Whither Mormon Studies?

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Abstract: The proliferation of Mormon Studies is surprising, considering that many of the basic questions about the field have never been answered. This paper looks at a number of basic questions about Mormon Studies that are of either academic concern or concern for members of the Church of Jesus Christ. They include such questions as whether Mormon Studies is a discipline, whether those who do Mormon Studies necessarily know what is going on in the Church, or if they interpret their findings correctly, whether there is any core knowledge that those who do Mormon Studies can or should have, what sort of topics Mormon Studies covers or should cover and whether those topics really have anything to do with what Mormons actually do or think about, whether Mormon Studies has ulterior political or religious motives, and whether it helps or hurts the Kingdom. Is Mormon Studies a waste of students’ time and donors’ money? Though the paper does not come up with definitive answers to any of those questions, it sketches ways of looking at them from a perspective within the restored Gospel and suggests that these issues ought to be more carefully considered before Latter-day Saints dive headlong into Mormon Studies in general.

In my lifetime, Mormonism has gone from mostly under the radar of Religious Studies to the point where there are now academic programs in Mormon Studies. Whether this is a good development can at least be debated. As the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship has suspended the Mormon [Page 94]Studies Review (but has now announced that it will be relaunched, perhaps toward the end of 2013), it is worth looking at some lingering questions in the field of Mormon Studies. These are some questions about the field that have not been satisfactorily answered—nor are they necessarily answered here—but they need to be considered lest Mormon Studies become seen by Latter-day Saints as simply another dash of the Gadarene swine. ((I would like to thank William Hamblin, Kristian Heal, Paul Hoskisson, Louis Midgley, and Gregory Smith for fruitful discussions and comments about this topic. This article was originally accepted by the Mormon Studies Review and was to have been included in the first issue, Mormon Studies Review 23/1, but did not appear. The article has been adjusted slightly to reflect recent events.)) As a partial foil for my discussion, I would like to use an unappreciated pioneer in Mormon Studies, the late British Shakespearean scholar Arthur Henry King, who was widely read and widely traveled and already had a distinguished academic career before he encountered The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. At the very end of his academic career he produced a thoughtful work of Mormon Studies that was part analysis and part critique. ((Arthur Henry King, The Abundance of the Heart (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1986). This was reissued with slight revisions as Arthur Henry King, Arm the Children: Faith’s Response to a Violent World (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 1998).)) The critique was aimed at members of the Church who substituted their own naïve presuppositions, culture, politics, or ethnicity for the Gospel and did not consider their actions in the light of what the scriptures taught.

Is There any Discipline in Mormon Studies?

When Arthur Henry King taught Shakespeare, he would begin his upper division classes by announcing that he was not going to require the class to [Page 95]write an essay on Shakespeare since none of them was competent to do so. Instead he would teach them a method that, if pursued for twenty years, might equip them with such competence. The English majors were instantly offended at his suggestion that they did not know enough to write an essay on Shakespeare, but he was absolutely right. His disciplined method required the scansion of every line and the analysis of every word in the context of the play, in the context of Shakespeare’s usage, and in other usage in Shakespeare’s day. It involved asking moral questions of the material, such as: Is there any love in this play? Who is posturing in this play and why? This is an admired speech, but is it a good one? Is the sentiment expressed by this character moral? If this character were to give a Christian response here, what would it be? What does this character need to repent of? Does he or she repent? His method required a reflexive critique on whether interpretations were (1) actually preferable, (2) just probable, (3) merely possible, or (4) simply impossible. King was as demanding of himself as he was of his students. He would stand up and walk out of a play if the director carelessly omitted Marcellus’s speech in the first scene of Hamlet (which he thought was the highlight of the play), ((William Shakespeare, Hamlet I.i.158–164.)) or butchered The Tempest by substituting Prospero’s nihilistic speech ((William Shakespeare, The Tempest IV.i.146–158.)) (which he must repent of) ((William Shakespeare, The Tempest IV.i.158–163.)) for his repentance at the end. ((William Shakespeare, The Tempest epilogue.1–20.)) Students who entered King’s office would find his packed bookshelves filled with little else than three-inch-thick binders filled with his notes on every Shakespearean play. Observant students could tell that he had practiced his own method for many years and was teaching from personal experience and personal discipline. His method described a discipline for studying Shakespeare that can be profitably applied to other fields. ((I have used it with some profit in Egyptology. Among the Egyptological essays I have produced reflecting the method King taught are: John Gee, “Notes on Egyptian Marriage: P. BM 10416 Reconsidered,” Bulletin of the Egyptological Seminar 15 (2001): 17–25; “Trial Marriage in Ancient Egypt? P. Louvre E 7846 Reconsidered,” in Res severa verum gaudium, ed. Friedrich Hoffmann and Günther Vittmann (Leuven: Peeters, 2004), 223–31; “On the Practice of Sealing in the Book of the Dead and the Coffin Texts,” Journal of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities 35 (2008): 105–22; “A New Look at the Conception of the Human Being in Ancient Egypt,” in ‘Being in Ancient Egypt’: Thoughts on Agency, Materiality and Cognition, ed. Rune Nord, Annette Kjølby (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2009), 1–14; “A New Look at the n p3 by Formula,” in Actes du IXe Congrès international des études démotiques, ed. Ghislaine Widmer et Didier Devauchelle (Cairo: Institut Français Archéologie Orientale, 2009), 133–44.))

[Page 96]Many areas of study require the mastery of language(s), or mathematics, or some other demanding base, without which one cannot even begin to work competently in the field. A physicist cannot begin to probe the mysteries of quantum mechanics without the calculus, even though mathematics is not his area of interest. A student of the Old Testament requires not just Hebrew but also German in order to interact with the technical literature of his field, though his interest is hardly focused on modern European languages. While it is clear that many who write on Mormon Studies are not competent to do so, the cause of this problem has been often overlooked. Tellingly, Mormon Studies seems to lack the disciplinary “prerequisites” which other fields demand—the original documents are mostly in English and easily read by any literate layperson, which means that the would-be author faces few bars to entry. If the ability to read English and talk to a few Mormons are the only requirements, why pretend that the quality of most work in Mormon Studies reflects the standards of an academic discipline, such as peer review, graduate school apprenticeship, and a necessary command of the relevant literature? To produce work worthy of serious interest, Mormon Studies may need a discipline that after twenty years of experience might produce something worthy of consideration.

Discipline requires “a certain amount of grind and insistence on detail and accuracy.” ((King, Abundance of the Heart, 240.)) Without discipline we end up with what King called “higher illiteracy,” which he said comes “partly because during the years of our schooling we have not been submitted to any unremitting disciplinary training in the [Page 97]use of language.” ((King, Abundance of the Heart, 240.)) It is that lack of discipline—and the rigorous training that might supply it—that often leads individuals to use such sloppy and ill-thought-out categories as “mysticism,” “theology,” and “objectivity” when talking about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

King was blunt and forthright in academic matters; he was not interested in “Mormon nice.” Nice, after all, comes from the Latin nescius “ignorant” and originally meant “foolish, stupid, senseless.” ((Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. nice.)) “Nice” is how one treats people when one does not know any better. While it is often a good thing for Latter-day Saints to ignore the learning of the world (such can afford to be nice), Latter-day Saints who wish to engage in Mormon Studies cannot afford to be nice if this means ignoring sloppy work, immature thinking, or a lack of grounding in the relevant fundamentals. Christ’s command was not merely to be as harmless as doves but to be wise as serpents.

Most of those who have excelled at Mormon Studies come from other disciplines and have excelled because they apply their discipline to their Mormon subject. They are careful thinkers. They also love their subject and are excited about it—not because they think that it is somehow strange but because they think that it is wonderful. Good entomologists, for example, do not think that insects are weird or strange or some academic curiosity. They are passionate advocates of their subject; they are not trying to kill off the species they study. It is precisely their passion for their subject that compels them to bring their best to their study. They do not affect disinterest. Disinterested people are incapable of research, since research requires an interest in the topic of research. Disinterested people write trite drivel. Disinterested speakers are boring. Students hate disinterested professors; they prefer enthusiastic ones. (And we should remember that enthusiasm [Page 98]comes from a Greek term meaning “to be inspired or possessed by a god.”) ((Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, Henry Stuart Jones and Roderick McKenzie, A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), 566–67.)) We do not want disinterested observers of Latter-day Saints because disinterested people do not care. Why would anyone want to affect or feign disinterestedness in her topic?

From the point of view of the Saints, Mormon Studies should not pretend to learning for learning’s sake. As King wrote,

For us, all learning is for God’s sake, not for its own sake. As soon as we speak of learning for its own sake, we set up learning as an idol independent of God. The Mormon tradition is supremely one of work, work for the Lord and others—service. Work is the second great virtue. Caring or love is the first; and work should spring from caring. The object of a Mormon university must be to build the kingdom of God, to serve in the Church in the full sense of what that implies. Because we believe in the Church, because we believe it to be the most important organization on this earth, because we believe it to be the instrument of God’s will, because we believe Christ is its head, we must therefore believe that any organization that the Church sets up must finally and ultimately serve the Church. ((King, Abundance of the Heart, 263–64.))

Does a Specialist in Mormon Studies Necessarily Know What is Going on in the Church?

We cannot presume that someone professing to do Mormon Studies is necessarily a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but we have the right to expect him or her [Page 99]to know something about the Church. ((While splinter groups may be a legitimate object of study, they are statistically insignificant and may well meet the definition of fringe groups. Only two splinter groups (the Bickertonites, and the Community of Christ) have sufficient numbers to be mentioned in the Association of Religion Data Archives. Mormon Studies is principally about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and this is how I will use the term here.)) That is, after all, supposedly his or her area of expertise. In reality, though, that area of expertise can be overstated. A scholar of Mormon Studies might have broad interests in the Church and some knowledge about the Church, but expertise will generally be in a more narrow range, such as Church history in the Nauvoo Period, or Mormons in the southeastern United States in the late nineteenth century, for example. A potential problem then appears when outside observers, such as the media, turn to a scholar focused on some narrow aspect of Mormon Studies, and mistakenly conclude that the scholar is some sort of authority on the Church in all its dimensions. A biochemist specializing in DNA would not be consulted about transition-metal chemistry simply because he is a “chemist,” but scholars of Mormonism are often asked to comment on matters equally far from their area of expertise. More troubling, neither they nor their audience seem to realize they are doing so.

Jan Shipps was a well-known example of this phenomenon. Shipps was constantly consulted by the media for her opinions about what was going on in the Church, though some of the Saints could be forgiven for wondering from her statements excerpted in the media how informed she was. Shipps recalls that her first exposure to the Church was when she moved to Logan, Utah, for a year. ((Jan Shipps, Sojourner in the Promised Land: Forty Years among the Mormons (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2000), xii.)) Most of the people that she associated with “did not fit into the ‘active Mormon’ category” and most of what she learned about Latter-day Saints was over alcohol. ((Shipps, Sojourner in the Promised Land, 372.)) [Page 100]She recalls that “we never attended a sacrament meeting.” ((Shipps, Sojourner in the Promised Land, 372.)) She then moved to Colorado, where she did graduate work on Mormonism all while trying “to avoid being pulled one way or the other.” ((Shipps, Sojourner in the Promised Land, 373.)) In the early seventies she finally entered what she considered the “real Mormon community,” which was “the community of Mormon intellectuals then gathering around Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.” ((Shipps, Sojourner in the Promised Land, 374.)) She herself admits that “this loosely organized community stood in sharp contrast to the ever more rigidly organized and strictly regulated religious body to which the great majority of LDS intellectuals belonged and in which many were active participants.” ((Shipps, Sojourner in the Promised Land, 374.)) In other words, she has only had limited contact with what goes on in the Church and her principal informants have been those on the fringes. While outsiders can, and sometimes do, have important insights into the Latter-day Saint experience, insiders know that outsiders’ understanding is incomplete, and they often fail to grasp basic, fundamental, even obvious facets from their outside position. This dynamic can make them unreliable sources of information for those who actually want to understand the church better.

Why does this problem arise? In the first place, most scholars of Mormonism are in a very poor position to understand what is going on in the Church simply because of its sheer size and extent. In 2009, the Church had 2,865 stakes with 28,424 wards and branches in over 150 countries. ((Brook P. Hales, “Statistical Report, 2009,” Ensign 40/5 (May 2010): 28.)) Assume for the moment that a scholar of Mormonism has twenty friends in different stakes around the Church reporting to her what is going on in their wards and stakes (an overly optimistic estimate), perhaps a couple of times a year. A stake president will have, on [Page 101]average, about ten units reporting to him. Additionally, most Sundays he will be visiting one or two of those wards in person. Every month he will be interviewing the bishops. At least three or four times a month (sometimes three or four times a week) he will be interviewing various members of the stake to issue callings, to issue temple recommends, to counsel those with problems, and to deal with the wayward. Additionally, nearly every week a stake president (or a bishop, for that matter) will receive a packet in the mail from Church headquarters informing him about minor policy changes and upcoming things of which he should be aware. A stake president, therefore, is better informed about what is going on in the Church than a typical scholar of Mormonism, albeit often for a more restricted geographical area.

