In a set of firsts for Brigham Young University and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the National Endowment for Humanities announced it will fund an intensive six-week seminar in the summer of 2005 on the early history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Grant Underwood and Richard Lyman Bushman from BYU's Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History will co-direct "Joseph Smith and the Origins of Mormonism: Bicentennial Perspectives" from June 20 to July 30 for 15 selected college professors from around the nation.
"This NEH grant means that the premier humanities sponsor in the United States has decided that BYU faculty can be trusted to conduct with objectivity a seminar on the life and thought of the Church's founding prophet. This represents no small recognition for BYU," says Underwood.
The Joseph Fielding Smith Institute website has now posted additional details about the seminar, including an introduction and an outline of the seminar's contents.
Its scope is as follows:
Though Joseph Smith’s claims to revelation and his distinctive doctrines remain as controversial as ever, in the past half-century Mormonism has been the subject of more balanced, academic studies. The need to explain away or vindicate Smith has been replaced with a search for meaning. Mormonism has often been characterized as the most American of religions. In The American Religion, literary critic Harold Bloom writes of Joseph Smith, “As an unbeliever I marvel at his intuitive understanding of the permanent religious dilemmas of our country. . . . There is something of Joseph Smith’s spirit in every manifestation of the American Religion.” At the same time, other interpreters see Mormonism as an incipient new religious tradition, departing from American Protestant Christianity, as Christianity departed from Judaism. As Mormonism has expanded globally and continues to grow, it has even been viewed as an embryonic world religion. The aim of the seminar will be to discover how these various interpretations help us comprehend Joseph Smith in all his complexity.Also included on the website are biographies of the seminar's directors, Richard Bushman and Grant Underwood, and the approaches they bring to the table when examining Joseph Smith and Mormonism. Bushman, the site states, "is an historian of early America with an interest in the cultural meaning of religion" whose "chief interest in Joseph Smith is in situating the Mormon prophet in the culture of his times." Underwood, on the other hand, "pursues a comparative religions perspective, investigating subjects from "comparing millenarianism among primitive Methodists and early Mormons to examining how the prophetic legacy functions authoritatively in both Mormonism and Islam."
In our readings and discussion, we will take a broadly comparative perspective, viewing Smith through lenses of American religious and cultural history as well as through models and methodologies of religious studies. From the vantage point of American history, what were the immediate influences that produced Joseph Smith? How did he address his country’s “religious dilemmas?” Religious Studies, on the other hand, suggests typologies of prophecy and models for analyzing the production of sacred texts. We believe that examining Smith from a variety of perspectives broadens the context for understanding the Mormon prophet.
Of greater interest me to me is the seminar's ambitious schedule of readings and activities. The six weeks will tackle the following six topics (one a week):
Overview of Mormon Historiography and Prospects for Research
Inaugural Visions and Foundational Texts
Prophetic Religion: A Comparative Analysis
The Radicalism of Joseph Smith
Community and Conflict
Broad Assessments and Concluding Reflections
In the course of the six weeks, the participants will read and discuss works by, among others, Fawn Brodie, Bushman, Underwood, Ann Taves, Jon Krakauer, Armand Mauss, Todd Compton, Jan Shipps, Terryl Givens, Douglas Davies, John Brooke, and Sterling McMurrin. Readings will cover the First Vision, Mormon scripture, the New Mormon History, prophecy and revelation, "prophetic peers," plural marriage, and the Missouri and Illinois wars.
The website also attempts to sell the virtues of spending a summer in Provo and the surrounding areas, including the promise that "[c]ontrary to popular belief, tobacco and alcoholic products are readily available in Utah. Many local restaurants include bars and serve a full range of alcoholic beverages."
The seminar's application specifies the selection criteria this way:
The most important consideration in the selection of participants is the likelihood that an applicant willIt will be interesting to see who is selected and how the experience turns out.
benefit professionally. This is determined by committee members from the conjunction of several
factors, each of which should be addressed in the application essay. These factors include:
1. quality and commitment as a teacher, scholar, and interpreter of the humanities;
2. intellectual interests, both generally and as they relate to the work of the seminar or institute;
3. special perspectives, skills, or experiences that would contribute to the seminar or institute;
4. commitment to participate fully in the formal and informal collegial life of the seminar or institute;
5. the likelihood that the experience will enhance the applicant's teaching and scholarship; and
6. for seminars, the conception and organization of the applicant's independent project and its
potential contribution to the seminar.