I am feeling the stirrings of envy as I see advertisements for the annual Summer Seminar on Mormon Culture. Rules about repeating seminars prohibit me from jumping at the chance to immerse myself for six weeks in explorations of the theology and history of spiritual gifts, ordinances, and priesthood authority in LDS thought. That triad is impossibly juicy, and I’m anxious to see what presentations and papers emerge out of this year’s group.
Terryl Givens is conducting this summer’s session (June 3 – July 12, 2013), which continues the series started by Richard Bushman and hosted by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute over fifteen years ago. The first series of summer seminars on “Joseph Smith and His Times” ran from 1997 to 2002. In 2003 Claudia Bushman conducted a seminar on “Mormon Women in the Twentieth Century.” In recent years, Richard Bushman and Terryl Givens have expanded the Joseph Smith seminar series to broader topics, such as “Mormon Thought 1845-1890: Dealing with the Joseph Smith Legacy;” and “Mormon Thinkers 1890 to 1930,” and with the help of Matthew Grow, “Parley and Orson Pratt and 19th-century Mormon Thought.” The last two summers, Richard Bushman organized the seminar around the history and context of the golden plates, and this summer, Terryl Givens will be picking back up the history of Mormon thought with “Workings of the Spirit and Works of the Priesthood: Gifts and Ordinances in LDS Thought and Practice.”
The seminar’s description reads: “A principal evidence appealed to by early Mormon writers and missionaries, on which they based their claim to authoritative restoration, was the abundance of spiritual gifts manifest among believers in the church founded by Joseph Smith. Closely allied to these gifts was the Latter-day Saint claim to genuine priesthood authority. We will study how early Saints understood the workings of the spirit and spiritual gifts, and how those perceptions and manifestations have changed through Latter-day Saint history. We will also investigate the theology behind early Mormon exercise of the priesthood, their understanding of the role of ordinances in salvation, and how such understanding was shaped by and responded to Protestant notions of the sacraments.”
Terryl Givens adds: “We have managed to sustain an extraordinary level of talent and productivity emerging out of this seminar, with participation from students in Canada, UK, Finland, Brazil, Germany, Italy, and half the states in America. Its been a wonderful way to develop a thriving community of Mormon scholars.”
Given my experience as a participant in the seminar two summers ago, I can’t help but think of these seminars as a golden opportunity for aspiring or flourishing scholars of Mormon studies. The six-week immersion in provocative class readings and discussions (held daily, Monday-Thursday for several hours), individual research, and the close-knit community of Mormon studies’ scholars (many of whom often gravitate back to Provo during the summer, in a happy convergence of alumni and new initiates)– all under-girded by the personal mentorship of pioneering scholars like Richard Bushman and Terryl Givens–create the perfect intellectual incubator. I gained a solid footing in Mormon history and scholarship, but even more importantly, a welcome place in the Mormon studies scholars’ community. Those relationships make much of our research not only possible, but meaningful and enjoyable.
Right now could hardly be a better time to embark on the Mormon studies route. (Well, okay, a few hundred more job openings could make it a better time to embark). But still—the academic community of Mormon studies is growing. The Church, thanks in large part to Marlin Jensen’s work, has provided enormous resources to support Mormon historical research. Academic interest in Mormon studies is growing, as evident in UVA’s prominent new Chair of Mormon Studies position. The Mormon Moment shed light on many issues that have not only sparked public interest, but demand better understanding and scholarship.
Many of those misunderstood topics lie in the scope of Mormon theology. As Matt Bowman once said trying to understand what Mormons believe is like trying to pin Jell-O to a wall. But with the growing work of dedicated scholars, the formation and history of Mormon theology will become more lucid and coherent. As one who’s tired of our radical views on caffeine and pants getting more press than our radical understanding of God, I’m eager to see the fruits of further dedicated attention to Mormonism’s unusual and complex theological history.
Spread the word of the summer seminar to graduate students and junior/adjunct faculty you think might be interested in applying. Admitted participants receive a $3000 stipend (and accommodations subsidy, where needed). Applications are due Feb. 15, 2013. Inquiries and requests for applications should be carried out by email. Notifications will be sent by March 15, 2013.