Is There A Place at the Academic Table for Mormon Studies?

By February 26, 2008

I will soundly argue that the answer to the question above is an unequivocal “No!” Just playing. The formation of Mormon Studies Chairs at Utah State University and Claremont Graduate School with similar programs in the works at other institutions of higher learning suggests an affirmative answer to this query. I think it is obvious that our intellectual predecessors have worked long and hard to make this possible, and consequently we should be grateful. The formation of chairs, along with other movements in the media and politics, mark a new era in the scholarly study of Mormonism, as universities “scramble” to create classes in Mormonism. Sunday night I attended a fireside in Pasadena where Drs. Richard and Claudia Bushman spoke of this exciting time. As Claudia was speaking she mentioned the idea that we had the opportunity to become intellectual pioneers. This struck me. To be honest, I felt rather overwhelmed thinking about the legacy that budding scholars of Mormonism have to live up to. Further, it seems that we must participate in forming the idea of what it means to study Mormonism at a graduate level. Consequently, I think the important question relates to what kind of place we will create for ourselves at the academic table.

At Claremont Graduate University The Council for the Study of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and The Claremont Mormon Studies Student Association (organized under the School of Religion at CGU) are both in the process of helping create a place for Mormon studies in academia. The student organization (CMSSA) has sponsored various events including a conversation between Claremont Graduate University’s Dr. Hamid Mavani and Brigham Young University?s Dr. Daniel C. Peterson on Islam and Mormonism, a discussion with CGU professor of religion Dr. Vincent L. Wimbush on approaches to reading scripture, and a panel discussion between eminent Process Theologian John B. Cobb, CGU Religion student Richard T. Livingstone, and Mormon thinker Truman G. Madsen on “Does Religion Need Philosophy.” CMSSA has also held various student presentations, and is looking forward to holding its first student conference. Along with these events, Brian Birch (Director of the Religious Studies Program at UVSC and CGU alum) is teaching a course this semester in “Mormonism and Christian Theology.” Next semester both Richard and Claudia Bushman will be teaching classes on Mormon history and theology. (It should be noted that Armand Mauss has taught classes at CGU for a number of years and is still very involved). Although in its beginning stages, the prospects look bright here at CGU.

It is quite possible that I am overstating the importance of these movements. Consequently, I am going to turn over the blogging to you. How will the formation of Chairs in Mormon Studies affect the perception of Mormonism as a viable field of academic study? Have the announcements of Chairs alone already affected this perception? In The New Mormon Challenge Stephen Parrish concluded that, “In general, I would venture to say that Mormons have not yet done enough philosophical work to make their view a viable position.” [1] Does his view about Mormon philosophy hold weight in relation to scholarship in general? Have we done enough scholarly work to make Mormonism a viable field of study? If these were yes and no questions I think I would know what your answers would be, but they’re not, so why is Mormonism worthy of academic analysis? Perhaps more important, in what ways will graduate students studying about and writing on Mormon topics influence the field of Mormon Studies?

I think these questions are pertinent and important. I am sure they have been discussed frequently on blogs and in other venues, so forgive my blog ignorance if these are well-worn topics. Yet, I am interested in your ideas and answers to these questions, so selfishly, I am hoping you will indulge me. If not, I will go back to my movies and sleeping.

By the way, if anyone is thinking about studying here at CGU it is a great place-“The City of Trees and PhDs.” What more can you want? The history department here is small, and as I mentioned, no one specializes in US Religious History. Yet, the professors are open and encouraging in allowing the student to write on topics of his/her choice. Last semester I wrote two papers on Mormonism and one on religion in American Studies. The professors here are great to work with. Professor Brodie (Fawn Brodie’s daughter-in-law) is the current chair of the History Department and she is excited about working with Richard Bushman (even though he will be in the Religion Department), and has no problem allowing students (just me for now) in the History Department work with him.

That is all for now.


