Mormonism 101

ALittleHereAndThereWith the recent addition of endowed chairs in Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University and Utah State College, Mormon studies are becoming more popular. Michael Paulson of the Boston Globe wrote about the trend, noting that Harvard is offering a course on “Mormonism and the American Experience” this semester.

Melissa Proctor, a visiting lecturer and Mormon who is teaching the course, was primarily invited because of her expertise in other areas. The Harvard divinity school dean says that normally there are higher priorities for courses, such as Shintoism Confucianism and Taoism, for which there are currently no faculty members.

Paulson’s article is, as is typical, fair and informative. He quickly overviews how Mormonism has been portrayed in popular culture. Paulson must be a good interviewer because he always gets very useful quotes in his story, such as this one:

“There’s a lot of interest in new religions, and Mormonism isn’t exactly new, but it isn’t really old either,” said Richard L. Bushman, a prominent scholar of Mormonism and a professor of history emeritus at Columbia University. Bushman is scheduled to become the new Mormon studies chair this fall at Claremont.

“The study of religion in America is going away from the mainline Protestant establishment, to try to reconstruct a religious tradition that’s much more variegated and filled with dissent, and Mormonism gets caught up in that new range of interests,” he said.

Bushman is an excellent source to use for this story but it should be mentioned that in addition to being a scholar of Mormonism, he is a Mormon scholar.

The story has tons of detail but one area that I would have liked to read a bit more about is the church’s approach to scholarship. Paulson touched on it:

Mormonism has at times been a difficult field to study, particularly for Mormon scholars, because the church has excommunicated scholars – in 1993 and 2000 – who expressed opinions the church viewed as dissent, particularly on women’s issues. And the church has at times been criticized for overly restrictive policies governing access to its archives.

What women’s issues? And what type of restrictive policies? For an article about curriculum offerings in Mormonism, the answers to these questions would be helpful. Proctor says some Mormon scholars are still concerned about the excommunications. Paulson gets official Mormon sources on the record saying that they want to be more open but without knowing more about how scholastic dissent has been handled, it’s hard to know what that means.

Anyway, the article is really good and hits at the trend from all angles. For instance, he notes that scholars say one reason for the increase in Mormon courses is that more Mormons are attending universities other than church-run Brigham Young University. The story also looks at how those outside the Mormon community may be interested in the new curriculum:

“I’m interested in [Mormon] history as a very important part of American religious history – in a lot of ways representative of American religiosity, but also on the outskirts of it,” said Max Mueller, a 28-year-old student in Proctor’s class. Mueller, who described himself as a “loosely liberal Protestant,” said he hopes to become a scholar of Mormonism.

“The scholarship is mostly done by insiders, and outsiders have only recently started to pay attention with something other than derision,” he said. “There’s some larger and overdue interest in Mormon scholarship done by outsiders, and I hope to be a part of that movement.”

As Claremont’s Mormon studies get off the ground, I imagine we’ll see more stories about the uptick in interest. Paulson’s story is a wonderful introduction.

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  • http://pursueholiness.blogspot.com Pastor K

    “The study of religion in America is going away from the mainline Protestant establishment, to try to reconstruct a religious tradition that’s much more variegated and filled with dissent, and Mormonism gets caught up in that new range of interests,” [Bushman] said.

    I find that quote somewhat ironic from a professor who will be employed by an institution that is part of the mainline Protestant establishment. Claremont is one of the 13 United Methodist seminaries in the USA.

    As a former student trustee at another of the UM seminaries, I was part of several conversations regarding increasing diversity of study within the seminary. This diversity is driven in part by theological concerns – the “new ecumenism” of religious tolerance, but mostly by economic ones – there aren’t enough new students coming from the seminary’s traditional denominational affiliation (in this case, United Methodist) so the schools’ appeal to other religious traditions in order to keep the classrooms full.

    Will this drive towards diversity ultimately replace “mainstream Protestant” with “mainstream religious”? And with so much diversity, what will “mainstream” mean anymore?

