Is Mormon Studies Possible at a Mormon University?

“Should we begin with a prayer?” One of the most common, simple, and straightforward questions for anyone who knows anything about Latter-day Saints. I mean, really, what LDS gathering doesn’t begin with a prayer? Still, this time it was different . . . very different. This time it was anything but mundane and insignificant. For one of the very few times in my life I had to think seriously about how to respond. And, if I’m being brutally honest, I was even a little upset with Richard Bushman for even asking it. I still don’t know if it was a calculated move on his part, but part of me remains convinced that he must have been conniving or scheming, because anyone who knows Bushman knows that that’s exactly the kind of fiendish person he is. In all seriousness, though, with the exception of the few times when I’ve been in the company of those who insist on praying vocally at restaurants, this common question had never generated quite so much unease.

As I recall, it was the last week of August 2007 that myself and around ten of my friends studying at Claremont Graduate University (CGU) and Claremont School of Theology (CST) were gathered together in a small classroom at CGU to formally organize what would become the Claremont Mormon Studies Student Association (CMSSA). A group of students had been getting together about once a week during lunch since at least the time that Armand Mauss began teaching the first and only course in Mormonism offered at the School of Religion (in the fall of 2005). Our specific areas of study ran the gamut from New Testament to sociology, from philosophy of religion to history, and from political science to theological ethics. Most of us were active members of the LDS Church, but neither membership nor level of commitment mattered. What brought our little rag-tag group together was one thing: we were all Mormon studies geeks.

We typically met somewhere on the campus of Claremont School of Theology, where we’d spend an hour or two talking about the idiosyncrasies and idiocies of grad student life, debating LDS theology, history, scriptures, and cultural issues, and thinking through the complex ways in which our diverse scholarly pursuits impacted our various religious perspectives. Conversations were completely free-flowing and open-ended, and no topic was considered taboo. If it was related to Mormonism, we probably critically analyzed and strongly debated it at some point. Indeed, it seems to me that we disagreed far more than we agreed, but that’s one of the things we loved about our time together; and we kept coming back for more because we valued each other’s diverse points of view, respected one other personally, and felt safe expressing our numerous heterodox and even heretical positions. Indeed, for many of us these conversations were often the highlight of our academic work-week.

Unsurprisingly, one of the more common issues we discussed was the question of Mormon studies itself. What is it? Is it actually an identifiable or describable phenomenon? Whatever it is, is it something can be successfully done at Claremont? Are the interests required to engage in the academic study of Mormonism at odds with the interests of the LDS community of believers, such that there might be an insurmountable translation barrier? Given that there’s no way that the program would even get off the ground without the financial support of faithful LDS donors, would its reliance on such sources allow for a sufficient degree of independence and autonomy to produce legitimate scholarship? If the major, if not exclusive, sources of funding are orthodox members of the Church who sometimes see the new program as a way to further the missions of the Church, what will happen if the critical examinations of scholars and students are not entirely friendly to the Church? Indeed, given that the group responsible for the fund-raising efforts—the LDS Council on Mormon Studies—is comprised of various lay leaders, including an Area Authority and Public Relations director, does that limit the sort of work that’s possible to produce?

In the face of varying levels of skepticism expressed by the faculty, students, lay members, and even members of the press, Richard Bushman was eventually selected as the Chair in the spring of 2007, and that’s about the same time that we students began talking about moving beyond our little lunchtime chats, and formally organizing ourselves into a group that could provide a kind of support structure for those in the area who had an interest in the academic study of Mormonism. It was shortly after Richard and Claudia Bushman’s arrival in Southern California to begin their work in Claremont that we met in that little classroom to talk about our visions for the group, what our mission might be, what kind of leadership positions we would need, what kind of activities we might sponsor, etc. Before we even opened the meeting, however, Richard Bushman turned to me and asked, “Should we begin with a prayer?”

I don’t know if I showed it on the outside, but on the inside I was completely flustered. “Why would you even ask that? What’s the best way to respond? I know I don’t want to be the one to make the decision?” I hadn’t become the President of group yet, but since I had played a fairly active role in pushing things forward and getting everyone together, they looked to me as at least a temporary leader. Realizing that there was a great deal of significance bound up in Bushman’s question, I quickly deferred to the rest of group. “Well, that’s something we should probably talk about. What do you all think?” This wasn’t a new conversation by any means, but it was one that we probably needed to get clear on right up front, as it would set an important tone going forward. The general consensus was that we were organizing an academic and not a religious group, and that anyone was welcome to join, LDS or otherwise. Furthermore, just like the Mormon studies program itself, we would be operating primarily under the auspices of School of Religion, which is part of a secular university. We were thus, albeit in our own small way, laying the groundwork and defining the parameters of Mormon studies for ourselves, and we viewed praying at our meetings as a signal that we were a religious group engaged in religious work. We didn’t envision either Mormon studies or our student group that way, so we decided that it wouldn’t be appropriate to offer prayers at our meetings.

