A Conversation with Richard Bushman on the History and Significance of the BYU Summer Seminars


A couple summers ago, I romped through the Utah archives for six weeks as part of a research seminar on the cultural history of the Book of Mormon plates at BYU. This six-week archival adventure ended up being one of the best experiences of my life. I learned the art of document-mining, made a dozen lifelong friends, and got paid to do what I love.

If that sounds good to you, you might be interested to know that the seminar I attended was just one of many annual summer Mormon Studies seminars held at BYU, and the February 15 application deadline for summer 2013 is fast approaching. If you’re a graduate student or junior professor and you’ve never participated in the seminar before, hurry up and apply! I can’t recommend the experience highly enough.

Richard Bushman poses with participants and interested observers of the 2012 summer seminar on Mormon culture

Richard Bushman poses with participants and interested observers of the 2012 summer seminar on Mormon culture

Anyway, this last summer I happened to be in town again during the seminar, so I sat in on a few of the sessions. This not only brought back a flood of wonderful memories, but also caused me to reflect a bit on the seminars’ historical significance. As I watched the latest batch of participants learn, grow, and get plugged into the Mormon Studies world, it suddenly struck me that I was witnessing something momentous. Not quite sure what that “something” was, I sat down with Richard Bushman—the seminars’ founder—and grilled him about it over lunch. I’d like to think that as the scores of brilliant young scholars who have passed through the seminars mature into grizzled intellectual giants, the edited transcript of this interview will become a valuable primary source for the intellectual history of Mormonism.

So what was the momentous “something” that struck me as so important? On reflection, I think it comes down to the creation of social capital. The seminars’ primary function, as Richard articulated it in our interview, is “the formation of networks.” The seminarians not only collaborate with each other, but also work at BYU and the Church History Library and “get to know Mormon scholars at both institutions.” They are inducted into “the company of Mormon scholars.”[1] This may sound like a small thing, but it’s not. A growing body of research shows that networks have a synergistic effect which greatly enhances the productivity of individual members, enabling them to achieve things they never could have achieved by themselves. As a result, sociologists increasingly think of networks themselves as constituting a valuable resource: a form of “capital.”[2] The summer seminars, then, are laying a foundation for the discipline of Mormon Studies to enjoy a vibrant future.


Dr. Bushman, thanks for coming. I got the idea for this interview when I sat down to write about the summer seminars and realized I wasn’t even sure what their formal title was! So let’s start with that.

The title has changed over the years. It used to be the “Summer Seminar on Joseph Smith and His Times,” but we’ve expanded the seminar’s scope beyond Joseph Smith, so it’s now the “Summer Seminar in Mormon Culture.”

How did it get started, and how long has it been going?

It got started in 1997. I was beginning work on Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling and realized that to do the cultural background was an immense task; I needed help. I had long thought that it would be useful for Latter-day Saint graduate students to have experience at BYU. I wanted them to become known there and to become familiar with the atmosphere.

So I went to Ron Esplin, who was then the head of the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute of Latter-day Saint History, and asked him if he’d be interested in sponsoring such an undertaking. At the same time, since I was living in California, I went to a friend who was fairly well connected in the Los Angeles area and asked if there was any possibility that we could raise money from Latter-day Saint patrons to sponsor the seminar. He showed an interest, and so did Ron Esplin.

At that time I thought we’d have to include advanced undergraduates as well as graduate students, and we did. We advertised around the nation, and got a huge number of applications—over ninety—and offered the first seminar in the summer of 1997. There has been a summer seminar every year since then, except 2004, when I was putting the finishing touches on Rough Stone Rolling.

I haven’t always led the seminar. My wife Claudia taught one year on Mormon women’s history, and Terryl Givens has taught it both with me and alone. After the Rough Stone Rolling research was done and the book was published, we did seminars on Mormon thought after Joseph Smith. Then Terryl expanded to the history of Mormon theology. Both of us have thought of the seminar as augmenting our own research. We just finished one on the gold plates, since I’m starting a book on that subject.

