Guest Post: Rachel Cope on Religious Education at BYU

By January 17, 2011

Rachel Cope has a PhD in American History from Syracuse University and is a Professor of Church History and Doctrine in the BYU Religious Education Department. You can read more about her background in a previous post when she participated in the JI’s Women In The Academy Series.

This time last year, I was on the job market and I found myself confronting a question I thought I had already answered: did I want to be a history professor (anywhere) or a church history professor at BYU? You see, I had decided that I wanted to teach religion at BYU during the summer following my freshman year, and I had been working toward that goal for a very long time. But, upon completing my PhD, hiring freezes and my passion for history led to some doubt about which direction I should move in. I did not want to set my scholarship aside–my passion for women’s religious history is a part of who I am–as some friends and mentors suggested I might have to do if I accepted a job in religious education. So I spent months jumping back and forth as I considered every aspect of both options.

During this time, I recalled an experience I had had with my favorite nun when staying in a convent in Albany, New York. While in a rather reflective mood, I wrote the following:

“Late one evening I heard a gentle tap on my bedroom door. ‘Come in,’ I called, as I closed the book I had been reading.

Sister Jeanne, a spry woman of ninety, entered the room. ‘Do you have time to chat?’ she asked. I assured her that I did. She then situated herself on the edge of my bed: “I told you about how I made the decision to become a nun, didn’t I? But I don’t think I ever told you about my experiences as a student at the University of Chicago?” As soon as I nodded in agreement she began to share her stories. One account, in particular, became imprinted upon my mind.

As a doctoral student, Sister Jeanne found herself consumed by the following thought: “Sister, you did not enter religious life just to do this.” Her academic agenda, she realized, could not be separated from her spiritual goals. Because she had been transformed by this important idea, she dedicated her life to helping others make that same discovery.

Following our lengthy discussion, Sister Jeanne announced that she was ready to go to bed. She left my room; instead of falling asleep, I continued to ponder upon her words–words that captured my own desires. I, too, recognized the importance of connecting my faith in Christ to my academic vocation. And, I felt committed to teaching and producing scholarship in a religious context. Simply stated, I longed to follow Sister Jeanne’s example: I wanted to do for others what she was doing for me. Although a retired nun bent with age, she still took the time to nurture my intellectual and spiritual values because she saw a budding scholar who shared her same goals. I felt grateful for her earnest mentoring; her personal journey inspired me. How could I follow a similar path? My mind raced in multiple directions as I contemplated this crucial question.

As I reflected upon my future course, I found my thoughts shifting to past experiences. Consequently, a flood of memories washed over me: I recognized, perhaps more so than ever before, the unequivocal importance of my scholarly journey, which began at Brigham Young University, an institution that did not separate faith and learning, but rather cultivated them together. Indeed, my time there had enabled me to recognize the strong connections that welded intellectual and spiritual virtues, and prepared me for future opportunities as a student, teacher and scholar.

While immersed in deep thought about my years at BYU, I remembered one professor, in particular, who had had a profound influence on me. Although his story and experiences differed from Sister Jeanne’s, I noticed a common thread that linked the two. Both had informed me that they attended college with a specific purpose in mind, but, upon recognizing the importance of aligning faith and learning, they decided to change directions so they could inspire others to make those same connections. My professor had utilized the unique opportunities made available at a church school: in his classroom, he promoted spiritual and intellectual development and he taught his students that the two should not be disjointed. Writing assignments and class discussions cemented these concepts in our hearts and minds. His example inspired me to think and explore in new ways and influenced my own desire to teach in a Christ-centered environment. Clearly, Sister Jeanne’s story resonated with me because the desire to link faith and scholarship had already been planted within me. She was confirming and encouraging important concepts I had learned as an undergraduate.

