Being a Mormon Intellectual

Indulge me a moment in some reflections on how I think about a portion of my scholarly life and activities in personal, religious terms.

Nearly 40 years ago, Eugene England delivered an address to young BYU students called “Good Books or True Religion? Defining the Mormon Scholar.” In this essay, England lays out a vision of the Mormon scholar modeled on Elder B. H. Roberts:

You must develop your own vision of what, as an intellectual, your contribution to the Kingdom might be, of how you might love the Lord as he commanded-with all your mind, as well as your heart, might, and strength…. [W]ith the courage to go creatively beyond that tradtion in finding a way to be properly loyal to your special gifts and to the Church and the restored gospel….President [B.H.] Roberts, of course, is not suggesting that the intellectual’s task is to create new doctrine, but rather it is to take revealed doctrine and give it new formulations that will relate to the changing world we live in, that will enable us, for instance, to more effectively criticize our flawed social, political, artistic and intellectual environment by using the great germ-truths of the gospel.

My professional, intellectual, and religious life do not intersect in precisely the ways that England hopes of future generations, but much of this call rings true to me today. The work of the Mormon intellectual is thinking about and framing the questions of church teaching in relation to the changing world. Robert’s notion of developing truth, expounding of the message of the gospel, is the central feature of intelligent discipleship.

England offers this vision for the future with a sense of despair about the state of the Mormon intellectual, and his exhortation is explicitly meant as a corrective to his generation’s failures. England warns of the polarization that he saw developing in his peers: “I ask you to reject the labels of this previous generation that have fragmented our intellectual community and to some extent the larger Church-I mean labels like ‘orthodox’ and ‘unorthodox,’ ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative.’ These are gentile terms and have no place in a community of the Saints, if used to hold oneself apart and reject others from fellowship, love, and forgiveness.” What has happened in the ensuing 40 years since this plea, and what were the circumstances that led up to England’s vision of a less-fragmented Mormon intellectual scene?

At the turn of the 20th century, Mormon leaders and intellectuals were devoted to thinking about Mormonism in the context of the new age, bringing the best ideas into conversation with the tradition and producing several important works. Thinkers like Roberts, Talmage, and Widtsoe were models in this period. Much of the rest of the century represented retrenchment from that ideal and discourse in the church became increasingly self-referential, and even hostile to modern thought. In the 1960’s and 70’s there was a new surge of Mormon intellectual activity, primarily from those outside the church’s hierarchy. New Mormon History was rising up, and headed for collision with church authority.

England’s warning about fragmentation was tragically prophetic. In the 1980’s and early 90’s a robust Mormon intellectual movement frequently found itself in tension with church authorities and between themselves. In the early 1990’s the rise of the professionalized apologists on the scene added to the tensions.

For many young Mormon intellectuals of the past decade, who grew up in the wake of the 1990’s, the goal of resetting the territory and redefining the conversations has been central. These thinkers have sought to avoid controversy and confrontation, willing to engage with the best ideas and tackle challenging problems. Still, England’s vision of a Mormon intellectual community that was not in conflict between “liberals” and “conservatives” has remained elusive. Why has the insistence upon orthodoxy and the polarization around certain ideas been so successful against this vision of community of Saints in full fellowship with one another? No doubt there is cultural and financial capital at stake in ideological warfare. For those of us without the taste of bloodsport of Mormon intellectual life, the divisions within the religious community of Saints giving their minds to the Kingdom are sometimes tragic. As new individuals and institutions seek to bridge these chasms to reflect the new generation, they remain mired in the politics of division that constrain the landscape of Mormon thought.

What is the solution? As one of the apostles of Mormon intellectuals, England concludes his remarks with a blessing.  Perhaps only such a blessing can bring about the necessary healing:

May you succeed where too many of us have not and even go beyond where we have succeeded. May you be more self-confident, more accepting of the gift God has given you….blessing your brothers and sisters with your gift, acting bravely to communicate its values to them and freely forgiving and asking forgiveness when your exercise of your gift is misunderstood or mistaken. In these ways, and in others that he may help us discover, I ask the Lord to bless us all, in order that we might use his gift of intelligence as he would want us to.


  • Russell Arben Fox


    I don’t think this description especially fits me, because I think I’ve become less interested in “thinking about and framing the questions of church teachings in relation to the changing world” as time has gone by. But I appreciate very much your wish (though I suspect it may be a vain one) for a community of saints where
    intellectual conflicts are separated from the distribution of that cultural capital which gives some positions of influence at the expense of others. There are times and places where such communities occur (the Cambridge Ward of fifteen years ago, perhaps?) but they are–and I think always have been–few and far between.


  • NancyBeck03

    There is no one way to be Mormon anymore than there is one way to be a woman, a person of color or gay. We are all unique and that is the beauty of it.

  • Edwin Firmage, Jr.

    “Mormon intellectual” is a highly unstable volatile organic compound that quickly breaks down into its constituent elements, Mormon and intellectual.

  • DivineWind

    Nice post, Taylor. As to your question—”What is the solution?”—I can tell you the answer, but it will only make you more pessimistic.

    At the beginning of your ruminations, you highlighted the example of intellectual integrity and openness that existed among several members of the Church hierarchy—Roberts, Widtsoe, Talmage—at the turn of the 20th Century. The diversity of thought and new ideas these men brought to the table created a healthy tension and balance that effectively inhibited orthodoxy and its attendant ossification.

    But men like these had few, if any successors, among the Church leadership. Stated differently, over time only like-minded conservatives (sorry, but this label is appropriate here) were invited to Salt Lake; those with innovative and creative ideas and philosophies need not apply. Until this mindset among the Church hierarchy changes—and there is little reason to think that it will—the problem you describe will continue.

    To paraphrase two of my favorite latter-day seers, Simon and Garfunkel, “Where have you gone B.H. Roberts? Our church turns its lonely eyes to you.”

  • Ralph C. Hancock

    “…the Church became… hostile to modern thought.” Is there nothing to contest in modern thought? Are there no intellectual grounds for “hostility to modern thought.” Richard Bushman has urged us to criticize the general culture from the standpoint of the gospel. Is this already too divisive, a “retrenchment”? Philosophers, unlike mere intellectuals, are always open to the possibility that we have something to learn from anti-intellectuals.

    • tpetrey


      While I am not sure that philosophy as a discipline has engaged the voices of non-elite peoples as much as you say, I think your general point is valid. England understands Roberts to be saying that we engage with the best ideas, “to more effectively criticize our flawed social, political, artistic and intellectual environment,” in other words, to do exactly as you say. I certainly agree with that and I agree with your framing of Bushman’s remarks. But this requires real engagement rather than retrenchment.

      Though I am definitely not saying that modern thought should be an unquestioned hegemony, I am not entirely convinced that the “gospel” is an archimedean point since the gospel is always articulated in its own historical and social context too (frequently articulated in the terms of modernity, even when it is trying to resist it). I put forth what I see as the objective of Mormon scholars as “thinking about and framing the questions of church teaching in relation to the changing world,” which I think can accommodate what you are asking for. I don’t think that this requires an absent critique of modernity at all, but rather a critical assessment of this relationship from a variety of standpoints.