Mormon Studies as Apologetics

Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD” (Isa 1:18 NRSV)

In 2010  I presented a paper at a regional meeting of the American Academy of Religion entitled Mormonism and Same-Sex Marriage: Towards a Mormon Theology of Gender.  A significant portion of the paper dealt with historical development and systematic theological rationale for the modern LDS conception of gender and its central place within LDS eschatology.  The paper was well-received and prompted a very lively Q&A session.  Over the past two years the paper has continued to generate interesting dialogue and, according to feedback I have received, has helped others understand the Church’s opposition to homosexuality and political activism from an LDS theological perspective.  This does not, of course, mean that readers have walked away in agreement with the LDS position but rather, they have developed a more sympathetic view of the LDS Church’s doctrine and activism. By gaining a more complete understanding of the relationship between sex, gender, salvation and exaltation within Mormon thinking, they recognize that the Mormon view of homosexuality is a complex issue and one which the Church has not adopted capriciously based on tenuous interpretations of a handful of biblical verses.  This experience taught me just how effective Mormon Studies can be as apologetics; remembering that the purpose of apologetics from the 2nd  century onward has never been to convince, but to provide a rationale for any given theological or religious position.

There are three primary reasons I believe the academic study of Mormonism serves as an effective apologetic.  First, the focus and purpose of Mormon Studies is generally non-devotional and therefore, non-threatening.  Mormon Studies seeks to foster a greater understanding of Mormonism from a variety of perspectives.  Its very nature is open and inviting.  Mormon Studies encourages conversation and intelligent conversation breeds greater appreciation.  Latter-day Saints may therefore point to the fruits of Mormon Studies to provide a “defense to anyone who demands from [them] an accounting for the hope that is in [them].”

Second, the academic study of Mormonism provides the requisite context and history so helpful in addressing difficult Mormon issues.  We better understand Mountain Meadows, for example, if we are aware of the Mormon Reformation, Utah War, and Haun’s Mill.  No event, regardless of how horrific, occurs in a vacuum.  Mormon Studies helps to demystify, but not excuse, seemingly incomprehensible acts or bits of troubling history.  Will some Latter-day Saints consume Mormon Studies and lose their faith?  Certainly.  But this is not an issue reserved only for Mormons.

The great Catholic theologian Hans Kung, in reference to the history of the Roman Church, points out that “one can fill several volumes with scurrilous, pathological, [and] criminal incidents from two thousand years of Church history without ever coming face to face with the holy.”  However, “in the longrun will not such criminal histories, which merely gather shadows and walk through puddles, become as insipid as the emphatic ‘hymns to the church’” as “those who passionately collect only shadows can offer only a shadow play [and] those who deliberately tread in all the puddles wrongly make the way difficult for themselves.”  Kung argues that surveys of the Roman Church that are “written in bright triumphalist colours and stained-glass-window piety” as well as “those which are aggressively polemical and and cynically condescending … [fail as] … half truths.”  Kung further states “that for a real picture of the church it is always necessary to distinguish and take into account two perspectives creating a “twofold dialectic.”  Kung’s words apply equally to Mormonism.  Mormon Studies is an attempt to create a twofold dialectic to avoid both shadows and puddles in explaining — to borrow another phrase from Kung — the essence of Mormonism.1

The third and perhaps most compelling reason why I contend that the academic study of Mormonism serves as an effective apologetic is this: Mormon Studies illustrates Mormonism’s legitimacy as a vital and relevant religious movement.  It is telling that non-LDS scholars like Jan Shipps and our own Chris Smith have dedicated significant portions of their respective academic careers to the study of Mormonism.  Mormonism could very easily have been lumped together with the study of “New Religious Movements” and considered an aberration or religious anomaly.  Yet the vigor with which Mormonism is now studied speaks to the creativity of its doctrine, the power of its culture and the vitality of its people.  Mormon Studies could well be the most powerful source of positive social capital for the LDS Church since the emergence of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

I look forward to the continuing “liberation” (as Richard Bushman has termed it) of Mormon Studies and am proud to be part of religious tradition that has become a fertile source of academic inquiry.  Such inquiry can only result in greater understanding an appreciation of Mormonism within the wider culture.


1.  Hans Kung, Christianity: Essence, History, and Future (New York, The Continuum Publishing Company, 2001), 6–7


Mormon Studies as Apologetics — 18 Comments

  1. Seth, What, in your opinion, is the primary goal of Mormon Studies? as well as the primary goal of apologetics? I wonder to what extent these may be complementary and/or conflicting. Thanks.