During my sophomore year, I asked my professor if he needed a research assistant. At the time, my experience was limited, but he did not see what I lacked; rather, he saw my potential. He took the opportunity to mentor a student who felt drawn to scholarship grounded in a believing identity and mission. He prepared me academically for graduate school, but, he also engaged me in multiple conversations about faith and learning. Additionally, he shared articles and books with me that broached this topic. For the first time, I truly recognized that my academic life and my spiritual life did not have to be placed in separate spheres as so many suggested. My spirituality could influence my intellect, and my intellect could impact my spirituality.  Faith expanded possibilities; it did not impose limitations.

“And all of this explains my current research interests,” I declared to an empty room. Indeed, my compulsion to study women’s religious experiences extended well beyond the academic. I had been uncovering a spiritual as well as a historical trek. I was, in fact, arguing that religion was a constant experience that transcended boundaries. Spiritual life was not something to be compartmentalized; it was woven throughout the daily and the ordinary as well as the Sabbath and the sacred. Tracing the lives of religious women revealed much about my own life and reiterated the importance of connecting my faith to everything else. Over the years, the links between faith and scholarship had remained at the forefront of my mind.  Sister Jeanne was right. Pursuing academia entailed more than, as she put it, “just this.” It was an important part of personal spiritual discovery, an opportunity to develop virtues and a chance to cultivate and solidify faith in the Savior. Intellectual endeavors were not a separate path but an important part of my religious odyssey.

I looked around me at a small and rather bare room–the only decoration being a crucifix. It seemed rather appropriate. I had come to Albany to uncover the spiritual journey’s of nineteenth-century women as recorded in their journals–the centerpiece of my dissertation–and I was doing that. But the journey I was discovering was my own. Sister Jeanne’s mission had not ended–nor would it ever. It would continue through people like me who are committed to engaging in teaching and scholarship in a context of faith.”

As I remembered and recorded this experience, I finally recognized that the answers to my career-oriented questions had been there all along–the goal I had made at nineteen was still my goal. I didn’t want to just write about religious women, I also wanted to do the same types of things those religious women had done. Therefore, I no longer had to debate with myself; my decision had already been made.

I am real enough to recognize that all choices require sacrifice, and for some, the sacrifices required by religious education may not fit a particular professional plan. I also realize my decision to become a faculty member in BYU’s religion department means I have given certain things up; however, I know I have attained a combination of opportunities that matter most to me, and so any lingering sadness about “what might have been” (the kind that comes to those who feel passionate about so many things) seems to have dimmed with time. True, I may not do everything I could have accomplished had I been in a history department (the reverse would have applied had I not taken a job in religious education), but the only way I will stop being an intellectual is if I choose to stop being an intellectual. I believe–truly believe–I will gain as much as I am willing to put into my job.

Speaking more specifically, yes, the teaching load in religious education is heavy. That being said, in talking to one of my colleagues in the English department, I discovered she has to teach three brand new preps this semester (9 credits); my department chair gave me one prep (and I only have 8 credits) so I can have more research and writing time. And, quite frankly, I find the teaching exhilarating. Designing my own Church History class–one that talks about women as well as men–was delightful. Seeing students become engaged both intellectually and spiritually with course readings, listening as students made important connections in class discussion (hooray!), observing their enthusiasm about working in special collections, mentoring some of them and becoming involved in some of their larger academic work has been more than I could have hoped for.  I love it!

Research, too, has been going well. Time is tight (which comes with academia), but I have managed to complete several half-baked projects, and am in the process of beginning a new article and making my way towards a book. I am involved in academic conferences (my conference funding is far better than that allotted to my professors at Syracuse University–in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs) and I have summer research trips scheduled to continue my work on Protestant women (which means I have been excused from teaching my Spring term classes this year). I have two wonderful research assistants who do fantastic work, and have discovered that the department is beyond supportive and accommodating. The resources that are made available to our faculty are fantastic.

