Saturday, April 24, 2010

Where is the ‘Mormon’ in Mormon Studies? Subject, Method, Object

This is my paper from today's conference at Claremont Graduate University

You can find a pdf of it here.

Where is the ‘Mormon’ in Mormon Studies?
Subject, Method, Object

Loyd Ericson

April 24, 2010
Claremont Graduate University

Where and what exactly is the ‘Mormon’ in ‘Mormon Studies’? When we say that we are doing Mormon studies, what do we mean? Is this ‘Mormon’ descriptive or even prescriptive of the subject—those who are doing Mormon Studies? Is there a type of methodology that is particular to Mormon Studies? Or is this descriptive of the object of that which is being studied? By looking at these various ways of describing Mormon Studies I hope to bring forth broader questions and ideas that will be discussed throughout today’s conference as we collectively ask, “What is Mormon Studies?”
However, before asking where the ‘Mormon’ in Mormon Studies is, we should perhaps briefly ask what is the ‘Mormon’ in Mormon Studies? While there has been some debate in the public sphere concerning who has ownership of the term ‘Mormon,’ its use in Mormon Studies seems to nevertheless go well beyond the Salt Lake-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Because ‘Mormon’ or ‘Mormonite’ as a pejorative began in the very early stages of Joseph Smith’s prophetic career, the term ‘Mormon’ could arguably be used to refer to any denomination resulting from Smith’s initial religious movement—regardless of whether or not they use the term self-referentially. In other words, because of shared aspects of history, theology, and geography, ‘Mormon’ could be used in a much broader sense to include not only the LDS Church, but also the FLDS Church and the Community of Christ, as well as other fundamentalist and restorationist off-shoots. For the purposes of this paper, I am using the term ‘Mormon’ in this broader context.

