My introduction to Mormon Studies came in graduate school. I am quite embarrassed to say that before this time I had not seriously read Mormon Studies and my impressions of Dialogue and Sunstone were, if anything, somewhat negative (How can any publication the Tanner’s cite be of any value?).
My academic advisor granted me a lot of flexibility in designing my graduate course of study and while my primary focus was political and theological ethics, I had many opportunities to explore Mormon-specific issues and subjects as part of my overall studies. Questions of Mormon history, the Book of Mormon, past Church policies and practices, and Mormon doctrine had been with me for a while and I was grateful for the opportunity to study these issues in an academic environment surrounded by great faculty but also by incredible LDS peers (Carl Cranney, Jason Combs, Cameron LaDuke, Deidre Green, and Devan Hite).
My first “real” paper on Mormon Studies was an exploration of the priesthood restrictions that existed prior to 1978. This was an issue that had long bothered me on a personal level and I had, at some point on my mission, come to the conclusion that Brigham Young must have simply been wrong to implement this practice as it was never a doctrine approved by the bodies of the Church nor canonized. Reading Lester Bush and Armand Mauss provided me with context and solid information on both the emergence of, and motivations for this practice. I was stunned by how much I did not know about such an issue of such importance to Latter-day Saints.
My paper was decent grad school work but nothing more. It synthesized disparate sources well but did not provide any particularly new insights or observations. Regardless, the process of writing was spiritually healthy for me as I was able to put to rest a lingering question.
As was often the case, ward members would ask about the subject of my studies and writing. In particular, there was an incredible sister in the ward originally from the Caribbean. When I told her I was looking into the historical and doctrinal issues surrounding priesthood restrictions she confessed to me that this was something that had bothered her for a long time and that she could not reconcile this practice with the great love and spirit that initially brought her into the Church. She asked to read my paper. Similarly, there was a couple in the ward whom I had known at BYU who also struggled with this issue and, upon discovering I was writing on the subject, asked to read my paper as well.
After reading my paper both the couple and the sister expressed similar sentiments of relief. Why? Because, just as I had while writing the paper, they discovered important information and context that allowed them to disavow a past practice of the Church without the need to dismiss Brigham Young and the leaders who sustained and continued the priesthood ban. With newly found historical and theological perspectives they were better able to understand important theological and historical context which allowed them to confidently draw their own conclusions and fold those conclusions into their personal truth narratives relative to the LDS Church.
Both during and after grad school I have continued to research and write on topics that I find interesting and topics which I have struggled with as Latter-day Saint trying to find a place within the modern LDS Church. Topics have ranged from ex-Mormon narratives (work that has been surpassed by Rosemary Avance) to the New Mormon History. My most important work, at least in personal terms, has dealt with the intersection of traditional Mormon faith and changing understandings of LDS history, doctrine, dogma, and practice. Quite unexpectedly, it has also been the work that has garnered the most attention from 3rd parties who stumble across my blog or perhaps have read my comments throughout the Bloggernacle.
Over the past several years I have received a dozen, perhaps more, emails from Latter-day Saints who have come across my writing and reach out with questions, comments, and their own personal stories. I want to underscore an important point. There is nothing terribly compelling or interesting about my writing. Rather, those who read my work and feel compelled to contact me are, I believe, responding to the content. Content, which, by their own accounts, they have not encountered previously but which speaks to them in very meaningful and personal ways. While I never expected this type of response to my work, I am humbled by it and grateful for it. Additionally, as my friends from long ago see my blog posts on Facebook some have reached out with similar reactions.