So, while it is true that religious education is not for everyone, it is not true that it is a miserable place to be. It is not true that you have to set everything aside and fit into one particular mold, or that you abandon scholarship as you pass through the doors of the Joseph Smith Building. Yes, there are frustrations at times (as there are in all jobs), but the opportunities here can be great, and I am optimistic enough to believe they will continue to get better.

Why do I say that? When I was a little girl, my grandpa used to tell me stories about his days at BY High (I think he loved BYU as an institution more than anyone I have ever met). He informed me of the way things were, and then he would delight in telling me about the way things have improved, while implying they would continue to get even better. He believed every generation could and should and would advance beyond the last.

Grandpa passed away the day after I submitted my dissertation to my committee, so I didn’t get to call him upon learning I was going to be a BYU Professor (he would have been ecstatic). But my favorite painting of him hangs on my office wall, his finger raised in the air as if he is saying, “Remember, Rachel, you have the responsibility to make things better than they were.”

I am determined to remember and apply the lessons my grandpa taught me and the lessons Sister Jeanne taught me. And, like them, I believe the future is bright. May we all learn from their wise counsel as we work together (wherever we land) to improve scholarship and teaching in Mormon history.


Article filed under Biography Intellectual History Methodology, Academic Issues Reflective Posts State of the Discipline


  1. Thanks, Rachel, for being willing to share your experience. I’m glad to hear that you’re finding/making time to continue your research on Protestant women. Has Rel Ed been supportive of your research on topics beyond Mormonism? What is the expected balance between research/scholarship aimed at academic audiences (professional conferences, university presses, peer-reviewed journals, etc.) and that aimed at Mormon audiences (recognizing, of course, that there is some obvious overlap between the two)?

    Is there any potential prospect for you to develop your own course(s) down the road? Perhaps one on women in LDS history?

    Thanks again for this post.

    Comment by Christopher — January 17, 2011 @ 11:49 am

  2. Thanks, Rachel, I enjoyed our essay.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — January 17, 2011 @ 12:02 pm

  3. Thank you, Rachel. I’d like to ask a bit about discursive boundaries at BYU. Women’s and gender history are informed in the broader academy by feminist discourses that challenge patriarchy (as you well know). I’m wondering how you negotiate in your scholarship and teaching what you learned in grad school with the environment at BYU?

    Comment by David G. — January 17, 2011 @ 12:04 pm

  4. Good to read, Rachel, thanks for sharing your experiences.

    It’s interesting that most of the public comments and posts that come out of BYU RelEd are from CH&D people (like the recent comment at FPR by Steven Harper on this post), not Ancient Scripture. I think CH&D has a better institutional handle on the issues that come with the field, whereas AS still has a lot of conflict.

    Comment by Nitsav — January 17, 2011 @ 12:42 pm

  5. Great questions, Chris. In a recent conversation with one of my colleagues, I was told that my diverse experiences (referring specifically to my research interests, fellowship and grant opportunities, participation in academic conferences, etc) were of great interest to the faculty during the hiring meeting, and, according to him, were a major reason that I was hired. I, of course, was not in the hiring meeting, so I can’t say more than that. I have, however, felt a great amount of support from those around me, while also discovering that you’re pretty much left to do your own thing. No one tells me what to work on. This is not a “big brother” kind of job. 🙂 In fact, I feel a level of freedom I am not sure I would experience anywhere else. I have eclectic interests, and that’s okay. Furthermore, I can, on occasion, write personal essays as well as academic articles. I can have a devotional or a theoretical tone. I can speak to an academic audience one day, and to a “real” audience the next. So, I feel like I am in the best of both worlds; and, even better, it is up to me to determine how much time I spend in each world.

    Like many of us, I find that my interest in Protestant history tends to overlap with LDS history all the time — or that my projects inevitably turn to Mormon history when I least expect it. I am unaware of any quota regarding how much of my work should be about LDS topics. Again, that is up to me. Where I publish is also a decision I get to make. We are encouraged to publish in peer-reviewed journals, and I think the administration would be delighted to see more of that happening in publications that extend beyond an LDS audience.