Self-reflexivity—or perhaps navel-gazing depending on your perspective—is definitely not in short supply here at Claremont, and the inceptive moment of CMSSA was just one of many occasions that the question of Mormon studies has been raised. The first time that it was dealt with in a more formal scholarly setting was in October 2004 at a three-day conference entitled “Positioning Mormonism in Religious Studies.” That event was actually the public “kick-off” for the future program, and it opened with a lecture by Grant Underwood entitled “Is It Safe? Mormon History and the Secular Academy.” John Charles Duffy would raise the question again a couple of years later at the Sunstone West Symposium, which was held at CGU, in an essay entitled “Prelude to Claremont: Faithful Scholarship and the Mainstreaming of Mormon Studies.” And, the question received a wide-ranging treatment in April 2010 at our conference “What Is Mormon Studies? Transdisciplinary Inquiries into an Emerging Field.” The nature and future of the field have thus been repeatedly examined here, and they remain very much open to additional inquiry. However, what I think can be safely said at this point is that given the various courses, lectures, conferences, theses, and dissertations that have been produced so far, the “Claremont experiment” has largely been a success.[1]

With established programs at Utah Valley University, Utah State University, Claremont Graduate University, a new Chair soon to be announced at the University of Virginia, and courses being offered and conferences being convened in various places throughout the country, not to mention a regular barrage of new books and journal issues, it would appear that the future of Mormon studies is quite bright. However, if the Claremont experiment has provided any indication of the difficulties involved with being dependent on member-donors, what if the sponsoring institution itself is owned and operated by the LDS Church? What about doing Mormon studies at a place where it has historically met with some of its greatest resistance—namely, Brigham Young University? Is Mormon studies possible at a Mormon university? For its part, the answer was given last month by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship (MI) when it unveiled the details of its “reboot” of the Mormon Studies Review. Actually, what happened is probably more akin to the installation of an upgraded operating system than a simple reset of the machine, but, either way, there is very little question that if Mormon studies is possible in Provo, the dream team assembled for the new review are the right people for the job.

Unsurprisingly and understandably, however, all is not well in Zion, and the leadership of the “old school”—those who favor the classic FARMS approach in the study of Mormonism—has repeatedly expressed frustration that they weren’t retained alongside the MI’s “new school.” Peggy Fletcher Stack gives a nice summary of the disparity in her most recent column, but much of it obviously boils down to incompatible visions of Mormon studies. Perhaps the rift that remains is no more apparent than in John Gee’s recent essay in the Interpreter, “Whither Mormon Studies?,” wherein he rather strangely asserts that “the real experts on Mormon Studies are General Authorities,” oddly laments that the “interests and incentives of those who engage in Mormon Studies are not necessarily, and for the most part are not at all, the interests of the Kingdom,” and misguidedly concludes that “the question is not whether serving God with all one’s mind can include Mormon Studies, but whether Mormon Studies is actually serving God.” As problematic as such statements are, for reasons that should become apparent below, Gee at least does a nice job of highlighting some of the tensions that the MI will likely face as it forges ahead on its new path.

According to its handbook of instructions, the purpose of the LDS Church is “to assist in God’s work to bring to pass the salvation and exaltation of His children,” and to fulfill this purpose it participates in the activities of “helping members live the gospel of Jesus Christ, gathering Israel through missionary work, caring for the poor and needy, and enabling the salvation of the dead by building temples and performing vicarious ordinances.” Accordingly, because it is founded, supported, and guided by the Church, the mission of BYU is also “to assist individuals in their quest for perfection and eternal life.” And, as an entity formally operating under the auspices of BYU, the new mission of the MI is “to deepen understanding and nurture discipleship among Latter-day Saints and to promote mutual respect and goodwill among people of all faiths through the scholarly study of religious texts and traditions.” Obviously it’s that part about nurturing discipleship that is of interest to me here.

I want to be perfectly clear: it’s not that there’s anything wrong with nurturing discipleship or working to assist individuals in their quest for exaltation. These are worthy endeavors. Considered on their own, I see absolutely nothing to be nervous about in those three mission statements. The question, however, is whether and how they’re consistent with the activity of doing Mormon studies. I’m hopeful, maybe even cautiously optimistic, that a coherence between them is possible, but I’m not entirely sure at this point. Of course, everything depends on how one defines Mormon studies, but having spent a bit of time looking at, participating in, and teaching about Mormonism through an academic lens, I remain somewhat skeptical. Why? Because, as we realized when we organized CMSSA, Mormon studies is not a religious activity, and it doesn’t, nor should it, maintain a commitment to the missions of the LDS Church.