This is not to say that the media ought to go to a stake president for information. (The stake president would likely send a reporter to the local public affairs representative.) But a stake president is more likely to be informed about what is going on in the Church than someone whose primary source of information consists of those Latter-day Saints who frequent cocktail parties. If one wants to understand what is going on in the current Church, however, one needs to have a larger picture than even a stake president can provide.

A member of the Quorum of the Seventy in an Area Presidency will have responsibility for an average of about 90–100 stakes, consisting of 900–1000 wards. An apostle will have an average of 686 stakes and 6869 wards reporting to him. The apostles as a group also receive reports from each of the Area Presidencies at least a couple of times a year. Furthermore, these brethren will spend about forty weeks a year on assignment visiting Latter-day Saints worldwide, which the scholar will not.

This is not to say that either the media or scholars of Mormon Studies should waste the time of the General Authorities with [Page 102]routine media queries. Church Public Affairs is established to interact with the media. So while someone who does Mormon Studies may be an expert in his or her particular niche, he or she will be in less of a position to say what is generally happening Church-wide than a typical General Authority.

What Will a Student Learn in a Mormon Studies Program?

Most “studies” programs are interdisciplinary, with a number of different faculty in different departments specializing in where the subject of the “studies” program intersects with the discipline: for example, history, theology, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, archaeology, languages, political science, literature, and so forth. Outside of Brigham Young University, Brigham Young University–Hawaii, and Brigham Young University–Idaho, no university has more than a single chair in Mormon Studies. This lack of a broad interdisciplinary approach means that other universities cannot really have an effective program and students who study in such places are unlikely to get a well-rounded education in the topic. Instead, in the classroom they will be instructed in the eccentricities of their particular professor.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a worldwide church with more members living outside the United States than inside the United States, yet Mormon Studies has generally been focused on the United States. Will Mormon Studies programs based exclusively in the United States deal well with the worldwide Church or will they only focus on the Church in the United States? Can one specialist really be expected to cover more than a fraction of the territory?

Students in a Mormon Studies program will learn mostly from and be greatly influenced by their professor. What then will their students be learning from them? “Generally, course and faculty / student interface are needed for the development of skills, the inculcation of method, the application of principle, the acquiring of attitude—to show how learning is [Page 103]organized, how it can stimulate and lead to discussion—not for information that students should be getting by reading.” ((King, Abundance of the Heart, 240.)) The character of the professor assumes a crucial role here.

What Core Areas of Knowledge Should a Specialist in Mormon Studies Have?

While someone in Mormon Studies may have a specialist niche, there should be some standard core knowledge that a specialist in Mormon Studies ought to be expected to have. An analogy from another discipline might be appropriate here. While Egyptology covers thousands of years and every facet of that civilization and Egyptologists necessarily specialize, there is a core of knowledge that comes as part of their training that they can all be expected to have. There are texts that all are expected to have read, and minimal competencies that all are expected to have achieved before proceeding to their specialties. Likewise, those involved in Mormon Studies should share a standard core of texts and a standard core of basic knowledge.

While there will be some debate regarding all the texts and knowledge that a scholar of Mormon Studies should have, I will here suggest a bare minimum. A scholar of Mormon Studies worthy of the title should at a bare minimum have carefully read all of the standard works of the Church: the Bible (both Old and New Testaments), the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. Some reasons for this are obvious. As the canon of the Church, these are the core texts throughout the Church that all members are encouraged to study. It is only to be expected that members and scholars should be familiar with them. Latter-day Saint writing and talks are peppered with quotations from, and allusions to, these books of scripture (over 100,000 of them in the last sixty or so years of General Conference alone). ((See http://scriptures.byu.edu/.)) One cannot presume to [Page 104]write intelligently about Latter-day Saints without an intimate grasp of this core intellectual background.

It should likewise be expected that anyone who wishes to write knowledgeably about Latter-day Saints should know the basics of Latter-day Saint belief. This base would include the Gospel (i.e., faith in Jesus Christ, repentance, baptism, the gift of the Holy Ghost, and enduring to the end). Those basics can be found in the lessons taught to investigators and new members. That is what the Church expects its members to believe and commit to. Thus, those who do not belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but wish to participate intelligently in Mormon Studies, would do well to familiarize themselves with the third chapter of Preach My Gospel, the Church’s guide for missionary work. ((Preach My Gospel (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2004), 29–88.)) This chapter covers the basics of Latter-day Saint beliefs and tenets. The guide is available in forty-three languages, all of which are available for free on the internet, so there is no excuse for not knowing the material. ((At https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/preach-my-gospel-a-guide-to-missionary-service/what-do-i-study-and-teach?lang=eng.))

One would also expect that those doing Mormon Studies would have some idea of what a Church meeting was like; one would think that they should have at least attended a Sacrament Meeting, a Fast and Testimony Meeting, and a session of General Conference. (I deliberately exclude familiarity with temple ordinances because not all Latter-day Saints have yet experienced the temple.)

Beyond these recommendations, one would expect a knowledge of the general outlines of LDS Church history, if for no other reason than to help them navigate more specialist discussions.

Doubtless, there is more that should be included. The exact core competencies can be debated, but I have a hard time imagining how someone could even claim the sort of competence [Page 105]in Mormon Studies necessary to publish without this bare minimum.

Will Students of a Specialist in Mormon Studies Necessarily Know Even the Basics about the Church?

One of the most disappointing things about reading accounts of the Latter-day Saints by outsiders is the persistent failure to get even basic information correct.

In 2009 the Church had 51,736 missionaries who baptized 280,106 converts for an average of over 10 ¾ converts per missionary companionship. This does not include all the investigators who did not end up being baptized, but is limited to those people who were taught well enough that the individual could pass a baptismal recommend interview, which means that the person understood the basics of the Church. Is it plausible that any professor of Mormon Studies is going to get ten of his students a year able to answer all those questions satisfactorily? Students in a Mormon Studies program should not be required to convert, but they should be familiar with the basics, which is what the missionaries teach. A Mormon Studies instructor who fails to help his students understand the basics has failed his students. This is not to say that missionaries are particularly gifted teachers; their training in teaching is rather minimal. For all its brevity, however, it is more extensive than the amount of pedagogical training necessary to receive a PhD.

So a Mormon Studies graduate is likely to be no better informed about the Church in general than a stake president and no better a teacher than a missionary. A scholar can be an expert in particular without being an authority in general. A scholar might, for example, be an expert in a comparatively specialized subject, and might be the most knowledgeable person in the Church in that particular area. This specialized expertise has to be the strength of those involved in Mormon Studies.
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What is the Purpose of Mormon Studies?

For years we have had individuals with specialist knowledge without programs and positions in Mormon Studies. Their existence does not require or even argue for a need for such programs. Since the purpose of Mormon Studies is the key question, and one which I will not presume to answer at this time, I suggest that the answer might depend on the position of the individual to whom the question is put. The purpose of Mormon Studies may mean one thing to the professor of Mormon Studies, another to the student, something else to the donor who has put up the money for the professor’s position, something different to the member of the Church, and yet something different to a leader of the Church.

As in the rest of academia, a potential problem for the professor of Mormon Studies is simply the inevitable pressure to publish, perhaps before the professor has anything to say. Like Jan Shipps, Arthur Henry King encountered the Church in the 1960s, but, unlike Shipps, King did not pretend or presume to be neutral, but rather joined the Church. Already an academic by training and sometime professor at Cambridge, King joined the faculty at Brigham Young University as a professor of English and taught English, particularly Shakespeare. He published very little. After some twenty years among the Latter-day Saints, however, he produced a book which he began by admitting, “I am new to the Church; and I wondered, therefore, what I could say from inside it that could interest you, or indeed, be knowledgeable. I have come in late, but I am addressing people here who have always been in the Church, or perhaps came to it early.” ((King, Abundance of the Heart, 9.)) Yet, his relative newness to the church notwithstanding, he wrote a work which remains one of the most original and insightful books in Mormon Studies because of his careful and thoughtful engagement with the subject. ((King, Abundance of the Heart.)) I doubt that he would have produced [Page 107]anything so profound had he rushed into print to satisfy the timetable of a tenure committee. If a professor has perhaps not matured enough to produce something profound, it is even more unlikely that a graduate student who is not a member of the Church would have anything useful to say. Would a graduate student who has spent 45 hours in a semester-long class on Mormonism really have the hubris to think that he would have anything worthwhile to tell the typical Church member who spends at least 150 hours a year in Church meetings alone (to say nothing of the countless hours outside the Sunday block)? These are people who have covenanted with God and given their lives to him through his Church. They are citizens and inhabitants of the kingdom of God, not tourists. They may not be specialists and they do not know everything, but they know from personal experience and devoted time how the Church works and what LDS life is like.

A professor, furthermore, might take a different attitude toward his subject. Some, caught in the publish or perish trap, might decide to pump forth whatever bilge they think they need to placate a tenure committee, probably staffed by secular Religious Studies scholars. For others, their professorship might serve as an opportunity to demonstrate their erudition or cleverness. While Latter-day Saints may put up the money to fund chairs in Mormon Studies, Religious Studies scholars are the ones who will determine the rank advancement of those who hold university chairs in Mormon Studies and who will determine who will be hired. Thus the interests of Mormon Studies chairs will not necessarily align with the desires of Latter-day Saints. This has been less of a concern in the past when those hired for Mormon Studies chairs were established scholars, such as Richard Bushman, who had already established track records for competence. Any younger, non-tenured scholar will have to make his or her work in Mormon Studies please the senior scholars in Religious Studies who [Page 108]hold the key to his or her rank advancement and tenure. Will work in Mormon Studies conform to the expectations of the Religious Studies departments? Will it serve the academy, and not the Kingdom? There are times when it might serve both, but there might also be times when one simply cannot serve two masters and thus must choose whom one will serve. “It is the tradition of the academic that he should be a self-regarder, a self-lover, an exhibitionist, a narcissist, one who postures and clowns for educational purposes.” ((King, Abundance of the Heart, 262.)) Arthur Henry King noted, “I have been a member of several universities, and I have visited some two hundred. And I can assure you that the outstanding feature of the faculty of universities is an extraordinary immaturity which springs from self-regard, the praise given by others, arrogance, the belief in one’s own powers—any of these things will bring it about. It is more difficult to grow up when one is clever.” ((King, Abundance of the Heart, 263.))

There is, however, a more excellent way. As Arthur Henry King taught, “When we have laid down at Christ’s feet all our scholarship, all our learning, all the tools of our trades, we discover that we may pick them all up again, clean them, adjust them, and use them for the Church in the name of Christ and in the light of his countenance. We do not need to discard them. All we need do is to use them from the faith which now possesses us. And we find that we can.” ((King, Abundance of the Heart, 30.)) Otherwise, as Hugh Nibley warned, for those who do not defend the kingdom of God, their “whole career will become one long face-saving operation—at the expense of the Church.” ((Hugh Nibley, “Nobody to Blame,” in Hugh Nibley, Eloquent Witness: Nibley on Himself, Others, and the Temple (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 2008), 136.))

Lehi’s and Nephi’s visions of the tree of life are relevant here. Lehi describes “a great and spacious building . . . filled [Page 109]with people, both old and young, both male and female, . . . in the attitude of mocking and pointing their fingers towards those who had come at and were partaking of the fruit” (1 Nephi 8:26–27). An angel explains to Nephi that the building represents “the world and the wisdom thereof” (1 Nephi 11:35). Nephi somberly explains that “as many as heeded them, had fallen away” (1 Nephi 8:34).

For Latter-day Saints, who generally already know their faith much better than outsiders ever will, one important purpose for Mormon Studies is to provide believers with insight. Arthur Henry King liked to quote from T.S. Eliot: “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” ((T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding” V, from The Four Quartets, in T. S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays 1909–1950 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980), 145.)) A good work in Mormon Studies will make the Latter-day Saint who already knows the subject feel as though he or she is encountering the subject for the first time. It will add fresh insight and be edifying.

Are Scholars of Mormon Studies Necessarily the Best at Interpreting What is Going on in the Church?

If the purpose of Mormon Studies is to be insightful and edifying, we might wonder how insightful scholars of Mormon Studies actually are. I was struck by the perspicacity of one member of the Church with whom I attended the October 1999 Priesthood Session of General Conference. After the meeting, he announced that the Church was going to sell ZCMI, which the Church did a month and a half later. He had correctly read between the lines when the following passage was delivered over the pulpit:

Now, the next question: “Why is the Church in business?”

[Page 110]We have a few business interests. Not many. Most of these were begun in very early days when the Church was the only organization that could provide the capital that was needed to start certain business interests designed to serve the people in this remote area. We have divested ourselves long since of some of these where it was felt there was no longer a need. Included in these divestitures, for instance, was the old Consolidated Wagon and Machine Company, which did well in the days of wagons and horse-drawn farm machinery. The company outlived its usefulness.

The Church sold the banks which it once held. As good banking services developed in the community, there was no longer any need for Church-owned banks. ((Gordon B. Hinckley, “Why We Do Some of the Things We Do,” Ensign 29 (1999): 52.))