    As far as my course development goes, yes, I will be teaching a course in Mormon Women’s History beginning in 2012 for the Women’s Studies Program. My department chair has been beyond supportive. I have a pretty long career ahead of me, so I suspect that other courses could come down the road. We shall see.

    Comment by Rachel — January 17, 2011 @ 1:16 pm

  6. David, this question is a bit more tricky; I am probably still in the process of figuring all of this out. That being said, I believe that tone is everything, and that my work lends itself to both a non-BYU and a BYU environment.

    I am actually in the middle of a project that suggests (to a BYU/CES audience) that women’s history and “faithfulness” are not mutually exclusive (a roundtable-like discussion that will be in the Religious Educator). My piece, largely autobiographical, specifically addresses things that may be of concern (to some) in a way that I hope will provide clarity about common misconceptions.

    As an aside, I am speaking at the Women’s Studies Colloquium this Thursday about three women (Lucy Mack Smith, Rebecca Cox Jackson and Fanny Newell) who used their personal narratives to negotiate their own identities (and I do address some of the larger themes you mention); a version of this paper was one of my writing samples when I applied for the job in religious education.

    Comment by Rachel — January 17, 2011 @ 1:40 pm

  7. Rachel,
    This is a great essay and truly inspiring. BYU is very lucky to have you and i look forward to seeing how your career develops.
    A few questions, some of which may be better answered over a root beer someday, so feel free to ignore them.
    1. It seems that you saw your career in terms of a spiritual mission, which helped to resolve your conflicts with BYU. To what extent do you think seeing one’s career in these terms is a prerequisite for teaching at BYU RE?

    2. It seems that the categories of faith and faithfulness and reconciling them have been drivers of your interests and one reason you wanted to teach at BYU. In your view, what are the main points of tension in need of reconciliation? Are there any points that cannot be reconciled? How do you address these issues in need of, or unable to receive, reconciliation?

    3. In characterizing more “secular” (for lack of a bettter term) approaches to history as “just this,” you seem to see a hierarchy between what you do and the kind of things that get done not at BYU. What specifically do you see yourself adding to, if that is the right term, more traditional scholarship that you couldnt do were you not at BYU?

    Comment by TT — January 17, 2011 @ 3:23 pm

  8. TT, I think a discussion over root beer (or ice cream, which is always the best option, imho) is probably the best idea, but I’ll give these a stab.

    It is fair to say my career feels like a spiritual mission to me. I do believe my academic and spiritual journeys led me to BYU, and more specifically, to religious education. I feel like my personality, goals and ideals make me a good fit in that department. I do not, however, think anyone in religious education is “superior” to anyone else, or that “secular” work is any less of a “calling” than what I am doing. I think “just this” is more about one’s attitude, the meaningfulness behind one’s goal and the purpose behind one’s career, than it is about one particular job. And, if I approached my job in religious education from a different angle, it could become “just this.”

    We have many great examples of individuals (in the realm of Mormon scholarship and beyond) who have chosen paths that moved in another direction, and who have made contributions that I can never make (Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Richard and Claudia Bushman and Terryl Givens come to mind, as well as Protestant scholars like George Marsden and Edith Blumhofer). They are using their talents and abilities to do more than “just this” and I have deep respect and admiration for each of them. Their jobs, too, could be called spiritual missions (as could those of anyone in any career).

    So I guess I am saying that Sister Jeanne’s story reminded me to listen to my heart, and to not let myself get distracted by all of the other options that were causing me to forget what I knew about myself–job options that didn’t fit the career goals I had (or the talents I had) as completely as religious education does. Had I chosen something else I would have been settling, because it would have taken me away from where I belong.

