Thursday, July 09, 2009

Summer Seminars explore Mormon thought and history

Mormon Times
Wednesday, Jul. 08, 2009
In 1997 Richard L. Bushman organized a small group of advanced undergraduate and graduate students to look at "Joseph Smith and His Times." This first "Summer Seminar" helped Bushman, the Howard W. Hunter Visiting Professor in Mormon Studies from Claremont Graduate University (California), as he wrote "Rough Stone Rolling," his biography of Joseph Smith. Similar seminars continued through the years.

"When we began this whole operation it was simply to accumulate information to help first with my book and then to just contribute to Mormon history generally," Bushman said. "But as time went on we began to realize that we were creating a core of very powerful, competent young ... scholars who will be the ones to write the books about Mormon history and culture from here on out. We were putting them into a network where they could be confident that there were other young scholars like themselves."

One early project the seminar completed was an "Archive of Restoration Culture" that collected doctrinally relevant snippets of culture from Joseph Smith's time. (The archive is available online at

Historian Claudia Bushman ran the seminar in 2003, looking at "Mormon Women in the Twentieth Century." Three years later, Terryl Givens, a University of Richmond (Virginia) professor of literature and religion, joined Richard Bushman to co-direct the seminar. "We moved from Joseph Smith to the broader questions of early Mormon theology and its development generally," Givens said.

They looked at "Mormon Thought" from 1845 to 1890 and in 2007 they looked at 1890 to 1930.They expanded the scope of their projects to start a series of "Faith and Knowledge" conferences at Yale Divinity in February 2007. They also reached out to Mormon scholars in other countries.

When Bushman began the seminar, private donors provided the funding. Now as it began to expand, they needed a more stable source of financial support. Two people who had helped arrange funding, David Davidson and Duane Zobrist, came up with the idea for a foundation to oversee the summer seminar, related projects and funding. The result was the organization on July 24, 2007, of the Mormon Scholars Foundation.

"We needed a little more money -- not a lot, we run on a shoestring, but we needed a little more money," Bushman said.

In 2008, the Summer Seminar added a different twist to its agenda. Instead of seeking undergraduate and graduate students, Bushman recruited a group of LDS Religious Education and Church Educational System faculty to discuss "Joseph Smith and His Critics." They sought ways of addressing concerns about LDS Church history in ways that built trust. "It was more of a training seminar for teachers than it was an investigative seminar for students," Givens said.
This year Givens and Matthew Grow, assistant professor of history at University of Southern Indiana, took over the agenda to have students look at "Parley and Orson Pratt and the Formation of Mormon Thought." Like the early seminars by Bushman that helped with his writing of "Rough Stone Rolling," this seminar paralleled Givens and Grow's collaboration on a new biography of Parley P. Pratt.

"We haven't enlisted (the students) as research assistants; they choose their own topics and do their own papers," Givens said. "It's not a research seminar for us ... it just worked nicely together."

"We are moving beyond the straight historical -- 'How did the past become the present?' -- to exploring themes that have cultural significance," Bushman said.

Givens is impressed with the Summer Seminars. "There is no question that this is the most intellectually stimulating experience that I have in the teaching world ... it combines the best resources of both the spiritual and the intellectual realm. "

Bushman concurs and likes how the seminars prepare the students.

"We need, scattered through the church, competent people who have dealt with (challenging intellectual issues), who are not afraid of them and can answer with honest fact-base answers," Bushman said. "There aren't answers to everything, but you don't have to give answers to everything. What you have to be willing to show is that you are willing to entertain any question and pursue an answer whether you get one or not. That's the greatest reassurance to those that are in trouble is that there are people who have faith who are still looking squarely at all the problems."

The seminars usually have 10 to 12 participants; this year the seminar only had funds for eight students. The students attend two hours a day, four days a week for six weeks with a presentation of a paper at a public symposium at the end. Several of the papers from this year's seminar were featured in articles on Givens said the papers are collected every few years for publication.

The topic for next year's Summer Seminar isn't decided. "It's always contingent on funding ... if we could find some generous donors to give us more stability we'd plan longer in advance," Givens said. "At present there are no plans for next year."

Nevertheless, Bushman hopes for, perhaps, a seminar on Mormon readings of contemporary philosophy or maybe an examination of the history and tradition of the Gold Plates. "I'm starting a book on Joseph Smith's Gold Plates," Bushman said. "We could use the seminar to explore the many many dimensions of the Gold Plates."

Whether the summer seminar explores either topic next year, however, depends on the donors.


No comments: