Teaching Mormonism at Georgetown-Course Overview

By February 6, 2012

This post is basically an overview of the course itself. In general, there will be four units, each corresponding to a particular textbook that we will read.

But before we get into the units themselves, I will have my students read Mormonism: A Very Short Introduction, by Richard Bushman. Oxford puts out these ?very short introductions? on a variety of topics, and I thought having my students read this one would be a good way to start and get a general overall feel for Mormon history and theology before we really start to dig in.

Joseph Smith

The first major unit will cover the life of the Prophet Joseph Smith. You really cannot do Mormonism without focusing on him a lot. In many ways, that would be like attempting a class on Islam without talking about the Prophet Muhammed. It?s just a bad idea. We will be reading selections from Rough Stone Rolling, Richard Bushman?s marvelous biography of the prophet. Bushman is able to thread the needle between faith and scholarship, coming to no hard conclusions about the faith-content of Joseph?s experiences (even though Bushman himself is a believer) but doing a fabulous job of presenting Joseph the historical figure.

Unique Mormon Scripture

I will have my students read large portions of The Book of Mormon. Again, to compare this class to a hypothetical one on Islam, you would do yourself a great injustice to not read The Qur?an. In conjunction with reading the new scripture, we will also be reading Teryl Givens? By The Hand of Mormon. Givens does an extremely thorough job of discussing how the Book of Mormon itself has been used ever since its publication in 1829. I had considered using Grant Hardy?s Understanding the Book of Mormon, but in the end decided to let the volume of scripture speak for itself, and have a meta-discussion about what the book means by using Given?s book. Givens also talks about the Book of Mormon as an example of and outlining what Givens terms ?dialogic revelation,? the call-and-response of prophets and God. After reading that chapter, the students will read some of the D&C as well.

History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

The third unit will basically be history, starting with Joseph?s death and the succession crisis, which was resolved with the main body (but not all) of the church following Brigham Young and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles west to Utah, and ending with the tenure of current LDS Church president Thomas S. Monson. Matt Bowman?s very new book The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith, will serve as our guide.

Mormon Theology

For the final unit on Mormon theology and doctrine we will finally read a book written by someone who is not a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Douglas Davies is a professor at the University of Durham, and I found his book The Mormon Culture of Salvation to be very insightful. Davies discusses Mormonism through the lens of anthropology and sociology. One of the things I admire about Davies’ book is that he really treats Mormon cosmology, ritual, and practice with the seriousness it deserves. Because, though Mormonism has obvious ties doctrinally to traditional Christianity, there are still some things that are very different about us. When Rodney Stark called us the next world religion, I?m not sure he?s wrong (though obviously we think of it as a restoration). Mormon theology, extending as it does far into the past and looking towards the future, is a little more than just a few bells and whistles added to Christian conceptions of the afterlife. It?s a cosmology that, I think, can go toe to toe with the great religions and mythologies of the world. Davies does a good job of treating it as such. We will also read the books of Abraham and Moses for this unit.


It?s not every day that a new religion gets started, and I?m not just talking about denominations (most protestants are virtually indistinguishable from each other) or movements (Pentecostalism clearly doesn?t represent a new religion, just a new ?style? of Christianity, for lack of a better word, that cuts across denominational lines). The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints represents an interesting phenomenon, in that here we have a new, bona fide religious movement. New prophets. New scripture. New ritual. New cosmology. Everything.

Its growth rate is prodigious, and is projected to be a new world religion sometime this century, assuming Rodney Stark?s projections about our growth rate turn out to be true (and we seem to be more or less on the money for his projections from the 1986 article, not the 1997 follow-up, though some recent data released literally in the last few weeks casts doubt on this). I?ll also discuss the Perpetual Education Fund as a portent of things to come in Mormonism as we rapidly shift away from an American church to an international one.

Furthermore, the origins of this new religion are not shrouded in the mists of time, making it hard to distinguish between fact and myth. We have still have actual documents actually written by Joseph Smith. The church is putting out a comprehensive series of volumes with everything extant that he wrote or majorly participated in, the Joseph Smith Papers Project. You cannot find that for Muhammed, Jesus, Siddharta, or any of the other major religious figures from world history. So, if nothing else, we get to see the rise of a religion from the beginning. I hope that this class serves that kind of meta-objective (study a new religion rising from the beginning) as well as being a thorough introduction to Mormonism. Another secondary objective, and why I think Georgetown requires all its students to take two religion classes, it to further the students in their own faith journey, in this case mostly by comparing their own beliefs with an in-depth study of another faith tradition.

