Last year in his address to the approximately ten thousand members of the American Academy of Religion, then President Robert Orsi encouraged scholars to expand their research into new areas, among which he explicitly mentioned Mormonism. Scholars interested in pursuing this challenge have a unique opportunity to do so this Summer. The National Endowment for the Humanities has partnered with the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for LDS History to offer a six week seminar on Joseph Smith and the Origins of Mormonism.
The seminar, which will be led by Richard Bushman and Grant Underwood, boasts a reading list that is ambitious and diverse including articles from Dialogue and Journal of Mormon History and texts ranging from Comptonâ€™s In Sacred Loneliness and Krakauerâ€™s Under the Banner of Heaven to Brodieâ€™s No Man Knows My History and Daviesâ€™ recent contribution An Introduction to Mormonism. Standard bread and butter Mormon Studies texts like the work of Arrington, Bushman, and Shipps also make the seminar reading list. Participants will explore Mormon historiography, Joseph Smithâ€™s theology, marriage and sexuality, social conflict, and community ideals among other various topics. Obviously, the combination of texts, topics and discussion leaders makes this seminar an incredibly rich introduction for the scholar interested in Mormon Studies.
Of particular interest to me is the note on methodology in the seminar description which reads as follows,
â€œ In our readings and discussion, we will take a broadly comparative perspective, viewing Smith through lenses of American religious and cultural history as well as through models and methodologies of religious studies. From the vantage point of American history, what were the immediate influences that produced Joseph Smith? How did he address his countryâ€™s â€œreligious dilemmas?â€? Religious Studies, on the other hand, suggests typologies of prophecy and models for analyzing the production of sacred texts. We believe that examining Smith from a variety of perspectives broadens the context for understanding the Mormon prophet.â€?
As a Ph.D. student in a Religious Studies Department, I think this description of the seminarâ€™s methodological orientation is unhelpful and vague. While Comparative Religion has a more or less straightforward methodology as does American Religious History, there is no consensus about what the appropriate theory or method is for â€œReligious Studiesâ€? more generally. Are the participants going to be doing textual analysis, philosophy, psychology or anthropology? Scholars of religion use methods from all of these disciplines and others. If I were a university professor interested in applying for this seminar, I would be keenly interested in knowing specifically what methodologies are expected, especially given the theme of the seminar and the hosting institution. While an acknowledgment that â€œexamining Smith from a variety of perspectives broadens the context for understandingâ€? has the benefit of leaving room for a diversity of methodological approaches, it also may leave potential applicants with a disconcerting ambiguity about the project. Although one might surmise based on the directorsâ€™ training and the reading list that the focus of the seminar will be on history, and that the methodological approach will therefore be mainly historical rather than sociological or theological, certain methodological questions remain.
Having said that, I think this unprecedented and exciting event is full of opportunities that may have far-reaching positive implications not only for the way Mormonism gets taught, but for the future of Mormon Studies. I will be interested to see what scholars participate and where their research takes them.