The first day of class we spent talking about perceptions of Mormonism using Pew Forum surveys (among others) as well as clips from a variety of TV shows like South Park and The Colbert Report. We spent the next two days of the class reading Richard Bushman’s A Very Short Introduction to Mormonism. Basically, I wanted to give the students a good overview and especially a vocabulary list. I think it was a very good idea, and it certainly helped the students get a good first look at many of the issues we will be dealing with.
For the first unit of the class we read large portions of Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling. Bushman’s biography is a good one for several reasons, but mostly because I think it’s a biography that takes the historical data at face value, yet doesn’t try to make metaphysical claims that go above and beyond the historical data.
The students generally seemed to respond well to the discussions in the classroom and the readings. For the most part, they weren’t overtly skeptical (“how could anybody believe this!”), and had a firm grasp of the complexities that Smith both went through and created throughout his prophetic career.
One thing that I thought worked quite well was to play for them some of the uniquely LDS hymns, to demonstrate how the events we were studying have ended up in LDS worship. The day we discussed the First Vision I played them a youtube video of “Joseph Smith’s First Prayer” by the MoTab, set almost as a music video to various church history films about the First Vision. This was on top of showing them various artistic renditions of the first vision and Moroni’s visit as a way of demonstrating how the events we talked about that day are portrayed by LDS artists. The day we spoke of the Kirtland Temple dedication and the visits by divine messengers shortly thereafter, I played them “The Spirit of God.” The day we talked about the martyrdom we listened to two versions of “Praise to the Man,” one with the original funerary-sounding tune and lyrics (“long shall his blood, which was shed by assassins, stain Illinois while the earth lauds his fame”), and a much more upbeat one by Vocal Point, the BYU all-male a cappella ensemble, that uses the tune that’s currently in our hymnbook.
We didn’t talk a lot about polygamy in this unit because I want to dedicate an entire day to that subject from beginning to end. I did mention it briefly in enough detail that I think the students could draw the relevant connections to polygamy, its complexities, the Nauvoo Expositor, and the fallout in Nauvoo that was a major factor leading to Joseph’s martyrdom. But that short overview of Joseph’s polygamy did lead to what was probably the funniest moment of the semester so far.
“By the time he was killed Joseph had married over 30 women,” I said.
“Jesus!” said one of the students, loud enough that everybody could hear it. There was a slight pause, and then everybody burst out loud laughing.
For their papers for this unit, there were 3 options. First, find some entry from the Joseph Smith Papers project and nominate it for inclusion in a future class like this. Basically, explain why the chosen text is a valuable one in studying Joseph’s life. There were some pretty good papers—for example, I never knew that Joseph had actually served a short mission just as a regular missionary. The student’s paper accurately mentioned that Bushman’s book covers that period of time, but extremely briefly.
Second, find some other biography or scholarly article and compare its version of a particular event in Joseph’s life with that of Bushman’s. The papers generated from this prompt were interesting. I particularly liked the two that went after Brodie and the Tanners, respectively.
Third, something else with my approval. Nobody really took this option.
The papers were quite good. I did have to call some of them out on their phrasing of certain things, and that they should have learned a bit more about how to write on such a subject from Bushman. Namely that it is entirely possible and quite useful to use terms like “claimed,” “purported,” etc. Many of them sounded like BYU undergrads, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but perhaps not the way they should phrase certain parts of their papers for this unit.
The one change I would make, looking in retrospect, would be to have them read sections of the D&C as they were going along, instead of treating the D&C as its own subject in Unit 2: Unique LDS Scripture, which I’ll talk about next time.
Also, the students have voted on the list of various Mormon movies I gave them, and sometime in late March or early April we will be watching Richard Dutcher’s Brigham City for a class party.