Mormon Studies in the Classroom: Christopher Blythe, “Mormonisms”

By April 22, 2014

As the first installment of our new series, this post is from JI’s good friend Christopher Blythe. Chris is a graduate of Utah State University, and is now a PhD candidate in religious studies at Florida State University. He has published broadly on the divergent Mormon traditions, and currently serves on the Board of Directors for the John Whitmer Historical Association.

Bringhurst and Hamer's Scattering of the Saints was a watershed moment for the study of divergent Mormonisms.

Bringhurst and Hamer’s Scattering of the Saints was a watershed moment for the study of divergent Mormonisms.

In 2008, while a Master?s student at Utah State University, Philip Barlow invited me to be his assistant for a course entitled, ?Mormonisms.? This was Barlow?s first time teaching the course and his third Mormon Studies course at USU. He had some general ideas of what he wanted accomplish in the course, but I was fortunate to be able to help flesh out the curriculum, assignments, and schedule for the course. This was my first teaching experience in which I lectured roughly every fourth class period. I think it?s a fun exercise to imagine teaching the course once again. Six years later, how would I reimagine this class?

Course objective

The objective of this course was and would continue to be to problematize the standard telling of Mormon history and Mormon thought. Rather than examining Mormonism through the teachings and history of one Church, we would see that Mormon thought was always diverse and in contest. This is crucial for understanding the development of Mormonism (i.e. the current face of any one institution of Mormonism is not inevitable but based on historical events and personalities), but also to emphasize the point (first made by Jan Shipps) that Mormonism is not one new religious movement, but an entirely new religious tradition with its own branches and schools of thought.

Primary Sources

In 2008, students were assigned into small groups that would become experts on a particular Restoration movement or church. They were pointed to primary sources depending on their movement of choice. I would probably not do this in the future. Instead, I would include a collection of primary sources particularly focusing on sources that demonstrating boundary maintenance between groups (i.e. conflict). This would definitely include the first issue of Strang?s Gospel Herald, in which he curses the Saints in Nauvoo, the minutes of Sidney Rigdon?s excommunication trial, the Lorin Woolley Story as recorded by Joseph Musser, Joseph Wood?s ?History of the Reorganization? as serialized in the RLDS periodical the Messenger, and so forth.  I would also make sure students were able to get a taste of non-LDS Mormon scripture such as the Book of the Law (Strang), the Book of Enoch (Charles Thompson), and the Ninth Book of Esdras (James Collin Brewster). I would likely allow each student to select one volume of scripture as the subject of a short paper due towards the last third of the course.

Secondary Sources

In 2008, the secondary sources included Newel Bringhurst and John Hamer?s Scattering of the Saints, Ronald Walker?s Wayward Saints, and Paul M. Edwards, Our Legacy of Faith: A Brief History of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. I think these were great choices. I would likely cover the material from Edwards in lectures and assign a different text on RLDS foundations. Instead, I would include Roger Launius? Joseph Smith III: Pragmatic Prophet (Illinois, 1995), which remains the best full text on the early RLDS Church. I would definitely keep Wayward Saints, allowing the class to get an on-the-ground look at dissent in Utah. I would add Martha Bradley?s excellent Kidnapped from that Land: Government Raids on the Short Creek Polygamists (which we would juxtapose to current media representations since 2008). Finally, I would likely scrap Scattering in favor of selected articles. There really is just so much material that could work for a class like this. Of course, I would also recommend Steve Shields? Divergent Paths of the Restoration as a handy source to capture the real diversity of the Restoration.

Unique activities

One of the possible problems with such a class is that even as we attempt to demonstrate diversity within the Restoration, we still end up spending much of our time discussing institutions and prophets, rather than average believers. For this reason, in 2008, I organized an extensive oral history project for the class to participate in. We set up interviews at the homes of a variety of non-LDS Mormons throughout Utah. This included visits with a Swedenborgian-Mormon in Salt Lake City, believers in a revelation received by a young girl in Sanpete County, a spokeswoman from Principle Voices (Mormon Fundamentalist activist group,) a spokeswoman from Tapestry Against Polygamy (an Anti-Mormon Fundamentalist activist group), followers of Christopher Nemelka, members of the Apostolic United Brethren, Fred Larsen (the prophet of the Remnant Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), and so forth. Students were able to pick which of these interviews they wanted to participate in   and became familiar with all of the related methodologies of ethnographic research and oral history. If the course was in the Mormon Corridor or the Midwest, I would keep this as a standard activity. If not, I would definitely like the students to have the opportunity to attend a Community of Christ service, which one can usually find fairly close.

Article filed under Mormon Studies Courses Pedagogy


  1. Thanks, Christopher! How did you keep the class from staying LDS-centric in class discussions? How did you keep discussion from devolving into comparisons of the LDS. Church to Mormonisms? Was this a concern or problem at all?