  2. I came into Mormonism from a highly fundamentalist and conservative evangelical/pentecostal tradition. Faith-based LDS apologetics played a substantial role in my intellectual transition. However, following 7 years and some substantial paradigm shifts, I now hold that expressions and understanding of historical events and context – with a neutral tone, and even without faith-claims – may perhaps have far more long-term benefit for everyone (and perhaps have a more solid shelf life) than material presented simply to defend a particular current interpretation of a doctrinal or faith-based position, paradigm, or policy. In many ways, the faith-based apologetics of yesteryear have become the subject of Mormon Studies historical analyses of today – for example, Parley Pratt’s works are generally far (far!) more interesting and useful today as intellectual history than as a work of devotion, apologetics, or as a missionary tool.

  3. Gary,

    I believe the primary goal of Mormon Studies, just as with other academic disciplines, is to explore Mormonism from a variety of perspectives and within the context of history, sociology, theology, etc… No scholar can be completely objective but what makes Mormon Studies separate from “pure” apologetics is its attempt at objectivity and neutrality. In the past members of the LDS Church were happy just to know Hugh Nibley existed — as if the fact that such an intelligent man was offering a defense of the faith was enough to satisfy concerns. Today the landscape is much different. Members can’t avoid troubling information and are demanding more accurate information. Also, I think the tolerance for polemics has waned. Thus, depending on the perspective of the reader, Bushman’s “Rough Stone Rolling” could be A) an anti-Mormon attack on JS, B) An excellent tool for scholars and researchers, or C) evidence for how divine providence worked through a very human Prophet to accomplish great things.

    So, while Mormon Studies does not align with traditional Mormon apologetics, I do find it to be much more effective in reaching a broader segment of both LDS Church members and non-LDS.


  4. David,

    Thank you for the insightful reply. I completely agree with your assessment. I think it is time for us to put on our “big-boy pants” and start examining our faith with objectivity but with an eye towards building a lasting faith.


  5. Seth, this is certainly a helpful comparison between Mormon Studies and LDS Apologetics. But I’m not sure it’s really a case of succession, as if Apologetics was what LDS scholars did with Mormonism in the 70s and 80s, whereas now in the 21st century LDS scholars do Mormon Studies. I think they have been developing side by side all along. Apologetics started with Nibley then ripened into the FARMS and FAIR projects, which are still around. Mormon Studies started with O’Dea, continued with Shipps and Mauss and a few others, and now features dozens of scholars both LDS and non-LDS. Mormon Studies is suddenly in the limelight, but I think both fields have been around since the fifties.

    One can minimize the tension between Apologetics and Mormon Studies, as you have nicely done here. Or one can emphasize that tension, as Ralph Hancock has recently done in two guest posts at T&S. There is certainly some overlap; the degree of tension is perhaps less a function of the focus and perspective of the two fields than the personalities involved in any given discussion.

  6. Dave,

    Thanks so much for commenting.

    I agree that there has not been a progression to Mormon Studies from traditional Mormon apologetics. The two have run in parallel and there has been incredible tension between the two. The “New Mormon History” is a perfect example.

    Frankly, I’m not sure there is a place for the old-style apologetics anymore as people may not have the stomach for it. The fact that Nibley/FARMS went into any discussion already knowing the conclusion is problematic. Such writings may make the faithful feel better but they to outsiders many of the arguments are just plain silly. I think Bushman’s work helped alter the landscape and Bowman’s recent book is part of this movement towards objectivity in answering criticisms. The best answer is always the truth, at least as best we can understand or ascertain it. Of course, as I delve into Mormon Studies I am going to adopt a sympathetic view whereas Dan Vogel will utilize a much more direct tone.

    I think the primary issues I’m trying to raise is that it isn’t a question of Mormon Studies or apologetics. IMO, traditional apologists need to adopt Mormon Studies as a tool for effective apologetics.


  7. I’m nearing the end of a two-year qualitative sociological research project about folks who leave Mormonism (my usual area of research is in cultures of sexuality, but I needed a break); I also had the privilege to teach a Mormon Studies course last semester that went quite well. From my perspective, as someone who has been working in the field for a short time, I’m not sure the relationship between an academic/scholarly inquiry and apologetics is a fruitful one to cultivate, although I understand the desire.

    In my Mormon Studies course (undergraduate) I had the students compare different Religious Studies approaches to Mormonism as well as apologetic forms. The students were quite able to distinguish the differences, not just in tone, but in intention, world view, and values, as well as methodologies and theoretical undergirding. It seems that by throwing Mormon Studies into the ring as a companion to apologetics, we would have to elide or ignore those differences. To be honest, however, it is hard for me to think of apologetics in a sympathetic way after the past few years exposure to Mormon apologetics with its vitriol, infighting, and what seems to me on the surface to be bad faith scholarship.

