By Rhett Wilkinson
A Utah State University student can enter the Geology Building on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10:30 and find a professor teaching all about the life and mindset of Joseph Smith, the first prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Neither the student nor the professor is lost. The instructor, Dr. Philip Barlow, should not go looking for an Institute building to teach the material, either. Rather, Barlow’s teaching about Mormonism in a secular setting is perhaps an indication of a revolution for the faith when it comes to the academic forum. Barlow did not fully expect that his teachings, a part of the curriculum of a Mormon Studies program, would become the first in a longer lineup of similar programs across the country.
In the summer of 2007, Barlow left the Theological Studies program at Hanover College in Indiana, to Logan, Utah, to become the first Arrington Chair of Mormon Studies at USU. The move has proven to only be the beginning; similar programs are now offered Orem, Utah at Utah Valley University, and in Berkeley, California at Claremont University. Classes on Mormonism are taught at Harvard and Columbia University. Boston University has expressed interest in offering courses, while Arizona State University and the University of Wyoming might be next in line-after the University of Virginia, which currently has funding to start an academic Mormon Studies chair.
Barlow never considered himself a trend-setter, even in studies of his own expertise. In fact, when Barlow traveled to Cambridge, Mass., in 1986 to continue his religious training at Harvard he had different intentions entirely. “I went back to study religions because I thought I could become a savior of another’s faith,” said Barlow, the past president of the Mormon History Association. Barlow’s research has been published multiple times, including his work, “Mormons and the Bible: The Place of the Latter-day Saints in American Religion.” What Barlow learned in his studies at Harvard transformed his perspectiveof what he truly understood about his own faith.
“What I found is that I sat on a gold mine of resources that are available because Mormons are traditionally great record-keepers,” Barlow said. “We have more about Joseph Smith just as we have more about Mohammed’s life than Jesus,’ or Buddha’s life, for that matter. To watch and study the founder of a religious tradition that is so lively and controversial and complicated, many scholars want to try their hand at Mormonism at some point.”
That line of study has been apparent in recent years perhaps more are than ever before. The Arrington Chair at USU, the first of its kind, was created by Department of History head Norm Jones, philosophy professor Richard Sherlock and the current university president Stan Albrecht, who was the school’s dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences in 2005. According to Jones, the program’s establishment was enveloped in irony.
“The Mormons said the non-Mormons wouldn’t let us, and the non-Mormons said the Mormons wouldn’t,” he said. Jones explained that many Latter-day Saints were concerned that non-Latter-day Saints would complain about Mormonism being preached in the classroom, as well as being taught in a community that had already been established by Latter-day Saint settlers and is quite influenced by Mormon culture. However, Jones said that many non-Latter-day Saints assumed that members of the church would be concerned that an academic approach to their faith would “denigrate” the doctrines they cherish. Jones said that he, Sherlock and Albrecht collaborated with Logan Institute of Religion teachers, members of the Quorums of the LDS Seventy and the Catholic and Episcopalian bishops of Utah, among other ecclesiastical instructors and leaders, to help explain the foundation of the program. The purpose of the networking was to assure that no one would be “getting the wrong message about what (USU administrators) were up to,” Jones said.
The program’s existence as another reservoir of information about Mormonism has attracted attention from the media. The New York Times, Washington Post and Daily Beast have contacted Barlow with questions about the church, Jones said. The Joseph Smith Papers project has also approached the program looking for interns. “You know, religion is an academic study all over the world, except in Utah,” Jones said. “It’s hardly a startling idea elsewhere.”
Indeed, the USU chair was not alone in its distinction for long, both within the Beehive State and elsewhere. Claremont University, a graduate school in Berkeley, saw the same in the fall of 2008, while Utah Valley University has had such a program of its own since spring 2010. Claremont can thank nationally renowned scholar Richard Bushman, author of the popular biography Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, for the establishment of the Howard W. Hunter Mormon Chair at its university. Headed by Patrick Mason, approximately two dozen students were part of the program in the last school year.
“Of course, it’s very attracting as a pioneering effort to bring Mormonism to the discussion in a new way,” said Bushman, who is now teaching a course on the faith at Columbia University, where he has previously taught American religion. “We thought it would be useful for Mormons to talk formally about religion with other perspectives. Of course, both objectivity and inquiry is needed so it is satisfying to Mormons and non-Mormons in the class. Some have said, Well, you’re sounding too much like an institute teacher,’ and others… have said you’re not having a stand on (an issue).’ After three years, I think the problems are resolved.”
