Future of Mormonism
Mormon Studies: Catching the New Wave
To be sure, a complete account would include a discussion of other contributors, like the work produced by organizations such as the Foundation for Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS), whose explicit mission has been to produce what is referred as "faithful scholarship," or research that supports the teachings and practices of the LDS Church, and this immediately raises the question of the boundaries of Mormon studies itself.
Recognizing that this issue is very much open to debate, my point of view is roughly as follows. Insofar as Mormon studies involves the study of a religious tradition -- or rather, a group of closely related religious denominations that includes, but is not limited to, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- I see Mormon studies primarily as a sub-field within the larger landscape of religious studies. As such, if it's fair to say that religious studies involve the academic study of religions, the religious dimension of human existence, and the relationship of religion to other modes of human life, then Mormon studies is scholarly inquiry about Mormonism, its distinctive ways of being in and thinking about the world, and its relation to the world of which it is a part.
Additionally, similar to any organic landscape, any living and thriving field of study is comprised of a variety of interconnected elements that relate to one another in complex and mutually supportive ways. Teasing out these interdependencies is always immensely challenging, but in my judgment, at least, the following elements need to be present for any field of study to be considered fully established: publications in the form of books, journals, and articles; independent research organizations, groups, or societies; events such as conferences, lectures, and presentations; courses of study; dedicated Bachelor, Master's, and Ph.D. degree programs; and junior and senior full-time teaching positions. At present, only a few degree programs that include coursework on Mormonism allow for an emphasis in Mormon studies, and only the most well-recognized senior scholars would be serious candidates for the very few teaching positions that exist. However, all of the major elements are in place to greater or lesser degrees, and just as the last ten years has seen a relatively dramatic increase in each one, there is every reason to be optimistic that the field will be fully established within the next ten years.
At a conference in Claremont a couple of months ago exploring the question of Mormon studies, Jan Schipps remarked that Richard Bushman's Rough Stone Rolling was the crowning achievement of the New Mormon History. I don't know anyone that would disagree with that assessment, and one of the remarkable things about that book is that it simultaneously represents both an ending and a beginning. On the one hand, it marks the limits of the possibilities for new Mormon historians, and thus constitutes a kind of closure of that form of inquiry. On the other, it opens up a space for the kind of research that can and should be done in the future.
This is not to say that articles and books with a narrow focus on specific individuals, groups, or places in relative isolation from their historical situation won't ever be done again. Rather, it's to say that that kind of de-contextualized research will be less and less common going forward, and studies will become more adept at situating their topics within some larger horizon, and will thus paint more subtle, nuanced, complex portraits. In addition, comparative analyses of Mormon beliefs, practices, and culture people and other traditions will become more and more common. Sophisticated contextualization and critical comparison will thus become norms within the scholarly inquiry about Mormonism going forward.