Examining the “Mormon” in “Mormon Studies” – Part 1 of 2

Originally posted April 7, 2013

The following post is co-written by Alexandria Griffin and Michael Haycock, both in the Master’s program in Religion at Claremont Graduate University. The views represented below are their own.

About a month ago, the Claremont Mormon Studies Student Association (CMSSA) had the opportunity to host a lunch meeting with BYU political philosophy professor Ralph Hancock. In preparation for our conversation, we were sent Hancock’s Times and Seasons blog posts regarding Mormon Studies. Yet, perusing those posts, we found that the Mormon Studies about which Hancock expressed great caution did not seem to match up with our scholarship here at Claremont. Over lunch we ended up disagreeing with some of Hancock’s conclusions about the nature of Mormon Studies and had a lively discussion. Fortunately, however, through the course of our conversation we discovered that some of his caution was about belief in absolute academic objectivity, which we, as scholars, certainly share.

We also learned that the model of Mormon Studies from which Ralph Hancock 556c was working was presented in the article “Where is the ‘Mormon’ in ‘Mormon Studies’?”, written by former Claremont student Loyd Ericson and published in the first and only issue of the Claremont Journal of Mormon Studies.1 Most of us had not read this article prior to the lunch and dashed to it only afterward. As Hancock’s attention to the article demonstrated, it was easily associated with Claremont and the program of which we are a part, meaning that we have academic, institutional, and personal interests in responding to it.

In this post, we would like to summarize Ericson’s arguments and push back against aspects we find problematic; in a second post, coming Wednesday, we will present an alternative view. In so doing, we hope to highlight to the public the multivocality of Mormon Studies both at Claremont and in general.

Ericson starts by spelling out some of the fundamental questions regarding the identity of “Mormon Studies” – for example, whether the “Mormon” refers to the scholars’ religion, the object(s) of study, or a unique discipline altogether. The identification of these questions provide a useful grounding on which to base a more rigorous and comprehensive definition of Mormon Studies; however, we believe problems arise in the answers Ericson gives to them.

First, to address whether the “Mormon” in Mormon Studies describes–somehow–the practitioners of Mormon Studies, Ericson identifies “six different groups that participants in Mormon Studies tend to be categorized into”: “pastoral” Mormons, Mormon apologists, “Mormons, but,” “non-Mormons, but,” “Mormon revisionists,” and anti-Mormons.2 Taking seriously his assumption that all these groups do, indeed, participate in Mormon Studies, we find his categories to be highly problematic and his “buts” especially so. To explain his use of this conjunction, Ericson gives the following examples:

“She is a Mormon, but she is not an apologist.”

“He is a believing Mormon, but he doesn’t let that affect his scholarship.”

“She is a Mormon, but she hides it well in her work.”3

 

As noted, the “but” is also used to describe non-Mormons:

“She is a non-Mormon, but she isn’t anti-Mormon.”

“He is a non-Mormon, but he has a real interest in objectively studying Mormonism.”

“She is a non-Mormon, but she is not attempting to disprove Mormonism.”4

 

While we acknowledge that these categories may reflect how non-Mormon and Mormon scholars of Mormonism are commonly discussed by their publics, we feel that that the colloquiality that has made these “but” classifications common in usage is partially what makes them unfitting for academic discourse. The “buts” only serve a purpose if certain assumptions are made about the radical incompatibility of religious belief (or the lack thereof) and scholarship. In the case of “Mormon, but,” using the term denotes (intentionally or not) a certain skepticism of whether a Mormon can conduct scholarship that is, to quote Ericson, “a descriptive and academically accepted understanding of Mormonism that does not evangelize or offer apologies for religious beliefs.”5 It also implies that if a scholar lets slip that she is Mormon, her scholarship is now reasonably suspect as apologetics or evangelizing, even if it does nothing of the sort. While this distinction might be useful in addressing popular perceptions of Mormon scholars, it is inappropriate and, we would argue, misleading when applied to a discussion of Mormon Studies, as it diverts attention to the identity politics of scholarship rather than to scholars’ work. It also presumes the objective correctness of the radical privatization and bracketing of religion in public discourse – something about which Hancock, we believe, is justifiably wary. As scholars, we should be uniquely suspicious of assertions or assumptions of objectivity.

Conversely, the category of “non-Mormon, but” makes some equally unflattering assumptions. It seems to cast the default position of non-Mormons as anti-Mormon and asks them to in some way prove that they are worthy of doing Mormon Studies. We acknowledge that there are definite historical and cultural factors at play in Mormon suspicion of non-Mormon scholarship about the community; ingroups, with good reason, look askance at outgroup scrutiny. Further, non-Mormon scholars almost always face a steep learning curve that their Mormon compatriots (immersed as they are in a distinct oral and experiential culture) do not, which without careful scholarship could lead to avoidable errors. But we would argue that it is unfruitful to transfer historical suspicion of non-Mormons addressing Mormon matters into the realm of academics and Mormon Studies. Furthermore, other disciplines face similar problems (consider non-Muslims doing Islamic Studies, or non-Jews studying Judaism), but those problems have not been anywhere near fatal. If we are truly seeking to establish a new, open discipline, reiteration of past debates should be relegated to the historiography of the discipline, not its ontology. Instead of crystallizing or rehashing old worries, we can try to forge a new path.

Ericson’s article posits pastoral and apologetic as categories strictly demarcated from “Mormons, but” and “non-Mormons, but,” but does not interrogate the exact distinctions between them. The distinction between the “buts” and his revisionist and anti-Mormon categories is similarly nebulous. This is an area we will explore further in our second post; we feel that these are valid categories, but they require a deeper degree of examination than Ericson supplies.

Additional segments of Ericson’s paper, in turn, address questions of Mormon methodology and whether the “Mormon” in Mormon Studies refers to the identity of the practitioners thereof. Ericson dismisses the concept of a unique Mormon methodology by reducing the question to academically unacceptable testimony and ends with a peculiar musing that articles written by Mormon scholars on philosophy which do not engage with Mormonism might still be considered “Mormon Studies.”6


  1. Loyd Ericson, “Where is the ‘Mormon’ in Mormon Studies?”, Claremont Journal of Mormon Studies 1, no. 1 (2011.) This journal was priorly archived on the Claremont Mormon Studies website. With a recent revamping of the website, it became unavailable; those interested can access the journal issue here
  2. Ibid., 6-8. 
  3. Ibid., 7. 
  4. Ibid., 8. 
  5. Ibid., 7-8. 
  6. Ibid., 10-12.