Designing a Course on Early Mormonism: Picking Topics

By September 19, 2011

A few of us at the blog have started teaching our own courses, so we’re thinking more about teaching than as a blog we’ve done in the past. So I thought it might be fun to do a series of posts discussing how we’d design a college course on early Mormonism. I picked early Mormonism because it’s something most of the permas are familiar with, even if it’s not our primary area of study. And most of our non-academic readership also knows a fair amount about this period. So let’s start with organizing the weekly topics. At my university, we’re on a sixteen-week schedule per semester, so here’s how I would do it:

Week 1: Background to Early Mormonism

Week 2: The Smith Family and Joseph Smith’s Youth

Week 3:  Founding Visions

Week 4: Translation of the Book of Mormon

Week 5: The First Converts and the Organization of the Church

Week 6: Early Dreams of Zion

Week 7: Sidney Rigdon and Early Ohio Mormonism

Week 8: Expulsion from Zion

Week 9: Canon Development and Priesthood Expansion

Week 10: 1837 Kirtland Crisis and 1838 Mormon War

Week 11: Founding Nauvoo

Week 12: Baptisms for the Dead and the Temple

Week 13: Relief Society and Nauvoo Polygamy

Week 14: Secular Nauvoo

Week 15: The Martyrdom

Week 16: Succession Crisis

How would you set up the schedule differently? Remember, only sixteen weeks total. I should add that this post (and the ones I have envisioned in the future), was partly inspired by the new blog, Teaching United States History.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins Methodology, Academic Issues


  1. I taught an early LDS history course twice as an institute class (stake continuing education). But I only took the class to early Ohio, so we basically did your 1 through 7.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — September 19, 2011 @ 12:22 pm

  2. I’d think you have to also engage with the theology of the King Follet Discourse and Sermon in the Grove. That could take a whole week. Maybe throw in the Nauvoo issue of pre-existence which most people assume was more fleshed out than it was.

    Comment by Clark — September 19, 2011 @ 12:37 pm

  3. Whoops – missed that you had to have it in 16 weeks.

    Me personally I’d combine 1 & 2 and maybe add in the early 19th century background to visionary experiences in 3. I think the cultural background is often better explained relative to the topic at hand rather than broken out on its own. (People will forget that first lecture and the contrast won’t be as big)

    Comment by Clark — September 19, 2011 @ 12:38 pm

  4. Wait, you mean people would be interested in something other than early Mormonism? (grin)

    If this were for an institution outside of Utah, I’d be very tempted to organize it thematically so that it would be easier to deal with broader issues. For instance:

    1. Joseph Smith’s Founding Visions and America’s Visionary Culture.

    2. The Excesses of Democracy: The Mormon Experience in Missouri


    Of course, the students will likely both want and need some kind of chronology, but perhaps that could be covered with a survey on the first day when they could read the first few chapters of Arrington/Bitton or Leonard/Allen.

    Comment by Ben Park — September 19, 2011 @ 12:43 pm

  5. Kevin, sounds like a fun class.

    Clark, being a historian who doesn’t do much with theology, I’d probably stick King Follett and the Sermon in the Grove in the martyrdom week, but that’s just me.

    Ben, I think you could combine the thematic and the chronological fairly easily. And don’t get too far ahead of the game here. We’ll be discussing secondary texts next.

    Comment by David G. — September 19, 2011 @ 12:47 pm

  6. Well it probably depends upon what you’re emphasizing. I think those doctrines along with polygamy are ultimately what differentiates us from most other religious movements. So it depends upon whether you’re emphasizing the thought of Mormonism (which isn’t the same as its theology) or just events. I think though that while polygamy gets the majority of the focus the Nauvoo Expositor suggests that some of the issues were the changing views on the nature of God.

    The other reason I’d emphasize it is that one can see, on numerous levels, that Mormonism’s trajectory was a bringing closer together God and man in a theoretic framework. God becomes more approachable but also becomes more human. Even the theological changes of late Nauvoo are in a way characteristic of a kind of American egalitarian view. I think you could, for non-Mormons, play up the move in America away from kings towards democratization and suggest that this is playing out on a theoretical level in the history of Mormon thought.

    There’s going to be a definite difference between how you’d teach this to a Mormon vs. non-Mormon audience. But I do think the big conceptual differences within Mormonism should be touched upon.

    Comment by Clark — September 19, 2011 @ 1:03 pm

  7. I don’t want this to turn into a major threadjack, but I never said I wouldn’t touch upon those discourses and ideas–just that I wouldn’t spend a whole week doing it. Rather, I would deal with them in the discussion leading up to the martyrdom.

