Teaching Mormonism at Georgetown-Introduction

By January 25, 2012

Greetings, Juvenile Instructor readers! Matt B (one of your permabloggers) asked if I would be willing to do a bit of a guest stint as a blogger. I?m currently in a PhD program in systematic theology at the Catholic University of America, and teach as an instructor at Georgetown. Because I?m LDS, I?ve been asked to teach a class this semester on Mormonism, which I?ve titled ?Mormonism: A New World Religion.? This series of posts will be about my experience teaching the course. The title is supposed to have a bit of a double meaning. First, it?s a religion from the New World, one of the few (discounting the bewildering variety of Christianities) that originated in the New World. Second, sociologist of religion Rodney Stark has predicted that Mormonism will be the next world religion to emerge since Islam.

I?ve designed the course as if it were simply another world religion course. In fact, my driving method of organization has been to think how I would teach a course on Islam. I?ve done this for a couple of reasons. I do think that Islam and Mormonism have many similarities (in the monotheistic tradition, prophet-founder, new scripture, etc.) Also, I find this a very different class to teach than I?ve ever taught before. I?ve been a TA at BYU and Yale, taught institute several times, been a Sunday school teacher, served a mission, for the past few years have been teaching first-year writing at a local community college, and did teach an introductory religion class at Georgetown last semester. Clearly I?ve been around the block as far as teaching. But to me, this is a very different kind of class, hence my patterning it after a hypothetical class about a faith that is not my own, but is very similar. There are a few variables that make it a different kind of class than I have taught before.

First, I?m teaching my own tradition, but not preaching to the choir. The purpose of institute, or seminary, or Sunday school, is not solely to learn. It?s to build faith, to help people come to their own knowledge of the gospel. Though I think, say, institute can be more ?academic,? if its purpose becomes merely academic, then something crucial has been lost. I think primarily the purpose of all of these classes is more devotional than merely for learning. This course at Georgetown is obviously very different. How to teach your own faith tradition without proselytizing or imposing your beliefs on the students? It?s a dilemma that thousands of teachers of religion wrestle with, but is a new challenge to me personally.

Second, because I?m so steeped in Mormonism, it will be difficult to translate. Usually I?m pretty good in switching vocabulary in my conversations. If I?m with my fellow PhD students from CUA, I?ll use ?sacraments? instead of ?ordinances,? or ?Eucharist? instead of ?the sacrament.? Things like that. But to maintain such a self-awareness for every class period is going to be impossible. As an active, temple-recommend holding Latter-day Saint, I?m very liable to drop in terms like ?active,? ?temple-recommend holding? and ?Latter-day Saint? without properly explaining them.

Third, I find I may be caught between a rock and a hard place with regard to how to approach the course. Some members of the church will be dismayed that I am using Richard Bushman?s Rough Stone Rolling as a textbook, because they think that it focuses on and emphasizes the wrong aspects of Joseph Smith?s life. Yet other people will be dismayed because I actually believe that Joseph saw God and Jesus in the sacred grove in the spring of 1820, and that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the ?only true and living church? (D&C 1:30,), which of course makes me a ?gullible dupe,? at least in their eyes. They would ask if such a person can possibly be objective? I suppose in some ways their question is the flip side of point one, wherein I ask myself if I can be objective. (My answer is ?yes,? I think I can be, if you were wondering.)

In crafting this course I?ve solicited various opinions and thoughts, whether from genius Yale LDS undergrads, fellow LDS graduate students in religion, my father (a former mission president), other LDS scholars, and even the local institute director (a former colonel in the Air Force chaplain reserves). But ultimately, of course, the class is mine. I think with what I have planned, it will go well.

So, as I embark on teaching this new and interesting class, I invite you all to follow along. My next post will be a basic overview of what the course will be like, and then I?ll begin reporting on how it actually goes over in class itself.

Welcome aboard!

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Looking forward to your dispatches, Carl; thanks for sharing them here.