[1] Francis J. Beckwith, Carl Mosser, and Paul Owen, eds., The New Mormon Challenge, 218.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. From what I have heard, there was a session on Mormon Studies at AAR last year and several other smaller colleges have already instituted courses on Mormonism. A lot of these developments were underway before Romney’s campaign, but I can’t help but think his candidacy gave a significant boost. Scholars seem to be tuned into current events and media, which often shifts their focus one way or another. I wonder what effect internet has had on promoting the scholarly study of Mormonism.
    That’s my rambling on the topic. Thanks for the post, Jordan. Good to hear from an insider at the new Camelot.

    Comment by stan — February 26, 2008 @ 10:17 am

  2. Jordan,

    Right now, the answer actually is “No!”

    Are the Chairs important developments? Absolutely. And Richard L. Bushman and Philip L. Barlow — who were chosen as the first chairs — are both top-notch scholars who produce excellent work both inside and outside of Mormon studies.

    The problem is that they are both active, believing members of the LDS church and they both would be welcomed with open arms at BYU — which is where all of the other professors of Mormons Studies, with the exception of a couple professors at Graceland University — are employed. As long as Mormon Studies professorships require an LDS temple recommend, it’s not really at the Academic Table. Sure, everyone’s having Thanksgiving in the same room, but a special kiddie table has been set up for the Mormons.

    We might say that Mormon Studies chairs outside BYU have the ability to attract non-Mormon graduate students to the field, at CGU even more so than USU. But the question is, when they get their PhDs in Religious Studies with an emphasis in Mormon Studies, where do they go? If the chairs are being created for LDS member scholars, these students are heading down a career path that dead ends.

    My best friend here in Ann Arbor is a professor of religious studies whose focus is Sri Lankan Buddhism. He’s not Sri Lankan or Buddhist; he’s a Minnesotan whose father is the President of a conservative Lutheran denomination and he himself is an atheist. My friend is not anti-Buddhist in any sense or anti-religious. It’s just that the academic study of Buddhism is not an internal conversation among believing Buddhists.

    Until professorships in Mormon Studies include non-LDS scholars — beyond just Jan Shipps who is retired — Mormon Studies will not have a real place at the Academic Table.

    Comment by John Hamer — February 26, 2008 @ 10:20 am

  3. Ditto to what John Hamer said. I am a bit puzzled about the whole hype around “Mormon studies” and think that it is misplaced insider excitement: Mormonism should be studied just like one religion among others, with the same methods and strategies.

    In addition, strictly speaking there in fact is no field of “Mormon studies” with a unified methodology, and if Latter-day Saints are involved in the study of their own religion, they must learn to approach it like other religions through the same methods.

    Comment by Observer — February 26, 2008 @ 10:30 am

  4. It’s pretty common for internal scholars to be the core of a specific religious studies discipline. For other groups there are just more practitioners, more traditions, and more institutions willing to host them. Evangelical scholars seem to cluster at Wheaton and Notre Dame, Catholic scholars at Catholic institutions, and Jewish scholars at Jewish institutions.

    For Mormon Studies to become a self-sustaining academic discipline more broadly would require that critical mass of Mormon or para-Mormon institutions (BYU, SoCal, SVU already constitute a base), in conjunction with expanded membership base. That is not out of the realm of the possible.

    Observer and John Hamer have in mind something different, integrating Mormonism into religious studies curricula, which, I agree, is to some extent independent of the former.

    The elephant in the room, though, is the lack of a faculty job base for new doctorates in “Mormon Studies.”

    Comment by smb — February 26, 2008 @ 11:12 am

  5. I think John Hamer and Observer bring up some good cautions. I also agree with smb’s last point about a lack of jobs for new mormon studies doctorates. Personally, my wife has made me promise not to do a mormon dissertation in order to insure a better chance for being hired.

    Comment by Ben — February 26, 2008 @ 11:25 am

  6. Let me just reiterate that CGU and USU are not offering degrees in “Mormon Studies.” They are offering degrees in religious studies and western history with minors in Mormon Studies. I think that Sam raises the key question–will there be jobs for the students produced at these places? The answer I think has less to do with whether or not these students will have temple recommends, and more with their ability to integrate Mormonism into some wider field of study, whether it be American religions, Western American history, or perhaps even Latin American or African religions. These students will not be hired simply because they got a minor in Mormon studies. They’ll be hired to teach American religions, Western history, etc., and the Mormonism will be a bonus.