    Comment by J Stuart — April 22, 2014 @ 11:33 am

  2. I like this idea of doing oral histories with the larger Mormon community! Can you tell us anything about the religious identification of the class?

    Comment by Saskia — April 22, 2014 @ 11:59 am

  3. Christopher, that sounds like a phenomenal class, especially the oral history component. How successful would you say the project was for the students? (you say you would do it again, so I imagine it went well).

    Thanks for the post and for sharing your course!

    Comment by Nate R. — April 22, 2014 @ 12:17 pm

  4. Thanks, Saskia. Religious Studies courses (Mormon Studies in particular) at USU usually consist of active and inactive LDS students or others who have once been LDS and now consider themselves non-Mormon. There also tends to be (at least in my time) a handful of atheists, one or two “nones,” and a couple who identify as members of a non-Mormon Christian denomination. We did not have any students who identified as non-LDS Mormons.

    Comment by Christopher Blythe — April 22, 2014 @ 1:10 pm

  5. Hi J,

    At USU, students do have a tendency to make lots of comparisons to their own experience or understanding of the LDS Church, but I think comparisons were worthwhile for the most part (as long as the goal was to understand the movement in question). Like JZ Smith says, Religious studies is necessarily comparative. But, for the most part, I think these students really wanted to understand different traditions, so it worked pretty well.

    Comment by Christopher Blythe — April 22, 2014 @ 1:23 pm

  6. Hi Nate,

    Thanks. For the most part, the students did very well, felt free to participate in the actual interview, prepared questions, etc. I think it also helped the class to become more collaborative with students having different experiences that they could bring into the classroom.

    Comment by Christopher Blythe — April 22, 2014 @ 1:27 pm

  7. How did the people being interviewed respond to being asked to do oral histories? I assume those who said yes had a fairly positive response. Were there others who said no?

    Comment by Amanda HK — April 22, 2014 @ 4:36 pm

  8. Hi Amanda,

    To be honest, I can’t think of any who said, “no.” Even non-LDS Mormons share the desire to spread their faith and share their experiences. I think everyone responded positively, with the exception of one group who had hoped to interview Christopher Nemelka. He declined.

    Comment by Christopher Blythe — April 22, 2014 @ 6:04 pm

  9. Chris, I guess my thought process was that some might be a bit of tired of being anthropological subjects. It seems like the same people are featured in every TV and print documentary that I read about polygamy and dissident Mormonism. Perhaps the fact that all said yes is a reflection of my niche interests which make documentaries about Mormonism seem much more frequent than they are or that 2008 is before interest in Mormonism exploded.

    Comment by Amanda HK — April 22, 2014 @ 7:36 pm

  10. You’re right, Amanda. There are a lot of scholarly vultures around Mormon Fundamentalists lately. I guess, I personally have been turned down for an interview with a Mormon Fundamentalist (who actually felt he had not been represented fairly in an interview he did for Quinn’s Fundamentalist essay long ago), but this has been the only case. We probably got a better response because I had already built some relationships with many of those we had interviewed.

    Comment by Christopher Blythe — April 22, 2014 @ 7:51 pm

  11. Copied from a Facebook comment:

    “‘Mormonisms’ was one of the classes that cemented my interest in being a historian (though not necessarily of Mormonism) and remains one of my top favorites through undergrad and grad school. Particularly, I appreciated that we used primary sources in the special collections, participated in the interviews, and went more in depth than the standard (and, for me, easily forgettable) names, dates, and places. I just wish I was further along in the program instead of just starting out.”

    For whatever reason, I never took a historical methods class. I don’t know whether one was not offered at Utah State or if I just managed to overlook it, but it wasn’t part of my education at any point. This course was like on the job training for me: it was my first experience visiting the archives, my first exposure to oral interviews, and the first time I engaged in real, meaningful historical discussion.

    Comment by Carl Aldrich — April 24, 2014 @ 10:09 am

  12. @Amanda HK, my experience is limited as I have not followed religious history as part of my career, so take my comment for what it’s worth. I took another creative and useful class taught by Chris at USU where each student was to conduct research on a new religion. It was quite the ordeal to get someone from the group I chose to cooperate. This included writing to their leader in prison, talking with his son (who is also the group’s lawyer), and speaking only via e-mail with a spokesman who would only cooperate if I allowed him to review my final paper before submitting it. Even then, they felt very guarded and spoke vaguely. I tried to reach out to general members and none were comfortable being part of my research. I’m not sure they would have cooperated at all if I planned to publish anything outside the class.

    All of this as a result of bad press and a documentary they felt was made to mock them.

    Comment by Carl Aldrich — April 24, 2014 @ 10:19 am

  13. […] Christopher Blythe, Mormonisms […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Mormon Studies in the Classroom: Roundup — May 10, 2014 @ 3:30 pm


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