Toward “Mormon Studies”: Part 2 of 2

Originally posted April 10, 2013

Part Two was written (once again, by Alexandria Griffin and Michael Haycock) before the posting of Part One -that is, when the authors were still uncertain whether Loyd Ericson’s article was meant to be prescriptive or descriptive- and was intended as an alternative to the taxonomy of those who could be seen as doing Mormon Studies presented in Ericson’s paper. Recognizing now that Ericson intended to be descriptive, the following should be read instead as an alternative to the atmosphere surrounding much of Mormon Studies at present (which we feel Ericson described quite well). Indeed, his categories formed a helpful basis for our thoughts as we composed the post below, especially in considering how Mormon Studies has been viewed, is presently viewed, and can be viewed in the future.

We feel that with the inauguration of this blog, it is important that we not assume an intuitive definition for “Mormon Studies” but instead suggest a more rigorous one – even if it will be of necessity provisional, open to critique, and requiring revision and clarification. Further, we believe that in the light of recent discussion contrasting Mormon Studies and Mormon apologetics, we must offer our own contrast; however, we do not feel that this contrast represents the only two options for Mormon academia, nor do we feel that dismissive definitions do justice to the effort and thought that has gone into the production of apologetic work. With that in mind, these are our proposals:

  1. Mormon apologetics assumes, has as ends the conclusions reached by, or takes as decisively authoritative exclusively Mormon epistemologies while interacting with non-Mormon epistemologies and methodologies.

  2. Mormon theology seems to be a subset the category of apologetics because it appeals to exclusively Mormon epistemologies. For ecclesiastical, historical, and theological reasons, however, Mormon theology is necessarily speculative in ways apologetics is not; further, the epistemology of Mormon theology -what it labels “truth”- is determined exclusively by its methodology of determining authoritative sources of thought. The impossibility of untangling epistemology and methodology and the difficulty of identifying final sources of theological authority mean that Mormon theology does not solely fit within the apologetic realm; it is independent.

  3. Mormon Studies is primarily defined by its study of the churches, peoples, theologies, and other phenomena that trace their roots to the religious movement of Joseph Smith, Jr. When it interacts with exclusively Mormon epistemologies, Mormon Studies analyzes them per se and uses them to delineate the scope of studies, but does so in the context of and interacting with non-Mormon academic epistemologies. Through the Mormon Studies discipline Mormons, Mormonism, and the Mormon experience can motivate adaptation and nuance in the non-Mormon methodologies and theories deployed.

There are many reasons why these definitions, in our opinion, are advantageous. For one, the first is not necessarily pejorative. Apologetics can exist in various degrees of rigor; it is not necessarily quality of thought or analytic insight that differentiates them from standard academic discourse. In addition, apologetics in this schema cannot only be used to describe Mormon varieties thereof, but also the revisionists and anti-Mormons Loyd Ericson profiles in his article. One merely has to replace “Mormon” in the definition with “secular,” “evangelical,” or, at least, “non-Mormon” to see how it could operate in the inverse. Even while such commentators use epistemologies that are not necessarily exclusively non-Mormon (like textual criticism or historical research), those epistemologies are represented as inherently excluding significant portions of Mormonism or the Mormon experience. The hypotheses forwarded by both Mormon apologists and anti-Mormons originate within their respective confrontational ideologies, and they are tested to prove or suggest their exclusive factual veracity.

Mormon Studies, on the other hand, does not interrogate Mormon epistemologies in order to counteract or vindicate them. The import of this arises particularly when we consider how Mormon Studies addresses more than just the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; Mormon apologetics, on the other hand, colloquially refers only to the LDS Church and its teachings. On the contrary, Mormon Studies treats epistemologies descended from Joseph Smith, his teachings, and his followers -of whatever denomination- as subjects of study and as manners of circumscribing research questions. This second purpose, research circumscription, allows us to distinguish, among other things, between various Mormon branches in our work: the LDS Church, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the Community of Christ, among others. Faith, doctrine, and testimony, beyond mere organizational distinctiveness, are exclusively Mormon epistemologies that divide these groups one from another.

Moreover, our definition of Mormon Studies does not cast the relationship between academic and Mormon epistemologies and methodologies as a one-way street running from the college quad to Temple Square. Richard Bushman has in the past evoked a “Mormon hermeneutics of suspicion,” which suggests to us that Mormons, Mormonism, and the Mormon experience can illuminate, influence, and alter academic theories and methods, helping them to capture the human experience throughout history and across religions and cultures with greater comprehensivity and richness.1 Conversely, we hope that Mormon Studies (as other academic disciplines) will always preserve a healthy measure of skepticism about its findings and recognize that its conclusions are subject to rethinking.

We welcome suggestions and revisions of our definitions. We understand that they are neither final nor comprehensive, and have the potential to raise many of their own questions. However, we put them forward as a peace offering, hoping that they can clear the air and help forge a new way forward.


  1. Richard L. Bushman, “On Being Ill at Ease in the World,” presented at the annual conference for the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology at Claremont Graduate University, May 23, 2009. [Cited in Loyd Ericson, “Where is the ‘Mormon’ in Mormon Studies?”, Claremont Journal of Mormon Studies 1, no. 1 (2011.)]