    The answer, I think, is not so much a “yes!” or a “no!”, but a qualified, “the jury is still out.” We’ll see in the next decade or so if these students are successful or not.

    Comment by David G. — February 26, 2008 @ 12:04 pm

  7. I think that John Harmer is probably right, but not for the reasons that he sets forth. The problem is not the identity of the scholars, but rather it is the idea of “Mormon Studies” as some sort of a discipline or subfield independent of broader discussions of history, religious studies, philosophy, etc. As smb rightly points out, such a field might develop but it will — like Jewish Studies, etc. — be dominated by insiders. This is not the problem that Harmer sees it as. Rather, the problem is that Mormonism is simply too small and too young to generate a massive academic demand or interest in the project of “Mormon Studies” per se. The problem with Barlow and Bushman generating a ground swell of scholarlly attention to Mormonism is not that they are Mormons. It is not as though if they resigned their membership in the church or had been born Methodists, the problems would be solved. The “problem” is that they are studying Mormonism.

    IMHO, the best hope for Mormon scholars is not to push “Mormon Studies,” but rather to show how the study of Mormonism can be related to other, broader conversations. I am in law, so the dynamics of the academic job market are different, but I was on the market two years ago and landed a decent job. I had lots of stuff on my CV indicating an interest in Mormonism and freely discussed my scholarlly interest in Mormonism with those who asked. On the other hand, I didn’t pitch my interest as “Mormon Studies” (Quick, get your Mormon studies guy while supplies last!). Rather, I said that I was interested in law and religion and legal history, and then talked about how the study of Mormonism related to those fields. Pitched in this way, Mormonism has the academic virtue of being something new in a well-established field, rather than being a new field in and of itself. It is a subtle distinction, but a professionally and intellectually important one.

    This means that I am ultimately ambivalent about the CGU project. I am glad that it is there, and I am glad that Bushman will have a home base with institutional support. On the other hand, I suspect that the bang one gets for the buck in terms of exposing CGU grad students to a bit of Mormonism is not huge. There is probably some cachet that comes from having an endowed chair, but I am not sure to what extent that cachet justifies the expense. Frankly, I think that the sort of stuff that Bushman was doing with the Mormon Scholars Group — e.g. summer fellows programs, conferences, etc. — is a better use of funds. Perhaps the CGU position will evolve into something like this, a home base and a bank account promoting interesting discussions of Mormonism and providing mentoring and networking opprotunities for Mormon scholars and grad students. My worry is that it may end up simply being another faculty line for the CGU religion department.

    Comment by Nate Oman — February 26, 2008 @ 12:44 pm

  8. This is wonderful. Some of the issues raised leads me to ask, who decides/will decide if Mormonism does have a place in academia? How do we define having a place? I am sure that if you were to ask Karen Torjesen-Dean of the Religion Department at CGU-she would say that Mormonism does have a place. Yet, she does not hold a monopoly of votes on deciding this issue, so who does?

    Comment by Jordan W. — February 26, 2008 @ 12:47 pm

  9. I echo David’s sentiments regarding the notion that the failure or success of Mormon studies will largely depend on the ability of scholars to situate Mormonism in wider, and more significant, frameworks. I also agree that the future of the field is still up in the air, and depends on the ability of individuals to land jobs.

    I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss the buzz surrounding Mormon Studies as “misplaced insider excitement,” since a growing number of scholars and students of U.S. religious history and other fields are supportive and actively participating in the process.

    Comment by Christopher — February 26, 2008 @ 12:49 pm

  10. I think David is completely right further I think this is the way it should be. The biggest weakness in Mormon scholarship right now is not having enough written about meaning tying it into larger academic issues and theories. In a sense Mormon Studies has yet to seriously move on to the next stage.

