The Past and Present of Mormon Scholarship and Mormon Apologetics

By June 21, 2016

Today I’d like to offer some thoughts on last week’s Colloquium held in honor of Richard Bushman, particularly the place of Mormonism in the Academy and the history of Mormon apologetics. While I speak of apologists and apologetics, I do not wish to cast aspersions on apologists, apologetic efforts, or the historical work that is put to apologetic ends in Mormonism. I aim only to call attention to trends in LDS apologetics.

 

In her review of Richard Bushman’s Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling in the Journal of American History, Jan Shipps laid out the origins of the academic study of Mormon history. Fascinatingly, she took care to note Rough Stone Rolling’s diverse reception among both academics and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In a particular set of paragraphs in the review’s close, Shipps stated:

Perhaps more than anything else, this diverse reaction confirms the status of the work as the crowning achievement of the “old” new Mormon history, an intellectual movement that with Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling seems to be rapidly passing into history. That is not to say that Mormon history is going away or even that the bifurcation of the Mormon past is headed for resolution. Quite the contrary…Believing historians will work in the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (then hosted by the Maxwell Institute]) mode, marshaling facts from other sources to prove the LDS scripture’s ancient bona fides. In addition, what appears to be hordes of graduate students—some Latter-day Saints and some not—are discovering that as record keepers par excellence, Mormons have left a historical legacy that will keep historians busy for many generations to come.

Shipps believed that those graduate students would “probably leave the provinciality that made so much old Mormon history inward looking.” This astute observation predicted the proliferation of the study of Mormonism within the Academy, using Mormonism and Mormons as a case study for broader themes rather than a singular drive to discover the history of religions that flowed from the theological fountain of Joseph Smith’s 1830 Church of Christ.

There are many early-career scholars and graduate students that had followed in Bushman’s footsteps by the time of Shipps’ review in September 2007, who had followed Bushman’s earlier blueprint for examining Mormonism in secular, academic settings. Bushman provided them mentorship in Smith Institute seminars and less formal conversations like e-mail exchanges and conference hallways conversations.[i] Bushman had also previously befriended and worked with other eminent scholars who studied Mormonism (or scholars that just happened to be Mormon), like Laurie Maffly-Kipp, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich,or  Armand Mauss.

Dr. Richard Bushman

Dr. Richard Bushman

In response to Shipps’ article, Bushman wrote that “apologetics and history writing necessarily overlap.” He then wrote about the intra-Mormon battles over apologetics and the polemical dialogue between critics and those seeking to defend their faith. In his final paragraph, he wrote

As more and more historians work to situate Mormonism in American history, Mormons like me want to join the discussion. We will write better if we are less defensive, more open to criticism, more exploratory and venturous, but even with our inhibitions and parochialisms, we should come to the table with our Mormonism intact. It would be a mistake, in my judgement, for Mormon historians to check their beliefs at the door when they write. We do not want to homogenize the interpretation of Mormon history. We will never recover Mormonism’s complexity by pursuing one approach. The subject calls for inquiry from many angles. Historical knowledge will be best served if Mormon historians tell the story in their own way, writing from the perspective of their faith.

Since Shipps’ and Bushman’s September 2007 exchange, the academic study of Mormonism has grown exponentially in the Academy—beyond celebrated names like Flake, Fluhman, Grow, and Holland. Historians, sociologists, anthropologists, and scholars of religion have engaged many aspects of Mormonism(s) and their members. The LDS Church in some ways embraced its faithful academics, commissioning scholars to assist in the writing of Gospel Topics essays aimed at a Mormon audience, explaining topics that had previously not been frequently discussed in official church publications. Bushman’s (and others) contributions over the previous 35-40 years had not only made the study of Mormonism possible in the Academy, but viable, even useful, to the LDS Church.

The Colloquium held in Richard Bushman’s honor last weekend represented the end of an inward-oriented era of apologetics, though certainly not an end of the Maxwell Institute’s commitment to apologetics. The Colloquium, put on by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, showcased many of the best and brightest in the academic study of Mormonism from Bushman’s generation and the two that have followed. Many of the papers analyzed the intersection of faith and scholarship, revealing that their faith had driven their scholarship, affected their faith for the better, or other similar sentiments.The gathering showcased the mammoth influence of one scholar on the academic study of Mormonism.

It was certainly fortuitous, even fitting, that the Colloquium was held shortly after it was announced that Spencer Fluhman would serve as the Executive Director of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship.[ii] Fluhman’s previous scholarship and eagerly anticipated future biography of James Talmage represents the very best of the study of Mormonism in the Academy. His book received rave reviews from Jon Butler and Leigh Eric Schmidt. He has also taught in BYU Religious Education and the BYU History Department. He is also a veteran of the Temple & Observatory Groups, aimed at helping Mormons seeking to reconcile LDS history and culture with their faith. He seems well-placed to guide the Maxwell Institute as a center simultaneously dedicated to religion and scholarship.

The Colloquium, organized by Fluhman, Jed Woodworth, and Kathleen Flake, represents a new approach to Mormon apologetics, focused on contextualization and providing facts while primarily speaking the language of faith. The speakers also used the “language” of academics (quoting Neal A. Maxwell) while explaining the value of faith and an approach to belief. The LDS Church now has dozens of scholars that can speak to non-LDS and secular audiences about Mormonism. Given that many American LDS youth are taught in a secular style through public schools, it makes sense that the Maxwell Institute pulled together an array of bilingual academics, fluent in secular academia and the language of their own faith tradition, whether LDS or not. On the last point, Grant Wacker stated that when Richard Bushman’s biography is written that the author will need to address his impact on all believing historians).

Only time will tell whether the Maxwell Institute’s direction lasts in LDS culture. The LDS Church and the Maxwell Institute may not be able to measure its success or failures with these changes for more than a generation—but the current apologetic style seems to match the learning processes that rising generations of Mormons receive and digest information—and progress is hardly ever linear, without complications, detours, missteps, or misunderstandings. However, the Maxwell Institute’s first event under a new leadership style and approach to the intersection of faith and academics seems to mark a turning of the tide, and perhaps a new trajectory, for LDS apologetics.

 

[i] This according to many scholars who entered the academy at this time that I have spoken with. JB Haws’ current research project promises to tell us more about the influence of Bushman over the past 20 or so years in the study of Mormon within the Academy.

[ii] In the interest of transparency, I should say that Spencer Fluhman is a friend, mentor, and confidante of mine.

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