    For some of my thoughts on reconciling Faith and History, you may want to look me up on:

    Comment by Rachel — January 17, 2011 @ 4:49 pm

  9. Thanks Rachel! I really enjoyed your answers and your testimony. Best of luck!

    Comment by TT — January 17, 2011 @ 7:01 pm

  10. Thanks, TT. I appreciated your questions-perhaps I can give you even better answers at some point.

    Comment by Rachel — January 17, 2011 @ 8:55 pm

  11. As for me and my house, we heart the young Doctor Cope.

    Comment by smb — January 17, 2011 @ 10:09 pm

  12. Excellent piece, Rachel. I appreciate your very thoughtful and personal reflections. And I agree with you about the opportunities and prospects in Religious Ed. At least, if they continue to get people like you there things are bound to get better.


    Comment by Ryan T — January 17, 2011 @ 11:17 pm

  13. This is indeed great stuff, Rachel. Scholars often focus so much on the ivory tower of academia that we forget that, sometimes at least, there are higher priorities.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Comment by Ben — January 18, 2011 @ 8:40 am

  14. Thanks Rachel for the helpful response.

    Comment by Christopher — January 18, 2011 @ 9:22 am

  15. Hi Rachel,

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience in joining Church History and Doctrine. Great things can and do happen there.

    I have a couple of practical questions and one more substantive question.

    1) In teaching a course outside of Religious Education, in this case the Women’s Studies course, is this an overload or is it counted as part of your teaching load in RE?

    2) In being excused from your Spring classes this year for research, does that mean that you do not have to teach them at all or that you’ll have to make up for them next year?

    3) In going on the market last year, how many other jobs did you apply for; and did you have any other tenure track offers?

    4) As far as continuing status is concerned, what are the publishing expectations? You may have already addressed this, but my sense, which I hope is wrong, is that publishing is encouraged and there is a vague requirement, but that requirement is an additional requirement and not something that comes with a trade off in other expectations.

    You can see that most of these questions deal with the challenges of maintaining an active research agenda–a primary issue, as you know, going into such a job.

    The more substantive question:

    True, I may not do everything I could have accomplished had I been in a history department (the reverse would have applied had I not taken a job in religious education), but the only way I will stop being an intellectual is if I choose to stop being an intellectual.

    I’m interested to hear about the kinds of things you can not accomplish as a result of taking the job in Church History (and vice versa). It seems to me that opportunities are available with either kind of job–you teaching in Women Studies, for instance; or someone else teaching an institute class if they did not feel like they could use the language of faith in their non-Religious Education classes on history, etc. Furthermore, from what I know of other departments at BYU, the language of faith is also welcome there. Wouldn’t teaching in the History Department at BYU be an even better fit for someone looking to integrate both languages?

    Comment by smallaxe — January 18, 2011 @ 1:30 pm

  16. Thanks for some great questions, Smallaxe. Some of these are pretty personal, and I am, by nature, quite private, but I will give you some information about each.

    1) My course in the Women’s Studies program is a part of my regular teaching load, it is not in addition to the department expectations.

    2) I do not have to make up my spring term classes. Of course I cannot be excused every year, but the department does provide course reductions when necessary (I know plenty of my colleagues have had them), and I am sure (positive, even) other opportunities will come along in the future.

    3) The specifics of some of this I haven’t shared with anyone, but I will give a brief outline. First of all, no I was not offered any other TT position. But that is not the reason I chose to accept a job in Religious Ed. There were three different paths I was considering, and all three worked out in a way that I was happy with (at least for the time being). As I sorted through my options (weighing up every tiny detail and considering how each would impact my future as I am wont to do), the answer became crystal clear to me. It was a beautiful and powerful experience. I am where I should be.

    4) Publishing expectations are one or two peer-reviewed articles a year (depending on where they are published, etc).

    5) This one is a difficult one to respond to–I know the answer, but I am not sure I can really put it into words. Yes, I love the academic world, but I am also a preacher at heart who also has a keen interest in the world of philanthropy. What I personally want to do (for the rest of my life) is combined best in religious education. I feel like I am in a place where I can be the real me. So, any sacrifices I am making are worth it, because I do have my dream job. For me, it’s that simple.