    Comment by Clark — February 26, 2008 @ 12:58 pm

  11. To add, right now I think Nate’s right. For all the feeling of ‘being important’ that the chairs bring I think programs that convey to students the relevance of Mormonism is far more useful. And provides much, much more bang for the buck.

    Comment by Clark — February 26, 2008 @ 1:17 pm

  12. I think David and Nate are right in this case. If the question is whether there is room for scholars of religion and history who study Mormonism as part of a more comprehensive research agenda, then the answer is yes. If the question is about the presence, even in the distant future, of “Mormon Studies” programs at universities, my answer is a resounding no. If you want to work in the academy on Mormon issues, you have to define yourself much more broadly than as a “Mormon Studies Scholar.” Endowed chairs for senior scholars are one thing–they tend to be designed to garner publicity and fund raising power to universities. Jobs at the assistant professor level are something else entirely. Reading the article in the Boston Globe that carried the misleading headline about departments “scrambling” to teach courses on Mormon studies is revealing. It lists two endowed chairs, a 15 student course taught by a gifted, but temporary, instructor (Proctor), and a course or two at other schools. I think an objective look at the situation suggests that we might be getting ahead of ourselves.

    Comment by SC Taysom — February 26, 2008 @ 1:28 pm

  13. I would also point out that the “Mormon Studies” discussion tends to assume implicitly that the place for the scholarlly discussion of Mormonism is in a religious studies department. Obviously, I have a personal axe to grind here, but I think it would be a huge mistake for scholars interested in Mormonism to think that they only place to go is religious studies and that the only interlocutors worth having a dialogue with are in religious studies. Obviously, there are reasons to suppose that religious studies is the most natural place for conversations, but I think it is important to realize that we also ought to be thinking about disciplines like history, literature, anthropology, economics, sociology, and — of course! — law. The discussion of Mormonism simply isn’t big enough to start drawing (even implicitly) disciplinary boundaries.

    Comment by Nate Oman — February 26, 2008 @ 1:48 pm

  14. Just a couple of thoughts.

    1. I agree with David that the relevance of Mormon Studies depends on their ties to broader academic discourses.

    2. I think this is actually happening today.

    3. I think that Mormon Studies really needs an academic journal published out of a University that isn’t BYU. The other option would be to publish more Mormon Studies articles in major disciplinary journals. The current journals, though often featuring brilliant scholarship, just aren’t up to par when it comes to tenure decisions. This means that academics must do Mormon Studies outside their normal workload.

    4. I think that Mormon Studies will probably only thrive in institutions where students demand this curriculum, or where big money donors can provide well-endowed chairs. Departments tend to develop through grass-roots campaigns or through large donations.

    5. Finally, many might disagree with me, but I feel like scholars in Mormon Studies have a serious methodological problem. Believing members must accept the reality of a certain amount of Divine intervention in the course of individual lives and throughout Mormon history. The Humanities and Social Sciences, on the other hand, fundamentally aspire to narrate and quantify the affairs of men. Believing Mormon scholars generally spend much of their time trying to explain spiritual phenomenon using socio-economic, historical, philosophical, or anthropological language that really doesn’t contain the tools to explain the spiritual. As a historian who is Mormon when I read Mormon scholarship written by believers, I always smile when I see scholars trying to negotiate around their beliefs so that they can frame their work in the impartiality that academic discourse demands. I think that scholars of Mormonism have to find methodologies that can be accepted by the academy while at the same time reflecting the genuine spiritual positionality of the writers. Although Bushman has called for this in his essays on Believing History, I think that even his magisterial Rough Stone Rolling falls short of meeting this goal.

    Comment by Joel — February 26, 2008 @ 2:18 pm

  15. Let me clarify that I was answering the question “Is there a place at the Academic Table?” now (present tense), given the emergence of these Mormon Studies chairs. I wasn’t trying to suggest that there never will be a place or that these chairs aren’t a step in the right direction. They are a wonderful step forward and the two scholars chosen to fill them will surely continue to produce great work.