Granted that the man who drew the conclusion was, and is, more astute than most, the correct conclusion drawn at the time is not necessarily straight-forward even in retrospect. Are those who do Mormon Studies so astute? They may not necessarily be. Looking back at various interpretations made by certain intellectuals doing Mormon Studies regarding events and trends happening in the Church, one gets the distinct impression that they misunderstood them. This is not to say that all intellectuals, or even all Mormon intellectuals, are clueless. Most of the time those in Mormon Studies have the good sense not to claim to be prophets, but they have, on occasion, presumed as much. ((Nibley, “Nobody to Blame,” 127.)) If Latter-day Saints are going to find something insightful and edifying in Mormon Studies, some facets of the field are going to need to change.
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What Sort of Topics Should be Covered by Mormon Studies?

For some, Mormon Studies is synonymous with Mormon History. While history is an important component of Mormon Studies, the field itself cannot be reduced to history. By its designation, Mormon Studies models itself on the broader discipline of Religious Studies. The chairs in Mormon Studies have, so far, been in Religious Studies departments,not history departments. Church members excited over the prospect of Mormon Studies may not be as excited over the topics that Religious Studies as a larger discipline prefers to address.

One could consider the list of the Mormon Studies topics presented over the last few years at the Annual Meetings of the American Academy of Religion, perhaps the premiere outlet for Religious Studies in the United States. ((The list of has been assembled over several years from the American Academy of Religion’s website, with excerpts of the author’s abstracts when available. The length of the list has forced it into an appendix.)) It is indicative of the type of topics that one can expect to emerge out of a Mormon Studies program. Latter-day Saints will find among the topics the innocuous to the noxious. If anything, it shows the type of work that is promoted under the rubric of Mormon Studies. As might be expected in Religious Studies, there is a tremendous interest in interreligious dialogues, and comparisons across different religions. Because Religious Studies, like many “Studies” fields, tends to use a post-modern lens, which sees religion as a means to seize or maintain power (religion as politics by other means), there is a concentrated focus on politics. (The danger of such a position is that one might come to view the Church as a merely human institution that can or should be politically manipulated. It seems to me that those who take this position have grossly misunderstood the Church.) Like most “Studies” fields, Religious Studies is also fixated on issues of race and gender, particularly on sexual orientation and, from certain perspectives, deviant sexual behavior. It is [Page 112]unsurprising, then, that some think Mormon Studies should be no exception. Those involved in Mormon Studies have also been interested in Latter-day Saint arts. Pilgrimage seems to be another popular topic. There are other topics, but their rarity makes them almost appear as though they were aberrations. Treatments of Latter-day Saint scriptures do appear, but are fairly rare and usually deal with what someone said about a text rather than the text itself.

This is not to say that all of these topics are illegitimate, or non-academic, or uninteresting, although some of them might be some of those things. However, the vast majority of these studies are far removed from the issues that most Latter-day Saints deal with on a daily basis. Too many of them qualify as higher illiteracy. They are not things that Latter-day Saints will find insightful or edifying. They are an imposition of the interests of outsiders on the Latter-day Saints. They generally deal with isolated instances or marginal phenomena. None of them deal with the gospel. None of them deal with the central issues of the kingdom of God. Few of them appear to help the kingdom—at best, they are neutral toward its progress, and at worst, they are sometimes overtly hostile. They are distractions from what we are supposed to be doing as a Church and as a people. “Our task is not to accept agnostic literature.” ((King, Abundance of the Heart, 268.)) That is, for Latter-day Saints, the danger in Mormon Studies. We can expect that as younger scholars in Mormon Studies try to produce work respected by the academy at large, more of the sort of drivel that is at best of marginal interest to the Saints will be produced in the name of satisfying whatever prevailing fad possesses the academy. King writes,

We do not need to catch up with the world, the flesh, and the devil. If we are the Lord’s, we are not of this world. If we fulfill prophecy, it will not be by imitating [Page 113]other universities, but by taking note of what they do and, in the light or darkness of that, working out our own path. That path should ultimately be traced for us by inspiration and revelation, but it will not be traced for us at all unless we use ourselves to the maximum in the magnificent possibilities that are given us here. We are obligated, each of us, to make the best of ourselves in order that we may do the best for Christ, and this is as true of our intellectual work as of all other kinds of work we have to do. ((King, Abundance of the Heart, 271.))

Not all of the presentations at the American Academy of Religion meetings were by members of the Church. Some were by disaffected Latter-day Saints, some by those who have left the Church, some by anti-Mormons who have never been members, some simply by professors who think they know more about the Church than they actually do. We can expect more of these in the future. After all, “to attack religion is the one safe course for the ambitious intellectual. . . . this marks him as a great thinker and above all saves him from being called to account, for if he is too closely questioned or criticized, he can always play the martyred liberal.” ((Nibley, “Nobody to Blame,” 137–38.)) It is even likely that a graduate student will train to become a secular, academic species of professional anti-Mormon. Indeed, I know of at least four who are. Ironically, he or she may do so in a Mormon Studies program funded by members of the Church who could conceive of nothing ill coming out of it.

We should expect more of things like the program, “What the Study of Mormonism Brings to Religious Studies: A Special AAR Session Organized on the Occasion of the Bicentennial of Joseph Smith’s Birth” which was presented at the 2005 American Academy of Religion meetings in Philadelphia. At [Page 114]that session, one scholar announced that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had no interest in being perceived as Christian until the year 2000. The Latter-day Saints in the audience, who made up probably between one and two thirds of the assembled, may have been wondering where this person had been, since the subject has made periodic appearances in General Conference from as early as 1962. ((Hugh B. Brown, “Are the Latter-day Saints . . . Christian?” Improvement Era 65/6 (June 1962): 408–10.)) One after the other speakers prefaced their prepared remarks with the comment, “I do not really know anything about the Mormons, but . . .” The pièce de résistance of the entire meeting was the observation by a distinguished Old Testament scholar, based on an examination of three pages literally at random from the Book of Mormon, that the Book of Mormon made no use of the Old Testament. With such truly incredible conclusions one wonders how much more he could have embarrassed himself in front of such an audience, at least a third of whom recognized that the emperor had no clothes. One also wonders what sort of lack of study of Mormonism continues to occur in Religious Studies. Not all presentations on Latter-day Saints in such programs are so blithely ignorant of the object of their study, but too many are. This is not a situation which would occur—much less be tolerated—in virtually any other discipline.

Is Mormon Studies Reductionist?

The session devoted to “What the Study of Mormonism Brings to Religious Studies” was notable for another omission. There was no mention of one of the especially distinctive features of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. When Joseph Smith went to Washington, D.C. in December 1839 to petition redress for the robbery, vandalism, and deprivation of rights associated with the Missouri persecutions, the President of the United States, Martin Van Buren, asked him “wherein [Page 115]we differed in our religion from the other religions of the day. Brother Joseph said we differed in mode of baptism, and the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands. We considered that all other considerations were contained in the gift of the Holy Ghost.” ((History of the Church, 4:42.)) The presence, influence, and inspiration of the Holy Ghost is still seen as a driving force among the Latter-day Saints. One Sunday a month, the bulk of the time in the principal worship service is devoted to members, as prompted by the Holy Spirit, telling of the influence that the Spirit has had in their lives and of the mighty acts of God they have witnessed. A section of the Church’s official magazine for adults is devoted to the same thing. Much of what has been done in the name of Mormon Studies omits this distinctive characteristic. For some topics and discussion, it may not be necessary or appropriate, and some who do Mormon Studies may not believe a word of it, but to wholly omit it from consideration is to falsify the account of the experience of Latter-day Saints. It cannot be a true account. It reduces the faith of the Saints to something much less. It is as though one were to stage Shakespeare’s Tempest without Prospero or Ariel.

As has happened in other Religious Studies sub-disciplines, Mormon Studies might try to describe something and the Latter-day Saints might find their faith “not only well described, but also explained, i.e., explained away into political, historical or literary factors.” ((Herman te Velde, “The History of the Study of Ancient Egyptian Religion and its Future,” in Egyptology at the Dawn of the Twenty-first Century, ed. Zahi Hawass and Lyla Pinch Brock (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2003), 2:43.)) Work in Mormon Studies that neglects the influence of God in the experience of the Latter-day Saints risks being reductionist in the worst sense of the word. Latter-day Saints who engage in such work might wonder how their work fits in with Doctrine and Covenants 59:21. Those who are [Page 116]not Latter-day Saints or who are merely “cultural Mormons” should realize that their reductionist work will be viewed by the Saints as flawed: at best as not fully accurate and at worst as fundamentally fallacious, if not intentionally misleading.

Those who take a reductionist approach, Nibley noted, do not take kindly to those who suggest there is something more, or who try to correct their errors. They “promptly sound the alarm and attack them as fanatics and troublemakers.” ((Nibley, “Nobody to Blame,” 136.)) The current straw man term of opprobrium is apologist, ironically employed by individuals vigorously and vociferously defending their own position, i.e., acting as apologists themselves. The entire scholarly enterprise is scarcely anything but apologetics—the defense or advocacy of a position through reason, evidence, and the marshaling of argument.

Is There a Political Program to Mormon Studies?

Many academic fields that end in “studies” are viewed by some as less a discipline than a political program, as less interested in doing research than in indoctrinating students into a particular ideology. One wonders whether some engaging in Mormon Studies have such an ideological program. Looking at the trendy topics covered in presentations on Mormon Studies at past academic conferences, one may perhaps be forgiven for asking such an impolitic question. If the faith of the Saints is going to be reduced to something, to what will it be reduced? If there is a political program, Latter-day Saints will want to know to what extent the ideological agenda coincides with sustaining the kingdom of God. Most political agendas simply do not coincide with the kingdom of God. If a book or article of Mormon Studies is reductionist, it will largely reduce the faith of the Saints to something with a political agenda, and that political agenda, having removed God from the kingdom of God, will be something largely alien to the community of believers.
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What is the Student of a Program in Mormon Studies Supposed to Do with His or Her Education?

Whenever I have run into Latter-day Saints enrolled in a divinity program, I have asked them what they intend to do with their degree. After all, the purpose of a divinity school is to prepare ministers of various other denominations for the ministry. Since a Latter-day Saint cannot be a minister in those denominations, what would one do with a divinity degree? Fortunately, all of those I have talked to were getting a Master’s degree and have intended to use it as a stepping stone into a doctoral program, so it made some sense on the path of education. Currently there are no Mormon Studies degrees (the degrees are in Religious Studies), but Mormon Studies could be an academic ticket to nowhere. As the chair of one Religious Studies department put it: “In the academic world, specialization in Mormon Studies can wreck a promising career.” ((Peter A. Huff, “A Gentile Recommends the Book of Mormon,” Dialogue 43/2 (2010): 208.)) In the past, those who did Mormon Studies got their training in other fields and pursued Mormon Studies, initially, on the side. This is true of most of the bigger names in Mormon Studies such as Richard Bushman (American history), Terryl Givens (comparative literature), Arthur Henry King (Shakespeare), Leonard Arrington (economics), John Sorenson (anthropology), Hugh Nibley (history), Dan Peterson (Arabic), Lou Midgley (political philosophy), Noel Reynolds (political philosophy), and Jack Welch (law). At one time most of these, such as Nibley, Sorenson, Bushman, Givens, Peterson, Reynolds, Welch, and Midgley, were associated with the Neal A. Maxwell Institute but the Institute’s current management has decided to go in a different direction. (Bushman and Givens are still associated with the Institute on the new Mormon Studies Review advisory editorial board announced in late March, 2013.)

[Page 118]If Mormon Studies programs house and promote students who are in Mormon Studies to promote their own anti-Mormon agenda, they will destroy their program’s reputation with places that might be inclined to hire their graduates. While one might think that graduate programs would, in their own interest, not want to make their students toxic, most do not seem to care. So long as they are well-paid, some academics seem not to care about the fate of their students; and thus we see that academia will not support its children at the last day. Will this cause students who recognize that something is wrong with the program to avoid it? Might the long-term result be the elimination of such an academic program? This might well be the case with Mormon Studies programs.

Are the Funds for Mormon Studies Chairs Wasted?

So far three chairs have been endowed in Mormon Studies (Utah State University, Claremont Graduate University, and the University of Virginia). Endowed chairs do not come cheap. What sort of return do the investors expect from their investment? Are the publications and the type of research done by those chairs in line with the expectations of their Latter-day Saint funders? Obviously the donors are the ones who can best answer those questions, but the Latter-day Saint community has an interest in the answer to the questions. In the end, Mormon Studies is not about some small clique of intellectuals but about the Latter-day Saints who are the subject of the study and who may feel that the study rightfully belongs to them.


Above all, the relatively new field of Mormon Studies needs humility in its practitioners. Like it or not, the real experts on Mormon Studies are the General Authorities. As good as some of us may be in our particular niches, we need to keep in mind the many things that we do not know, and may never know. Mormon intellectuals are not particularly well positioned to [Page 119]get a very broad view of a worldwide Church. The interests and incentives of those who engage in Mormon Studies are not necessarily, and for the most part are not at all, the interests of the Kingdom. While typical Latter-day Saints might naïvely think that Mormon Studies is a good idea, they will not be happy with most of the material that passes for Mormon Studies if it follows the trend of Religious Studies in general, or the early output of those currently engaged in formal Mormon Studies programs. Scholars who want Mormon Studies to conform to the Religious Studies model should not be surprised, then, if Latter-day Saints have little regard for the work that they do. For most Latter-day Saints, the question is not whether serving God with all one’s mind can include Mormon Studies, but whether Mormon Studies is actually serving God.


