As the first installment of our new series, this post is from JI’s good friend Christopher Blythe. Chris is a graduate of Utah State University, and is now a PhD candidate in religious studies at Florida State University. He has published broadly on the divergent Mormon traditions, and currently serves on the Board of Directors for the John Whitmer Historical Association.
In 2008, while a Master’s student at Utah State University, Philip Barlow invited me to be his assistant for a course entitled, “Mormonisms.” This was Barlow’s first time teaching the course and his third Mormon Studies course at USU. He had some general ideas of what he wanted accomplish in the course, but I was fortunate to be able to help flesh out the curriculum, assignments, and schedule for the course. This was my first teaching experience in which I lectured roughly every fourth class period. I think it’s a fun exercise to imagine teaching the course once again. Six years later, how would I reimagine this class?
The objective of this course was and would continue to be to problematize the standard telling of Mormon history and Mormon thought. Rather than examining Mormonism through the teachings and history of one Church, we would see that Mormon thought was always diverse and in contest. This is crucial for understanding the development of Mormonism (i.e. the current face of any one institution of Mormonism is not inevitable but based on historical events and personalities), but also to emphasize the point (first made by Jan Shipps) that Mormonism is not one new religious movement, but an entirely new religious tradition with its own branches and schools of thought.
In 2008, students were assigned into small groups that would become experts on a particular Restoration movement or church. They were pointed to primary sources depending on their movement of choice. I would probably not do this in the future. Instead, I would include a collection of primary sources particularly focusing on sources that demonstrating boundary maintenance between groups (i.e. conflict). This would definitely include the first issue of Strang’s Gospel Herald, in which he curses the Saints in Nauvoo, the minutes of Sidney Rigdon’s excommunication trial, the Lorin Woolley Story as recorded by Joseph Musser, Joseph Wood’s “History of the Reorganization” as serialized in the RLDS periodical the Messenger, and so forth. I would also make sure students were able to get a taste of non-LDS Mormon scripture such as the Book of the Law (Strang), the Book of Enoch (Charles Thompson), and the Ninth Book of Esdras (James Collin Brewster). I would likely allow each student to select one volume of scripture as the subject of a short paper due towards the last third of the course.
In 2008, the secondary sources included Newel Bringhurst and John Hamer’s Scattering of the Saints, Ronald Walker’s Wayward Saints, and Paul M. Edwards, Our Legacy of Faith: A Brief History of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. I think these were great choices. I would likely cover the material from Edwards in lectures and assign a different text on RLDS foundations. Instead, I would include Roger Launius’ Joseph Smith III: Pragmatic Prophet (Illinois, 1995), which remains the best full text on the early RLDS Church. I would definitely keep Wayward Saints, allowing the class to get an on-the-ground look at dissent in Utah. I would add Martha Bradley’s excellent Kidnapped from that Land: Government Raids on the Short Creek Polygamists (which we would juxtapose to current media representations since 2008). Finally, I would likely scrap Scattering in favor of selected articles. There really is just so much material that could work for a class like this. Of course, I would also recommend Steve Shields’ Divergent Paths of the Restoration as a handy source to capture the real diversity of the Restoration.
One of the possible problems with such a class is that even as we attempt to demonstrate diversity within the Restoration, we still end up spending much of our time discussing institutions and prophets, rather than average believers. For this reason, in 2008, I organized an extensive oral history project for the class to participate in. We set up interviews at the homes of a variety of non-LDS Mormons throughout Utah. This included visits with a Swedenborgian-Mormon in Salt Lake City, believers in a revelation received by a young girl in Sanpete County, a spokeswoman from Principle Voices (Mormon Fundamentalist activist group,) a spokeswoman from Tapestry Against Polygamy (an Anti-Mormon Fundamentalist activist group), followers of Christopher Nemelka, members of the Apostolic United Brethren, Fred Larsen (the prophet of the Remnant Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), and so forth. Students were able to pick which of these interviews they wanted to participate in and became familiar with all of the related methodologies of ethnographic research and oral history. If the course was in the Mormon Corridor or the Midwest, I would keep this as a standard activity. If not, I would definitely like the students to have the opportunity to attend a Community of Christ service, which one can usually find fairly close.