What is Mormon Studies? Some Preliminary Observations/Questions

By August 17, 2009

Three years ago here at Claremont Graduate University (CA) we formed an LDS student group, the Claremont Mormon Studies Student Association (CMSSA). The group consists of (mostly) graduate students studying in and around the Claremont area who are interested in Mormon studies, but mainly serves as an extension of the Mormon Studies program in the School of Religion at CGU. As a student group we organize presentations by students and scholars, host discussions on topics relevant to the religious community, have lunch together weekly for more informal discussions, and, every other year, sponsor a graduate student conference. The overarching goal of our group is to contribute to the success of Mormon Studies at Claremont and beyond. Thus, it seemed eminently appropriate when Loyd Ericson, a graduate student at CGU, suggested “What is Mormon Studies?” as the theme  of our next graduate student conference in Spring 2010 (I’m told that there is a conference being organized at Utah State with the same essential theme).

Since that time I’ve pondered this question. The question appears deceptively simple: Isn’t Mormon Studies simply the study of all things Mormon? Yes, but there is more to the question than this. Further, the question has become more pressing and interesting with the emergence of the “field” of Mormon Studies in officially sanctioned academic programs and chairs at Claremont Graduate University, University of Wyoming, and Utah State University (I likely missed one or two). In this post I hope to make some simple observations and ask some questions regarding why I think the question of what Mormon Studies consists of is more interesting and more relevant than it ever has been before. I’ll begin with two questions.

(A) First, who studies Mormonism? Thus far–and unsurprisingly–mostly Mormons. At CGU, encouragingly, there have been some non-Mormon students who have registered for the  Mormon-themed courses taught by Richard and Claudia Bushman, but the classes are mostly Mormon students (and even these classes are somewhat sparsely attended; I naturally can’t speak for programs going on in other parts of the country). The lectures and informal conversations are reasonably well-attended by non-LDS religion students and faculty, but again, the interest is mainly from LDS. This may sound initially problematic because in order for Mormon Studies to to survive and flourish there needs to be interest from those within the academy who are not Mormon. However, given that until very recently Mormon Studies did not even exist anywhere academically, I don’t think skepticism would be appropriate. As a new, official–though minor–field of study it’s probably progressing realistically with good reasons to believe it will continue to expand. 

(B) Secondly, what IS Mormonism? I position this question after “who studies Mormonism” in part because, from an academic standpoint, who studies Mormonism will in large part determine what Mormonism becomes. Because mainly Mormons study Mormonism they are, of course, speaking to only one another. This is certainly good; there have been few opportunities for Latter-day Saints to discuss their religion in an academic environment apart from meeting together informally outside the classroom. However, were Mormon Studies to continue not generating interest among non-Mormons, I believe it would become overtly solipsistic and would eventually die a stagnant death (not to mention that it would cease to receive funding at some point). Nevertheless, as I mentioned above, I think it is conceivable that the interest in Mormon Studies will continue to gradually increase.

Directly related to these two foundational questions, and what I would like to focus on here, is the issue of presentation, and how it is intimately related to the question of Mormon Studies. Where are we with how we present Mormonism to the world at large? Typically, we have conceptually categorized and presented Mormonism through the lenses of history and theology. Historically, our theology has been our history; in other words, rather than formulate systems of belief we have theologized our history and have presented Mormonism as more of a historical theological narrative than a systematic theology [1]. However, more recently some Mormon scholars have been more consciously considering Mormon theology, not as separate from its history, but as a more or less distinct field in which it is compared to more mainstream theologies. This is the particular confluence in which the future of Mormon Studies has begun to flow, as I hope to show below.

Accordingly, I regard presentation as a four-fold movement. The various phases or stages of this movement are not static or inflexible; rather, I see them as porous, bleeding into and creating one another but nevertheless identifiably distinct:

(1) Presentation as Historical (Mormonism as History). Mormonism has been rather successful in its historical presentation, particularly since the inception of the New Mormon History in the 60’s (importantly preceded by Brooks, Arrington, Brodie, O’Dea). With the continuing success and popularity of the Mormon History Association (populated by scholars and laypeople from all over the Mormon landscape as well as many non-Mormon scholars) and presses such as the University of Illinois and others, Mormonism has, I believe, rather successfully been presented and represented to outsiders and insiders from an historical/sociological/cultural perspective (I include these fields in historical presentation though sociology and culture are not merely historical). The advent of Mormon Studies in the universities mentioned above is also historical in nature. The programs represented all mainly study Mormonism as history, and its theology through the filter of historical theology. The presentation of Mormonism in its barest, most overt, and explicit form is Mormonism as history. Consequently, subsequent stages of presentation are informed and shaped by Mormonism as history.

(2) Presentation as Stealth (Mormonism as Idea). We have arguably entered this stage somewhat recently. By stealth (what some have labeled, “stealth theology,”) I mean that widespread, mainstream dissemination of uniquely Mormon theological concepts has often been seen as most successfully presented surreptitiously and indirectly. Terryl Givens’ volume on preexistence is a good example of this. True, Oxford has also published his By the Hand of Mormon and People of Paradox, but these volumes are still mostly historical, sociological, cultural. They include discussion of Mormon philosophical and theological concepts but their trajectory is more historical. The pre-existence volume is an excellent example of taking a concept held uniquely–in modern times–by Mormons and tracing its origins and contours throughout the history of ideas, and its impact on thinkers and cultures. The central significance of stealth theology is that it considers Mormon ideas, not simply history. Individual concepts are assessed and weighed. Mormonism as history and only history is no longer the only way to acceptably present and represent Mormonism. However, the very idea of needing to present Mormon concepts and ideas covertly necessarily indicates that theology qua theology is not on equal footing with Mormonism as history. Mormonism as a historical movement can and has been factually investigated and considered but in the marketplace of ideas its theology  is separate and not equal.