Mormon Studies Talks at the Annual Meetings of the American Academy of Religion 2001–2011 Sorted by Topic (author’s names removed to protect the guilty)

Comparative Religion

“‘I am a Mormon’ and ‘I am a Scientologist’: Recent Marketing Efforts in Mormonism and Scientology” (2011). “This presentation offers a comparative analysis and critique of recent marketing efforts by both churches to introduce the public to ordinary Mormons and Scientologists as a means of introducing the Mormon Church and the Church of Scientology: the “I am a Mormon” and “I am a Scientologist” campaigns. Why are these churches marketing themselves in these ways? What do they reveal about the socio-religious dialectic and tension between new religious movements and mainstream [Page 120]American society? This presentation draws on video evidence, fieldwork, and interviews conducted with church leaders to elucidate the origin and aim of the campaigns from the perspective of Mormons and Scientologists themselves.”

“The Personal and the Impersonal Divine in Mormonism and Bohemeanism” (2011). The author sees similarities between Joseph Smith and Jacob Boehme. “In their Promethean equation of the divine and human Mormons were more radical than Boehme for though he eliminates the ontological distinction between God and humanity Boehme still makes important distinctions between the relative eternal status of God and humanity. Joseph Smith eliminates this distinction in the King Follet Discourse declaring that God is a glorified human being.”

“The Enoch Figure: Pre- and Post-Joseph Smith” (2011). The paper claims to rely on “snippets of Enoch’s appearances throughout history, showing how Enoch is almost always used in associated with secret knowledge (mysteries) and powerful (often magical) language. Special consideration will be given to Joseph Smith and his complex connections with the many Enoch texts, traditions, and ideas.”

“Not the End of the Story: Theological Reflections on the Mormon Afterlife” (2011). The paper examines “the more fundamental differences between a Mormon afterlife and the one taught by traditional Christianity” through the lends of “dualism and embodiment.”

“When Humans Become Gods: Mormonism and Transhumanism” (2010).

“‘And the Word Was Made Flesh’: The Meaning of the Incarnation in LDS Christology” (2010).

“The Mormon Jesus and the Nicene Christ” (2010).

“Mormonism and the Christological Spectrum” (2010).

“Evangelicals, Catholics, and Mormons in Dialogue: Pluralism and the American Religious Right” (2009). The [Page 121]purpose of this paper is so that those “committed to more liberal pluralisms may find that this cautious yet contested conservative pluralism open up new possibilities for elaborating counter-discourses to religious conservatism and for extending pluralist values in Unites States’ society.”

“The Significance of Recent Mormon–Evangelical Dialogues” (2009). Claiming that a “Mormon-Evangelical dialogue” has been occurring over many years, this panel “examines the issues engaged, the strategies employed, the challenges faced, and the consequences observed within the respective faith communities.”

“‘Lifting the Scourge’: The LDS Resanctification of the Community of Christ’s Kirtland Temple, 1965–2008” (2009). This paper claims that it “interrogates why and how a place can be transformed from defiled space to sacred space in less than a generation.”

“Nineteenth-Century North American Brethren in Latin America: A Brief Comparison of Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses” (2007). This papers purports to address issues because “North American nineteenth century new religious movements such as the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are expanding largely under the radar of social science heretofore preoccupied with the growth of evangelicos.”

“Teaching Mormon Studies: Theory, Topics, and Texts” (2007). This panel discussion was supposed to address “how will it [Mormon Studies] be impacted by the particular theoretical issues that influence these sub-disciplines as well as by recent theorizing in the study and teaching of religion generally? How might Mormonism best be studied from an interdisciplinary perspective or from the vantage point of comparative religion?”

“Elijah III: The Influence of Mormonism on John Alexander Dowie” (2006).

[Page 122]“The Human’s Naming of the Creatures as the World’s (and God’s) Open Future: A Conflict of Interpretations among Jews, Muslims, and Mormons” (2006).

“Open Readings of Genesis: Jacob Boehme’s Mysterium Magnum and Joseph Smith’s Books of Moses, Abraham, and The Book of Mormon” (2006).

“‘A PO Box and a Desire to Witness for Jesus’: Calling and Mission in the Ex-Mormons for Jesus” (2006).

“Opening the Bible: Open Canon and Openness Theology” (2006).

“What the Study of Mormonism Brings to Religious Studies: A Special AAR Session Organized on the Occasion of the Bicentennial of Joseph Smith’s Birth” (2005).

“‘Mine Is a House of Order’: A Comparative Analysis of Mormon and Focus on the Family’s Prescriptive Parenting Literature” (2001).

“Mormonism in the ‘American Religion’ Survey Course” (2001).

“What’s in a Church’s Name?: Mormonism, Christianity, and the Limits of Self-Identification” (2001).


“Uneasy Bedfellows: Twenty-first Century Mormonism and Modern American Memory” (2008).

“Anti-Mormonism and the Romney Campaign; or, Did Evangelical Hostility Sink Mitt’s Ship?” (2008).

“Vocal Mormons Meet Mitt Romney: The Impact of a Mormon Presidential Candidate on Mormon Self-expression” (2008).

“Media and the Mormon Candidate: One Reporter’s View” (2008).

“Author Meets Critics: Sarah Barringer Gordon’s The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America” (2002).

[Page 123]“The Federal Courts and Religious Minorities: Rethinking the Mormon Polygamy Cases” (2001).

“Solving the ‘Mormon Problem’: The Smoot Hearing of 19031907 and the Delimitation of Religious Citizenship” (2001).

“Mormons, Violence, and Democracy in Nineteenth-Century America” (2001).

“Jane Manning James: Reenacting and Reclaiming the ‘Black’ and ‘Mormon’ Past” (2011). The paper argues that “the LDS worked to preserve Utah as a (white) Mormon homeland by discouraging blacks from moving to Utah and joining the Church. Yet the presence of well-known black Mormons, especially Jane Manning James, hindered the realization of such a project.” It claims that “a century later, through reenactments of James’s spiritual autobiography, contemporary black Mormons aim to create a space in the Church, and in Utah, in which a saint can be both black and Mormon.”

“‘Not Only to the Gentile but Also to the African’: African American Mormons and Mormon Identity in the Nineteenth Century” (2008).

“Black Anti-Mormonism and the Construction of African American Identity in the Late Nineteenth Century” (2008).

“Assessing the African-American Latter-day Saint Experience Since the 1960s” (2008).

“The Changing Face of Mormonism: An Examination of the Influx and Interest of African Americans in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (2008).

“Reorienting Mormonism: Race, Ethnicity, and the Possibilities for Paradigm Shifts in the LDS Church” (2008).

“Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons” (2008).

“Seeing Jane: Jane Elizabeth Manning James’ Posthumous Career as an LDS Symbol” (2006). The author states “I argue that Saints have selectively appropriated, and often simplified, [Page 124]the stories James told about her own life in order to create a usable past and imagine a brighter future for the LDS Church and the world.” The author, on the other hand, would rather see her as one who “repeatedly petitioned LDS Church officials for her endowments and sealings, rituals that would enable her to reach the highest levels of glory after her death. Because of her race, officials consistently denied James’ requests.”

“Mormons, Natives, and the Category “Religion” in the Colonization of the American West” (2007). This paper purports to use history to explain “the influence of theological agendas in the emergence of religious studies in American universities”

“Mormonism and Miscegenation: A Study in Religion, Politics, and Culture” (2004).


“The Mommy Wars, Mormonism, and the ‘Choices’ of American Motherhood” (2011). Starting with the supposition “that choices among American women regarding childbirth and infant feeding necessarily result in regret and insecurity that are then projected onto other women” the paper intends to show that “religiously motivated ‘choices’ [among LDS women] undermine this thesis.”

“Western Pioneer Mythos in the Negotiation of Mormon Feminism and Faith” (2011). The paper idolizes the “Mormon women who supported the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA)” because they “faced persecution and excommunication from the church.” It argues that “despite the possible cost, they continued to support the bill bolstered by a western pioneer mythos.”

“Scripting, Performing, Testifying: Giving Faithful ‘Seximony’ through the Mormon Vagina Monologues” (2011). Examining a presentation entitled “the Mormon Vagina Monologues” at the 2001 Sunstone conference that “critiqued the Mormon Church patriarchy, but also used essential elements [Page 125]of Mormon faith – those of testimony, scripture, and personal revelation – to envision a Church more accepting of sexual differences. Using methodological approaches from Mormon studies, feminist studies of religion, and performance studies . . . a number of monologues are examined, including pieces dealing with sacred undergarments, female masturbation, eternal marriage and the celestial kingdom, and the personal and theological struggles of male-to-female transsexual Latter-day Saints.”

“‘Further Light and Knowledge’: Ways of Knowing in Mormonism and the New Spirituality” (2011). A look at “how particular LDS women have synthesized, supplemented or replaced Mormonism with esoteric elements of twenty-first century New Spirituality . . . such as astrology, reincarnation, channeling, and divination” to lead them “towards a progressive, more humanistic spirituality.”

“Female Priestly Subjectivity and Dynasty in Early Mormonism” (2011). “This paper takes up the question of female subjectivity raised by the equation of priestly power and marriage. . . . In sum, I will consider the manner in which these women inhabited or performed patriarchal norms and, in the process, achieved a recognizably culture-specific subjectivity or self-conscious identity and agency in public and private, ecclesiastical and familial domains.”

“Muscular Mormonism: Gender Ideologies in an Era of Transition, 18901920” (2005).

“The Interpretation of Tradition within Mormon Women’s Literature” (2003).


“Captive Bodies, Queer Religions: Scripting North American Religious Difference” (2011). The author argues that “queering the study of North American religions requires more than simply recovering the voices of American LGBT people of faith—that we must rather mobilize critical theories of [Page 126]sexualities to think about religious difference in North America. Next, I consider three examples of the North American captivity narrative genre—Mormon, Neopagan, and Muslim—as articulations of American Protestant anxieties about the perceived challenges marginal religions pose to heteronormativity.”

“Giving Them a Way Out: What American Muslim Women Can Do About Polygyny” (2011). The paper argues that fundamentalist Mormons have allowed American Muslims to be more open about polygyny. “This paper will outline the history of polygyny as practiced in the U.S., particularly among African American Muslims, and consider the ways in which the jurisprudence of Islam and the U.S. may offer Muslim women the legitimate ‘way out’ they seek.”

“‘I am a Daughter of My Heavenly Father’: Transsexual Mormons and Performed Gender Essentialism” (2011). “Using monologues featured in the Mormon Vagina Monologues (MVM) and scripted by male-to-female transsexual Latter-day Saints, this paper offers a case study of sexual identity construction within a rigid religious system.” “In transitioning, Mormon transsexuals disobey the Church but obey God, thereby becoming ‘who the Lord Jesus wants me to be.’ As this paper shows, the MVM’s transsexual contributors reclaim sexual subjectivity by performing testimonies—not of the Church’s truthfulness, but of gender identity and theological commitment.”

“‘That They Might Have Joy’: Towards a Posthetero­normative, Gay Mormon Hermeneutic” (2011). The paper strives to find “a viable gay Mormon hermeneutic.” The author argues that the Church will change its position on this issue although “a healthy dose of their own ‘civil disobedience’ may be necessary for LGBTQ Mormons, their families and sympathizers, who are willing to stick with the Church, and seek for change from within it.”

[Page 127]“Joseph Smith, Polygamy, and the Problem of the Levirate Widow” (2011). The paper argues that “Polygamy was part of a wide-ranging attempt to solve the problem of death. In an under-appreciated exegesis of the Sadducean thought experiment of a serially bereaved levirate widow in Luke 20, Smith found support for a tie between widowhood and polygamy, a close association between marriage and resurrection, a demotion of angels, and a view of marriage as a sacrament. This paper explores Smith’s exegesis and its relevance to practical problems like the afterlife shape of families when widow(er)s remarried. This paper also emphasizes the close relationship between early Mormon polygamy and afterlife beliefs.”

“Sentimental Politics: Gay Male Mormon Suicides as Symbolic Capital” (2010).

“Why Same-Sex Civil Marriage Belongs in the Kingdom of the World: Extending the Teachings of Martin Luther” (2009). This paper claims that a state-based approach to marriage “frees religious communities to accept same-sex civil marriage while simultaneously allowing for particular religious communities to define marriage rites narrowly according to their own sources of authority.”

“Queer Families, Mormon Polygamy, and Big Love” (2008).

“A Mormon Philosophy of Sex: Some Surprises” (2006).

“Concealing the Body, Concealing the Sacred: The Decline of Ritual Nudity in Mormon Temples” (2005).

“Why Are There So Many Gay Mormon Websites?” (2005).

“Disciplining Mormons: Polygamy and the Legal Reification of Public and Private” (2004).

“Author Meets Critics: Sarah Barringer Gordon’s The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America” (2002).

“The Federal Courts and Religious Minorities: Rethinking the Mormon Polygamy Cases” (2001).

[Page 128]“Land as Lover: Mormon Eco-Eroticism and Planetary Polyamory in the Work of Terry Tempest Williams” (2001).