Based on this experience I am led to draw two very important conclusions. The first is that correlation has watered down religious and spiritual education in the Church to a point of absolute absurdity. Last year I was asked to teach the High Priests Group and was assigned something form the Gospel Principles manual. My wife, a Buddhist, saw the course material and said to me in all seriousness and sincerity: “Oh, I didn’t realize you were teaching a kids class this Sunday.” I replied that I was, in fact, teaching a group of seasoned men. She could not believe that the course material she saw was intended for adults but I assured her that I, as the teacher, had leeway to mold the lesson into something these men (hopefully) would find spiritually appealing and uplifting. As I’ve thought about this experience I have become convinced that the correlation of teaching materials throughout the Church has become so simplistic and full of repetitive triteness that some within the Church are spiritually neglected as they sit through Sunday School, Priesthood, and Relief Society lessons each Sunday. Some may argue that it is the essential basics of the Gospel that matter and as such, these basics are all that should be taught on Sundays. I am not unsympathetic to this view. As one who has worked for, and continues to work with, global companies and organizations where systematic, consistent, and reliable process is a key factor to long-term success I understand the need for consistency and process. However, what correlation seems to have not fully understood is that global organizations are forming consistency amongst homogeneous adults with similar education and backgrounds. In the Church, Sunday School manuals are written for a heterogeneous set of Church members of different ages, backgrounds, and levels of Church activity and involvement. I submit that it is fundamentally impossible to write the same course material for Latter-day Saints everywhere around the globe. Well, it is impossible to do it as long as you think lesson plans for a 10 year old are inappropriate and ineffective for a class of men over 60. Worst of all, correlated lesson plans are not teaching our young people to think critically about their faith. As these young men and women come of age and seek independence they will be undoubtedly disillusioned to discover that the “Sunday School answers” are not always the best answers, regardless of what the Ensign has to say on the issue.
Second, correlation has created a shortage of intellectual stimuli for active, believing, and committed Latter-day Saints. The intellect is an important part of spirituality because it allows individuals to piece together information in meaningful ways; ways that allow for the persistence of faith in the face of doubts, conviction when presented with difficult choices. It has been my experience that Latter-day Saints are hungry for intellectual stimulation relative to their Mormon spirituality. It could be argued, of course, that such Saints need to take their own initiative and seek out this stimulation on their own. Such a position is as short-sided as it is counterproductive. There is a lot of information on Mormonism available on the internet. Much of it poorly researched, biased, and sans historical/theological context. On the other hand, much information found online about Mormonism is very good. BYU Studies and Dialogue come to mind as well as the plethora of Mormon-related blogs and podacsts. It is my position that Latter-day Saints struggling with questions are better off reading Mauss, Bushman, and Shipps, as opposed to Benson, the Tanners, and even IRR. If the Church doesn’t push members towards quality sources, Google will assuredly send them to questionable and overtly hostile ones.
Works in Mormon Studies allow Latter-day Saints to pursue information they find personally interesting. For Mormons who struggle with their faith, Mormon Studies provides information in a generally non-threatening (although not always an unbiased) format. Mormon Studies also provides a framework for thinking about difficult Mormon issues and requires a holistic analysis that considers history, sociology and many other disciplines in analyses that warrant such considerations.
Given that some Latter-day Saints 1) desire additional intellectual stimulation relative to their faith and/or 2) struggle with difficult questions of Mormon history, doctrine, or practice, I propose that Mormon Studies can be an effective tool for those who provide pastoral care within the LDS Church. I am not suggesting that Mormon Studies scholars have a duty to assume pastoral care responsibilities. However, students of Mormon Studies can be invaluable resources to local priesthood leaders seeking to help ward members study important questions. On more than one occasion my local leaders have asked me to suggest scholarly works that they could provide to congregants.
Mormon Studies is an important tool in pastoral care for several reasons. First, it is generally non-threatening. Mormon Studies is not done by professional anti-Mormons or even vocal ex-Mormons. It is done by careful and meticulous scholars. So, while we should always be skeptical of any piece of scholarship, we can feel confident in the academic integrity of the scholars producing work related to Mormonism. Of course scholars make mistakes. That is why their work is first peer reviewed before publication and then continues to be reviewed in light of other scholarship thereafter. Second, Mormon Studies has addressed most, if not all, difficult Mormon doctrinal, historical, and social problems. You will be hard pressed to find a subject that has not been addressed in some form. As such, those who provide pastoral care (Bishops, home teachers, visiting teachers, etc…) can generally always find reliable information. Third, Mormon Studies can be faith affirming to the Latter-day Saint. Learning about how our flawed leaders were able to accomplish great things while trying to “build the Kingdom” is inspiring. “If Joseph Smith, with all of his deep moral flaws, could be so accomplished, then so can I.” Mormon Studies does much to deflate the hero worship often inappropriately heaped upon Church leaders of the past.
Scholars and students of Mormon Studies, if so inclined, should seek out opportunities to provide pastoral care through their work, even if indirectly.