Mormon Studies starts at University of Wyo.
The new committee concentrates on 'a study in humanity'.
By Shauna Stephenson
CHEYENNE - Did you know about one in seven Wyoming residents are Mormon?
That equals about 14 percent of the population, or about 71,000 people.
That statistic is just one of many factors behind the creation of the
Mormon Studies Initiative, a committee formed out of the Religion
Department at the University of Wyoming.
Paul Flesher, director of the Religious Studies Program at the
University of Wyoming, said the department has taken an active
interest in learning about the major religions that play a role in the
"Part of (the university's) goal is to serve the people of the state,"
he said. "That means we need to understand something about the
religions practiced in Wyoming by large numbers of its population."
He said he hopes to make Mormon studies part of the curriculum at the
University of Wyoming.
"Misunderstanding comes from lack of knowledge. We would like to
improve knowledge," he said.
Flesher said this is all part of a bigger goal to create a center for
the study of religion in the American West.
"In the future, we hope to be able to explore all the other religions
that have influenced this development," he said.
Kevin Larsen, adjunct professor of religious studies and co-chair of
the Mormon Studies Initiative, said the committee is not about
"It's just to build these bridges of understanding and tolerance and
not only tolerance for Mormons, but tolerance by Mormons," he said.
Larsen said history has shown what happens when there is
misunderstanding and intolerance for certain a religion.
"There's been a lot of unhappiness in world history that someone was
so convinced they were right that they had to make everyone else
convinced of it too."
He called it a study in humanity.
"It's like studying literature and music. It's a human phenomenon," he
said. "You don't have to be an adherent to any particular doctrine to
want, or to need to know, what makes people who they are."
The Mormon faith has had a long history in the state of Wyoming. About
150 years ago, Mormon pioneers traveled through the state on their way
to Utah. The trek brought on some horrific events that took place at
Martin's Cove, where hundreds in the party died from exposure to
severe weather and famine.
After establishing themselves in Utah, some moved back east to
Wyoming, where they settled in places like the Star and Bridger
valleys. Today there are many leaders who are members of the Church of
Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including legislators, city leaders
and business owners.
As part of the initiative, the department is bringing in a number of
speakers including retired Columbia University professor Richard
Bushman, who recently wrote the book "Joseph Smith's Place in
Bushman said Smith, the founder of the Mormon religion, was an
"immensely controversial character."
He said most Mormons see him as the prophet who restored the gospel.
But others don't feel that way.
"Other people think he was some kind of a fraud," he said.
He said he thinks many people still view Mormons as somewhat alien to
the other mainstream Christian religions.
"I think Mormons are still thought of as kind of a people apart," he
said. "From the outside, Mormons seem clannish. Mormons themselves
think they're open and friendly to everyone ... The very fact that
their community is so tight - it raises barriers."
Bushman is a member of the Mormon church. He said his history with the
organization sparked his interest in Joseph Smith, but he approached
his research like a historian.
"I just plowed through all source material and wrote what I saw there."