LDS Arts

“‘For Death was That — and This — is Thee’: Stephanie Meyers, Theosis, and the Twenty-first Century Vampire Romance” (2011). “This paper examines Stephanie Meyers’s Twilight novels within the framework of the Mormon doctrine of exaltation, the elevation of the pious to godhood after death.”

“Mormon Literature: Where Are We Going? Where Have We Been?” (2010).

“The Scope of Mormon Cinema” (2010).

“The Story Lives Here: Faith, History, and the Instructional Film” (2010).

“New York Doll” (2010). A showing of the film by the same name, “a 2005 Sundance Film Festival award winner that treats the formation, demise, and 2004 reunion performance of the New York Dolls, an influential ‘glam–rock,’ ‘proto-punk’ band who performed in the early 1970s. . . . The film centers on bassist Arthur ‘Killer’ Kane, intersecting his role in the band, his conversion to religion (Mormonism), his poverty and loneliness, and his reunion performance with the band, all preceding his death from leukemia.”

“Coming Face to Face with the ‘Mormon Jesus’ through Paintings by Del Parson, Greg Olsen, and Paul Grass” (2010).

“The Mormons” (2007). A showing of Helen Whitney’s PBS documentary which it praises for “the breadth and depth of its coverage.”

“The Interpretation of Tradition within Mormon Women’s Literature” (2003).


“‘When You’re Here, We’re Here’: Encounters between the Living and the Dead at Latter-day Saint Pilgrimage Sites” (2011). “This paper examines encounters between the living [Page 129]and the dead in pilgrimage using Latter-day Saint (Mormon) pilgrimage as an illustrative case study. . . . Latter-day Saint pilgrimages are uniquely structured around interaction between the living and the dead, making the Latter-day Saint case particularly productive for exploring these issues.”

“This Is the (Right) Place: Memorializing Sacred Space and Time in Salt Lake Valley” (2010).

“‘Over the Winding Trail Forward We Go’: Children and Pilgrimage in the Latter-day Saint Tradition” (2010).

“Religious WorldMaking: Pilgrimage and Scriptural Narrative in the Construction of Latter-day Saint Sacred Space” (2008).


“The Cultural Logic of LDS Death-ritualization: Puzzles and Possibilities” (2011). “Why didn’t Mormons develop funerary rites as components of the esoteric temple ritual that emerged in the 1840s? . . . Historical precedents in LDS ritual allow us to imagine temple-based funerary rites that might have been but weren’t, in turn providing foils for a Geertzian reading of the cultural logic of how Mormons do and don’t ritualize death.”

“‘An Influence Among Humanity’: Internal Religious Debate over Narrative Paradigms” (2010). The author is interested in the 1911 evolution controversy at Brigham Young University, although she cannot get even the name of the Church correct. She argues that “ultimately, the controversy represents a missed opportunity for the church to be viewed as relevant in secular discourse and opens up a discussion about the potential of religious organization in general to better engage in secular discourse.”

“Joseph Smith and the Rhetoric of Economics and Prophecy” (2006) “this paper will examine Smith’s discourse on economics in an attempt to state clearly his theory of political economy, and to expand understanding” of “prophetic [Page 130]rhetoric” which “can best be characterized as poetic, if not frenzied.”

LDS Scripture

“Discussion of Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon (Oxford University Press, 2010)” (2010).

42 thoughts on “Whither Mormon Studies?

  1. As Brother Peterson commented, I find Professor Gee’s essay provocative. But not intellectually, academically, or spiritually so. Rather, Brother Gee is like an annoying neighbor who insists on giving you his opinion, however many times you have declined it in the past. What provokes me is the slackness of the argument, the imprecision of the definitions, and the inaccuracies of explication and anecdote when referring to the writing, thinking, and beliefs of Arthur Henry King. The bits and pieces of Arthur Professor Gee cites are not the Mormon parts, but the vestiges of his Quaker upbringing that made of Arthur something of a prig.

    After I had been Arthur’s research assistant for nearly a year—and through his recommendation—I was admitted as a reader at the British Museum where I was to study the sermons of the King James scholar Bishop Launcelot Andrewes. On my first appointment at the library, my credentials were reviewed by the chief librarian. He looked at me over his reading glasses with mock surprise and said, “So, you are recommended by Artie King?” I was too taken aback by the trivializing abbreviation of Arthur’s name to reply. I mutely nodded. “Hmmm,” the librarian hummed. “Stuffy old boy. Even by our standards, don’t you think?”

    No! I did not think! The Right Reverend Companion to the Queen, Shakespeare Scholar and International Academic, Herr Doctor Professor Arthur Henry King was above the wry definitions of mere librarians (however impressive the library!) But over the years, I came to understand there was an “Artie King” who was equally important as the Arthur Henry King. Because Arthur was many things—a man of many moods and philosophies, a scholar who was both theatrical and spiritual, an observer who could be at once profound and petty, but at all times a commentator and guide who was witty and amusing (in the highest senses of those words).

    Arthur stormed out of faculty dinners in protest of “mood music,” bellowed against the “Cult of the Hammond Organ,” and spit and sputtered about the nascent dishonesty of putting ones hands in ones pockets. He even raged against the ethical and aesthetic vulgarity of doll-shaped tea cozies used by British matrons to keep teapots warm and—in Utah Valley—to conceal telephones beneath their skirts. (Think about it.) And contrary to what Dr. Gee alleges—that the English majors were offended by being told we were not prepared to criticize the writing of the greatest author of the English language—we were dazzled! And charmed. Because although he accurately assessed our lack of preparation (we were, after all, BYU students!) he never did what the good professor has done: he never condescended to us. He never chastened us by warning that the apostles and prophets know so much more than us that we should be like Paul’s good little girls: to keep silent in and about the Church so as not to make such foolish errors as he enumerates to be the mistakes of Mormon scholarship by non-Mormons.

    Of course non-Mormon scholars mistake the deeply experiential aspects of Mormonism. Expecting them not to is like demanding non-Jewish historians and anthropologists fully to understand the affect of pogroms, diaspora, and the Holocaust on the Jewish culture and religious experience. And does Professor Gee really intend to argue that the myopia of Mormon scholars is any less a perversion of “study” than is the hyperopia of the non-Mormon scholar?

    To argue that Mormon Studies belongs to Mormons is like arguing that embryology belongs to embryos. The subject of a study often is least prepared to judge its accuracy or importance, because affiliation can cloud clear interpretation to even greater consequence than separation.

    Rather than attempting to control Mormon Studies, to correlate it as Professor Gee seems to suggest we should, should we not be hoping to cease seeing ourselves through the dark glass of our own understanding? Should we not be praying to begin to know ourselves, face to face; not through the lens of our own dogma and evangelizing, but as when a mirror is lifted to us and we see not what we hope or preach, but a nearer approximation to who we are.

    To do otherwise is to risk the fault of Professor Gee: the canonization of Arthur Henry King (who believed the violence of the Book of Mormon to be a flaw attributable to it being a colonial literature) and the humiliation of so faithful and good a friend to the Church as Jan Shipps. To say Professor Ships is an inappropriate scholar of Mormon Studies is to suggest Jack Mormons (in the original sense of the term, meaning those non-Mormons who are friends of the Church) must not merely contribute but testify, not merely research but preach, not merely take seriously the Church but be baptized of it.

    One of the highest intellectual, aesthetic, and religious virtues of the Renaissance was thought to be “wit.” Respect for wit participated in giving us the King James version of the Bible. A generation later when the Puritans dominated art and public life, wit was considered to be the gravest of aesthetic and religious offenses. Arthur was a witty Puritan, a paradox Professor Gee has not taken into account when attempting to conscript him to the service of a definition of Mormon Studies that sounds more like a class in Gospel Doctrine than an investigation of the Mormon experience.

    Elder Hugh B. Brown once observed that the risk of thinking is wrong thinking. But he did not mock the error, he did not discourage the “study.” Rather, he said the remedy for wrong thinking is more thinking. More thinking, Brother Gee. Less authorizing, less certifying, less correlation. Because sometimes being very, very near the Church is like being too near the TV: it not only ruins your vision of it, but it keeps you from seeing clearly the rest of the world.

    • I am blind neither to the faults of the Saints nor to some of those of Brother King. Remembering is not the same thing as canonization. I do not think that we should canonize either Arthur Henry King or Jan Shipps.

      Some are under the mistaken impression that Mormon Studies will help Latter-day Saints “cease seeing ourselves through the dark glass of our own understanding” and “begin to know ourselves, face to face; not through the lens of our own dogma and evangelizing, but as when a mirror is lifted to us and we see not what we hope or preach, but a nearer approximation to who we are.” I am not opposed to anything of those things (they are desirable), but I cannot see how Mormon Studies as presently done will help achieve any of that. Pollyannas praising Mormon Studies have not grappled with the data in the appendices. The data in the appendices show what has passed for Mormon Studies over the past decade at one of the premiere venues. “Queer Families,” “Ritual Nudity,” “Eco-Eroticism,” “Gay Mormon Websites,” “Female Priestly Subjectivity,” “Transhumanism,” “Seximony,” and “Mormon transsexuals” are not part of the typical Mormon experience. They are not “a nearer approximation to who we are” nor do they help us “begin to know ourselves, face to face.” There are things that are of good report and praiseworthy in the decade covered but most of what has passed for Mormon Studies is neither. To fail to acknowledge that is to fail not only as Latter-day Saints but as scholars.

      • Perhaps it is because I am nearing a birthday. Perhaps because after a spring snow, the Utah mountains are bright and without the haze of inversion. Such clarity of event and opportunity may well cause us to reconsider ourselves, to rethink comments of the past, and to wonder. Only recently having discovered Brother Gee’s response to my response to him, I am moved to continue a conversation I had not realized had continued: While Brother Gee is right in listing a number of topics of research not likely to be addressed in Sacrament Meeting, he fails to provide us direction to where they are addressed and studied. Where do Mormons who are gay or transexuals “queer” go to study and be community? And simply because Brother Gee is not interested in the broader community of the church—those of us less perfect in our perceptions, passions, and lives—is that sufficient reason for us to become his negative example? Or does Brother Gee suggest it is not the study of such things that is the problem, but their existence? And while we are at it, perhaps it’s time to wonder: Why are these not subjects addressed by the church when they so affect we who are the church? If the church was made for us, shouldn’t it serve our needs more than need to demand our service? After all these year, Brother Gee, is there still no help for the Widow’s Son?

  2. I just wanted to say how delighted I am at serious conversation here. Dr. Gee’s article is provocative. No doubt about that. But “provocative” can be very good, and, clearly, it has been here.

  3. This article misses the point. The point is that we are entering an era in which people outside the Church are taking an interest in (at academic as well as other levels); and this is something that is to be encouraged, not discouraged. And traditional “Mormon apologetics” is no longer relevant to the the requirements of that particular interest.

    His objection basically boils down to saying that since most of those who are engaged in “Mormon studies” do not have a testimony of the Restoration, therefore they are disqualified from that kind of work, and shouldn’t be engaged on doing it. There are two answer to that: the first is that we are grateful to anyone who takes an interest in Mormonism, and want to encourage and not discourage it. Secondly, if Mormons don’t like the way non-Mormons are doing Mormon studies, the answer is to learn to do a better job of it themselves, rather than try to discourage them from doing it.

    If people outside the Church want to do “Mormon studies,” they will do it the way they want to do, not the way we want them to do it, whether we like it or not; and if we don’t like the way they are doing it, the answer is not to object to, or try to suppress them from doing it; but for us to be engaged in, and become good at doing it; so that we can provide a resource for them, as well as a reliable source of information for others.

    • Sorry, just noticed too many glaring typos in the above post; but have no way of fixing it unless the admin will perhaps allow me to repost it. 🙁

      • “And what *are* the requirements of ‘Mormon Studies’? What should constitute the core compentencies for an academic in this ‘field’?”

        It can be whatever it wants to be. That field of study can be as wide as you want to make it. I was defining what it is *not*, rather than what it *is*.

        “A lot of defensive posturing going on here for ‘Mormon Studies’, but I haven’t seen any consensus among the secular MS apologists on the fundamental questions concerning the ‘field’.”

        How long is a piece of string? Let us judge any work done under the banner of ‘Mormon Studies’ after it has been done, not before it is done. Quite a lot of work seems to have already been done under that banner. Have you read them all? I haven’t. But if you have, and have any criticisms to make of any of them, let’s hear it, instead of telling us that they shouldn’t be doing it at all.

        “Maybe it would be more fruitful for the proponents of MS to stop bashing Bro. Gee’s (obviously thought-provoking) article, and start trying to figure out who you are, so to speak.”

        Nobody is bashing Bro. Gee. It is a valid observation. His argument evidently is not that some Mormon studies have been of poor quality work; because he gives no specific examples. His argument appears to be that people outside the Church shouldn’t be doing any Mormon studies at all! Well, who is he to say that? People out in the rest of the world have the right to study whatever they want to study; and to do it the way they want to do it, not the way we want them to do it. If we think they have made errors in the work they have done, we can point out their errors; but we have no right to tell them what they can and cannot study.

        Mormonism is out there for anybody who wants to study; and to do it the way they want to do it, not the way we want them to do it.