So, just what exactly is Mormon studies, then? Here are nine working theses that I think are worth including in any discussion of the question. I don’t imagine that any of them are particularly novel or terribly insightful, and some are no doubt more controversial than others, but I take it that all of them will be fairly familiar to most who consider themselves part of the field.

  1. Mormon studies is the academic study of, scholarly inquiry about, or critical analysis of Mormonism. As an academic activity, its primary space is the academy, which is non-religious in orientation and pluralistic in character. The academy is, in other words, a public community that it is comprised of a variety of voices, a multiplicity of methods, and a cacophony of influences, no one of which is absolutely authoritative. As a scholarly activity, Mormon studies involves a kind of intellectual rigor whose immediate audience is the community of scholars to which it belongs, and secondarily interested non-specialists. As a critical activity, it performs the following type of work: postulating theses, developing theories, gathering evidence, interpreting data, analyzing information, and articulating arguments.
    1. Just as scholars seek to understand the worlds that they study, they also belong to a world that influences everything they do. As such, the critical thinker should be self-aware that he or she is always historically situated and culturally conditioned, guided by certain presuppositions and prejudices, and limited by certain dependencies and relations. Analysis is never performed outside some particular context that it both affects and is affected by. Critical thought thus recognizes that “objectivity” as traditionally understood is no longer a meaningful notion, because such would require a “view from nowhere,” which is ultimately no view at all.
  2. Mormon Studies is a sub-field or area of research within religious studies, which itself belongs to the wider domain of the human sciences. Because Mormon studies is a research area within religious studies as well as the human sciences, its primary commitments are to those scholarly communities, so it seeks to adhere to their norms, meet their standards, and further their agendas. Mormonism has been and can be understood in a variety of ways, but because it is, first and foremost, a religious tradition, the data observed, tools used, and methods employed by scholars of religious studies are considered by many to be the most appropriate for engaging in the activity of Mormon studies. Hence, while Mormon studies might draw upon a wide variety of non-native resources, its primary home is the comparative religion department or school of religion.
  3. Mormon studies is primarily a descriptive anthropological enterprise, rather than a prescriptive theological endeavor. Because it seeks to understand and give accounts of the richness, diversity, and variety that constitutes the complex phenomenon of Mormonism, it is mainly a work of description. By description I do not mean merely classifying things into categories, or making relatively shallow observations about things. Description involves a great deal more than just “cataloging” stuff, not the least of which is painstaking research, careful observation, critical comparison, theoretical framing, rich contextualization, etc. Furthermore, because it is centrally concerned with a human phenomenon, it is essentially a work of anthropology (in the broad sense). Historical events, sacred texts, religious experiences, common teachings, normative practices, political activities, and cultural expressions are all part of the multi-faceted mosaic that makes up Mormonism. As such, all of these provide the primary data to be researched, interpreted, and described by Mormon studies.
  4. Mormon studies is not a prescriptive theological endeavor, nor a religious activity, nor a devotional form of discourse. Although it critically examines normative beliefs and practices, it does not seek to determine what ought be normative with respect belief and practice. Put differently, it does not seek to build, uplift, edify, increase, or otherwise inspire personal piety; nor does it seek dissuade individuals from adherence to a religious form of life. It does not engage in either the promotion or the negation of faith. It does not seek to persuade people to either accept or reject the teachings and practices of Mormonism. It does not seek to either defend or denigrate the truth-claims of Mormonism. It seeks to think, speak, and write about Mormonism, not to persuade belief in or instill testimony of Mormonism.
  5. Mormon studies has no immediate, direct, or explicit commitment to any particular religious community. As noted above, no second-order thought or reflective inquiry is ever entirely objective or value-neutral or without prejudice. However, as an academic or scholarly endeavor, Mormon studies remains neutral with respect to the interests, objectives, or missions of any particular religious community. It does not, in other words, actively seek to serve the interests, further the cause, or fulfill the mission of any group of believers; nor does it actively seek to undermine the interests, stultify the cause, or inhibit the mission of any group of believers. To the extent that its work might be of some benefit to religious practitioners or groups, therefore, that would be an indirect consequence and not a direct result of its primary concerns or main objectives.
    1. This doesn’t mean that Mormon studies isn’t interested in the truth about Mormonism or its truth claims. It just means that it’s not in the business of—i.e., its primary concerns or main objectives don’t involve—either supporting or rejecting those claims. Instead, the truth claims of Mormonism provide a kind of data for analysis and research. As such, with respect to the specific activity of faith-building/destroying, or testimony-building/destroying, or kingdom-building/destroying, Mormon studies maintains a position of neutrality.
    2. Here are three concrete examples among many that exemplify what I have in mind: Armand Mauss’ All Abraham’s Children, John Turner’s Pioneer Prophet, and Matt Bowman’s The Mormon People. With regard to serving the interests of the LDS Church or fulfilling is mandates, these works take no position either for or against—at least not as I read them. And, yet, they provide important contributions to our understanding of Mormonism.
  6. Mormon studies is concerned with any and all expressions of Mormonism. Just as the phenomenon of Mormonism is neither reducible to nor synonymous with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Mormon Studies is not synonymous with study of the LDS Church. In principle, any individual or group who self-identifies as Mormon is open to investigation. Because the LDS Church is the largest and most well-known branch, it typically receives the greatest amount of attention, but the subject matter of Mormon studies includes any branch of Mormonism that traces its origins to the religious movement began by Joseph Smith.
  7. Mormon studies is multi-disciplinary. Mormon studies is not a monothetic term or a unified discipline. Instead, it is a polythetic notion that points to a multiplicity of sometimes disparate activities. Its primary home might be the department of religion, but it is a diverse field or area of study within which many individuals and institutions practice their crafts, so it has no clearly discernible boundaries. As a multi-layered and multi-faceted activity, it examines Mormonism from a wide variety of vantage points, and draws upon a diverse range of methodologies–e.g., sociology, history, psychology, philosophy, anthropology, feminist theory, political science, linguistics, literary theory, etc.
  8. Mormon studies is contextual and comparative. It seeks to understand Mormonism within its native settings and in relation to the larger contexts of which it is a part. As with all human beings, Mormons always reside within a larger life-world that they affect and are affected by. As with all human institutions, Mormonism belongs to some socio-political setting that it both shapes and is shaped by. Mormonism always exists among a profound plurality of ways of being the world, some of which it shares significant points of commonality, and others of which it radically differs. Making sense of it thus requires a sensitivity to and appreciation for the numerous cultural currents that flow into and out of its borders. Critical comparative analysis and interdisciplinary research are thus necessary to do exemplary work in contemporary Mormon studies.
  9. Mormon studies might examine theology, but it does not do theology. Although a descriptive form of theological reflection (or philosophy of religion) might be possible and proper within Mormon studies qua religious studies, a prescriptive, constructive, or normative type of theological reflection would not be. As a religious activity, prescriptive forms of theology might provide data for religious studies scholars to do their work, but they are not typically considered part of religious studies proper.
    1. On this point, the eminent scholar of religious studies Jonathan Z. Smith invokes what he calls “a principle of subordination.” He writes, “In what I freely acknowledge to be a necessarily imperializing move, theology is one appropriate object of study for religious studies. From the perspective of the academic study of religion, theology is a datum, the theologian is a native informant. . . . We need to be far more attentive to the exegetical labors of religious folk, to their systematic projects of articulation and understanding. In the same spirit in which I welcome the study of . . . totalizing mythic endeavors . . . I would hope, some day, to read a consonant treatment of the analogous enterprise of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics.”[2]
    2. As concrete examples, Charles Harrel’s This is My Doctrine would represent the kind of descriptive theological work I have in mind, while Blake Ostler’s Exploring Mormon Thought series would fall into the prescriptive category.

