Mormon Studies in the Classroom: Patrick Mason, “Approaches to Mormonism”

By April 25, 2014

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.

mason“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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.

Article filed under Historiography Mormon Studies Courses Pedagogy State of the Discipline


  1. Thanks for the post, Patrick! I like your inclusion of Brody, which isn’t read enough, in my opinion.

    How do your student’s syllabi differ from your own? I understand they’re writing their syllabi for undergrads, but is there a lot of overlap between your syllabus and theirs?

    Comment by J Stuart — April 25, 2014 @ 8:48 am

  2. You’re right, J, their syllabi are designed for the undergrad classroom. Most of them are in the “Introduction to Mormonism” vein, but some take a more particular approach — “Mormon Scripture,” “Mormon Women’s History,” or something along those lines. They typically heed my advice to rely much more heavily on primary sources. Some take a standard chronological approach, but others have taken interesting topical or theoretical approaches as well. It’s always interesting to see how many different ways scholars can organize a course on presumably the same subject.

    Rather than a generic course, I have them propose which college or university they will be teaching at (they often pick their alma mater). So they have to think about what it means to teach Mormonism at BYU versus UCLA versus Reed College.

    Comment by Patrick Mason — April 25, 2014 @ 9:08 am

  3. The one other disclaimer I want to make about my reading list is that I know it’s relatively light on Mormon women and gender. That’s deliberate, only because I offer an entire course called “Gendering Mormonism” (which I’m teaching now). I knew that almost all of the students in the “Approaches” course would also take “Gendering,” so I didn’t want an overlap of material.

    Comment by Patrick Mason — April 25, 2014 @ 9:11 am

  4. Thanks for this, Patrick. I’m especially curious how students react to the older books. For instance, when I read O’Dea’s THE MORMONS a few years ago, I was struck at not only how many of his ideas are now taken for granted in the field, but also how relevant his arguments still were. So, I guess I’m asking, do students find merit in the classic books more than just their historiographical importance?

    Comment by Ben P — April 25, 2014 @ 10:45 am

  5. Pat, I’ve been hesitating about responding, for fear that my comments might be read as self-interested or self-serving (a charge I don’t know that I can deny). I enjoy lists such as yours, both for what they say about the current state of Mormon studies (usually history) and for what they say about the lister’s own interests. I may be off-base, but it seems to me that most such lists, especially those coming from an academic setting, seem to privilege books published by big name New York presses or university presses. Since it’s presumed that such houses thoroughly vet their publications and only produce the “best,” such privileging is probably unavoidable. But for those of us involved in smaller enterprises, it’s sometimes frustrating to feel that one’s best efforts are being ignored (too strong a word?). I’m sure this isn’t anyone’s intention, but this is how it feels. To bring this back to your original post, I’d be interested to learn why you favor Brooke over, say, Quinn; Daynes over, say, Compton, Smith, Hales, or Van Wagoner; etc. I don’t mean to turn this into an advertisement for any one small Mormon-oriented publisher. But I am interested to know your and others’ thinking on the topic. And also, unless this is too derailing, what you and others might recommend a small press do to have its publications taken more seriously in the university/Mormon Studies arena.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — April 25, 2014 @ 10:54 am

  6. Ah… Patrick, you preempted my question 😉

    Comment by Amanda HK — April 25, 2014 @ 11:06 am

  7. Gary, one of the reasons that I tend to favor books from academic presses over those from smaller presses is that the books from academic presses are forced to address an audience beyond Mormon studies in order to be published. As a result, they tend to be better suited for my students, advisors, etc., who aren’t interested in Mormon Studies but are interested in how Mormonism addresses larger issues in the field of American religious history or colonialism. Books from smaller presses tend to be more focused on debates within Mormon studies and tend to provide heavily detailed narratives of Mormon history. Those are very useful but I find myself using them for a different purpose than for academic texts.

