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Academic Interest in Mormonism Rises

Mormonism as a subject of scholarly interest was for many years explored by Latter-day Saint researchers and a small number of non-Mormon scholars, but now the field is attracting more academic attention.

Chairs in Mormon studies have recently been established at Utah State University and at California’s Claremont Graduate University. An additional chair is under consideration at the University of Wyoming, while Mormon-related courses are offered at other universities, including Harvard Divinity School, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, University of Richmond, Vanderbilt University, Utah Valley University, Arizona State University and others.

In addition, seminars and symposia exploring various aspects of Latter-day Saint history and doctrine have been held at Princeton University, at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. and internationally at the University of Durham in Great Britain, New South Wales Parliament in Australia and National Taiwan University in Taipei.

Laurie Maffly-Kipp, associate professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, describes her individual efforts to offer a Mormon-themed course in 1999.

“Though my area of study was the history of the American West, I only spent one class period on the Mormon experience but had been invited to present the Tanner lecture at the Mormon History Association meetings in 2000. In preparation for the lecture, I began to do research at the Church archives and at BYU. I enjoyed it so much that I just kept at it and initiated the course here.” The course, “Mormonism and the American Experience,” is now offered each semester at UNC.

Beyond these official offerings, Mormonism is also “gaining greater notice as a topic of conversation in American religious history and American history classes,” says Patrick Mason of the University Notre Dame and currently on appointment at American University in Cairo.

Also to be noted is the increase in scholarly publications related to various aspects of Latter-day Saint history, culture and doctrine. Such a movement, according to Jan Shipps, professor emeritus of history and religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, was pioneered by the University of Illinois Press and editor Elizabeth Dulaney, which at one time held as many as 22 Mormon-themed titles. Other significant academic imprints publishing related works include the presses at Columbia University, UNC and Oxford University.

As the broad field of religious studies was conceived in 1965 through legislation and private endowments, analysis of established religion gained academic attention, but Mormonism was not, at that point, seriously included. “It was like a doughnut,” Shipps suggested. “People walked all around it but they wouldn’t take a bite.” Shipps is often credited with making the case that Mormonism be defined as “a new religious tradition rather than a longtime footnote to American history,” she says.

“Shipps’ studies conclude that Mormonism is, while legitimately Christian, still distinctive in its history and makeup, that it is qualitatively a new world religion,” adds Philip Barlow, who occupies the newly created Arrington Chair of Mormon Studies at Utah State University. “The study of Mormonism can be like going back in a time machine to the second century and studying Christianity as it emerged from Judaism into a new religious tradition. Only in Mormonism, we have far richer records and materials and people to study.”

The “scramble” to implement curricula in Mormon studies, as described in a recent Boston Globe article, seems less a horse race, but more a plodding, long-term effort carried out by historians, professionals in numerous fields, and the institutional Church itself.

In recent years, the works of numerous scholars have “built upon the foundational work of Mormon historian Leonard Arrington and scholars associated with Arrington, but they have also produced significant new work that connects Mormonism to religion more broadly and also to American history. In that sense, they have helped propel the study of Mormonism into the mainstream of scholarship,” suggests Sarah Barringer Gordon, professor of constitutional law and professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

Barlow describes this body of scholars as “among the best in America who have treated the subject of Mormonism with profound knowledge and insight.” The Utah State professor suggests additional reasons for the surge of interest in the scholarly examination of the Mormon faith.

“Part of this new academic interest is proportionate to perceptions of Mormonism’s cultural impact: the 2002 Winter Olympics, the Mitt Romney presidential candidacy, distinctive LDS voting patterns, the movement’s growth and its spread internationally,” adds Barlow. In addition, an “increasing number of scholars find Mormonism inherently fascinating: the most colorful, controversial and complex history — and it is accessible…information kept by world champion record keepers.”

The available records and information concerning The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints provide historians and scholars – including those outside the faith – with helpful resources and challenging academic opportunities to explore the ever expanding field of religious studies.

“Mormon Studies shares growing interest in other newer and smaller religious movements, and, of course, with larger worldwide traditions that often were not studied in depth in American colleges and universities,” Barringer Gordon added. “American scholars (and their students) have become more interested in religion, and they have matched that interest with a commitment to studying a diversity of faiths.”

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