    Comment by David G. — September 19, 2011 @ 1:11 pm

  8. K – btw sounds like a great idea for the course. Good luck with it.

    Comment by Clark — September 19, 2011 @ 1:22 pm

  9. As a 20th century historian, I’d love to see “early Mormonism” defined as a LITTLE farther along than 1844. Me, I’d cut off a course on early Mormonism after the 1857 Utah war. This seems to end on a major cliffhanger, to put it mildly. Of course, there could be value in setting up for students to take the next one in the sequence because they’re dying to know what happened…

    Comment by Tona H — September 19, 2011 @ 1:29 pm

  10. But Tona, that requires crossing the plains and having to deal with that complex Utah/Western history stuff! Ick!

    Comment by Ben Park — September 19, 2011 @ 1:37 pm

  11. Tona, I’m actually more open to your suggestion than Ben is. I’m a fan of playing with artificial chronological breaks, and would love to see what a course looks like that goes from 1805 to 1858. How would you lay out the 16 topics?

    Comment by David G. — September 19, 2011 @ 1:46 pm

  12. In all seriousness, I’m in agreement with Tona and David G. It just means I have to quit being lazy, is all.

    Comment by Ben Park — September 19, 2011 @ 1:50 pm

  13. I suggest spending only one hour on the founding of Nauvoo and spending most of a week on proselytizing efforts, the twelve, and who joined in the 1840’s. I would want to understand who was joining, what they were being taught, and what they expected to get and what they expected to do.

    Comment by Paul 2 — September 19, 2011 @ 2:40 pm

  14. Ben, how would you lay out a followup course that goes from the end of Nauvoo onward? And where would you end it? Around the time of WWI and include the transition away from polygamy? Through the 1950’s? Or on up to the present? And what would you put in?

    Comment by Clark — September 19, 2011 @ 3:40 pm

  15. I think ending at the Succession Crisis is an appropriate place to end such a course. While they’re much smaller in population, there are many other branches of the Latter Day Saint movement; almost all have a common history until 1844. Continuing past this point would unfairly paint the picture that the history of the movement only really continued through the migration to Utah. The next course should begin after the Succession Crisis with the understanding that it follows the group led by Brigham Young that eventually became the modern Salt Lake-based Church.

    Comment by NoCoolName_Tom — September 19, 2011 @ 5:23 pm

  16. I think church finances might be a fun topic, but I don’t know where you’d put it.

    Comment by WVS — September 19, 2011 @ 9:11 pm

  17. I’d consolidate a fair number of these topics and add discussions of race/ethnicity before anything else. That would include the development of the self-identifying as ethnic Israelite in the church body and the church’s relationship to african americans.

    Comment by brokenbyclouds — September 20, 2011 @ 9:02 am

  18. Paul 2: I would include much of what you’re suggesting in that week. The title “Founding Nauvoo” is a bit broad, but I see that week as more of a social history of the early 1840s.

    Tom: I agree that ending with the Succession Crisis makes sense, especially given the way that scholarship has developed. There’s just a lot more pedogical material for teachers to easily put together a class that ends in 1844. But I think what Tona is getting at is that in most universities other than BYU, we’d be lucky to be able to teach a class that covers all of Mormon history, or maybe in a rare case, a two semester set up where we’d have to go beyond 1844 and take things up to 1877, 1890, or 1900. But that discussion is really a bit beyond the scope of what I was hoping to accomplish with this post in terms of discussing how we’d set up a hypothetical course on early Mormonism.

    WVS: I think there’s some room to discuss church finances in the 1837 financial crisis, and maybe some more in the Nauvoo period.

    brokenbyclouds: I would deal with white Mormon self-identity (they initially see themselves as Gentiles, and only gradually see themselves as literal Israelites) in the early week dealing with Zion. So much of Zion revolves around early Mormon views toward Indians. So few blacks joined during the early years, and as there doesn’t seem to have been racialized restrictions placed on black participation, I don’t think we’d need to consolidate the other weeks to have a whole week(s) to talk about the 10 or so blacks who are participating like most white Mormons. I think the experience of Black Pete, Elijah Able, Walker Lewis, Jane Manning James, etc. could be adequately dealt with in the way I’ve set it up. The really interesting stuff on Mormon racial policies toward blacks doesn’t come until a few years after JS’s death.