        • I think you have grossly misinterpreted Brother Gee. He doesn’t say that non-Mormons shouldn’t be doing Mormon Studies, he says that they should at minimum have a basic understanding of their subject through actual experience, participation, and engagement, rather than as detached observers, unfamiliar with the core tenets that resonate with all active members.

      • “And what *are* the requirements of ‘Mormon Studies’? What should constitute the core compentencies for an academic in this ‘field’?”

        Okay, I have given more thought to that, and I think that I have come up with a working definition ‘Mormon Studies’.

        I would define Mormon Studies as the academic study of the phenomenon of Mormonism in all its aspects, and in the widest sense of the term.

        Interestingly, that would include an academic (including psychoanalytical) study of the phenomenon of Mormon apologetics, or of how Mormons do apologetics; though not the actual doing of Mormon apologetics. 🙂

    • You’re right; anyone who wants to “study” Mormonism will conceive of that in whatever way they wish to. I think it’s quite likely that many of us in the church will find their methods shallow and conclusions flawed. But what else is new? We’ve all encountered different attitudes and focuses in people’s perceptions of the church (which strike us as narrow or biased). Mormon studies is never going to be a coherent thing in any case. The question I find particularly intriguing is the idea of the funders of these academic chairs finding themselves wondering if they’re getting what they hoped they would for their money.

      On the whole, I didn’t find this piece up to Prof Gee’s usual standards.

  4. Brother Gee,

    Your pedantic display of scholastic criticism of the published papers of Mormon discourse is amazing. On the one hand, you demand discipline and preparation, and on the other you exalt participation without credentials. You reflect attitudes of Bill Hamlin and Louis Midgely, yet dismiss those of others who have lost their faith, but are still prepared in their fields.

    It is true that understanding presumes participation. Hierarchical participation cannot understand the Mo Fems and the gay members. And not the fundamentalists. All of whom you assign as marginal, uninteresting, and irelivant. You miss the leven of ever evolving Church. Their search of identity may be an important study.

    • “Hierarchical participation cannot understand the Mo Fems and the gay members. And not the fundamentalists.”

      Do you have this information from first-hand observation and discourse, or is this just an uninformed presumption on your part? What inside knowledge do you have that General Authorities do not understand those who espouse morals and doctrines contrary to revealed truths?

    • Professor Gee is accused of reflecting the “attitudes of Bill Hamlin [Hamblin?] and Louis Midgely [Midgley?], yet dismiss those of others who have lost their faith, but are still prepared in their fields.” I have exactly no idea what Robert Rey Black is complaining about. What attitudes, I wonder, does Black have in mind? And who exactly are these “others who have lost their faith, but are still prepared in their [academic] fields”? And how does this remark contribute to an effort to sort out what is meant by “Mormon studies”?

  5. Thank you, John, for comments that are provocative in a valuable sense. My own experience is not helpful in grasping the squishy mass of writing and thought that goes under the heading Mormon studies. It may be of historical interest to note that Leonard Arrington strongly urged me to attend the organizing session of the Mormon History Association in order to represent a non-historian’s perspective that he considered vital to what he hoped would become a “more-than-history” organization. but the MHA took on a life of its own and defined itself rather narrowly. Both he and I were somewhat discouraged by the restricted range of thought represented in the long term. That suggests that Mormon studies too will follow a course of its own (unpredictable) development that your observations will do little to influence. M. S. seems to me to be developing into an unfocussed Mormon history-lite. Pardon me if my response is not anger, enthusiasm, or concern, but boredom at a burgeoning corpus of comparative triviality.

    Regarding the subject matter of Mormon studies, when Mark Leone and I in the 1980s put together a book manuscript of ethnographies on Mormon groups (in Bolivia, Arizona, Canada, Mexico, etc.; we never found a publisher for it), we were not talking about “Mormonism,” a much vaster topic. In my view it is presumptuous to expect that a consistent methodology, or epistemology, can usefully inform a Mormon studies that purports to carve up the whole elephant.

  6. “Garbage is garbage: but the history of garbage—that’s scholarship.”

    I find this statement rather accurate. Yes, garbage itself is “mundane.” However, the history of garbage may help us understand the development of germ theory, historic plagues, and likely informs our modern choices on safe waste management. The study of the mundane often provides unexpected insights and results.

    I’m afraid I have a difficult time agreeing with Elder Oaks here. Just because one doesn’t believe in the historicity of the BoM does not mean that they therefore must view the BoM as “mundane.”

    On the one hand, one could consider Royal Skousen’s work “mundane.” After all, regardless of what the various manuscripts may tell us about the BoM translation process, none of it really matters. The Book is historic and was translated by the gift of God, right? Why bother with such a mundane thing as original manuscripts when we know our current version is just fine?

    I would argue, however, that Royal’s work is invaluable. That he has taken something mundane and through detailed study of that seemingly mundane thing, he has helped us better understand the BoM translation/production process.

    Also, I would like to echo what has been said above. That the General Authorities are the only “real” experts on what is going on within Mormonism is just silly talk. I’m surprised that Professor Gee, being absorbed in the bureaucracy of academia, would recognize that mid-to low level managers are generally hesitant to deliver bad news up the food chain so if anything, top level managers in any organization are much more likely to have a skewed view towards the positive. Of course the GAs know of the happenings of the Church but are they likely to be able to tell you the social and cultural conditions in Country X that may be contributing to lower retention rates amongst women ages 30-45? I’d probably turn to Pew Research to help me answer that question.

  7. Your article reminded me of an observation by Dallin Oaks. He quoted a former colleague at the University of Chicago, who said, “Garbage is garbage: but the history of garbage—that’s scholarship.”

    Elder Oaks remarked,

    “[S]cholarship can take what is mundane and make it sublime. So with the history of garbage. But scholarship, so-called, can also take what is sublime and make it mundane. Thus, my friend could have illustrated his point by saying, ‘Miracles are just a fable, but the history of miracles, that’s scholarship.’ So with the Book of Mormon. Those who only respect this book as an object of scholarship have a very different perspective than those who revere it as the revealed word of God.”

  8. “Yes. I have wondered if the institutions would tolerate anti-Semitic students in their Jewish Studies programs.”

    Yet that raises the interesting question of how a large portion of the Haredi world views the academic study of Judaism, even (or, perhaps, especially) by other Jews. Here are some examples of topics Jewish scholars have studied which caused no little consternation in the Haredi world: R. Hayim Vital, a preeminent Kabbalist, accusing R. Israel Najara, a prominent sacral poet, of drunkenness and sodomy; the Belz rebbe and his brother encouraging the Hungarian Jews to stay put instead of fleeing the Nazi occupation, while they themselves escaped to safety; statements by 18th century Mitnagdim accusing Hasidim of antinomian behaviour; Sabbatean teachings and practices found among some of the most prominent bastions of Jewish orthodoxy in the 18th and 19th centuries; multiple cases of Jewish authorities in Eastern Europe sanctioning the murder of informers; the conversion of Habad’s founder’s son to Christianity; contemporary accounts stating that the Seer of Lublin feel to his death not as the result of an attack by the forces of evil, but from drunken revelry; and the intense, violent persecution of Bratslav Hasidim by other Hasidic communities throughout the 19th century. All of these are frequently seen by Haredim as an attack on Judaism itself. One popular Haredi speaker, Amnon Yitzchak, frequently and harshly targets academics in his devotional meetings as ignorant heretics out to destroy Judaism. Back in the 1950s, Habad librarian Hayim Lieberman wrote a caustic piece claiming that only Hasidim were qualified to study Hasidic history. Are scholars to ignore those aspects of religious history unsavoury to its adherents?

  9. Let me just echo the earlier question about “general authorities being the experts on the church,”which I think leaves more to be desired:

    [your answer] “Any given General Authority in the Church probably knows more about what is going on in the Church than you or I ever will. That sobering fact should cause those of us who do Mormon Studies to be much more humble than we usually are. If a General Authority were writing about a topic in the current Church, it would probably be better informed than if I were. What strength we have is in our particular niches.”

    From a managerial perspective, it may be true that general authorities have a better grip on the intentions of church leadership and certain kinds of trends among church membership, but is it really true with respect to the church’s position in the world and the broader context it finds itself in? As it is, your response leaves off gesturing to a vague esotericism. Having just learned from an interpreter friend of mine here in Japan of uninformed comments made by a general authority regarding local politics, I really wonder if GAs are informed in the way you seem to imply when it comes to the work that Mormon Studies has been doing in recent years.

    Further, I’m not exactly sure what you mean by the phrase “what is going on in the Church.” Is the “insider view,” however you define it, the proper object of Mormon Studies? Are most people outside the church–which is where much of Mormon Studies has been oriented–really interested in the arcana of LDS organizational or bureaucratic life (GA expertise)? Can you clarify what you mean here?

    • As prophets, seers and revelators, the First Presidency and the Quorum of Twelve Apostles have keys and rights to revelation that allows them to know the needs of the church members and the direction the Lord wishes to have the Church go that no member, no academic, no observer can access nor claim right to. In this way it is very easy for me to agree with Mr. Gee’s statement with respect to the leaders of the Church.

      • Precisely. There is nothing at all wrong with “Mormon studies” as an academic pursuit (although their has been, is, and certainly will be regarding the various ways in which this kind of study manifests itself and the purposes for which it is deployed). However, the perennial desire (wish?) that gospel doctrine and teaching be funneled through and concentrated within the confines of a small, degreed, academic elite who would ultimately come to function as “experts” who’s job it is to filter, critique, and scrutinize the teachings and counsel of the Brethren through the prism of “historical critical method” and other contemporary intellectual templates (the appendix here is quite adequate in providing a glimpse into just what this will inevitably entail) is undying.

        It would ultimately destroy the Church from within, just as the Hellenization of early Christianity and its subservience to Alexandrian philosophical trends emptied it of both its doctrinal substance and ministerial authority in a previous age.

    • I’d like to add to comet’s comment. The problem s/he raises is, I believe, a problem that is endemic in your argument and only serves to severely -if not fatally- weaken it, especially given your heavy emphasis on learning very particular, fine-grained disciplines upon which you hang this article. If discipline in Mormon Studies is so necessary that one can only publish in the field after twenty years in another field, then I expect you to notice the large differences between epistemologies and methodologies cultivated in different institutions and communities and respect those differences, recognizing the unique value and contribution of each.

      Comet points out that you conflate the knowledge gained in bureaucracy with the knowledge gained through research methodologies, but there are other grievous conflations. For one, you equate missionary pedagogy and teaching experience with academic pedagogy and teaching. While it is true that for an exceptionally broad understanding of “pedagogy” it is probably true the missionaries have more absolute experience in time teaching than do PhD candidates, the styles and objectives of missionary and academic pedagogy differ so radically that I find the very fact you deem them comparable stunning. Further, I would venture to say that while some missionaries become exceptional teachers, and people can become professors and still be abysmal teachers, you’ve greatly overestimated the effectiveness and expertise of LDS missionaries. (Maybe that’s just the cynical/realistic returned missionary in me. But I know that even relatively terrible, but sincere, missionary teachers can lead people to the Gospel.)

      On another count, you show a remarkable degree of presentism in your evaluation of what Mormon Studies scholars should study. While it would certainly be valuable for non-Mormon Mormon Studies scholars to attend church meetings and familiarize themselves with official present-day doctrinal discourse, this is not absolutely necessary for the study of certain aspects of Mormonism. In fact, if a scholar is primarily interested in, say, Mormons in 1850s Europe, studying modern Mormon discourse without studying the development of that discourse could actually be misleading. The past is, indeed, a foreign country. Treating it as home or as the present can render it incomprehensible, or reduce historical figures to subjects of hagiography or debunking; on the other hand, treating history as a different world can lead us to amazing insights into newly rediscovered worldviews and fascinating people ins three dimensions. Further, by pointing out that Mormon Studies scholars should be humble outside of their niches, you undermine your accusations of Jan Shipps. If she were writing academic articles on 1960s ward bazaars, then not attending sacrament meeting would be a fatal error. However, if she is writing about 1840s Mormonism, then the ignorance of the present perhaps only minorly affects her niche knowledge. Perhaps your indictment of Jan Shipps is deeper than that, but if you’re critiquing her outside of her academic work, I’m curious what your objective is.

      Further, you never acknowledge that Mormon Studies could include other ecclesiastic organizations descended from (or tracing their ancestry to) the church Joseph Smith, Jr. founded. By your definition, and particularly by your designation of non-members as “tourists,” these groups are beyond the pale of Mormon Studies. Why? In addition, can Mormons, as outsiders and tourists, study Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Jews?

      To conclude, when you speak so pointedly about niches and Mormonism being too big a subject to actually study accurately, you seem to undercut a large amount of scholarship as a whole. If Mormonism is too big a subject for a scholar to claim some basic knowledge of it, then what are we to do with Catholicism? Islam? Judaism? Hinduism? American politics? While I believe that there are some out there that might claim some sort of objective, comprehensive knowledge of Mormonism, inasmuch as they make those claims, they are being irresponsible. However, many times this humility is an unwritten assumption; responsible scholarship admits and encourages revisions. A deliberate and attentive knowledge of methodology is, in itself, a concession to humility and the boundedness of scholarly assertions; by merely describing methods, we acknowledge that other disciplines are valid and could add to or contradict the arguments that our discipline has made. If it were a requirement to preface every assertion with a powerful acknowledgement of the limitation of personal knowledge, books would be crowded to overflowing with irrelevant qualifications.