It’s a dilemma Bushman is pleased to see assuaged, considering that he was among very few Latter-day Saint scholars who traveled the country in 2007 seeking donations from members of the church to propagate such chairs. Bushman said that while he and Joseph Bentley, chair of the Council for Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University, did find some members of the church who were willing to give as much as $1 million for a program that costs at least $3 million, most were reluctant, saying that they preferred to provide such contributions to institutions owned by the church. “Mormons are traditionally interested in the education money going to BYU,” Bushman said. “They think that is the heart of the matter.”
When Latter-day Saints ranging from Washington, D.C., to Connecticut and southern California were willing to provide funding, they expressed that they preferred it go to a proximate school. At that point, Bushman said they shouldn’t worry. When it comes to withholding contributions because of the concern that an academic board would reject such a study, or that a scholar with a bias against the church would be hired, Bushman emphasized that such a dilemma is largely a non-issue.“I think Mormons would be surprised at how many universities would be happy to have chair of Mormon studies, if it were funded,” he said.
“I don’t think you’re going to get either an instructor to do missionary work or those who are seeking to tear down the church. The question now would be if the Mormon population can become accustomed to our faith being taught in other locations.”
While garnering funding remains a challenge, both Barlow and Bushman agree that the bank of scholars to teach in the chairs has plenty of resources. Before admitting that some scholars may be concerned about being associated as an expert on Mormonism, Bushman said that a non-LDS scholar like current IUPUI professor and Mormon historian Jan Shipps would be able to fit the mold well, although it may take “one or two” scholars to be appointed before donors would be more accepting of an instructor from outside of the church. Armand Moss served on the faculty selection committee that brought Bushman and his wife, Claudia, to Claremont, and serves on the LDS Council on Mormon Studies with Bentley, and holds a faculty position. For Moss, an academic approach to his own faith is refreshing.
“I enjoy studying and learning about the history and culture of the Latter-day Saints at the graduate level, at a higher level of intellectual sophistication than is feasible in CES courses,” he said, before adding that he viewed the programs as crucial to fulfilling the mandate given in the first section of the Doctrine and Covenants, which says that the church will publically rise “out of obscurity and out of darkness.” As Moss noted, “There is a main challenge to teaching students the difference between a devotional and an academic way of studying the LDS Church and religion, and helping them learn to appreciate the value ofboth.”
That has been the case for Liz Mott, an Arizona native who is now pursuing a doctorate in American Religions with an emphasis in the Mormon Chair after receiving degrees in English and communications at BYU. She said that an academic approach to the faith-“the more the merrier,” she said with regards to Mormon Chairs-has been edifying but vastly different than her experience as a proselytizing missionary in the Chicago area nearly a decade ago.
“Something I’ve talked about in the moniker of Mormon Studies is the ghettoization of it,” she said. “If we can develop rigorous research methods for a discipline in the academy, that’s really good because then there’s legitimacy to (the discipline).” Mott has drawn greater strength, overall, from the academic study as well, echoing Barlow’s sentiment that a learning of truths of God can come “by study and also by faith,” as read in section 88 of the Doctrine and Covenants.
“As I’ve learned more about Mormon history, reading the actual documents, there’s definitely challenging things that I’ve come across,” Mott added. “But as I’ve learned about Mormon history and the teachings of Joseph Smith and the modern scripture that have come through it, in comparison to Judaism and early Christianity, that has strengthened and been affirming to me. There’s this idea that, theologically, I find Mormonism very persuasive and very powerful. My convictions come from my experience being Mormon, where it’s honestly brought me the greatest joy in my life. It’s important that I felt this way before the nebulous world of academia. Because it’s a fact that I previously had that solid grounding in living the gospel that allows me to push past those kinds of concerns, and becomes faith-affirming in terms of the cosmology of Mormon theology.”
With such a perspective, she said she is comfortable in viewing the growth of academic chairs as part of the fulfillment of scriptural visions. To her, that includes what is found in Daniel 2 of the Old Testament, a likening the growth of the Lord’s kingdom to a stone being cut out of a mountain and growing as it rolls throughout the earth, along with 1 Nephi 14 of the Book of Mormon, an account that witnesses that members of the “church of the Lamb of God” would be scattered across “all the face of the earth.” It’s a conviction that Barlow, Moss and Mason, along with Bushman, all said they share in various ways.”Of course, I do believe that,” Bushman said, before mentioning that effective communication in bringing presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman into clearer focus in society would fall into the criteria of the prophecies. “Our destiny is to build Zion, as a culture and as a society. We have to learn how to do that. It’s not just sitting in Spanish Fork and studying the scriptures, but by understanding what the world needs. Politics are another part of that, but that’s for the programs in Washington. We (Latter-day Saints) need to work on intellectual and scholarly programs as well.”
Rhett Wilkinson is a student at Utah State University.