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Mormon Studies Grows Up

Today's New York Times features a fine article on the explosion of the field of Mormon Studies. "Books relating to Mormon history are appearing in the catalogs of top academic presses, while secular universities are adding courses, graduate fellowships and endowed chairs," the article observes.

The piece focuses heavily on the books now in the offing, including a forthcoming biography of Brigham Young by John Turner (Harvard, Sept. 20, 2012), Laurel Ulrich's WIP on Mormon women and polygamy, and Kathleen Flake's WIP on women and authority. There are a lot of studies we can add to that, including Paul Gutjahr's excellent new reception history of the Book of Mormon (Princeton, 2012) and Samuel Brown's In Heaven as It Is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death, which for me was one of those "Aha!" books that cast Mormon origins into a fresh light.

And that's not even including major popular studies by Matt Bowman (The Mormon People, Random House) and Joanna Brooks's sparkling memoir Book of Mormon Girl, which has been picked up by Simon & Schuster after Joanna self-published it six months ago.

To me the even more interesting story is the corresponding upsurge in all of the attending academic attention: the courses, fellowships, endowed chairs, etc. that the article mentions but does not cover in depth. This year I'm aware of courses on Mormonism being taught at major universities such as Harvard, Georgetown, Claremont, the University of Virginia, the University of Utah, Columbia, and others. At Columbia this semester, the class registration filled up on the first day it was opened to students. Claremont now has a graduate program in Mormon Studies, and other universities—including Utah Valley University and Utah State, have full-fledged degree programs in Mormon Studies.

Moreover, discussion of Mormonism is finally making its way into general survey courses in religion and history. This, to me, is the most significant change -- when a religion graduates from "exotic species at the zoo" to being part of the principal story.

Topics: Culture, Education
Beliefs: Mormon
Tags: book of mormon girl brooks, claremont program in mormon studies, flunking sainthood, in heaven as it is on earth: joseph smith and the early mormon conquest of death, jana riess, joanna brooks, john turner biography of brigham young, kathleen flake, laurel thatcher ulrich, matthew bowman the mormon people, mormon studies, mormon studies courses, mormon women's history, paul gutjahr book of mormon, samuel morris brown, the mormon lens on american history the new york times


  1. And now we can study which ‘academics’ look at factual history and which ones retell the Mormon, mostly made-up, story.

  2. I was actually surprised when my American Studies department in Germany received my PhD proposal to study Mormon culture with such enthousiasm. Sure, much of what I’m doing is filed under “American religion”, not “Mormonism” per se, but still, they were still very receptive to me teaching a class on Mormonism last semester. I can offer up tidbits about Mormon culture in seminars that aren’t seen as something exotic, but something that is part of the American story. It’s an exciting time to be in Mormon studies—even if I am far away in Germany most of the time!

  3. To Jes: If you want to see historical details about Mormon history, you are going to find them in the LDS Church History Library and the thousands of primary source documents they are making available, not just at the library in Salt Lake but also online.  The Joseph Smith Papers project provides both high definition images of original documents and searchable transcriptions.  I invested a year reading original documents in the Church archives in preparing an article published in the Utah Law Review, and there was nothing there about the basic character of the leaders and members of the Church which is not reflected in the ubiquitous published accounts of Mormon history by Mormons. 

    By contrast, it is difficult to find in any of the polemical books and articles and blogs by detractors of Mormonism anything resembling a balanced factual account of Mormon history or biography.  The great hope of a broader community of academic institutions participating in Mormon studies is to raise the level of scholarship about Mormons and Mormonism among those who have to learn about those topics from the outside.  When real scholars make the effort to understand the facts of the Mormon experience, and translate that into the terms of their own academic disciplines, as pioneers like Jan Shipps haved done, there is hope for an honest appreciation of the fact that Mormons can choose to disagree with others about the reality and nature of God without being denigrated as uneducated and irrational and even dangerous. 

    In particular, Mormonism is not a passing phenomenon that will have no lasting importance for scholars in the future, but rather offers an example of a successful religious phenomenon that appeals, not to celebrities, but to ordinary people dealing with the difficulties of real life in the 21st Century.  If Mormonism can be classified as an ethnicity because of its distinct culture, it may become the largest minority ethnicity in the United States by 2100.  Surely that is worth the attention of scholars of all sorts of social phenomena.

  4. It is quite phenomenal to heard or read about it. I wonder.How people behave like this?

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