    Comment by Ben P — January 25, 2012 @ 5:22 pm

  2. Sounds like fun. Looking forward to the series.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — January 25, 2012 @ 5:27 pm

  3. Excellent, looking forward to it!

    Will your students follow or be made aware of this? Or is that too much acces to the inside of the professorial black box?

    Comment by Ben S — January 25, 2012 @ 5:32 pm

  4. I look forward to this series, too! Will you be posting part of your syllabus? I’m curious to see what you will have your students read over the course of the semester.

    Comment by David Howlett — January 25, 2012 @ 5:57 pm

  5. Looking forward to your posts, Carl, thanks for doing them.

    Comment by Jared T — January 25, 2012 @ 6:26 pm

  6. Great stuff, Carl, and I look forward to and thank you for contributing it here.

    Comment by Christopher — January 25, 2012 @ 7:22 pm

  7. Hooray, more pedagogy posts! Love it. Welcome aboard.

    Comment by Tona H — January 25, 2012 @ 7:45 pm

  8. Very interesting. I look forward to the balance. Good luck with the semester.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — January 25, 2012 @ 11:53 pm

  9. Wow! I am excited to follow this blog! Carl, you are amazing!

    Comment by Lisa Cena — January 25, 2012 @ 11:57 pm

  10. Looking forward to your reports, Carl. Thanks.

    Comment by WVS — January 26, 2012 @ 2:36 am

  11. Can you really teach such a course from Bushman’s excellent book? Isn’t it limited to the 1820-1844 founding period? Are you using other readings to introduce your students to the great changes in doctrine, practice, etc. since 1844?

    Comment by Senile Old Fart — January 26, 2012 @ 10:17 pm

  12. SOF: I imagine Carl is using multiple books, and that Bushman’s bio is just for the early Mormon period.

    Which actually brings up an important question. When reading assignments are at a premium, knowing there is a ceiling for amount of pages an undergraduate would read, I find it difficult to justify five hundred pages on a book focused on one person, even if that one person were Joseph Smith. It’d be interesting to see how others divide up reading assignments.

    Comment by Ben P — January 27, 2012 @ 4:31 am

  13. Bless you!

    Comment by Aaron — January 27, 2012 @ 10:22 am

  14. Ben S, no my students will not be aware of it, for precisely the reason you suspected. Too much info into the black box of professorship would be a detrimental thing I think.

    Ben P is right, Senile Old Fart (haha!), I am using Bushman’s book for only one unit of the four planned in the course. The students are expected to read around 50 pages a day or so, which doesn’t seem unreasonable. I will be posting at least a bit of the syllabus on a google doc for my next post.

    Comment by Carl — January 28, 2012 @ 8:22 pm

  15. I’m looking forward to reading the materials you offer–

    Comment by Roger — January 28, 2012 @ 8:53 pm

  16. Cool, Carl, looking forward to more. You mentioned that you are taking an “objective” stance to the subject. Can you expand a little on that idea? It seems to me that we’re somewhat beyond the model of expecting out and out “objectivity” of folks, but not committed to a simplistic acceptance of sheer relativity, either.

    Comment by BHodges — January 30, 2012 @ 9:59 am

  17. It is too bad you are not teaching a class on Calvinism, because you will find much more in common between Calvinism and Islam than between Mormonism and the latter.

    Comment by Mark D. — January 31, 2012 @ 2:52 am

  18. This looks very exciting. I think Bushman is a very wise choice for undergraduate reading. It’s well written and does an excellent job placing events into a larger cultural context. I’m looking forward to new posts.

    Comment by Jack Ply — January 31, 2012 @ 1:54 pm

  19. Blair, I suppose I mean that my objectives in the class are mostly fact-based. While I would never claim that presentations are bias-free, and everything is a presentation, I can say that I’m trying my best, in a limited amount of time, to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, about Mormonism. At the very least, when I say I’m trying to be “objective” I mean that I’m not turning it into a proselytizing class (which would be absolutely, completely, totally in every way, shape, or form, inappropriate).

    Comment by Carl — February 6, 2012 @ 11:17 am


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