      • Striving,
        I think you have articulated some valid points, but I also believe that you are overlooking the salient point of Brother Gee’s post. While Mormon Studies can be as broad as the ocean, the point is that if you haven’t been in the ocean then your ability to make an accurate assessment is limited at best. I don’t believe that Brother Gee is implying that there is nothing to be added to the conversation by those that have not been in the water. Certainly somebody flying over the ocean would have a great deal of perspective to add in describing it, but simply looking at something verses experiencing it are two radically different things.

        Since Mormonism today (“presentism”) is downstream from its founding, experiencing it today does in fact provide valuable information to understanding its past, although it may not be as pertinent to a study of European Mormons in the 1850’s as it would to a study of modern cultural issues and the Church. If I were writing a paper on the history of basketball but had never played the sport, the detachment from the subject would inevitably permeate my report. Those who play basketball regularly would likely garner new insight, but would certainly recognize a gap between their experience and the understanding of the author. While rules, uniforms, and venues may change over time, the experience of the subject itself is inestimable.

        Additionally, I believe that your assessment of Brother Gee’s discussion of missionaries as teachers is off the mark. The point that he makes (and he can correct me if I’m wrong), is that missionaries are actually engaged in their subject. While they do not apply academic methodologies from various paradigms into their teaching, they do incorporate the sum and substance of Mormonism – personal revelation through the Holy Ghost (as JS mentioned to Van Buren, cited by Gee above) – which is why their teaching, from a crucial perspective, trumps the detached acamedic methodologies employed by niche scholars. We can talk about piano theory all day long, but at the end of the day it is the piano player that actually provides the music, and without the music, the theory is pointless.


        • If you’re talking about bodies of water, let’s talk about rivers: how even though the riverbed might be relatively constant in shape, whenever a person crosses a river they are crossing over a new body of water. The name, the hierarchy, and the institutions of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are the riverbed here; the water, always changing, are the people who live within that system. Because you visit the river today doesn’t mean you can necessarily tell me how it was decades ago, and you certainly can’t without training in alluvial geology; further, there is no possible way you can know the character the river will have in the future.

          Further, what does an NFL football coach know about the experience of football as it was first played at Ivy League colleges in the 1870s? Do modern players have any idea that at one point it was illegal to pass the ball forward? You’d have to do some pretty big abstraction to find the constants (maybe things like competition, team solidarity, dedication, some level of athleticism, and the like). Likewise, modern Mormon authorities, members, and visitors might have little or no inkling about what it was like to be a Mormon (not to mention a Mormon woman, a non-white Mormon, a Mormon apostle, a Mormon bishop, a Mormon missionary, and a whole host of other Mormon identities) in the 1840s, 1870s, 1920s, and beyond. Do they know that Brigham Young was well-known for his glossolalia while on his mission in Britain? Do they know what it’s like to never have a church meeting inside a building? Do they know that Joseph Smith was sealed to 30+ women at the time of his death, much less what it was like to participate in polygamy at Nauvoo? How about living during the polygamy debates in Utah, or to be viewed as radical feminists because they were the first to give women the vote? Would modern Mormons understand the apathy with which Brigham Young viewed the US government during the Civil War, seeing the bloodshed as the wrath of God meted out upon two unrighteous sides?

          Sure, if you aren’t a baptized Mormon, there will be a little detachment from modern Mormonism. But we have to understand that time’s arrow runs one way for the human experience: while the past can help us understand the present, to read the present into the past unreflectively (as in this post) muddies the waters and confuses the onlooker.

          And your point about missionaries is nowhere stated in the article. Here is the quote: “This is not to say that missionaries are particularly gifted teachers; their training in teaching is rather minimal. For all its brevity, however, it is more extensive than the amount of pedagogical training necessary to receive a PhD. So a Mormon Studies graduate is likely to be no better informed about the Church in general than a stake president and no better a teacher than a missionary.” He does not say that missionaries have the Spirit and thus can teach more authentically; he states that missionaries have more teaching experience than PhD candidates.

          Besides, a cursory glance at American religious history will serve to prove Joseph Smith’s statement about Mormon difference wrong, at least as onlookers were concerned: plenty of others believed in baptism and the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost at the time (in fact, the Campbellites, Sidney Rigdon’s former congregation, had very similar teachings). We, as Mormons, believe that there was something more authentic about the LDS experience, but Van Buren had probably heard such claims multiple times. In fact, at that time those items were some of the areas in which Mormons were least distinct. A good question, then, would be why Joseph not mention experiments in economic communalism, priesthood authority, visits of angels, the Book of Mormon, and the like. (And yes, his quote says that all these other things are encapsulated under the Holy Ghost, but are angelic visitations or the translation of the Book of Mormon reducible to the workings of the Holy Ghost?) This is the role of historical investigation: to discover the roots and trace their path through the soil of history.

          • “Besides, a cursory glance at American religious history will serve to prove Joseph Smith’s statement about Mormon difference wrong, at least as onlookers were concerned.”

            Well that is the entire point, isn’t it? How good can an assessment be if an onlooker is unable to distinguish the difference between Joseph’s claims vs. other religionists of his era? Only those who get in the ocean (I like my analogy better) are able to sufficiently understand why Joseph’s claims were substantially different than those of his contemporaries. The implicit point here that is critical to this conversation is that water is materially the same today as it was 180 years ago. You can go into all the nuances about pollution, marine biology, or global warming to continue the analogy if you want, but in the end, water is water, and an observer will never understand the ocean the same as somebody who has immersed themselves in it. Not that the observer wouldn’t have insightful and valuable input, but they’d have a detachment from their subject that would be an identifiable disconnect from those fully participating. Again, two experts on piano theory could talk as much as they wanted about the piano’s capabilities, scale progression, key changes, and the like, but if neither of them play the piano, it may be an interesting phenomena, but ultimately it would just be pedantic.

            I simply disagree with your assessment that the current product is irrelevant to understanding its predecessor.

  10. Mr. Hedge, after reading the article my view is that this is written by a Latter-day Saint, for fellow Latter-day Saints, in an effort to make them aware of how a typical Latter-day Saint would view the field of Mormon Studies. As an outsider I can understand how this cause confusion for you (as evidenced by your lengthy questions) since you are not the target audience. For myself, as a fairly typical Latter-day Saint, I found myself in agreement with nearly everything professor Gee wrote.

      • Ah, sorry Brother Hedge. My mid-judgement was based on the academic jargon in your comments. It felt more like I was playing a game of buzzword bingo (which, thanks to the free space in the middle, I won) than hearing the speech I’d normally associate with a typical Latter-day Saint.

  11. Many thanks for your responses, though I must admit they have mostly murkied the water for me. If I may ask for more clarification, mostly so we could ground some of your sweeping claims in the tangible field:

    1. So are you dismissing all the papers you list as too rushed and indicative of the flawed system? Or only a few? If the latter, which ones? And your primary accusations in the OP were against publications, which of course are supposed to be more advanced than conference presentations, so I would like to hear some specifics. Let’s please consider the books I mentioned in my above, which are considered the leading publications in the nascent field of Mormon studies: are any of those too rushed? Embodiments of the problems you try to locate in the field? Or do they miss the problems?

    2. Would love to debate that further, but I am amused at your statement that we have “already reached” circular and parochial arguments, given that one of your primary accusations is that Mormon scholars are giving up on a Latter-day Saint audience to appease the broader academy. Which is it, or are you just covering all accusatory bases?

    3. So you admit that you aren’t aware of the conditions and situtations of the various programs, chairs, and appointments, and are just basing your accusations and problems on your own assumptions?

    4. I agree with those points, but you have yet to attach your accusations to the actual field. Do you see this playing out? Surely, if your hypotheses are correct, there has to be evidence out there. While the field is still evolving, it has been around long enough and has produced enough fruits to engage tangible results.

    5. So a listing of the titles of presentations (and at times, excerpts from abstracts) at a single conference is enough evidence? When I read the list, I actually see a vibrancy that addresses many different fields, issues, and ideas at the heart of Latter-day Saint experience. We obviously disagree, so it is not enough merely to list it, you have to interpret and explain. That is how argument usually works, anyway.

    6. My apologies for assigning King the Nibley quote. Again, our experiences differ, so argument demands you provide more than one concrete example–and *concrete* is pressing it, since you still failed to list names and presentations. For your argument to get traction, I think it needs to be held at a higher standard than just half the references alluding to a dated book and sweeping accusations against a shadowy field with few examples.

    7. Again, I think a substative contribution to the discussion would involve more than just “pointing to” some mysterious “insider” discourse without tangible evidence or examples. This is supposed to be an academic publication, not a blog post.

    8. Examples?….Academic evidence does not, again, remain in obscure and indirect accusations, but actual examples and engagement. You can’t prove your point by merely alluding to, “I promise this is the case! Trust me! But I won’t share my evidence!”

    9. So, again, you don’t have any actual information on how the chairs were presented to donors, what the donors agreed to, and how the donors feel, but are rather, again, projecting your own accusations in the space of the lacking knowledge.

    I guess I’m just curious why this article was published without evidence to back up sweeping generalizations and accusations. An academic state-of-the-field or review essay is expected, I would think, to at least demonstrate an awareness of the field more than just looking over the programs of the last decade of AARs. I would posit that the future Mormon studies does not so much depend on the measuring up to such amorphous and obscure standards as it does actually engaging one another, providing relevant evidence and sophisticated interpretation of that evidence, and moving beyond merely accusing a blanket and indecipherable field with no connection to real life.

  12. A very provocative article. A few questions:

    1. It seems a bit of a stretch to judge the entire field of Mormon studies when you only cite one practioner of it (and a dated one that represents a previous methodological viewpoint, at that). Are there specific scholars and/or books that represent your broader points, or are you just assuming that this is how it plays out? Your argument would be more convincing if you actually pointed to actual examples rather than speaking in generalities and the abstract. You speak of scholars rushing through with their books before they have time to actually form an opinion–allow me to ask for particulars. For instance, is this the case with books by Patrick Mason, Kathleen Flake, Spencer Fluhman, Jared Farmer, or Sally Gordon? Those are, I think, the leading practioners in the field who either just recently or soon will go up for tenure, so I imagine they’d be apt case studies. I just think a state-of-the-field essay should, well, engage actual works in the field.

    2. I’m not sure that a university only having one Mormon studies chair. In fact, I would be worried if there were more located within a faculty. Mormon studies, as it is currently practiced, is at its best when in conversation with other scholars and methodologies. As soon as there are so many positions in the field that they only speak to each other, that’s when the parochialism and circular debates kick in.

    3. Are you familiar with how the Mormon studies programs currently work? I may be misreading you, but it seems like you are assuming that a student gets their degree in “Mormon studies,” when that is not the case. A student will get their degree in the same broader field as their cohort, but will likely only participate in events, perhaps take a class or two, and maybe incorporate Mormonism into part of their dissertation. Plus, your statement that a Mormon studies chair will be forced to prove themselves to the committee seems to miss the fact that each Mormon studies chair currently in use (USU and Claremont) and about to be filled (UVA) have stipulated that the chair is a tenured position from the time of appointment.

    4. Based on critique of modern academia (i.e., the publish-or-perish model), is it possible for there to be an academic in today’s world? Where can an academic gain a position without following the model you decry? (Besides obtaining a privately-endowed research chair.) And doesn’t Nibley himself serve as a counter-model to your ideal of waiting 20 years before publishing?

    5. Your description of religious studies topics as “far removed from the issues that most Latter-day Saints deal with on a daily basis” seems to be quite subjective and a projection of a single person’s experience. Indeed, a case can be made that those topic strike at a critical crux of the experience of many Latter-day Saints, and more than mere “drivel,” they represent a more conscious turn in the academy to encompass questions that transcend methodological frameworks that privilege narrow perspectives.

    6. The religious studies approach you (rightly) denounce—i.e. the King quote, “to attack religion is the one safe course for the ambitious intellectual”—has mostly been discarded by the academy. As someone who participates in religious studies, I cannot say how many time it has been drilled into me that my job is to provide a sympathetic reconstruction of my subjects; the phenemological approach to religious studies dominates the day to such an extent that those who are “critical” in the negative sense are a minority. (I would argue that the ignorance apparently displayed at the 2005 AAR is such an aberration that it can be mostly discarded, especially after the creation of the Mormon Studies sub-group within AAR that is mostly led by active Latter-day Saints.)

    7. Could you please provide an example of how to do academic work that incorporates the influence of the Holy Spirit? Perhaps the lack of such an approach is because there are a lack of models, so if you could provide one that would change the game and everyone would be indebted to your work!

    8. Do you have reason to believe that some “Mormon Studies programs [are] hous[ing] and promot[ing] students who are in Mormon Studies to promote their own anti-Mormon agenda”? If so, where? Those are major accusations, indeed.

