Introducing Mormonism…to Non-Mormon Students

By October 26, 2011

With Romney drawing increased attention to Mormonism in American life, I’ve wondered how much to bring Mormon history into my US history survey courses. I’m currently teaching the first half, and he’s come up a couple of times when discussing religious tests for the presidency (I first mention JFK’s Catholicism, which most of my students have heard about, and then I ask which contemporary candidate is having problems with his religion, and at least a few students are aware of opposition to Romney’s Mormonism). I know that in a few weeks Mormons will come up again, when we discuss the Second Great Awakening and then again when we go over westward migration. Neither of these instances will really address the history of polygamy, nineteenth-century tensions between the Church and the American nation, or any of the more difficult doctrines/policies that we have a hard time discussing even with church members, much less non-Mormons. Next semester I’m teaching the second half of the US survey, and I don’t expect Mormons to come up much at all in the textbook or class discussions, beyond maybe a brief mention of the 1880s polygamy raids or a reference to how Mormons tagged along with Evangelicals in the Culture Wars. I’ve adopted a book next semester, Debating the American Conservative Movement, 1945-Present, that includes Romney’s 2008 speech as a primary document, but as we all know Romney didn’t exactly give a detailed treatise on Mormon history. But since the Republican primaries will be happening next semester during my class, I’m wondering how much more I should do to introduce my non-Mormon students to Mormonism.

I considered adopting Flake’s book on Reed Smoot, since it’s accessible and designed for undergraduate classrooms, but then I had second thoughts. What if Romney somehow flames out and isn’t even close to getting the nomination? Whatever interest my students had in learning more about Mormonism would probably die out quickly if that were the case. And while Flake does a great job of showing an instance of early twentieth-century Protestant resistance to a Mormon holding elected office, I’m not sure that it really addresses “Mormon issues” in terms that make sense of the rise of the Christian Right and Christian Nationalism since the 1970s.

What do y’all think? Is there another accessible monograph that gets at the issues more directly? Perhap’s Matt’s new book, but I’m not sure where a comprehensive history would really fit in such a course. Maybe if there were a targeted book that dealt with Mormons and Evangelicals in the Culture Wars and the rise of conservatism, but I can’t think of one that really fits. Last I heard, John Charles-Duffy is writing his dissertation on this, but that won’t be available for quite some time. More importantly, is this even something that really needs to be addressed at this point in time? Maybe it would be more reasonable to wait until there’s actually a Mormon in the White House–and therefore substantial demand among students for more detailed information on Mormon history–before using a full-length monograph in a survey course.

For the record, I won’t be voting for Romney or any Republican for that matter come next November.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Methodology, Academic Issues Miscellaneous


  1. I think Flake’s book would work wonderfully in the course because, hey, even if interest in Mormonism dwindles (which I doubt), it addresses important issues of Church and State in the Progressive era (and set the grounds for the rest of the century).

    Too bad Pat Mason’s book on ETB and the rise of the religious right won’t be out for a long time.

    Comment by Ben Park — October 26, 2011 @ 12:15 pm

  2. Hmm. I’m not sure that a source like you describe exists. I imagine, though, that you could assign the Romney speech and then help contextualize what he’s saying by explaining both Mormonism and Romney’s histories over the last half decade.

    Comment by Christopher — October 26, 2011 @ 1:10 pm

  3. If you were dealing with Church/State relations in the nineteenth century, I’d recommend Pat Mason’s excellent theodemocracy article.

    (Regardless, everyone should go read that article. It hasn’t received much attention, but I think it’s one of the best articles I’ve read this year. Perhaps it needs its own post.)

    Comment by Ben Park — October 26, 2011 @ 2:06 pm

  4. Thanks for your comments, guys. Speaking of Pat Mason, maybe his book on Southern violence against Mormon missionaries would also work well.

    Comment by David G. — October 26, 2011 @ 3:18 pm

  5. With so many shout-outs, I couldn’t resist. This is a great question, Dave. Fitting Mormonism into the second half US history survey is tough for a lot of reasons. There’s so much that needs to be covered, and so many compelling topics even in the subtopic of American religion, that’s easy to see why Mormonism would get crowded out. Plus, we just don’t have the depth of scholarship to support where Mormonism fits with the broad themes of 20th-c. American history like we do with the 19th c.

    Romney’s candidacy and probable nomination do seem too good an opportunity to pass up, though, and I’m really glad you’re wanting to help educate your students as citizens and not just historians. (Of course, historians make the best citizens, but that’s another topic.) One approach is to make religion and politics, or the broader issue of faith and the public sphere, one of a handful of key themes (maybe alongside pluralism & diversity, democratization, the rise of American power, etc.) for the course. That way Romney is just a current events hook for talking about all kinds of stuff including antipolygamy, Ghost Dance, fundamentalism and Scopes, Al Smith, Billy Graham, JFK, the Civil Rights Movement, the Religious Right, ERA, and culture wars.

    I’m convinced, of course, that the conflicts of late 19th-c. Mormonism are tremendously revealing about some of the key questions and conflicts that have confronted Americans for the past century-plus. You could use my work, or Flake’s, or Sally Gordon’s, to get at many of these themes through a Mormon lens — each would offer different benefits due to their particular approaches.

    Comment by Patrick Mason — October 26, 2011 @ 4:36 pm

  6. Speaking as a Mormon historian but not, by any means, a historian of Mormonism, I appreciate this discussion. Students here at my large state flagship university tend to touch on Mormonism in the first half of the survey when they read Kingdom of Matthias, a favorite of the senior lecturer responsible for the course. This tends to make Mormons, and Joseph Smith, look very down-to-earth, though when speaking of Matthias that’s not a very high bar to cross.

    As a TA, I’ve also talked about Mormonism/Utah as part of the project of national consolidation in the late 19th century, discussing Edmunds-Tucker as part of Reconstruction/spread of railroads/wars against Native Americans. In addition to the rise of the religious right in the 1970s, one could also mention Mormons when talking about the emphasis on conformity and assimilation among religious and ethnic minorities in the 1950s.

    These days, I’m mostly teaching in my home field of Latin America, where Mormonism only really comes up when talking about the emergence of Protestantism and other non-Catholic religions from the 1960s on.

    Comment by Rob T. — October 27, 2011 @ 7:48 am


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