With this in mind, let us return to the main question of my paper by first looking at the subject—or who it is that is doing Mormon Studies. It seems clear already—especially in light of Jan Shipps being the keynote speaker of this conference—that the subject doing Mormon studies does not necessarily have to be a Mormon. However, because of the sometimes challenging nature of academically studying religion, the subject’s relationship to Mormonism often becomes an important factor, regardless of the quality of his or her work.
So who are these subjects? And how are they related to Mormonism?  There seems to be at least six different groups that participants in Mormon Studies tend to be categorized into:
First, at one end of the spectrum is what I’ll call the pastoral Mormons whose work and relationship to Mormonism is almost entirely theological and concerned with evangelization and preaching to other Mormons. Perhaps represented best by Robert Millet, these are scholars whose writings are often testimonial and lie close to (if not beyond) the border of academia and into pastoral theology. This is not to say that they are incapable of academic scholarship. In fact, because of the explicit statements of faith that they might make, they often provide a certain dimension of religiosity that is often left out of studies that are claiming to study that religion. Millet’s recent projects with inter-faith discussions are an example of a function that I believe is a valuable addition to Mormon studies. However, because of the testimonial nature and evangelization that may be present in the pastoral Mormons, there is an understandable uneasiness with bringing them into academic discourse, as testimony sometimes has the tendency to inhibit, rather than encourage, discussion.
The second group of subjects is made up of the Mormon apologists. Like the previous group, the apologists also make statements of faith explicit in their work. However, unlike the pastoral Mormons, the apologists’ goal is to not just state their faith, but to defend or prove the truth claims of that faith, all the while attempting to do so within parameters of strict academic scholarship. This group is easily best represented by Daniel Peterson and his colleagues in the Maxwell Institute at Brigham Young University. As the Maxwell Institute’s mission statement puts it, their primary mission includes “Describ[ing] and defend[ing] the Restoration through highest quality scholarship” and “Provid[ing] an anchor of faith in a sea of LDS Studies.”[1] While they may at least seem to work within academic standards, there still exists an uneasiness among many about including them into Mormon studies due to the feeling that Mormon and/or religious studies is a forum for studying, and not promoting or defending, religious beliefs.
The third group of subjects doing Mormon studies is composed of those I will call, “the Mormon, but . . .” (SPELL IT OUT). I use this description simply because that is how they are often described: “She is a Mormon, but . . . she is not an apologist.”  Or “He is a believing Mormon, but . . . he doesn’t let that affect his scholarship.” Or “She is a Mormon, but . . . she hides it well in her work.” This is perhaps the largest and most broad group within Mormon Studies today. Perhaps best represented best by our own Richard Bushman, those in this group might all subscribe to Mormonism, however, the extent to which they make their faith known in their work varies. Unlike the apologists, their work is usually to seek out a descriptive understanding of Mormonism without promoting or defending religious beliefs. However, the “Mormon, but . . .” is often left to play a difficult balancing act. On one hand, their status as a Mormon may leave non-Mormons skeptical of their academic credibility; and on the other hand, their attempts to approach Mormonism academically may cause other Mormons to question their religious devotion. The latter is often a result of either a lack of apologetics in their work or for providing research or argumentation that does not support traditional narratives or theological understandings. For example, in response to an announcement of this conference on an online Mormon apologetics message board, one poster wrote that the speakers in this conference exemplified “the rise of a type of neo-secularism among the Latter-day Saints [and]. . . the new generation of anti-Mormonism.”
The fourth group of subjects is similar to the previous group, but reflects a shift to the other side of the spectrum. These are the “non-Mormon, but . . .” (again, SPELL OUT). “She is a non-Mormon, but . . . she isn’t anti-Mormon.” Or “He is a non-Mormon, but . . . he has a real interest in objectively studying Mormonism.” Or “She is a non-Mormon, but . . . she is not attempting to disprove Mormonism.” While this group may make up a relatively smaller portion of those doing Mormon Studies, their “non-Mormon, but . . .” status may at the same time elevate them in the Mormon Studies sphere, especially when the focus of their academic work revolves around Mormonism. This group is perhaps best represented by Jan Shipps and Douglas Davies. While the “non-Mormon, but . . .” may at first be met with a level of skepticism (or as Jan Shipps put it last night, “just another gentile”), once they have proven the “but,” they are often paraded by Mormons inside and outside of academia—as if a non-Mormon with a non-critical interest in Mormonism validates the faith.
The fifth group along the spectrum is one that I am going to untechnically call Mormon revisionists. Now this is a loaded term that I am a bit hesitant to use as many who might fit within this group may not self-referentially use this term. While those in this group may or may not be believing Mormons, I have chosen to differentiate them from the “Mormon, but . . .” and “non-Mormon, but . . .” because of their tendency to focus on criticizing or revisioning traditional Mormon narratives. Perhaps represented best by Dan Vogel, Brent Metcalfe, and Michael Quinn, they frequently catch the ire of apologists because of what are sometimes seen by apologists as being “attacks” on Mormonism. While they are usually grounded in strict academic methodologies, their (usually) explicit criticisms often push them to the borders of what may be included in Mormon Studies.
The final and sixth group of subjects potentially doing Mormon Studies is made up of the so-called “anti-Mormons.” This, again, is a very loaded term, and I use it to describe those whose stated purpose is not just to criticize traditional Mormon narratives, but to do so with the intent of getting Mormons to lose their belief in, and/or leave, Mormonism. This group of subjects usually comes in either the form of counter-cultists like Jerald and Sandra Tanner whose research is done with the goal of encouraging Mormons to leave Mormonism and accept a more traditional understanding of Christianity, or could perhaps arise in a Mormon faction of the new-atheist movement whose central interest in research and argumentation might be to encourage Mormons lose their belief in God. While anti-Mormons may be instrumental in bringing forth important research in Mormon Studies, like their pastoral counter-parts in the first group, the testimonial nature and evangelization in their work results in an understandable uneasiness with bringing them into academic discourse, as it can also inhibit, rather than encourage, discussion.