If this is vision is a viable one, then it isn’t entirely clear to me how to square it with the explicitly religious mandates noted above. Is a “BYU experiment” possible? Only time, and the scholarship produced there, will tell.


[1] Armand Mauss coins the term “Claremont experiment” in contrast to the “Chicago experiment” of the Church in the early part of twentieth century in his recent memoir, Shifting Borders and a Tattered Passport. Mauss’ account of the history of Mormon studies at Claremont gives an excellent summary of the events that have transpired so far, along with a very astute analysis of its potential going forward.

[2] On Teaching Religion, 74-5.

  • Ardis E. Parshall

    “John Gee … misguidedly concludes that ‘the question is not whether serving God with all one’s mind can include Mormon Studies, but whether Mormon Studies is actually serving God.’”

    “It’s not that there’s anything wrong with nurturing discipleship or working to assist individuals in their quest for exaltation. … The question, however, is whether and how they’re consistent with the activity of doing Mormon studies.”

    Aren’t you saying essentially the same thing that John Gee said? If so, why is it misguided in his case but not in yours? (I don’t think it is misguided in either case; I’m only questioning your consistency.)

    • Richard Livingston

      Ardis, good catch. Thanks for calling me out on this, because I should’ve been more clear. The short answer is that Gee pretty clearly, at least on my reading, thinks that Mormon studies _should_ serve the interests or further the missions of the LDS Church (particularly when performed by Latter-day Saints). For example, he says, “There is, however, a more excellent way. As Arthur Henry King taught, ‘When we have laid down at Christ’s feet all our scholarship, all our learning, all the tools of our trades, we discover that we may pick them all up again, clean them, adjust them, and use them for the Church in the name of Christ and in the light of his countenance.’…” Obviously, I think this represents a somewhat distorted view of the field.