  • Rathje

    To partially answer the question of how “scholastic dissent” has been handled by the Mormon Church, the most famous recent episode was probably the “September Six” where, in September of 1993, six noted Mormon intellectuals and feminists were excommunicated from the LDS Church. You can actually read a Wikipedia summary here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/September_Six

    As for womens’ issues, I imagine this is mainly referring to the continued refusal to grant women the “Priesthood” in any official capacity in the LDS Church. It is also thought that one of the quickest ways to get yourself booted out of the LDS Church is to publicly publish or advocate your support for either women receiving the Priesthood, or the little-known topic of Mother in Heaven. I believe that was the reason for Lynne Kanavel Whitesides’ excommunication (on of the “September Six”).

  • jbh001

    There is no Utah State College, as stated in the article.

    There is Utah State University (formerly Utah State Agricultural College) in Logan, Utah. There is Southern Utah University (formerly known as Southern Utah State College) in Cedar City, Utah. There is Utah Valley State College (formerly Utah Valley Community College) in Orem, Utah. It is UVSC that is adding the position.

    Regarding scholars being excommunicated, don’t forget that membership in the Church is an “at will” relationship, meaning that either party can enter in to or terminate the relationship at will.

    While the Church does not actively seek out and target non-believing members, it does not always stand idly by when a member stops being a thinking non-believer and becomes a proselytizing non-believer. In other words, when a member starts publicly promoting ideas that seek to justify their non-belief or encourage non-belief in others, the Church is within its rights to separate those persons from the body of the Church, based on “open and harmful apostasy.” In this regard the Church of Jesus Christ is no different than many other denominations, and in fact can be considered more tolerant than some who excommunicate for “heretical” thoughts. Why should the Church grant the imprimatur of membership to someone who proselytizes against it? [...]

    In those instances where proselytizing non-believers demonstrate that they no longer believe as the Church believes, they can be rightly excommunicated from the Church. The reason? Apostasy–a renunciation of a religious faith. (Reference.)

  • Rathje

    “Regarding scholars being excommunicated, don’t forget that membership in the Church is an “at will” relationship, meaning that either party can enter in to or terminate the relationship at will.”

    “Take it or leave” it is not a very productive line of reasoning if you feel there are both good things and bad things about an institution and would like to see the “bad things” changed.

    As a believing Mormon, I thought the September Six incident was overly heavy-handed. I’m more in favor of a big-tent approach to my religion and think that freedom of ideas should not be so quickly suppressed. That which is of most worth will eventually float to the surface in the marketplace of ideas.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    The issue isn’t whether the Mormon approach to scholastic dissent is good or bad. I personally think every institution has the right to determine the standards for membership.

    My point was just that the reader needs a bit more information about how dissent is handled so that they can put the excommunications in context.

    It’s a journalism thing, not a religion thing.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00368463715994694203 FrGregACCA

    What? No mention of Jan Shipps in this article?

  • http://juvenileinstructor.org Ben

    jbh001: Both UVSC and Utah State University have a Mormon Studies Chair.

  • http://thebyzantineanglocatholic.blogspot.com/ Joe Rawls

    Claremont Graduate University is not the same as School of Theology at Claremont (which is the actual Methodist seminary). The two institutions are however, closely intermeshed, what with joint appointments, etc.

    Bushman’s recent biography of Joseph Smith Jr. is well worth a read. Bushman is a Mormon with impeccable academic credentials; the book is well-written, very informative, and sometimes uncomfortably objective.

  • http://www.reachouttrust.org Mike Tea

    This is a very interesting development. First of all, it does seem inevitable because, no matter which way you cut it, Mormonism is an integral part of American history and to exclude it from serious academic study is not a serious option. However, I wish they would stop repeating the ridiculous claim (in the original article) that this is one of the fastest churches in the world. Then of course there is the fiction that they have 13m “adherents”. Adherents suggests people who take the faith seriously enough to adhere to its tenets and actively involve themselves in its programmes. This is patently not the case.

    But there is the problem of the Packer approach to historical research:

    “I have come to believe that it is the tendency for many members of the Church who spend a great deal of time in academic research to begin to judge the Church, its doctrine, organization, and leader-ship, present and past, by the principles of their own profession. Oft-times this is done unwittingly, and some of it, perhaps, is not harmful… There is a temptation for the writer or the teacher Of Church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not. Some things that are true are not very useful…

    It is an easy thing for a man with extensive academic training to measure the Church using the principles he has been taught in his professional training as his standard. In my mind it ought to be the other way around. A member of the Church ought always, particularly if he is pursuing extensive academic studies, to judge the professions of man against the revealed word of the Lord.”

