Das Buch Mormon

Das Buch Mormon September 26, 2013

About a year ago, I asked for advice about how to structure a course on American evangelicalism. Many first-rate suggestions were forth-coming.

This fall, I’m teaching a course on Mormonism in Heidelberg, Germany (gluecklicherweise auf Englisch, sonst waere es mir sehr peinlich). For the next year, I am residing at the Heidelberg Centre for American Studies, in the heart of Heidelberg’s Altstadt. My HCA office is next to that of Jan Stievermann, one of the editors of the Biblia Americana for the Mather Project (more on that another week). Small world. Fun place.

Despite Jan’s presence, I’m finding it incredibly difficult to think about American Christianity while a stranger in a not-that-strange land. Instead, I’ve been busy buying the wrong ingredients for recipes at the grocery and scavenging election posters beloved by my daughter. The Pirates (who did not cross the five-percent threshold) are her favorite party, but I eschewed their marijuana-legalization poster (with a cute cat on it) as age-inappropriate but did take one of a dog who opposes political corruption. It’s also hard to resist visiting Heidelberg’s churches and hillside ruins.

So, I’m having difficulty figuring out how to structure a class in Germany on Mormonism. Any thoughts? [And, just at the outset, there’s really no need for snarky comments on how to protect Germans from a non-Christian cult, etc….]. I’m planning to go heavy on primary sources. Joseph Smith “First Vision” narratives, Book of Mormon, revelations, for starters.

What on plural marriage? I like the Nauvoo Relief Society Minutes, Zina Huntington’s diary, Louisa Beaman’s letters (edited by Todd Compton in the Journal of Mormon History). Any other thoughts?

My competency (such as it is) fades rather sharply after 1877. I’m planning to bring my students (it’s an undergraduate Hauptseminar) to a local Mormon ward for a block of Sunday meetings. I’d love for them to become familiar with some LDS hymns. We’ll sample some of the American culture of critiquing / lampooning Mormonism through Mark Twain, South Park, and the musical. And I’d like them to get a sense of Mormonism as more than just an American religion.

The entire enterprise makes me think of my colleague Tal Howard’s God and the Atlantic, a reminder that Europeans have long found American religion baffling and that many Europeans consider Americans superstitious, ignorant, and anti-intellectual. I imagine that it will be a challenge to persuade my students to take the Latter-day Saints seriously as a subject of religious, political, and cultural import. I will probably work harder at providing my students with the context I probably ought to be giving my students back home as well.

All advice appreciated, whether on teaching in Germany, teaching American religion abroad, or on teaching Mormonism.



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  • Dandini

    The best way to really learn is to seriously read their Book of Mormon. Then contrast it with the Bible. . .

  • JonWid

    On plural marriage: Mormon Enigma–Emma Hale Smith, by Tippets and Avery who are LDS.

  • Mark Olivero

    I have been curious for some time as to why the cultural climate in America during the 1800s was conducive to re-inventions of religion, a new cultus freestanding, and that one right after another: Mormonism, Christian Science, Dispensationalism (though not a distinct cultus it had/has elements of apocalyptism typical of these other narratives), Unitarianism, Millerites and JWs. I don’ t know enough to elaborate on this time frame in US history, but there must have been several cultural factors which made both those who set out to craft a new cultus and those who followed them to be open to rejection of the historic Christian faith and open to replacing it with a “new competing brand.”

  • Adam Smith

    I enjoyed Bushmann’s book “Rough Stone Rolling”. I especially thought his approach appropriate. He didn’t lambast Joseph Smith (Bushmann is a Mormon), but he didn’t offer ‘testimony’. He simply told the story as though Joseph Smith was a believer in his own work. Would it help to have students teach each other? One group could dive into The Book of Mormon as a text, another group into the founder Joseph Smith, a third into the church’s history post Joseph Smith and the last looking at the modern institution?

  • Brian

    Mormon here. Teaching the history is great, but if it’s too focused on pre-1877, the students would learn just as much about Mormons as teaching pre-1877 Germany would teach about Germans. I’m sure the local Mormons would be a good resource – you could probably get a couple local missionaries to teach a subject like the missionary program. Good Luck!

  • fredh

    Check out lds.org; Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling; and the Baptist Version of the Book of Mormon: Protestant Doctrines within the Book of Mormon at http://mormoninfo.org/discussion/baptist-version-book-mormon

  • John Turner

    That’s a very good point, Brian. Of course, I’m best equipped to teach the history. We’re going to attend a local sacrament meeting, and I’ll pursue the missionary suggestion.

    I wish the church had a welcome center at its Frankfurt Temple.

  • John Turner

    I think one major part of the story is the growth of religious liberty after the revolution.

  • Jettboy

    Let me see if I understand you correct, and many posters seem to be missing; you are wanting mostly primary sources? That is a very heavy suggestion. I’ll have to think on that.

    You asked about structure, and I think there is a way to at least break down to subsets to work with and then expand to broader areas. Try the administration of each Prophet/President and what they contributed to Mormonism. After that I would suggest, not original to myself, The development and colonization years (Joseph Smith to John Taylor), post-polygamy years (Wilford Woodruff to Joseph F. Smith), the American integration years (Heber J. Grant to David O. McKay), the consolidation years (Joseph Fielding Smith to Spencer W. Kimball), the growth and retrenchment years going on today (Ezra Taft Benson to Thomas S. Monson). A good secondary source would be The Story of the Latter-day Saints by Allen and Leonard, although it is dated.

  • Jettboy

    How about compare it to the Bible? Its a more neutral stance.

  • John Turner

    Yes, thanks.

    Sorry to have your comments languishing in the “pending” bin for a while. I appreciate the suggestions.

  • Charles Smith

    One area you might touch on is the Church’s Welfare program. The Church has sent over a billion dollars in aid throughout the world to both Mormons and non-Mormons over the last 10 years. Check out Welfare Square in Salt Lake City and the branches throughout the world which allows the Church to get aid to areas much quicker than government agencies.
    And being that you are teaching Germans, you might also bring up the efforts of the Church to bring aid to its members and others in Germany right after the end of WWII. The story of Ezra Taft Benson (later Secretary of Agriculture under Truman) bringing this aid with the help of President Turman might give insights as to the Church’s ongoing efforts over the years to relieve physical suffering wherever it happens in the world.
    This could be coupled with the fact the Church has no paid ministry. We all serve without looking for payment for our efforts.
    And the missionary program with now over 75,000 young men and women serving for two years or 18 months at their own expense would need to be talked about.
    History is interesting but what the Church is doing today is as far more interesting and astounding considering just how few Mormons there are in the world today as compared to the world’s population. (about 0.2%)