      • Quickmere Graham

        The problem I have with Gee (and King’s) claim there is the risk of feeling that my work is approved by God, that it is somehow more holy, more right, more true, by virtue of the fact that I personally feel I’ve laid tools at Christ’s feet. The problem with the image is that the tools, even after being laid at the feet, are taken up again into human hands. They don’t become the miraculously glowing stones of the brother of Jared’s story, but the same, mundane tools I was using before. I risk undertaking argument with a false sense that I am on “the Lord’s side of the line” while those with whom I may disagree are not.

  • Alan Hurst

    What I don’t understand from this account, Richard, is *why* Mormon Studies should look like this. Certainly you’ve outlined one possible vision for the discipline, but as you acknowledge, it’s not the only possible one.

    In particular, the lack of commitment to any particular religious community strikes me as problematic, since it makes it difficult to answer the question of why Mormon Studies should even exist. I’m reminded of an essay I read in college that pointed out the difference between the reasons why, say, an Israeli botanist would study Israeli plants and the reasons why an Israeli political scientist would study Israeli politics. In the former case, it’s primarily a matter of convenience–I study plants, and I’m in Israel, so I might as well study the plants I can access more easily than could botanists in Europe and Canada. But the Israeli political scientist is part of the political community she studies and she is implicated by the results of her work. If Israeli politics is dysfunctional, it hurts her and people she cares about, and so part of the reason she studies Israeli politics is to help her political community function as it ought to.

    From my experience with Mormons who study Mormonism academically, I’d have to say their motivations tend to be more like those of the Israeli political scientist than those of the Israeli botanist. Without their commitment to a particular religious community–which often but not always includes orthodox belief in that community’s teachings–they would have little or no interest in Mormon Studies. What’s more, I have no reason to believe that their commitment to Mormonism makes them in any way less able to understand it. Much the opposite.

    • Richard Livingston

      Alan, yes, I definitely don’t think that my view is the only possible viable vision of Mormon studies. Although I think what I’ve outlined is a fair descriptive view of the field, I’m obviously comfortable saying that this is what I think it _should_ look like as well. You say, “the lack of commitment to any particular religious community strikes me as problematic, since it makes it difficult to answer the question of why Mormon Studies should even exist.” Why? You don’t think Mormonism is a worthy object of study if one isn’t a Mormon? My hunch is that people like Jan Shipps, Douglas Davies, John Turner, Stephen Webb, Seth Perry, and Chris Smith might beg to differ with you on this. You also say, “I have no reason to believe that their commitment to Mormonism makes them in any way less able to understand it. Much the opposite.” I think you might have misunderstood me. When I talk about being in the service of or having a commitment to some religious community, I’m referring to the activity of doing Mormon studies, not the personal commitments of particular individuals. Perhaps I haven’t been clear enough, but I don’t think anything in what I’ve said would suggest that Mormon studies is only possible, or only legitimate, if the one doing it has no personal religious commitments.

      • Alan Hurst

        Quick responses:

        1) I didn’t say Mormonism wasn’t worth studying. Its similarities to and differences from other religious movements make it a useful object of study for historians (like Jan Shipps or John Turner), anthropologists (like Douglas Davies), theologians (like Stephen Webb), and other scholars seeking to shed light on the questions of their own disciplines. But the fact that Mormonism is a worthy object of study for a variety of academic disciplines does not imply that it needs its own discipline. That nutritionists, botanists, food historians, and painters might all be interested in fruit does not imply that universities need chairs in Fruit Studies.

        The most obvious reason to invest time or money in Mormon Studies is if you are committed to understanding Mormonism for its own sake, if you think there are important questions about Mormonism that will only be properly investigated by a discipline that is explicitly dedicated to understanding Mormonism. And what sort of people think that? Mostly Mormons, or people with personal ties to Mormonism. If that’s not the case, then tell me: why is Mormon Studies so dependent for its funding on faithful Latter-day Saints?

        2) As for the issue of personal commitment to Mormonism, my apologies if I seem to have interpreted you as saying that only people not committed to Mormonism can do Mormon studies–clearly that’s not what you meant. But clearly you do mean that a commitment to the health and prosperity of Mormonism is at odds with a commitment to doing good, academic Mormon Studies. Which I find odd, with my background in political science and law. As a discipline, political science is committed to the continued health of democracy–and with producing good scholarship. No one thinks that good legal scholarship may not aim to promote justice and equality. So why is Mormon Studies by definition not allowed to have any goals with respect to the health and future of Mormonism?

