The following is a review of the morning session of the Eighth Annual Mormon Studies Conference at Utah Valley State College. A review of the afternoon session is forthcoming here at the Juvenile Instructor.
This morning I headed down to the soon-to-be Utah Valley University to attend the Eighth Annual Mormon Studies Conference. This year’s theme was “Restoration Christianity: Commonality and Divergence in Latter Day Saint Movements.” Participants in the morning session included John Hamer, Steven Shields, Grant Underwood, and Sarah Barringer Gordon.
The session was well-attended, and a diverse audience showed up. Notable attendees included Tom Kimball of Signature Books, LDS Church Historian Marlin K. Jensen and his assistant, Rick Turley, BCC guest blogger and UVSC professor David Knowlton, BYU religion professors Reid Neilson and Alex Baugh, BYU history professor and MHA President Kathryn Daynes, and M* Blogger, Keller. David, Ben, and I all showed up from the Juvenile Instructor. It was fun to catch up with some people, and to meet others in person (it’s still a little strange and intimidating meeting people I know primarily from the ‘nacle in person).
John Hamer presented first on “Unity and Diversity in Early Mormon Movements.” His presentation was essentially a broad overview of the multitudinous expressions of Mormonism. If that sounds dry or boring, ask John to show you the presentation sometime (or better yet, just buy the book he co-edited on the subject, Scattering the Saints, which includes many of the graphics John used today). It amounts to a visually-stimulating journey through the complex world of the Latter Day Saint movement, mentioning and discussing even the most obscure and numerically tiny communities of Restoration Christianity. John is an able historian and articulate presenter whose passion for his research is evident. In my estimation and opinion, he is at the forefront of what could (and should) be a significant emphasis in Mormon studies in the coming years — that is, comparative studies of the Latter Day Saint movement and Joseph Smith’s enduring (though often underestimated) and sometimes ambiguous legacy.
Steven Shields presented next. His paper dealt with issues of identity in the Community of Christ branch of the Latter Day Saint movement. Part autobiographical, part analytical, and consistently interesting, Shields offered some interesting insight into how the Community of Christ has dealt (and deals) with its history, how they approach Joseph Smith, and the church’s understanding of its place in society today. Regarding the church’s claims to authority, Shields explained that “we don’t claim to have a monopoly on God.” He aptly pointed out that a solid understanding of the church’s history directly affects how it understands and approaches its future. He concluded by reiterating what seemed to be a strong anti-creedal stance in discussing the mission of the Community of Christ today, explaining that attachment to specific doctrines, creeds, and practices from the past often makes it difficult to move forward.
Grant Underwood’s presented an overview of what he termed “Motifs of Mormon Identity” from the 1830s, 1840s and beyond, and modern Mormonism. His presentation aimed at at laying a general framework for comparative studies within the Latter Day Saint movement, by examining how various groups within the movement have negotiated their identity in regard to the “motifs of Mormon identity” of the 1830s and 1840s. What current Latter-day Saint (or Community of Christ or Strangite or Hedrickite) practices and discourse, for example, have roots in earlier Mormonism? How do those current expression differ of agree? These questions, and others like it, provide a fertile groundwork for future studies.
Sarah Barringer Gordon shifted gears a bit and discussed Latter-day Saint identity and how it related to Mitt Romney’s failed run for the U.S. Presidency. Whereas Dr. Underwood focused more on situating Mormon identity, Dr. Gordon emphasized maintainingthat identity in contemporary society, and specifically in relation to competitors in the religious marketplace like Mike Huckabee’s Southern Baptists. Because of time restraints, her presentation wasn’t fully developed, but it did provide some interesting food for thought.
A brief roundtable discussion / Q&A followed, which consisted mostly of the participants elaborating on one aspect or detail of their presentation. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to stick around for the afternoon session that discussed the Strangites, Hedrickites, and Texas Saints, but David did and should shortly have a review of those presentations. Overall, it was a solid session. Comparative studies of different expressions of Latter Day Saintism is largely a wide open field, and one with much relevance to Mormon history, theology, and religious studies, especially in these early and formative years of Mormon Studies.