How much of a contribution would you say the seminars made to Rough Stone Rolling?

Far less than I thought it would be. I let people go off on their own and do what they wanted, and their research, while interesting in its own right, was not always on target for me. There are two or three citations to some of the papers in the book, but frankly, I’ve never been able to use research assistants. I have not learned how to get people to do work that turns out to be useful.

Like herding cats.

Yes, something like that. Or I’m doing research and I think I need information on a certain topic, but then when I actually write, I find I need something else entirely.

This year, I got more direct help on topics than ever before, because I defined them fairly sharply and said, “I want you to do this.” The things your group did last year, and we followed up on this year, are going to be directly relevant. That’s a big help.

I imagine it’s also useful to have students providing you with transcriptions of source documents.

Absolutely. And collections of images. That’s invaluable.

The seminars are funded by the Mormon Scholars Foundation. I’m sure you can’t get into details about the donors, but can you give us some idea of what the demographics of the donors are, and what their interest in Mormon Studies is?

Very soon after we realized we wanted to raise money, we devised a plan to ask people to commit themselves to give five thousand dollars a year for three years. Then we would reassess, evaluate where we are, and go on or not. That’s been the basic pattern.

That’s a substantial amount.

That’s a substantial amount. And it’s all personal networking. I went to a man named David Davidson who was living in San Marino when I began work on Rough Stone Rolling at the Huntington. He had a friend named Duane Zobrist, and they had other friends. They have done all the soliciting. I haven’t had to do much of it.

These aren’t people connected particularly with Mormon scholarship, are they?

Well, “connected” is an interesting word here, because as we know, there are a lot of Mormons who want to know what’s going on; they like to feel like they know where we stand. So they’re very curious and willing to help out even if they are not scholars by profession.

What helped greatly was that, just by chance, I was asked to participate in the Pew Forum, where I was asked to answer questions about Mormonism. And that got a lot more circulation than I ever thought it would. So the fundraisers have begun to understand the seminar in terms of young Mormon scholars coming into my orbit, so that we get to know one another, and in some way this would help them to mature.

How would you articulate your vision for the seminar, and your method of running it?

Well, my original sense was that we would systematically cover material and try to accumulate sources. We began with a list of 150 distinctive doctrines of the Restoration about which we would collect information. What was nineteenth-century thinking about Abraham, or the pre-existence? We would accumulate a database on these 150 doctrines in their cultural context. I thought that would be good for me, and it would be useful for future scholars. Of course, it was all made entirely obsolete by Google Books. But it was a useful idea at the time. Secondly, I thought they would do research on particular topics that would hopefully be useful to me, but also of general interest to people working on the Restoration.

After the first year, I began to realize that the collection of information and the writing of papers was going to be secondary to the formation of networks. The seminar became an initiation rite for young people who didn’t know other Mormon scholars and would meet them in the seminar. That made them part of the Mormon scholarly world. Their induction into the company of Mormon scholars was the most important function of the seminar.

So now I would say that the real aim is to cultivate the rising generation of young scholars of Mormonism. (I used to say “of young Mormon scholars,” but one Chris Smith called me on that, so I now say “scholars of Mormonism.” Which makes sense, because we’ve had a couple of non-members every year for the last couple of years, and why not? It’s useful to the whole seminar to have a wider mix of perspectives.)

Was the inclusion of non-Mormons such as myself pre-meditated? And how has that affected the dynamic of the seminar?

It was not pre-meditated. We never had systematically said that we would include or exclude a particular group, though we didn’t want to get a group that would spend its time in contests over the truth of the gospel. We wanted to avoid those battles. And as you remember last year, when one non-Mormon participant was speaking out in kind of a hostile way, Terryl Givens called him down. He wanted to say, “Look, we’re not here to debate these things.” I was a little more tolerant of it, because the real world is filled with this kind of contention, and we had to experience some of it. Of course, you did a terrific job of helping bridge the gap.

We non-Mormons learned a lot about how to be constructive while remaining true to our unbeliefs.