These six groups of subjects are not the sum-all of those doing Mormon studies and I only bring them up to highlight the way in which the term ‘Mormon’ is often used to describe and categorize those doing Mormon studies. Further descriptive categories could include Mormon women, feminist Mormons, black Mormons, LGBT Mormons, cultural Mormons, Hispanic Mormons, former Mormons, antagonistic non-Mormons, and many others that may or may not properly describe the way they view themselves or their work—but which are nevertheless projected on them by others.
How each of these subjects are related to Mormonism also seems to be tied in the way that they approach their studies, which brings us to the word ‘Mormon’ as possibly being descriptive of the method by which Mormon Studies is done.
In his essay “Advice to Christian Philosophers,” Alvin Plantinga argued that “we who are Christians and propose to be philosophers must not rest content with being philosophers who happen, incidentally, to be Christians; we must strive to be Christian philosophers.”[2] In response, D.Z. Phillips, in his “Advice to Philosophers who are Christians,” countered, saying, “in elucidating the surroundings in which belief in God is held fast, the philosopher is not doing something called Christian philosophy. He is simply doing philosophy.” For Plantinga, Christian philosophy is a type of philosophical inquiry which holds a priori certain Christian beliefs. For Phillips it is nonsense to talk of a unique Christian philosophy; rather, there is just philosophy. Anything beyond that, such as “Christian philosophy,” is simply descriptive of Christians using philosophical methodology to explore or argue about Christian beliefs.
Without getting too deep into the question of philosophy, I want to carry this over into the second part of my paper concerning methodology—specifically the question of whether or not there is a uniquely Mormon methodology in Mormon Studies.
Like Plantinga we may want to talk of doing Mormon history, Mormon philosophy, Mormon sociology, Mormon anthropology, Mormon cultural studies, and so on. However, in doing so are we saying that there is a uniquely Mormon way of doing these things? Or are we just doing history, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, cultural studies, and so on? Rather than saying that Mormon studies is utilizing any uniquely Mormon methodology, it seems to be the case that instead Mormon studies is just a Mormon (or a Mormon apologist, “Mormon, but”, “non-Mormon, but,” revisionist, or anti-Mormon) doing a particular study. Thus, for example, there is no Mormon history, there are just Mormons and others doing history.
While this understanding helps square Mormon studies with the broader academic world—one of the assumed goals of Mormon studies—there still seems to be a uniquely Mormon methodology that one could use in Mormon studies, though whether or not it ought to be included (or ought to be excluded) is a question I shall leave for the rest of the conference. This methodology would include a faith or religiously based testimonial as part of one’s argument or discussion. Examples of this might include appealing to one’s own spiritual confirmation of the historical reality of Joseph Smith’s First Vision when discussing the beginnings of Mormonism, basing an understanding of the context of the Book of Mormon off of one’s belief in its ancient origins, or the claim that the growth of the LDS Church is due to the Holy Spirit influencing others to convert to God’s true Church. As I mentioned earlier, because testimonials may have a tendency to hinder, rather than encourage, discussion, both pastoral and anti-Mormons have largely been excluded from Mormon studies events. Or when they have been allowed, it has usually been with the general understanding that they are invited as such, and not regardless of. For example, a general authority may be invited to speak with the understanding that he is speaking as a general authority, and not as a scholar.
As I just mentioned, the primary reasoning for excluding religious expressions (or testimonials) of faith has been based on the notion that because expressions of faith are religious and not academic in nature, they are metaphysical claims which cannot be verified and thus do not meet the academic criteria necessary for Mormon or general religious studies. It would, accordingly, be the same reason why religious beliefs about the origin of humans would not count as evidence in a conference on organic evolution. Because the study of organic evolution is a scientific study, religious (or non-scientific data) should not be utilized.
There are perhaps two problems with this rationale. The first is that while it makes sense to say that religious beliefs should not be used to argue about scientific matter (such as organic evolution), there seems to be something queer about saying that religious beliefs should not be used while arguing about religious phenomena. The second problem is that while religious beliefs are being rejected a priori because of their explicit metaphysical assumptions, non-religious argumentation is being allowed even though they implicitly make similar, though opposing, assumptions. For example, when discussing the growth of the LDS Church, beliefs about the role of God are dismissed because of the explicit and unverifiable metaphysical assumptions concerning God and the Church. However, a sociological or psychological explanation of the Church’s growth may be allowed even though it makes the implicit and unverifiable metaphysical assumption that the growth is not attributable to God. Similar problems arise when attempting to understand Joseph Smith’s revelations, the Book of Mormon, or the role of God in the lives of believing Mormons. By excluding one explicit metaphysical claim while allowing another implicit metaphysical claim we are only veiling certain religious (or non-religious) prejudices.
It is for this reason that most institutions that do religious studies today choose to bracket out and avoid claims that either promote or criticize religious beliefs. For example, the website for the religious studies program and the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill states that “the goal of any paper in religious studies should not be to demonstrate or refute provocative religious concepts, such as the existence of God, the idea of reincarnation, or the possibility of burning in hell. By nature, such issues are supernatural and/or metaphysical and thus not open to rational inquiry.”[3] A policy such as this, however, still leaves open the question of apologetic and revisionist approaches that focus on religious beliefs that are much more open to rational inquiry—such as the those studying the origin of Mormon scripture.
This brings us to the final way in which the term ‘Mormon’ might describe Mormon studies, which is in the object—or that which is being studied. At a first glance it may seem that ‘Mormon’ must obviously at least describe that which is being studied. Mormon history is about studying the history of Mormonism; Mormon theology is about studying the theology of Mormons; Mormon sociology is a study of Mormons; etc. However, what about something that is explicitly non-Mormon? Can a Mormon writing on early 19th century religious America be considered Mormon studies, even if her paper does not explicitly refer to Mormonism? Can or should a Mormon doing biblical criticism be thought of as doing Mormon Studies? Or what about Terryl Givens recent book—a Mormon writing about pre-existence, which clearly is a topic of interest to Mormons?
Or what about what Richard Bushman argued for a year ago at the conference for the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology. He said:

