Religion depts. open doors to Mormon studies

Studying a religion once overlooked

The Brown Daily Herald/March 19, 2008

Non-Mormon universities including Harvard Divinity School, Claremont Graduate University and Utah State University are now adding courses on Mormonism to their curricula, and several schools have added endowed chairs in Mormon studies.

Though often discussed in general courses in American history, Mormonism has been largely neglected in religious studies departments of universities around the nation. The heightened interest in the religion comes as more Mormons, including former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, receive media attention, and as more people realize that Mormons comprise a significant portion of Americans, said Richard Bushman, a professor of history at Columbia University who focuses on Mormon studies.

Claremont Graduate University and Utah State University are among the first non-Mormon universities to establish endowed chairs in Mormon studies, and the University of Wyoming may soon add its own, according to a Feb. 19 article in the Boston Globe. Bushman will assume the Howard W. Hunter Visiting Professorship of Mormon Studies at Claremont this fall. He said one of the goals of his own course is studying Mormonism's role in American history and religion.

"The idea is to situate Mormonism into the American religious landscape and also to situate it into the theological world," Bushman said.

He added that part of the growing interest in Mormonism is understanding where to place Mormonism on the scale of other religions.

"Mormons are hard to categorize - they're not quite Catholic, not quite Protestants," Bushman said. "It becomes a bit of a problem to describe what encompasses Mormonism. Comparisons become quite significant in studying Mormonism."

Bushman said courses on Mormonism could potentially cover a wide range of issues, from a basic history and introduction to "Mormons coping with the modern world." The course at Harvard is taught this semester by Melissa Proctor GS, a visiting lecturer who will receive her Ph.D. in religion and critical thought from Brown next fall.

Her course, entitled "Mormonism and the American Experience," exceeded the 15-person capacity and had to turn away interested students. Only four of the 15 are practicing Mormons, Proctor wrote in an e-mail. She said she has received enthusiastic feedback from students so far.

"We have lively discussions during seminar that often extend into conversations after class about texts we're reading or relevant theoretical issues in the study of religion that Mormonism illuminates," Proctor wrote.

According to Proctor, the Harvard course begins with an overview of the history of Mormonism and the revelation of its founder, Joseph Smith, and then moves forward with an examination of the contemporary Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The course is not a permanent part of the Harvard curriculum, Proctor wrote.

Utah Valley State College, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Richmond, Vanderbilt University and Arizona State University also offer courses on Mormonism, according to a February 22 press release from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

According to Utah Valley State's Web site, the course offerings include a class on Mormon literature and one examining prejudice against Mormonism, among others. The UNC course on Mormonism touches upon race and gender within the Church, according to the department of religious studies' Web site.

Mark Cladis, professor of religious studies and chair of the department, said Brown would welcome the addition of a course on Mormonism. He said limitations with staff and resources may preclude adding a course. Cladis said the department supported Proctor's graduate work at Brown that focused on Mormon studies.

"We supported our doctoral student to write a dissertation on Mormonism long before we knew Mitt Romney was going to be a presidential candidate," Cladis said. "We thought it was an intellectually interesting topic."

Allison Kantor '08, who is concentrating in religious studies, said she would find a course on Mormonism highly interesting. But she said she recognizes the field might be too small for a course or specialized faculty.

"Where you would have an issue is whether there is a professor who has enough knowledge on the subject," Kantor said. "You don't want a professor who is either too critical or too praiseworthy of anything."

Colin Lentz '09, another religious studies' concentrator, said he understands that Mormonism often comes second in academic institutions to world faiths that have had greater historic roles in shaping culture.

Still, he said he thinks it's important to recognize Mormon studies as an academic field.

"As a religious faith it deserves just as much of a chance to tell people about what it really is, as opposed to having other people speak for it," Lentz said.

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