        I’m not suggesting that Mormon Studies should be an apologetic discipline–merely that there are more options available here than just apologetics on the one hand and strict neutrality on the other. And I think that if Mormon Studies tosses out the theologians writing normative work and the scholars writing from an explicitly faithful viewpoint (as you seem to require), it will be much the poorer for it.

    • Jeff Wilson

      Richard has offered his own answer to this question; I just want to add a comment as well. I agree with Richard’s vision of Mormon Studies outlined here, and the reasons I (as a non-Mormon scholar of religious studies) consider Mormon Studies to be a needful thing are because Mormonism is large, culturally influential, historically important, and just plain interesting. It’s same when I study same-sex marriage history (despite not being gay), liberal Protestant theological development in America (despite not being Protestant), and African-American participation in Buddhism (despite not being black). We need experts who can speak to the public at large in an informed manner about Mormonism, be it the situation of the LDS church today, the ongoing legal issues related to FLDS groups, the stereotyping of Mormon political candidates, or other matters. A church commitment can help in some cases, and hinder in others; the same applies for researchers who do not choose a church affiliation. Constituting Mormon Studies in the manner Richard has outlined here provides a meeting place for all interested investigators, whatever their pre-commitments may be, and holds Mormon Studies to the same rigorous academic standards already established for the scholarly study of other religious groups in society.

      • Richard Livingston

        Well said Jeff. Thanks for your comment.

  • Michael H.

    I only have a few items to point out.

    1. How would you classify the current book project of Patrick Mason’s in which he’s developing a Mormon ethic of peace with David Pulsipher? Is he a Mormon Studies scholar doing non-Mormon Studies Mormon theology, or could that book be classified as Mormon Studies?

    2. I think a lot of the donor oversight and implicit censorship of Mormon Studies at Claremont, as presented in this post, is exaggerated. Certainly, there are tensions between donors’ and students’ conceptions of Mormonism, but in (my admittedly short) time here I haven’t encountered students stressing about a certain paper or presentation being too edgy for donors. In fact, the times where I have seen tension are in public events (as when a man, who may have been a donor, questioned Jan Shipp’s classification of the FLDS as “Mormon” and she retorted that if Mormons want to be considered Christians, they should be willing to admit the expansion of the label “Mormon”) or in articles we put out in the Mormon Studies newsletter (which, far from our academic output, are typically reports on visits from notable scholars for conferences or lectures). Of course, this does not negate your questions about BYU, though it might serve to mitigate their severity somewhat.

    3. I’d also like to point out (for those who get this far into the comments) that people can follow some of what the Claremont Mormon Studies Student Association is doing on our new blog, Unusual Excitement, which can be found at In addition, people can like it on Facebook at One of the recent posts, for which I was a coauthor (found at ), actually addressed the very question of the identity of Mormon Studies. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on our proposals!

    • Richard Livingston

      1) I’m not sure. We’ll have to see when it comes out. Theological ethics, like philosophy of religion, which is my own area, is situated along the boundaries of several modes of thought, one of which is religious studies. My basic criterion, though, is whether the work is primarily descriptive or prescriptive in nature. I’m happy to admit that the lines between the two are certainly not always clear, and perhaps no definitive determination is always possible, but in order to maintain consistent/coherent position that’s at least how I’d begin to sort through the question.
      2) I’m happy to hear that you don’t feel any tension. In the very early days, before the search for the Hunter Chair even began, that certainly wasn’t the case–at least not based on my experience and conversations with with fellow students and other interested parties.
      3) Thanks for pointing out the new blog, as well as your post.

  • DavidH

    I have a different view of Mormonism and of Mormon Studies. In my opinion, anything that is good and true is part of Mormonism (whether or not the leading authorities of the Church at the time acknowledge or teach it (or teach against it)). That is, the search for truth, without preconceptions, is a fundamental part of Mormonism. Study of Mormonism is a part of that search for truth and therefore furthers my more expansive view of Mormonism. As a believing and participating Mormon, I also see Mormon Studies as benefiting the Church more directly, in the same way that Alan’s Israeli political scientist furthers Israel. For example, the Church employs a number of social scientists in its research division, who are, in my experience, as open minded and as rigorous as those outside our faith community. They participate in professional conferences and interact with academic colleagues of all types and beliefs in the same way that employees of the history department do. I imagine the same is true of employees of the Church architecture department. I don’t know a lot about architecture, but if there were to develop an academic discipline of “Mormon architecture studies”, it seems to me it would further Mormonism, regardless of whether some of the work was negative or positive–because truth and good are usually found that way. And the same, in my opinion, is true about studying Mormonism through the prism of most, if not all, other disciplines.