I thought the experience was great for our critical member. You did a good job, and the seminar benefited from it. I thought it was very salutary. So at this point I’d be willing to accept almost anyone, because I think the group will discipline itself. That is, if someone is getting too far on either side—apologetics or criticism—the group is going to call them down.

Several of today’s top Mormon Studies scholars, such as Kathleen Flake and Mark Ashurst-McGee, got their start at the seminar. Do you think that the seminars are going to go down in history as the crucible of the great Mormon scholars of the rising generation?

I truly hope so. It is true that of the four major candidates for the Howard W. Hunter chair at Claremont, three of them were graduates of this program. A long list were candidates for Managing Director of the Church History Department. A tremendous number of extremely promising young scholars have come through the seminar. So if you want just correlations, yes. There’s a great correlation. But I think it would be presumptuous to say this is where their minds were forged. So much is going on now—all these conferences, all these publications. But I don’t think the seminar has played a minor role. I think it’s been a significant thing.

I’ll tell you one thing it did for me. Living in California, I never really had the opportunity to go through Mormon archives. There are some Mormon sources in California, but I didn’t know about them. So attending the seminar gave me the opportunity to spend six weeks in the wonderful BYU archives and go through collections of documents, and I discovered a love for archival research. So I think it was fantastic for my own personal development as a scholar, and I suspect that other people coming in from out of state have a similar experience.

I think that’s true. There’s been talk of holding the seminar at Claremont or in New York, but I think we’d lose a major component of its value: the participants work at BYU, they work at the Church History Library, and they get to know Mormon scholars at both institutions.

Maybe if you had some major trove of documents that you wanted to work with outside of Utah.

Right. You might be able to do something with the New York Public Library’s Collection. Or the Beinecke at Yale. It might be fun to fashion a topic that would build on those collections. But for general purposes, this is the best place.

So now that the gold plates seminars are done, what will be next year’s topic? And what can we expect from the seminars in the future?

We improvise the future as we proceed. Next year Terryl will direct a seminar on the history of Mormon theology, perhaps on the basic first principles. We don’t try to plan too far ahead. That leaves us free to select topics that seem most relevant and interesting.

Dr. Bushman, this has been wonderful. Thanks so much for answering my questions!

My pleasure.


[1] This hints at another interesting dimension of the seminar experience that Richard highlighted: its function as an “initiation rite.” This was certainly true for the seminar in which I participated in 2011. In our study of the gold plates, we confronted one of the most fraught and divisive issues in Mormon Studies. But in the end, the experience was unifying rather than divisive. We learned, matured, came-of-age, and were inducted into the mysteries of the Mormon Studies “tribe”.

[2] See, for example, John Field, Social Capital (London: Routledge, 2001), 1. This is why Europe’s Renaissance and its scientific and industrial revolutions occurred in the wake of urbanization and the invention of the university: because when innovators live in close proximity to each other, their productivity is supercharged by the sharing of information. See Edward Glaeser, The Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier (New York: The Penguin Press, 2011), 1, 8.


A Conversation with Richard Bushman on the History and Significance of the BYU Summer Seminars — 9 Comments

  1. Fantastic. Thanks for this, Chris.

    I still cherish my seminar experience, and regard it as one of the founding moments of my academic development.

  2. Great interview. Like Ben, I got a whole lot out of the experience – plus, it has led to some great opportunities and really good friends.

  3. Great interview. It was fun to reflect on my own experience while reading it! I am particularly happy that I got to participate as a non-Mormon (and European to boot). It really inspired me and awakened my ambitions on where I want to go within academics.

  4. Interesting to hear some background behind the seminar. I remember in the mid-90s there was some fear that there was not much interest in Mormon studies by young scholars. These seminars have apparently helped change that situation. Today it is hard to keep track of the flood of scholarship being produced.

    Thanks for posting this interview Chris.

  5. This really captures what is happening in Mormon Studies. Thanks for posting this, Chris. And props for citing Glaeser’s book. 😉