This post is basically an overview of the course itself. In general, there will be four units, each corresponding to a particular textbook that we will read.
But before we get into the units themselves, I will have my students read Mormonism: A Very Short Introduction, by Richard Bushman. Oxford puts out these “very short introductions” on a variety of topics, and I thought having my students read this one would be a good way to start and get a general overall feel for Mormon history and theology before we really start to dig in.
The first major unit will cover the life of the Prophet Joseph Smith. You really cannot do Mormonism without focusing on him a lot. In many ways, that would be like attempting a class on Islam without talking about the Prophet Muhammed. It’s just a bad idea. We will be reading selections from Rough Stone Rolling, Richard Bushman’s marvelous biography of the prophet. Bushman is able to thread the needle between faith and scholarship, coming to no hard conclusions about the faith-content of Joseph’s experiences (even though Bushman himself is a believer) but doing a fabulous job of presenting Joseph the historical figure.
Unique Mormon Scripture
I will have my students read large portions of The Book of Mormon. Again, to compare this class to a hypothetical one on Islam, you would do yourself a great injustice to not read The Qur’an. In conjunction with reading the new scripture, we will also be reading Teryl Givens’ By The Hand of Mormon. Givens does an extremely thorough job of discussing how the Book of Mormon itself has been used ever since its publication in 1829. I had considered using Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon, but in the end decided to let the volume of scripture speak for itself, and have a meta-discussion about what the book means by using Given’s book. Givens also talks about the Book of Mormon as an example of and outlining what Givens terms “dialogic revelation,” the call-and-response of prophets and God. After reading that chapter, the students will read some of the D&C as well.
History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
The third unit will basically be history, starting with Joseph’s death and the succession crisis, which was resolved with the main body (but not all) of the church following Brigham Young and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles west to Utah, and ending with the tenure of current LDS Church president Thomas S. Monson. Matt Bowman’s very new book The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith, will serve as our guide.
For the final unit on Mormon theology and doctrine we will finally read a book written by someone who is not a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Douglas Davies is a professor at the University of Durham, and I found his book The Mormon Culture of Salvation to be very insightful. Davies discusses Mormonism through the lens of anthropology and sociology. One of the things I admire about Davies’ book is that he really treats Mormon cosmology, ritual, and practice with the seriousness it deserves. Because, though Mormonism has obvious ties doctrinally to traditional Christianity, there are still some things that are very different about us. When Rodney Stark called us the next world religion, I’m not sure he’s wrong (though obviously we think of it as a restoration). Mormon theology, extending as it does far into the past and looking towards the future, is a little more than just a few bells and whistles added to Christian conceptions of the afterlife. It’s a cosmology that, I think, can go toe to toe with the great religions and mythologies of the world. Davies does a good job of treating it as such. We will also read the books of Abraham and Moses for this unit.
It’s not every day that a new religion gets started, and I’m not just talking about denominations (most protestants are virtually indistinguishable from each other) or movements (Pentecostalism clearly doesn’t represent a new religion, just a new “style” of Christianity, for lack of a better word, that cuts across denominational lines). The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints represents an interesting phenomenon, in that here we have a new, bona fide religious movement. New prophets. New scripture. New ritual. New cosmology. Everything.
Its growth rate is prodigious, and is projected to be a new world religion sometime this century, assuming Rodney Stark’s projections about our growth rate turn out to be true (and we seem to be more or less on the money for his projections from the 1986 article, not the 1997 follow-up, though some recent data released literally in the last few weeks casts doubt on this). I’ll also discuss the Perpetual Education Fund as a portent of things to come in Mormonism as we rapidly shift away from an American church to an international one.
Furthermore, the origins of this new religion are not shrouded in the mists of time, making it hard to distinguish between fact and myth. We have still have actual documents actually written by Joseph Smith. The church is putting out a comprehensive series of volumes with everything extant that he wrote or majorly participated in, the Joseph Smith Papers Project. You cannot find that for Muhammed, Jesus, Siddharta, or any of the other major religious figures from world history. So, if nothing else, we get to see the rise of a religion from the beginning. I hope that this class serves that kind of meta-objective (study a new religion rising from the beginning) as well as being a thorough introduction to Mormonism. Another secondary objective, and why I think Georgetown requires all its students to take two religion classes, it to further the students in their own faith journey, in this case mostly by comparing their own beliefs with an in-depth study of another faith tradition.
Here are the relevant portions of the syllabus. You’ll find I’m a very sporting professor in the kinds of assignments I give to my students. I sometimes wonder if I’m too sporting. Ah well.