Here are the relevant portions of the syllabus. You?ll find I?m a very sporting professor in the kinds of assignments I give to my students. I sometimes wonder if I?m too sporting. Ah well.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Good stuff, Carl. I’m anxious to hear about things as the semester progresses. I do wonder, though, about your insistence from the outset that Mormonism is indeed a new/the next world religion. Is this meant, at least in part, as a rhetorical device to convince the students that what you’re teaching/they’re learning is more significant than just the history of some other Christian sect?

    As you surely know, Stark’s estimated rates of growth are nowhere close to the reality at this point in time; and on top of that, I’m not convinced that Pentecostalism can be accurately dismissed as merely “a new style of Christianity,” but insist Mormonism is something else entirely. If you’re hoping to give students a sense of how Mormonism has changed over time, it strikes me as odd to claim that from the beginning that “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints represents an interesting phenomenon, in that here we have a new, bona fide religious movement.” Did you give any thought to allowing the students to make up their own minds about all of these questions based on what they learn?

    I hope this hasn’t come across as too critical. I’m just interested in your justification for this general approach you’re employing.

    Comment by Christopher — February 6, 2012 @ 9:06 am

  2. Nice approach, Carl. The only thing I wonder about is the Davies book. What annoyed me when I read it was the eclectic approach — the author switches models or perspectives every chapter. There may be times when that is the best way to approach a topic, but for me it didn’t work for an approach to LDS theology.

    Plus I don’t think the portrayal of LDS theology was broad enough — the death and salvation themes he focuses on seem rooted in the Nauvoo period and are not necessarily representative of general LDS thinking in the later 19th and 20th centuries. In some sense any theistic religion can be made out to have a death and salvation focus, but that doesn’t seem the right focus for a course or unit on general Christian theology, for example. Did you consider using Angel and the Beehive instead?

    Comment by Dave — February 6, 2012 @ 9:51 am

  3. Thanks for this, Carl; you have some fascinating things, here, and the students are fortunate to have you guide them through these issues.

    I’d like to, however, push back a bit on some of your course philosophy, on both historical and pedagogical terms, because I think it is an important discussion at the center of teaching Mormonism in particular and American religions in general. This may, however, show a disciplinary rift between a historical and theological approach. Especially relevant to me is this paragraph:

    It?s not every day that a new religion gets started, and I?m not just talking about denominations (most protestants are virtually indistinguishable from each other) or movements (Pentecostalism clearly doesn?t represent a new religion, just a new ?style? of Christianity, for lack of a better word, that cuts across denominational lines). The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints represents an interesting phenomenon, in that here we have a new, bona fide religious movement. New prophets. New scripture. New ritual. New cosmology. Everything.

    As a historian, I take strong exception to the claim that “most [P]rotestants are virtually indistinguishable from each other,” as the American religious tradition(s) show stark diversity that spans beyond mere theological claims and deeply affects cultural and societal interactions. And I fear that emphasizing Mormonism’s distinctiveness and departure overlooks how much they still worked within a Protestant framework, especially when looked at on a lived religion level; average members worshiped in much of the same ways as other Christians, and while their beliefs were indeed scandalous, they were scandalous because they re-interpreted and appropriated elements that were actually at the heart of the Protestant tradition–what Freud would call the “uncanny.” As a cultural historian, I have a hard time seeing Mormonism understood outside of the context in which it developed, exploring the deep intersections with the broader environment it both remained within and departed from.

    Pedagogically, I hesitate at this approach because by making Mormonism a unique departure, it makes Mormonism the central focus of the study. As I emphasize as I teach Mormon history out here in Cambridge, my goal is not for the student to understand Mormonism in and of itself (that is not the most important thing to learn in the class), but to understand American religious history through the case study of Mormonism. I think by focusing on the LDS Church as unique removes that emphasis, and the picture of American history in general becomes a bit more cloudy.