(3) Explicit Presentation (Mormonism as Idea and Theology). The arena of interfaith discussion is where Mormonism as a theology is presented most explicitly. Outside this arena, explicit presentation is seemingly limited to the historical. This would hopefully be the next phase in Mormon Studies: widespread studies of Mormonism as history and Mormonism as philosophy and theology. In my view, outside of certain insider groups, there is as of yet no viable audience for Mormonism as Theology and Idea.

(4) Presentation Concealed (Mormonism as Universal). Mormonism converges the historical and the theological when it becomes universal, in the sense that Christianity is universal. Christianity can be considered universal in the sense in which I am speaking because its presentation is understated. In fact, issues of presentation–whether explicit or not–are allowed to recede into the background. Christianity, in other words, has no need to explain itself. Its recognition has become universal. In his paper delivered at the recent Mormon Scholars in the Humanities conference Joe Spencer argued that Napoleon Dynamite has been the only true “Mormon” film. Why? Because it was a film saturated with “Mormon-ess” yet its Mormon-ess was completely understated. Issues of presentation were in essence moot; the film was allowed to convey itself (content, messages, values, etc.) without reference to who was presenting it and for what reasons, and it was well-received by Mormon and non-Mormons alike. In this way Mormonism was allowed a type of universality. The only problem was that only Mormons themselves were able to identify its Mormon-ess. I am arguing that in order to achieve complete universality Mormonism must be capable as being seen, like Christianity, as unique idea and theology without need to explain itself as such.

Of course, then there is the question of whether we should be trying to move Mormonism closer to the universal. Whether we consciously do so or it gravitates there on its own is another subject entirely. But I do see the possibility for more explicit and ultimately universal treatments of Mormon Studies on the horizon, perhaps for the first time in Mormon history. Undoubtedly this is an exciting time to be involved in Mormon Studies and have a small hand in its future.

[1] Despite attempts to systematize Mormon doctrine by figures such as Orson Pratt, BH Roberts  and others (even including official Church manuals and missionary discussions that systematically elucidate basic beliefs) Mormonism has mostly eschewed systematic presentations of theology and doctrine as the best descriptive vehicle for presentation.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. If I were to ask you “What is Catholic Studies?”, wouldn’t your list of four elements be similar? I’m having difficulty seeing the issue without some additional contrast.

    Comment by Kent (MC) — August 17, 2009 @ 8:17 pm

  2. What are the odds that lay interest in systematizing Mormon theology will witness a resurgence as _Gospel Principles_ is used as the Priesthood and Relief Society curriculum for the next two years?

    Comment by Sterling Fluharty — August 17, 2009 @ 8:18 pm

  3. Kent:

    This is a good point. However, I would maintain that Catholic Studies falls into Christian Studies and participates in the category of Christian Studies as Christianity went through a similar process. It has never been questioned that Catholicism was a part of Christianity; for a thousand years it was Christianity. Mormonism, however, is different. The tension between Mormonism as a separate religious movement and Mormonism as a part of Christianity has been ever present and I believe always will be. The four elements listed in the post can legitimately, I believe, be applied to Mormonism separately from Christianity.

    Sterling: There have been resurgences every so often of attempts (both official and unofficial) to systematize Mormon thought and I think Mormonism as a whole has always resisted reduction to systematization. I don’t think the use of Gospel Principles is an exception. Nor do I think utilizing it for instruction at church is the kind of systematization that changes a theology.

    Comment by Jacob B. — August 17, 2009 @ 9:23 pm

  4. It seems to me that at least part of the difficulty of conceptualizing “Mormon Studies” is an echo of the larger crisis surrounding “Cultural Studies” that has been roiling in the Academy for some time now, where “culture” is broadly defined as a whole way of life. One of the issues confronting cultural studies generally and the study of any culture in particular (Mormonism not excepted) is instability: because it/they are not true discipline/s (they are not tied to a defined methodology) they suffer from a perpetual identity crisis. They also inherit all the advantages and problems (both practical and political) that come with interdisciplinary scholarship.

    Although cultural studies are currently in vogue, and American and Women’s studies, for instance, have proven quite durable, I personally don’t think that scholarship of Mormonism has much to gain from this kind of organization. It seems to encourage the insularity that Mormon historians, at least, have been trying to overcome (and a real possibility of “slipping into solipsism”). It seems to me that Mormon Studies would have far more potential and be much more secure if it was actively pursued in other disciplinary contexts: history has succeeded admirably, theology and sociology have great potential. When rigorously pursued, these studies can be credibly established in reputable academic structures. As a result, we’d have a robust body of Mormon Studies, even if not incorporated under that name.

    Comment by Ryan T — August 17, 2009 @ 10:43 pm

  5. Thank you for these ruminations, Jacob.

    Comment by Jared T — August 20, 2009 @ 12:17 am


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