy. I don’t think he had ever set foot on this campus before his appointment. When President Bednar arrived in Rexburg, he found the largest private junior college in America with excellent facilities, fine academic programs, wonderful faculty, and about 7,500 faithful students. President Bednar made an immediate positive impact on the campus with his positive, energetic leadership style and it seemed to me that his administration would likely build on the existing strengths of the institution, with more efficiency, raising the bar both in terms of academic quality and spiritual growth, but without any fundamental shift in direction.

Indeed, from time to time people would ask me if I thought Ricks College would ever be made a four-year school. Even though I was aware that Ricks College had briefly been a four-year school in the early 1950s when my parents had attended, I was absolutely convinced that Ricks College would never again be a four-year institution because the cost of operating a full-fledged university is very high and because of the growing financial burden of sustaining an increasingly world-wide Church. Given this point of reference, I was stunned to hear the announcement from President Hinckley that Ricks College was to become Brigham Young University-Idaho, a four-year, degree-granting university.

Obviously, making the transition from a junior college to a university would be enormously challenging. However, as the details of the transition began to emerge, it became increasingly evident that the vision for BYU-Idaho was much more profound and fundamental than making another brand-name BYU to join the ranks of BYU in Provo and BYU-Hawaii. Rather, BYU-Idaho would be a daring and innovative new model for Church higher education. For the first time, the three semester track would be rigorously used to extend the blessings of a BYU-Idaho education to many more students by making the Winter, Fall, and Summer Semesters substantially equivalent in terms of classes, programs, and activities. The resources going into intercollegiate athletics would be transferred into a massive student activities program where the student body would be participants rather than spectators. Moreover, a tightly focused “school to work” program correlating curriculum and internships for most students would be established. In order to achieve this, many programs would have to be redesigned, others created, and some discontinued while building new facilities and hiring new faculty. All this was to be done with the charge to preserve the “Spirit of Ricks”—the friendly, close, and student-oriented atmosphere which everyone feels while on this campus.

As I pondered the nature of this task, it occurred to me that this would be analogous to converting a battleship into an aircraft carrier without the benefit of a dry dock and without ceasing navel operations. The task would take years of careful planning, inspired direction, and sustained sacrifice to achieve. However, in the first three years of this transformation, one can already see a “miracle” taking place. The Lord had prepared a remarkable new group of highly qualified faculty to strengthen the ranks of an already strong faculty corps. Better prepared students are coming to all the tracks. The activities and internship programs are off to impressive starts. And, all around us, new construction is going forward. All of this has taken place in the face of a serious and sustained economic downturn and without changing the essential good qualities inherent in the Spirit of Ricks.

Sometimes I wonder if Elder Woodruff, in peering down the corridors of time back in 1884, didn’t get at least a glimpse of this wonderful institution with its thousands of clear-eyed and purposeful students and committed and caring faculty studying and learning in the midst of construction cranes. While the transition from Ricks College to BYU-Idaho is not yet complete, I am confident that it will be a resounding success and be a lasting legacy attributable to President Hinckley’s inspired vision and to President Bednar and the rest of the campus community who are rethinking education and working tirelessly to bring about the reality of that vision.

To this point in my address, I have suggested that the Lord and his prophets had a vision not only for the future of this valley, but also for the future of this school. This vision, however, was not self-executing. Instead, it was and continues to be implemented through the exercise of faith and the hard intellectual and physical work of those who care. It should also be obvious to us that the implementation of this vision is an ongoing work in progress that will continue on to the millennium and beyond. This raises the very provocative and highly relevant question of what is expected of each of us in the here and now to do our part to move this great enterprise forward. Our time here today does not allow a full discussion of the parameters of this question which, in the end, can probably be best answered in a private and individual way. Nevertheless, I would like to offer up a few thoughts to ponder.