    Thanks again for this thoughtful post, Carl; this is an important dialogue to have.

    Comment by Ben P — February 6, 2012 @ 9:58 am

  4. Just wanted to add, as a PhD student focusing on the ritualization of Mormon history, that although Joseph Smith is much more recent than other prophets, Mormonism is not quite as unshrouded by the mists of time as you claim. Myth plays a large role in the LDS Church, as it does in any invented tradition. It seems important to take this into consideration.

    Otherwise, thanks for this interesting update. I’m teaching my first course next semester and will definitely refer to your syllabus when planning my course. Although I do intend to teach my course more in line with comment 3, so thanks for that comment as well!

    Comment by Saskia — February 6, 2012 @ 12:26 pm

  5. Ben: Sounds like a great course. I too have a lot of reservations about using Davies for Mormon theology not the least of which is that it doesn’t discuss Mormon theology.

    Comment by Blake — February 6, 2012 @ 11:08 pm

  6. Christopher, to be honest, when we’re done with the last unit, I intend to ask the question of the students as a possible short paper topic, “Does Mormonism represent just a unique branch of Christianity, or is it a new full religious tradition stemming from Christianity the same way Christianity stems from Judaism?” So I’ve set them up here in the syllabus to be thinking about it one way, but as we go it’s become more apparent (I hope) that there are a lot of similarities to traditional Christianity as well.

    And my understanding was that we were still more-or-less on track for the original 1984 Stark article, but not the 1997 follow-up.

    Dave, the Davies book and my lectures aren’t going to match up perfectly, but I still find it a worthwhile book to read. I’ll be supplementing what he doesn’t cover in lecture (and even then we can’t cover everything).

    Ben P, when I say that “most Protestants are virtually indistinguishable from each other” in context I don’t think I’m being unfair. For one, Protestants don’t view each other with nearly the amount of hostility they do Mormons or even Catholics (though that is changing). This is partially because of the way they view each other. Second, the umbrella of beliefs, practices, etc. in, say, Methodism, overlaps so substantially with the umbrella of those same things in the Baptist tradition, that it’s really difficult to pick a Protestant denomination based on how you feel those beliefs and practices should be. In any given town, you might find a liberal baptist church and a conservative episcopalian church, and the next town over, you might find the baptist church conservative, and the episcopalian liberal. At Yale, it was nigh impossible to tell what tradition in Christianity you came from if you were Protestant. But maybe my statistically invalid experiences there at the Div School are clouding my perceptions. When we talk about church services, we’ll also be talking about how the LDS way of worship grew out of the Protestant tradition most early converts came from. I’m aware there’s a strong connection, even if there are many unique things going on in Mormonism as well.

    Saskia, you are welcome to steal any of my good ideas. When I was a missionary in Poughkeepsie, NY, I was invited to come to a class on Mormonism at Vassar, and I pulled out that old syllabus from my mission files and consulted it when writing mine up. One thought, though: At this point, I’m pretty sure it would have been better to be reading the D&C concurrent with the Rough Stone Rolling chapters, instead of giving it its own day.

    Comment by Carl — February 15, 2012 @ 5:38 pm


Recent Comments

wvs on 7 Takeaways from #MHA2018: “Really enjoyed MHA this year. It's my 5th MHA conference and in many ways it was the best yet. Looking forward to SLC next year.”

Steve Fleming on Taves's Revelatory Events, pt.: “Yes, stones (the UT) acting as a figurative key that had the same purpose: unlocking divine knowledge. Lucy referred to JS's other seer stones as…”

Clark on Taves's Revelatory Events, pt.: “Steve, I may be misunderstanding you then. Certainly I have no problem reading Leads as speaking more mystically or analogically ala what was common in…”

Rachel on 7 Takeaways from #MHA2018: “Thanks for sharing these thoughts. They were so nice to read.”

Steve Fleming on Taves's Revelatory Events, pt.: “I would just reiterate that insisting that Lead's key be literal is problematic in the context of her writings generally.”

Clark on Taves's Revelatory Events, pt.: “Just to be clear, since there may be some confusion, I was only addressing the idea of the U&T as a literal key put into…”