    Comment by David G. — September 20, 2011 @ 1:03 pm

  19. Nice, David. Would you change your approach (beyond perhaps a shift in tone) or the content if you were teaching this course as, say, a church history course in BYU’s Rel Ed department?

    Comment by Christopher — September 20, 2011 @ 1:15 pm

  20. Chris, there would of course be variations between how I’d teach a course like this to a class full of non-LDS students who know next to nothing about early Mormonism and how I’d teach students in Rel-Ed at BYU. But I think it would more be in tone rather than content.

    Comment by David G. — September 20, 2011 @ 4:12 pm

  21. So, is the focus in early Mormonism because this will be in a history department? I ask because Laurie Maffly-Kipp teaches her Religious Studies course, Mormonism in the American Experience, quite differently: more thematically. She covers early history fairly quickly (though not all at the beginning) and spends a lot of time on more contemporary issues and broader themes across the historical spectrum. She requires students to get out into the Mormon community, to worship services as well as one-on-one or small group encounters, and has them do group projects. Most students end up doing something like an ethnography of some aspect of contemporary Mormon life. She also invites local Mormons into the classroom to address aspects of their experience in the Church/community: missions, Mormon women’s experience(s), college students, etc. But, of course, the different design of the course probably has a lot to do with departmental/disciplinary styles and expectations.

    Comment by stan — September 20, 2011 @ 4:49 pm

  22. a follow-up question: Are departments at schools other than BYU, Claremont, and USU interested in having a class on early Mormonism? And are students interested in taking them? In my experience here, students are much more curious about contemporary Mormonism (and religion in general).

    Comment by stan — September 20, 2011 @ 4:55 pm

  23. Stan, yeah, no doubt what I have pictured in my head reflects my training as a historian, whereas LMK’s approach is shaped by her background in RS. As for your second question, I can’t really say. I threw this up there as a purely “for fun” hypothetical proposal to get people thinking about how they would teach such a course, not as a real-life example of what I think schools outside of BYU, CGU, and USU are realistically going to offer. Since a lot of us have a more than passing understanding of the JS era, I figured I’d start there. But I definitely think another series of posts could explore how we’d put together a course on contemporary Mormonism, which as you note, is a topic that most non-LDS students are more likely to find interesting than a course just devoted to the JS period, and therefore something that we might actually be teaching someday (assuming we get jobs at a place that will let us teach a course on Mormonism).

    Comment by David G. — September 20, 2011 @ 5:10 pm

  24. Stan (22) wrote:
    “Are departments at schools other than BYU, Claremont, and USU interested in having a class on early Mormonism?”

    Don’t know about interest, but there are more than the schools you list.

    I did a survey recently at:

    I hope that anyone who teaches a Mormon Studies course will give me a heads up so that I can include the course in my list.

    Comment by Kent Larsen — September 20, 2011 @ 5:29 pm

  25. I would make sure women make a regular appearance (not just when talking about Relief Society and Polygamy). We tend to do a day on women, and then get back to the traditional narrative.

    Comment by Rachel — September 21, 2011 @ 10:24 am

  26. Rachel, I was waiting for someone to raise that issue! I’m very open to ideas on how to incorporate women into this hypothetical course early and often and not in the usual places–during the 1837 crisis with Fanny Alger and in the Nauvoo polygamy/RS week. How would you do it?

    Comment by David G. — September 21, 2011 @ 11:02 am

  27. I haven’t taught this course yet, but in D&C, the later Church history course, and American Christianity, I always try to tie in at least one primary source by a woman, and then make them a part of the discussion in a very natural sort of way. You could do a lot with women and revivalism/conversion, Lucy Mack Smith’s account as an autobiography, women’s dreams and visions (as well as men’s), American print culture (which can easily pull women into the conversation), women and consecration, and so forth (my biases and personal focus is apparent, I know). When you allow the narrative to move beyond the events involving church leaders, it becomes easier. At the same time, there are so many female autobiographies that talk about major events – the temple dedication, Missouri persecution, revelation, scripture, events in Ohio, baptisms for the dead, reactions to Joseph’s talks, responses to the martyrdom, etc. The list could go on and on. I am teaching Mormon Women’s History next semester, so I will have a better answer to this question in a few months. 🙂

    Comment by Rachel — September 21, 2011 @ 11:47 am

  28. A late comment, I know, but after giving the course some thought, I agree with Paul 2 (13) about covering proselyting somehow. The impact (both long and short term) of the British Mission on the Church was just too important to leave out.

    Comment by Kent Larsen — September 23, 2011 @ 8:44 am


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