California university’s effort is the first of its kind outside of Utah
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will become the subject of intensive scholarly study at one Southern California university, where officials hope to create a chair of religious studies as the focal point for examining the faith’s history, people and traditions.
Karen Torjesen, dean of religious studies at Claremont Graduate University’s School of Religion, confirmed to the Deseret Morning News that efforts are under way to create a chair of Mormon studies at the secular university — the first such attempt in the nation outside the Beehive State.
Utah State University announced several months ago that it had secured funding for an endowed chair as an integral part of a new religious studies emphasis there. The scholarly study of LDS history has been a staple there since the late LDS historian Leonard Arrington donated his papers to the school.
Torjesen declined to provide specifics regarding the Claremont chair or the direct involvement of top LDS leaders. But one source told the News there was widespread support for the effort and the chair likely would be named in honor of late church President Howard W. Hunter, immediate predecessor to current President Gordon B. Hinckley.
The school has formed several councils to help scholars accurately explore various faiths, including Islam, Judaism, Orthodox Christianity, Protestantism, Catholicism, some Eastern faiths and Mormonism. The chair in LDS studies would be one of five new chairs in religious studies the school is seeking to establish.
Torjesen said although there is no specific timetable for the fund raising and subsequent creation of LDS-focused coursework to accompany the chair, she hopes feasibility studies will be finished next year.
She said the school’s Council for the Study of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints consists of LDS leaders, including academics, lay leaders and interested community members, as well as faculty from the School of Religion.
The council advises the school on the needs of the LDS community, consults regarding development of courses and programs and will assist in sponsoring lectures and conferences.
Past attempts to establish venues for the academic study of the LDS Church in Utah have met with mixed reaction among residents of Utah County, where Utah Valley State College has been working for at least five years to explore the topic in a scholarly way. The school has dealt with concern from some residents that a scholarly examination of the faith could potentially evolve into Mormon-bashing and an attempt to undermine the religious faith of UVSC students, the majority of whom are LDS.
Claremont’s initiative has been met with “a great deal of interest,” Torjesen said. “What we’re doing with all these different councils and religious communities is envisioning a partnership. We want to do the study of religion in relationship with people who practice it so it’s not an adversarial relationship.”
She said no concerns have been voiced, and that also has been true with the other faith communities involved.
To help build the foundation for LDS studies, the school held a conference two weeks ago titled “Positioning Mormonism in Religious Studies and American History,” which brought together key scholars in LDS studies. Presenters examined topics ranging from the integration of the Book of Mormon within literary and cultural studies to examination of the historical practices within the church.
Brian Birch, director of religious studies at Utah Valley State College, received his doctorate from Claremont and said the school’s use of advisory groups is innovative because scholars of religious studies “are beginning to recognize there’s a component of it that has implications for religious communities.” Believers have long wanted to be understood “on their own terms rather than having a disconnect between the academic world and the practices of the faith.”
“It’s a negotiation. Of course the school wants to retain its academic autonomy and manage the hiring process and curriculum, but they also want input. Those councils will serve an important role in fund raising and consulting with the school. Part of understanding religion is dialoguing with people in religious community so there’s a sense in which this takes the study of religion out of the ivory tower.”
Birch, a Latter-day Saint, has been at the forefront of UVSC efforts to reach out to the community to help quell suspicions about the motives for studying the LDS Church from a scholarly — rather than a faith-based — perspective.
He lauds the Claremont effort, saying many church members as well as local academics believe “that it’s safer to establish this outside Utah.”
“There is so much cultural baggage and still a lot of hurdles we have to jump over in order to make the community feel comfortable with academic study of Mormonism. We’ve made what we believe is great progress here, but Claremont has an excellent reputation in religious studies, and there are many in the Southern California LDS community who are interested in seeing this done.”
Amy Hoyt, a doctoral candidate in women’s studies at Claremont, is on the LDS advisory council to the school and agrees with Birch. She said the reaction among Latter-day Saints in Southern California is one of “pleasant surprise and almost a sense of disbelief that someone would actually take the study of Mormonism seriously and want to study it accurately. I think it’s surprising to a lot of people because it hasn’t been done” before.
“There’s some surprise that it’s a secular, non-Utah university. I also get a sense of relief from people, like ‘finally someone is going to take us seriously.’ “
She said the LDS Church is becoming a topic of increasing interest among religion scholars as it grows beyond the Western Hemisphere into a worldwide faith. A scholarly conference at Yale University two years ago and discussions by some at Harvard about various facets of the faith lead Birch and Hoyt to the conclusion that “Mormon studies is coming into its own” in the academic arena.
“They’re beginning to deal with the reality that Mormonism is a global religion,” Hoyt said. “Why not study it in a setting with a university that’s extending its hand to us and wants to partner with us? I believe it will be done regardless, so why not partner with a group that’s willing to partner and we can work actively to help shape the discipline so it’s authentic.”
Grant Underwood, a professor in the Smith Institute for LDS History at Brigham Young University, is on also on Claremont’s LDS advisory council. He spoke during the school’s recent conference, addressing his comments mainly to the LDS community there in an attempt to help distinguish the relationship between legitimate scholarly inquiry and faith-building approaches.
“The academic study of religion is not about settling truth claims. That’s why it can take place there, where there is no fear that Mormon studies is going to contaminate the university because it’s covert proselytism,” he said. “They’re not out to finally settle whether Mormonism is true or not but examining how it functions socially, economically, psychologically.”
“None of that has to do with whether they feel they’ve connected with God and this is the true church. It’s about describing the entity and the people and not determining whether it really came from God.”