With 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.