  • Robert J. Norman

    A very revealing view on how you think.

  • Dave

    Interesting and helpful discussion, Richard. It is certainly true that some doing Mormon Studies have no particular religious motivation for doing so, but I’m not sure the following claim is justified: “Mormon studies is not a religious activity.” It is for some; not for others. Imagine a believing student pulling out her Greek New Testament and reading Mark 1 while sitting in the college chapel for morning devotional — plainly a religious activity. She then crosses the quad, sits down in her Biblical Studies seminar, pulls out her Greek New Testament and reads through Mark 1 with the other students. Same activity. Still a religious activity? For her it obviously is. Maybe for the student next to her (with different or no beliefs) it is not. If the label “religious activity” is not objectively tied to the activity but derives from the particular person doing the activity, it’s not going to be a helpful label for you.

    Another example: a young scholar is combing through births, marriages, and deaths in an 18th-century New England town. It he is a historian, he might be doing academic research. If he is just a curious fellow with family ties to that town, he might be learning his own family story. If he is LDS, it is a religious activity if he is planning on using the information to have vicarious ordinances performed for individuals he identifies to whom he is related. *Exactly* the same activity would be a “religious activity” for one but not the other two. So I think the term is problematic, maybe misleading, maybe even pejorative depending on who’s using it and why.

    • Richard Livingston

      Dave, I think you raise a good question. However, the moods, motivations, and sensibilities of the individuals who do Mormon studies really aren’t my concern here. I don’t think those sorts of things are possible to get it, nor do I think they really matter even if one could. One’s religious commitments/beliefs, or lack thereof, make absolutely no difference in his or her ability to produce good scholarship. In other words, it’s solely the scholarship that I’m concerned with–books, essays, presentations, etc.–because that’s the only thing that be publicly and critically assessed. So, if personal motivations were what’s at stake here, then you may be right that the label ‘religious activity’ might be problematic. However, they aren’t, so I don’t think it is.

      • Quickmere Graham

        Good post, I really like what you’ve laid out here. A few points of response.

        “However, the moods, motivations, and sensibilities of the individuals who do Mormon studies really aren’t my concern here. I don’t think those sorts of things are possible to get it, nor do I think they really matter even if one could”

        It seems you can’t escape such things. I like the comparison made above regarding the botanist and the political scientist. It seems you are asking practitioners of Mormon studies to leave their religious convictions at home. I’m not sure that is possible for many people, and I’m not sure it’s desirable. To assess the strength of Mormon studies, to predict the future of it, we might consider the fact of pluralism in the discussion which already exists presently and examine the ways to maximize good dialog. There’s no question that there are some things that BYU wouldn’t be able to do in terms of Mormon studies, but as there are multiple programs at different schools that doesn’t seem as problematic as you suggest. I reckon you’d agree when I say that just because BYU can’t be everything doesn’t mean it can’t be anything.

        Also, your post seems a bit prescriptive, which means you simultaneously wish to tell certain folks that they can’t prescribe while you proceed to prescribe. You justify this by an appeal to standards of the academy, but anyone in the academy knows there exists a mess of internal politics, differing visions, standards, objectives. etc. and thus I think the appeal doesn’t sustain your vision for Mormon studies. That isn;t to say we should have no standards or any standards, it only means that you would have to do a better job of justifying why your particular standards should be widely accepted. The non-Mormon Mormon studies person above who commented agreed with the post, but it seems to me the points they agreed with could easily be sustained in a Mormon studies context which includes somewhat-more theologically-tinged work, and work from an institution directly tied to the Church.

        • Quickmere Graham

          Can I get a holla back?

          • Richard Livingston

            I’m not sure I quite understand exactly what you’re getting at, but I’ll give it a shot. You say, “It seems you can’t escape such things.” I completely agree so long as we’re talking about the human condition generally–i.e., no one escapes such things, and the post is pretty explicit about affirming that (see 1.1). However, it simply isn’t the job of the scholar to be in the business of trying to assess the personal motivations, commitments, or beliefs of other thinkers. No one has access to the soul of another human being, and even if we did, the only thing that matters in the arena of ideas are the ideas that actually make it into the arena. We critically analyze primary data and explicate secondary commentary, not the personal lives of individuals who produce such commentary.

            You also say, “It seems you are asking practitioners of Mormon studies to leave their religious convictions at home.” No, not at all. That’s neither possible nor desirable. Without a doubt the more self-aware one is about his or her convictions, prejudices, predispositions, the better, because he or she will more likely be able to discern when those might be clouding judgment or impacting analysis. However, as the post makes clear, I don’t think Mormon studies is the appropriate venue to try and explicitly develop defenses of one’s religious convictions–e.g., develop arguments why Joseph Smith is a true prophet of God, or why the LDS Church is God’s one true path to salvation. There are (and should be) appropriate venues for doing that sort of work, but Mormon studies proper is not one of them.