Mormonism began with [the] announcement that the creeds were an abomination before God.  Can we make something of that?  My suggestion today is that in our enthusiasm for engagement, we not overlook the advantages of distance.  Besides blending and amalgamating, we should occasionally stand apart and look at the world with a critical eye from a Mormon vantage point.  Perhaps we should cultivate a Mormon hermeneutics of suspicion.
Where do we stand, for example, on the great cultural formations of our era in world history: science, democracy, and capitalism?  Are we content to reap the benefits of each of these cultural systems, or should we critique them and even resist?[4]

According to Bushman, Mormons ought  to be looking outside of Mormonism in their studies and offering cultural criticisms from within Mormonism. In doing so, must one mention Mormonism to be doing Mormon Studies? Must it be explicit, or even implicit? Or does the approach from Mormonism ‘Mormonify’ the object even if it is unseen—in the same way that throwing paint in a lightless room changes the color of the walls.

In this paper, I’ve been trying to explore the place that this word ‘Mormon’ fits or describes what it is that we are doing in Mormon Studies. Its role in various places perhaps forces us to ask the questions of who should be allowed to participate, how should it be done, and what should be the objects of these studies? Should boundaries of exclusion be drawn? or should all, including the evangelizing, the apologists, the revisionists, and the anti-Mormons, be allowed to mingle in the broadest field of Mormon studies?
Or is my attempt to take this word ‘Mormon’ and stick it anywhere but in front of the word ‘Studies’ already a confused mistake? At the most recent conference for the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology at Utah Valley University, we had two presenters that perhaps throw another wrench into this whole question. With David O’Connor from Notre Dame presenting on Christian art and Kevin Hart from the University of Virginia giving a phenomenological reading of the parable of the Prodigal Son, we had two non-Mormons subjects, using non-Mormon methods, to explore non-Mormon objects. And yet there we all were, doing Mormon Studies.

[1] “Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship Mission Statement,” Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, (accessed April 21, 2010).
[2] Alvin Plantinga, ‘Advice to Christian Philsophers,” Faith and Philosophy, vol. 1, no. 3 (July 1984): 271.
[3] “Religious Studies,” University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill Religious Studies Program, (accessed April 23, 2010).
[4] Richard L. Bushman, “On Being Ill at Ease in the World”


  1. I think your fourth group would include people like the late Wesley Walters who was very through going in his study of early Mormon history in relation to the First Vision (Revival Question) and the 1826 trial.

  2. Noel, Walters was clearly not a "Mormon, but..." Rather, I would place him somewhere between the revisionist and anti-Mormon.

    Actually, if I remember correctly, his desire was ultimately evangelistic in attempting to get Mormons to leave the faith. If so, then he would be in the anti-Mormon camp.

  3. Thanks for posting this, Loyd.


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