Another contributor in our Mormon Studies in the Classroom series, Patrick Mason is the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University.
“Approaches to Mormonism” is designed as a historiographical introduction to Mormonism and the field of Mormon studies (with a strong Mormon history component). This is a graduate seminar for MA and PhD students that I have taught twice at Claremont Graduate University. When I last taught it in Fall 2013 the seminar had about a dozen students, with a mix of LDS and non-LDS backgrounds.
Here is how I describe the course in the syllabus: “This course will introduce students to representative approaches used by scholars in the academic (non-polemical, non-apologetic) study of Mormonism. . . . Students will read exemplary works representing various disciplinary and methodological approaches to the study of Mormonism, and in the process will be encouraged to consider ways that Mormon studies has been shaped by, and can potentially shape, other established academic fields and disciplines. This course asks questions such as whether there exists a Mormon studies canon, where the gaps and blind spots are in the extant literature, and what the future of Mormon studies might hold—not to mention whether we can speak intelligibly about something called ‘Mormon studies.’”
In this most recent iteration I set up the course so that we read the books chronologically, in order of their original publication. That led to a certain back-and-forth in the actual history, as we would leap from one time period to another and then back again. While offending my linear historical sensibilities, I thought it worked reasonably well to accomplish the purpose of giving the students a sense of the development of the field. If not always on a week-to-week basis, over the course of the semester they could chart clear differences in the ways that scholars have approached Mormonism over the past seven decades, from Brodie to Brooke to Brown. Because the course was specifically not intended to serve as an introduction to Mormonism per se, I didn’t feel the duty or burden of finding readings to cover the whole history or all the important topics, although I did select titles that would give us breadth of coverage both topically and methodologically.
My philosophy of graduate education is strongly shaped by my own training, and in most of my courses I am committed to a book-a-week approach. While learning to work in primary sources is absolutely essential for emerging scholars, much of that is accomplished through the students’ writing assignments. (I do spend more time with primary sources in other courses.) In this course we focus on discussing and critically analyzing the work of other scholars. No one is born a scholar; one learns how to do this rather unnatural thing by watching and critiquing how others do it, immersing yourself in the conversation, and then going through a process of imitation and emulation. In the process, I hope, a student will discover her own scholarly voice and begin to explore her own avenues of contribution with increasing competence and confidence.
Naturally, even at the pace of one book per week, in one semester we can barely scratch the surface of the unbelievably rich field of Mormon studies. Deciding which books to include is an intellectually stimulating process for me but a difficult one, because I end up leaving out so many terrific options. For instance, in this most recent version of the course I didn’t assign anything by Richard Bushman, Sarah Barringer Gordon, Juanita Brooks, Kathleen Flake, Michael Quinn, Thomas Alexander, Ronald Walker, Spencer Fluhman, John Turner, and others—many of whose books are among my very favorites in the field. Indeed, I could easily construct a parallel syllabus with none of the books I did assign, and all books from the authors I just listed and have an equally strong list. I can salve my conscience somewhat by knowing that I had previously assigned some of these other essential books (including those by Gordon, Flake, Turner, and Fluhman) in other courses, meaning that students did have an opportunity to read and discuss them in class, just not in this class.
But there was a method to my madness, and I’ll share my brief thoughts below with each of the books that I assigned:
- Fawn Brodie, No Man Knows My History (1945) – I date the beginning of Mormon studies to the publication of this book. It has its flaws, to be sure, but students need to know it, and discover that it may not actually be what they think it is. Our discussion was deeply enriched by having Bruce Brodie, Fawn’s son, come to class and share some personal insights about his mother.
- Leonard Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom (1958) – Even more than five decades later, this remains a stunning work, unsurpassed in many regards. I wanted to expose my students to the “Dean of Mormon History,” and his economic approach.
- Jan Shipps, Mormonism (1985) – A big chronological jump from Arrington to Shipps. This remains essential reading. Richard Bushman’s blurb—“This may be the most brilliant book ever written on Mormonism”—is still worth considering, even if some of the theory is dated. So many things we now take for granted in the field come from this study.
- Philip Barlow, Mormons and the Bible (1991) – In my opinion, one of the underrated classics in the field. Anticipates moves toward scripture studies, intellectual and cultural history, religious studies, and American religious history that would become the hallmarks of the next quarter century in the field. Compelling in its honesty.
- John Brooke, The Refiner’s Fire (1994) – I know this book has its strong critics, and it is not without its (substantial) flaws. But like No Man Knows My History, I find this book to be better than is its reputation in many Mormon history circles. And it won the Bancroft Prize, a fact that has to be reckoned (if not agreed) with. I want my students to learn from Brooke’s transatlantic approach.
- Armand Mauss, The Angel and the Beehive (1994) – The best book on twentieth-century Mormonism. And the best social scientific approach to Mormonism. A true classic. Armand lives nearby and is one of the biggest supporters of the Mormon Studies program at Claremont, so it’s fun to have him come to class and have the students interact with a living legend.
- Kathryn Daynes, More Wives Than One (2001) – I think this is the best book on polygamy. But as important as the topic and Daynes’ findings are, I also want my students to focus on her methodological approach, and what can be gleaned from a close and careful local study with big implications.
- Terryl Givens, By the Hand of Mormon (2002) – I could have also assigned Viper on the Hearth, but I chose this because of its important arguments about the role of the Book of Mormon in both Mormon history and Mormon studies, and for its methodological approach as a reception history.
- Ethan Yorgason, Transformation of the Mormon Culture Region (2003) – In my mind this is near or at the top of the “most underrated books in Mormon studies.” My students generally concur, that this is a brilliant study they had never previously heard of. Sometimes the geographer’s approach feels a little forced, but Yorgason’s insights about the transition period in Mormonism are dazzling.
- Jared Farmer, On Zion’s Mount (2008) – Another prizewinning title that introduces students to a new approach, namely environmental history. Who knew that mountains were socially constructed too? This book tells us a lot more about Mormons than about Mormonism, which I think is in many ways a benefit not a liability.
- Patrick Mason, The Mormon Menace (2011) – Surely the weakest title on this list, by a guy desperate for a few dollars in royalties. Perhaps somewhat defensibly, this selection was chosen to address the important topic of anti-Mormonism, and also leads to conversations about what it means when Mormons are the objects in a book and not the subjects.
- Samuel Brown, In Heaven As It is on Earth (2012) – A much-praised recent reappraisal of Joseph Smith and early Mormonism, providing a nice bookend to a semester that began with Brodie. It also raises the interesting question of what it means for the field to have important contributions from authors who do this as an avocation and not a full-time job.
In terms of writing assignments, students write short critical responses to the weekly readings several times during the semester. They write a standard final research paper on the topic of their choice, incorporating both secondary and primary sources. And they construct a syllabus of their own for an undergraduate course on Mormonism. Many of them find this syllabus assignment to be one of the most valuable exercises in the course.