    9. Based on your statements concerning the funding of chairs, and what makes them worthwhile, it seems you have a different understanding for how academic chairs work when it comes to Mormon studies than any other field. (I.E., they should serve the needs of common Latter-day Saints rather than, with the agreement of the donors, being used to further the academic study of whatever field that chair is in.) Can you further elaborate why this is the case?

    In short (apologies for the length of this comment!), do you think the study of Mormonism should be completely separate from academia? With such a bleak outlook concerning the latter, should Mormon scholars just leave academic work behind and allow non-Mormons to dominate the academic discussion? Some pragmatic advice would be greatly appreceated!

    And, again, specific examples of current Mormon studies works that fail to live up to your standards, and how, is my most pressing question.

    • The purpose of the essay was to raise issues for discussion and provide a Latter-day Saint point of view on them. It was not to provide definitive answers. I have not seen these topics discussed but think they ought to be.

      1. You obviously did not read the appendix.

      2. This is a topic worthy of discussion. My major field is one where a university typically has no more than three scholars, and the discussion in my field is how the lack of more faculty and exposure to multiple points of tends to be an undesirable thing. You are right about the circular debates; but we may have already reached that point.

      3. If you are right, how nice for the junior faculty who lands such a post. Some of us were not so lucky.

      4. Whether or not the current academic model is a good thing or sustainable is beyond my intent. Some people produce good work right from the beginning, others mature into it. The current tenure process does not really take this into consideration. There are excellent teachers who produce nothing; I have a hard time saying that they should be punished for not publishing if their major responsibility is teaching. The point is that we need to consider how these pressures might change the work that is done in Mormon Studies.

      5. My comment is based on more than one person’s subjective impression and it is based on the specific examples cited in the appendix.

      6. The quote is by Nibley, not King. If you were taught to “provide a sympathetic reconstruction of my subjects” that is well. The 2005 meeting, however, has not been an aberration in my experience. I hope it becomes more rare.

      7. I am pointing to a disparity I see between what insiders talk about and what outsiders talk about. I have heard several inside the Church mention this as missing from outsider accounts. I noted that it may not always be possible or desirable to discuss such matters. I note only that its absence is noticed by those inside.

      8. Yes. I have wondered if the institutions would tolerate anti-Semitic students in their Jewish Studies programs.

      9. I said “What sort of return do the investors expect from their investment? Are the publications and the type of research done by those chairs in line with the expectations of their Latter-day Saint funders? Obviously the donors are the ones who can best answer those questions.” Unfortunately, information about the expectations of the donors is not widely known. I was not one of those funding the chairs so I cannot say but I do know something about endowed chairs. I hope the donors were both aware of what they were buying and are happy with they bought.

  13. It appears the larger question you are getting at is whether or not there is a place for an objective study of religion, one that is neither devotional nor attacking. To the extent that our God is a God of truth and not propaganda, I do think that religious studies serves God. At the same time, that is somewhat misleading. The point of religious studies isn’t to serve God. The point is to look at Religion (and in this case Mormonism) and apply what we know about the disciplines of History, Anthropology, Sociology, Psychology, Phenomenology, etc. to Religion to gain insight beyond conventional wisdom. The goal of this discipline isn’t to serve God, it is to serve man by helping him to better understand his place in religion and in the human experience.

    As to the general authorities being the experts on the church, I’m a little confused by what you mean. Clearly they are much more knowledgeable about the current administration of the church. But the scope of their expertise is limited. Across the board do they have graduate or undergraduate training in Biblical Studies? What about Book of Mormon Studies? How familiar are they with theory and method in the study of religion? How much of their time do they do research and produce peer reviewed studies? With this in mind I don’t think they can be call “the real experts on Mormon Studies” even if they are truly experts on current church teachings and church administration.

    I do think that Mormon Studies experts need to know basically all of the things about the church that you mentioned above. To the extent that someone is very uninformed, their “insights” are more likely to be misleading than truthful. But to me, this is precisely the reason why we need programs in Mormon Studies to be able to systematically educate people rather than to make the try to develop an understanding piecemeal.

    • The conceptual category of “objectivity” is incoherent (see Peter Novick). There is no “objective study of religion.” I actually do religious studies in two other fields besides Mormon Studies so I am not opposed to religious studies as such. I do think there are better and worse ways of doing religious studies. I am also cognizant that I am an outsider when dealing with faiths other than my own. I am consciously aware that I could be getting it all wrong, especially in those areas where there are no longer living believers to correct me.

      Any given General Authority in the Church probably knows more about what is going on in the Church than you or I ever will. That sobering fact should cause those of us who do Mormon Studies to be much more humble than we usually are. If a General Authority were writing about a topic in the current Church, it would probably be better informed than if I were. What strength we have is in our particular niches.

      I agree with you that we need better Mormon Studies. In order to get there we need a discussion about what is the vital core knowledge that those doing Mormon Studies need to master.

      • I’m not very familiar with Novick, (though I will look into him) but perhaps “objective” is the wrong word. I think what I was aiming for was “theologically uncommitted”. As an example, I really yearn for books applying the historical critical method to the Book of Mormon. Maybe there are a ton of books out there that I just don’t know about (my religion department didn’t offer any Mormon studies classes when I was in school) but I really wish there was more analysis out there from a non-devotional/apologetic perspective. Obviously such an approach would be somewhat inherently different in Book of Mormon studies than New Testament studies (i.e. it would be significantly less concerned with determining the original words as penned by the authors), but it would still be concerned with better understanding the historical context of and the historical perspective through which the books of the Book of Mormon were written in, recognizing that if it really is an ancient record, the writers’ worldview was much different than our own. Obviously you run into an issue of whether or not it is possible for one to assume the Book of Mormon is an ancient record and at the same time be theologically uncommitted, but I optimistically think that can be worked around.

        As for what the core of knowledge is that the Mormon studies student needs to master, one thing that you left out is some training in theory and method in the study of religion. I think people in any subset of religious studies need some familiarity with people like Durkheim, Tylor, Frazor, Freud, Weber, Geertz, Turner, and Eliade. I also think that they would need some academic exposure to some other religious traditions, especially mainline Christianities and early Christianities because without that I think it is difficult to really appreciate and understand the contours of Mormonism.

    • “As to the general authorities being the experts on the church, I’m a little confused by what you mean. Clearly they are much more knowledgeable about the current administration of the church. But the scope of their expertise is limited. Across the board do they have graduate or undergraduate training in Biblical Studies? What about Book of Mormon Studies? How familiar are they with theory and method in the study of religion? How much of their time do they do research and produce peer reviewed studies? With this in mind I don’t think they can be call “the real experts on Mormon Studies” even if they are truly experts on current church teachings and church administration.”

      They are “experts,” not in “Mormon studies” (whatever that is or may be in the future) but in the teachings, principles, doctrines, organization, law, and governance of the restored Church and gospel. Not to put too fine a point on it, the Brethren’s revealed knowledge, mantel of authority as “prophets, seers, and revelators,” and spiritual (and hence, intellectual) insight into the nature of the gospel and the church that presents and teaches it, takes precedence over any academic or strictly secular approach to the same subjects (and academic study cannot really approach spiritual things at all without the revelation that is the fundamental epistemic ground of any claim to have appropriated anything one could call “true” regarding ultimate questions).

      Asking whether any of the FP or the Twelve have “graduate or undergraduate training in Biblical Studies,” what their grasp of “the theory and method in the study of religion” is, or “how much of their time they dedicate to doing “research” and producing “peer reviewed studies” seems to me, and I say this respectfully, to be a rather aggressive exercise in point missing.

      The point here is that prophets, seers and revelators do not need any of these academic props to do what they do and know what they know, or to discharge their responsibilities as the Lord’s anointed servants to “teach, preach, expound, exhort” and “raise a warning voice” to the Saints and to the world. The leaders of the Church are not theologians, philosophers of religion, or academic historians, nor is the “historical critical method” of academic historicism in any way relevant (or necessary) to their calling and authority as prophets (those who understand, speak, and teach truth and the words of Christ through the principle of revelation), seers (perceiving the future and the consequences of present acts through the same agency), and revelators (revealing correct knowledge/doctrine through the power of the Holy Ghost (principle of direct revelation)) which, absent this, would remain unrevealed and unknown.

      “Critical historical method” is just as likely, dependent upon the nature, extent, and quality of the evidence at hand and the biases, predispositions, and characterological attributes one brings to any historical study, to lead one away from the truth and away from any real expertise and substantive knowledge of “Mormonism” – let alone the eternal verities that are its special and unique area of distinction – as towards them.

      Historical critical method is a human (and so very mortal) created intellectual tool, and as such it can be deployed for, against, or in disregard for, the core truth claims of the church or any historical problems presented by its early development and growth.

      • “Asking whether any of the FP or the Twelve have “graduate or undergraduate training in Biblical Studies,” what their grasp of “the theory and method in the study of religion” is, or “how much of their time they dedicate to doing “research” and producing “peer reviewed studies” seems to me, and I say this respectfully, to be a rather aggressive exercise in point missing.”

        I think the issue here is that you and I seem to fundamentally have a different understanding of what the purpose of Mormon Studies is. If the purpose of the discipline is to “edify the saints” then you are right. If the purpose of the discipline is to step out side the supposition that the church is true, and evaluate the church (and its figures, scriptures, and doctrines) on its own merits (which is closer to what my experience in a religious studies program was) then I don’t think your point is strong.

        “The point here is that prophets, seers and revelators do not need any of these academic props to do what they do and know what they know”

        From an outsiders perspective, this is really problematic. To an outsider, this looks like circular reasoning. “They don’t need academic methods to know what they know because they receive revelation. How do you know the receive accurate revelation? Because the church is true! What if the church isn’t true? But the Church has to be true, I followed Moroni’s advice and asked God with a contrite heart!” While this may be a compelling argument to Mormons, it looks logically and academically irresponsible to someone who doesn’t accept your basic premise of church truth. Again, IF the purpose of Mormon studies is to increase the faith of Mormons, this isn’t relevant. But my experience in Religious Studies programs (specifically in Christianity and Judaism) suggests that the purpose of these programs has little to do with strengthening faith.

        I think that if Mormon Studies is set up to strengthen faith, that the church authorities should be the ultimate authorities. However , I think that if Mormon Studies is something intended to be a respected part of the Academy, that we need to used more universally accepted methodologies for analyzing the history, scripture, ritual, and doctrine of the Church. Yes, this inherently means we are using “human (and so very mortal) intellectual tool[s]” but it is the only way to that will have any meaning to non-mormons. If we just say “trust me, we’ve got divine revelation, so we know we’re right” then we don’t look like we have any credibility. If someone with a diametrically opposed beliefs said the same thing to you, how seriously would you take them?

  14. Hi Prof. John Gee–

    Thanks for your interesting, and provocative, commentary on Mormon Studies. We haven’t had the pleasure of meeting. I hope that changes sometime soon.

    I ask this out of genuine curiosity. But it seems that, to examine your idea of Mormon Studies “tourists,” that you believe no one who does not have a temple recommend should consider themselves Mormon Studies scholars, that we “tourists” (I’m one of the authors–the “guilty”–of two of the papers you cite from recent AAR meetings), have nothing to add, or perhaps nothing constructive.

    Do I understand you correctly? I don’t want to reduce your argument to something that it’s not. So I’d genuinely appreciate you helping me understand your position.

    Thanks, I look forward to your response.

    • To continue in the analogy: Baptism, not the temple, is the gateway into citizenship of the Kingdom of God. Those who have been baptized are citizens, those who have not are tourists. (I specifically excluded the temple from consideration for this essay. I do not think that possession of a temple recommend necessarily correlates with possession of insight.)

      That is not to say that tourists do not have interesting and important and insightful things to say and are not worth listening to. I think some do and some do not. I think a blanket statement is unwarranted. In the end, though, the interests of tourists are not the same as the interests of citizens.

      I made no particular comment about the merits or lack thereof of the papers in the appendix except one. I did try to be comprehensive for a ten year time period. I think it much better that the reader go through the list on her own and decide whether a paper on such a topic would be of interest to her.

      • I genuinely thank you for your replies. Still, I don’t think I fully understand.

        So I ask two more straight-forward sets of questions:

        1. So whoever is not a member of the Church (baptized as such) is a tourist in Mormonism? Or a tourist in Mormon Studies?

        2. Why use such language as “tourist,” which implies non-commitment at best (personal for sure, but also professional), while many of such tourists have dedicated their professional lives to the careful and critical (in both senses of the word) study of Mormonism (40 years among the Saints that Jan talks about is more like 50 now)?

        Would you not agree that terms like “tourist” and “guilty” are meant to discredit and demean? (You didn’t imply just one of the authors of the AAR papers is “guilty.” You implied the whole bunch.) These are “blanket statements” that you have introduced to this conversation. I ask you with sincerity and desire to understand, can we have a better, more inclusive (I’d say, more honest) set of terms?

          • My guess is that Brother Gee’s time is more valuable then spending time on debating semantics. It seems to me that your questions have already been addressed above.

          • Tim–

            If we have learned anything from this discussion is that what you call semantics (I would label them as not-so-veiled terms of division) matter a lot.

            Is the difference between the terms “cult” and “sect” and “church” merely descriptive, Troeltschian terms? Or are they politicized to the point that they should be avoided in academic discourse?

            And no, I don’t see how my questions have been answered above.

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