            You say, “Also, your post seems a bit prescriptive, which means you simultaneously wish to tell certain folks that they can’t prescribe while you proceed to prescribe.” Perhaps, but if it does lean a bit prescriptive, it’s only implicitly so at this point. I do think that this is the sort of vision that those who want to participate in Mormon studies _should_ consider ascribing to, but I intentionally and explicitly tried to keep the post itself at a descriptive level. In other words, my main objective was to capture as best as I’m presently able, the landscape as I see it–i.e., to describe some of the major elements that characterize Mormon studies as it’s presently performed. And, until someone provides sound counter-arguments as to why my theses are inadequate or incoherent, or offers a better picture of the present situation, then I’ll continue to maintain that my view is at least a viable one, and therefore worth taking seriously.

            As for why I think my criteria should be widely accepted, the first thing I would say is that, as you rightly note, there will never be universal agreement, and I have no interest in that. I’m honestly not even seeking something like a general consensus. However, if my description accurately reflects the present condition of the field, then I think it’s reasonable to assume that it already has been largely accepted. So, if I have given an adequate account, then one of the biggest reasons why one might consider accepting it is that it provides a sound theoretical framework that follows commonly accepted standards in the academy. Simply put, it adheres to already well-established norms of academia. That others may have different standards or prefer alternative criteria is no argument against my view.

            Furthermore, as Jeff suggested above, my view provides a space in which all ideas operate on a level playing field, so that anyone can fully participate, regardless of personal beliefs or commitments. Hence, what my view excludes are the sorts of things that have the potential to create an unequal playing field, foreclose unencumbered investigation, or shut down conversation–e.g., prescriptive forms of theology. I should point out that theology is one of my own areas of study, so, strange as it may sound, I’m excluding myself here. However, I know all too well what it means to engage in that kind of work, and in order for my view to be consistent/coherent, that’s one of the places I think a line needs be drawn.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    As someone who served my mission in Japan, some of my peers got their BAs in Asian Studies with an emphasis on Japan. For me, “Mormon Studies” is analogous to “Asian Studies/Japan”, where both circles of academic study are concerned with a particular history, culture, identity, religious beliefs, and even language (which is brought home when you have to translate the huge specialized Mormon vocabulary in Japanese). All the aspects of Japan and its people interact with each other, and give insight into its past, present and possible future. The same goes for Mormonism and its people. You can study Japan and be Japanese, or not (as an American with one Japanese parent, who was born there and worked there for five years and learned the language, I am staddling that line). Both alternatives illuminate one’s insights about Japan and the Japanese. Both sets of perspective can be valuable.

    The LDS Church invests in social science research about issues related to its work, such as the process of conversion, of maintaining loyalty and activity, and so on. It has in the past hired experts and consultants who are NOT LDS to give a perspective on the best ways to communicate with the larger world (such as in the “I’m a Mormon” campaign). The insights of non-Mormons into questions considered in the field of Mormon Studies can be as valuable to the Church and its members as many of the insights that faithful LDS scholars produce. For example, the analyses that Rodney stark has done challenges the Church to PLAN concerning both sustaining its rate of growth and making sure it is sustainable in terms of maintaining the relationship of new members to the established members.
    I know that there are many institutions in Japan that study “Japan studies”, but that does not preclude Columbia University Law School from having a Japanese Law program. As in that case, much of the impetus for funding a program is the perception that it will be useful in increasing understanding between the entity that is being studied and the larger community. Right now the primary group of people concerned about Mormon commuication and relations is made up of Mormons. On the other hand, as the number of Mormons continues to grow, in the US and elsewhere, the incentive for non-Mormons to seek increased understanding of Mormons is going to grow as well, just as much of the incentive for study of Arabic and Islamic society’s basic literature (which is pursued by Dan Peterson at BYU) is due to the growing effect that Islam and Muslims are having in Western culture and politics.

    So perhaps a more inclusive definition of Mormon Studies would incldue the need for people both in and out of the group to be able to understand and communicate more clearly with each other. Communication is not a simple transmission of semantic elements to the mind of another person, where they are translated into cognitive elements in the brain of the receiver. Understanding is only possible in a larger context of history and terminology and intent. As more and more people become Mormons, both Mormons and non-Mormons of good will (as distinct from the ignorant who think they already know everything important about Mormons from watching
    Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign) should have increased concern about establishing the fundamental understanding that enables real, accurate communication. Mormon Studies can grow and nurture the kind of understanding that can improve the understanding of the public at large, as well as those whose business will be affected (politicians. marketers, religious leaders of many kinds).