    Comment by Amanda HK — April 25, 2014 @ 11:09 am

  8. Hi Amanda, Thanks for the insight. So, in your opinion, books from Mormon-oriented publishers tend to be more insular, less engaged with a non-Mormon readership? Do you see these kind of books as assuming more “background” knowledge of their readers than books from non-Mormon-oriented publishers? Can you point to any books from any Mormon-oriented publishers than come close to doing what you see non-Mormon-oriented publishers doing? Do you see this as a publisher issue or an author issue?

    Comment by Gary Bergera — April 25, 2014 @ 3:14 pm

  9. Gary, great question, and an important one. Amanda’s response is very much in line with how I would respond. There is an additional element, which is that I feel quite keenly that especially for my doctoral students who want to go on to careers in the academy, it’s my responsibility to help train them to produce scholarship that will be able to be published by university or national trade presses, which will in turn support their bids for good academic jobs and then tenure. The Brooke vs. Quinn discussion is an illustrative one. In many ways I would be more inclined to assign Quinn. But I want my students to read Brooke and grapple with the fact that it won a major national award — not to mention picking up on some of his innovative transatlantic perspectives and methods.

    When my primary concern is to teach Mormon content, then my syllabi feature a lot more from independent Mormon publishers. For instance, in my current “Gendering Mormonism” course, reading assignments include content from “Women & Authority,” “Strangers in Paradox,” “God the Mother,” “Multiply & Replenish,” etc.

    Comment by Patrick Mason — April 25, 2014 @ 3:57 pm

  10. Ben, I think it’s fair to say that my students are pleasantly surprised to discover how much they actually _learn_ from some of those classic texts. I’m as guilty of this as anyone, in terms of pounding on the message of keeping up with the latest in scholarship, staying on the cutting edge, etc., losing sight of the fact that good scholarship is good scholarship, regardless of when it was produced. Of course, sometimes an article or a book just becomes obsolete, but we reserve the category of “classic” for certain books for a reason.

    Comment by Patrick Mason — April 25, 2014 @ 3:59 pm

  11. I really enjoyed this, Patrick, thanks for sharing.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — April 26, 2014 @ 7:50 am

  12. Gary, Re: My general sense is that books published by academic presses tend to be more focused on debates outside of Mormon Studies, but it’s not the only difference I’ve noticed between the two groups of books. One of the things that keeps me from suggesting books by small presses to friends or students who aren’t experts in the field is the sheer detail they employ. The amount of detail in the work of Hales or Compton is really impressive but it can also be really overwhelming. It’s so much that they assume knowledge but that they often don’t provide the unexperienced reader with enough information to know what is important and what isn’t. I should add a caveat to that – books by smaller publishers were actually my entry to the field, but I’ve found that my friends who grew up outside of the Mormon cultural region find them bewildering. They get lost in the detail.

    I tried to think of a work published by a small press that is the closest to the books by academic presses. The one I came up with is Martha Bradley’s Pedestals and Podiums. I think that the book does a really good job of engaging the larger arguments in the field of American women’s history.

    Comment by Amanda HK — April 26, 2014 @ 8:15 pm

  13. Thanks, Amanda and Patrick. Publishing’s a tricky business. Your insights are greatly appreciated.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — April 27, 2014 @ 10:42 am

  14. I am going to Claremont this fall to begin my graduate studies in religion. Reading this post has made me even more ready to start this exciting (as I am assured by my professors) new chapter of my life. Thanks Patrick.

    Comment by Randy — April 28, 2014 @ 1:31 pm

  15. Patrick, Thanks for sharing this. I wonder if you can speak to your experience with a mix of LDS and non-LDS students? What types of challenges does that present and how do you attempt to overcome them? It is likely different at the grad level than I experience at the undergrad level, but I find it challenging having RM’s and other students deeply invested in the Mormon experience in the same classroom alongside students who know little to nothing about Mormonism (and in one case little about religion in general).

    Comment by Paul Reeve — April 28, 2014 @ 10:48 pm


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