    More importantly, I suppose what I get really caught up on is the notion that Mormon Studies can/could make a positive difference within the Mormon community. Many of the people I interviewed, for example, felt like they still wanted to remain Mormons, that they had a cultural, ancestral, familial, identitifcation with Mormonism that they wanted to maintain; but the official church organization, that is, the institutional structures have a history of punishing dissenting beliefs, and dissenters who want to stay within the culture must remain “closeted” or invisible (I have considered doing another study on practicing Mormons who don’t believe, but I think I need to rest from Mormon Studies for a while). I have heard from friends and relatives who are practicing Mormons that in some wards and stakes there is more of a culture of openness, but I remain skeptical that there is a trend toward openness yet (although that may be coming).

    What I’m getting at is that for Mormon Studies to have the kind of positive impact on Mormon culture and Mormonism that you describe, there would have to be a significant shift in the structures of Mormonism itself, the way social control is exerted within the church and within the social relations among Mormons; there would have to be an extensive loosening of the grip of the authoritarian mindset that has come to rule discussions about Mormon beliefs; there would have to develop within the culture for intellectual and spiritual openness and dissent (and I think you could make a compelling argument that there are sources for this within Mormonism itself).

    Until that kind of major shift in the overall worldview of Mormons and structures of Mormon institutions, I don’t see how academic, non-apologetic Mormon Studies can have the kind of positive impact you’re describing outside of the small circles where it functions right now. One possibility I could see, but i judge it to be a small possibility indeed, is that the people who use Mormon Studies as you do or see it as you do can push back within the culture to make room for the kind of openness I describe above. But at least from my data, it seems like something that could only happen in limited contexts, like the fabled Cambridge wards in Massachusetts.


  8. I was initially skeptical when I saw your post title, Seth, but after reading your argument, I fully agree. Mormon Studies can and does operate as apologetics in the sense of complicating the cynical caricatures of faith. Don Bradley’s story this evening at Pillars of My Faith was a beautiful illustration of the positive spiritual impact that complicating the picture in this manner can have for struggling Mormon intellectuals.

    Great post!

  9. One of the big problems in apologetics is that you have to have a highly level, and highly specialized expertise and education in order to deal with it. If you imagine the knowledge base of – let’s say the active Mormon population – as a bell curve, the area on the curve that apologetics and the debates it involves occupies the far narrow end. The end that the vast majority of the Mormon (and non-Mormon population is not comfortably in).

    The vast majority of the population is not intellectually equipped to deal in apologetic issues. Yet the attacks and criticisms that apologetics defends against are mostly squarely aimed at the uninformed middle of the bell curve.

    “Joseph had marriages to other women – that means he was driven by male hormones and ego.”

    “DNA research has only shown Asiatic DNA in Native Americans – that means the Book of Mormon is false.”

    “There was no steel in 600 BC.”

    These, and countless other simplistic distortions of the question are all deliberately aimed at the uninformed or quasi-informed. And – like a confident, reductionist soundbite on Fox News or the Huffington Post – they sound initially compelling to those who don’t know any better, or aren’t intellectually equipped to analyze the claims.

    But – just like when someone says Romney must be anti-American jobs because of Bain Capital – the actual experts know the issue isn’t that simple. The very premises of the assertion may be deeply flawed. Not to mention – the specialized data needed to competently debate the issue is beyond the reach of most of America.

    And that’s the problem with apologetic issues. The attacking side has an automatic, and unearned advantage. It’s easy to make critical soundbites that play off emotion and the limited data most people have. It’s much, much harder to comprehensively respond to those aggressive soundbites.

    And that’s true in any area, whether it be politics, religion, or making a sales pitch for a new project at your tech company.

  10. And note, I’m saying nothing about whether the soundbite criticisms are valid or not, in the end.

    I’m just saying the barrier to entry for debating them competently is very high.

  11. I have a question which I am curious to hear your opinion about. I have read things published by FARMS since I was a young teenager. I found them to be interesting and helped me to understand the scriptures much better. I realized that much of the stuff was apologetic in nature, but that’s not why I enjoyed reading it. What I enjoyed about it was approaching the scriptures from the assumption that they were ancient and seeing what we can learn in that way. It seems like FARMS/MI is basically the only organization that has been publishing stuff like this, and with the recent changes I’m not sure if it will continue to do so. I assume that most Mormon scholars believe the Book of Mormon to be an ancient record, so it seems like it would be a shame if that becomes neglected by Mormon scholars. So, is there a place in Mormon studies for approaching the Book of Mormon as an ancient American record or is it to tied up with overt apologetics? I’m also curious to hear David Bokovoy’s thoughts because I know he has lots of wonderful ideas about the Book of Mormon as an ancient document.

  12. Todd,

    Thank you for such a detailed and enlightening response. By chance, have you read my paper on ex-Mormon exit narratives? I’d be curious to learn if you see any alignment between my observations of ex-Mormonism and your own. My study was incredibly simplistic and quite limited.