    The Mormon Church is not “The Church of Jesus Christ”. That title goes to the body of believers in all legitimate denominations (and non-denominational believers) across the world, of which Mormonism keeps claiming to be a part. In any event, they will find it impossible to censure non-Mormon scholars with such heavy-handed methods as excommunication and they will have to get used to having a lower level of control on what academia has to say about Mormon history, beliefs and praxis than they are used to insisting upon. This is not going to be easy for an institution built on paranoia and, surprised to find itself “respectable”, a parvenu spirit.

    Further, how will academia respond to a church that guards its historical documents as jealously as governments guard their secrets? It will be interesting to see a) how far the church will co-operate with those showing an interest, b) how non-Mormons will respond when they are frustrated in their attempts to arrive at historical truth and c) how successful the Mormon Church will be in insinuating their corellated version of their faith and it’s history into people’s minds. Will these studies find the Tanner’s lifetime’s work of collating and recording Mormon documents useful? If so, what then?

  • Steve

    I did not read the articles, but it is also important to keep an eye on who is funding these programs. In most cases they are Mormon donors who will control the appointments, ensuring that no “anti-Mormon” scholarship will emerge.

    Mormons are going to be shocked at the power of extensive historical-research into a religion’s origins. They ain’t seen nothing yet.

  • Rathje

    “Will these studies find the Tanner’s lifetime’s work of collating and recording Mormon documents useful?”

    Any objective scholar who reads the Tanners’ stuff will quickly come to the conclusion that it is a well-researched, but ultimately amateurish smear job based on ripping quotes out of context and sometimes ignoring contrary source material altogether.

    The reason I mention them is because the contention that the paranoid LDS Church guards its secrets closely is largely their creation because the Church denied them access once it decided that it was tired of them lying about the Church. Other scholars have had no trouble accessing the Church archives. The Tanners weren’t kept out because the Church is hiding something, the Tanners were kept out because they are a pair of cheap hacks pretending at scholarship with dishonest motives.

    That said, the accusation of the Church being secretive may have some real merit and hopefully the increase in objective scholarship (read – not the Tanners or Church employees) will reveal whether there is any weight to this perception of secrecy or not. It would have been nice if the news article in question here had tried to dig a little into the truth or falsity of those claims.

    The Boyd K. Packer quote is a good one and very much strikes at the heart of the dilemma facing a faithful Mormon scholar. Does the Mormon academic take Packer’s statement as a shot across her bow?

    Maybe.

    Packer gave the particular quote while addressing a gathering of employees of the Church Education System (an organization that administers the curriculum of LDS seminaries, youth camps, etc.). The venue matters to the message. So was the message meant just for Church employees? Or was it addressed to the broader population? And how much weight should Packer’s remarks be given? Were they meant to be binding? Merely advisory? Are they contradicted by other statements from other Church authorities? Do they run contrary to other trends within the Church?

    If it comes to that, there is an extensive Mormon blogging community that has advocated for positions and made contentions more serious than those for which the “September Six” were excommunicated. And yet that community has thrived almost completely untouched by Church authorities for more than 5 years now.

    I think reporters covering the Mormon Church would be well-served to mine these questions a little deeper. The Mormon faith is in a period of transition right now and can make for a pretty interesting topic for reporters willing to do the legwork on it.

  • jbh001

    Then of course there is the fiction that they have 13m “adherents”.

    “Adherent” is your word, not the Church’s. The Church claims ~13 million “members” meaning there’s ~13 million officially on the books. The Church does not report activity levels. Suffice it to say that there is enough activity world wide in the Church that on average a new chapel/meetinghouse completes construction every day. (I don’t know whether that’s “business day” or calendar day–impressive nonetheless.)

    Further, how will academia respond to a church that guards its historical documents as jealously as governments guard their secrets?

    Just how secretive is the Church really being?

    Packer gave the particular quote while addressing a gathering of employees of the Church Education System (an organization that administers the curriculum of LDS seminaries, youth camps, etc.).

    For context, it is important to remember that all of BYU (Provo, Idaho, Hawaii) are also part of CES, not just the institute and seminary programs.

    Mormons are going to be shocked at the power of extensive historical-research into a religion’s origins.

    Those that suggest such extensive historical research will harm the Church are naive about both. (Isn’t spreading FUD fun?)