    Comment by Rachel — January 18, 2011 @ 2:30 pm

  17. Wow, that’s great Rachel. Thanks for sharing your answers, many of which are of a more private nature. I do think, though, that your responses speak to some of the good things happening in Church History and Doctrine. Congratulations on the job!

    As an aside, one or two peer-reviewed publications a year is quite high in comparison with places where profs teach 22 credit hours a year.

    I also like your analogy of teaching in Religious Education with preaching. Some preaching could, of course, be rigorously academic, other preaching might not be.

    Comment by smallaxe — January 18, 2011 @ 3:00 pm

  18. Thanks, smallaxe. And you are certainly welcome.

    The expectations are high, but they haven’t felt impossible. In fact, I think I seem less “stressed” than some of my friends who are in history or English departments at BYU and elsewhere. I know keeping a steady pace will be enough. Some of them don’t feel that, and possibly with good reason.

    I see no reason why my classes cannot be rigorously academic and rigorously spiritual. I hope I never choose one over the other. That’s why I love religious education. It’s such a great mix of everything that means a lot to me. 🙂

    BYU is certainly not what it could or should or will be–but I know I feel a sense of freedom here that I do not feel in other places. We have all engaged in conversations about the limitations that are imposed when we come to BYU (and some of those conversations certainly make some valid points), but I think we tend to forget about the freedoms and opportunities that come with the job. And maybe the changes that need to take place are up to us–maybe we need to get on board and do something rather than complaining about the somethings that are not happening. (Eek–is my preachy side coming out? Or have I inherited my dad’s lecturing ability? Either way, these are thoughts that have struck me when I have been prone to complain).

    Thanks, again. You got more than you bargained for! 🙂

    Comment by Rachel — January 18, 2011 @ 3:36 pm

  19. Rachel, thank you very much for this essay and for the excellent discussion.

    Comment by Jared T — January 18, 2011 @ 11:06 pm

  20. Thanks, all.

    By the way, if anyone has any other questions, or would like to discuss anything privately, I am always willing. Feel free to send me an email.

    Comment by Rachel — January 19, 2011 @ 9:30 am

  21. I really enjoyed this as well, especially with all the discussions about the BYU religious education department in the bloggernacle.


    Comment by Stephen M (Ethesis) — January 19, 2011 @ 7:49 pm

  22. […] of Church History and Doctrine at BYU? In this fascinating essay, Rachel Cope describes working in ?Religious Education at BYU? and explains, ?While it is true that religious education is not for everyone, it is not true that […]

    Pingback by 11 tips for an argument-free marriage and studying restorations in the Book of … | — January 24, 2011 @ 5:56 pm

  23. I thought the history department question was worth adding some light on. When I was at BYU I took a class on Mormon Migration offered by the history department. However the class was taught by Fred Woods who is a professor in the Depeartment of Church History and Doctrine with a Ph.D. in Biblical studies, his doctoral dissertation was on water polemics in the Old Testament. The last I was aware Dr. Woods held the Richard L. Evans chair of religious understanding. My main point is to some extent the history department relies on people from Church History and Doctrine to teach Mormon history courses. It is true there are experts in Mormon history in BYU’s history department, Grant Underwood and Brian Cannon come to mind the fastest, but even Cannon his real expertise is rural western US history with occasional focuses on specifically Mormon topics. I guess my main point is there is overlap, but if your main focus is religious history Church History and Doctrine will tend to be a better fit, and it definately has more positions.

    Comment by John Pack Lambert — January 27, 2011 @ 1:03 am

  24. […] women of African descent, separated by time but not by faith. Today’s offering comes from Rachel Cope, who describes her recent visit with the last surviving Shaker women, and the impact of that […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Women’s History Month at the JI: Rachel Cope on Shaker and Mormon Women — March 14, 2011 @ 10:35 am


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