    I can’t really disagree with anything you have said except to say that I am a non-traditional member of the LDS Church — meaning that I am agnostic as to the historicity of the Book of Mormon etc… — but have been fully accepted within the Church community. However, the insidious cultural notion that doubters must remain silent is unfortunately very real.

    Also, I see a changing of the guard in Mormon apologetics. Folks like Blair Hodges seem to eschew the old approach to Mormon apologetics and so I remain hopeful.

    Again, thank you for commenting. Please let me know when your research is available as I am very keen to review your conclusions.


  13. Mapman,

    I do think there is place in Mormon Studies to approach the Book of Mormon as ancient scripture. In fact I would consider Royal Skousen’s work as well as Brant Gardener’s work very important contributions to Mormon Studies.

    We need look no further than biblical studies generally to see a variety of approaches to ancient scripture. Of course, the naturalistic approach is far more common but that doesn’t mean that evangelical scholars who bring good scholarship to the table are dismissed simply because they happen to accept the reality of Christ’s divinity etc…

    They key, I think, is to bring high-quality scholarship into the discussion. And, I would agree with you that FARMS has produced some very good material over the years. In fact, I think Dan Peterson’s views on Asherah are very creative and interesting.


  14. Sorry if this sounds really naive, coming from an ordinary guy, someone with no academic cred at all.

    Sorry, also, if this is somewhat offtopic relative to the original post, but Seth’s posts 9 & 10 leave me puzzled.

    As a member of “the uninformed middle of the bell curve”, I’m not sure where I fit in the dialog. *Do* I fit in somewhere? Or should us “ordinary” people leave it to the intellectuals to discuss the issues and then tell us what we should think?

    I don’t really believe that that’s what Seth is suggesting, but I’m having a hard time getting a handle on it.

    Look at another aspect of the evaluation of information about the church: from my perspective, it seems that the LDS church expects people to convert to their religion based on lessons taught at much the same level as the “soundbite” criticisms. I would say that this makes what Seth refers to as the critics’ “unearned advantage” more of a redressing of the balance on behalf of the ordinary people.

    It seems that, while I am expected to be competent to make a reasoned decision on joining the church, I’m not competent to debate the issues after joining. Is it really the case that, lacking intellectual and rhetorical competence at the level of the apologists, I must simply ignore the issues and disengage from the ongoing discussion?

    Where exactly do non-scholarly members/ex-members/interested non-members fit here?

    The people who are, as Seth (#9) says, the targets of the “attacks and criticisms that apologetics defends against” should somehow have a voice, should we not? And, to be fair, are we not often the targets of the apologetic defense also? We are the often-unseen audience of the critic/apologist “discussions” on the message boards, and both sides play to us.

  15. malkie, you raise a good point. critics might be very happy to learn that many people left the church as a result of their publications. apologetics too receive much feedback stating that people left the church or had a crisis of faith after reading their material. so…it is easier to leave the church than stay in it…but where else are you going to hear the word of God. other than in your own head.

  16. Christine wrote: “so…it is easier to leave the church than stay in it”

    I would strongly challenge that notion, given my research of people who leave. Leaving is a mindbending, heart-rending, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and most devastatingly, social process that people struggle with for years, even after they discover that the Church’s truth claims are, to say the least, problematic. People have to reconstruct their entire world views, identities, and every single relationship with a Mormon in their lives. People lose their spouses and children, their parents and siblings, their best friends, their communities, their people.

    Such a glib dismissal of people who ultimately must make the choice to leave Mormonism belittles the courage, strength of character, and dedication to their own integrity that is often required to leave the Church.

  17. Todd, I waited to see if Christine would reply, but since she hasn’t so far, I wondered if her comment is really a “glib dismissal”, or “belittling”. She may have meant it as irony.

    If I may engage you directly on the questions I asked above, from your perspective as a sociologist and a historian, how do you see the apparent intellectual and/or educational barrier to participation in the debate?

    Is this something new?

    Is it necessary?

    I can see that terminology may get in the way when the folks in the middle of the curve want to participate, but does it need to, or would it forever be a case of the highly educated having to simplify in order to broaden the discussion? (I’ll admit it – I wanted to write “dumb down” in place of “simplify”, stopped myself, and then decided that it was really what I meant.)

    A couple of years ago, on the radio in my home town, there was a talk show host who was a very good debater, and he used his rhetorical skills to demolish virtually everyone who disagreed with him. It was to the point that, by rhetoric, he won arguments that he should have lost (my personal judgement).

    I grew to dislike his show intensely for that reason – the voice of the ordinary listener who called in was, in effect, obliterated – s/he did not stand a chance, ever.

    Is that the direction we are heading in with the critic/apologist debate?