NEH Seminar on Joseph Smith

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 Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness and Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven to Brodie’s No Man Knows My History and Davies’ 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 Smith’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,

“ 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 country’s “religious dilemmas?� 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.�

As a Ph.D. student in a Religious Studies Department, I think this description of the seminar’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 “Religious Studies� 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 “examining Smith from a variety of perspectives broadens the context for understanding� 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 directors’ 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.

Thanks to Dave’s Mormon Inquiry for this news:

For More Information Go to the Smith Institute Website:

6 comments for “NEH Seminar on Joseph Smith

  1. January 3, 2005 at 11:52 pm

    The links didn’t go through for some reason.

    The Smith Institute address is:

    Dave’s Mormon Inquiry is:

  2. Kaimi
    January 4, 2005 at 1:28 pm

    It sounds like a really interesting event. I wonder if anyone around here (Melissa? Julie? Ben?) will be among the participants.

  3. January 4, 2005 at 1:55 pm


    Unfortunately, none of us qualify. I read the application last night with great interest and found the following restrictions:

    Qualified applicants must be employed teaching undergraduates at an instutition other than the institution at which they received their M.A. or Ph.D.. Further, this seminar cannot be used toward’s one’s thesis or dissertation. (these restrictions effectively eliminate all students).

    Qualified applicants can’t have worked with either Richard or Grant before or be a current colleague (i.e. all previous Smith Institute fellows are out as are all BYU faculty).

    I think that these restrictions on applicants are beneficial because it means that they won’t get a lot of people like me applying. Although I’d have a blast participating in the seminar, I don’t really need an introduction to Joseph Smith and the Origins of Mormonism—-nor do the likes of Juile and Ben. Instead, these stipulations mean that they hope to draw more established scholars in the field of American religious history, and religious studies generally who may have some interest in Mormonism, but need some background and training to be able to teach Mormon topics (mostly history, I imagine) and do primary research on them effectively. My hope is that there is enough general interest in the seminar that not a single LDS scholar needs to be chosen to participate.

    Since interest is percolating in the academy about Mormon Studies, it is a brilliant move on the part of the Smith Institute to decide to bring interested scholars to BYU and teach them how to do Mormon Studies.

    It is the very brilliance of this move, however, that makes me wish that the methodology question had been resolved more satisfactorily.

  4. Rosalynde Welch
    January 4, 2005 at 2:57 pm

    Melissa, you’re right that the seminar is clearly geared toward those currently teaching undergraduates… but if you read strenuously (as I’m trained to do! :)) you’ll see that other “independent scholars” may also be considered. I’m only very remotely qualified for the program, but I think technically I may just be feasible (no longer teaching undergraduates at the institution at which I received my PhD, expertise remotely but still technically germane)… Maybe I’ll send in the application!

  5. Christian
    January 4, 2005 at 3:38 pm


    Perhaps the methodology is left a little vague precisely _because_ there is “no consensus about what the appropriate theory or method is for ‘Religious Studies’ more generally.” Probably Bushman and Underwood not only want to “teach them how to do Mormon Studies,” but are interested in learning approaches other than their own (which happen to be the two you identify as “more or less straightforward”); hence they cast a wide net and wait to see what interesting things it might pull in.

    I think the seminar sounds fascinating. I would love to go. I wish it could be adopted as part of the Gospel Doctrine curriculum this year! Perhaps during the seminar we could have our own discussion here on T&S of the assigned reading, along with reports from anyone who might be fortunate enough to attend.

    I actually satisfy the criteria you quote above—seeing as how they don’t specifically exclude a Ph.D. in physics! ;)

  6. January 5, 2005 at 12:11 am

    Melissa, thanks for picking up the link from DMI. I like Christian’s idea of turning the seminar into a blogging event — perhaps one of “the 15” will be a blogger! Or there’s always 12 Questions . . .

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