    Nor was I complaining that Mormons (including especially active LDS members) dominate the field and always will. Yes, I’m sure Jews dominate Jewish studies. (That said, not all Jewish professors are orthodox and keeping kosher.) My point was that (Graceland aside) active LDS scholars currently hold all of the professorships focussed on Mormon Studies — which sadly are limited to these chairs and the professorships at the various LDS-owned schools.

    That’s not just “dominating” or forming a “core,” that’s 100% — at least as far as professorships go. I think that’s a problem in the present tense, not least of which because it realistically discourages non-LDS students (be they Mormon or non-Mormon) from going into religious studies with a focus on Mormonism.

    Comment by John Hamer — February 26, 2008 @ 3:50 pm

  16. Joel, I’m writing a talk now for the MSH conference that I hope will speak to some of the tension you note in #5. There’s a huge space in the study of Mormonism that can be explored now without requiring extreme assumptions about the truth-content of what he said.

    I think your proposal of a new journal misses the point. Mormon-centric publications, like other denominational publications, are designed for insiders to work out issues of great relevance to them. When it’s time to come into the broader academic discourse, it’s time to leave the “subspecialty” journals and enter the regular journals.

    I also agree with Nate that Mormon studies should be much bigger than Religious Studies or History. I am currently thinking through whether to do adjunct faculty work in medical ethics and humanities, integrating work on Mormonism into those broader projects.

    Comment by smb — February 26, 2008 @ 3:59 pm

  17. smb,

    I wasn’t trying to say that there aren’t spaces in Mormonism where belief is irrelevant. All I am saying is that often belief in Divine intervention or an utter rejection of that belief is the monkey in the scholarly closet of Mormonism.

    My criticism of Mormon journals has nothing to do with the quality or importance of the scholarship therein. I agree that they provide a wonderful forum for internal discussion and understanding. The problem is that the tenure process would respect a journal out of a secular university much more than any of the current publications. It could provide an important outlet for scholars who want to hold academic appointments.

    I just remember talking to one of the faculty at Utah State about filling the Arrington Chair. I asked him about a fairly prominent scholar in Mormon History and was told that he didn’t have a chance for the appointment because he had primarily published with Signature and various Mormon journals.

    Comment by Joel — February 26, 2008 @ 4:42 pm

  18. Joel: The solution to your tenure woes are to publish pieces in mainline journals. I doubt that ANY speciality journal on Mormonism, regardless of where it is housed would get much tenure credit.

    Comment by Nate Oman — February 26, 2008 @ 4:48 pm

  19. Here is another way of putting it: It seems to me that both Joel and John are assuming rather too much knowledge on the part of non-Mormon academic audiences, assuming that they are making fine distinctions about differing kinds of scholars or Mormonism or Mormon publications. My sense is that they — especially when the they is a tenure committee — simply don’t see the issue at this level of granularity. They are more likely to say, “Mormonism? People study that?!? I’d have never thought it…” The trick is to turn this to your advantage by making Mormonism into a case study of something else, which then provides you with the holy grail of junior scholars: a new topic in a well-established field.

    Comment by Nate Oman — February 26, 2008 @ 4:51 pm

  20. Joel, in my main field, the sub-specialty journals are never the meat for promotions committees. Mormon journals are going to be no different and shouldn’t be. Subspecialty journals are where fascinating conversations take place and are worth supporting, reading, and publishing in, but tenure is about making contributions to a much larger field.

    Comment by smb — February 26, 2008 @ 7:19 pm

  21. Sounds like you two know better than me. I stand corrected. I guess that I never thought of Mormon Studies as a subspecialty, but it’s also not my field. Thanks for the correction.

    Comment by Joel — February 26, 2008 @ 10:03 pm


Recent Comments

wvs on News from the Mormon: “Congrats to Chris Blythe!”

David G. on Book Review: Colvin and: “Thanks, Charlotte!”

J Stuart on Book Review: Colvin and: “Can't wait to read the rest of the review in JMH. Thanks, Charlotte!”

Ben S on MHA 2020 Networking Materials: “Thanks for this.”

Th. on Book Review: Jake Johnson,: “. Just commenting on your first paragraph: Egad.”

Steve Fleming on A note on the: “No but haven't really looked.”