Like many of you, I decorate my office with a number of photos and mementoes to remind me why I am at work. Among these are pictures of my family to remind me to be a good husband and a good father. I also have portraits of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and a scene from our nation’s capital to remind me of the blessings of freedom and the responsibilities that go with it. Being a lawyer, I have on display my admission to the Bar of the United State Supreme Court and some art representing lawyers negotiating contracts, arguing cases in court, and counseling with clients. I even have an old football poster of BYU’s 1984 National Championship team to remind me of the possibility of becoming recognized as the best in the land. Finally, I also have a small postcard of a scene that is visible from the third floor of the Administration Building at BYU where I have spent many long hours these past 15 years. In this postcard, one can see two structures which, to me, have significant symbolic meaning. The first structure is the Carillon Bell Tower. The tower is a tall and elegant structure. Frequently, the bells chime out wonderful music both secular and religious. It was built to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the founding of BYU and represents to me the ongoing challenge of all three BYUs to “seek learning, even by study and also by faith.”  Beyond the tower is the Provo Temple where sacred ordinances are performed and solemn covenants with God are entered into. On the one hand we have the University, one of the great treasures and successes of western civilization, celebrating reason, discourse, and discovery. At the BYUs, these goals are sought in an atmosphere of faith and civility as evidenced in our Honor Code. On the other hand, we have the temple, a symbol of our spiritual quest to have direct revelation from God confirming to us in spirit-to-spirit communication the most important eternal truths. Please note that in this picture the bell tower and the temple are in nearly perfect alignment. It seems to me to be no accident that on the literal doorsteps of BYU, BYU-Hawaii, and now BYU-Idaho there are or shortly will be a temple to assist the faculty and students to align their lives and their studies with eternal and unchanging principles of the restored gospel.

It is a special privilege to attend one of the BYUs. As you were growing up, you probably were reminded by your parents on more than one occasion that where “much is given, much is required.” Those of us who enjoy the blessings of attending and working at these great Church universities have a concomitant responsibility to not only keep our lives aligned with Gospel principles, but also to give back to the kingdom. As these increasingly large graduating classes of BYU students move out into the world, they should be among the vanguard and leaders of the children of light in an increasingly darkening world. Through personal prayer, the reading of the scriptures and your patriarchal blessings, and through quiet and careful thought and meditation, the Lord will, in the process of time, reveal his plan or vision for you as you keep your life aligned with His values and commandments. But, make no mistake, how well you are prepared to receive and fulfill this role will depend in large part on the decisions and the effort you put forth while a student here.

Today I have talked about a number of topics which I hope were somewhat related. I have attempted to point out that the Lord articulated through his servants a remarkable vision not only for this geographical area in general, but also for BYU-Idaho; that our predecessors have done a marvelous work in bringing about this vision; and that we all have a continuing and individual work to do to continue to build on this legacy which will be successful to the extent we correctly align ourselves with gospel principles and make the personal effort to find our own vision and work to make it happen.

In conclusion, I want to relate one recent experience, that could have happened at any of our BYUs, that I had which convinced me that your generation is certainly up to the task of moving the kingdom to much higher ground—that the best is yet to come. This fall, the BYU Honor Code Office invited me to watch a presentation on the Honor Code by some upperclassmen to the freshman in Freshman Orientation. I was quite impressed by the upperclassmen’s skill and humor in setting forth the expectations for the new students with masterful presentations through skits, film, and music. By the end, they seemed to have convinced everyone that not only was living the Honor Code the right thing to do, it was also the fun thing to do. As I looked over this freshman crowd of about 4,000 in the Marriott Center, I realized that while they came from all over the country and even from some foreign countries, they were all bound together, united in a common testimony of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. At the end of the program, this diverse group of freshmen was asked to sing a medley of those great youth anthems—“Army of Helaman” and “As Sisters in Zion.” There was no practice time and no handouts with the words to the hymns. Notwithstanding this, the freshmen gave a seamless and inspiring rendition that was worthy of any choir. As they sang, the spirit impressed upon me that this was indeed a royal and chosen generation, unique and remarkable in all the world, fully capable of accelerating the Lord’s work in these latter days. May it be so, I pray, in the sacred name of Jesus Christ, amen.